Authors: Janet Evanovich
Tags: #Fiction - General, #General, #Romance, #Fiction, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Trenton (N.J.), #Mystery Fiction, #Humorous Fiction, #Large Type Books, #Mystery, #Plum, #Women bounty hunters, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective, #Humorous, #Fiction - Mystery, #New Jersey, #Stephanie (Fictitious character), #Suspense, #American Mystery & Suspense Fiction, #Bail bond agents, #Adult, #Humour, #Police, #Mystery & Thrillers, #Trenton (N. J.), #Cooks - Crimes against, #Cooks, #Police - New Jersey
“I don’t have anyone that young,” Ranger said, “but I have several men who would fit the rest of the description and might look younger than they actually are.”
“So we’re back to someone in-house. That’s ugly.”
Ranger slipped out of bed. “I’m going to take a shower, and then I’ll follow up on this.”
I stared at him. He was naked, all right.
“You’re staring,” he said, smiling.
“I like to look.”
“Nice to know,” Ranger said, “but we should be able to do better than that for you.”
I rummaged through Ranger’s refrigerator while he took a shower. Fresh fruit, low-fat cottage cheese, orange juice, nonfat milk, white wine. No leftover pizza. No birthday cake. Ranger was hot, but he didn’t know much about food.
I went down to the fifth floor, got an assortment of sandwiches and sides, and brought it all back to Ranger’s apartment.
Ranger strolled in and took a turkey club. “Did you get the name of the maintenance guy?”
“Mike. He’ll be there until three o’clock today.”
“Do you want to ride with me?”
“I can’t. I need to check on my fire damage and see if Lula needs help with the cook-off.”
“How are you doing with FTAs?”
“I have one open. I saved the worst for last. Cameron Manfred. Armed robbery. Connie has him living in the projects. Works for Barbara Trucking.”
“I can go out with you tonight,” Ranger said.
I PULLED THE Cayenne into the parking lot to my building and looked up at my windows. One window was broken. Looked like it was boarded over from the inside. All were ringed with black soot. Grimy water stains streaked down the yellow brick exterior. Water still pooled in the parking lot. What looked like the remains of my couch sat black and sodden alongside the Dumpster. Sometimes it was good not to have a lot of expensive stuff. Less to feel bad about when it got fire-bombed.
I took the stairs and stepped into the second-floor hall. Dillon had a couple giant fans working at drying the carpet. The door to my apartment was open, and Dillon was inside.
Dillon was around my age, and he’d been the building super for as long as I could remember. He lived in the bowels of the building in a free but tomblike efficiency. He was a nice guy who’d do anything for a six-pack of beer, and he was always mellow, in part from the small cannabis farm in his bathroom. He was a little sloppy in a hip super-casual kind of way, and he tended to show some butt-crack when he came up to fix your plumbing, but you didn’t actually mind because his butt-crack was kind of cute.
“I hope it’s okay I’m in your apartment,” Dillon said. “I wanted to get some of the waterlogged stuff out, and I have an insurance agent due any minute.”
“Fine by me,” I said. “I appreciate the help with the furniture.”
“It was a lot worse last time you were firebombed,” Dillon said. “Most of the damage this time is from water and smoke. It didn’t touch your bedroom at all. And it didn’t get to your bathroom.”
I blew out a sigh.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m sorry it didn’t get to your bathroom. I thought about spreading some gasoline around and lighting a match in there, but I was afraid I’d blow myself up. On the bright side, I’m sure this isn’t the last time you’ll ever get firebombed, so maybe you’ll have better luck next time.”
“There’s a cheery thought.”
“Yeah, I’m a glass is half full kind of guy.”
“Speaking of glasses. I could use a beer.”
“I put some in your fridge. I figured you’d need a cold one.”
I cracked open a beer and slogged through my apartment. The curtains were history. The couch I already knew about. The rugs were sort of melted and waterlogged. No biggie on the rugs. They weren’t wonderful to begin with, and the building would replace them. My dining room table and chairs were grimy but probably would clean up okay. Everything in my bedroom smelled like smoke. Dillon had another fan working in there.
