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For the last five minutes, I'd been parked outside my cousin Vinnie's bail bonds office in my crapola car, debating whether to continue on with my day, or return to my apartment and crawl back into bed. My name is Stephanie Plum, and Sensible Stephanie wanted to go back to bed. Loco Stephanie was thinking she should get on with it.
I was about to do something I knew I shouldn't do. The signs were all there in front of me. Sick stomach. Feeling of impending disaster. Knowledge that it was illegal. And yet, I was going to forge ahead with the plan. Not that this was especially unusual. Truth is, I've been dealing with impending doom for as long as I can remember. Heck, when I was six years old I sprinkled sugar on my head, convinced myself it was pixie dust, wished myself invisible, and walked into the boys' bathroom at school. I mean, you don't know the water's over your head until you jump in, right?
The door to the bonds office opened, and Lula stuck her head out. "Are you gonna sit there all day, or what?" she yelled at me.
Lula is a black woman with a Rubenesque body and a Vegas wardrobe that's four sizes too small. She is a former 'ho, currently working as a file clerk for the office and a wheelman for me . . . when the mood strikes. Today, she was wearing big fake-fur Sasquatch boots, and her ass was packed into poison-green spandex pants. Her pink sweatshirt had Love Goddess spelled out in sequins across her boobs.
My wardrobe runs a lot more casual than Lula's. I was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved knit shirt from the Gap. My feet were stuffed into knock-off Ugg boots, and I was bundled into a big quilted jacket. I have naturally curly brown hair that looks okay when I wear it shoulder length. When it's short, the best you can say is that it has energy. I'd swiped on some extra mascara today, hoping to boost my bravado. I had a favor to perform that I suspected was going to come back to haunt me. I grabbed my bag, wrenched the driver's side door open, and angled myself out of the car.
It was the end of February, and there was gloom as far as the eye could see. It was almost ten a.m., but the streetlights were on, and visibility in the swirling snow was about six inches. A truck chugged past, throwing slush halfway up my leg, soaking my jeans, bringing out my trash mouth. Winter wonderland Jersey-style.
Connie Rosolli looked around her computer at me when I walked into the office. Connie is Vinnie's office manager and his first line of defense against the stream of pissed-off bondees, bookies, hookers, various bill collectors, and stiffed smut peddlers hoping to reach Vinnie's inner sanctum. Connie was a couple years older than me, a couple pounds heavier, a couple inches shorter, a couple cups bigger, and had hair a couple inches higher than mine. Connie was pretty in a kick-ass, central Jersey, third-generation Italian kind of way.
"I have three new skips," Connie said. "One of them is Simon Diggery again."
Skips are people who fail to show for a court appearance after Vinnie has bonded them out of jail. Vinnie loses money when bondees fail to appear, so that's where I come in. I work for Vinnie as a fugitive apprehension agent, better known as bounty hunter, and my job is to find the skips and drag them back into the system.
"Don't look to me to help you out with Simon Diggery," Lula said, plunking herself down on the brown Naugahyde couch, picking up her copy of Star magazine. "Been there, done that. Not doing it again. No way."
"He's an easy catch," I said. "We know exactly where to find him."
"There's no 'we' gonna happen. You're on your own. I'm not freezing my sweet Jesus, sitting in some bone orchard in the dead of night, waiting for Simon Diggery to show up."
Diggery was, among other things, a professional grave robber, relieving the recently deceased of rings, watches, and the occasional Brooks Brothers suit if it was Diggery's size. Last time Diggery was in violation of his bond, Lula and I caught him hacksawing a cocktail ring off Miriam Lukach. We chased him all over the cemetery before I tackled him in front of the crematorium.
I took the three new files from Connie and shoved them into my shoulder bag. "I'm off."
"Where you going?" Lula wanted to know. "It's almost lunchtime. I don't suppose you're gonna be passing by some place I could get a meatball sub. I could use a meatball sub on a nasty day like this."
"I'm going downtown," I told her. "I need to talk to Dickie."
"Say what?" Lula was up on her feet. "Did I hear you right? Is this the Dickie that called the police on you last time you were in his office? Is this the Dickie you told to go fuck hisself? Is this the Dickie you were married to for fifteen minutes in another life?"
"Yep. That's the Dickie."
Lula grabbed her coat and scarf from the chair. "I'll ride with you. I gotta see this. Hell, I don't even care about the meatball sub anymore."
"Okay, but we're not making a scene," I said to Lula. "I need to talk to Dickie about a legal issue. This is going to be non-confrontational."
"I know that. Non-confrontational. Like two civilized people."
