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Hard Eight, Page 2

Janet Evanovich

Both women sucked in air. This went against the code of the Burg. In the Burg, blood was always thicker than water. Professional ethics didn't count for much when held up to a juicy piece of gossip among family members.

  “Okay,” I said, ducking inside. “I might as well tell you. You'll find out anyway.” We rationalize a lot in the Burg, too. “When Evelyn got divorced she had to take out something called a child custody bond. Mabel put her house up as collateral. Now Evelyn and Annie are off somewhere, and Mabel is getting pressured by the bond company.”

  “Oh my goodness,” my mother said. “I had no idea.”

  “Mabel is worried about Evelyn and Annie. Evelyn sent her a note and said she and Annie were going away for a while, but Mabel hasn't heard from them since.”

  “If I was Mabel I'd be worried about her house,” Grandma said. “Sounds to me like she could be living in a cardboard box under the railroad bridge.”

  “I told her I'd help her, but this isn't really my thing. I'm not a private investigator.”

  “Maybe you could get your friend Ranger to help her,” Grandma said. “That might be better anyway, on account of he's hot. I wouldn't mind having him hang around the neighborhood.”

  Ranger is more associate than friend, although I guess friendship is mixed in there somehow, too. Plus a scary sexual attraction. A few months ago we made a deal that has haunted me. Another one of those jumping-off-the-garage-roof things, except this deal involved my bedroom. Ranger is Cuban-American with skin the color of a mocha latte, heavy on the mocha, and a body that can best be described as yum. He's got a big-time stock portfolio, an endless, inexplicable supply of expensive black cars, and skills that make Rambo look like an amateur. I'm pretty sure he only kills bad guys, and I think he might be able to fly like Superman, although the flying part has never been confirmed. Ranger works in bond enforcement, among other things. And Ranger always gets his man.

  My black Honda CR-V was parked curbside. Grandma walked me to the car. “Just let me know if there's anything I can do to help,” she said. “I always thought I'd make a good detective, on account of I'm so nosy.”

  “Maybe you could ask around the neighborhood.”

  “You bet. And I could go to Stiva's tomorrow. Charlie Shleckner is laid out. I hear Stiva did a real good job on him.”

  New York has Lincoln Center. Florida has Disney World. The Burg has Stiva's Funeral Home. Not only is Stiva's the premier entertainment facility for the Burg, it's also the nerve center of the news network. If you can't get the dirt on someone at Stiva's, then there isn't any dirt to get.

  IT WAS STILL early when I left Mabel's, so I drove past Evelyn's house on Key Street. It was a two-family house very much like my parents'. Small front yard, small front porch, small two-story house. No sign of life in Evelyn's half. No car parked in front. No lights shining behind drawn drapes. According to Grandma Mazur, Evelyn had lived in the house when she'd been married to Steven Soder and had stayed there with Annie when Soder moved out. Eddie Abruzzi owns the property and rents out both units. Abruzzi owns several houses in the Burg and a couple large office buildings in downtown Trenton. I don't know him personally, but I've heard he's not the world's nicest guy.

  I parked and walked to Evelyn's front porch. I rapped lightly on her door. No answer. I tried to peek in the front window, but the drapes were drawn tight. I walked around the side of the house and stood on tippy toes, looking in. No luck with the side windows in the front room and dining room, but my snoopiness paid off with the kitchen. No curtains drawn in the kitchen. There were two cereal bowls and two glasses on the counter next to the sink. Everything else seemed tidy. No sign of Evelyn or Annie. I returned to the front and knocked on the neighbor's door.

  The door opened, and Carol Nadich looked out at me.

  “Stephanie!” she said. “How the hell are you?”

  I went to school with Carol. She got a job at the button factory when we graduated and two months later married Lenny Nadich. Once in a while I run into her at Giovichinni's Meat Market, but beyond that we've lost touch.

  “I didn't realize you were living here,” I said. “I was looking for Evelyn.”

  Carol did an eye roll. “Everyone's looking for Evelyn. And to tell you the truth, I hope no one finds her. Except for you, of course. Those other jerks I wouldn't wish on anyone.”

  “What other jerks?”

  “Her ex-husband and his friends. And the landlord, Abruzzi, and his goons.”

  “You and Evelyn were close?”

  “As close as anyone could get to Evelyn. We moved here two years ago, before the divorce. She'd spend all day popping pills and then drink herself into a stupor at night.”

  “What kind of pills?”

  “Prescription. For depression, I think. Understandable, since she was married to Soder. Do you know him?”

  “Not well.” I met Steven Soder for the first time at Evelyn's wedding nine years ago, and I took an instant dislike to him. In my brief dealings with him over the following years I found nothing to change my original bad impression.

  “He's a real manipulative bastard. And abusive,” Carol said.

  “He'd hit her?”

  “Not that I know. Just mental abuse. I could hear him yelling at her all the time. Telling her she was stupid. She was kind of heavy, and he used to call her 'the cow.' Then one day he moved out and moved in with some other woman. Joanne Something. Evelyn's lucky day.”

