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One for the money, p.7
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       One for the Money, p.7

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  “Sounds dangerous.”

  “You better believe it.”

  “Is it fatal? Does it leave permanent damage?”

  “The only permanent damage to your victim is going to be the memory of a downright humiliating experience. Of course there'll be some initial paralysis, and when that wears off there's usually a lot of throwing up and a monster headache.”

  “I don't know. What if I accidentally spray myself?”

  She grimaced. “Darlin', you should avoid spraying yourself.”

  “Sounds complicated.”

  “It's not complicated at all. It's as simple as putting your finger on the button. For goodness sakes, you're a professional now.” She patted my hand. “Take the Sure Guard. You can't go wrong.”

  I didn't feel like a professional. I felt like an idiot. I'd criticized foreign governments for using chemical warfare, and here I was buying nerve gas from a woman who waxed off all her pubic hair.

  “Sure Guard comes in several sizes,” Sunny said. “I carry the seventeen-gram key-chain model. It has its own stainless steel quick-release loop, comes in an attractive leather case, and you get to choose from three decorator colors.”

  “Gee, three colors.”

  “You should try it out,” Sunny told me. “Make sure you know how to use it.”

  I stepped outside, held my arm straight out, and sprayed. The wind shifted, and I ran inside and slammed the door.

  “That wind can be sneaky,” Sunny said. “Maybe you should go out the back way. You can exit through the gun range.”

  I did as she suggested, and when I reached the street, I rushed to my car and jumped inside lest any droplets of Sure Guard were hanging around, waiting to attack my neurotransmitters. I shoved my key into the ignition and tried hard not to panic over the fact that I had tear gas under 125 pounds of pressure per square inch, which in my mind spelled nerve bomb, dangling between my knees. The engine caught and the oil light came on again, looking very red and a little frantic. Fuck it. Take a number, I thought. On my list of problems to solve, oil wasn't even in the top ten.

  I pulled into traffic and refused to check my rear-view mirror for telltale clouds of smoke. Carmen lived several blocks east of Stark Street. Not a great neighborhood, but not the worst, either. Her building was yellow brick and looked like it could do with a good scrubbing. Four stories. No elevator. Chipped tile in the small ground-floor foyer. Her apartment was on the second floor. I was sweating by the time I got to her door. The yellow crime-scene tape had been removed, but a padlock was in place. There were two other apartments on the second floor. I knocked on each door. No one home at the first. A Hispanic woman, Mrs. Santiago, somewhere in her late forties, early fifties answered the second. She had a baby on her hip. Her black hair was pulled neatly back from her round face. She wore a blue cotton housecoat and terrycloth bedroom slippers. A television droned from the dark interior of the apartment. I could see two small heads silhouetted against the screen. I introduced myself and gave her my card.

  “I don't know what more I can tell you,” she said. “This Carmen only lived here a short time. No one knew her. She was quiet. Kept to herself.”

  “Have you seen her since the shooting?”

  “No.”

  “Do you know where she might be? Friends? Relatives?”

  “I didn't know her. Nobody knew her. They tell me she worked in a bar . . . the Step In on Stark Street. Maybe somebody knew her there.”

  “Were you home the night of the shooting?”

  “Yes. It was late, and Carmen had the television on real loud. I never heard her play it so loud. Then someone was banging on Carmen's door. A man. Turned out he was a cop. I guess he had to bang because no one could hear him over the television. Then there was a gunshot. That's when I called the police. I called the police, and when I got back to my front door I could hear there was a big commotion in the hall, so I looked out.”

  “And?”

  “And John Kuzack was there, and some others from the building. We take care of our own here. We aren't like some of those people who pretend not to hear things. That's why we have no drugs here. We never have this kind of trouble. John was standing over the cop when I looked out. John didn't know the man was a cop. John saw someone shot dead in Carmen's doorway, and this other man had a gun, so John took matters into his own hands.”

  “Then what happened?”

  “It was real confusing. There were so many people in the hall.”

  “Was Carmen there?”

  “I didn't see her. There were just so many people. Everybody wanting to know what happened, you know? People trying to help the dead man, but it was no use. He was dead.”

  “Supposedly there were two men in Carmen 's apartment. Did you see the second man?”

  “I guess so. There was a man I didn't know. Never saw before. Skinny, dark hair, dark skin, about thirty, funny face. Like it'd been hit with a frying pan. Real flat nose. That's why I noticed him.”

  “What happened to him?”

  She shrugged. “Don't know. I guess he just left. Like Carmen.”

  “Maybe I should talk to John Kuzack.”

  “He's in 4B. He should be home. He's between jobs right now.”

  I thanked her and walked up two more flights of stairs, wondering what sort of person would be willing and able to disarm Morelli. I knocked at 4B and waited. I knocked again, loud enough to bruise my knuckles. The door was thrown open and my “what kind of person” question was answered. John Kuzack was 6' 4" tall, weighed about two hundred and forty pounds, had his graying hair pulled into a ponytail, and had a rattler tattooed onto his forehead. He was holding a TV Guide in one hand and a can of beer in the other. The sweet aroma of pot drifted out of his hazy apartment. Vietnam vet, I thought. Airborne.

