Hard eight, p.7
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       Hard Eight, p.7

         Part #8 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  I opened the door for him.

  “Another thing,” he said, “half the men in this country have breasts. I'm telling you, it's from those hormones they feed the cows. You drink the milk from the cows and you grow breasts.”

  Ah, I thought, if only it was that easy.

  The elevator doors opened and Mrs. Bestler peeked out. “Going up,” she said.

  Mrs. Bestler was about two hundred years old and liked to play elevator operator.

  “Second floor,” I told her.

  “Second floor, ladies handbags and better dresses,” she sang out, punching the button.

  “Cripes,” Mr. Spiga said. “This place is filled with loonies.”

  First thing I did when I entered my apartment was check my messages. I work with a mysterious bounty hunter guy who turns me to jelly and makes sexual innuendoes and never follows through. And I'm in the off-again phase of an off-again-on-again relationship with a cop guy I think I might want to marry . . . someday, but not now. That's my love life. In other words, my love life is a big zero. I can't remember the last time I had a date. An orgasm is nothing more than a distant memory. And there were no messages on my machine.

  I flopped onto my couch and closed my eyes. My life was in the toilet. I did about a half hour of self-pity and was about to get up and take a shower when my doorbell rang. I went to the door and looked out my security peephole. Nobody there. I turned to walk away and heard rustling on the other side of the door. I looked out again. Still no one there.

  I called my neighbor across the hall and asked him to look out his door and tell me if anyone was there. Okay, so this is a little despicable on my part, but no one ever wants to kill Mr. Wolesky and from time to time people want to kill me. Doesn't hurt to be careful, right?

  “What are you crazy?” Mr. Wolesky said. “I'm watching The Brady Bunch. You called right in the middle of The Brady Bunch.”

  And he hung up.

  I was still hearing the rustling sounds, so I got my gun out of the cookie jar, found a bullet in the bottom of my purse, put the bullet in the gun, and opened the door. There was a dark green canvas bag hanging from my doorknob. The bag had a drawstring pulled tight at the top and something was moving in the bag. My first thought was an abandoned kitten. I removed the bag from the doorknob, opened the drawstring, and looked inside.

  Snakes. The bag was filled with big black snakes.

  I shrieked and dropped the bag on the floor, and the snakes slid out. I jumped back into my apartment and slammed my door shut. I looked out my peephole. The snakes were scattering. Shit. I opened the door and shot a snake. Now I was out of bullets. Shit again.

  Mr. Wolesky opened his door and looked out. “What the . . . ?” he said, and slammed his door shut.

  I ran into my kitchen to look for more bullets, and a snake followed me in. Another shriek and I climbed onto my kitchen counter.

  I was still on the counter when the police arrived. Carl Costanza and his partner, Big Dog. I'd gone to school with Carl, and we were friends, in a strange, distant sort of way.

  “We got a weird call from your neighbor about snakes,” Carl said. “Since there's one shot to shit on your doorstep, and you're up there on the counter, I suppose the call isn't a hoax.”

  “I ran out of bullets,” I said.

  “So by a rough estimate, how many snakes do you think we got here?”

  “I'm pretty sure there were four in the bag. I shot one. I saw one go down the hall. I saw one head for my bedroom. And one is God knows where.”

  Carl and Big Dog grinned up at me. “Is the big, bad bounty hunter afraid of snakes?”

  “Just find them, okay?” Yeesh.

  Carl adjusted his gun belt and swaggered off with Big Dog a step behind him.

  “Here, snakey, snakey, snakey,” Carl crooned.

  “I think we should look in her panties drawer,” Big Dog said. “That's where I'd go if I was a snake.”

  “Pervert!” I yelled.

  “I don't see any snakes here,” Carl said.

  “They go under things, and they hide in corners,” I told him. “Did you check under the couch? Did you look in my closet? Under my bed?”

  “I'm not looking under your bed,” Carl said. “I'm afraid I'll find some knuckle dragger hiding there.”

  This got a laugh out of Big Dog. I didn't think it was funny since it was one of my constant fears.

  “Listen, Steph,” Carl called from the bedroom, “we really have searched everywhere, but we're not seeing any snakes. Are you sure there's one in here?”

  “Yes!”

  “How about her closet?” Big Dog said. “Did you look in the closet?”

  “The door's closed. A snake couldn't get in there.”

  I heard one of them pull the closet door open, and then they both started shouting.

  “Jesus Christ.”

  “Holy shit!”

  “Shoot it. Shoot it!” Carl yelled. “Kill the motherfucker!”

  There was a lot of gunshot and more shouting.

  “We didn't get it. It's coming out,” Carl said. “Goddamn, there are two of them.”

  I heard the door to my bedroom slam shut.

