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
“Why didn’t they chop your head off?” Morelli wanted to know.
“I kicked the one in the nuts and smashed my pocketbook in the other one’s face.”
“I guess that would slow them down,” Morelli said. “Dispatch said this happened in front of your house?”
“Yeah. They were waiting for me. See, here’s what happened. Stephanie and her granny and me were makin’ ribs, only the ribs had to go in the oven, so they didn’t cook right. Personally, I been thinking about it and I bet that oven was faulty.”
Morelli blew out a sigh and went to my refrigerator. “There’s no beer in here,” he said.
“I need to go to the store.”
Morelli closed the door and went back to Lula. “And?”
“And we had three special sauces, but it was hard to tell what was what since the ribs were all the same color when they come out of the oven.”
“Has this got anything to do with Chipotle’s murderers?”
“I’m gettin’ to it,” Lula said.
Morelli looked at his watch. “Could you get to it faster?”
“Boy, you’re Mr. Cranky Pants tonight. What, do you got a date or something?”
I felt a small twinge of pain in the vicinity of my heart, and I narrowed my eyes at Morelli.
Morelli was hands on hips. “I haven’t got a date. I just want to go home and see the end of the game.”
“I guess there isn’t much more to tell,” Lula said. “They were waiting for me. They come at me with the mother of all cleavers. I kicked the guy in his nuts and got back in my car. And they shot at me when I drove away. And now my Firebird’s full of bullet holes.”
“I checked it on my way in,” Morelli said. “I counted two in the right rear quarter panel and one in the back bumper. I don’t suppose you noticed what kind of car these guys were driving?”
“I wasn’t paying attention to that.”
“Any distinguishing features? Anything you can add to your description of them?”
“One of them’s got a broken nose and the other’s walkin’ funny.”
“Did they say anything to you?”
“Nope. The one just was giggling.”
“I’ll send a uniform to check on your house, but it’s unlikely your assailants are still there,” Morelli told Lula.
“Okay, but I’m not going back there. I’m still freaked out. I’m staying here.”
“Good luck with that one,” Morelli said.
I cut my eyes to him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He blew out another sigh. “Forget it.”
I felt my eyes get squinchy and my lips compress.
“You’re not exactly the easiest person to live with these days.”
“Excuse me? I happen to be very easy to live with. You’re the one who has issues.”
“I don’t want to get into this now,” Morelli said. “Call me when you calm down.”
!” I yelled at him.
He gave his head a shake and moved to the door. He turned, looked at me, and shook his head again. He murmured something I couldn’t catch, and he left.
“He’s hot,” Lula said, “but he’s a pig. All men are pigs.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“No, but it’s a point of view to keep in mind. You don’t want to go around thinkin’ shit is your fault. Next thing you know, they got you makin’ pot roast and you’re cutting up your MasterCard.”
“I don’t know how to make pot roast.”
“Good for you,” Lula said. “I don’t suppose you got anything that would fit me. Like a big T-shirt. I’m all covered in barbecue sauce, and I’m beat.”
I gave Lula an extra quilt and pillow and a worn-out T-shirt that belonged to Morelli. I said good night and I closed the door to my bedroom. I didn’t especially want to see Lula in Morelli’s T-shirt. Lula was a lot shorter than Morelli and a lot wider. Lula wearing Morelli’s T-shirt wasn’t going to be a pretty sight.
I woke up in a panic a little after midnight, thinking someone was sawing through my bedroom door. A couple seconds later, my head cleared, and I realized it was Lula snoring in my living room. I put my pillow over my head, but I could still hear Lula. Three hours later, I was thrashing around, plotting out ways to kill her. I got out of bed, marched into the living room, and yelled in her face.
“Wake up! Wake up!
Lula opened her eyes. “Huh?”
“You woke me up to tell me that?”
“Yes! My first choice was to suffocate you, but I don’t have the energy to drag your lifeless body out to the Dumpster.”
“Well, I happen to know I don’t snore. You must have dreamed it.”
“I didn’t dream it. You snore loud enough to wake the dead. Roll over or something. I have to go to work in the morning. I need my sleep.”
. Lula let one go.
“Holy Toledo!” I said, backing away, fanning the air. “That’s disgusting.”
“I don’t think it’s so bad,” Lula said. “It smells a little like ribs.”
I DROVE TO Rangeman in pouring rain. The temperature had dropped overnight, and the heater was broken on my car, so I was freezing my butt off. I parked in the underground garage, took the elevator to the fifth floor, and shuffled past the control desk to my cubicle. I turned my computer on, and next thing I knew, Ranger was standing over me.