  “Do you think Evelyn and Annie are safe?”

  “God, I hope so. Those two deserve a break.”

  I looked over at Evelyn's front door. “I don't suppose you have a key?”

  Carol shook her head. “Evelyn didn't trust anyone. She was real paranoid. I don't think her grandma even has a key. And she didn't tell me where she was going, if that's your next question. One day she just loaded a bunch of bags into her car and took off.”

  I gave Carol my card and headed for home. I live in a three-story brick apartment building about ten minutes from the Burg . . . five, if I'm late for dinner and I hit the lights right. The building was constructed at a time when energy was cheap and architecture was inspired by economy. My bathroom is orange and brown, my refrigerator is avocado green, and my windows were born before Thermopane. Fine by me. The rent is reasonable, and the other tenants are okay. Mostly the building is inhabited by seniors on fixed incomes. The seniors are, for the most part, nice people . . . as long as you don't let them get behind the wheel of a car.

  I parked in the lot and pushed through the double glass door that led to the small lobby. I was filled with chicken and potatoes and gravy and chocolate layer cake and Mabel's coffee cake, so I bypassed the elevator and took the stairs as penance. All right, so I'm only one flight up, but it's a start, right?

  My hamster, Rex, was waiting for me when I opened the door to my apartment. Rex lives in a soup can in a glass aquarium in my kitchen. He stopped running on his wheel when I switched the light on and blinked out at me, whiskers whirring. I like to think it was welcome home but probably it was who put the damn light on? I gave him a raisin and a small piece of cheese. He stuffed the food into his cheeks and disappeared into his soup can. So much for roommate interaction.

  In the past, Rex has sometimes shared his roommate status with a Trenton cop named Joe Morelli. Morelli's two years older than I am, half a foot taller, and his gun is bigger than mine. Morelli started looking up my skirt when I was six, and he's just never gotten out of the habit. We've had some differences of opinion lately, and Morelli's toothbrush is not currently in my bathroom. Unfortunately, it's a lot harder to get Morelli out of my heart and my mind than out of my bathroom. Nevertheless, I'm making an effort.

  I got a beer from the fridge and settled in front of the television. I flipped through the stations, hitting the high points, not finding much. I had the photo of Evelyn and Annie in front of me. They were standing together, looking happy. Annie had curly red hair and the pale skin of a natural redhead. Evelyn had her brow
n hair pulled back. Conservative makeup. She was smiling, but not enough to bring out the dimples.

  A mom and her kid . . . and I was supposed to find them.

  CONNIE ROSOLLI HAD a doughnut in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other when I walked into the bail bonds office the next morning. She pushed the doughnut box across the top of her desk with her elbow and white powdered sugar sifted off her doughnut, down onto her boobs. “Have a doughnut,” she said. “You look like you need one.”

  Connie is the office manager. She's in charge of petty cash and she uses it wisely, buying doughnuts and file folders, and financing the occasional gaming trip to Atlantic City. It was a little after eight, and Connie was ready for the day, eyes lined, lashes mascara-ed, lips painted bright red, hair curled into a big bush around her face. I, on the other hand, was letting the day creep up on me. I had my hair pulled into a half-assed ponytail and was wearing my usual stretchy little T-shirt, jeans, and boots. Waving a mascara wand in the vicinity of my eye seemed like a dangerous maneuver this morning, so I was au naturel.

  I took a doughnut and looked around. “Where's Lula?”

  “She's late. She's been late all week. Not that it matters.”

  Lula was hired to do filing, but mostly she does what she wants.

  “Hey, I heard that,” Lula said, swinging through the door. “You better not be talking about me. I'm late on account of I'm going to night school now.”

  “You go one day a week,” Connie said.

  “Yeah, but I gotta study. It's not like this shit comes easy. It's not like my former occupation as a ho helps me out, you know. I don't think my final exam's gonna be about hand jobs.”

  Lula is a couple inches shorter and a lot of pounds heavier than me. She buys her clothes in the petite department and then shoehorns herself into them. This wouldn't work for most people, but it seems right for Lula. Lula shoehorns herself into life.

  “So what's up?” Lula said. “I miss anything?”

  I gave Connie the body receipt for Paulson. “Do you guys know anything about child custody bonds?”

  “They're relatively new,” Connie said. “Vinnie isn't doing them yet. They're high-risk bonds. Sebring is the only one in the area taking them on.”

  “Sebring,” Lula said. “Isn't he the guy with the good legs? I hear he's got legs like Tina Turner.” She looked down at her own legs. “My legs are the right color but I just got more of them.”

  “Sebring's legs are white,” Connie said. “And I hear they're good at running down blondes.”

  I swallowed the last of my doughnut and wiped my hands on my jeans. “I need to talk to him.”

  “You'll be safe today,” Lula said. “Not only aren't you blonde, but you aren't exactly decked out. You have a hard night?”

  “I'm not a morning person.”

  “It's your love life,” Lula said. “You aren't getting any, and you got nothing to put a smile on your face. You're letting yourself go, is what you're doing.”

  “I could get plenty if I wanted.”

