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Authors: Janet Evanovich

14 Fearless Fourteen

BOOK: 14 Fearless Fourteen
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CHAPTER ONE

In my mind, my kitchen is filled with crackers and cheese, roast
chicken leftovers, farm fresh eggs, and coffee beans ready to
grind. The reality is that I keep my Smith & Wesson in the
cookie jar, my Oreos in the microwave, a jar of peanut butter and
hamster food in the over-the-counter cupboard, and I have beer and
olives in the refrigerator. I used to have a birthday cake in the
freezer for emergencies, but I ate it.

Truth is, I would dearly love to be a domestic goddess, but the
birthday cake keeps getting eaten. I mean, you buy it, and you eat
it, right? And then where are you? No birthday cake. Ditto cheese
and crackers and eggs and the roast chicken leftovers (which were
from my mother). The coffee beans are light-years away. I don't own
a grinder. I guess I could buy two birthday cakes, but I'm afraid
I'd eat both.

My name is Stephanie Plum, and in my defense I'd like to say
that I have bread and milk on my shopping list, and I don't have
any communicable diseases. I'm five feet, seven inches. My hair is
brown and shoulder length and naturally curly. My eyes are blue. My
teeth are mostly straight. My manicure was pretty good three days
ago, and my shape is okay. I work as a bond enforcement agent for
my cousin Vinnie, and today I was standing in Loretta Rizzi's
kitchen, thinking not only was Loretta ahead of me in the
kitchen-needs-a-makeover race, but she made me look like a piker in
the Loose Cannon Club.

It was eight in the morning, and Loretta was wearing a long,
pink flannel nightgown and holding a gun to her
head.

“I'm gonna shoot myself,” Loretta said. “Not that it would
matter to you, because you get your money dead or alive,
right?”

“Technically, that's true,” I told her. “But dead is a pain in
the tuchus. There's paperwork.”

A lot of the people Vinnie bonds out are from my Chambersburg
neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey. Loretta Rizzi was one of those
people. I went to school with Loretta. She's a year older than me,
and she left high school early to have a baby. Now she was wanted
for armed robbery, and she was about to blow her brains
out.

Vinnie had posted Loretta's bond, and Loretta had failed to show
for her court appearance, so I was dispatched to drag her back to
jail. And as luck would have it, I walked in at a bad moment and
interrupted her suicide.

“I just wanted a drink,” Loretta said.

“Yeah, but you held up a liquor store. Most people would have
gone to a bar.”

“I didn't have any money, and it was hot, and I needed a Tom
Collins.” A tear rolled down Loretta's cheek. “I've been thirsty
lately,” she said.

Loretta is a half a head shorter than me. She has curly black
hair and a body kept toned by hefting serving trays for catered
affairs at the nrehouse. She hasn't changed much since high school.
A few crinkle lines around her eyes. A little harder set to her
mouth. She's Italian-American and related to half the Burg,
including my off-and-on boyfriend, Joe Morelli.

“This was your first offense. And you didn't shoot anyone.
Probably you'll get off with a hand-slap,” I told
Loretta.

“I had my period,” she said. “I wasn't thinking
right.”

Loretta lives in a rented row house on the edge of the Burg. She
has two bedrooms, one bath, a scrubbed-clean, crackerbox kitchen,
and a living room filled with secondhand furniture. Hard to make
ends meet when you're a single mother without a high school
diploma.

The back door swung open and my sidekick, Lula, stuck her head
in. “What's going on in here? I'm tired of waiting in the car. I
thought this was gonna be a quick pickup, and then we were going
for breakfast.”

Lula is a former 'ho, turned bonds office file clerk and
wheelman. She's a plus-size black woman who likes to squash herself
into too small clothes featuring animal print and spandex. Lula's
cup runneth over from head to toe.

“Loretta is having a bad morning,” I said.

Lula checked Loretta out. “I can see that. She's still in her
nightie.”

“Notice anything else?” I asked Lula.

“You mean like she's tryin' to style her hair with a Smith &
Wesson?”