"Hold on. I'm going too," Connie said, getting her purse from her bottom desk drawer. "I don't want to miss this. I'll close the office for a couple hours for this one."
"I'm not making a scene," I told her.
"Sure, but I'm packin' just in case it gets ugly," Connie said.
"Me too," Lula said. "It isn't diamonds that's a girl's best friend. It's a .9mm Glock."
Connie and Lula looked at me.
"What are you carrying?" Connie asked.
"A brand-new can of hairspray and this lip gloss I've got on."
"It's a pretty good lip gloss," Lula said, "but it wouldn't hurt to have a piece as a backup."
Connie stuffed herself into her coat. "I can't imagine what legal problem you'd want to discuss with Dickie, but it must be a bitch to get you out in this weather."
"It's sort of personal," I said, relying on the one really decent bounty hunter skill I possessed . . . the ability to fib. "It dates back to when we were married. It has to do with . . . taxes."
We all went head-down into the cold. Connie locked the office door, and we got into Lula's red Firebird. Lula cranked the engine over, hip-hop blasted out of the CD player, and Lula motored off.
"Is Dickie still downtown?" Lula wanted to know.
"Yes, but he's in a new office. 3240 Brian Place. His firm is Petiak, Smullen, Gorvich, and Orr."
Lula cruised down Hamilton and turned onto North Broad. The wind had cut back, and it was no longer snowing, but there was still a thick cloud cover overhead. At best, the weather could now be described as grim. I was silently rehearsing my fake speech about how I needed information for an audit. And I was making promises to myself as performance incentive. I was seeing macaroni and cheese in my near future. Butterscotch Tastykakes. Onion rings. Snickers bars. Okay, so this had all the makings of a cluster fuck, but there was a Dairy Queen Oreo CheeseQuake Blizzard waiting for me somewhere.
Lula took a left at Brian and found a parking place half a block from Dickie's office building.
"I'm gonna smack you on the head if you don't stop cracking your knuckles," Lula said to me. "You gotta chill. You need some tax information, and he's gotta give it to you." Lula cut her eyes to me. "That's all there is to it, right?"
"Uh oh," Lula said. "There's more, isn't there?"
We all got out of the Firebird and stood huddled against the cold.
"Actually, I have to plant a couple bugs on him for Ranger," I told Lula. There it was, out in the open, swinging in the breeze . . . the favor from hell.
Carlos Manoso goes by the street name Ranger. He's my friend, my bounty hunter mentor, and in this case . . . my partner in crime. He's Cuban American with dark skin and dark eyes and dark brown hair recently cut short. He's half a head taller than I am, and two months older. I've seen him naked, and when I say every part of him is perfect you can take it to the bank. He was Special Forces, and while he's no longer military, he's still got the skills and the muscle. He owns a security company named RangeMan now. Plus, he does the high-bond skips for Vinnie. He's a hot guy, and there are strong feelings between us, but I try to keep some distance. Ranger plays by his own set of rules, and I don't have a complete copy.
"I knew it!" Lula said. "I knew this would be good."
"You need something better than taxes," Connie said. "You're going to need a diversion if you want to plant bugs."
"Yeah," Lula said. "You need us to go along with you. You need some hustle and bustle."
"How about if we say we want to start a business together," Connie said. "And we need advice on permits and partnership agreements."
"What kind of business we got?" Lula asked. "I gotta know what I'm getting into with you."
"It's not a real business," Connie said. "We're just pretending."
"I still gotta know," Lula said. "I'm not putting my good name on just any old thing."
"For crissake," Connie said, flapping her arms and stamping her feet to keep warm. "It could be anything. We could cater parties."
"Yeah, that's believable," Lula said. "On account of we're all such gourmet cooks. The only time I turn my oven on is to heat up my apartment. And Stephanie probably don't even know where her oven is."
"Okay, how about a dry cleaner, or chauffeured limos, or dog walking--or we could buy a shrimp boat?" Connie offered.
"I like the limo idea," Lula said. "We could buy a Lincoln and dress up in bad-ass uniforms. Something with some bling."
"It's okay with me," Connie said.
I nodded and pulled my scarf up over my nose. "Me too. Let's go inside. I'm freezing."
"Wait," Lula said. "We need a name. You can't have a limo company without a name."
"Lucky Limos," Connie said.
"The hell," Lula said. "I'm not joining up with a limo company's got a lame name like that."
"Then you name it," Connie said to Lula. "I don't give a fig what the friggin' company is called. My feet are numb."
"It should be something that reflects on us," Lula said. "Like The Bitches Limos."
"That's a stupid name. No one's going to hire a limo from a company with a name like that," Connie said.