“Rough night?” he asked.
“How did you know?”
“You were asleep at your desk. I was afraid you were going to fall out of your chair and get a concussion.”
I told him about Lula and the meat cleaver giggler, and the shooting, and the sleeping and snoring.
“Go to my apartment and take a nap,” Ranger said. “I’ll be out all morning on a job site. I’ll catch up with you when I come back.”
Ranger left and I finished a computer search I was doing on a job applicant. I took the elevator to the seventh floor and let myself into Ranger’s apartment. It very faintly smelled like citrus, and everything was in perfect order. No thanks to Ranger. This was Ella’s handiwork.
First thing in the morning Ella went through, polishing and straightening. Ranger’s bed was made with fresh linens. His bathroom was gleaming clean, his towels neatly folded.
I kicked my shoes off, wriggled out of my jeans, slid under the covers, and thought this might be as close as I’d ever come to paradise. Ranger’s three hundred thread count sheets were smooth and cool and heavenly soft. His pillows were just right. His mattress was just right. His feather quilt was just right. If Ranger were the marrying type, I’d marry him in a heartbeat just for his bed. There were other good reasons to hook up with Ranger, but the bed would be the clincher. Unfortunately, there were also some major reasons
to hook up with Ranger.
I OPENED MY eyes and looked at my watch. It was almost one o’clock. I rolled out of bed, pulled my jeans on, and was tying my shoes when I heard the front door to Ranger’s apartment open. Keys clinked onto the silver tray on the hall sideboard. A beat later, there was a heavy clunk, and I suspected this was his gun getting dropped onto the kitchen counter. Moments later, Ranger strode into the bedroom.
He was wearing a black ball cap, black windbreaker, black cargo pants, and black boots. He was soaking wet, and he didn’t look happy.
“Still raining out?” I asked him.
It was a rhetorical question since I could hear the rain pounding on the bedroom window.
He bent to unlace his boots. “Everything I had to do this morning was outdoors. I’m soaking wet, and I’m late for a meeting.” He kicked his boots off and moved to the bathroom. “Get me some dry clothes.”
“What kind of clothes?”
“Any kind of clothes.”
Ranger has a walk-in dressing room I would kill for. Shirts, slacks, blazers, T-shirts, sweatshirts, cargo pants, socks, underwear, gym clothes, shoes are all perfectly hung on hangers, stacked on shelves, or neatly placed in a drawer. Again, this is done by Ella.
It was easy for me to pick clothes for Ranger because everything he owns is black. The only question is dressy or casual. I went with casual and gathered together the same outfit he was wearing when he walked in.
There was a time a while ago when I searched for underwear in Ranger’s dressing room and found just one pair of silky black boxers. Today, he had a drawer full of underwear. Boxers, bikini briefs, and boxer briefs. I closed my eyes and grabbed and came up with boxer briefs.
I brought the clothes to the open bathroom door in time to see Ranger strip off the last of his wet clothes.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to barge in on you.”
“Babe, you’ve seen it all before.”
“Yeah, but not lately.”
“So far as I know, nothing has changed.” He pulled the briefs on and arranged himself. “If I had more time, I’d let you figure that out for yourself.” He removed his watch and tossed it to me. “Set this out to dry and get me a new one. Top drawer in the chest in my dressing room.”
I brought him the exact duplicate of the watch he’d discarded, plus I handed him socks and shoes.
“On my desk in the den I have a list of items taken from all the break-ins. I’d like you to take a look at it. Plus, I have a map with the houses marked. I haven’t been able to find anything significant, but maybe something will jump out at you.” He finished lacing his shoes and stood. “I also have a list of every man in the building, his position, and his background. I’d like you to read through it.”
I followed him to the door and watched him take his keys from the sideboard and pocket them. He pushed me to the wall, leaned in to me, and kissed me. “Later,” he said, his lips brushing against mine. And he left.
It was a really great kiss, and if he’d said
I might have been in trouble, but after a couple beats, when my heart had stopped jumping around in my chest and I wasn’t pressed up against Ranger, I decided
was a scary idea.
I took the break-in and employee information down to the fifth floor, grabbed a sandwich from the kitchen, and went to my cubby. After a couple minutes, I realized my cubby didn’t give me the privacy I needed, so I commandeered Ranger’s office. The items taken were similar in all the houses. Jewelry, cash, iPods, laptop computers, handheld electronic games. The map showed the houses in three different neighborhoods. I saw nothing to tie them together. I was about a third of the way through the men’s employment files when Ranger came in.
“I expected you’d stay in my apartment,” Ranger said.
