One for the money, p.6
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       One for the Money, p.6
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         Part #1 of Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich

  My mother didn't mind playing dirty if she thought the cause was worthy. She knew she had me locked in with the pineapple cake. A Plum would suffer a lot of abuse for a good dessert.

  Grandma Mazur glared out at Bernie. “Who are you?”

  “I'm Bernie Kuntz.”

  “What do you want?”

  I looked the length of the hall, and I could see Bernie shift uncomfortably on his feet.

  “I've been invited for dinner,” Bernie said.

  Grandma Mazur still had the screen door shut. “Helen,” she yelled over her shoulder, “there's a young man at the door. He says he's invited to dinner. Why didn't someone tell me about this? Look at this old dress I'm wearing. I can't entertain a man in this dress.”

  I'd known Bernie since he was five. I'd gone to grade school with Bernie. We ate lunch together in grades one through three, and I would forever associate him with peanut butter and jelly on Wonder bread. I'd lost touch with him in high school. I knew he'd gone to college, and that after college he'd gone to work selling appliances in his father's store.

  He was medium height, with a medium build that had never lost its baby fat. He was all dressed up in shiny tassel loafers, dress slacks, and sports coat. So far as I could see, he hadn't changed much since sixth grade. He looked like he still couldn't add fractions, and the little metal pull on his zipper was sticking out, creating a tiny tent with his fly.

  We took our seats at the table and concentrated on the business of eating.

  “Bernie sells appliances,” my mother said, passing the red cabbage. “He makes good money at it, too. He drives a Bonneville.”

  “A Bonneville. Imagine that,” Grandma Mazur said.

  My father kept his head bent over his chicken. He rooted for the Mets, he wore Fruit of the Loom underwear, and he drove a Buick. His loyalties were carved in stone, and he wasn't about to be impressed by some upstart of a toaster salesman who drove a Bonneville.

  Bernie turned to me. “So what are you doing now?”

  I fiddled with my fork. My day hadn't exactly been a success, and announcing to the world that I was a fugitive apprehension agent seemed presumptuous. “I sort of work for an insurance company,” I told him.

  “You mean like a claims adjuster?”

  “More like collections.”

  “She's a bounty hunter!” Grandma Mazur announced. “She tracks down dirty rotten fugitives just like on television. She's got a gun and everything.” She reached behind her to the sideboard, where I'd left my shoulder bag. “She's got a whole pocketbook full of paraphernalia,” Grandma Mazur said, setting my bag on her lap. She pulled out the cuffs, the beeper, and a travel pack of tampons and set them on the table. “And here's her gun,” she said proudly. “Isn't it a beauty?”

  I have to admit it was a pretty cool gun. It had a stainless steel frame and carved wood grips. It was a Smith and Wesson 5-shot revolver, model 60. A .38 Special. Easy to use, easy to carry, Ranger had said. And it had been much more reasonable than a semiautomatic, if you can call $400 reasonable.

  “My God,” my mother shouted, “put it away! Someone take the gun from her before she kills herself!”

  The cylinder was open and clearly empty of rounds. I didn't know much about guns, but I knew this one couldn't go bang without bullets. “It's empty,” I said. “There are no bullets in it.”

  Grandma Mazur had both hands wrapped around the gun with her finger on the trigger. She scrinched an eye closed and sighted on the china closet. “Ka-pow,” she said. “Ka-pow, kapow, ka-pow.”

  My father was busy with the sausage dressing, studiously ignoring all of us.

  “I don't like guns at the table,” my mother said. “And the dinner's getting cold. I'll have to reheat the gravy.”

  “This gun won't do you no good if you don't have bullets in it,” Grandma Mazur said to me. “How're you gonna catch those killers without bullets in your gun?”

  Bernie had been sitting open-mouthed through all of this. “Killers?”

  “She's after Joe Morelli,” Grandma Mazur told him. “He's a bona fide killer and a bail dodger. He plugged Ziggy Kulesza right in the head.”