“I don't want to go to jail,” Loretta said.

“It's not so bad,” Lula told her. “If you can get them to send
you to the workhouse, you'll get dental.”

“I'm a disgrace,” Loretta said.

Lula shifted her weight on her spike-heeled Manolo knock-offs.
“You be more of a disgrace if you pull that trigger. You'll have a
big hole in your head, and your mother won't be able to have an
open-casket viewing. And who's going to clean up the mess it'll
make in your kitchen?”

“I have an insurance policy,” Loretta said. “If I kill myself,
my son, Mario, will be able to manage until he can get a job. If I
go to jail, he'll be on his own without any money.”

“Insurance policies don't pay out on suicides,” Lula
said.

“Oh crap! Is that true?” Loretta asked me.

“Yeah. Anyway, I don't know why you're worried about that. You
have a big family. Someone will take care of Mario.”

“It's not that easy. My mother is in rehab from when she had the
stroke. She can't take him. And my brother, Dom, can't take him. He
just got out of jail three days ago. He's on
probation.”

“What about your sister?”

“My sister's got her hands full with her own kids. Her rat turd
husband left her for some pre-puberty lap dancer.”

“There must be someone who can baby-sit for you,” Lula said to
Loretta.

“Everyone's got their own thing going. And I don't want to leave
Mario with just anybody. He's very sensitive... and
artistic.”

I counted back and placed her kid in his early teens. Loretta
had never married, and so far as I know, she'd never fingered a
father for him.

“Maybe you could take him,” Loretta said to me.

“What? No. No, no, no, no.”

“Just until I can make bail. And then I'll try to find someone
more permanent.”

“If I take you in now, Vinnie can bond you out right
away.”

“Yeah, but if something goes wrong, I need someone to pick Mario
up after school.”

“What can go wrong?”

“I don't know. A mother worries about these things. Promise
you'll pick him up if I'm still in jail. He gets out at
two-thirty.”

“She'll do it,” Lula said to Loretta. “Just put the gun down and
go get dressed so we can get this over and done. I need coffee. I
need one of those extra-greasy breakfast sandwiches. I gotta clog
my arteries on account of otherwise the blood rushes around too
fast and I might get a dizzy spell.”

Lula was sprawled on the brown Naugahyde couch hugging the wall
in the bonds office, and Vinnie's office manager, Connie Rosolli,
was at her desk. Connie and the desk had been strategically placed
in front of Vinnie's inner-office door with the hope it would
discourage pissed-off pimps, bookies, and other assorted lowlifes
from rushing in and strangling Vinnie.

“What do you mean she isn't bonded out?” I asked Connie, my
voice rising to an octave normally only heard from Minnie
Mouse.

“She has no money to secure the bond. And no
assets.”

“That's impossible. Everyone has assets. What about her mother?
Her brother? She must have a hundred cousins living in a ten-mile
radius.”

“She's working on it, but right now she has nothing. Bupkus.
Nada. So Vinnie's waiting on her.”

“Yeah, and it's almost two-thirty,” Lula said. “You better go
get her kid like you promised.”

Connie swiveled her head toward me and her eyebrows went up to
her hairline.

“You promised to take care of Mario?”

“I said I'd pick him up if Loretta wasn't bonded out in time. I
didn't know there'd be an issue with her bond.”

“Oh boy,” Connie said. “Good luck with that one.”

“Loretta said he was sensitive and artistic.”

“I don't know about the sensitive part, but his art is limited
to spray paint. He's probably defaced half of Trenton. Loretta has
to pick him up from school because they won't let him on a school
bus.”

I hiked my bag onto my shoulder. “I'm just driving him home.
That was the deal.”

“There might be some gray area in the deal,” Lula said. “You
might've said you'd take care of him. And anyways, you can't dump
him in an empty house. You get child services after you for doin'
that.”

“Well, what the heck am I supposed to do with
him?”

Lula and Connie did I don't know shoulder shrugs.