“I was worried about the
“And you think moving from my apartment to my office will save you?”
“I’m doing good so far.”
Ranger slouched into a chair on the opposite side of the desk. “Is this move into my office permanent?”
“Is that a possibility?”
I looked around. “It’s a really nice office. It has a window.”
The corners of Ranger’s mouth curved into the beginnings of a smile. “Would you like to negotiate for this office?”
“No, but I’d like to stay here until I finish reading. I have no privacy in my cubicle.”
“Deal,” Ranger said. “When you’re done reading, I’d like you to find a way to talk to the four men who have access to the computer that holds the codes. Roger King, Martin Romeo, Chester Deuce, and Sybo Diaz. I don’t want you to interrogate them. I just want you to make a fast character assessment. Chester Deuce is on the desk until six o’clock. Sybo Diaz will take the next six-hour shift. Romeo goes on at midnight. You should be able to catch him in the kitchen early afternoon. He occupies one of the Rangeman apartments and prefers Ella’s cooking to his own.”
“Okeydokey,” I said. “I’m on it.”
It was almost four when I finished reading. Ranger’s men were a motley group, chosen for specific skills and strength of character over other more mundane attributes such as lack of a criminal record. From what I could tell, Ranger employed safecrackers, pickpockets, computer hackers, linebackers, and a bunch of vets who’d served overseas. He also had on his payroll a second-story burglar who the papers compared to Spider-Man, and a guy whose murder conviction was overturned on a technicality. I wouldn’t want to be caught in a blind alley with any of these guys, but Ranger found something in each of them that inspired his trust. At least until a couple weeks ago.
I pulled two men out of the group for a closer look. One of them was Sybo Diaz, the evening monitor for the code computer. He was with Special Forces in Afghanistan and took a job as a rent-a-cop in a mall when he got out. His wife divorced him two months later. His wife’s maiden name was Marion Manoso. She was Ranger’s cousin. I didn’t know the details of the divorce, but I thought there was the potential for some bad feelings. The other file I pulled was Vince Gomez. Vince wasn’t one of the men with code computer access, but he caught my attention. He was a slim little guy with the flexibility of a Romanian acrobat. The inside joke was that he could crawl through a keyhole. He did system installation and troubleshooting for Ranger. I flagged him because he lived beyond his means. I’d seen him around, and I knew he drove an expensive car, and when he wasn’t working he wore expensive jewelry and designer clothes. And he liked the ladies, a lot.
I left the paperwork in Ranger’s office and returned to my desk. I worked at my computer for a half hour and wandered out to the kitchen. No one there, so I stopped in at the monitoring station and smiled at Chester Deuce.
“I’ve always wondered what you guys did out here,” I said to him.
“There are always three of us on duty,” he said. “Someone monitors the cars and responds to the men off-site. Someone watches the in-house video and is responsible for maintaining building integrity. And I watch the remote locations and respond to emergency calls and alarms.”
“So if an alarm went off, what would you do?”
“I’d call the client and ask if they were okay, and then I’d ask for their password.”
“How do you know if they give you the right password?”
“I have the information in an off-line computer.”
I looked at the computer sitting to his right. “I guess it has to be off-line for security purposes.”
He shrugged. “More that there’s no reason for it to be on-line.”
I returned to my desk and packed up. I had seven messages on my phone. All were from Lula, starting at three this afternoon. All the messages were pretty much the same.
“You gotta be on time for supper at your mama’s house tonight,” Lula said. “Your granny and me got a big surprise.”
Thoughts of the big surprise had me rolling my eyes and grimacing.
Ranger appeared in my doorway. “Babe, you look like you want to jump off a bridge.”
“I’m expected for dinner at my parents’ house again. Grandma and Lula are taking another crack at barbecue.”
“Has Lula had any more contact with the Chipotle hitmen?”
“I don’t think so. She didn’t mention anything in her messages.”
“Keep your eyes open when you’re with her.”
MY FATHER WAS slouched in his chair in front of the television when I walked in.
“Hey,” I said. “How’s it going?”
He cut his eyes to me, murmured something that sounded like
just shoot me now
, and refocused on the screen.
My mother was alone in the kitchen, alternately pacing and chopping. Everywhere I looked there were pots of chopped-up green beans, carrots, celery, potatoes, turnips, yellow squash, and tomatoes. Usually when my mother was stressed, she ironed. Today she seemed to be chopping.
“Run out of ironing?” I asked her.
“I ironed everything yesterday. I have nothing left.”
“Where’s Lula and Grandma?”
“They’re out back.”
“What are they doing?”