  “Stay here and watch the door,” Carl told Big Dog. “Make sure they don't come out.”

  Carl stormed into my kitchen and started going through my cupboards. He found a half-empty bottle of gin and drank two fingers from the bottle.

  “Jesus,” he said, capping the bottle, returning it to the cupboard shelf.

  “I thought you weren't supposed to drink on duty.”

  “Yeah, except when you find snakes in closets. I'm calling Animal Control.”

  I was still on the counter when two Animal Control guys arrived. Carl and Big Dog were in my living room, guns drawn, eyes trained on my bedroom door.

  “They're in the bedroom,” Carl told the Animal Control officers. “Two of them.”

  Joe Morelli showed up a couple minutes later. Morelli wears his hair short but always needs a cut. Today was no exception. His dark hair curled over his ears and his collar and fell onto his forehead. His eyes were melted-chocolate brown. He wore jeans and running shoes and a gray-green thermal Henley. Under the shirt his body was hard and perfect. Fortunately, at this particular moment, under the jeans he was just perfect. Although I'd seen that part of him hard, and it was pretty damn fantastic. His gun and his badge were also under the Henley.

  Morelli grinned when he saw me on the counter. “What's going on?”

  “Someone left a bag of snakes on my doorknob.”

  “And you let them loose?”

  “They took me by surprise.”

  He looked back at the one I'd shot, still untouched on the hall floor. “Is that the one you shot?”

  “I ran out of bullets.”

  “How many bullets did you start with?”

  “One.”

  The grin widened.

  The Animal Control officers came out of the bedroom with the two snakes in a bag. “Racers,” they said. “Harmless.” One of them toed the dead snake in the hall. “You want us to take this one, too?”

  “Yes!” I said. “And there's another snake somewhere.” Someone screamed at the far end of the hall.

  “Guess we know where to look for snake number four,” Joe said.

  The Animal Control guys took off with the snakes, and Carl and Big Dog shuffled out of my living room, into my foyer.

  “Guess we're done here,” Carl said. “You might want to check out your closet. I think Big Dog killed a pair of shoes.”

  Joe closed the door behind them. “You can get off the counter now.”

  “It was scary.”

  “Cupcake, your life is scary.”

  “What's that supposed to mean?”

  “Your job sucks.”

  “It's no suckier than yours.”

  “I don't have people leaving snakes on my doorknob.”

  “Animal Control said they were harmless.”

&nbs
p; He threw his hands into the air. “You're impossible.”

  “What are you doing here, anyway? I haven't heard from you in weeks.”

  “I heard the call go out on the radio and had a misguided urge to make sure you were okay. You haven't heard from me because we broke up, remember?”

  “Yes, but there's all kinds of broken up.”

  “Oh yeah? What kind is this? First you decide you don't want to marry me . . .”

  “That was a mutual agreement.”

  “Then you go off with Ranger . . .”

  “That was work-related.”

  He had his hands planted on his hips. “Let's get back to the snakes, okay? You have any idea who left them?”

  “I guess I could make a list.”

  “Jesus,” he said, “you've got a list. Not one or two people. A whole list. You have a whole list of people who might want to leave snakes on your doorknob.”

  “The last couple days have been sort of busy.”

  “Is that pizza in your hair?”

  “I accidentally rolled on Andy Bender's lunch. He would be on the list. A guy named Martin Paulson isn't too happy with me. There's my ex-husband. Then I had an unfortunate encounter with Eddie Abruzzi.”

  That caught Morelli's attention. “Eddie Abruzzi?”

  I told him about Evelyn and Annie and the Abruzzi connection.

  “I don't suppose you'd listen to me if I told you to stay away from Abruzzi,” Morelli said.

  “I'm trying to stay away from Abruzzi.”

  Morelli grabbed me by the front of my shirt, pulled me to him, and kissed me. His tongue touched mine, and I felt liquid fire slide through my stomach and head south. He released me and turned to go.

  “Hey!” I said. “What was that?”

  “Temporary insanity. You drive me nuts.”

  And he stalked off down the hall and disappeared into the elevator.

  I TOOK A shower and dressed in clean jeans and T-shirt. I did the makeup thing this time and put some gel in my hair. Sort of like locking the barn after the horses have escaped.

  I went into the kitchen and stared into the refrigerator for a while, but nothing materialized. No cake. No hot sausage sandwich. No macaroni and cheese magically appeared. I took a bag of chocolate chip cookies out of the freezer and ate one. You were supposed to bake them first, but that seemed like unnecessary effort.

  I'd talked to Annie's best friend and that hadn't given me a lot. Okay, so what would I do if I needed to protect my daughter from her father? Where would I go?

  I wouldn't have a lot of money, so I'd need to rely on a friend or relative. I'd need to go far enough that my car wouldn't be recognized, and I wouldn't run the risk of bumping into Soder or one of his friends. This narrowed the search down to the entire world, except for the Burg.

