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
He almost raised an eyebrow. “That’s it?”
“How much am I paying you?”
“If you want more money, you’re going to have to perform more services,” he said.
“Are you flirting with me again?”
“No. I’m trying to bribe you.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Would you like to think about it over dinner?”
“No can do,” I said. “I promised Lula I’d test-drive some barbecue sauce with her.”
I DROPPED INTO the office a little after five. Connie was shuffling papers around and Lula was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s Lula? I thought we were supposed to eat barbecue tonight?”
“Turns out, Lula only has a hot plate in her apartment, and she couldn’t get the ribs to fit on it, so she had to find someplace else to cook.”
“She could have used my kitchen.”
“Yeah, she considered that, but we didn’t have a key. And we thought you might not have a lot of equipment.”
“I have a pot and a fry pan. Is she at your house?”
“Are you insane? No way would I let her into my kitchen. I won’t even let her work the office coffeemaker.”
“So where is she?”
“She’s at your parents’ house. She’s been there all afternoon, cooking with your grandmother.”
Oh boy. My father is Italian descent and my mother is Hungarian. From the day I was born to this moment, I can’t remember ever seeing anything remotely resembling barbecue sauce in my parents’ house. My parents don’t even have a grill. My mom
hot dogs and what would pass for a hamburger.
“I guess I’ll head over there and see how it’s going,” I said to Connie. “Do you want to come with me?”
“Not even a little.”
MY PARENTS AND my Grandma Mazur live in a narrow two-story house that shares a common wall with another narrow two-story house. The three-hundred-year-old woman living in the attached house painted her half lime green because the paint was on sale. My parents’ half is painted mustard yellow and brown. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. Neither house is going to make
, but they feel right for the neighborhood and they look like home.
I parked at the curb, behind Lula’s Firebird, and I let myself into the house. Ordinarily, my grandmother or mother would be waiting for me at the door, driven there by some mystical maternal instinct that alerts them to my approach. Today they were occupied in the kitchen.
My father was hunkered down in his favorite chair in front of the television. He’s retired from the post office and now drives a cab part-time. He picks up a few people early morning to take to the train station, but mostly the cab is parked in our driveway or at the lodge, where my father plays cards and shoots the baloney with other guys his age looking to get out of the house. I shouted
and he grunted a response.
I shoved through the swinging door that separated kitchen from dining room and sucked in some air. There were racks of ribs laid out on baking sheets on the counter, pots and bowls of red stuff, brown stuff, maroon stuff on the small kitchen table, shakers of cayenne, chili pepper, black pepper, plus bottles of various kinds of hot sauce, and a couple cookbooks turned to the barbecue section, also on the table. The cookbooks, Lula, and Grandma were dotted with multicolored sauce. My mother stood glassy-eyed in a corner, staring out at the car crash in her kitchen.
“Hey, girlfriend,” Lula said. “Hope you’re hungry, on account of we got whup-ass shit here.”
Grandma and Lula looked like Jack Sprat and his wife. Lula was all swollen up and voluptuous, busting out of her clothes, and Grandma was more of a deflated balloon. Gravity hadn’t been kind to Grandma, but what Grandma lacked in collagen she made up for with attitude and bright pink lipstick. She’d come to live with my parents when my Grandfather Mazur went in search of life everlasting at the all-you-can-eat heavenly breakfast buffet.
“This here’s a humdinger dinner we got planned,” Grandma said. “I never barbecued before, but I think we got the hang of it.”
“Your granny’s gonna be my assistant at the cook-off,” Lula said to me. “And you could be my second assistant. Everybody’s got to have two assistants.”
“We’re gonna get chef hats and coats so we look professional,” Grandma said. “We’re even gonna get our names stitched on. And I’m thinking of making this a new career. After I get the hat and the coat, I might go get a chef job in a restaurant.”
“Not me,” Lula said. “I’m not working in no restaurant. After I win the contest, I’m gonna get a television show.”
“Maybe I could help you with that on my day off,” Grandma said. “I always wanted to be on television.”
I took a closer look at the ribs. “How did you cook these?”
“We baked them,” Lula said. “We were supposed to grill them, but we haven’t got no grill, so we just baked the crap out of them in the oven. I don’t think it matters, anyways, after we get the sauce on them. That’s what we’re fixin’ to do now.”
“We got a bunch of different sauces we’re trying out,” Grandma said. “We bought them in the store and then we doctored them up.”
