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 (7 page)

BOOK: Finger Lickin' Fifteen
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I prowled through the second floor, peeking into offices, the kitchen, the storeroom. It all looked pretty normal. The president’s office was nice but not extravagant. Corner office with windows. Executive desk and fancy leather chair. Couple smaller chairs in front of the desk. Built-in bookcase behind the desk with an empty shelf. I guessed that was where the eggs used to be.

I sat in the fancy leather chair and swiveled a little, checking out the pictures on the desk. Balding, overweight guy with a cheesy mustache, posing with a preppy dark-haired woman and two little boys. The corporate family photo display placed next to the corporate pen-and-pencil set that some decorator probably requisitioned and the guy never used. Matching leather blotter. And alongside the desk was the matching corporate wastebasket. A single Snickers wrapper was in the wastebasket.

I called Ranger on my cell phone. “Where are you?” I asked.

“Downstairs with Gene Boran, the president of the company.”

“How did the thief know about the eggs?”

“The Trenton paper ran a feature on them two weeks ago.”

“Perfect.”

“Anything else?” Ranger asked.

“It looks like the cleaning crew came through here last night.”

“They left at eleven-thirty.”

“There’s a Snickers wrapper in the wastebasket.”

There was some discussion at the other end, and Ranger came back on. “Gene said he saw it on the floor, so he put it in the wastebasket.”

“It could be a clue,” I said to Ranger.

Ranger disconnected.

I ambled downstairs and slouched into a man-size chair in the lobby. The police had cleared out, and there were only two Rangeman employees left. Ranger spoke to the company president for another five minutes, they shook hands, and Ranger crossed the room to where I was sitting.

“I’m leaving Sal and Raphael here until the building opens for business,” Ranger said. “We can go back to Rangeman.”

“It isn’t even seven A.M.! Normal people are still asleep.”

“Is this going somewhere?” Ranger asked.

“Yes. It’s going to . . .
take Stephanie home so she can go back to bed
.”

“Babe, I’d be happy to take you back to bed.”

Unh. Mental head slap.

IT WAS ALMOST noon when I left my apartment for the second time that morning. I’d run out of Rangeman clothes, so I was dressed in jeans and a stretchy red V-neck T-shirt. My hair was freshly washed and fluffed. My eyes were enhanced with liner and mascara. My lips were comfy in Burt’s Bees lip balm.

I stopped at the bonds office on my way to Rangeman.

“Just in time for lunch,” Lula said when I walked in the door. “Me and Connie are feeling like we should try the chicken at the new barbecue place by the hospital.”

“That’s sacrilege. You always get your chicken at Cluck-in-a-Bucket.”

“Yeah, but we gotta do barbecue research. I don’t have my just-right gourmet barbecue sauce yet. I might have had it on the chicken last night, but the dogs run off with it. Anyways, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to shop around. And I hear the guy who owns the barbecue place is gonna be in the contest.”

“Sorry, no can do. I’m late for work.”

“Just tell Ranger you needed barbecue,” Lula said. “Everybody understands when the barbecue urge comes over you. And besides, there’s no place to park by that barbecue place. I need a ride up there. It’ll take you a minute, and it’s the least you can do since I rescued you from that embarrassing experience last night.”

“You didn’t rescue me! You pulled me down the stairs and let Junior escape.”

“Yeah, but people was watching me go ass-over-elbows down the stairs, and they hardly noticed you at all.”

That could be true. “Okay, I’ll give you a ride, but then I have to go to work.”

Lula hiked her purse onto her shoulder. “We got it all planned out what me and Connie want to eat. All’s I gotta do is run in and out.”

Lula and I stepped out of the office onto the sidewalk and stood for a moment squinting into the sun.

“This here’s a beautiful day,” Lula said. “I got a real good feeling about today.”

A black Mercedes with tinted windows pulled out of a parking space half a block away and cruised up to the bonds office. It slowed, the side window slid down, a gun barrel appeared, there was maniacal giggling, and four rounds were fired off.

I heard a bullet whistle past my ear, the plate-glass window behind me cracked, and Lula and I hit the ground. Connie kicked the bonds office door open and aimed a Glock at the Mercedes, but the car was already too far away.

“That asshole took out my computer,” Connie said.

Lula hauled herself up off the sidewalk and pulled her lime green spandex miniskirt down over her butt. “Someone call the police. Call the National Guard. Those guys are out to get me. That was one of those Chipotle killers behind that gun. I saw his idiot face. And I heard that crazy-ass giggling. Did someone get that license plate?”

