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Hot Six, Page 2

Janet Evanovich

  “I can't believe they let him out on bail!”

  “Go figure,” Connie said. “Guess they didn't have any more room at the inn.”

  I looked up at Vinnie, who was still standing in the doorway to his private office. “You wrote bail on this maniac?”

  “Hey, I'm not a judge. I'm a businessman. He didn't have any priors,” Vinnie said. “And he has a good job working at the button factory. Homeowner.”

  “And now he's gone.”

  “Didn't show up for his court date,” Connie said. “I called the button factory, and they said last they saw him was Wednesday.”

  “Have they heard from him at all? Did he call in sick?”

  “No. Nothing. I called his home number and got his machine.”

  I glanced at the other two files. Lenny Dale, missing in action, charged with domestic violence. And Walter “Moon Man” Dunphy, wanted for drunk and disorderly and urinating in a public place.

  I tucked the three folders into my shoulder bag and stood. “Page me if you hear anything on Ranger.”

  “Last chance,” Vinnie said. “I swear I'll give his file to Joyce.”

  I took a doughnut from the box, gave the box over to Lula, and left. It was March and the snowstorm was having a hard time working itself up into anything serious. There was some slush on the street, and a layer of ice had accumulated on my windshield and my passenger-side windows. There was a large blurry object behind the window. I squinted through the ice. The blurry object was Joe Morelli.

  Most women would have an orgasm on the spot to find Morelli sitting in their car. He had that effect. I'd known Morelli for most of my life, and I almost never had an on-the-spot orgasm, anymore. I needed at least four minutes.

  He was wearing boots and jeans and a black fleece jacket. The tails of a red plaid flannel shirt hung under the jacket. Under the flannel shirt he wore a black T-shirt and a .40-caliber Glock. His eyes were the color of aged whiskey and his body was a testament to good Italian genes and hard work at the gym. He had a reputation for living fast, and the reputation was well deserved but dated. Morelli focused his energy on his job now.

  I slid behind the wheel, turned the key in the ignition, and cranked up the defroster. I was driving a six-year-old blue Honda Civic that was perfectly good transportation but didn't enhance my fantasy life. Hard to be Xena, Warrior Princess in a six-year-old Civic.

  “So,” I said to Morelli, “what's up?”

  “You going after Ranger?”

  “Nope. Not me. No siree. No way.”

  He raised his eyebrows.

  “I'm not magic,” I said. Sending me after Ranger would be like sending the chicken out to hunt down the fox.

  Morelli was slouched against the door. “I need to talk to him.”

  “Are you investigating the fire?”

  “No. This is something else.”

  “Something else that's related to the fire? Like the hole in Homer Ramos's head?”

  Morelli grinned. “You ask a lot of questions.”

  “Yeah, but I'm not getting any answers. Why isn't Ranger answering his page? What's his involvement here?”

  “He had a late-night meeting with Ramos. They were caught on a lobby security camera. The building is locked up at night, but Ramos had a key. He arrived first, waited ten minutes for Ranger, then opened the door for him. The two of them crossed the lobby and took the elevator to the third floor. Thirty-five minutes later Ranger left alone. And ten minutes after that, the fire alarm went off. Forty-eight hours' worth of tape has been run, and according to the tape no one else was in the building with Ranger and Ramos.”

  “Ten minutes is a long time. Give him three more to ride the elevator or take the stairs. Why didn't the alarm go off sooner, if Ranger started the fire?”

  “No smoke detector in the office where Ramos was found. The door was closed, and the smoke detector was in the hall.”

  “Ranger isn't stupid. He wouldn't let himself get caught on videotape if he was going to kill someone.”

  “It was a hidden camera.” Morelli eyed my doughnut. “You going to eat that?”

  I broke the doughnut in half and gave him a piece. I popped the other into my mouth. “Was an accelerant used?”

  “Small amount of lighter fluid.”

  “You think Ranger did it?”

  “Hard to say with Ranger.”

  “Connie said Ramos was shot.”

  “Nine millimeter.”

  “So you think Ranger is hiding from the police?”

  “Allen Barnes is the primary on the homicide investigation. Everything he's got so far leads to Ranger. If he brought Ranger in for questioning, he could probably hold him for a while based on priors, like the carrying charge. No matter how you look at it, sitting in a cell isn't in Ranger's best interest right now. And if Barnes has Ranger nailed as his number one suspect, there's a good chance Alexander Ramos has reached the same conclusion. If Ramos thought Ranger blew Homer away, Ramos wouldn't wait for justice to be served by the court.”

  The doughnut was sitting in a big lump in my throat. “Or maybe Ramos has already gotten to Ranger . . .”

  “That's a possibility, too.”

  Shit. Ranger is a mercenary with a strong code of ethics that doesn't necessarily always correspond to current popular thinking. He came on board as my mentor when I first started working for Vinnie, and the relationship has evolved to include friendship, which is limited by Ranger's lone-wolf lifestyle and my desire for survival. And, truth is, there's been a growing sexual attraction between us which scares the hell out of me. So my feelings for Ranger were complicated to begin with, and now I added a sense of doom to the list of unwanted emotions.