  “I knew Ziggy Kulesza,” Bernie said. “I sold him a bigscreen TV about a year ago. We don't sell many big screens. Too expensive.”

  “He buy anything else from you?” I asked. “Anything recent?”

  “Nope. But I'd see him sometimes across the street at Sal's Butcher Shop. Ziggy seemed okay. Just a regular sort of person, you know?”

  No one had been paying attention to Grandma Mazur. She was still playing with the gun, aiming and sighting, getting used to the heft of it. I realized there was a box of ammo beside the tampons. A scary thought skittered into my mind. “Grandma, you didn't load the gun, did you?”

  “Well of course I loaded the gun,” she said. “And I left the one hole empty like I saw on television. That way you can't shoot nothing by mistake.” She cocked the gun to demonstrate the safety of her action. There was a loud bang, a flash erupted from the gun barrel, and the chicken carcass jumped on its plate.

  “Holy mother of God!” my mother shrieked, leaping to her feet, knocking her chair over.

  “Dang,” Grandma said, “guess I left the wrong hole empty.” She leaned forward to examine her handiwork. “Not bad for my first time with a gun. I shot that sucker right in the gumpy”

  My father had a white-knuckle grip on his fork, and his face was cranberry red.

  I scurried around the table and carefully took the gun from Grandma Mazur. I shook out the bullets and shoveled all my stuff back into my shoulder bag.

  “Look at that broken plate,” my mother said. “It was part of the set. How will I ever replace it?” She moved the plate, and we all stared in silence at the neat round hole in the tablecloth and the bullet embedded in the mahogany table.

  Grandma Mazur was the first to speak. “That shooting gave me an appetite,” she said. “Somebody pass me the potatoes.”

  * * * * *

  ALL IN ALL, Bernie Kuntz had handled the evening pretty well. He hadn't wet his pants when Grandma Mazur shot off the chicken privates. He'd suffered through two helpings of my mother's dreaded brussels sprouts casserole. And he'd been tolerably nice to me, even though it was obvious we weren't destined to hit the sheets together and my family was nuts. His motives for geniality were clear. I was a woman lacking appliances. Romance is good for frittering away a few evening hours, but commissions will get you a vacation in Hawaii. Ours was a match made in heaven. He wanted to sell, and I wanted to buy, and I wasn't unhappy to accept his offer of a 10 percent discount. And, as a bonus for sitting through the evening, I'd learned something about Ziggy Kulesza. He bought his meat from Sal Bocha, a man better known for making book than slicing fillet.

  I tucked this information away for future reference. It didn't seem significant now, but who knows what would turn out to be helpful.

  I was at my table with a glass of iced tea and Morelli's file, and I was trying to put together a plan of action. I'd made a bowl of popcorn for Rex. The bowl was on the table by me, and Rex was in the bowl, his cheeks puffed out with popcorn, his eyes bright, his whiskers a blur of motion.

  “Well Rex,” I said, “what do you think? Do you think we'll be able to catch Morelli?”

  Someone tapped on my front door, and both Rex and I sat perfectly still with our radar humming. I wasn't expecting anyone. Most of my neighbors were seniors. No one I was especially chummy with. No one I could imagine knocking on my door at nine-thirty at night. Mrs. Becker, maybe, on the third floor. Sometimes she forgot where she lived.

  The tapping continued, and Rex and I swiveled our heads toward the door. It was a heavy metal fire door with a security peephole, a dead bolt, and a double-thick chain. When the weather was nice, I left my windows wide open all day and night, but I always kept my door locked. Hannibal and his elephants couldn't have gotten through my front door, but my windows were welcome to any idiot who could climb a fire

  I put the splatter screen to my fry pan over the popcorn bowl so Rex couldn't climb out and went to investigate. I had my hand on the doorknob when the tapping stopped. I looked through the peephole and saw nothing but blackness. Someone had a finger on my peephole. Not a good sign. “Who's there?” I called.

  A whisper of laughter filtered through the door frame, and I jumped back. The laughter was followed by a single word. “Stephanie.”

  The voice was unmistakable. It was melodic and taunting. It was Ramirez.

