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Authors: Janet Evanovich

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BOOK: Top Secret Twenty-One
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“Boy,” I said, “you never know from looking at someone.”

The front door banged open, and Lula stomped in. At 5′ 5″, Lula is a couple inches too short for her weight. She’s a black woman who changes her hair color like other women change their underwear, and her fashion preferences run to tiny spandex skirts and tops. Almost always she overflows out of the skirts and tops, but it seems to work for her.

“I just got a traffic ticket,” Lula said. “Do you believe it? What’s this world coming to when a woman can’t even drive to work without this harassment?”

“What’s the ticket for?” Connie asked.

“Speeding,” Lula said.

I looked over at her. “Were you speeding?”

“Hell, yeah. I was doing forty-three miles an hour in a thirty-mile-an-hour zone and Officer Picky pulled me over. There should be a law against thirty-mile-an-hour zones. My car don’t want to go that slow. It’s painful to drive thirty miles an hour.”

“I’ve got donuts,” Connie said, gesturing to the white bakery box on her desk. “Help yourself.”

Lula’s face brightened. “That helps perk up my mood. I’m taking one with sprinkles. And maybe one with chocolate icing. And look at this one with the pink gooey stuff oozing out of it.”

Lula bit into the one with the sprinkles. “What happened last night with you and Mr. Tall, Dark, Handsome as Hell, and Hot?”

“He captured Gardi. No shots fired.”

“And?”

“There’s no ‘and.’ ”

“Say what? There’s no ‘and he got naked and waved his magic wand’?”

“Nope,” Connie said. “No magic wand. She didn’t get to see the wand.”

“Well, you know he got one,” Lula said. “How come he didn’t wave it and make her a happy princess?”

Connie and Lula looked at me, eyebrows raised, waiting for an explanation.

“It was a job,” I said. “It didn’t involve his … wand.”

Lula shook her head. “That is so sad. Opportunities wasted. What did you wear? Did you wear some dumpy business suit?”

“I wore the little red dress.”

“I know that dress,” Lula said. “It’s definitely wand-worthy.”

Vinnie stuck his head out of his office. “What’s with all the yammering? I can’t hear myself think in here. And why aren’t you out catching some scumbag? I’m out big money for Jimmy Poletti. Go drag his butt back to jail.”

Vinnie slammed his door shut, and Lula stuck her tongue out at him.

“I saw that,” Vinnie yelled from inside his office. “Have some respect.”

“How’d he see that?” Lula asked.

Connie pointed to a camera newly installed over Vinnie’s office door. “He’s got security cameras all over the place.”

Lula gave the camera the finger.

“I saw that too,” Vinnie yelled.

I shoved Poletti’s file into my messenger bag and hiked the bag up onto my shoulder. “I’m heading out. It shouldn’t be hard to find Poletti. It’s not like he’s a gangbanger.”

“He’s sort of a TV star,” Lula said. “I wouldn’t mind going with you to see what he looks like up close.”

We went out the back door and stood looking at our two cars. Lula was driving a red Firebird, and I was driving a rusted-out Ford Explorer.

“Probably,” Lula said, “we should take your car in case we have to shoot him. It won’t matter if he bleeds out in
your
car.”

“We’re
not
going to shoot him.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” Lula said.

“He’s a businessman. He was wearing a suit for his mugshot.
He’s not going to go nuts on us. And besides, we don’t shoot people … hardly ever.”

Lula buckled herself into the passenger seat. “I’m just saying.”

It was nine o’clock Monday morning. It was August. It was hot. It was humid. The air had a brown tinge to it and sort of stuck to your eyeballs and the back of your throat. It was summer in Jersey.

I had my shoulder-length curly brown hair pulled up into a ponytail, and I was wearing jeans and a red tanktop. Lula was wearing a black satin bustier from her Wild West ’Ho House collection, and a poison green skirt that came just a couple inches below her doo-dah. Lula is shorter than me, but there’s a lot more of her. I could be naked standing next to Lula, and no one would give me a second glance.

TWO

JIMMY POLETTI LIVED
in an upper-end neighborhood on the western edge of the city. According to the bio Connie had given me, he was on his third wife, had two adult sons, and owned a second home on Long Beach Island.