  Morelli's pager beeped. He looked at the readout and sighed. “I have to go. If you run across Ranger, pass my message on to him. We really need to talk.”

  “It'll cost you.”


  “Fried chicken,” I said. “Extra greasy.”

  I watched him angle out of the car and cross the street. I enjoyed the view until he was out of sight, and then I turned my attention back to the files. I knew Moon Man Dunphy. I'd gone to school with him. No problem there. I just had to go pry him away from his television set.

  Lenny Dale lived in an apartment complex on Grand Avenue and had listed his age as eighty-two. Big groan on this one. There is no good way to apprehend an eighty-two-year-old man. No matter how you cut it, you look and feel like a creep.

  Morris Munson's file was left to read, but I didn't want to go there. Best to procrastinate and hope Ranger came forward.

  I decided to go after Dale first. He was only about a quarter-mile from Vinnie's office. I needed to make a U-turn on Hamilton, but the car was having none of it. The car was heading for center city and the burned-out building.

  Okay, so I'm nosy. I wanted to see the crime scene. And I guess I wanted to have a psychic moment. I wanted to stand in front of the building and have a Ranger revelation.

  I crossed the railroad tracks and inched my way along in the morning traffic. The building was at the corner of Adams and Third. It was redbrick and four stories high, probably about fifty years old. I parked on the opposite side of the street, got out of my car, and stared at the fire-blackened windows, some of which were boarded over. Yellow crime-scene tape stretched the width of the building, held in place by sawhorses strategically positioned on the sidewalk to prevent snoops like me from getting too close. Not that I'd let a detail like crime-scene tape stop me from taking a peek.

  I crossed the street and ducked under the tape. I tried the double glass door, but found it locked. Inside, the lobby seemed relatively unscathed. Lots of grimy water and smoke-smudged walls, but no visible fire damage.

  I turned and looked at the surrounding buildings. Office buildings, stores, a deli-style restaurant on the corner.

  Hey, Ranger, are you out there?

  Nothing. No psychic moment.

  I ran back to the car, l
ocked myself in, and hauled out my cell phone. I dialed Ranger's number and waited through two rings before his answering machine picked up. My message was brief: “Are you okay?”

  I disconnected and sat there for a few minutes, feeling breathless and hollow-stomached. I didn't want Ranger to be dead. And I didn't want him to have killed Homer Ramos. Not that I cared a fig about Ramos, but whoever killed him would pay, one way or another.

  Finally I put the car in gear and drove away. A half-hour later I was standing in front of Lenny Dale's door, and apparently the Dales were at it again because there was a lot of shouting going on inside the apartment. I shifted foot to foot in the third-floor hall, waiting for a lull in the racket. When it came, I knocked. This led to another shouting match, over who was going to get the door.

  I knocked again. The door was flung open, and an old man stuck his head out at me. “Yeah?”

  “Lenny Dale?”

  “You're looking at him, sis.”

  He was mostly nose. The rest of his face had shrunk away from that eagle's beak, his bald dome was dotted with liver spots, and his ears were oversized on his mummified head. The woman behind him was gray-haired and doughy, with tree-trunk legs stuffed into Garfield the Cat bedroom slippers.

  “What's she want?” the woman yelled. “What's she want?”

  “If you'd shut up I'd find out!” he yelled back. “Yammer, yammer, yammer. That's all you do.”

  “I'll give you yammer, yammer,” she said. And she smacked him on top of his shiny skull.

  Dale wheeled around and clocked her square on the side of her head.

  “Hey!” I said. “Stop that!”

  “I'll give you one, too,” Dale said, jumping at me, fist raised.

  I put my hand out to ward him off, and he stood statue still for a moment, frozen in the raised-fist position. His mouth opened, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he fell over stiff as a board and crashed to the floor.

  I knelt beside him. “Mr. Dale?”

  His wife toed him with Garfield. “Hunh,” she said. “Guess he had another one of them heart attacks.”

  I put my hand to his neck and couldn't find a pulse.

  “Oh, jeez,” I said.

  “Is he dead?”

  “Well, I'm no expert . . .”

  “He looks dead to me.”

  “Call 911 and I'll try CPR.” Actually I didn't know CPR, but I'd seen it done on television, and I was willing to give it a shot.

  “Honey,” Mrs. Dale said, “you bring that man back to life and I'll hit you with the meat mallet until your head looks like a veal patty.” She bent over her husband. “Anyway, look at him. He's dead as a doorknob. A body couldn't get any deader.”

  I was afraid she was right. Mr. Dale didn't look good.

  An elderly woman came to the open door. “What's happening? Lenny have another one of them heart attacks?” She turned and yelled down the hall. “Roger, call 911. Lenny had another heart attack.”

