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One for the money, p.8
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       One for the Money, p.8

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  If I was going to keep after Morelli I was going to need living expenses. I couldn't keep existing hand to mouth. Vinnie was the obvious answer to my problem. Vinnie was going to have to advance me some cash. I stopped for a light and took a moment to study Morelli's phone. I powered it up and his number blinked on. How convenient. I figured I'd go whole hog. Why stop at stealing Morelli's car? Might as well run his phone bill up, too.

  I called Vinnie's office, and Connie answered.

  “Is Vinnie in?” I asked.

  “Yeah,” she said. “He'll be here all afternoon.”

  “I'll be around in about ten minutes. I need to talk to him.”

  “Did you catch Morelli?”

  “No, but I've confiscated his car.”

  “Has it got a sun roof?”

  I rolled my eyes skyward. “No sun roof.”

  “Bummer,” she said.

  I hung up and turned down Southard, trying to decide on a reasonable advance. I needed enough money to get me through two weeks, and if I was going to use the car to catch Morelli I might want to invest in an alarm system. I couldn't watch the car around the clock, and I didn't want Morelli sneaking it out from under me while I slept, or took a pee, or went to the market.

  I was pondering an appropriate figure when the phone rang, the soft “brrrrp” almost causing me to run up onto the curb. It was a weird sensation. Like getting caught eavesdropping, or lying, or sitting on the toilet and having the bathroom walls suddenly drop away. I had an irrational urge to pull off the road and run shrieking from the car.

  I gingerly put the handset to my ear. “Hello?”

  There was a pause and a woman's voice came on the line. “I want to talk to Joseph Morelli.”

  Holy cow. It was Momma Morelli. As if I wasn't in deep enough do-do. “Joe isn't here right now.”

  “Who's this?”

  “I'm a friend of Joe's. He asked me to run his car once in a while for him.”

  “That's a lie,” she said. “I know who I'm talking to. I'm talking to Stephanie Plum. I know your voice when I hear it. What are you doing in my Joseph's car?”

  No one can show disdain like Momma Morelli. If it had been an ordinary mother on the phone I might have explained or apologized, but Morelli's mother scared the hell out of me.

  “What?” I shouted. “I can't hear you. What? What?”

  I slammed the receiver down and flipped the off switch on the phone. “Good going,” I said to myself. “Very adult. Very professional. Really quick thinking.”

  I parked on Hamilton and power walked half a block to Vinnie's. I was pumping myself up for the confrontation, getting my adrenaline going, raising my energy level. I barreled through the door like Wonder Woman, gave Connie a thumbs up, and went straight to Vinnie's office. The door was open. Vinnie was behind his desk, hunched over a racing sheet.

  “Hey,” I said. “How's it going?”

  “Oh shit,” Vinnie said. “Now what?”

  That's what I like about my family. We're so close, so warm, so polite to each other. “I want an advance on my fee. I have expenses associated with the job.”

  “An advance? Are you kidding me? You're joking, right?”

  “I'm not joking. I'm going to get $10,000 when I bring Morelli in. I want a $2,000 advance.”

  “When hell freezes over. And don't think you can pull more of that blackmail crap on me. You blab to my wife, and I'll be as good as dead. See if you can squeeze a job out of a dead man, smartass.”

  He had a point. “Okay, so blackmail won't work. How about greed? You give me the $2,000 now, and I won't take my full 10 percent.”

  “What if you don't get Morelli? You ever think of that?”

  Only every waking minute of my life. “I'll get Morelli.”

  “Un huh. Excuse me if I don't share your positive attitude. And remember I only agreed to this lunacy for a week. You've got four days left. If you haven't brought Morelli in by next Monday, I'm giving him to somebody else.”

  Connie came into the office. “What's the problem here? Stephanie needs money? Why don't you give her Clarence Sampson?”

  “Who's Clarence Sampson?” I asked.

  “He's one of our family of drunks. Usually, he's perfectly peaceful. Every now and then he does something stupid.”

  “Such as?”

  “Such as try to drive with a 150-proof blood alcohol level. On this particular occasion he had the misfortune to total a police cruiser.”

  “He ran into a cruiser?”

  “Not exactly,” Connie said. “He was attempting to drive the cruiser. He ran into a liquor store on State Street.”

  “Do you have a picture of this guy?”

  “I have a two-inch file with pictures spanning two decades. We've posted bail on Sampson so many times I know his social security number by heart.”

  I followed her to the outer office and waited while she sorted through a stack of manila folders.

  “Most of our recovery agents work a bunch of cases simultaneously,” Connie said. “It's more efficient that way.” She handed me a dozen folders. “These are the FTAs Morty Beyers was handling for us. He's gonna be out for a while longer, so you might as well take a crack at them. Some are easier than others. Memorize the names and addresses and hook them up to the photographs. You never know when you'll get lucky. Last week Andy Zabotsky was standing in line for a bucket of fried chicken and recognized the guy in front of him as a skip. It was a good find, too. A dealer. We would have been out $30,000.”

  “I didn't know you posted bond for drug dealers,” I said. “I always thought you did mostly low-key stuff.”

