Read Finger Lickin' Fifteen Online

Authors: Janet Evanovich

Tags: #Fiction - General, #General, #Romance, #Fiction, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Trenton (N.J.), #Mystery Fiction, #Humorous Fiction, #Large Type Books, #Mystery, #Plum, #Women bounty hunters, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective, #Humorous, #Fiction - Mystery, #New Jersey, #Stephanie (Fictitious character), #Suspense, #American Mystery & Suspense Fiction, #Bail bond agents, #Adult, #Humour, #Police, #Mystery & Thrillers, #Trenton (N. J.), #Cooks - Crimes against, #Cooks, #Police - New Jersey

Finger Lickin' Fifteen (2 page)

BOOK: Finger Lickin' Fifteen
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I hustled from my car to my apartment, stripped, and jumped into the shower. I was approaching boiled lobster skin tone when I finally emerged and wrapped myself in a towel. I stepped out of the bathroom and spotted Ranger lounging in the club chair across from my bed. I gave a startled yelp and jumped back into the bathroom.

“Babe,” Ranger said.

I stuck my head out and looked at him. “What are you doing here?”

“I need to talk to you.”

“You could have called. Or how about ringing my doorbell?”

Ranger looked like he was thinking about smiling. His attention focused on the top of my towel and slowly moved to the bottom hem that hung a half-inch below my doodah. His brown eyes dilated black, and I took a stronger grip on my towel.

Ranger was the second biggest complication in my life, and now that Morelli was out of the picture, I supposed Ranger was elevated to numero uno. He’s close to six foot, one way or the other, is Latino, with medium brown skin and dark brown hair cut short. His teeth are white and even, and he has a killer smile that is seen only on special occasions. He dresses in black, and today he was wearing a black T-shirt and black cargo pants. His given name is Carlos Manoso. His street name, Ranger, is a holdover from time spent in Special Forces. These days, he does the occasional high-risk bond enforcement job, and is the managing partner of a security firm located in a stealth building in center city. I’ve seen him naked, and you can take it to the bank when I tell you he’s all hard muscle and perfect in every possible way. And I mean
every
possible way.

Ranger and I have three things in common. We’re the same age. We’re both single. And we both were previously married for about ten seconds. That’s where the common ground ends. I’m an open book with a lot of blank pages. His book is filled with life experience but written in disappearing ink. I have three locks on my front door, plus a sliding bolt, and I was sure they were all in place. Somehow, this never stops Ranger. He’s a man of mysterious talents.

Ranger crooked his finger at me. “Come here.”

“No way.”

“Afraid?”

“Cautious.”

“That’s no fun,” Ranger said.

“I didn’t know you were interested in fun.”

There was a very slight curve to the corners of his mouth. “I have my moments.”

I had a big, cuddly pink robe in my closet, but I had to cross in front of Ranger to get to it. I wasn’t worried Ranger would jump me. My fear was that if I got too close, I’d get sucked into his force field, and I’d jump
him
. And jumping Ranger was a dangerous deal. He’d made it clear that his emotional involvement would always have limitations. Plus, there was Morelli. Morelli was currently out of the picture, but he’d been out before, and he’d always slid back in. Getting naked with Ranger would make a reconciliation with Morelli much more difficult. Of course, that wasn’t currently an issue, because I wasn’t in a mood to reconcile anything.

“What did you want to talk to me about?” I asked him.

“Three of my clients have been robbed in the last two months. All three had state-of-the-art security systems. And in all three cases the systems were shut down for exactly fifteen minutes and then reactivated. My clients weren’t home at the time. There was no sign of physical tampering.”

“I see them using gizmos in the movies that can figure out codes.”

“This isn’t a movie. This is real life.”

“Someone hacked into your system?”

“No.”

“That leaves an unpleasant possibility,” I said to Ranger.

“In theory, there are only a few people in my organization who have access to the codes, and I can’t imagine any of those men being involved in this. For that matter,
everyone
I employ is rigorously screened. Plus, the entire building, with the exception of private living spaces, is monitored twenty-four hours.”

“Have you changed the codes?”

“I changed them after each break-in.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah,” Ranger said. “Someone on the inside is beating my system.”

“Why are you telling this to me?”

“I need you to come in and snoop around without raising suspicion. I can’t trust anyone already inside.”

“Even Tank?”

“Even Tank.”

