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       Hard Eight, p.5

         Part #8 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  Abruzzi stared at me for a moment. “Fate is a funny thing, isn't it? Here you are back in my life. And you're, once again, on the wrong side. It will be interesting to see how this campaign unfolds.”


  “I'm a student of military history. And, this is to some extent a war.” He made a small hand gesture. “Maybe not a war. More of a skirmish, I think. Whatever we call it, it's a contest, of sorts. Because I'm feeling generous today, I'll give you an option. You can walk away from Evelyn and this house, and I'll let you go. You'll have bought amnesty. If you continue to participate, I'll consider you to be enemy troops. And the war game will begin.”

  Oh boy. This guy is a total fruitcake. I held my hand up in a stop gesture. “I'm not playing war games. I'm just a friend of the family, checking on things for Evelyn. We're going now. And I think you should do the same.” And I think you should take a pill. A big pill.

  I ushered Lula and Kloughn past Abruzzi and Darrow and through the door. I hustled them into the car, and we took off.

  “Holy crap,” Lula said. “What was that? I'm totally creeped out. Eddie Abruzzi has eyes like Ramirez. And Ramirez had no soul. I thought I put all that behind me, but I looked into those eyes just now and everything went black. It was like being with Ramirez all over again. I'm telling you, I'm freaked. I got the sweats. I'm hyperventilating is what I'm doing. I need a burger. No, wait a minute, I just had a burger. I need something else. I need . . . I need . . . I need to go shopping. I need shoes.”

  Kloughn's eyes brightened. “So Ramirez and Abruzzi are bad guys, right? And Ramirez is dead, right? What was he, a professional killer?”

  “He was a professional boxer.”

  “Holy cow. That Ramirez. I remember reading about him in the paper. Holy cow, you're the one who killed Benito Ramirez.”

  “I didn't kill him,” I said. “He was on my fire escape, trying to break in, and someone else shot him.”

  “Yeah, she almost never shoots anyone,” Lula said. “And I don't care anyway. I'm getting out of here. I need mall air. I could breathe better if I had mall air.”

  I took Kloughn back to the Laundromat and dropped Lula at the office. Lula roared off in her red Trans Am, and I went in to visit with Connie.

  “You know that guy you picked up yesterday,” Connie said to me, “Martin Paulson? He's back on the street. There was something wrong with his original arrest, and the case has been dismissed.”

  “He should be locked up just for living.”

  “Apparently, when he was released his first words as a freed man were some unflattering references to you.”

  “Great.” I slouched onto the couch. “Did you know Eddie Abruzzi owned Benito Ramirez? We ran into him at Evelyn's house. And speaking of Evelyn's house, she has a broken window that we need to repair. It's in the back.”

  “It was a kid with a baseball, right?” Connie said. “And after you saw him break the window, he ran away, and you don't know who he is. Wait, even better, you never saw him. You got there and the window was broken.”

  “On the nose. So, what do you know about Abruzzi?”

  Connie punched the name into her computer. In less than a minute, information started coming in. Home address, previous address, work history, wives, children, arrest history. She printed it out and handed it over to me. “We can find out his toothpaste brand and the size of his right nut, but it'll take a little longer.”

  “Tempting, but I don't think I need to know his nut size just yet.”

  “I bet they're big.”

  I clapped my hands over my ears. “I'm not listening!” I looked sideways at Connie. “What else do you know about him?”

  “I don't know much. Just that he owns a bunch of real estate in the Burg and downtown. I've heard he's not a nice guy, but I don't know any details. A while back he was arrested on a minor racketeering charge. The charge was dropped due to lack of live witnesses. Why do you want to know about Abruzzi?” Connie asked.

  “Morbid curiosity.”

  “I got two skips in today. Laura Minello got picked up for shoplifting a couple weeks ago and was a no-show for her court appearance yesterday.”

  “What did she shoplift?”

  “A brand-new BMW. Red. Took it right off the lot in broad daylight.”

  “Test drive?”

  “Yeah, only she didn't tell anyone she was taking it, and she tested it for four days before they caught her.”

  “You've got to respect a woman with that kind of initiative.”

  Connie passed me two files. “The second failure to appear is Andy Bender. ”He's a repeat for domestic violence. I think you might have picked him up on a previous charge. He's probably home, drunk as a skunk, without a clue if it's Monday or Friday."

  I flipped through Bender's file. Connie was right. I'd tangled with him before. He was a scrawny wasteoid of a man. And he was a nasty drunk.

  “This is the guy who came after me with a chain saw,” I said.

  “Yes, but look on the bright side,” Connie said. “He didn't have a gun.”

  I tucked the two files into my bag. “Maybe you could run Evelyn Soder through the computer and see if you could pull out her innermost secrets.”

  “Innermost secrets is a forty-eight-hour search.”

  “Put it on my tab. I have to take off. I need to talk to the Wizard.”

  “The Wizard hasn't been answering his page,” Connie said. “Tell him to call me.”