I took Hamilton to Broad and then cut onto State Street. I turned off State and wound around until I found the large brick colonial that belonged to Poletti and his wife, Trudy. I pulled into the drive court, and Lula and I got out and took it all in. Professional landscaping. Four-car garage. Two stories. Oversize mahogany front door. Dog barking somewhere inside. Sounded like a small dog.

I rang the bell, and a woman answered. She was slim. In the vicinity of forty. Long brown hair. Dressed in black Pilates pants and an orange fitted short-sleeve tee.

“I’m looking for Jimmy Poletti,” I said.

“Take a ticket,” she told me. “We’re
all
looking for him.”

“Does that mean he isn’t here?”

“Last I saw him was at breakfast on Friday. I went to my Pilates class, and he was gone when I came back.”

“Did you report it to the police?”

“No. I didn’t see much point to it. It’s not like he was kidnapped.”

“How do you know he wasn’t kidnapped?”

“He left me a note telling me to remember to take the garbage out on Monday and Thursday.”

“That was it? Nothing else in the note?”

“That was it.”

“No sign of struggle or forced entry here?”

“Nope.”

“Did he take anything with him?”

“Some clothes. One of the cars. He took the Mustang.”

“And you haven’t heard from him?”

“Not a word.”

“You don’t seem too upset.”

“The house is paid off, and it’s in my name. And he left the dog and the Mercedes.” She checked her watch. “I need to run. I’m late for Pilates.”

“Guess it was one of them love matches with you and him,” Lula said.

“Yeah,” Trudy said. “I loved his money, and he loved himself.”

I gave her my card. “I represent his bail bonds agent. I’d appreciate a call if you hear from him.”

“Sure,” she said, and slammed the door shut.

Lula and I got back into my Explorer.

“I don’t think she’s gonna call you,” Lula said.

I dialed Connie.

“Did you check on his dealerships?” I asked her. “Has he been going to work?”

“One of them was shut down. I spoke to the managers of the remaining two, and no one’s seen him since his arrest. I guess he talked to them on the phone a few times. But not since he disappeared.”

“Do you have addresses for his kids?”

“One is in North Trenton, the other’s in Hamilton Township. I’ll text Lula the street addresses and also places of business.”

I returned to State Street and headed for North Trenton.

“His one kid lives on Cherry Street,” Lula said, reading Connie’s text message. “And it looks like he works at the button factory.”

Twenty minutes later I parked in front of Aaron Poletti’s house. It was a narrow two-story row house, similar to my parents’ home in the Burg. Postage-stamp front yard with a small statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle of it. American flag hanging from a flagpole jutting out from the tiny front porch.

“It’s a pretty Virgin,” Lula said. “I like when they got a blue dress like this one. It looks real heavenly and peaceful except for the chip in her head. She must have gotten beaned by a baseball or something.”

Lula and I went to the front door, I rang the bell, and a young woman with a toddler on her hip answered.

I introduced myself and told her I was looking for her father-in-law.

“I do
not
know where he is,” she said. “And he certainly isn’t welcome here. He’s a horrible person. I mean,
honestly
, I have a little girl, and what he was doing was
so awful
.”

“Has he been in contact with your husband?”

“No! Well, at least not that I know. I can’t imagine Aaron even talking to him.”

“Aaron works at the button factory?”

“He’s on the line. His father wanted him to be part of the business, but Aaron declined. They’ve never gotten along.”

I gave her my card and asked her to call if she learned anything new about her father-in-law.

“Okay, so she’s not gonna call either,” Lula said when we were back in the Explorer. “Jimmy Poletti’s not gonna hide out there.”

Probably true, but you never know for sure.

“We gonna go to kid number two now?” Lula asked.

“Might as well.”

Kid number two lived in an apartment in Hamilton Township. According to Connie’s information he was twenty-two, single, and worked as a fry cook at Fran’s Fish House on Route 31.

The apartment complex consisted of three unimaginative redbrick chunks of building hunkered down around a blacktop parking lot. Each building was two stories with a single door in its middle. Landscaping was nonexistent. This was not a high-rent deal.

I parked, and Lula and I entered the center building and took the stairs to the second floor. The building was utilitarian. The hall was dimly lit. Probably that was a good thing, because the carpet didn’t look wonderful. We found 2C and rang the bell.