  “Well, then?”

  “It's complicated.”

  Connie gave me a check for the Paulson capture. “You aren't thinking about going to work for Sebring, are you?”

  I told them about Evelyn and Annie.

  “Maybe I should talk to Sebring with you,” Lula said. “Maybe we can get him to show us his legs.”

  “Not necessary,” I said. “I can manage this myself.” And I didn't especially want to see Les Sebring's legs.

  “Look here. I didn't even put my bag down,” Lula said. “I'm ready to go.”

  Lula and I stared at each other for a beat. I was going to lose. I could see it coming. Lula had it in her mind to go with me. Probably didn't want to file. “Okay,” I said, “but no shooting, no shoving, no asking him to roll up his pants leg.”

  “You got a lot of rules,” Lula said.

  We took the CR-V across town and parked in a lot next to Sebring's building. The bonds office was on the ground floor, and Sebring had a suite of offices above it.

  “Just like Vinnie,” Lula said, eyeballing the carpeted floor and freshly painted walls. “Only it looks like humans work here. And check out these chairs for people to sit in . . . they don't even have stains on them. And his receptionist don't have a mustache, either.”

  Sebring escorted us into his private office. “Stephanie Plum. I've heard of you,” he said.

  “It wasn't my fault that the funeral parlor burned down,” I told him. “And I almost never shoot people.”

  “We heard of you, too,” Lula said to Sebring. “We heard you got great legs.”

  Sebring was wearing a silver gray suit, white shirt, and red, white, and blue tie. He reeked of respectability, from the tips of his shined black shoes to the top of his perfectly trimmed white hair. And behind the polite politician smile he looked like he didn't take a lot of shit. There was a moment of silence while he considered Lula. Then he hiked his pants leg up. “Get a load of these wheels,” he said.

  “You must work out,” Lula said. “You got excellent legs.”

  “I wanted to speak to you about Mabel Markowitz,” I said to Sebring. “You called her on a child custody bond.”

  He nodded. “I remember. I have someone scheduled to visit her again today. So far, she hasn't been helpful.”

  “She lives next door to my parents, and I don't think she knows where her granddaughter or her great-granddaughter have gone.”

  “That's too bad,” Sebring said. “Do you know about child custody bonds?”

  “Not a lot.”

  "PBUS, which as you know is a professional bail agents association, worked with the Center for Missing and Exploited Children to get legislation going that would discourage parents from kidnapping their own kids.

  “It's a pretty simple idea. If it looks like there's a good chance either or both parents will take off with the child for parts unknown, the court can impose a cash bond.”

  “So this is like a criminal bail bond, but it's a child who's at risk,” I said.

  “With one big difference,” Sebring said. “When a criminal bond is posted by a bail bondsman and the accused fails to appear in court, the bondsman forfeits the bond amount to the court. Then the bondsman can hunt down the accused, return him to the system, and hopefully be reimbursed by the court. In the case of a child custody bond, the bondsman forfeits the bond to the wronged parent. The money is then supposed to be used to find the missing child.”

  “So if the bond isn't enough of a deterrent to kidnapping, at least there's money to hire a professional to search for the missing child,” I said.

  "Exactly. Problem is, unlike a criminal bond, the child custody bondsman doesn't have the legal right to hunt down the child. The only recourse the child custody bondsman has to recoup his loss is to foreclose on property or cash collateral posted at the time the bond is written.

  “In this case, Evelyn Soder didn't have the cash on hand for the bond. So she came to us and used her grandmother's house as collateral for a surety bond. The hope is that when you call up the grandmother and tell her to start packing, she'll divulge the location of the missing child.”

  “Have you already released the money to Steven Soder?”

  “The money gets released in three weeks.”

  So I had three weeks to find Annie.

  Stephanie Plum 8 - Hard Eight


  “THAT LES SEBRING seemed like a nice guy,” Lula said when we were back in my CR-V. “I bet he don't even do it with barnyard animals.”

  Lula was referring to the rumor that my cousin Vinnie had once been involved in a romantic relationship with a duck. The rumor's never been officially confirmed or denied.

  “Now what?” Lula asked. “What's next on the list?”

  It was a little after ten. Soder's bar and grill, The Foxhole, should be opening for the lunch trade. “Next we visit Steven Soder,” I said. “Probably it'll be a waste of time, but it seems like
something we should do anyway.”

  “No stone unturned,” Lula said.

  Steven Soder's bar wasn't far from Sebring's office. It was tucked between Carmine's Cutrate Appliances and a tattoo parlor. The door to The Foxhole was open. The interior was dark and uninviting at this hour. Still, two souls had found their way in and were sitting at the polished wood bar.

  “I've been here before,” Lula said. “It's an okay place. The burgers aren't bad. And if you get here early, before the grease goes rancid, the onion rings are good, too.”

  We stepped inside and paused while our eyes adjusted. Soder was behind the bar. He looked up when we entered and nodded an acknowledgment. He was just under six foot. Chunky build. Reddish blond hair. Blue eyes. Ruddy complexion. Looked like he drank a lot of his own beer.