Vinnie appeared in the doorway and cautiously peeked outside. “What’s going on?”

Vinnie was my rodent cousin. Good bail bondsman. Scary human being. Slicked-back hair, face like a ferret, dressed like Tony Soprano, had a body like Pee-wee Herman.

“Someone’s trying to kill Lula,” Connie said.

Vinnie put his hand to his heart. “That’s a relief. I thought they were after me.”

“It’s no relief to me,” Lula said. “I’m a nervous wreck. And stress like this is bad for your immune system. I read about it. I could get shingles or something.”

People from nearby businesses migrated onto the sidewalk, looked around, and realized it was just the bonds office getting shot at. Their faces registered that this was no big whoopity-do, and they drifted back into their buildings.

Lights flashed in the distance on Hamilton, and a fire truck and an EMS truck rumbled to a stop in front of the office.

“Hey!” I yelled to the fire truck. “You’re blocking me in. I have to go to work. We don’t need you.”

“Of course we need them,” Lula said. “Do you see that big beautiful man drivin’ that fire truck? I think I saw him on one of them Fire Truck Hunks calendars.” Lula stood on tiptoes in her spike heels and waved to him. “Yoohoo, sweetie! Here I am. I been shot at,” she called. “I might be faint. I might need some of that mouth-to-mouth.”

Ten minutes later, I was still waiting for the fire truck to take off, and Morelli strolled over.

“Now what?” he said.

“A guy in a black Mercedes shot at Lula. She said it was one of the Chipotle killers.”

Morelli cut his eyes to Lula. “Guess they didn’t tag her.”

“No, but they got Connie’s computer.”

“Anyone see the license plate?”

“Nope.”

“I like this red shirt you’re wearing,” Morelli said, tracing along the neckline with his fingertip. “Did you get fired from your new job already?”

“No. I ran out of black clothes.”

“What happens if you don’t dress in black? Do you have to go to detention? Do you get fined?”

I did an eye roll.

“I’m serious,” Morelli said, laugh lines crinkling the corners of his eyes. “Are all the towels in the building black? Is there black toilet paper?”

I did a five-count of deep breathing as an alternative to kicking him in the knee.

“If you could get that fire truck to move, I could go to work,” I finally said.

Morelli was still smiling. “You would owe me.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“A night of wild gorilla sex.”

“Good grief.”

“How bad do you want to go to work?” he asked.

“Wild gorilla sex isn’t going to happen. I’m not interested. I’m done with men.”

“Too bad,” he said. “I learned some new moves.”

“We are no longer a couple,” I told him. “And you better not have learned those moves from Joyce Barnhardt.”

Morelli and I went to school with Joyce Barnhardt, and she’d always had a thing for Morelli. For as long as I can remember, Joyce Barnhardt has been like a needle in my eye. I severely disliked Joyce Barnhardt.

IT WAS CLOSE to two o’clock when I walked through the fifth-floor control room and settled myself in my cubicle.

My intercom buzzed and Ranger came on. “My office,” he said.

I walked the short distance to his office and looked in at him. “What?”

“Come in and close the door.”

I closed the door and sat in a chair opposite him. He was at his desk, and I was struck by the same thought I had every time I came into his office. Ranger always looked at ease, but he never actually looked like he belonged behind a desk. He looked like he should be scaling a wall, or jumping out of a helicopter, or kicking the crap out of some bad guy.

“Do you like doing this?” I asked him. “Do you like running this security firm?”

“I don’t love it,” he said. “But I don’t hate it, either. It’s a phase in my life. It’s not so different from being a company commander in the military. Better work conditions. Less sand.”

I wondered if my job was also just a phase in my life. Truth is, I felt a little stalled.

“Do you have any new thoughts on my problem?” he asked.

“Nothing big. Sybo Diaz gets the prize for most suspicious guy so far, but he doesn’t fit into the puzzle right. He’s like trying to ram a square peg into a round hole. Diaz was on duty when two of the break-ins occurred, so he’d have to be working with someone else. Problem is, I don’t see Diaz having a partner in this kind of operation. He’s totally closed. He’d have to do it all himself.

“The computer with the security codes is actually available to a lot of people. Four men have primary responsibility, but a bunch of other guys fill in for them when they take a break. And all the other men who are watching other monitors have the ability to see the screen on the code computer. You already knew this.

“The thing is, the longer I’m here, the less likely I’m inclined to believe this is an inside job. Everyone is watching everyone now. And the code computer is under constant scrutiny. And yet there was a new break-in. I think you have to look at outside possibilities. Maybe a rival security firm. Or a techno freak you fired or didn’t hire. Or maybe someone not associated with you at all who’s doing it for the rush.”