“How long before I can move in?” I asked him.
“I’ve got professional cleaners coming in later today. The carpet’s been ordered. I’ll bring a couple of my buddies in, and we’ll do the painting. If all the moons line up right, I’d say a week.”
Oh boy. Another week with Ranger. And once he solved his break-in problem, he’d stop working nights, and he’d go to bed early . . . with me. My first thought was
My second thought was
I stuffed Lula’s clothes into a plastic garbage bag, carted it out to the Cayenne, and drove it to the office. Connie was out when I arrived, and Lula was at Connie’s desk, answering phones.
“Vincent Plum Bail Bonds,” she said. “What do you want?” There was a pause, and Lula said, “Un-hunh, unhunh, un-hunh.” Another pause. “What did you say your name was? Did I hear Louanne Harmon? Because I’m not bailin’ out no Louanne Harmon. I suppose there’s some good Louanne Harmons out there, but the one I know is a skank ’ho. The Louanne Harmon I know told my customers I was overchargin’ for my services when I was workin’ my corner. Is this that same Louanne Harmon?” Another pause. “Well, you can kiss my ass,” Lula said. And she hung up.
Vinnie stuck his head out of his office. “What was that?”
“Wrong number,” Lula said. “They wanted the DMV.”
“Where’s Connie?” I asked.
“She went to write bond for your Mr. Kaplan, and she didn’t come back yet.”
“Any word from Joyce?”
“Connie called and told her there was only one open file, and she told Connie you had breast implants and one of them diseases that you get from the toilet seat. I forget what it was.”
Terrific. “It looks like you’re doing okay.”
“Yeah, I’m not dead. Nobody’s even shot at me today. I think this is my lucky day. I bet we’re gonna win that cook-off tomorrow and catch the Chipotle killers and be on easy street. I even stopped by the travel agency and got a brochure for my Panama Canal cruise. It’s one of them boats that had a virus epidemic and everyone got sick and now their rates are real low. I have a chance to get a good deal. Not that I need it anymore.”
“So you’re still planning on entering the cook-off.”
“Damn skippy, I’m gonna enter. We gotta go to the Gooser Park and sign in this afternoon. And I gotta get my car, too. I was hoping you could give me a ride to your parking lot as soon as Connie gets back.”
AN HOUR LATER, I was back in my parking lot with Lula.
“There’s my baby,” Lula said. “Good thing I parked way at the end of the lot where nobody else parks. It didn’t hardly get any soot on it. And it was out of the water spray. I’m gonna take it to get detailed this afternoon, so it looks fine when I win the contest and capture the bad guys. I’ll probably be on television.”
I pulled up next to the Firebird, Lula got out, unlocked her car, and slid behind the wheel. I waited for the engine to catch, and then I put the Cayenne in gear and drove out of the lot. I realized Lula was still sitting there, so I returned to the lot, parked next to her, and got out.
“It’s making a funny sound. You hear it?”
“Are any of the warning lights on?”
“No. I’m gonna take a look under the hood.”
“Do you know anything about cars?”
“Sure I know about cars. I know there’s an engine up there. And lots of other shit, too.”
Lula popped the hood, and we took a look.
“What are we supposed to be looking for?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. Something unusual. Like I once had a neighbor who found a cat in his car. At least, he thought it used to be a cat. It was something with fur. It might have been a raccoon or a big rat or a small beaver. It was hard to tell.”
“What’s that package wrapped in cellophane with the wires?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” Lula said, leaning closer. “I think that might be the problem, though, on account of it’s ticking.”
“Oh shit!” Lula said.
We jumped back and ran for all we were worth and hid behind the Dumpster. Nothing happened.
Lula stuck her head out. “Maybe that was the carburetor, and it was supposed to tick,” she said. “Do carburetors tick?”
Lula’s car jumped five feet in the air. The doors and hood flew off into space, and the car burst into flames. There was a second explosion, the Firebird rolled over onto Ranger’s Cayenne, and the Cayenne caught. In a matter of minutes, there was nothing left of either car but smoking, twisted, charred metal.