  The Wizard is Ranger. He's the Wizard because he's magic. He mysteriously passes through locked doors. He seems to read minds. He's able to refuse dessert. And he can give me a hot flash with the touch of a fingertip. I had mixed feelings about calling him. We were currently in a strange place, filled with double entendre and unresolved sexual tension. But we were also partners, of sorts, and he had contacts I'd never have. The Annie search would go much faster if I brought Ranger in.

  I got into my car and dialed Ranger on my cell phone. I left a message on his machine and read through Bender's file. Didn't sound like much new had happened since I last saw Andy Bender. He was still unemployed. He was still beating on his wife. And he still lived in the projects on the other side of town. It wasn't going to be hard to find Bender. The hard part was going to be wrestling him into the CR-V.

  Hey, I thought, no sense being negative right from the start. Look on the bright side, right? Be a cup-is-half-full person. Maybe Mr. Bender will be sorry he missed his court date. Maybe he'll be happy to see me. Maybe he won't have any gas in his chain saw.

  I put the car in gear and headed across town. It was a pleasant afternoon, and the projects looked habitable. There was a hopefulness to the dirt front yards that suggested perhaps this year some grass might grow. Perhaps the junkers at the curb would stop leaking oil. Perhaps a Lotto ticket would pay out big. But then again, perhaps not.

  I parked in front of Bender's unit and watched for a while. For lack of a better word, this part of the complex would be described as garden apartments. Bender lived on the ground floor. He had a battered wife and, thankfully, no kids.

  An open-air bazaar, of sorts, was operating a short distance away. The bazaar consisted of two cars, an old Caddy and a new Oldsmobile. The owners had parked the cars at the curb and were selling handbags, T-shirts, DVDs, and God knows what else from their trunks. A few people milled around the cars.

  I rooted around in my bag and found a purse-size cylinder of pepper spray. I shook it to make sure it was active and stuffed it into my pants pocket for easy access. I took a pair of cuffs out of the glove compartment and slipped them into the back of my jeans, under the waistband. Okay, now I was all dressed up like a bounty hunter. I walked to Bender's door, took a deep breath, and knocked.

  The door opened and Bender looked out at me. “What?”

  “Andy Bender?”

  He leaned forward and squinted. “Do I know you?”

  Get right to it, I thought, reaching behind my back for the cuffs. Mo
ve fast and catch him by surprise. “Stephanie Plum,” I said, whipping the cuffs out, clapping one on his left wrist. “Bond enforcement. We need to go to the station and reschedule your court date.” I put my hand to his shoulder and spun him around, so I could cuff his right wrist.

  “Hey, hold on here,” he said, jerking away. “What the hell is this? I'm not going nowhere.”

  He took a swing at me, lost his balance, and listed sideways, knocking into an end table. A lamp and an ashtray crashed to the floor. Bender looked at them, dumbfounded. “You broke my lamp,” he said. His face got red and his eyes narrowed. “I don't like that you broke my lamp.”

  “I didn't break your lamp!”

  “I said you broke it. You hard of hearing?” He picked the lamp up from the floor and threw it at me. I sidestepped, and the lamp sailed past me and hit the wall.

  I rammed my hand into my pocket, but Bender tackled me before I could grab hold of the spray. He was a couple inches taller than me, thin and wiry. He wasn't especially strong, but he was mean as a snake. And he was motivated by hate and beer. We scrabbled around on the floor for a while, kicking and scratching. He was trying to do damage, and I was trying to get clear, and neither of us was having much luck.

  The room was a mess of clutter with stacks of newspapers, dirty dishes, and empty beer cans. We were bumping into tables and chairs, dumping the dishes and cans on the floor, then rolling over it all. A floor lamp went down, followed by a pizza box.

  I managed to slither from his grasp and get to my feet. He lunged after me and came up with a ten-inch chef's knife. I suppose it had been buried in the garbage heap in his living room. I yelped and bolted. No time for the pepper spray.

  He was surprisingly fast, considering he was shit-faced drunk. I ran flat-out, up the street. And he ran close at my heels. I skidded to a stop when I got to the boosted goods market, putting the Cadillac between me and Bender while I caught my breath.

  One of the vendors approached me. “I got some nice T-shirts,” he said. “Exactly like what you'd see at the Gap. Got them in all sizes.”

  “Not interested,” I said.

  “Selling them for a good price.”

  Bender and I were doing a dance around the car. He'd move, then I'd move, then he'd move, then I'd move. Meanwhile, I was trying to get the pepper spray out of my pocket. Trouble was, my pants were tight, the spray was shoved to the bottom of my pocket, and my hands were sweating and shaking.

  There was a guy sitting on the Oldsmobile's hood. “Andy,” he called, “why're you going after this girl with a knife?”

  “She ruined my lunch. I was just sitting down to eat my pizza, and she came and ruined it all.”

  “I can see that,” the guy on the Oldsmobile said. “She got pizza all over her. Looks like she rolled in it.”

  There was a second guy sitting on the Olds. “Kinky,” he said.

  “How about one of you guys giving me a hand here,” I said. “Get him to drop the knife. Call the police. Do something!”