Tank is exactly what his name would imply. He’s big and solid inside and out. He’s second in command at Rangeman, and he’s the guy who watches Ranger’s back.

“You’ve worked for me before doing computer searches, and that’s where I’d like to put you again. Ramon has been doing the searches, but he’d like to get out of the cubby and back on the street. You’d be working on the fifth floor in the control room, but you’d have total access within the building. Every man in my organization knows you and understands that you’re my personal property, so they’re not going to talk freely when you’re around, but they’re also not going to think I hired you to snoop. They’ll assume I gave you the job to have you close to me.”

“Personal property?”

“Babe, you’re the only one who would question it.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “I am
not
personal property. A car is personal property. A shirt is personal property. A human being is not personal property.”

“In my building, we share cars and shirts. We don’t share women. In my building, you’re my personal property. Deal with it.”

At a later time, when I was alone and had given it some thought, I’d probably find the flaw in that reasoning, but oddly enough it made sense at the moment.

“What about my cases at the bonds office?” I asked him.

“I’ll help you.”

This was a really good deal, because I was a crappy bounty hunter and Ranger was the best. Not to mention I’d be drawing salary from Rangeman. All I had to do was keep my hands off Ranger and everything would be peachy.

“Okay,” I said. “When do you want me to start?”

“Now. Do you have uniforms left from the last time you worked for me?”

“I have a couple T-shirts, and I have some black jeans.”

“Good enough. I’ll have Ella order some more.”

Ella and her husband, Louis, serve as live-in property managers for Rangeman. They keep the building clean and running efficiently, and they keep the men fed and clothed. They’re both in their early fifties, and Ella is dark-haired, and dark-eyed, and pretty in a no-nonsense kind of way.

“I assume you still have your key fob?” Ranger asked.

“Yep.”

The key fob got me into the high-security Rangeman building, and it also got me into Ranger’s private seventh-floor apartment. In the past, I’d used the apartment when I felt I was in danger. It wasn’t a move I made lightly, because I had to weigh the danger at hand against the danger of living with Ranger.

Ranger’s cell phone buzzed, and he looked at the screen. “I have to go,” he said. “Tank and Ramon are expecting you. Ramon will bring you up to speed and then you should be able to take over. You know the drill.” His eyes moved from my face to the towel and then back to my face. “Tempting,” he said. And he left.

TWO

I DRIED MY hair and put on makeup that stopped just short of slut. I dressed in black jeans and one of the black V-neck stretchy girl-type T-shirts I had left from my last stint at Rangeman. I topped the T-shirt with a black Rangeman hooded sweatshirt, grabbed my bag, and headed out.

I stopped at the bonds office on my way to Rangeman. Connie was alone when I walked in.

“Oh crap,” Connie said, eyeballing my outfit. “You aren’t quitting again, are you?”

“No. The Rangeman job is temporary.”

“What about the stack of skips I gave you last week?”

“Ranger is going to help me.”

“My lucky day,” Connie said.

“Have you heard anything from Lula?”

“She called to say she was on her way back to the office, and she had a bucket of chicken.”

That was worth the wait. I could get lunch at Rangeman, but it would be tuna salad on multigrain bread, and it would be made with fat-free mayo. And for dessert, I could score an apple. Ranger encouraged healthy eating. Truth is, Ranger was a tyrant. If you worked at Rangeman, you had to be physically strong, mentally tough, loyal without question, and survive random drug tests. I was exempt from all those things, and that was a good deal, because the only one I could fly through was the drug test.

I saw Morelli’s green SUV pull to the curb and make a Lula drop. Lula slammed the passenger-side door closed and waved Morelli off as best she could considering her arms were filled with fast-food buckets and bags and drink holders. She used her ass to push open the door to the bonds office and crossed to Connie’s desk to dump her food.

“I got that done and over,” Lula said. “And it wasn’t so bad as I expected, on account of while I was there the head came in, so that speeded up a lot of stuff.”

Connie leaned forward a little. “The head came in?”

“Yeah. One of the camera dudes at the television station went outside to smoke, and when he opened the back door, he saw a head sitting by the Dumpster. And here’s the best part. This guy recognized the head right off. Turns out the head belongs to Stanley Chipotle.”

“The celebrity chef?”