Lula’s mouth opened, but no words came out. Her eyes got huge, rolled back into her head, and she keeled over in a dead faint. By the time the fire trucks arrived, the fire had played itself out. Lula was sitting propped against the Dumpster, still not making sense.
“It . . . and . . . my . . . how?” she asked.
I was numb. These idiots were still trying to kill Lula, and I’d just destroyed another Cayenne. I’d been involved in so many fires in the past week, I’d lost count. I had no place to live. I had no idea what I wanted to do about my personal relationships. And I still couldn’t get all the red paint out of my hair. I was a disaster magnet.
I suddenly felt warm, and all the little hairs stood up on my arms. I turned and bumped into Ranger.
“This has to be a record,” he said. “I’ve had that car for twenty-four hours.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. And I burst into tears.
Ranger wrapped his arms around me and cuddled me into him. “Babe. It’s just a car.”
“It’s not just the car. It’s me,” I wailed. “I’m a mess.”
“You’re not a mess,” Ranger said. “You’re just having one of those emotional girl moments.”
“Unh,” I said. And I punched him in the chest. “Feel better?”
“Yeah, sort of.”
He stepped back and looked at Lula. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s in a state. Her Firebird got blown up.”
“She spends all this time with you, and she’s not used to cars getting blown up?”
“They aren’t usually hers.”
“Does she need help?”
“I think she’ll come around,” I said. “She’s breathing now. And her eyes have mostly gone back into their sockets.”
I looked past Ranger and saw Morelli come on the scene. He picked me out of the crowd of bystanders and jogged over.
“Are you okay?” he asked me. “What’s with Lula?”
“One of those cars used to be her Firebird.”
“And the other used to be my Cayenne,” Ranger said.
Morelli looked down at Lula. “Does she need a medic?”
“Someone’s gonna pay,” Lula said. And she farted.
Morelli and Ranger smiled wide, and we all took a step back.
“That should help,” I said.
“Yep,” Morelli said, still grinning. “Always makes me feel better.”
“I have to get back to the office,” Ranger said. “Ramon is in a car on the street if you need anything.”
Morelli watched him walk away. “It’s like he’s Spider-Man with Spidey sense. Something happens, and he suddenly appears. And then when the disaster is contained, he vanishes.”
“His control room listens to the scanners.”
“That was my second guess,” Morelli said.
“It was some sort of bomb,” I said to Morelli. “It was next to the engine, and it ticked. We were lucky we weren’t killed.”
“It ticked? Bombs don’t tick anymore. Where did they get their material, WWI surplus?”
“Maybe it was something rubbing against a moving part. I don’t know anything about this stuff. It was making a noise that sounded like ticking. Anyway, these guys aren’t smart.”
“I noticed. It makes it all the more annoying that we can’t catch them.”
“How’s Bob?” I asked.
“Bob is fine. His intestines are squeaky clean.”
“How are you?”
“I’m clean, too.”
And then I couldn’t help myself. The bitch part of me sneaked out. “How’s Joyce?”
“Joyce is Joyce,” Morelli said.
Lula hauled herself to her feet. “I’m in a bad mood,” she said. “I’m in a mood to get me some Marco the Maniac. I’ve had it with this shit. It’s one thing to kill me, but blowin’ up my Firebird is goin’ too far.” She looked at her watch. “We gotta get to the park. We gotta sign in.”
“We haven’t got a car. The Buick is parked at Rangeman.”
“I’ll call Connie. She can take us.”
CONNIE DROVE A silver Camry with rosary beads hanging from her rear view mirror and a Smith & Wesson stuck under the driver’s seat. No matter what went down, Connie was covered.
I was in the backseat with Grandma, and Lula was next to Connie. We were in the parking lot adjacent to the field where the cook-off was to be held, and we were watching competitors pull in, dragging everything from mobile professional kitchens to U-hauls carrying grills and worktables.
“I didn’t expect this,” Grandma said. “I figured we come with a jar of sauce, and they’d have some chicken for us.”