  I was contemplating the world when my doorbell rang. I wasn't expecting anyone, and I'd just received a bag of snakes, so I wasn't all that crazy about answering the door. I looked out my peephole and grimaced. It was Albert Kloughn. But wait a minute, he was holding a pizza box. Hello.

  I opened the door and gave a quick look up and down the hall. I was pretty sure there'd been four snakes in the bag . . . still, doesn't hurt to keep your eyes open for renegade reptiles.

  “Hope I'm not disturbing anything,” Kloughn said, stretching his neck out to look around me into my apartment. “You aren't entertaining or anything, are you? I didn't know if you were living with anyone.”

  “What's up?”

  “I've been thinking about the Soder case, and I have some ideas. I thought we could, like, brainstorm.”

  I looked down at the box he was holding.

  “I brought a pizza,” he said. “I didn't know if you'd eaten yet. Do you like pizza? If you don't like pizza I could get something else. I could get Mexican or Chinese or Thai . . .”

  Please, Lord, tell me this isn't a date. “I'm sort of engaged.”

  He vigorously nodded his head. Up and down, up and down, like one of those dogs people put in their back car windows. “Absolutely. I knew you would be. Understood. I'm almost engaged, too. I have a girlfriend.”

  “Really?”

  He took a deep breath. “No. I just made that up.”

  I took the pizza box from him and dragged him into my apartment. I got some napkins and a couple beers, and we sat at my small dining room table and ate pizza.

  “What are these ideas you have about Evelyn Soder?”

  “I figure she's with a friend, right? So she had to get in touch with the friend somehow. She had to tell her she was coming to stay. I figure she did this on the phone. So what we need is a phone bill.”

  “And?”

  “That's it.”

  “Good thing you brought a pizza.”

  “Actually, it's a tomato pie. In the Burg they call it a tomato pie.”

  “Sometimes. You know anyone at the phone company? Anyone in the billing department?”

  “I figured you'd have the contacts. See, that's why we're such a good team. I have the ideas. And you have the contacts. Bounty hunters have contacts, right?”

  “Right.” Unfortunately, not in the phone company.

  We finished the pizza, and I brought out the bag of frozen cookies for dessert.

  “I heard you get cancer from eating raw cookie dough,” Kloughn said. “Don't you think you should bake this?”

  I ate a bag of raw dough a week. I considered it to be one of the four major food groups. “I always eat raw cookie dough,” I said.

  “Me, too,” Kloughn said. “I eat raw cookie dough all the time. I don't believe that stuff about the cancer.” He looked into the bag and tentatively took out a frozen lump of dough. “So what do you do here? Do you, like, nibble on it? Or do you put it all in your mouth at once?”

  “You've never had raw cookie dough, have you?”

  “No.” He took a bite and chewed. “I like it,” he said. “Very good.”

  I glanced down at my watch. “You're going to have to go now. I have some unfinished business to take care of.”

  “Is it bounty hunter business? You can tell me. I won't tell anybody, I swear. What are you doing? I bet you're going after someone. You were waiting for nighttime, right?”

  “Right.”

  “So who are you going after? Is it anyone I know? Is it, like, a high-profile case? A killer?”

  “It's no one you know. It's domestic abuse. A repeat offender. I'm waiting until he passes out in a drunken stupor, and then I'm going to capture him when he's unconscious.”

  “I could help you—”

  “No!”

  “You didn't let me finish. I could help you drag him to the car. How are you going to get him to the car? You're going to need help, right?”

  “Lula will help me.”

  “Lula has class tonight. Remember she said she had to go to school tonight. Do you have anyone else who helps you? I bet you don't have anyone else, right?”

  I was getting an eye twitch. Tiny, annoying muscle contractions below my right lower lid. “Okay,” I said, “you can come with me, but you can't talk. No talking.”

  “Sure. No talking. My lips are sealed. Look at me, I'm locking my lips and throwing the key away.”

  I PARKED HALF a block from Andy Bender's apartment, positioning my car between pools of light thrown by overhead halogens. Traffic was minimal. Vendors had closed up shop for the day, switching to nighttime pursuits of hijacking and shoplifting. Residents were locked behind closed doors, beer can in hand, watching reality television. A nice break from their own reality, which wasn't all that terrific.

  Kloughn gave me a look that said now what?

  “Now we wait,” I told him. “We make sure nothing unusual is going on.”

  Kloughn nodded and made the zippered mouth sign again. If he made the zippered mouth sign one more time I was going to smack him in the head.

  After a half hour of sitting and waiting I was convinced that I didn't want to sit and wait a
nymore. “Let's take a closer look,” I said to Kloughn. “Follow me.”

 
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