“I don’t think that’s allowed,” I said. “This is supposed to be your own sauce recipe.”
Lula dumped some hot sauce and chili pepper into the bowl of red sauce. “Once it gets out of its bottle, it’s my sauce. And besides, I just added my secret ingredients.”
“What if they want to see your recipe?”
“Nuh-ah. No one gets to see Lula’s recipe,” Lula said, wagging her finger at me. “Everybody’ll be stealing it. I give out my recipe, and next thing it’s in the store with someone else’s name on it. No sir, I’m no dummy. I’m gonna take the winning recipe to my deathbed.”
“Should I start putting the sauce on these suckers?” Grandma asked Lula.
“Yeah. Make sure everybody gets all the different sauces. Since I’m the chef, I got the most refined taste buds, but we want to see what other people think, too.”
Grandma slathered sauce on the ribs, and Lula eyeballed them.
“I might want to add some finishing touches,” Lula said, pulling jars off my mother’s spice rack, shaking out pumpkin pie spices. “These here ribs are gonna be my holiday ribs.”
“I would never have thought of that,” Grandma said.
“That’s why I’m the chef and you’re the helper,” Lula said. “I got a creative flare.”
“What are we eating besides ribs?” I asked.
Lula looked over at me. “Say what?”
“You can’t just serve ribs to my father. He’ll want vegetables and gravy and potatoes and dessert.”
“Hunh,” Lula said. “This is a special tasting night and all he’s gettin’ is ribs.”
My mother made the sign of the cross.
“Gee,” I said. “Look at the time. I’m going to have to run. I have work to do. Rex is waiting for me. I think I’m getting a cold.”
My mother reached out and grabbed me by my T-shirt. “I was in labor twenty-six hours with you,” she said. “You owe me. The least you could do is see this through to the end.”
“Okay,” Lula said. “Now we put these ribs back into the oven until they look like they been charcoaled.”
Twenty minutes later, my father took his seat at the head of the table and stared down at his plate of ribs. “What the Sam Hill is this?” he said.
“Gourmet barbecue ribs,” Grandma told him. “We made them special. They’re gonna have us rolling in money.”
“Why are they black? And where’s the rest of the food?”
“They’re black because they’re supposed to look grilled. And this is all the food. This is a tasting menu.”
My father mumbled something that sounded a lot like
taste, my ass
. He pushed his ribs around with his fork and squinted down at them. “I don’t see any meat. All I see is bone.”
“The meat’s all in tasty morsels,” Lula said. “These are more pickin’-up ribs instead of knife-and-fork ribs. And they’re all different. We gotta figure out which we like best.”
My mother nibbled on one of her ribs. “This tastes a little like Thanksgiving,” she said.
My father had a rib in his hand. “I’ve got one of them, too,” he said. “It tastes like Thanksgiving after the oven caught on fire and burned up all the meat.”
What I had on my plate was charred beyond recognition. I loved Grandma and Lula a lot, but not enough to eat the ribs. “You might have cooked these a smidgeon too long,” I said.
“You could be right,” Lula said. “I expected them to be juicier. I think the problem is I bought grillin’ ribs, and we had to make them into oven ribs.” She turned to Grandma. “What’s your opinion of the ribs? Did you try them all? Is there some you like better than others?”
“Hard to tell,” Grandma said, “being that my tongue is on fire.”
“Yeah,” Lula said. “I made one of them real spicy ’cause that’s the way I like my ribs and my men. Nice and hot.”
My father was gnawing on a rib, trying to get something off it. He was making grinding, sucking sounds and really concentrating.
“You keep sucking like that, and you’re gonna give yourself a hernia,” Grandma said.
“It’d be less painful than eating these burned black, tastes like monkey shit, dry as an old maid’s fart bones.”
“Excuse me,” Lula said. “Are you trash-talkin’ my ribs? ’Cause I’m not gonna put up with slander on my ribs.”
My father had a grip on his knife, and I thought the only thing stopping him from plunging it into someone’s chest was he couldn’t decide between Grandma and Lula.
“Are you really going to enter the competition?” I asked Lula.
“I already did. I filled out my form and gave it over to the organizer. He wanted me to do a favor for him, and I said
. I said I don’t do that no more. Not that I don’t still have my skills, but I moved on with my life, you see what I’m sayin’.”
“Did he take your form anyway?”
“Yeah. I got pictures of him from when he was a customer.”
“You’d blackmail him?”