  “I've come to play with you, Stephanie,” he sang. “You ready to play?”

  I felt my knees go slack, felt irrational fear swell in my chest. “Go away or I'll call the police.”

  “You can't call anyone, bitch. You haven't got a phone. I know because I tried your number.”

  My parents have never been able to understand my need to be independent. They're convinced I live a frightened, lonely life, and no amount of talking can persuade them otherwise. In truth, I'm almost never frightened. Maybe sometimes by gross multifooted insects. In my opinion, the only good spider is a dead spider, and woman's rights aren't worth dick if they mean I can't ask a man to do my bug squashing. I don't worry about serial skinheads bashing down my door or crawling through my open window. For the most part, they prefer to work the neighborhoods closer to the train station. Muggings and carjackings are also at a minimum in my neighborhood and almost never result in death.

  Until this moment, my only truly worrisome times had been those infrequent occasions when I woke up in the middle of the night fearful of invasion by mystical horrors . . . ghosts, bogeymen, vampire bats, extraterrestrials. Held prisoner by my imagination gone berserk, I'd lay in bed, barely breathing, waiting to levitate. I must admit, it would be a comfort not to have to wait alone although, aside from Bill Murray, what good would another mortal be in the face of a spook attack, anyway? Fortunately, I've never done a total head rotation, been beamed up, or had an Elvis visitation. And the closest I've come to an out-of-body experience was when Joe Morelli took his mouth to me fourteen years ago, behind the éclair case.

  Ramirez's voice cut through the door. “Don't like having unfinished business with a woman, Stephanie Plum. Don't like when a woman run away from the champ.”

  He tried the doorknob, and for a gut-cramping moment my heart leapt to my throat. The door held, and my pulse dropped down to prestroke level.

  I did some deep breathing and decided the best course of action was simply to ignore him. I didn't want to get into a shouting match. And I didn't want to make things worse than they already were. I shut and locked my living room windows and drew the drapes tight. I hurried to my bedroom and debated using the fire escape to go for help. It felt foolish, somehow, lending more weight to the threat than I was willing to concede. This is no big deal, I told myself. Nothing to worry about. I rolled my eyes. Nothing to worry about . . . only a criminally insane, two-hundred-and-fifty-pound man standing in my hall, calling me names.

  I clapped a hand to my mouth to squelch a hysterical whine. Not to panic, I told myself. It wouldn't be long before my neighbors would begin to investigate, and Ramirez would be forced to leave.

  I got my gun out of my pocketbook and went back to the door for another look. The peephole was uncovered, and the hallway seemed empty. I put my ear to the door and listened. Nothing. I slid the bolt and cracked the door, leaving my megachain firmly attached and my gun at the ready. No Ramirez in sight. I unhooked the chain and peeked out into the hall. Very peaceful. He was definitely gone.

  A splot of some noxious substance sliding down the front of my door caught my eye. I was pretty sure it wasn't tapioca. I gagged, closed the door, and locked and chained it. Wonderful. Two days on the job and a world-class psycho had just jerked off on my door.

  Things like this had never happened to me when I'd worked for E.E. Martin. Once a street person had urinated on my foot, and every now and then a man would drop his pants in the train station, but these were things you expected when you worked in Newark. I'd learned not to take them personally. This business with Ramirez was a whole other matter. This was very scary.

  I yelped when a window opened and closed above me. Mrs. Delgado letting her cat out for the night, I told myself. Get a grip. I needed to get my mind off Ramirez, so I busied myself finding hockables. There wasn't much left. A Walkman, an iron, pearl earrings from my wedding, a kitchen clock that looked like a chicken, a framed Ansel Adams poster, and two bean-pot table lamps. I hoped it was enough to pay my phone bill and get myself reconnected. I didn't want a repeat performance of being trapped in my apartment, not able to call for help.

  I returned Rex to his cage, brushed my teeth, changed into a nightshirt, and crawled into bed with every light in the apartment blazing away.