“We got a grill,” Lula said, getting out of the Camry. “We just didn’t bring it yet.”
“Did you get a set of rules when you registered?” Connie asked Lula.
“No. I did the express register, bein’ that the organizer was under some duress. And on top of that, I didn’t have to pay no registration fee, so he might have been trying to save on paper.”
A registration table had been set up at the edge of the lot. Competitors were signing in, taking a set of instructions, and leaving with a tray.
“What’s with the tray?” Lula asked the guy in line in front of us.
“It’s the official competition tray. You put the food that’s going to be judged on the tray.”
“Imagine that,” Grandma said. “Isn’t that something?”
We got our tray and our rules, and we stepped aside to read through the instructions.
“It says here that we can’t use a gas grill,” Connie said. “We need to cook on wood or charcoal. And we have to pick a category. Ribs, chicken, or brisket.”
“I’m thinking ribs,” Lula said. “Seems to me it’s harder to poison someone with ribs. I guess there’s always that trichinosis thing, but you don’t know about that for years. And I’m gonna have to get a different grill.”
“All these people got tents and tables and signs with their name on it,” Grandma said. “We need some of that stuff. We need a name.”
“How about Vincent Plum Bail Bondettes,” Connie said.
“I’m not being nothin’ associating me with Vincent Plum,” Lula said. “Bad enough I gotta work for the little pervert.”
“I want a sexy name,” Grandma said. “Like Hot Vagina.”
“Flamin’ Assholes would be better,” Lula said. “That’s what happens when you eat our sauce. Can you say Flamin’ Assholes on television?”
“This is big,” I said, looking out over the field. “There are ; ags with numbers on them all over the place. Every team is assigned a number.”
“We’re number twenty-seven,” Lula said. “That don’t sound like a good number to me.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s not memorable,” Lula said. “I want to be number nine.”
My eye was starting to twitch, and I had a dull throb at the base of my skull. “Probably, they gave us Chipotle’s number,” I said.
“Do you think?”
“Absolutely. He got decapitated, and you registered late, so you got his number.”
I hoped she bought this baloney, because I didn’t want to hang out while Lula pulled a gun on the registration lady.
“That makes sense,” Lula said. “I guess it’s okay then. Let’s find our spot.”
We walked down rows of flags and finally found twenty-seven. It was a little patch of grass between the red-and-white-striped canopy of Bert’s BBQ and the brown canopy of The Bull Stops Here. Our neighbors had set up shop and taken off. From what I could see, that was the routine. Stake out your territory, get your canopy and table ready to go. Hang your sign. Leave for the day.
“The instructions say we can get back in here at eight o’clock tomorrow morning,” Connie said. “We can start cooking anytime we want after that. The judging is at six in the evening.”
“We got a lot of stuff to get together,” Lula said. “To start, we gotta find one of them canopies and a grill.”
“Not everybody has a canopy,” Grandma said.
“Yeah, but the canopy is classy, and it keeps the sun off the top of your head, so you don’t get a sunburn,” Lula said.
We all looked at the top of Lula’s head. Not much chance of sunburn there. Not a lot of sunlight reached Lula’s scalp.
“I’ve got a couple hours free this afternoon,” I said to Lula. “We can go around and try to collect some of the essentials. We just have to stop by Rangeman, so I can get the Buick.”
“I’ll go with you,” Grandma said.
“THE FIRST THING we gotta do is get us a truck,” Lula said. “This Buick isn’t gonna hold a grill and all. I bet we could borrow a truck from Pookey Brown. He owns that junkyard and used-car lot at the end of Stark Street. He used to be a steady customer of mine when I was a ’ho.”
“Boy,” Grandma said. “You had lots of customers. You know people everywhere.”
“I had a real good corner. And I never had a business manager, so I was able to keep my prices down.”
