One for the money, p.14
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       One for the Money, p.14
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         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich
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  I took a deep groaning breath, shucked the muddy, drippingwet raincoat, slid behind the wheel, and called Ranger.

  “Yo,” he said.

  “I have a problem.”

  “Are you naked?”

  “No, I'm not naked.”

  “Too bad.”

  “I have an FTA cornered in his house, but I'm not having any luck making an apprehension.”

  “You want to be more specific about the not having any luck part.”

  “He took my pocketbook and kicked me out of the house.”

  Pause. “I don't suppose you managed to keep your gun.”

  “Don't suppose I did. On the bright side, the gun wasn't loaded.”

  “You have ammo in your pocketbook?”

  “I might have had a few loose bullets rolling around.”

  “Where are you now?”

  “In front of the house, in the Jeep.”

  “And you want me to come over there and persuade your FTA to behave.”


  “Good thing for you I'm into this Henry Higgins shit. What's the address?”

  I gave him the address and hung up feeling disgusted with myself. I'd virtually armed my FTA, and now I was sending Ranger in to clean up the mess I'd made of things. I was going to have to get smarter faster. I was going to learn how to load the damn gun, and I was going to learn how to shoot it. I might not ever have the guts to shoot Joe Morelli, but I was pretty sure I could shoot Lonnie Dodd.

  I watched the clock on the dash, waiting for Ranger, anxious to resolve this unfinished business. Ten minutes passed before his Mercedes appeared at the end of the street, gliding through the rain, sleek and sinister, water not daring to adhere to the paint finish.

  We simultaneously got out of our cars. He wore a black baseball cap, tight black jeans, and a black T-shirt. He strapped on his black nylon gun belt and holster, the gun held tight to his leg by a black Velcro strap. At first glance he'd pass for a SWAT cop. He shrugged into a Kevlar vest. “What's the FTA's name?”

  “Lonnie Dodd.”

  “You got a photo?”

  I ran to the Jeep, pulled out Dodd's picture, and gave it to Ranger.

  “What'd he do?” Ranger wanted to know.

  “Auto theft. First-time offender.”

  “He alone?”

  “As far as I know. I can't guarantee it.”

  “This house have a back door?”

  “Don't know.”

  “Let's find out.”

  We took a direct route to the back, cutting through the tall grass, keeping our eyes on the front door, watching the windows for movement. I hadn't bothered with my jacket. It seemed like an unnecessary encumbrance at this point. My energies were directed at catching Dodd. I was soaked to the skin, and it was liberating to know I couldn't get any wetter. The backyard was similar to the front: tall grass, a rusted swing set, two garbage cans overflowing with garbage, their dented lids lying on the ground nearby. A back door opened to the yard.

  Ranger pulled me close to the building, out of window sight. “You stay here and watch the back door. I'm going in the front. I don't want you to be a hero. You see anybody run for the train tracks, you keep out of their way. Got that?”

  Water dripped from the tip of my nose. “Sorry to put you through this.”

  “This is partly my fault. I haven't been taking you serious enough. If you're really going to do this job, you're going to need somebody to help you with the takedown. And we need to spend some time talking about apprehension techniques.”

  “I need a partner.”

  “Yeah. You need a partner.”

  He moved off, rounding the house, his footsteps muffled by the rain. I held my breath, straining to hear, catching his knock on the door, hearing him identify himself.

  There was obviously a reply from within, but it was lost to me. What followed after that was a blur of sound and action on fast forward. Warnings from Ranger that he was coming in, the door crashing open, a lot of shouting. A single report from a gun.

  The back door banged open and Lonnie Dodd charged out, heading not for the tracks, but for the next house down. He was still clad only in jeans. He was running blind in the rain, clearly panicked. I was partially hidden by a shed, and he ran right by me without a sideways glance. I could see the silver glint of a gun stuck in his waistband. Wouldn't you know it? On top of every other insult, now the creep was making off with my gun. Four hundred dollars shot to hell, and just when I'd decided to learn how to use the damn thing.

  No way was I going to let this happen. I yelled for Ranger and took off after Dodd. Dodd wasn't that far in front of me, and I had the advantage of shoes. He was sliding in the rain-slicked grass, stepping on God-knows-what. He went down to one knee, and I body-slammed into the back of him, knocking us both to the ground. He hit with an “unh!” thanks to 125 pounds of angry female landing on top of him. Well okay, maybe 127, but not an ounce more, I swear.

  He was laboring to breathe, and I grabbed the gun, not from any defensive instinct, but out of shear possessiveness. It was my gun, dammit. I scrambled to my feet and pointed the .38 in Dodd's direction, holding it with both hands to minimize the shaking. It never occurred to me to check for bullets. “Don't move!” I yelled. “Don't fucking move or I'll shoot.”

  Ranger appeared in my peripheral vision. He put his knee to the small of Dodd's back, snapped cuffs on him, and jerked him to his feet.

