Authors: Janet Evanovich
MY UNCLE PIP died and left me his lucky bottle. I suppose Im fortunate, because he left my Grandma Mazur his false teeth. So Ive got this bottle now, and I dont exactly know what to do with it. Its not like I have a mantel. My name is Stephanie Plum, and I live in a bare-bones apartment on the outer edge of Trenton, New Jersey. I share the apartment with my hamster, Rex, and he doesnt know what to do with the bottle, either. The lucky bottle is the size and shape of a beer bottle. The glass is red, and it looks hand blown. Its not entirely ugly, especially if you like beer, but its also not exotically pretty. And so far, it hasnt been very lucky. I have the bottle sitting on my kitchen counter, between Rexs hamster cage and the brown bear cookie jar that holds my gun. It was Monday morning, halfway through June, and Lula was in my apartment doing a pity pick up because my hunk-of-junk car was dead and I needed a ride to work.
Hunh, Lula said. Whats that red bottle on your counter?
Its my lucky bottle.
Oh yeah, whats so lucky about it? It dont look too lucky to me. Looks like one of them designer beer bottles, only its got a fancy glass stopper in it.
Its my inheritance from Uncle Pip.
I remember Uncle Pip, Lula said. He was older than dirt, right? Had a big carbuncle on his forehead. He was the one wandered out of the senior complex a couple weeks ago during that thunderstorm, pissed on a downed electric wire, and electrocuted himself.
Yep. That was Uncle Pip.
Im a bond enforcement agent, working for my cousin Vinnie, and Lula is the office file clerk, wheelman, and fashion maven. Lula likes the challenge of fitting her plussize body into a size 8 poison green spandex miniskirt and leopard-print top, and somehow it all comes together for Lula. Lulas skin is milk chocolate, her hair this week is fire-engine red, and her attitude is pure Jersey.
Im a couple inches taller than Lula, and where her body is overly voluptuous, mine is more 34B. My idea of fashion is a girl-cut stretchy T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. My skin is nowhere near chocolate, my shoulder-length, naturally curly hair is plain ol brown and often pulled back into a ponytail, my eyes are blue, and Im still trying to find my attitude.
I hung my purse on my shoulder and pushed Lula to the door. We need to move. Connie called ten minutes ago, and she sounded frantic.
Whats with that? Lula said. Last time Connie was frantic was never.
Connie Rosolli is the bail bonds office manager. My heritage is half Italian and half Hungarian. Connie is Italian through and through. Connie is a couple years older than I am, has more hair than I do and a consistently better manicure. Her desk is strategically placed in front of Vinnies door, the better to slow down stiffed bookies, process servers, hookers with obviously active herpes, and a stream of perverted degenerates with quick-rich schemes hatched while under the influence of who-knows-what.
I live ten minutes from the office on a day without traffic. This wasnt one of those days, and it took Lula twenty minutes to get her red Firebird down Hamilton Avenue. Vinnies bail bonds business is located on Hamilton, just up from the hospital and between a dry cleaner and a used-book store. Theres a front room with large plateglass windows, an inner office where Vinnie hides, a row of file cabinets, and behind the file cabinets is storage for everything from guns and ammo to George Foreman grills held hostage until some poor burger-loving slob comes up to trial.
Lula parked at the curb, and we pushed through the door into the front room. Lula plunked herself down on the brown fake-leather couch that was positioned against the wall, and I settled into an orange plastic chair in front of Connies desk. The door to Vinnies office was open, but there was no Vinnie.
Whats up? I asked Connie.
Mickey Gritch snatched Vinnie. Last night, he caught Vinnie in a compromising position, pants down on Stark Street, on the corner of Stark and Thirteenth. And from what Ive pieced together, Gritch and two of his boys dragged Vinnie at gunpoint into the back of a Cadillac Escalade and took off.
I know that corner, Lula said. Thats Maureen Browns corner. Maureen and me used to hang out back when I was a ho. She wasnt as good a ho as me, but she wasnt no skank ho, either.
Lula worked Stark Street prior to her job as file clerk. She had a rocky beginning, but shes getting herself together, and I suspect someday shell be the governor of New Jersey.
Whoa, Lula said. Thats a lot of money.
Some of its interest, Connie told her. The interest might be negotiable.