“I like to think of it as reminders of happy times,” Lula said. “No need to negatize it. What happens is, he looks at the picture of himself and thinks bein’ with me was better than a fork in the eye. And then he thinks it’s special if that shit stay between him and me and for instance don’t be seen on YouTube. And then he takes my contest application and gives it the stamp of approval.”
“You got a way with people,” Grandma said.
“It’s a gift,” Lula said.
“I’m making myself a peanut butter and olive sandwich,” I said. “Anyone else want one?”
“I got to go to the lodge,” my father said, pushing away from the table.
I figured he might get there eventually, but he’d stop at Cluck-in-a-Bucket on the way.
“I don’t need a sandwich,” Lula said. “But I’ll help clean the kitchen.”
Lula, Grandma, my mother, and I all trooped into the kitchen and set to work.
“I don’t see any more barbecue sauce anywhere,” Grandma finally said. “The floor’s clean, the counters are clean, the stove’s clean, and the dishes and pots are clean. Only thing dirty is me, and I’m too pooped to get clean.”
“I hear you,” Lula said. “I’m goin’ home, and I’m goin’ to bed.”
I DROVE BACK to my apartment, changed into comfy worn-out flannel pajamas, and was about to settle in to watch television and
bang, bang, bang
. Someone was hammering on my door. I looked through the security peephole at Lula.
“I been shot at,” she said when I let her in. “I’m lucky I’m not dead. I parked in front of my house, and I got out of my car, and just as I got to my front porch, these two guys jumped out of the bushes at me. It was the guys who whacked Stanley Chipotle, and the one had a meat cleaver, and the other tried to grab me.”
“Are you serious?”
“Fuckin’ A. Don’t I look serious? I’m friggin’ shakin’. Look at my hand. Don’t it look shaky?”
We looked at her hand, but it wasn’t shaking.
“Well, it used to be shakin’,” she said. “Anyways, I hit the one asshole in the face with my pocketbook, and I kicked the other one in the nuts, and I turned and ran back to my car and took off. And one of them shot at me while I was driving away. He put bullet holes in my Firebird. I mean, I can stand for a lot of shit, but I don’t tolerate bullet holes in my Firebird. What kind of a moron would do that, anyway? It’s a Firebird, for crissake!”
“But you’re okay?”
“Hell yeah, I’m okay. Don’t I look okay? I’m just freakin’ is all. I need a doughnut or something.” She went to my kitchen and started going through cabinets. “You don’t got nothin’ in here. Where’s your Pop-Tarts? Where’s your Hostess Twinkies and shit? Where’s your Tastykakes? I need sugar and lard and some fried crap.”
“Did you call the police?”
“Yeah. I called them from my car. I told them I was coming here.”
I got out my only fry pan, put a big glob of butter in it, slathered a lot of Marshmallow Fluff between two slices of worthless white bread, and fried it up for Lula.
“Oh yeah,” Lula said when she bit into the bread and Fluff. “This is what I’m talkin’ about. I feel better already. Another four or five of these, and I’m gonna be real calm.”
There was a polite knock at the door, and I opened it to two uniforms. Carl Costanza and Big Dog. I made First Communion with Carl, and Big Dog had been his partner long enough that I felt like I made communion with him, too.
“What’s up?” Carl said.
“I been shot at,” Lula said. “That’s what’s up. And before that I almost got my head chopped off. It was terrifyin’.”
Carl looked at me. “This isn’t like the time she fell in the grave and thought the devil was after her, is it?”
“Your ass,” Lula said to Carl.
“Just asking,” Carl said.
“I got bullet damage to my Firebird,” Lula told him. “It wasn’t done by no devil, either. It was done by a certified killer.”
Morelli appeared behind Carl. Morelli looked like he’d fallen asleep watching the ballgame, was jolted awake by dispatch, and reluctantly dragged his ass out to investigate. His black hair was overdue for a cut and curling along his neck in waves. His five o’clock shadow was way beyond shadow. He was wearing running shoes, jeans, and a faded navy blue sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows.
“I’ll take it,” he said to Carl and Big Dog.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him.
“I’m assigned to the Chipotle murder. Dispatch got a report of attempted murder by the same perps.”
“That’s right,” Lula said. “I almost got my head chopped off. It was the same two idiots. And the one had a meat cleaver. Just like he used on Stanley Chipotle. Biggest meat cleaver I’ve ever seen. And this one with the meat cleaver was giggling. Not normal giggling, either. It was eerie. It was like horror movie giggling.”