  “The sonofabitch shot me,” Ranger said. “Do you believe this shit? A lousy car thief shot me.” He shoved Dodd ahead of him toward the road. “I'm wearing a fucking Kevlar vest. You think he could shoot me in the vest? No way. He's such a lousy shot, he's so chicken-shit scared, he shoots me in my fucking leg.”

  I looked down at Ranger's leg and almost keeled over.

  “Run ahead and call the police,” Ranger said. “And call Al at the body shop to come get my car.”

  “You sure you're going to be okay?”

  “Flesh wound, babe. Nothing to worry about.”

  I made the calls, retrieved my pocketbook and assorted goods from Dodd's house, and waited with Ranger. We had Dodd trussed up like a Christmas goose, facedown in the mud. Ranger and I sat on the curb in the rain. He didn't seem concerned about the seriousness of his wound. He said he'd had worse, but I could see the pain wearing him down, pinching his face.

  I wrapped my arms tight around myself and clamped my teeth together to keep them from chattering. Outwardly I was keeping a stiff upper lip, trying to be as stoic as Ranger, trying to be confidently supportive. Inside, I was shaking so bad I could feel my heart shivering in my chest.

  Stephanie Plum 1 - One for the Money


  THE COPS CAME FIRST, then the paramedics, then Al. We gave preliminary statements, Ranger was trundled off to the hospital, and I followed the squad car to the station.

  It was close to five by the time I reached Vinnie's office. I asked Connie to write out separate checks. Fifty dollars to me. The remainder to Ranger. I wouldn't have taken any money at all, but I really needed to screen my calls, and this was the only way I could buy an answering machine.

  I dearly wanted to go home, take a shower, change into clean, dry clothes, and have a decent meal. I knew once I got settled in, I wasn't going to want to go out again, so I detoured to Kuntz Appliances before heading back to my apartment.

  Bernie was using a small roller device to paste price stickers onto a carton of alarm clocks. He looked up when I walked in the door.

  “I need an answering machine,” I told him. “Something under fifty dollars.”

  My shirt and my jeans were relatively dry by now, but my shoes still leaked water when I walked. Everywhere I stood, amoeba-like puddles formed around me.

  Bernie politely pretended not to notice. He shifted into salesman mode and showed me two models of answering machines, both in my price range. I asked which he recommended and followed his advice.

  “MasterCard?” he ask

  “I just got a fifty-dollar check from Vinnie. Can I sign it over to you?”

  “Sure,” he said. “That'd be okay.”

  From where I was standing I could look out the front window, across the street, into Sal's Meat Market. There wasn't much to see—a shadowy display window with the name lettered in black and gold and the single glass door with the red and white OPEN sign affixed by a small suction cup halfway up. I imagined Bernie spending hours peering out his window, numbly staring at Sal's door.

  “You said Ziggy Kulesza shopped at Sal's?”

  “Yeah. Of course, there's all kinds of shopping you can do at Sal's.”

  “So I hear. What kind of shopping do you think Ziggy was doing?”

  “Hard to say, but I didn't notice him coming out with bags of pork chops.”

  I tucked my answering machine under my shirt and ran to my car. I took a last wondering look at Sal's, and I pulled away.

  Traffic was slow in the rain, and I found myself mesmerized by the beat and the swish of the wiper and the smear of red brake lights appearing in front of me. I was driving on autopilot, reviewing the day, worrying about Ranger. It's one thing to see someone shot on television. It's quite another to see the destruction firsthand. Ranger kept saying it wasn't a bad wound, but it was bad enough for me. I owned a gun, and I was going to learn how to use it correctly, but I'd lost some of my earlier enthusiasm for pumping lead into a body.

  I turned into my lot and found a spot close to the building. I set the alarm and dragged myself out of the car and up the stairs. I left my shoes in the foyer and put the answering machine and my pocketbook on the kitchen counter. I cracked open a beer and called the hospital to check on Ranger. I was told he'd been treated and released. That was good news.

  I stuffed myself full of Ritz crackers and peanut butter, washed them down with a second beer, and staggered into my bedroom. I peeled my damp clothes away, half expecting to see that I'd started to mildew. I didn't check everywhere, but the body parts I saw looked mold-free. Hot dog. What luck. I dropped a T-shirt-type nightgown over my head, hiked up a clean pair of undies, and crashed into bed.

  I woke with my heart racing and not knowing why. The cobwebs parted, and I realized the phone was ringing. I fumbled for the receiver and stared stupidly at the bedside clock. Two o'clock. Someone must have died, I thought. My Grandma Mazur or my Aunt Sophie. Or maybe my father passed a kidney stone.

  I answered breathless, expecting the worst. “Hello.”

  There was silence on the other end. I heard labored breathing, scuffling noises, and then someone moaned. A woman's voice carried from a distance. “No,” she begged. “Oh God, no.” A terrible scream split the air, jolting the phone from my ear, and I broke out in a cold sweat as I realized what I was hearing. I slammed the receiver down and switched on my bedside light.

