Hard eight, p.8
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       Hard Eight, p.8

         Part #8 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  “Shouldn't I have a gun or something? What if there's a shoot-out? Do you have a gun? Where's your gun?”

  “I left my gun home. We don't need guns. Andy Bender has never been known to carry a gun.” Best not to mention he prefers chain saws and kitchen knives.

  I approached Bender's unit as if I owned it. Bounty hunter rule number seventeen—don't look sneaky. Lights were on inside. The windows were curtained, but the curtains were a skimpy fit, and it was possible to look around the fabric. I put my nose to the window and stared in at the Benders. Andy was in a big, overstuffed recliner, feet up, open bag of chips on his chest, dead to the world. His wife sat on the tattered couch, eyes glued to the television.

  “I'm pretty sure we're doing something illegal,” Kloughn whispered.

  “There's all kinds of illegal. This is one of those things that's only a little illegal.”

  “I guess it's okay if you're a bounty hunter. There are special rules for bounty hunters, right?”

  Right. And there really is an Easter bunny.

  I wanted to get into the apartment, but I didn't want to wake Bender. I walked around the building and carefully tried Bender's back door. Locked. I returned to the front and found that door locked, too. I gave a couple light raps on the door with my knuckles, hoping to get the wife's attention without waking Bender.

  Kloughn was looking in the window. He shook his head. No one was getting up to answer the door. I rapped louder. Nothing. Bender's wife was concentrating on the television show. Damn. I rang the bell.

  Kloughn jumped away from the window and rushed to my side. “She's coming!”

  The door opened, and Bender's wife stood flat-footed in front of us. She was a large woman with pale skin, and a dagger tattooed on her arm. Her eyes were red-rimmed and dull. Her face expressionless. She wasn't as wasted as her husband, but she was well on the way. She took a step back when I introduced myself.

  “Andy don't like to be disturbed,” she said. “He gets in a real bad mood when he's disturbed.”

  “Maybe you should go to a friend's house, so you're not here if Andy gets disturbed.” Last thing I wanted was for Andy to beat on his wife because she let us disturb him.

  She looked at her husband, still asleep in his chair. Then she looked at us. And then she took off, out the door, disappearing into the darkness.

  Kloughn and I tiptoed up to Bender and took a closer look.

  “Maybe he's dead,” Kloughn said.

  “I don't think so.”

  “He smells dead.”

  “He always smells like that.” I was prepared this time. I had my stun gun with me. I leaned forward, pressed my stun gun to Bender, and hit the juice button. Nothing happened. I examined the stun gun. It looked okay. I put it to Bender again. Nothing. Goddamn electronic piece of shit. Okay, go to backup plan. I grabbed the cuffs I had tucked into my back pocket and quietly clicked a bracelet on Bender's right wrist.

  Bender's eyes flew open. “What the hell?”

  I pulled his cuffed hand across his body and secured the second bracelet onto his left wrist.

  “Goddamn,” he yelled. “I hate being disturbed when I'm watching television! What the fuck are you doing in my house?”

  “The same thing I was doing in your house yesterday. Bond enforcement,” I said. “You're in violation of your bond. You need to reschedule.”

  He glared at Kloughn. “What's with the dough boy?”

  Kloughn handed Bender his business card. “Albert Kloughn, attorney at law.”

  “I hate clowns. They creep me out.”

  Kloughn pointed to his name on the card. “K-l-o-u-g-h-n,” he said. “If you ever need a lawyer, I'm real good.”

  “Oh yeah?” Bender said. “Well, I hate lawyers even more than clowns.” He jumped forward and knocked Kloughn on his ass with a head butt to Kloughn's face. “And I hate you,” he said, lunging at me, head down.

  I sidestepped and tried the stun gun on him again. No effect. I ran after him and made another stab. He never broke stride. He was across the room, through the open front door. I threw the stun gun at him. It bounced off his head, he yelled ouch, and he was gone, into the darkness.

  I was torn between following after him and helping Kloughn. Kloughn was on his back, blood trickling from his nose, mouth open, eyes glazed. Hard to tell if he was just stunned or in a genuine coma.

  “Are you okay?” I yelled at Kloughn.

  Kloughn didn't say anything. His arms were in motion, but he wasn't making any progress at getting up. I went to his side and dropped to one knee.

  “Are you okay?” I asked again.

  His eyes focused, and he reached for me, grabbing a handful of shirt. “Did I hit him?”

  “Yeah. You hit him with your face.”

  “I knew it. I knew I'd be good under pressure. I'm pretty tough, right?”

  “Right.” God help me, I was starting to like him.

  I dragged him up and got him some paper towels from the kitchen. Bender was long gone, along with my cuffs. Again.

  I retrieved the useless stun gun, packed Kloughn into the CR-V, and took off. It was a cloudy, moonless night. The projects were dark. Lights burned behind drawn shades but did nothing to illuminate lawns. I drove along the streets surrounding the projects, searching the shadows for movement, staring into the occasional uncurtained window.