  * * * * *

  THE FIRST THING I DID ON WAKING the following morning was to check my peephole. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, so I took a fast shower and dressed. Rex was sound asleep in his soup can after a tough night of running on his wheel. I gave him fresh water and filled his cup with the dreaded hamster nuggets. A cup of coffee would have tasted great. Unfortunately, there was no coffee in the house.

  I went to my living room window and scoped out the parking lot for Ramirez, and returned to the door and doubled-checked the peephole. I slid the bolt and opened my door with the chain in place. I put my nose to the crack and sniffed. I didn't smell boxer, so I closed the door, unhooked the chain, and reopened the door. I looked out with my gun drawn. The hall was empty. I locked my door and crept down the hall. The elevator binged, the door droned open, and I almost shot old Mrs. Moyer. I apologized profusely, told her the gun wasn't real, and slunk off to the stairs, lugging the first load of junk out to the car.

  By the time Emilio opened his pawnshop, I was in caffeine withdrawal. I haggled over the earrings, but my heart wasn't in it, and in the end I knew I'd gotten gypped. Not that I especially cared. I had what I needed. Money for a minor weapon, and the phone company, and enough change left over for a blueberry muffin and large coffee.

  I took five minutes out to luxuriate over my breakfast, and then I hustled to the phone office. I stopped at a light and got hooted at by two guys in a pickup. From the hand gestures they were making I supposed they liked my paint job. I couldn't hear what they were saying because of the engine noise. Thank God for small favors.

  I noticed a haze building around me and realized I was smoking. Not the benign white exhaust of condensation on a cold day. This smoke was thick and black, and in the absence of a tailpipe was billowing out from my underbelly. I gave the dash a hard shot with my fist to see if any of the gauges would work, and sure enough, the red oil light blinked on. I pulled into a gas station on the next corner, bought a can of 10-W-30, dumped it in the car, and checked the dipstick. It was still low, so I added a second can.

  Next stop, the phone company. Settling my account and arranging for service to be resumed were only slightly less complicated than getting a green card. Finally, I explained that my blind, senile grandmother was living with me between heart attacks and having a phone would possibly make the difference between life and death. I don't think the woman behind the counter believed me, but I think I got a few entertainment points, and I was promised someone would throw a switch later in the day. Good deal. If Ramirez came back, I'd be able to dial the cops. As a backup, I intended to get a quart of defense spray. I wasn't much good with a gun, but I was bitchin' with an aerosol can.

  By the time I got to the gun store, the oil light was flickering again. I didn't see any smoke, so I concluded the gauge must be stuck. And who cared anyway, I wasn't squandering more money on oil. This car was just going to have to make do. When I collected my $10,000 bounty money I'd buy it all the oil it wanted—then I'd push it off a bridge.

  I'd always imagined gun store owners to be big and burly and to wear baseball caps that advertised motorcycle companies. I'd always imagined them with names like Bubba and
Billy Bob. This gun store was run by a woman named Sunny. She was in her forties with skin tanned the color and texture of a good cigar, hair that had been bleached to canary yellow frizz, and a two-pack-a-day voice. She was wearing rhinestone earrings, skintight jeans, and she had little palm trees painted on her fingernails.

  “Nice work,” I said, alluding to her nails.

  “Maura, at The Hair Palace, does them. She's a genius with nails, and she'll bikini wax you till you're bald as a billiard ball.”

  “I'll have to remember.”

  “Just ask for Maura. Tell her Sunny sent you. And what can I do for you today? Out of bullets already?”

  “I need some defense spray.”

  “What kind of spray do you use?”

  “There's more than one kind?”

  “Goodness, yes. We carry a full line of self-defense sprays.” She reached into the case next to her and pulled out several shrink-wrapped packages. “This is the original Mace. Then we have Peppergard, the environmentally safe alternative now used by many police departments. And, last but certainly not least, is Sure Guard, a genuine chemical weapon. This can drop a three-hundred-pound man in six seconds. Works on neurotransmitters. This stuff touches your skin and you're out cold. Doesn't matter if you're drunk or on drugs. One spray and it's all over.”

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