“This isn’t a large firm,” Ranger said. “We offer quality personal service to a select group of clients. If I remove all clients with video surveillance, I cut the list in half. If I only look at residential accounts, the list gets much smaller. I was able to increase the number of cars I have patrolling video-free, residential accounts during hours when the break-ins occurred. If I have to enlarge that list to include commercial accounts spread over a two-shift period, I’m short manpower.”

“Maybe you can get more accounts to use video.”

“That’s like announcing my system is corrupted. I’m trying to keep this quiet.” He handed me a list of names. “These are non-video clients, both residential and commercial. The clients that have been hit by this guy are printed in red. I’d like you to ride around and see if anything jumps out at you.”

EIGHT

I TOOK THE list back to my apartment, made myself a peanut butter sandwich, and marked Ranger’s at-risk accounts on a map of Trenton. Commercial accounts in green Magic Marker. Residential accounts in pink Magic Marker. Accounts already hit in red.

Grandma called on my cell phone. “Guess who’s standing in the backyard waving his winkie at me?”

“I’ll be right there.”

I called Ranger and told him I needed help with an FTA who was currently in my mom’s backyard. I shoved the map and the client list into my purse and ran out of my apartment, down the stairs, and across the lot to my car. If I had luck with traffic, I could make my parents’ house in five minutes. It would take Ranger ten to twenty minutes.

I called my grandmother when I was two minutes away. “Is he still there?”

“He’s making his way through backyards. I can see him from the upstairs window. I think he’s going to Betty Garvey’s house. She gives him cookies.”

I went straight to Betty Garvey. I parked at the curb in front of her house and walked around back. I didn’t see Junior Turley, but Betty was at her kitchen door.

“Have you seen Junior?” I asked her.

“Yes. He just left. I gave him an oatmeal raisin cookie, and he thanked me and went on with his walk. He’s such a nice, polite man.”

“Which way did he go?”

“He was walking toward Broome Street.”

I jogged through the next two yards, crossed the street, and saw Junior at the end of the block. He was eating his cookie with one hand and shaking his wanger at Mrs. Barbera with the other. He looked my way and shrieked and took off running.

I chased Junior for half a block and lost him when he cut through Andy Kowalski’s driveway. I stopped a moment to catch my breath and answer my phone.

“Babe,” Ranger said.

“I lost him at the corner of Green and Broome. I think he’s doubling back toward my parents’ house. You can’t miss him. He’s eating a cookie, and he’s got his barn door open.”

I looked between houses and saw Ranger’s black Porsche Turbo glide down the street. I stood perfectly still and listened for footsteps. A dog barked on the next block, and I ran in that direction. I crossed the street, hopped a fence, bushwhacked through a jungle of out-of-control forsythia, and spotted Junior Turley displaying his wares to old Mrs. Gritch.

I bolted out of the bushes and tackled Turley. We both went down to the ground, where we wrestled around, Turley trying to get away and me holding on.

“Stop that this instant,” Mrs. Gritch said. “You’re going to roll over my mums.” And she turned the hose on us.

A black boot came into my line of vision, the water stopped, and Ranger lifted Turley off me and held him out at arm’s length, Turley’s feet not touching the ground, his pride and joy hanging limp against his drenched pants like a giant slug.

“I’m guessing this is the flasher,” Ranger said.

I got to my feet and pushed my wet hair back from my face. “Yep. Junior Turley. And he owes me cuffs.”

“I left them with your granny,” Junior said.

I was soaked to the skin and getting cold. “I need to get out of these wet clothes,” I said to Ranger.

“Go home and change. I’ll have one of my men drop Mr. Turley at the police station.”

“Thanks. I’ll start riding around, checking things out for you, as soon as I get dry clothes.”

I TOOK A shower, put on clean jeans and my last clean sweater, and carted my overflowing laundry basket out to my car. The plan was to ride around and do a fast look at the Rangeman accounts that were between my house and my parents’ house. This included Hamilton Avenue. Then I would mooch dinner from my mom and do my laundry at her house. There were machines in the basement laundry room of my apartment building, but I was pretty sure the place was inhabited by trolls, and I’d eat dirt before I’d go down there.

I drove by two houses and three businesses. The third business was the insurance company that had already been robbed. I didn’t see anything suspicious at any of the locations. No one skulking in the shadows, casing the joint. No one throwing Snickers wrappers on the ground. The two houses were large, set in the middle of large landscaped lots. Easy to burgle if you didn’t have to worry about the alarm system. The two remaining businesses were on Hamilton and would be more difficult to break into. They were both in high-visibility areas with poor back access. In both cases, the rear entrance opened to a chain-link-fenced lot that was gated at night.