  Kloughn had his head tipped back with the towels stuffed up his nose. “Does this happen a lot?” he asked. “I thought it would be different. I mean, this was pretty fun, but he got away. And he didn't smell good. I didn't expect him to smell that bad.”

  I looked over at Kloughn. He seemed different. Crooked, somehow. “Has your nose always curved to the left?” I asked him.

  He gingerly touched his nose. “It feels funny. You don't think it's broken, do you? I've never had anything broken before.”

  It was just about the most broken nose I'd ever seen. “It doesn't look broken to me,” I said. “Still, it wouldn't hurt to have a doctor look at it. Maybe we should make a quick stop-off at the emergency room.”

  Stephanie Plum 8 - Hard Eight

  5

  I OPENED MY eyes and looked at the clock: 8:30. Not exactly an early start to the day. I could hear rain spattering on my fire escape and on my windowpane. My feeling on rain is that it should only occur at night when people are sleeping. At night, rain is cozy. During the day, rain is a pain in the gumpy. Another screwup on the part of creation. Like waste management. When you're planning a universe you have to think ahead.

  I rolled out of bed and sleepwalked to the kitchen. Rex was done running for the night, sound asleep in his soup can. I got coffee going and shuffled to the bathroom. An hour later I was in my car, ready to start the day, not sure what to do first. Probably I should pay a condolence visit on Kloughn. I'd gotten his nose broken. By the time I'd dropped him at his car, his eyes were black and his nose was being held straight by a Band-Aid. Problem is, if I go see him now, I run the risk of having him latch onto me for the day. And I really didn't want Kloughn tagging along. I was fairly inept when left to my own devices. With Kloughn tagging along, I was a disaster waiting to happen.

  I was sitting in my lot, staring out the rain-smeared window, and I realized there was a plastic sandwich bag attached to my windshield wiper. I opened the door and snatched the bag off the wiper. There was a note-size piece of white paper folded four times inside the bag. The message on the paper was written in black marker.

  Did you like the snakes?

  Wonderful. Just the way I wanted to start my day. I returned the note to the bag and put the bag in the glove compartment. On the seat beside me were the two FTA folders Connie had given me. Andrew Bender, still at large. And Laura Minello. I'd go out and capture one of them this morning, but I didn't have any handcuffs. And I'd rather poke myself in the eye with a fork than get another pair of cuffs from the office. That left Annie Soder.

  I put the CR-V in gear and drove to the Burg. I parked i
n front of my parents' house, but I knocked on Mabel's door.

  “Who did Evelyn hang out with when she was a kid?” I asked Mabel. “Did she have a best friend?”

  “Dotty Palowski. They went all through grade school together. High school, too. Then Evelyn got married and Dotty moved away.”

  “Did they stay friends?”

  “I think they lost touch. Evelyn kept more and more to herself after she married.”

  “Do you know where Dotty is now?”

  “I don't know where Dotty's living but her folks are still here in the Burg.”

  I knew the family. Dotty's parents lived on Roebling. There were some aunts and uncles and cousins in the Burg, too. “I need one more thing,” I said to Mabel. “I need a list of Evelyn's relatives. All of them.”

  I had the list in my hand when I left. It wasn't a long list. An aunt and an uncle in the Burg. Three cousins, all in the Trenton area. A cousin in Delaware.

  I jumped the railing that divided the porches and went next door to see Grandma Mazur.

  “I went to the Shleckner viewing,” Grandma said. “I'm telling you, that Stiva is a genius. When it comes to morticians, you can't beat Stiva. You know how old Shleckner had all those big scabby things on his face? Well, Stiva covered them all somehow. And you couldn't even tell Shleckner had a glass eye. They both look just the same. It was a miracle.”

  “How do you know about the glass eye? Didn't they have his eyes closed?”

  “Yeah, but they might have come open for a second while I was standing there. It might have happened when I accidentally dropped my reading glasses into the casket.”

  “Hmmm,” I said to Grandma.

  “Well, you can't blame a person for wondering about those things. Wasn't my fault, either. If they'd left his eyes open I wouldn't have had to wonder.”

  “Did anyone see you prying Shleckner's eyes open?”

  “No. I was real sneaky.”

  “Did you hear anything useful about Evelyn or Annie?”

  “No, but I got an earful about Steven Soder. He likes to drink. And he likes to gamble. The rumor is that he's lost a lot of money, and that he lost the bar. The story goes that he lost the bar in a card game a while back, and now he's got partners.”

  “I've heard some of those same rumors. Anyone give names to the partners?”

  “Eddie Abruzzi is what I heard.”

  Oh boy. Why am I not surprised at this?

  I was in my car, ready to roll, when my cell phone rang. It was Kloughn.

  “Boy, you should see me,” he said. “I've got two black eyes. And my nose is swollen. At least it's straight now. I was real careful how I slept on it.”

  “I'm sorry. Really, really sorry.”

  “Hey, no biggie. I guess you have to expect stuff like this when you're a crime fighter. So what are we doing today? Are we going after Bender again? I have some ideas. Maybe I could meet you for lunch.”