Mickey Gritch has been Vinnies bookie for as long as I can remember, and this isnt the first time Vinnies owed money, but I dont recall him ever owing this much.
Mickey Gritch works for Bobby Sunflower now, Lula said. You dont want to mess with Bobby.
Is this serious? I asked Connie.
Times are tough, and Mickey wants his money, Connie said. Too many people stiffing him, so theyre going to make an example of Vinnie. If Vinnie doesnt come up with the money by the end of the week, theyre going to kill him.
Bobby Sunflower would do it, Lula said. He made Jimmie Sanches disappear . . Permanently. Lots of other people, too, from what I hear.
Have you gone to the police? I asked Connie.
The police arent my first choice. Vinnie owes this guy for illegal gambling. Knowing Vinnie, its possible some of the money came out of the business. We used to be owned by Vinnies father-in-law, you know, but last year we were sold to a venture capital company based in Trenton. The venture capitalists arent going to tolerate Vinnies gambling with their money. If this gets out, we could all be out of a job.
What about the father-in-law? Lula asked. Everyone knows he got a lot of money. Plus, he could squeeze Bobby Sunflower.
Vinnies father-in-law is Harry the Hammer. As long as Vinnie does right by Harrys daughter Lucille, its all good, but I suspect Harry wouldnt be happy to hear Vinnie got snatched while he was boffing a Stark Street ho.
Gritch already went to Harry. Not only wont Harry fork up the money to spring Vinnie, if Vinnie gets out of this alive, Harry will bludgeon him to death, Connie said.
Well, that settles it then, Lula said. I guess its adios, Vinnie. Personally, I could use one of them breakfast sandwiches from Cluck-in-a-Bucket. Anyone interested in a Cluck-in-a-Bucket run?
If theres no Vinnie, theres no bail bonds office, Connie said. No bail bonds office means we dont get paid. We dont get paid, and theres no Cluck-in-a-Bucket for anyone.
Thats not good, Lula said. Im used to a certain standard of living. Cluck-in-a-Bucket is one of my first food choices. Not to mention I got bills. I charged a fabulous pair of Via Spigas last week. I only wore them once, so I guess I could take them back, but then I dont have shoes to wear with my new red dress, and I got a date Friday worked around the dress.
We dont have a lot of options, Connie said. Were going to have to do this ourselves.
Vinnie was like a fungus on my family tree. He was a good bail bondsman, but a slimeball in every other aspect of his life. He had the slim, boneless body of a ferret. He wore his brown hair slicked back, his pants too tight, his shoes too pointy, and he left too many of his sleazy shirt buttons unbuttoned. He wore multiple rings, chains, bracelets, and, on occasion, an earring. He gambled on everything, fornicated with anything, and wasnt beyond an adventure into the kinky. But the truth is, in spite of all this, deep down inside I was worried about Vinnie. When times were tough, and no one else would give me a job, Vinnie came through for me. Okay, so I had to blackmail him, but the bottom line is he gave me the job.
Id like to help, I said, but I dont have that kind of money.
That was a gross understatement. I didnt have any kind of money. I was a month behind on my rent, my car was trash, and my boyfriends dog ate my sneaker. Actually, I use the term boyfriend loosely. His name is Joe Morelli, and Im not sure how Id categorize our relationship. Sometimes we were pretty sure it was love, and other times we suspected it was insanity. Hes a Trenton plainclothes cop with a house of his own, a grandmother from hell, a lean, muscled body, and brown eyes that can make my heart skip beats. We grew up together in lots of ways, and the truth is, hes probably more grown up than I am.
Oh no. No, no, no. Not a good idea. This is Bobby Sunflower were talking about. Hes mean! He wouldnt like it if I stole his hostage.
Hey, girl, Lula said. Theyre gonna ventilate Vinnie if you dont do something. And you know what that would amount to.
No Via Spigas?
You bet your ass.
I wouldnt know where to begin, I said.
You could begin with Ranger, Lula said. He knows everything, and hes got a thing for you.