  “Drug dealers are good,” Connie said. “They don't like to leave the area. They've got clients. They're making good money. If they skip you can usually count on them to resurface.”

  I tucked the files under my arm, promising to make copies and return the originals to Connie. The chicken story had been inspiring. If Andy Zabotsky could catch a crook in a chicken franchise, just think of my own personal potential. I ate that crappy food all the time. I even liked it. Maybe this bounty hunter business would work out. Once I became financially solvent, I could support myself by collecting people like Sampson and making an occasional fast-food bust.

  I pushed through the front door and caught my breath at the sudden absence of air-conditioning. The day had gone from hot to blistering. The air was thick and muggy, the sky hazy. The sun prickled on exposed skin, and I looked up, shielding my eyes, half expecting to see the ozone hole gaping over me like a big cyclops eye shooting out lethal rays of radioactive whatever. I know the hole is supposedly hanging out over Antarctica, but it seemed logical to me that sooner or later it would slide on up to Jersey. Jersey produced urea formaldehyde and collected New York's garbage offshore. I thought it only fitting that it have the ozone hole as well.

  I unlocked the Cherokee and swiveled behind the wheel. Sampson's recovery money wouldn't get me to Barbados, but it would put something in my refrigerator besides mold. Even more important, it would give me a chance to run through the motions of an apprehension. When Ranger had taken me to the police station to get my gun permit, he'd also explained the recovery procedure, but there was no substitute for hands-on experience.

  I flipped the switch on the car phone and dialed Clarence Sampson's home number. No one answered. No work number had been given. The police report listed his address as 5077 Limeing Street. I wasn't familiar with Limeing Street, so I'd looked it up on a map and discovered Sampson lived two blocks over from Stark, down by the state buildings. I had Sampson's picture taped to the dash, and every few seconds I checked it against men on the street as I drove.

  Connie had suggested I visit the bars on lower Stark. On my list of favorite things to do, spending happy hour at the Rainbow Room on the corner of Stark and Limeing fell just below cutting off both my thumbs with a dull knife. It seemed to me it would be just as effective and a lot less dangerous to sit locked up in the Cherokee and survei
l the street. If Clarence Sampson was in one of the bars, sooner or later he'd have to come out.

  It took several passes before I found a space I liked at the corner of Limeing and Stark. I had a good view of Stark, and I was also able to see half a block down Limeing. I was a little conspicuous in my suit, with all my whiteness and big shiny red car, but I wasn't nearly as conspicuous as I'd be sashaying into the Rainbow Room. I cracked the windows and slouched down in my seat, trying to get comfortable.

  A kid with a lot of hair and $700 worth of gold around his neck stopped and looked in at me while his two friends stood nearby. “Hey babe,” he said. “What you doin' here?”

  “Waiting for someone,” I said.

  “Oh yeah? A fine babe like you shouldn't have to wait for no one.”

  One of his friends stepped up. He made sucking sounds and waggled his tongue at me. When he saw he had my attention he licked my window.

  I rooted through my pocketbook until I found my gun and my neuro spray. I laid them both on the dash. People stopped and stared from time to time after that, but they didn't linger.

  By five o'clock I was feeling antsy, and my rayon skirt had serious crotch wrinkles. I was looking for Clarence Sampson, but I was thinking about Joe Morelli. He was somewhere close by. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach. It was like a low-volt electric charge that hummed against the inside of my spine. In my mind I walked myself through the arrest. The easiest scenario would be for him not to see me at all, for me to come at him from behind and spray him. If that wasn't possible, I'd have to talk to him and wait for the right moment to go for the spray. Once he was on the ground and incapacitated, I could cuff him. After I got him cuffed I'd rest easier.

  By six I'd done the mental arrest about forty-two times and was psyched. By six-thirty I was on the down side of the peak, and my left cheek had fallen asleep. I stretched as best I could and tried isometrics. I counted passing cars, mouthed the words to the national anthem, and slowly read the ingredients on a pack of gum I found in my pocketbook. At seven I called time to make sure Morelli's clock was right.

  I was berating myself for being the wrong sex and the wrong color to operate effectively in over half the neighborhoods in Trenton when a man fitting Sampson's description reeled out of the Rainbow Room. I looked at the picture on the dash. I looked back at the man. I looked at the picture again. I was 90 percent sure it was Sampson. Big flabby body, mean little head, dark hair and beard, white Caucasian. Looked like Bluto. Had to be Sampson. Let's face it, how many bearded fat white men lived in this neighborhood?

  I tucked the gun and the spray into my pocketbook, pulled away from the curb, and drove around two blocks so I could turn down Limeing and put myself between Sampson and his house. I double-parked and got out of the car. A group of teens stood talking on the corner, and two little girls sat on a nearby stoop with their Barbie dolls. Across the street a bedraggled couch, missing its cushions, had been set out on the sidewalk. The Limeing Street version of a porch swing. Two old men sat on the couch, wordlessly staring off into space, their lined faces inanimate.

  Sampson was slowly weaving up the street, obviously in the glow. His smile was contagious. I smiled back at him. “Clarence Sampson?”