The door got wrenched open, and a skinny guy peered out at us. He was around 5′ 10″, with bloodshot eyes, bed-head hair, reeking of weed, and his arms were decorated with burn scars, which I supposed were from working the fry station. He was wearing pink boxers with red hearts on them.

“Oswald Poletti?” I asked.

“Yeah. You Girl Scouts selling cookies?”

“Nice shorts,” Lula said.

He stared down at them as if he was seeing them for the first time.

“Some girl gave them to me.”

“She must hate you,” Lula said.

I introduced myself and told him I was looking for his dad.

“Haven’t seen him,” he said. “We aren’t close. He’s an even bigger dick than me. I mean, dude, he named me Oswald.”

“Do you know where I might find him?” I asked.

“Mexico?”

I gave him my card and told him to call me if anything turned up.

“We’re batting zero,” Lula said when we got back into the car. “You’re not gonna get a call from him ’less he needs cookies.”

“So Jimmy Poletti’s kids don’t like him. And his wife doesn’t like him. Who do you suppose likes him?”

“His mama?”

I called Connie. “Do you have an address for Jimmy Poletti’s mother?”

Two minutes later, the address appeared in a text on my phone.

“She lives in the Burg,” I told Lula. “Elmer Street.”

“This is getting boring. No one wants to talk to us. No one knows nothing. This keeps up and I’m gonna need lunch.”

I turned off Hamilton at Spring Street and two blocks later turned onto Elmer. I drove one block and pulled to the curb behind a hearse. The hearse was parked in front of the Poletti house, and the front door to the house was open.

“That don’t look good,” Lula said. “That looks like someone else who isn’t gonna talk to us. Unless it’s Jimmy. Then hooray, case closed.”

I got out and walked to the house and stepped inside. A bunch of people were milling around inside. Two guys who looked like they were from the funeral home, an old man who was dabbing at his nose with a tissue, a man in his fifties who was more stoic, and two women. I knew one of the women, Mary Klotz.

“What’s happening?” I asked Mary.

“It sounds like it was her heart,” Mary said. “She’s been sick for a long time. I live across the street, and the paramedics were always here. I’d see the lights flashing once a week.”

“The two men …”

“Her husband and a relative. I think he’s a nephew or something.”

“No sign of her son?”

“He didn’t come around much. I imagine you’re looking for him.”

“He didn’t show for his court date.” I gave her my card. “I’d appreciate a call if you see him.”

Lula was waiting for me in the car. Lula didn’t like dead people.

“Well?” Lula said.

“Poletti’s mother. Sounds like a natural death. His father is still alive, but I didn’t get to talk to him. I didn’t want to intrude.”

“Did you see her?”

“No.”

Lula gave a whole-body shiver. “Gives me the creeps just being here. You know there’s spirits swirling all around the house. I could practically hear them howling.”

“Howling?”

“That’s what they do! They come to get the dead person’s soul. Don’t you ever go to the movies? You ever see any of them Harry Potter films? Anyways, I’m getting hungry. I could use a Clucky Burger with special sauce and bacon and some cheese fries.”

I took Lula to the drive-thru at Cluck-in-a-Bucket, then dropped her off at the office and headed for my parents’ house. They live a short distance away, in the heart of the Burg, in a duplex house that shares a common wall with a very nice widow who is older than dirt. She lives a frugal existence off her husband’s pension, has her television going every waking minute, and bakes coffee cakes all day long.

My Grandma Mazur was at the door when I parked in front of the house. Grandma came to live with my parents when my grandfather went to the big reality TV show in the sky. We hid my father’s shotgun a month after Grandma moved in. There are times at the dinner table when his face turns red, his knuckles turn white, and we know we did the right thing by removing temptation. My mother has found her own way to cope. She drinks. Personally, I think my grandmother is a hoot. Of course, I don’t have to live with her.

“Just in time for lunch,” Grandma said, opening the screen door. “We’re having leftover meatloaf sandwiches.”

I followed Grandma into the kitchen. My parents don’t have central air. They have freestanding fans in all the rooms, an air conditioner hanging out of a living room window, and similar air conditioners in two of the bedrooms. The kitchen is an inferno. My mother accepts this with quiet resignation, her face flushed, occasionally dripping sweat into the soup pot. My grandmother doesn’t seem to be affected by the heat. She says her sweat glands stopped working when her ovaries went south.

BOOK: Top Secret Twenty-One
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