I didn’t want to drive the length of Stark, so I cut across on Olden and only had to go two blocks down to the junk-yard. The name on the street sign read C.J. SCRAP METAL, but Pookey Brown ran it, and scrap metal was too lofty a description for Pookey’s business. Pookey was a junk collector. He ran a private dump. Pookey had almost two acres of broken, rusted, unwanted crapola. Even Pookey himself looked like he was expired. He was thin as a reed, frizzy haired, gaunt featured, and his skin tone was gray. I had no clue to his age. He could be forty. He could be a hundred and ten. And I couldn’t imagine what Pookey would do with a ’ho.
“There’s my girl,” Pookey said when he saw Lula. “I never get to see you anymore.”
“I keep busy working at the bond office,” Lula told him. “I need a favor. I need to borrow a truck until tomorrow night.”
“Sure,” Pookey said. “Just take yourself over to the truck section and pick one out.”
If you had a junker car or truck, and somehow you could manage to get it to C.J. Scrap, you could park it there and walk away. Some of them even had license plates attached. And every now and then, one got parked with a body in the trunk. There were thirteen cars and three pickup trucks in Pookey’s “used car” lot today.
“Any of these trucks run?” Lula asked.
“The red one got a couple miles left,” Pookey said. “I could put a plate on for you. You need anything else?”
“Yeah,” Lula said. “I need a grill. Not one of them gas grills, either.”
“I got a good selection of grills,” Pookey said. “Do you need to cook in it?”
“I’m entered in the barbecue contest at the park tomorrow,” Lula said.
“So then you need a
grill. That narrows the field. How about eating? Are you gonna personally eat any of the barbecue?”
“I don’t think so. I think the judges are eating the barbecue.”
“That gives us more selection,” Pookey said.
By the time Lula was done shopping at C.J. Scrap, she had a grill and a card table loaded into her truck. The plate on the truck was expired, but you could hardly tell for the mud and rust. I followed her down Stark and parked behind her when she stopped at Maynard’s Funeral Home.
“I gotta make a pickup here, too. You stay and guard the truck,” Lula said, sticking her head in the Buick’s window. “Bad as it is, if I leave it alone for ten minutes in this part of town, it’ll be missing wheels when I get back.” She looked at Grandma, sitting next to me. “Do you have your gun?”
“You betcha,” Grandma said. “I got it right here in my purse. Just like always.”
“Shoot whoever comes near,” Lula said to Grandma. “I won’t be long.”
I looked over at Grandma. “If you shoot
I’m telling my mother on you.”
“How about those three guys coming down the street? Can I shoot them?”
“No! They’re just walking down the street.”
“I don’t like the looks of them,” Grandma said. “They look shifty.”
“Everyone looks like that on Stark Street.”
The three guys were in their early to mid-twenties, doing the ghetto strut in their ridiculous oversize pants. They were wearing a lot of gold chains, and one of them had a bottle in a brown paper bag. Always a sign of a classy dude.
I rolled my window up and locked my door, and Grandma did the same.
They got even with the Buick and looked in at me.
“Nice wheels,” one of them said. “Maybe you should get out and let me drive.”
“Ignore them,” I said to Grandma. “They’ll go away.”
The guy with the bottle took a pull on it and tried the door handle. Locked.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to shoot him?” Grandma asked.
“No. No shooting.”
They tried to rock the car, but the Buick was a tank. It would take more than three scrawny homies to rock the Buick. One of them dropped his pants and pressed his bare ass against the driver’s side window.
“You’re gonna have to Windex that window when we get home,” Grandma said.
I was looking at the funeral home, sending mental telepathy to Lula to get herself out to her truck, so we could leave, and I heard the back door to the Buick get wrenched open. I hadn’t thought to lock the back door.
One of the men climbed onto the backseat, and another reached around and unlocked the driver’s door. I reached for the ignition key, but my door was already open, and I was getting pulled out of the car. I hooked my arm through the steering wheel and kicked one of the guys in the face. The guy in the back was grabbing at me, and the third guy had hold of my foot.
“We’re gonna have fun with you and the old lady,” the guy in the backseat said. “We’re gonna do you like you’ve never been done before.”
“Shoot!” I said to Grandma.
“But you said . . .”