"I know some people," Lula said.
"Lovely Limos, Lonely Limos, Loser Limos, Lumpy Limos, Looney Limos, La De Da Limos, Limos for Liars, Lampshade Limos, Landfill Limos, Leaky Limos, Lemon Limos, Long Limos, Large Limos, Lazy Limos, Loosey Goosey Limos," I said.
Connie looked at me and grimaced.
"Maybe it should be called Lula's Limos," I said.
"Yeah, that got a ring to it," Lula said.
"Then it's a deal. Lula's Limos."
"Deal," Connie said. "Get out of my way, so I can get inside and defrost."
We all pushed through the front door to Dickie's building and stood in the foyer, sopping up the sudden blast of heat. The foyer opened to a reception area, and I was relieved to see an unfamiliar face behind the desk. If anyone had recognized me from my last visit, they would have immediately called for security.
"Let me do the talking," I said to Lula.
"Sure," Lula said. "I'll be quiet as a mouse. I'll zip my lip."
I approached the desk and made an attempt at demure. "We'd like to see Mr. Orr," I told the woman.
"Do you have an appointment?"
"No," I said. "I'm terribly sorry to drop in like this, but we're starting a new business, and we need some legal advice. We were down the street looking at real estate and thought we'd take a chance that Mr. Orr might have a moment for us."
"Of course," the woman said. "Let me see if he's available. The name?"
"Capital City Limos."
"Hunh," Lula said behind me.
The woman buzzed Dickie and relayed our information. She got off the phone and smiled. "He has a few minutes between appointments. You can take the elevator to your left. Second floor."
We all moved into the elevator, and I pushed the button for the second floor.
"What was that?" Lula wanted to know. "Capital City Limos?"
"It just popped out, but it sounds classy, right?"
"Not as classy as Lula's Limos," Lula said. "I'd call Lula's Limos any day of the week over Capital City Limos. Capital City Limos sounds like it got a stick up its ass, but you'd be in for a good time in Lula's Limos."
The door opened, and we spilled out of the elevator into another reception room with another new face at the desk.
"Mr. Orr is expecting you," the woman said. "His office is at the end of the corridor."
I led the parade in a sedate march to Dickie's office. I got to his open door and rapped lightly. I peeked in and smiled. Friendly. Non-threatening.
Dickie looked up and gasped.
He'd put on a few pounds since the last time I saw him. His brown hair was thinning at the top, and he was wearing glasses. He was dressed in a white shirt, red and blue striped tie, and dark blue suit. I'd thought he was handsome when I married him, and he was still a nice-looking guy, in a corporate sort of way. But he felt soft compared to Joe Morelli and Ranger, the two men who were currently in my life. Dickie lacked the heat and raw male energy that surrounded Morelli and Ranger. And of course, I now knew Dickie was an asshole.
"No need for alarm," I said calmly. "I'm here as a client. I needed a lawyer, and I thought of you."
"Lucky me," Dickie said.
I felt my eyes involuntarily narrow and did some mental deep breathing.
"Lula and Connie and I are thinking about starting a limo service," I said to Dickie.
"You bet your ass," Lula said. "Lula's Limos."
"And?" Dickie said.
"We don't know anything about starting a business," I said. "Do we need some sort of partnership agreement? Do we need a business license? Should we incorporate?"
Dickie slid a piece of paper across his desk. "Here are the law firm rates for services."
"Wow," I said, looking at the rates. "This is a lot of money. I don't know if we can afford you."
"Again, lucky me."
I felt my blood pressure edge up a notch. I planted my hands on my hips and glared down at him. "Am I to assume you would rather not have us as clients?"
"Let me think about that for a nanosecond," Dickie said. "Yes! Last time you were in my office you tried to kill me."
"That's an exaggeration. Maim you, yes. Kill you, probably not."
"Let me give you some free advice," Dickie said. "Keep your day jobs. The three of you in business will be a disaster, and if you last long enough to go into menopause as business partners, you'll turn into cannibals."
"Did I just get insulted?" Lula asked.
Okay, so he's a jerk, I said to myself. That doesn't change the mission. You have to keep your eye on the prize. You need to be cordial and find a way to plant the bugs. Hard to do when Dickie was in his chair behind the desk, and I was standing in front of it.
"You're probably right," I said to Dickie. I looked around and moved to the mahogany shelves that lined one wall. Law books interspersed with personal flotsam. Photographs, awards, a couple carved-wood ducks, some art glass. "You have a wonderful office," I told him. I went from photograph to photograph. A picture of Dickie with his brother. A picture of Dickie with his parents. A picture of Dickie with his grandparents. A picture of Dickie graduating from college. A picture of Dickie on some ski slope. No pictures of Dickie's ex-wife.