  “John Kuzack?”

  He squinted down at me. “What can I do for you?”

  “I'm trying to get a lead on Joe Morelli. I was hoping you could tell me something about Carmen Sanchez.”

  “You a cop?”

  “I work for Vincent Plum. He posted the bond on Morelli.”

  “I didn't know Carmen Sanchez real good,” he said. “I'd seen her around. Said hello to her a couple times. She seemed nice enough. I was coming up the stairs when I heard the gunshot.”

  “Mrs. Santiago, on the second floor, said you subdued the gunman.”

  “Yeah. I didn't know he was a cop. All I knew was he'd shot someone, and he was still armed. There were a lot of people coming into the hall, and he was telling them all to stay away. I figured it wasn't a good situation, so I hit him with a six-pack. Knocked him out cold.”

  A six-pack? I almost laughed out loud. The police report had stated that Morelli had been hit with a blunt instrument. It hadn't said anything about a six-pack.

  “That was very brave.”

  He grinned. “Hell, bravery didn't have anything to do with it. I was shitfaced.”

  “Do you know what happened to Carmen?”

  “Nope. Guess she disappeared in the scuffle.”

  “And you haven't seen her since?”

  “Nope.”

  “How about the missing male witness? Mrs. Santiago said there was a man with a flattened nose . . .”

  “I remember seeing him, but that's about it.”

  “Would you recognize him if you saw him again?”

  “Probably.”

  “Do you think there's anyone else in the building who might know more about the missing man?”

  “Edleman was the only other person who got a good look at the guy.”

  “Is Edleman a tenant here?”

  “Edleman was a tenant here. He got hit by a car last week. Right in front of the building. Hit and run.”

  My stomach gave a nervous flutter. “You don't suppose Edleman's s death ties in to the Kulesza murder, do you?”

  “No way of knowing.”

  I thanked Kuzack for his time and took the stairs slowly, enjoying the buzz from his sec
ondary smoke.

  It was close to noon, and the day was heating up. I'd gone with a suit and heels this morning, trying to look respectable and trust inspiring. I'd left the windows rolled down when I'd parked in front of Carmen's building, half hoping someone would steal my car. No one had, so I slouched behind the wheel and finished off the Fig Newtons I'd filched from my mom's pantry. I hadn't found out a whole lot from Carmen's neighbors, but at least I hadn't been attacked or fallen down a flight of stairs.

  Morelli's apartment was next on my list.

  Stephanie Plum 1 - One for the Money

  5

  I'D CALLED RANGER AND ASKED FOR HELP, since I was too chicken to do breaking and entering on my own. When I pulled into the lot, Ranger was waiting. He was all in black. Sleeveless black T-shirt and black fatigue-type pants. He was leaning against a gleaming black Mercedes that had enough antennae on it to get to Mars. I parked several spaces away so my exhaust wouldn't tarnish his finish.

  “Your car?” I asked. As if anyone else could possibly belong to this car.

  “Life's been good to me.” His eyes slid to my Nova. “Nice paint job,” he said. “You been on Stark Street?”

  “Yes, and they stole my radio.”

  “Heh, heh, heh. Good of you to make a contribution to the less fortunate.”

  “I'm willing to contribute the entire car, but no one wants it.”

  “Just 'cause the dudes be crazy don't mean they be stupid.” He nodded toward Morelli's apartment. “Doesn't seem like anyone's home, so we'll have to do the unguided tour.”

  “Is this illegal?”

  “Hell no. We got the law, babe. Bounty hunters can do anything. We don't even need a search warrant.” He buckled a black nylon webbed gun belt around his waist and shoved his 9 mm Glock into it. He clipped cuffs onto the gun belt and shrugged into the same loose black jacket he'd worn when I'd met him at the coffee shop. “I don't expect Morelli to be in there,” he said, “but you never know. You always want to be prepared.”

  I supposed I should be taking similar precautions, but I couldn't see myself with a gun butt sticking out of my skirt waistband. It'd be an empty gesture anyway, since Morelli knew I didn't have the guts to shoot him.

  Ranger and I crossed the lot and walked through the breezeway to Morelli's apartment. Ranger knocked on the door and waited a moment. “Anybody home?” he hollered. No one answered.

  “Now what?” I asked. “You going to kick the door in?”

  “No way. You could break your foot doing that macho shit.”

  “You're going to pick the lock, right? Use a credit card?”

  Ranger shook his head. “You've been watching too much television.” He took a key from his pocket and inserted it in the lock. “Got a key from the super while I was waiting for you.”

  Morelli's apartment consisted of living room, dining alcove, galley kitchen, bath, and bedroom. It was relatively clean and sparsely furnished. Small square oak table, four ladder-back chairs, comfortable overstuffed couch, coffee table, and one club chair. He had an expensive stereo system in the living room and a small TV in the bedroom.

