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One for the money, p.9
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       One for the Money, p.9

         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  I pulled into the lot, tapped the phone back on, dialed dispatch, and requested aid with the transfer of custody. I was instructed to proceed to the rear security door, where a uniform would be waiting for me. I proceeded to the designated door and backed into the driveway, placing Clarence close to the building. I didn't see my uniform, so I made another call. I was promptly told not to get my shorts in a knot. Easy for them to say—they knew what they were doing.

  A few minutes later Crazy Carl Costanza poked his head out the door. I'd made Communion with Crazy Carl, among other things.

  He squinted past Clarence. “Stephanie Plum?”

  “Hey, Carl.”

  His face cracked into a grin. “They told me there was a pain in the ass out here.”

  “That would be me,” I said.

  “What's with sleeping beauty?”

  “He's FTA.”

  Carl came in for a closer look. “Is he dead?”

  “I don't think so.”

  “He smells dead.”

  I agreed. “He could use to be hosed down.” I gave Clarence a shake and yelled in his ear. “Let's go. Time to wake up.”

  Clarence choked on some spit and opened his eyes. “Where am I?”

  “Police station,” I said. “Everybody out.”

  He stared at me in unfocused drunken stupidity, and sat as still and unyielding as a sandbag.

  “Do something,” I said to Costanza. “Get him out of here.”

  Costanza grabbed Clarence's arms, and I put my foot to Clarence's butt. We pushed and pulled, and inch by inch, got Sampson's big ugly blob of putrid flesh off the seat and onto the pavement.

  “This is why I became a cop,” Costanza said. “I couldn't resist the glamor of it all.”

  We maneuvered Clarence through the security door, cuffed him to a wooden bench, and handed him over to the docket lieutenant. I ran back outside and moved the Cherokee into a regulation parking space where it would be less visible to cops who might mistake it for a stolen car.

  When I returned, Clarence had been stripped of his belt and shoelaces and personal property and looked forlorn and pathetic. He was my first capture, and I'd expected to feel satisfaction for my success, but now found it was difficult to get elated over someone else's misfortune.

  I collected my body receipt, spent a few minutes reminiscing with Crazy Carl, and headed for the lot. I'd hoped to leave before dark, but night had closed in early under a blanket of clouds. The sky was starless and moonless. Traffic was sporadic. Easier to spot a tail, I told myself, but I didn't believe it. I had minimal confidence in my ability to spot Morelli.

  There was no sign of the van. That didn't mean much. Morelli could be driving whatever by now. I headed for Nottingham with one eye on the road and one on my rearview mirror. There was little doubt in my mind that Morelli was out there, but at least he was giving me the courtesy of not being obvious. That meant he took me moderately seriously. It was a cheery thought that prompted me to rise to the occasion with a plan. The plan was simple. Go home, park the Cherokee in the lot, wait in the bushes with my killer gas, and zap Morelli when he tried to reclaim his car.

  Stephanie Plum 1 - One for the Money

  6

  THE FRONT OF MY APARTMENT BUILDING sat flush with the sidewalk. Parking was in the rear. The lot was minimally scenic, consisting of an asphalt rectangle subdivided into parking spaces. We weren't so sophisticated that we were assigned slots. Parking was dog-eat-dog, with all the really good places designated handicapped. Three Dumpsters hunkered at the entrance to the lot. One for general garbage. Two for recyclables. Good for the environment. Didn't do much for local aesthetics. The rear entrance had been improved by a strip of overgrown azaleas that hugged the building and ran almost the entire length of the lot. They were wonderful in the spring when they were filled with pink flowers, and they were magical in the winter when the super strung them with little blinking lights. The rest of the year they were better than nothing.

  I chose a well-lighted slot in the middle of the lot. Better to see Morelli when he came to retrieve his property. Not to mention it was one of the few places left. Most of the people in my building were elderly and didn't like to drive after dark. By nine o'clock the lot was full and TVs were going full blast inside all the seniors' apartments.

  I looked around to make sure there was no sign of Morelli. Then I popped the hood and removed the Cherokee's distributor cap. This was one of my many New Jersey survival skills. Anyone who has ever left their car in long-term parking at Newark Airport knows how to remove the distributor cap. It is virtually the only way of ensuring your car will be there upon your return.

  I figured when the Cherokee didn't start, Morelli'd stick his head under the hood, and that's when I'd gas him. I scurried to the building and hid myself behind the azaleas, feeling fairly slick.

  I sat on the ground on a newspaper in deference to my skirt. I'd have liked to change my clothes, but I was afraid of missing Morelli if I dashed upstairs. Cedar chips had been spread in front of the azaleas. Back where I sat the ground was hard-packed dirt. When I was a kid I might have thought this was cozy, but I wasn't a kid anymore, and I noticed things kids didn't notice. Mostly that azaleas don't look all that good from the rear.

  A big Chrysler pulled into the lot, and a white-haired man got out. I recognized him, but I didn't know his name. He slowly walked to the building entrance. He didn't seem alarmed or yell out “Help, there's a crazy woman hiding in the bushes,” so I felt secure that I was well hidden.