“Yep. He’s on The Food Channel all the time. I don’t know why I didn’t recognize him. Guess I’m used to seeing him in his chef’s clothes. You know how he wears that puffy chef hat, and lately, he’s always got on the red apron advertising his barbecue sauce. Anyway, they brought the head in, and I identified it, and then Morelli said I could go home.” Lula opened the bucket of chicken and dug in. “Help yourself,” she said. “There’s plenty.”

Connie poked around in the bucket, looking for a recognizable chicken part. “What was Chipotle doing in Trenton? Did anyone know?”

“The camera dude said Chipotle was supposed to be in a big-deal national barbecue cook-off that’s gonna be held at Gooser Park. He was gonna be talking about it on the station’s cooking show this afternoon, but since only his head showed up, they got someone from Dawn Diner to make rice pudding instead.”

“Chipotle’s famous for his barbecue sauce,” Connie said.

I polished off a mystery chicken part and selected another. I was out of the loop. I never watched The Food Channel, and I didn’t do a lot of cooking. Mostly, I mooched food from my parents.

“What are you doing dressed up like Rangegirl?” Lula asked me.

“I’m temporarily filling in on a desk job.” I glanced at my watch. “I need to run. Ramon is waiting for me.”

Rangeman is housed in a small office building on a side street in center city Trenton. The inside has been renovated into a high-tech, self-contained, secure corporate Batcave that operates 24/7. Ranger’s private apartment occupies the top floor. Ella and Louis live on the sixth floor. The control room, dining area, and assorted offices are located on the fifth floor. And the remaining space is given over to efficiency apartments made available to some of the Rangeman employees, a gym, a gun range, meeting rooms, and more offices. The exterior façade of the building is nondescript, with only a small brass nameplate beside the front door to tell the world this is Rangeman.

I used my key fob to access the underground garage. I parked and fobbed my way into the elevator and up to the fifth floor. There were three uniformed men in the control room, watching monitors, and four men were in the kitchen area. All eyebrows raised when I stepped out of the elevator. I smiled and gave everyone a small wave and went directly to Ramon’s cubicle.

“Hallelujah,” Ramon said when he saw me. “I’m going back out into the land of the living. I hate this cubicle. The sun doesn’t shine in here. There isn’t even a window. After a half hour at this desk, I’ve got a cramp in my ass.”

Ramon had dark hair, dark eyes, and dark skin, and eyelashes I’d kill for. He was a couple inches taller than me, and looked to be around my age. He had pierced ears but no earrings. Rangeman employees weren’t allowed jewelry other than a watch when they were on the job.

“How did you get behind the computer in the first place? I thought you were a car guy.”

“I got a speeding ticket, and Ranger stuck me here. This is like the dunce desk. I was lucky I didn’t get fired.”

Great. I was working the dunce desk.

“What did you do to deserve this?” Ramon asked me.

“I needed extra money, and this is what Ranger had available.”

“Gotta pay the bills,” Ramon said. “Let me show you what I’ve got on my desktop.”

An hour later, I was on my own. A variety of searches passed through this position. There were background searches on employees and prospective clients, searches for outsourced services, plus security searches requested by clients.

Some of it was interesting, but after an hour of staring at the screen, it all grew monotonous. By five o’clock, I had a cramp in my ass. I put my computer to sleep and walked the short distance down the hall to Ranger’s office.

“Knock, knock,” I said.

Ranger looked up at me. “Babe.”

“I have a cramp in my ass.”

“I could kiss it and make it better.”

“I was thinking more along the line of a new chair,” I told him.

“Tell Louis. He’ll get you whatever you want. Do you have plans for tonight?”

“No.”

“Hang out for another hour. I want to talk to you, but I need to go through this paperwork first.”

A little after six, Ranger ambled into my cubicle and collected me.

“Ella has dinner ready upstairs,” he said. “We can eat and talk.”

There was a time, not too long ago, when Ranger’s address was a vacant lot. It turns out besides being a very tough guy, he’s also a very smart businessman, and he now lives in an extremely upscale one-bedroom inner sanctum of civilized calm. The apartment was tastefully decorated by a professional, and is now maintained by Ella. The furniture is comfortable contemporary. Leather, chrome, dark woods, with earth-tone accents. It’s clearly masculine but not overpowering. The apartment feels surprisingly warm in spite of the fact that there are no personal touches. No family photographs. No favorite books stacked at bedside. No clutter. I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in Ranger’s apartment, and I’ve always thought it was a place where he slept but didn’t live. I’ve never been able to find the place he would call
home
. Maybe it doesn’t exist. Maybe he carries it inside him. Or maybe it’s a place he hasn’t yet discovered.