  I got out of bed on shaky legs and stumbled to the kitchen. I hooked up the answering machine and set it to answer on one ring. My recording said to leave a message. That was it. I didn't give my name. I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth and returned to bed.

  The phone rang, and I heard the machine snap on. I sat up and listened. The caller crooned to me, half song, half whisper. “Stephanie,” he chanted. “Stephanie.”

  My hand instinctively went to my mouth. It was a reflex action designed to control a scream in primal man, but the scream had been bred out of me. What was left was a quick intake of air. Part gasp, part sob.

  “You shouldn't have hung up, bitch,” he said. “You missed the best part. You gotta know what the champ can do, so you can look forward to it.”

  I ran to the kitchen, but before I could disconnect the machine, the woman came on the line. She sounded young. Her words were barely audible, thick with tears and trembling with the effort of speech. “It was g-g-good,” she said. Her voice broke. “Oh God help me, I'm hurt. I'm hurt something awful.”

  The connection was severed, and I immediately called the police. I explained the tape and told them it was originating with Ramirez. I gave them Ramirez's home address. I gave them my number if they wanted to institute a call trace. I hung up and padded around the apartment, triple-checking locked doors and windows, thankful that I'd had the dead bolt installed.

  The phone rang, and the machine answered. No one came on the line, but I could feel the vibrations of evil and insanity pulsing in the silence. He was out there, listening, savoring the contact, trying to get a bead on my fear. Far off, almost too faint to discern, I heard a woman softly crying. I ripped the phone plug out of the wall jack, splintering the little plastic clip, and then I threw up in the sink. Thank God for garbage disposals.

  * * * * *

  I AWOKE AT DAYBREAK, relieved to have the night behind me. The rain had stopped. It was too early for bird chatter. There were no cars traveling St. James. It was as if the world was holding its breath, waiting for the sun to burst upon the horizon.

  The phone call replayed in my mind. I didn't need the recorder to remember the message. The good, sensible Stephanie wanted to file for a restraining order. Stephanie the neophyte bounty hunter was still worried about credibility and respect. I could hardly go running to the police every time I was threatened and then expect them to accept me as an equal. I was on record for requesting help for the abused woman on my tape. I thought about it for a while, and I decided to leave it at that for now.

  Later in the day I'd give Jimmy Alpha a call.

  I'd intended to ask Ranger to take me to the firing range, but since he was recovering from the gunshot wound I would have to lay the burden on Eddie Gazarra. I glanced at the clock again. Gazarra should be at work. I dialed the station and left a message for a call back.

  I dressed in T-shirt and shorts and laced up my running shoes. Running isn't one of my favorite activities, but it was time to get serious about the job, and keeping in shape seemed like part of it.

  “Go for it,” I said by way of a pep talk.

  I trotted down the hall, the stairs, through the front door. I heaved a large sigh of resignation and pushed off on my three-mile route, mapped out with great care to avoid hills and bakeries.

  I slogged through the first mile, and then it got really bad. I'm not one of those people who find their stride. My body was not designed to run. My body was designed to sit in an expensive car and drive. I was sweating and breathing hard when I turned the corner and saw my building half a block away. So near and yet so far. I sprinted the last piece as best I could. I came to a ragged stop at the door and bent at the waist, waiting for my vision to clear, feeling so fucking healthy I could hardly stand myself.

  Eddie Gazarra pulled up to the curb in a patrol car. “I got your message,” he said. “Jesus, you look like shit.”

  “I've been running.”

  “Maybe you should check with a doctor.”

  “It's my fair skin. It flushes easily. Did you hear about Ranger?”

  “Only every detail. You're a real hot topic. I even know what you were wearing when you came in with Dodd. I take it your T-shirt was real wet. I mean real wet.”

  “When you first started out as a cop, were you afraid of your gun?”

  “I've been around guns most of my life. I had an air rifle when I was a kid, and I used to go hunting with my dad and my Uncle Walt. I guess guns were always just another piece of hardware to me.”

  “If I decide to keep working for Vinnie, you think it's necessary for me to carry a gun?”

  “It depends what kind of cases you take. If you're just doing skip tracing, no. If you're going after crazies, yes. Do you have a gun?”

  “Smith and Wesson .38. Ranger gave me about ten minutes of instruction on it, but I don't feel comfortable. Would you be willing to baby-sit me while I do some target practice?”

  “You're serious about this, aren't you?”

  “There's no other way to be.”

  He nodded. “I heard about your phone call last night.”

  “Anything com
e of it?”

  “Dispatch sent someone out, but by the time they got there Ramirez was alone. Said he didn't call you. Nothing came in from the woman, but you can register a harassment charge.”

  “I'll think about it.”

  I waved him off and huffed and puffed my way up the stairs. I let myself into my apartment, dug out an auxiliary phone cord, put a new tape in the answering machine, and took a shower. It was Sunday. Vinnie had given me a week, and the week was up. I didn't care. Vinnie could give the file to someone else, but he couldn't stop me from dogging Morelli. If someone else bagged him before I did, that was the breaks, but until that happened I intended to keep at it.

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