  I squinted at my watch in the dark. Nine forty-five. Waiting wasn't among my favorite pastimes. I was hungry and bored and uncomfortable. There are probably people who put waiting time to good use organizing thoughts, composing chore lists, sinking into constructive introspection. Waiting, for me, was sensory depravation. A black hole. Down time.

  I was still waiting at eleven o'clock. I was cranky, and I had to go to the bathroom. Somehow I managed to sit there for another hour and a half. I was reviewing my options, considering a new plan, when it started to rain. The drops were big and lazy, falling in slow motion, spattering on the azalea bushes, leaving their imprint on the hard-packed dirt where I sat, encouraging musty smells reminiscent of cobwebs and crawl spaces to rise up from the earth. I sat with my back pressed against the building and my legs drawn up to my chest. With the exception of an occasional renegade drop, I was untouched by the rain.

  After a few minutes the tempo evened out, the drops grew small and consistent, and the wind picked up. Water pooled on the black macadam, catching clots of reflective light, and the rain beaded on the shiny red paint of the Cherokee.

  It was a wonderful night to be in bed with a book, listening to the tic, tic, tic of drops on the window and fire escape. It was a lousy night to be crouched behind an azalea bush. The rain had taken to swirling with the wind, catching me in gusts, soaking into my shirt, plastering my hair to my face.

  By one o'clock I was shivering and miserable, soaking wet, close to peeing in my pants. Not that it would matter. At five after one I abandoned the plan. Even if Morelli did show up, which I was beginning to doubt, I wasn't sure I was in good enough shape to make a capture. And, I definitely didn't want him to see me with my hair like this.

  I was about to leave when a car swung into the lot, parked in a space at the far perimeter, and killed its lights. A man got out of the car and quickly walked, head down, to the Cherokee. It wasn't Joe. It was Mooch again. I rested my forehead on my knees and closed my eyes. I'd been naive to think Joe would fall into my trap. The entire police force was after his ass. He wasn't going to barge into a setup like this. I sulked for a few seconds and then pushed it aside, vowing to be smarter next time. I should have put myself in Joe's place. Would I have exposed myself by personally coming after the car? No. Okay, so I was learning. Rule number one: don't underestimate the enemy. Rule number two: think like a felon.

  Mooch opened the driver's door with a key and slid behind the wheel.
The starter churned but didn't catch. Mooch waited a few minutes and tried again. He got out and looked under the hood. I knew this wouldn't take long. It didn't take a genius to notice a missing distributor cap. Mooch pulled his head out from under the hood, slammed the hood down, kicked a tire, and said something colorful. He jogged back to his car and peeled out of the lot.

  I slunk out of the shadows and trudged the short distance to the back entrance to my building. My skirt clung to my legs and water squished in my shoes. The night had been a bust, but it could have been worse. Joe could have sent his mother to get the car.

  The lobby was empty, looking even bleaker than usual. I punched the elevator button and waited. Water dripped from the end of my nose and off the hem of my skirt, forming a small lake on the gray tile floor. Two side-by-side elevators serviced the building. No one, so far as I knew, had ever plummeted to their death or been skyrocketed out of the top of the elevator shaft in a runaway elevator, but chances of getting stuck between floors was excellent. Usually I used the stairs. Tonight, I decided to carry my masochistic stupidity to the max and take the elevator. The cage lurched into place, the doors gaped open, and I stepped in. I ascended to the second floor without incident and sloshed down the hall. I fumbled in my pocketbook for the key and was letting myself into my apartment when I remembered the distributor cap. I'd left it downstairs, behind the azaleas. I thought about retrieving it, but it was a short thought and of no consequence. No way was I going back downstairs.

  I bolted the door behind me and peeled my clothes off while standing on the small patch of linoleum that served as my foyer. My shoes were ruined, and the seat of my skirt bore the imprint of yesterday's headlines. I left every stitch I'd worn in a sodden heap on the floor and went straight to the bathroom.

  I adjusted the water, stepped into the tub, pulled the shower curtain closed, and let the hard spray beat down on me. The day hadn't been all bad, I told myself. I'd made a recovery. I was legitimate now. First thing in the morning I'd collect my money from Vinnie. I lathered up and rinsed off. I washed my hair. I turned the dial to shower massage and stood for a very long time, letting the tension ease from my body. Twice now Joe had used Mooch as his errand boy. Maybe I should be watching Mooch. Problem was I couldn't watch everyone at once.

  I was distracted by a blur of color on the other side of the translucent, soap-slicked shower curtain. The blur moved and my heart momentarily stopped dead in my chest. Someone was in my bathroom. The shock was numbing. I stood statue still for a few beats without a thought in my head. Then I remembered Ramirez, and my stomach rolled. Ramirez could have come back. He could have talked the super into giving him a key, or he could have come in through a window. God only knows what Ramirez was capable of doing.

  I'd brought my pocketbook into the bathroom, but it was out of reach on the vanity counter.

  The intruder crossed the room in two strides and ripped the shower curtain off the rod with such force the plastic loops at the top popped off and scattered. I screamed and blindly threw the shampoo bottle, cowering back against the wall tiles.