“Maybe I can sign for Loretta's bond,” I said to
Connie.

“I don't think that'll fly,” Connie said. “You're the only
person I know who has fewer assets than Loretta.”

“Great.” I huffed out of the office and rammed myself into my
latest RO.S. car. It was a Nissan Sentra that used to be silver but
was now mostly rust. It had doughnut-size wheels, a Jaguar hood
ornament, and a bobble-head Tony Stewart doll in the back window. I
like Tony Stewart a lot, but seeing his head jiggling around in my
rearview mirror doesn't do much for me.

Unfortunately, he was stuck on with Crazy Glue and nothing short
of dismantling the car was going to get him out of my
life.

Loretta had given me a photo of Mario and a pickup location. I
cruised to a spot where a group of kids were shuffling around,
looking for their rides.

Easy to spot Mario. He resembled Morelli when Morelli was his
age. Wavy black hair and slim build. Some facial similarities,
although Morelli has always been movie star handsome and Mario was
a little short of movie star. Of course, I might have been
distracted by the multiple silver rings piercing his eyebrows,
ears, and nose. He was wearing black-and-white Converse sneakers,
stovepipe jeans with a chain belt, a black T-shirt with Japanese
characters, and a black denim jacket.

Morelli had been an early bloomer. He grew up fast and hard. His
dad was a mean drunk, and Morelli got good with his hands as a kid.
He could use them in a fight, and he could use them to coax girls
out of their clothes. The first time Morelli and I played doctor, I
was five years old, and he was seven. He's periodically repeated
the performance, and lately we seem to be a couple. He's a cop now,
and against all odds, he's mostly lost the anger he had growing
up.

He inherited a nice little house from his Aunt Rose and has
become domestic enough to own a dog and a toaster. He hasn't as yet
reached the crockpot, toilet seat down, live plant in the kitchen
level of domesticity.

Mario looked like a late bloomer. He was short for his age and
had “desperate geek” written all over him.

I got out of my car and walked to the group of kids. “Mario
Rizzi?”

“Who wants to know?”

“I do,” I said. “Your mother can't pick you up today. I promised
her I'd bring you home.”

This produced some moronic comments and snickers from Mario's
idiot friends.

“The name is Zook,” Mario said to me. “I don't answer to
Mario.”

I rolled my eyes, grabbed Zook by the strap on his backpack, and
towed him to my car.

“This is a piece of shit,” he said, hands dangling at his sides,
taking the car in.

“And?”

He shrugged and wrenched the door open. “Just
saying.”

I drove the short distance to the bonds office and pulled to the
curb.

“What's this?” he asked.

“Your mother's been returned to lockup because she failed to
show for her court appearance. She can't make her bail, and I can't
take you home to an empty house, so I'm parking you in the bonds
office until I can find a better place for you.”

“No.”

“What do you mean no? No isn't an option.”

“I'm not getting out of the car.”

“I'm a bounty hunter. I could rough you up or shoot you or
something if you don't get out of the car.”

“I don't think so. I'm just a kid. Juvie would be all over your
ass. And your eye is twitching.”

I hauled my cell phone out of my bag and dialed Morelli. “Help,”
I said.

“Now what?”

“You remember your cousin Loretta's kid, Mario?”

“Vaguely.”

“I've got him in my car, and he refuses to
leave.”

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

Zook was slouched down, watching me from the corner of his eye.
Arms crossed over his chest. Sullen. I blew out a sigh and told
Morelli the deal with Loretta.

“I'm off at four,” Morelli said. “If Loretta isn't bonded out by
then, I'll take the kid off your hands. In the meantime, he's all
yours, Cupcake.”

I disconnected and dialed Lula.

“Yeah?” Lula said.

“I'm outside, and I have Loretta's kid in the
car.”

Lula's face appeared in the front window to the bonds office. “I
see you and the kid. What's going on?”

“He won't get out of the car,” I said. “I thought you might help
persuade him.”

“Sure,” Lula said. “I could persuade the hell out of
him.”

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