I'd inched my way along his wall, and I was now slightly behind him. I cleverly turned to admire the handsome desk set . . . and that was when I saw it. A picture of Dickie and Joyce Barnhardt. Dickie had his arm around Joyce, and they were laughing. And I knew it was recent because Dickie's forehead was unusually high in the photograph.
I sucked in some air and told myself to stay calm, but I could feel pressure building in my fingertips, and I worried my scalp might be on fire.
"Uh oh," Lula said, watching me.
"Is that J-J-Joyce?" I asked Dickie.
"Yeah," Dickie said. "We've reconnected. I had a thing with her a bunch of years ago, and I guess I never got over the attraction."
"I know exactly how many years ago. I caught you porking that pig on my dining room table fifteen minutes before I filed for divorce, you scum-sucking, dog-fucking lump of goose shit."
Joyce Barnhardt had been a fat, buck-toothed, sneaky little kid who spread rumors, picked at emotional wounds, spit on my dessert at lunchtime, and made my school years a nightmare. By the time she was twenty, the fat had all gone to the right places. She dyed her hair red, had her breasts enlarged and her lips plumped, and she set out on her chosen career of home wrecker and gold digger. Looking back on it all, I had to admit Joyce had done me a favor by being the catalyst to get me out of my marriage to Dickie. That didn't alter the fact that Joyce will never be my favorite person, though.
"That's right," Dickie said. "Now I remember. I thought I could finish up before you got home, but you came home early."
And next thing, Dickie was on the floor, my hands around his neck. He was yelling as best he could, considering I was choking him, and Lula and Connie were in the mix. By the time Lula and Connie wrestled me off him, the room was filled with clerical staff.
Dickie dragged himself up and looked at me wild-eyed. "You're all witnesses," he said to the roomful of people. "She tried to kill me. She's insane. She should be locked up in a looney bin. Call the police. Call animal control. Call my lawyer. I want a restraining order."
"You deserve Joyce," I said to Dickie. "What you don't deserve is this desk clock. It was a wedding present from my Aunt Tootsie." And I took the clock, turned on my heel, tipped my nose up ever so slightly, and flounced out of his office, Connie and Lula right behind me.
Dickie scrambled after us. "Give me that clock! That's my clock!"
Lula whipped out her Glock and pointed it at Dickie's nose. "Were you paying attention? Her Aunt Tootsie gave her that clock. Now get your little runt ass back in your office and close the door before I put a big hole in your head."
We took the stairs for fear the elevator might be too slow, barreled out the front door, and speed-walked down the block before the police could show up and haul me off to the clink. I saw the shiny black SUV parked across the street. Tinted windows. Motor running. I paused and gave the car a thumbs-up, and the lights flashed at me. Ranger was listening to the bugs I'd just left in Dickie's pockets.
We rammed ourselves into Lula's Firebird, and Lula rocketed the car away from the curb.
"I swear, I thought you were gonna burst into flames when you saw that picture of Dickhead and Joyce," Lula said. "It was like you had those glowing demon eyes you see in horror movies. I thought your head was gonna rotate."
"Yeah, but then a calm came over me," I said. "And I saw I had a chance to plant the bugs in Dickie's pockets."
"The calm must have come while you were squeezing his neck and banging his head against the floor," Connie said.
I blew out a sigh. "Yep. That was about the time."
We had food spread all over Connie's desk. Meatball subs in wax paper wrappers, a big tub of coleslaw, potato chips, pickles, and diet sodas.
"This was a good idea," I said to Lula. "I was starved."
"Guess going apeshit makes you hungry," Lula said. "What's up next?"
"I thought I'd do some phone work on Simon Diggery. Maybe I can get a lead on him that'll take me someplace other than a graveyard."
Diggery was a wiry little guy in his early fifties. His brown hair was shot with gray and tied back in a ponytail. His skin looked like old leather. And he had arms like Popeye from years of hauling dirt. Most often, he worked alone, but on occasion he could be seen walking the streets at two in the morning with his brother Melvin, shovels on their shoulders like Army rifles.
"You're not going to get anywhere with phone calls," Lula said. "Those Diggerys are wily."
I pulled a previous file on Diggery and copied phone numbers and places of employment. In the past, Diggery had delivered pizzas, bagged groceries, pumped gas, and cleaned kennel cages.
"It's a place to start," I said to Lula. "Better than knocking on their doors."