  “Hey, Andy,” one of the men said, “she wants you to drop the knife.”

  “I'm gonna gut her like a fish,” Bender said. “I'm gonna filet her like a trout. No bitch just walks in and ruins my lunch.”

  The two guys on the Olds were smiling. “Andy needs some anger management courses,” one of them said.

  The T-shirt salesman was next to me. “Yeah, and he don't know much about fishing, either. That ain't no filet knife.”

  I finally pried the pepper spray loose from my pocket. I shook it and aimed it at Bender.

  The three men mobilized into action, slamming the trunks shut, putting some distance between us.

  “Hey, you want to watch which way the wind is blowing,” one of them said. “I don't need my sinuses cleaned. And I don't want my merchandise ruined, either. I'm a businessman, you see what I'm saying? We got inventory here.”

  “That stuff doesn't scare me,” Bender said, inching his way around the Caddy, waving the knife at me. “I love it. Bring it on. I've had so much pepper spray I got an addiction.”

  “What you got on your wrist?” one of the men asked Bender. “Looks like you got a bracelet on. You and the old lady doing S and M shit now?”

  “Those are my cuffs,” I said. “He's in violation of his bail bond agreement.”

  “Hey, I know you,” one of the men said. “I remember seeing your picture in the paper. You burned down a funeral home and set your eyebrows on fire.”

  “It wasn't my fault!”

  They were all smiling again. “Didn't Andy go after you with a chain saw last year? And all you got now is this puny girlie-size pepper spray? Where's your gun? You're probably the only one in the whole project not got a gun.”

  “Gimme the keys,” Bender said to the T-shirt guy. “I'm getting out of here. This is turning into a real downer.”

  “I'm not done selling.”

  “Sell some other time.”

  “Shit,” the guy said, and flipped him the keys.

  Bender got into the Cadillac and roared away.

  “What was that?” I asked. “Why did you give him the keys?”

  The T-shirt guy shrugged. “It's his car.”

  “He doesn't have a car listed on his bond agreement,” I said.

  “Guess of Andy don't tell everything. Anyways, it's a recent acquisition.”

  Recent acquisition. Probably stole it last night along with the T-shirts.

  “You sure you don't want a T-shirt? We got more in the Oldsmobile,” the guy said. He opened the trunk and took a couple shirts out. “Look at this. This here's the V-neck model. Even got some spandex in it. You'd look fine in this shirt. Show off your boobies.”

  “How much?” I asked.

  “How much you got?”

  I shoved my hand back into my pocket and pulled out two dollars.

  “This here's your lucky day,” the guy said, “on account of this shirt is on sale for two bucks.”

  I gave him the two dollars, took the shirt, and trudged back to my CR-V.

  There was a sleek black car parked just in front of mine. A man leaned against the car, watching me, smiling. Ranger. His black hair was pulled back from his face, tied into a ponytail. He was dressed in black cargo pants, black Bates boots, and a black T-shirt that stretched taut over muscles he'd acquired when he was in Special Forces.

  “Looks like you've been shopping,” he said.

  I tossed the shirt into the CR-V. “I need some help.”


  A while ago I'd asked Ranger to help me capture a guy named Eddie DeChooch. DeChooch had been accused of trafficking contraband cigarettes and had been causing all kinds of problems for me. Ranger, being of mercenary mentality, had quoted his price for assistance as a night of his choosing, spent together. The whole night. And he got to pick the night's activities. Not exactly a hardship, since I'm attracted to Ranger in a moth-to-the-flame sort of way. Still, the idea was scary. I mean, he's the Wizard, right? I practically have an orgasm standing next to him. What would happen with actual penetration? My God, my entire vagina might go up in flames. Not to mention, I can't figure out if I'm still attached to Morelli.

  As it turns out, I'd needed Ranger for the takedown. And it had been an okay takedown except for a couple small hitches . . . like DeChooch getting his ear shot off. Ranger had hauled DeChooch off to the lockdown prison ward of St. Francis Hospital, and I had retreated to my apartment and crawled into bed, not wanting to think too hard about the day's events.

  What happened after that is still vivid in my mind. At one o'clock the lock tumbled on my front door, and I heard the security chain swing free. I knew a lot of people who could pick a lock. I only knew one man who could release a security chain from the outside.

  Ranger stepped into the doorway to my bedroom and knocked softly on the jamb. “Are you awake?”

  “I am now. You scared the hell out of me. You ever think about ringing a doorbell?”

want to get you out of bed.”

  “So what's going on?” I asked. “Is DeChooch okay?”

  Ranger removed his gun belt and dropped it on the floor. “DeChooch is fine, but we have unfinished business.”

  Unfinished business? Omigod, was he talking about his price for the takedown? The room whirled in front of my eyes, and I involuntarily clutched the sheet to my breast.

  “This is sort of sudden,” I said. “I mean, I didn't think it would be tonight. I didn't even know if it would be any night. I wasn't sure you were serious. Not that I'd go back on a deal, but, um, what I'm trying to say is . . .”

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