  Ranger and I searched through the kitchen, looking for an address book, riffling through bills carelessly heaped in front of the toaster oven.

  It was easy to imagine Morelli at home in his apartment, tossing his keys onto the kitchen counter, kicking off his shoes, reading his mail. A wave of remorse washed over me when I realized Morelli would most likely never again be free to enjoy any of those simple rituals. He'd killed a man and in the process had effectively ended his own life as well. It was such a hideous waste. How could he have been so stupid? How could he have gotten himself into this godawful mess? How do these things happen to people?

  “Nothing here,” Ranger said. He punched the playback button on Morelli's answering machine. “Hi hotstuff,” a female voice cooed. “This is Carlene. Give me a call back.” Beep.

  “Joseph Anthony Morelli, it's your mother. Are you there? Hello? Hello?” Beep.

  Ranger turned the machine over and copied the security code and special message code. “You take these numbers and you can access his messages from an outside phone. Maybe something'll turn up.”

  We moved on to the bedroom, going through his drawers, leafing through books and magazines, studying the few photographs on his dresser. The photographs were family. Nothing useful. No pictures of Carmen. For the most part his drawers had been emptied. He'd taken all his socks and underwear. Too bad. I'd been sort of looking forward to seeing his underwear.

  We ended up back in the kitchen.

  “This place is clean,” Ranger said. “You're not going to find anything to help you here. And I doubt he'll return. Looks to me like he took everything he needed.” He lifted a set of keys from a small hook on the kitchen wall and dropped them into my hand. “Hang on to these. No sense bothering the super if you want to get in again.”

  We locked Morelli's apartment and slid the super's master key through a slot in his door. Ranger eased his body into the Mercedes, put on a pair of mirrored shades, powered back his sun roof, punched up a tape with a heavy bass, and rolled out of the parking lot like Batman.

  I gave a resigned sigh and looked at my Nova. It was dripping oil onto the pavement. Two parking slots away Morelli's new red and gold Jeep Cherokee sat gleaming in the sunshine. I could feel the weight of his keys dangling from my finger. A house key and two car keys. I decided it wouldn't do any harm to take a closer look, so I opened the door to the Cherokee and peered inside. The car still smelled new. The instrument panel was dust-free, the rugs were freshly vacuumed and unstained, the red upholstery was smooth and perfect. The car had five on the floor, four-wheel drive, and enough horses to make a man proud. It was equipped with air-conditioning, an Alpine radio and tape deck, a two-way police radio, a cellular phone, and a CB scanner. It was a terrific car. And it belonged to Morelli. It didn't seem fair that a scofflaw like him should have such a great car and I should have such a piece of shit.

  Probably as long as I had the car open, I should start it up for him, I thought. It wasn't good for a car to sit around and not get driven. Everybody knows that. I took a deep breath and cautiously maneuvered myself behind the wheel. I adjusted the seat and the rearview mirror. I put my hands to the wheel and tested the feel of it. I could catch Morelli if I had a car like this, I told myself. I was smart. I was tenacious. All I needed was a car. I wondered if I should drive it. Maybe simply running it wasn't enough. Maybe the car needed to go around the block. Better yet, maybe I should drive it for a day or two to really work the kinks out.

  Okay, who was I trying to kid? I was contemplating stealing Morelli's car. Not steal, I reasoned. Commandeer. After all, I was a bounty hunter, and probably I could commandeer a car if an emergency situation arose. I glanced over at the Nova. Looked like an emergency to me.

  There was an added advantage to snitching Morelli's car. I was pretty sure he wouldn't like it. And if he was pissed off enough, maybe he'd do something stupid and come after it.

  I turned the key in the ignition and tried to ignore the fact that my heart was beating double-time. The secret to being a successful bounty hunter is being able to seize the moment, I told myself. Flexibility. Adaptation. Creative thought. All necessary attributes. And it didn't hurt to have balls.

  I did some slow breathing so I wouldn't hyperventilate and crash my first stolen car. I had one more item on my day's itinerary. I needed to visit the Step In Bar and Grill, Carmen's last known place of employment. The Step In was located on lower Stark Street, two blocks from the gym. I debated going home to change into something more casual, but in the end decided to stick with the suit. No matter what I wore, I wasn't going to blend in with the bar regulars.

  I found a parking space half a block away. I locked the car, and I walked the short distance to the bar only to discover the bar was closed. The door was padlocked. The windows were boarded. No explanation was given. I wasn't all that disappointed. After
the incident in the gym, I hadn't been looking forward to breaking into another bastion of Stark Street manhood. I scurried back to the Cherokee and drove up and down Stark Street on the long shot that I might see Morelli. By the fifth pass it was getting old and my gas was low, so I gave it up. I checked the glove compartment for credit cards but found none. Swell. No gas. No money. No plastic.

 
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