Grandma carried a gun like Dirty Harry’s. I caught sight of the massive barrel in my peripheral vision and
The guy holding my foot jumped back and grabbed the side of his head, blood spurting through his fingers. “Son of a bitch!” he yelled. “Son of a fuckin’ bitch! She shot off my ear.”
I knew what he was saying because it was easy to read his lips, but I wasn’t hearing anything but a high-pitched ringing in my head.
The guy in the backseat scrambled out of the Buick and helped drag the guy with one ear down the street.
“Do you think he’ll be all right?” Grandma asked.
“Don’t know. Don’t care.”
The door to the funeral home opened, and Lula and a mountain of a guy came out carrying a bundle of what looked like aluminum poles partially wrapped in faded green canvas. They threw the bundle into the back of the truck, and the guy returned to the funeral home. Lula said something to Grandma and me, but I couldn’t hear.
“What?” I said.
“HOME!” Grandma yelled.
I followed Lula to my parents’ house and dropped Grandma off. I think Grandma said they were going to put the truck in the garage, so no one would steal the grill. Personally, I didn’t think she had to worry about anyone wanting the grill.
I drove through town to Rangeman and went straight to Ranger’s apartment. I kicked my shoes off and flopped onto his bed. When I woke up, I was covered with a light blanket, and I could see Ranger at his desk in the den. The ringing wasn’t nearly so loud in my head. It was down to mosquito level.
I rolled out of bed and went into the den.
“Tough day?” Ranger asked.
“You don’t even want to know. How was your day?”
“Interesting. I showed your maintenance man Mike file pictures of all Rangeman employees remotely fitting his description, and he couldn’t identify any of them. Our bad guy wears a Rangeman uniform but doesn’t work here.”
“Could he be a former employee?”
“There were only two possibilities, and I got a negative on them.”
“I have someone checking all the accounts for evidence of touch-pad surveillance. He’s also cataloguing Rangeman visits on those accounts.”
“It wouldn’t be difficult to duplicate a Rangeman uniform. Black cargo pants and a black T-shirt with
embroidered on it.”
“My men all know to show their ID when entering a house, but the accounts are lax at asking. Most people see the uniform and are satisfied.”
I was suddenly starving, and there was a wonderful smell drifting in from the kitchen. “What’s that smell?”
Ella brought dinner up a half hour ago, but I didn’t want to wake you. I think we’ve got some kind of stew.”
We went to the kitchen and dished out the stew.
“I’ve got a fix on Cameron Manfred,” Ranger said. “During the day, he works for a trucking company that’s a front for a hijacking operation. It would be awkward to make an apprehension there. Lots of paranoid people with guns. Manfred leaves the trucking company at five, goes to a neighborhood strip bar with his fellow workers until around seven, and then heads for his girl’s apartment. He gives his address as the projects, but he’s never there. It’s actually his mother’s address. We’re going to have to hit him at the girl’s place tonight. If there isn’t enough cover to tag him on the street, we’ll have to let him settle and then go in after him. I have to take a shift at eleven, but we should have this wrapped up by then.”
WE WERE IN a Rangeman-issue black Explorer. Ranger was behind the wheel, and we were parked across from a slum apartment building one block over from Stark Street, where Cameron Manfred was holed up with his girlfriend. It was a little after nine at night, and the street was dark. Businesses were closed, steel grates rolled down over entrances and plate-glass windows. There was a streetlight overhead, but the bulb had been shot out.
We’d been sitting at the curb for ten minutes, not saying anything, Ranger in hunt mode. He was watching the building and the street, taking the pulse of the area, his own heart rate probably somewhere around reptilian.
He punched a number into his phone. A man answered, and Ranger disconnected. “He’s there,” Ranger said. “Let’s go.”
We crossed the street, entered the building, and silently climbed to the third floor. The air was stale. The walls were covered with graffiti. The light was dim. A small rat scuttled across Ranger’s foot and disappeared into the shadows. I shuddered and grabbed the back of his shirt.
“Babe,” Ranger said, his voice barely audible.