  “Yep,” he said. “That's me.”

  His words were thick, and he smelled stale, like clothes that had been forgotten for weeks in the hamper.

  I extended my hand. “I'm Stephanie Plum. I represent your bonding company. You missed a court appearance, and we'd like you to reschedule.”

  Momentary confusion rippled across his brow, the information was processed, and he smiled again.

  “I guess I forgot.”

  Not what you'd call a type A personality. I didn't think Sampson would ever have to worry about a stress-related heart attack. Sampson would most likely die from inertia.

  More smiling on my part. “That's okay. Happens all the time. I have a car here . . . .” I waved in the direction of the Cherokee. “If it wouldn't be too much trouble I'll drive you to the station, and we can take care of the paperwork.”

  He looked beyond me to his house. “I don't know . . .”

  I looped arms with him and nudged him over. Just a friendly ole cowpoke herding a dumber'n cat-shit steer. Git along little doggie. “This won't take long.” Three weeks, maybe.

  I was oozing well-being and charm, pushing my breast into the side of his fleshy arm as added incentive. I rolled him around the car and opened the passenger side door. “I really appreciate this,” I said.

  He balked at the door. “All I have to do is set a new court date, right?”

  “Yeah. Right.” And then hang around in a cell until that court date pops up on the calendar. I had no sympathy for him. He could have killed someone driving while intoxicated.

  I coaxed him in and fastened the seat belt. I ran around, jumped in the car, and revved the engine, afraid the light bulb would go on in his minuscule brain and he'd realize I was a recovery agent. I couldn't imagine what would happen when we got to the police station. One step at a time, I told myself. If he got violent I'd gas him . . . maybe.

  My fears were premature. I hadn't driven a quarter mile before his eyes glazed over, and he fell asleep, slouched against the door like a giant slug. I said a fast prayer that he didn't wet himself, or throw up, or do any of the other gross involuntary bodily things drunks are prone to do.

  Several blocks later I stopped for a light and glanced sideways at him. He was still asleep. So far so good.

  A faded blue Econoline van caught my eye on the other side of the intersection. Three antennae. A lot of equipment for a junky old van, I thought. I squinted at the driver, shadowy behind tinted glass, and an eerie feeling crept along the nape of my neck. The light turned. Cars moved through the intersection. The van rolled by, and my heart jumped to my throat as I was treated to a view of Joe Morelli behind the wheel, gaping at me in astonishment. My first impulse was to shrink in size until I was no longer visible. In theory, I should have been pleased to have made contact, but the instant reality was hurling confusion. I was good at fantasizing Morelli's recovery. I wasn't so confident when it came to actually pulling it off. Brakes squealed behind me, and in my rearview mirror I saw the van jump the curb to complete a midblock U-turn.

  I'd expected he'd come after me. I hadn't expected him to do it with such speed. The Jeep's doors were locked, but I pushed the lock button again anyway. The Sure Guard was nestled in my lap. The police station was less than a mile away. I debated giving Clarence the boot and going after Morelli. Morelli was, after all, my main objective.

  I did a fast run-through of possible arrest attempts, and none of them turned out satisfactory. I didn't want Morelli to come at me while I was struggling with Clarence. And I didn't want to drop Morelli in the street. Not in this neighborhood. I wasn't sure I could control the outcome.

  Morelli was five cars back when I stopped for a light. I saw the driver's door open, saw Morelli get out of the van, running toward me. I gripped the gas canister and prayed for the light to change. Morelli was almost on me when we all moved forward, and Morelli was forced to go back to the van.

  Good old Clarence was still sound asleep, his head dropped forward, his mouth open and drooling, emitting soft snuffling sounds. I left-turned up North Clinton, and the phone chirped.

  It was Morelli, and he didn't sound happy. “What the fuck do you think you're doing?” he yelled.

  “I'm taking Mr. Sampson to the police station. You're more than welcome to follow us. It would make everything much easier for me.”

  A pretty ballsy reply, considering I was having an anxiety attack.

  “THAT'S MY CAR YOU'RE DRIVING!”

  “Mmmmm. Well, I've commandeered it.”

  “You've WHAT?”

  I flipped the switch to shut the phone off before the conversation deteriorated to death threats. The van disappeared from sight two blocks from the station, and I continued on with my FTA still sleeping like a bab
y.

  The Trenton police department houses itself in a cube-like three-story brick building representing the Practical Pig approach to municipal architecture. Clearly low on the funding food chain, Police Headquarters has been afforded few frills, which is just as well considering it is surrounded by ghetto, and the location almost certainly ensures annihilation should a riot of major proportions ever occur.

  A chain-link fenced lot adjoins the building and provides parking for squad cars and vans, employees, cops, and beleaguered citizens.

  Gritty row houses and small businesses, typical of the area, face off with the headquarters' front entrance—Jumbos Seafood, a bar with no visible name and ominous metal grating on the windows, a corner grocery advertising RC Cola, Lydia's Hat Designs, a used-furniture store with a motley collection of washing machines displayed on the sidewalk, and the Tabernacle Church.

 
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