I motored over to my parents’ house and was surprised not to find Lula’s car parked at the curb. I thought for sure this would be another barbecue night.

My mom and dad and Grandma Mazur were already seated when I walked in. I told them not to get up, but my mother and grandmother jumped to their feet and set a place for me. My father kept eating.

“Leave the laundry,” my mother said. “I’ll do the laundry later.”

I sat at the table and filled my plate with pot roast, potatoes, gravy, and green beans.

“Where’s Lula?” I asked Grandma Mazur. “I’m surprised you aren’t barbecuing again tonight.”

“She had a date with some hot fireman,” Grandma said. “She said she was gonna give him brown sugar, and I said that was okay so long as she had some left for the barbecue sauce.”

The phone rang and my mother and grandmother looked at each other and sat firm.

“Aren’t you going to answer the phone?” I asked.

“It’s been ringing off the hook,” Grandma said. “I don’t want to talk to any more grumpy women. Who’d think this would make such a stink? I help my granddaughter do her job, and next thing, we’re all in the doghouse.”

“It’s about Junior Turley,” my mother said to me. “Some of the women in the neighborhood are upset because you put him in jail.”

“He exposed himself,” I said. “Men aren’t supposed to go around exposing themselves at unsuspecting women.”

“Well, technically none of us was unsuspecting,” Grandma said. “We wait for him to show up. I guess it’s one of them generation things. You get to an age and you look forward to seeing a winkie at four in the afternoon when you’re peeling potatoes for supper. The thing about Junior and his winkie is, you don’t have to do anything about it. You just take a look and he moves on.”

I poured more gravy over my potatoes. “Mrs. Zajak filed a complaint against him.”

“She was in a snit because he skipped her that day,” Grandma said. “It was starting to rain and he cut his circuit short. Everybody’s mad at her, too.”

“He won’t be in jail forever,” I said. “I’m sure Vinnie will bail him out again in the morning.”

“Yeah, but I think his winkie-waggin’ days are over,” Grandma said.

IT WAS DARK when I left my parents’ house. Clouds had rolled in and a light drizzle was falling. I did a sweep past the accounts I’d checked out earlier, and I went on to Broad Street and the area around the arena. Traffic was relatively heavy, and I was only able to catch glimpses of Ranger’s buildings. The drizzle turned to rain, and I decided to quit for the night and start over in the morning.

An hour later, I was changed into my pajamas, watching television, and Lula showed up.

“I swear I don’t know what things are coming to,” Lula said, bustling through my front door and heading straight for the refrigerator. “What have you got in here? Did you eat at your mama’s house tonight? Do you got leftovers? I need something to calm my stomach. This keeps up, and I’m gonna get a ulcer or diarrhea or something.” She bypassed the pot roast and mashed potatoes and went straight for the pineapple upside-down cake. “You don’t mind if I eat this, do you?”

“Knock yourself out.”

Lula found a fork and dug into the cake. “First off, I got myself a date with that hot-lookin’ fireman. You remember the one. The big brute with muscles bulgin’ out everywhere. So he came over, and we did some talkin’. And then one thing led to another, and he said would I mind if he go into my bedroom. And I told him he was sittin’ on my bedroom on account of I had to turn the bedroom into a closet. I mean, where’s a girl supposed to put her shoes and her dress-up clothes? Anyways, I supposed he had things to do with himself, so I pulled out my sleep sofa, and I wasn’t paying much attention to him, and next thing he’s all dressed up in one of my cocktail dresses from the Dolly Parton collection.”

“Get out.”

“Swear to God. And he didn’t look good in it, either. It was all wrong for him. He sees me lookin’ at him and he says,
I hope you don’t mind I’m wearing your dress
. And I say, hell yeah, I mind. You don’t fit in that dress. You’re bustin’ out of it. You’re gonna ruin it, and it’s one of my favorites.”

“And then what?”

“Then he gets all huffy, saying he thought he looked pretty darn good in the dress, and I shouldn’t be talkin’ about bustin’ out of stuff. So I ask him exactly what that’s supposed to mean, and he says,
figure it out, fatso
.”

I sucked in some air on that one. Calling Lula fatso was like asking to die.

“It got ugly after that,” Lula said. “I don’t want to go into the depressin’ details, but he got his ass out of my apartment, and he wasn’t wearin’ my dress when he exited, either.” She looked down at the empty cake plate. “What happened to the cake?”