  “See, here's the thing . . . I usually work alone.”

  “Sure, but once in a while you work with a partner, right? And I could be that partner sometimes, right? I got myself all prepared. I got a black hat with BOND ENFORCEMENT printed on it this morning. And I got pepper spray and handcuffs . . .”

  Handcuffs? Be still, my fast-beating heart. “Are these regulation handcuffs with a key and everything?”

  “Yeah. I got them at that gun store on Rider Street. I would have gotten a gun, too, but I didn't have enough money.”

  “I'll pick you up at twelve.”

  “Oh boy, this is going to be great. I'll be all ready. I'll be at my office. Maybe we can get fried chicken this time. Unless you don't want fried chicken. If you don't want fried chicken, we could get a burrito, or we could get a burger, or we could—”

  I made crackling sounds into the phone. “Can't hear you,” I yelled. “You're breaking up. See you at twelve.” And I disconnected.

  I cruised out of the Burg and turned onto Hamilton. In a few minutes I was at the office. I parked at the curb behind a new black Porsche, which I suspected belonged to Ranger.

  Everyone looked over when I swung through the door. Ranger was at Connie's desk. He was dressed in SWAT black, again. He caught my eye, and I felt my stomach do a nervous roll.

  “I had a friend working the emergency room last night, and she told me you came in with a little guy who was all busted up,” Lula said.

  “Kloughn. And he wasn't all busted up. He just had a broken nose. Don't ask.”

  Vinnie was lounging in the doorway to his inner office. “Who's this clown?” Vinnie asked.

  “Albert Kloughn,” Ranger said. “He's an attorney.”

  I stopped short of asking how Ranger knew Kloughn. The answer was obvious. Ranger knew everything.

  “Let me guess,” Vinnie said to me. “You need another pair of cuffs.”

  “Wrong. I need an address. I need to talk to Dotty Palowski.”

  Connie fed the name to the search system. A minute later the information started coming in. “She's Dotty Rheinhold now. And she's living in South River.” Connie printed the page and handed it over to me. “She's divorced with two kids, and she works for the Turnpike Authority in East Brunswick.”

  Ordinarily I'd stay to chat, but I was afraid someone would ask about Kloughn's nose.

  “Gotta run,” I said. “Things to do.”

  I paused just outside the office door. I was sheltered by a small overhead awning. Beyond the awning, the rain fell in a relentless drizzle that didn't measure up to downpour status but was enough to ruin my hair and soak into my jeans.

  Ranger followed me out. “It might be good to keep more than one bullet in your gun, babe.”

  “You heard about the snakes?”

  “I ran into Costanza. He was looking at life through the bottom of a beer glass.”

  “I'm not having much luck finding Annie Soder.”

  “You're not the only one.”

  “Jeanne Ellen can't find her, either?”

  “Not yet.”

  Our eyes held for a moment. “Which team are you on?” I asked.

  He tucked my hair behind my ear, his fingertips brushing feather light across my temple, his thumb at the line of my jaw. “I have my own team.”

  “Tell me about Jeanne Ellen.”

  Ranger smiled. “The information would have a price.”

  “And the price would be what?”

  The smile widened. “Try not to get too wet today,” he said. And he was gone.

  Damn. What's with the men in my life? Why do they always leave first? Why don't I ever walk away and leave first? Because I'm a dope, that's why. I'm a big dope.

  I PICKED KLOUGHN up at the Laundromat. He was dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans, wearing his new bond enforcement hat. And he had brown tassel loafers on his feet. The pepper spray was clipped to his belt. The cuffs had been shoved into his back pocket. His eyes and nose were an alarming shade of black, blue, and green.

  “Wow,” I said. “You look awful.”

  “It's the tassels, right? I wasn't sure if the tassels went with the outfit. I could go home and change. I could have worn black shoes, but I thought they were too dressy.”

  “It's not the tassels, it's your eyes and nose.” Okay, and it's the tassels.

  Kloughn got in and buckled his seat belt. “I guess that's all part of the job. Gotta get physical sometimes, right? Goes with the territory, you know what I mean?”

  “Your territory is law.”

  “Yeah, but I'm an assistant bond enforcer, too, right? I'm walking the mean streets with you, right?”

  You see, Stephanie, I told myself, this is what happens when you run your credit card up buying nonessentials like shoes and underwear and then can't afford to buy handcuffs.

  “I was going to get a stun gun,” Kloughn said, “but yours didn't work last night. What's with that? You pay good money for these things and then they don't work. That's always the way, isn't it? You know what you need? You
need a lawyer. You were mislead by product promises.”

  I stopped for a light and pulled the stun gun out of my bag and checked it over. “I don't understand this,” I said to Kloughn. “It's always worked just fine.”

  He took the stun gun from me and turned it around in his hand. “Maybe it needs batteries.”

  “No. They're new. They test out okay.”

  “Maybe you were doing it wrong?”

 
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