  It wasn't Ramirez. It was Joe Morelli. He had the curtain bunched in one hand; the other hand curled into a fist. A welt was forming on his forehead where the bottle had made contact. He was beyond angry, and I wasn't so sure gender was going to keep me from getting a broken nose. Fine with me. I was spoiling for a fight. Who did this yodel think he was, first scaring me half to death and then wrecking my shower curtain.

  “What the hell do you think you're doing?” I shrieked. “Haven't you ever heard of a goddamn doorbell? How did you get in here?”

  “You left your bedroom window open.”

  “The screen was locked.”

  “Screens don't count.”

  “If you've ruined that screen I'll expect you to pay for it. And what about this shower curtain? Shower curtains don't grow on trees, you know.” I'd lowered the volume on my voice, but the pitch was still a full octave higher than normal. In all honesty, I hadn't any idea what I was saying. My mind was racing down uncharted roads of fury and panic. I was furious that he'd violated my privacy, and I was panicked that I was naked.

  Under the right circumstances naked is fine—taking showers, making love, being born. Standing naked and dripping wet in front of Joe Morelli, who was completely clothed, was the stuff nightmares are made of.

  I shut the water off and grabbed at a towel, but Morelli slapped my hand away and threw the towel onto the floor behind him.

  “Give me that towel,” I demanded.

  “Not until we've gotten a few things straightened out.”

  As a kid, Morelli'd been out of control. I'd reached the conclusion that as an adult Morelli had control in spades. The Italian temper was clear in his eyes, but the amount of violence displayed was tightly calculated. He was wearing a black rain-drenched T-shirt and jeans. When he twisted toward the towel rack I could see the gun stuck into his jeans at the small of his back.

  It wasn't difficult to envision Morelli killing, but I found myself agreeing with Ranger and Eddie Gazarra—couldn't see this grown-up Morelli being stupid and impulsive.

  He had his hands on his hips. His hair was wet, curling on his forehead and over his ears. His mouth was hard and unsmiling. “Where's my distributor cap?”

  When in doubt, always take the offensive. “If you don't get out of my bathroom this instant I'm going to start screaming.”

  “It's two o'clock in the morning, Stephanie. All your neighbors are sound asleep with their hearing aids on their nightstands. Scream away. No one's going to hear you.”

  I stood my ground and scowled at him. It was my best effort at defiance. I'd be damned if I was going to give him the satisfaction of looking vulnerable and embarrassed.

  “I'm going to ask you one more time,” he said. “Where's my distributor cap?”

  “I don't know what you're talking about.”

  “Listen, Cupcake, I'll tear this place apart if I have to.”

  “I don't have the cap. The cap isn't here. And I'm not your cupcake.”

  “Why me?” he asked. “What did I do to deserve this?”

  I raised an eyebrow.

  Morelli sighed. “Yeah,” he said. “I know.” He took my pocketbook from the counter, turned it upside down, and let the contents fall to the floor. He picked the cuffs out of the mess and took a step forward. “Give my your wrist.”

  “Pervert.”

  “You wish.” He flicked the cuff out and clicked it onto my right wrist.

  I yanked my right arm back hard and kicked at him, but it was difficult to maneuver in the tub. He sidestepped my kick and locked the remaining steel bracelet onto the shower curtain rod. I gasped and froze, unable to believe what had just happened.

  Morelli stepped back and looked at me, doing a slow whole-body scan. “You want to tell me where the cap is?”

  I was incapable of speech, bereft of bravado. I could feel the flush of apprehension and embarrassment staining my cheeks, constricting my throat.

  “Wonderful,” Morelli said. “Do the silent thing. You can hang there forever for all I care.”

  He rummaged through the vanity drawers, emptied the wastebasket, and took the lid off the toilet tank. He stormed out of the bathroom without giving me so much as a backward glance. I could hear him methodically, professionally moving through my apartment, searching every square inch. Silverware clanked, drawers slammed, closet doors were wrenched open. There were sporadic patches of quiet, followed by mutterings.

  I tried hanging my full weight on the bar, hoping to bend it, but the rod was industrial strength, built to endure.

  At last Morelli appeared in the bathroom doorway.

  “Well?” I snapped. “Now what?”

  He indolently leaned against the frame. “Just came back to take another look.” A grin surfaced at the corners of his mouth as his eyes locked halfway down my chest. “Cold?”

  When I got loose I was going to track him down like
a dog. I didn't care if he was innocent or guilty. And I didn't care if it took the rest of my life. I was going to get Morelli. “Go to hell.”

  The grin widened. “You're lucky I'm a gentleman. There are individuals out there who'd take advantage of a woman in your situation.”

  “Spare me.”

  He shifted off the doorjamb. “It's been a pleasure.”

  “Wait a minute! You're not leaving, are you?”

  “Afraid so.”

  “What about me? What about the handcuffs?”

  He debated his options for a moment. He stepped off into the kitchen and returned with the portable phone. “I'm going to lock the front door when I leave, so make sure whoever you call has a key.”

 
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