“You ate it.”

“Hunh,” Lula said. “I didn’t notice.”

“Easy come, easy go,” I said.

“That’s so true. It’s true about cake and men.”

“Doesn’t sound traumatic enough to give you an ulcer,” I said.

“That wasn’t the traumatic part. The traumatic part came after I booted him out. I was putting my gown away, and I heard someone knockin’ at my door. I figured it was the moron fireman coming back to get his clothes. . . .”

“He left without his clothes?”

“He was in a hurry after I got my gun. The thing is, I already threw his clothes out my window. You know I live on the second floor of the house, so the clothes kind of floated down and landed in some bushes, and maybe he didn’t notice. So I’m thinkin’ it’s just this loser again, and I open the door, and it’s the Chipotle killers, and the one’s got the big-ass meat cleaver and the other’s got a gun.”

“Omigosh.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said. I jumped back real quick and slammed the door shut, and
bang, bang, bang
, there was three bullets shot through my door. Can you imagine the nerve of them defacing my door? And it’s not even like I own the door. This here’s a rental property. And I don’t see where I should be held responsible to pay for that door.”

“What happened next?”

“I got
my
gun and
I
shot a whole bunch more holes in the door while they were trying to kick it in.”

“Did you hit anyone?”

“I don’t know. I emptied about half a clip in the door, and when I stopped shooting, there weren’t any sounds coming from the other side. So I waited a minute, and then I peeked out, and I didn’t see no decapitators. And there wasn’t any blood all splattered around, either, although hard to believe I missed them, on account of they had their foot to the door when I started shooting.”

It was easy for me to believe. Lula was the worst shot ever. Lula couldn’t hit the side of a barn if she was three feet away from it.

“So that’s why I’m here,” Lula said, retrieving a big black garbage bag she’d left in the outside hall. “I brought some clothes and stuff with me because I figure I could stay with you while my door is getting fixed. It looks like Swiss cheese, and the lock’s broke from those assholes kickin’ at it.” Lula closed my door behind her and took a look at it. “You got a real good door here. It’s one of them metal fire doors. I only had a wimp-ass wood one.”

I was speechless. Lula’s a good friend, but having her as a roommate would be like getting locked in a closet with a rhinoceros in full attention deficit disorder mode.

“You don’t have Morelli coming over or nothin’, do you?” she asked. “I don’t want to interfere. And I’ll be gone as soon as they get my new door put up. Don’t seem to me there’s much to it. You get a new door and you put it up on those hinges, right?”

I nodded. “Yuh,” I said.

“Are you okay?” Lula asked. “You look all glassy-eyed. Good thing I’m here. You might be coming down with something.” She settled into my couch and focused on the TV screen. “This is one of my favorite shows. I watch this every Thursday.”

I joined her on the couch and tried to relax. It’ll be fine, I told myself. It’s just for tonight. Tomorrow she’ll get the door fixed, and I’ll have my apartment back. And Lula’s a good person. This is the least I could do.

Three minutes after sitting down, Lula’s head dropped forward, and she was asleep, softly snoring. The snoring got louder and louder, until finally it was drowning out the sound from the television and I was sitting on my hands to keep from choking her.

“Hey!” I yelled in her ear.

“What?”

“You’re snoring.”

“No way. I was watching television. Look at me. Do I look like I’m asleep?”

“I’m going to bed,” I said.

“You sure you don’t want to see the end of this? This is a real good show.”

“I’ll catch it on reruns.”

I closed the door to my bedroom, crawled into bed, and shut my light off. I took a couple deep breaths and willed myself to go to sleep. Relax, I told myself. Calm down. Life is good. Think of a gentle breeze. Think of the moon in a dark sky. Hear the ocean. My eyes snapped open. I wasn’t hearing the ocean. I was hearing Lula snoring. I put my pillow over my head and went back to talking myself into sleep. Hear the ocean. Hear the wind in the trees.
Shit!
It wasn’t working. All I could hear was Lula.

Okay, I had a choice. I could kick her out of my apartment. I could hit her in the head with a hammer until she was dead. Or I could leave.

I PARKED IN the Rangeman garage and fobbed myself into the elevator and up to the seventh floor. I knew all eyes were on me in the control room. I waved at the Minicam hidden in the far corner of the elevator and tried to look nonchalant. I was wearing sneakers, flannel pajamas, and a sweatshirt. I’d called Ranger on the way across town and told him I needed a room. He said he was out on surveillance, and the only room available was his bedroom . . . so that was where I was headed.

BOOK: Finger Lickin' Fifteen
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