“I don’t know,” my mother said. “I’m afraid to look.”
I pushed through the back door and almost stepped on a tray of chicken parts.
“Hey, girlfriend,” Lula said. “Look at us. Are we chefs, or what?”
Grandma and Lula were dressed in white chef’s jackets. Grandma was wearing a black cap that made her look like a little old Chinese man, and Lula was wearing a puffy white chef’s hat like the Pillsbury Doughboy. They were standing in front of a propane grill.
“Where’d you get the grill?” I asked.
“I borrowed it from Bobby Booker. He brought it over in his truck on the promise he was gonna get some of our award-winning barbecue chicken someday. Now that we got this here grill, my barbecue is gonna turn out perfect. Only thing is, I can’t get it to work. He said there was lots of propane in the tank. And my understanding is, all I have to do is turn the knob.”
“I got some matches,” Grandma said. “Maybe it’s got one of them pilot lights that went out.”
Lula took the matches, bent over the grill, and
Flames shot four feet into the air and set her chef’s hat on fire.
“That did it,” Lula said, stepping back, hat blazing. “It’s cookin’ now.”
Grandma and I had a split second of paralysis, mouths open, eyes bugged out, staring at the flaming hat.
“What?” Lula said.
“Your hat’s on fire,” Grandma told her. “You look like one of them cookout marshmallows.”
Lula rolled her eyes upward and shrieked. “Yow! My hat’s on fire! My hat’s on fire!”
I tried to knock the hat off her head, but Lula was running around in a panic.
“Hold still!” I yelled. “Get the hat off your head!”
“Somebody do something!” she shouted, wild-eyed, arms waving. “Call the fire department!”
“Take the damn hat off,” I said to her, lunging for her and missing.
“I’m on fire! I’m on fire!” Lula yelled, running into the grill, knocking it over. Her hat fell off her head onto the ground and ribbons of fire ran raced in all directions across my parents’ yard.
Growing grass was never a priority for my father. His contention was if you grew the grass, you had to cut the grass. And what was the point to that? The result was that most of our backyard was dirt, with the occasional sad sprinkling of crab grass. In seconds, the fire burned up the crabgrass and played itself out, with the exception of a half-dead maple tree at the back of the yard. The tree went up like Vesuvius.
I could hear fire trucks whining in the distance. A car pulled into the driveway, a car door opened and closed, and Morelli strolled into the yard. Lula’s hat was a lump of black ash on the ground. The tree was a torch in the dusky sky.
“I saw the fire on my way home from work,” Morelli said. “I stopped by to help, but it looks like you have everything under control.”
“Yep,” I said. “We’re just waiting for the tree to burn itself out.”
He looked at the grill and the chicken. “Barbecuing tonight?”
A pack of dogs rounded the corner of the house, ran yapping up to the chicken, and carried it off.
“Not anymore,” I said. “Want to go for pizza?”
“Sure,” he said.
We each took our own cars, sneaking out between the fire trucks that were angling into the curb. I followed Morelli to Pino’s, parked next to his SUV in Pino’s lot, and we pushed through the restaurant’s scarred oak front door into the heat and noise of dinner hour. At this time of day, the majority of tables were filled with families. At ten in the evening, Pino’s would be crammed with nurses and cops unwinding off the second shift. We were able to snag a small table in the corner. We didn’t have to read the menu. We knew it by heart. Pino’s menu never changes.
Morelli ordered beer and a meatball sub. I got the same.
“Looks like you’re working for Rangeman,” Morelli said, taking in my black T-shirt and sweatshirt with the Rangeman logo on the left front. “What’s that about?”
“It’s temporary. He needed someone to fill in on the search desk, and I needed the money.”
Back when we were a couple, Morelli hated when I associated with Ranger. He thought Ranger was a dangerous guy from multiple points of view, and of course Morelli was right. From the set of his jaw, I suspected he still hated that I was associating with Ranger.
“What have you got on your desk these days?” I asked him, thinking it best to get off the Ranger topic.
“A couple gang slayings and the Chipotle thing.”
“Are you making any progress with Chipotle?”
We paused while the waitress set two glasses of beer on the table.
Morelli sipped his beer. “Originally, I thought it felt like a couple professionals had come in from out of town, but that didn’t make sense after they went for Lula. These guys are afraid Lula will finger them.”
“She gave you a description. Have you had any luck with that?”
“Lula’s description fit half the men in this country. Average height, one shorter than the other, brown hair, average build, late forties to early fifties, she wasn’t close enough to see eye color. No distinguishing features, and she said they dressed like white men. What the hell is that supposed to mean?”