  Within seconds the room was filled with neighbors, commenting on Lenny's condition and asking questions. How did it happen? And was it fast? And did Mrs. Dale want a turkey noodle casserole for the wake?

  Sure, Mrs. Dale said, a casserole would be nice. And she wondered if Tootie Greenberg could make one of those poppyseed cakes like she did for Moses Schultz.

  The EMS unit arrived, looked at Lenny, and agreed with the general consensus. Lenny Dale was as dead as a doorknob.

  I quietly slipped out of the apartment and did a fast shuffle to the elevator. It wasn't even noon, and already my day seemed too long and cluttered with dead people. I called Vinnie when I reached the lobby.

  “Listen,” I said, “I found Dale, but he's dead.”

  “How long's he been like that?”

  “About twenty minutes.”

  “Were there any witnesses?”

  “His wife.”

  “Shit,” Vinnie said, “it was self-defense, right?”

  “I didn't kill him!”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Well, it was a heart attack, and I guess I might have contributed a little . . .”

  “Where is he now?”

  “He's in his apartment. The EMS guys are there but there's nothing they can do. He's definitely dead.”

  “Christ, couldn't you have given him a heart attack after you got him to the police station? This is gonna be a big pain in the ass. You wouldn't believe the paperwork on this kind of thing. I tell you what, see if you can get the EMS boys to drive Dale over to the courthouse.”

  I felt my mouth drop open.

  “Yeah, this'll work,” Vinnie said. “Just get one of the guys at the desk to come out and take a look. Then he can give you a body receipt.”

  “I'm not dragging some poor dead man off to the municipal building!”

  “What's the big deal? You think he's in a rush to get embalmed? Tell yourself you're doing something nice for him—you know, like a last ride.”

  Ugh. I disconnected. Should have kept the whole box of doughnuts for myself. This was shaping up to be an eight-doughnut day. I looked at the little green diode blinking on my cell phone. Come on, Ranger, I thought. Call me.

  I left the lobby and took to the road. Moon Man Dunphy was next on my list. The Mooner lives in the Burg, a couple blocks from my parents' house. He shares a row house with two other guys who are just as crazy as Moon Man. Last I heard, he was working nights, restocking at the Shop & Bag. And at this time of the day I suspect he's at home eating Cap'n Crunch, watching reruns of Star Trek.

  I turned onto Hamilton, passed the office, left-turned into the Burg at St. Francis Hospital and wound my way around to the row houses on Grant. The Burg is a residential chunk of Trenton with one side bordering on Chambersburg Street and the other side stretching to Italy. Tastykakes and olive loaf are staples in the Burg. “Sign language” refers to a stiff middle finger jabbed skyward. Houses are modest. Cars are large. Windows are clean.

  I parked in the middle of the block and checked my fact sheet to make sure I had the right number. There were twenty-three attached houses all in a row. Each house sat flush to the sidewalk. Each house was two stories tall. Moon lived in number 45 Grant.

  He opened the door wide and looked out at me. He was just under six feet tall, with light brown shoulder-length hair parted in the middle. He was slim and loose-jointed, wearing a black Metallica T-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees. He had a jar of peanut butter in one hand and a spoon in the other. Lunchtime. He stared out at me, looking confused, then the light went on, and he rapped himself on the head with the spoon, leaving a glob of peanut butter stuck in his hair. “Shit, dude! I forgot my court date!”

  It was hard not to like Moon, and I found myself smiling in spite of my day. “Yeah, we need to get you bonded out again and rescheduled.” And I'd pick him up and chauffeur him to court next time. Stephanie Plum, mother hen.

  “How does the Moon do that?”

  “You come with me to the station, and I'll walk you through it.”

  “That sucks seriously, dude. I'm in the middle of a Rocky and Bullwinkle retrospective. Can we do this some other time? Hey, I know—why don't you stay for lunch, and we can watch ol' Rocky together?”

  I looked at the spoon in his hand. Probably he only had one. “I appreciate the invitation,” I said, “but I promised my mom I'd have lunch with her.” What is known in life as a little white lie.

  “Wow, that's real nice. Having lunch with your mom. Far out.”

  “So how about if I go have lunch now, and then I come back for you in about an hour?”

  “That'd be great. The Moon would really appreciate that, dude.”

  Mooching lunch from my mom wasn't a bad idea, now that I thought about it. Besides getting lunch, I'd get whatever gossip was floating around the Burg about the fire.

  I left Moon to his retrospective and had my fingers wrapped around the door handle of my car when a black Lincoln pulled alongside me.

he passenger-side window rolled down and a man looked out. “You Stephanie Plum?”


  “We'd like to have a little chat with you. Get in.”

  Yeah, right. I'm going to get into the Mafia staff car with two strange men, one of whom is a Pakistani with a .38 tucked into his Sans-A-Belt pants, partially hidden by the soft roll of his belly, and the other is a guy who looks like Hulk Hogan with a buzz cut. “My mother told me never to ride with strangers.”