We were silent in the elevator and small foyer that preceded Ranger’s apartment. He fobbed his door open, and I stepped into the hall, with its subdued lighting and plush carpet. Ranger dropped his keys onto a small silver tray on the sideboard and followed me to the kitchen. His appliances were top-of-the-line stainless. His countertops were granite. Ella kept everything immaculate. I lifted the lid to the blue Le Creuset casserole dish on the stovetop. Chicken, rice, spicy sausage, and vegetables.

“This smells wonderful,” I said to Ranger. “You’re lucky to have Ella.”

“If I can’t stop these break-ins, I’m not going to have Ella or anyone else.”

“What about security cameras? Weren’t any of the thefts caught on tape?”

“All the burglaries were residential with no cameras in place.” Ranger poured out two glasses of wine and handed one to me. “Without going into detail, I can tell you there are a lot of safeguards in the system to prevent this from happening.”

“But it happened anyway.”

“Three times.”

“Is there anyone you especially want me to watch?”

“Martin Beam is the newest man in the building. He’s been with me for seven months. Chester Rodriguez and Victor Zullick were on deck for all three break-ins. There are four men who rotate shifts monitoring the code computer. Beyond that, I have nothing.”

“You’ve done recent background checks?”

“So far as I can tell, none of my men are in trouble, financial or otherwise.”

I ladled the stew onto plates, Ranger cut into a loaf of bread set out on a breadboard, and we took our wine and plates of food to the table, where Ella had laid out place-mats and silverware.

“Do you think this is someone needing money?” I asked Ranger. “Or do you think it’s someone trying to ruin you?”

“Hard to tell, but if I had to choose, I’d go with trying to ruin me.”

“That’s ugly.”

Ranger selected a slice of bread. “The men I hire aren’t stupid. They have to know stealing the codes will end badly, and the items and cash taken can’t compensate them for the risk. They’d be better off stealing from an ATM.”

“Was there a pattern to the break-ins?”

Ranger refilled my wineglass. “Only that they all happened at night.”

I’ve never known Ranger to have more than one glass of wine or beer. And usually, he didn’t finish his first glass. Ranger never placed himself in a position of weakness. He sat with his back to the wall, and he was always sober. I, on the other hand, from time to time slipped into dangerous waters and counted on Ranger to scoop me out.

“So,” I said to him. “If I drink this second glass of wine, will you drive me home?”

“Babe, you have no alcohol tolerance. If you drink a second glass of wine, you won’t
want
to go home.”

I blew out a sigh and pushed the glass away. He was right. “I have five open cases that need immediate attention,” I told him. “You said you would help me.”

“Do you have the files with you?”

I went to the kitchen and retrieved my bag from the counter, handed the five files over to Ranger, and returned to my place at the table.

Ranger paged through the files while he ate.

“You have two armed robberies, one exhibitionist, a mid-level drug dealer, and an arsonist,” he said. “The dealer is a no-brainer. Kenny Hatcher. Better known as Marbles. I know where he works. He deals from the six hundred block of Stark Street.”

“I’ve been checking. He isn’t there.”

“He’s there. You just aren’t seeing him.”

I stared down at my dinner plate and wineglass. Empty. Damn. “Someone drank my wine,” I said to Ranger.

“That would be you.”

I looked around. “Do we have dessert?”

“No.”

Big surprise. Ranger
never
had dessert.

“Why can’t I see my drug dealer?” I asked him.

Ranger leaned back in his chair and watched me. The lion assessing his prey. “He’s using a runner,” Ranger said. “If you want to find Hatcher, you have to follow the runner.”

“How do I recognize the runner?”

“You pay attention.”

“Okay, I’ll give it another shot,” I said, pushing away from the table, taking the files from Ranger. “I’m going to Stark Street.”

I started to leave, and Ranger snagged me by the back of my shirt and dragged me up against him.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “You’re going to Stark Street
now
?”

“Yeah.”

“Alone?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

Ranger smiled down at me. I was amusing him.

“I can think of at least a half-dozen reasons,” he said. “Not the least of which is you’ll be the only one on Stark Street not carrying a gun. It’ll be like open season on Plum pudding.”

“I can take care of myself,” I told him.

“Maybe, but I can take care of you better.”

No argument there.

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