The Diggerys all lived together in a raggedy double-wide in Bordentown. Simon, Melvin, Melvin's wife, Melvin's six kids, Melvin's pet python, and Uncle Bill Diggery. If you knocked on the door to the double-wide, you'd only find the python. The Diggerys were like feral cats. They scattered into the woods behind their home the minute a car stopped in the driveway.
When the weather was especially bad and the ground was frozen, grave robbing was slow work and Simon would sometimes take odd jobs. I was hoping to catch him at one of those jobs. Since the jobs were random, the only way to learn of them was to trick a family member or neighbor into giving Simon up.
"What's the charge this time?" Lula asked.
I paged through the file. "Drunk and disorderly, destruction of private property, attempted assault."
Everyone knew Diggery was Trenton's premier grave robber, but his arrests were seldom associated with desecration of the dead. He was most often arrested for disorderly conduct and assault. When Simon Diggery got drunk, he swung a mean shovel.
I gathered my information together and stuffed it into my bag along with the clock. "I'm working at home for the rest of the day."
"I feel like working at home until July," Lula said. "I'm fed up with this weather."
I'd just gotten into my car when my mom called on my cell.
"Where are you?" she wanted to know. "Are you at the bail bonds office?"
"I was just leaving."
"I was wondering if you would stop at Giovichinni's for me on your way home. Your father is out in the taxi all day, and my car won't start. I think I need a new battery. I want a half-pound of liverwurst, a half-pound of ham, a half-pound of olive loaf, and a half-pound of turkey. Then you can get me some Swiss cheese and some good rye. And a rump roast. And get an Entenmann's. Your grandmother likes the raspberry coffee cake."
"Sure," I said. "I'm on my way."
The bail bonds office sits with its back to downtown Trenton and its front to a small ethnic neighborhood known as the Burg. I was born and raised in the Burg, and while I now live outside Burg limits, I'm still tethered to it by family and history. Once a Burgerbit, always a Burgerbit. Giovichinni's is a small family-owned deli a short distance down on Hamilton, and it's the Burg deli of choice. It's also a hotbed of gossip, and I was certain news of my rampage was circulating through every corner of the Burg, including Giovichinni's.
I was currently driving a burgundy Crown Vic that used to be a cop car. I'd needed a car fast, and this was the only car I could afford at Crazy Iggy's Used Car Emporium. I promised myself the Vic was temporary, put it in gear, and motored to Giovichinni's.
I hurried through the store, head down, all business, hoping no one would mention Dickie. I walked away from the butcher unscathed, rushed past Mrs. Landau and Mrs. Ruiz without saying hello, and I stood in line at the checkout behind Mrs. Martinelli. Thank goodness, she didn't speak English. I looked past Mrs. Martinelli and knew my luck had run out. Lucy Giovichinni was at the register.
"I hear you trashed your ex's office this morning," Lucy said, checking my groceries. "Is it true you threatened to kill him?"
"No! I was there with Lula and Connie. We had some legal issues we wanted to run by him. Honestly, I don't know how these rumors get started."
And this was only the beginning. I could see it coming. This was going to turn into a disaster of biblical proportions.
I carried my bags to the Vic, loaded them into the trunk along with Aunt Tootsie's desk clock, and got behind the wheel. By the time I reached my parent's house, sleet was slanting onto the windshield. I parked in the driveway and dragged the bags to the front door, where my Grandma Mazur was waiting.
Grandma Mazur came to live with my parents when my Grandpa Mazur bypassed the FDA and took his trans-fat needs to a higher authority.
"Did you get the coffee cake?" Grandma asked.
"Yep. I got the coffee cake." I slid past her and carried everything to the kitchen, where my mother was ironing.
"How long has she been ironing?" I asked Grandma.
"She's been at it for about twenty minutes. Ever since the call came in about you sending Dickie to the hospital and then eluding the police."
My mother ironed when she was stressed. Sometimes she ironed the same shirt for hours.
"I didn't send Dickie to the hospital. And there were no police involved." At least none that I ran across. "Lula and Connie and I went to Dickie for some legal advice and somehow these rumors got started."
My mother stopped ironing and set the iron on end. "I never hear rumors about Miriam Zowicki's daughter, or Esther Marchese's daughter, or Elaine Rosenbach's daughter. Why are there always rumors about my daughter?"
I cut myself a slice of coffee cake, wolfed it down, and crammed my hands into my jeans pockets to keep from eating the whole cake.
Grandma was stowing the food in the fridge. "Stephanie and me are just colorful people, so we get talked about a lot. Look at all the crazy things they say about me. I swear, people will say anything."
Copyright © 2007 by Evanovich, Inc. All rights reserved.