Ranger is the other man in my life, and if I described my relationship with Morelli as confused, there would be no words for my relationship with Ranger. Hes former Special Forces, currently runs and partially owns a security firm, is drop-dead handsome in a dark, Latino kind of way, and is sex walking. He drives expensive black cars, wears only black clothes, and he sleeps naked. I know all this firsthand. I also know prolonged exposure to Ranger is dangerous. Ranger can be addicting, and its a bad addiction for a traditionally raised woman like me, since his life plan doesnt include marriage. For that matter, considering the number of enemies Rangers made, his life plan might not even include living.
Do you have any suggestions other than Ranger? I asked Lula.
Sure. I got lots of suggestions. Mickey Gritch is easy to find. Vinnie got him in his Rolodex. Hell, Gritch probably has a Web site and a Facebook page.
Do you know where he lives? Where he conducts business? Where he might have Vinnie stashed?
No. I dont know none of those things, Lula said. Hey, wait a minute, I know one of them. I know where he does business. He does it from his car. He drives a black Mercedes. Its got purple pimp lights running around the license plate. Sometimes I see him parking in the lot next to the 7-Eleven on Marble Street. Its a good spot, since its close to the government buildings. You work all day in government, and you want to either blow your brains out or buy a lottery ticket.
What about Bobby Sunflower? I asked her.
Nobody knows where he hangs. Hes like the Phantom. He comes and goes and disappears like hes smoke.
I guess we could sit at 7-Eleven and watch for Gritch, I said.
Hold on, Connie said. Let me run him through the system. If he owns a car, I can give you a home address.
People have a television idea about bounty hunters chasing felons down back alleys and kicking in doors in the middle of the night. Ive chased a few guys down back alleys, but Ive never mastered the art of door-kicking. Mostly, real bounty hunters track people on the computer and make sneaky phone calls pretending to be conducting a survey or delivering a pizza. The age of electronic information is pretty amazing. Connie has computer programs that will help you access your next-door neighbors third grade report card.
I have a couple addresses for Gritch, Connie said. One is his home address and the other is his sisters. Her name is Jean. Looks like shes a single mom. Works at the DMV. I have six business properties for Bobby Sunflower. A pawnshop, a garage, a car wash, a residential slum on Stark, a titty bar, and a mortuary.
The translation was that Sunflower was into fencing stolen goods, chopping up stolen cars, laundering money, pimping women, and probably the mortuary had a crematorium.
So I guess we gotta keep Vinnie from visiting Bobby Sunflowers mortuary, Lula said.
Sure we can, Lula said. Probably half of those idiots youre looking for will be at Sunflowers titty bar. I say we go do some surveillance, and first thing, we stop at the bakery. I changed my mind on the breakfast sandwich. Im in a doughnut mood now.
I followed Lula out of the office, and three minutes later, we were parked at the curb in front of Tasty Pastry.
Im only getting one doughnut, Lula said, getting out of the Firebird. Im on a new diet where I only have one of anything. Like I can have one pea. And I can have one piece of asparagus. And I can have one loaf of bread.
We walked into the bakery and conversation stopped while we sucked in the smell of sweet dough and powdered sugar and we gaped at the cases of cakes and pies, cookies, cinnamon rolls, doughnuts, and cream-filled pastries.
I dont know what I want, Lula said. How can I choose? Theres too much, and I only got one doughnut. I cant be making a mistake on this. This is critical. I could ruin the whole rest of the day if I pick the wrong doughnut.
I had my doughnuts bagged and paid for and Lula was still undecided, so I went outside to wait in the morning sunshine. I was debating which of the two doughnuts Id eat first, and before I reached a decision, Morellis green SUV rolled to a stop in front of me.
Morelli got out and walked over. His black hair was curling along his neck and over his ears, not by design but by neglect. He was wearing jeans and running shoes and a blue button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled. At six foot, he was half a head taller than me, which meant if he stood close enough he could look down my tank top.
Are you working? I asked him.
Yeah. Im riding up and down the street doing cop things. He hooked his finger into my scoop neckline and looked in.
Jeez, I said.
Its been a while. I wanted to make sure everything was still there.
You could ask!
If I guess whats in the bakery bag, do I get one of the doughnuts?
You got a Boston Cream and a jelly doughnut.
I narrowed my eyes at him. How do you know that?
Its what you always get.
The door to the bakery was shoved open, and Lula barreled out. Okay, she said. Im ready to go rescue Vinnie. She realized Morelli was standing next to me, and she did a fast stop. Oops.
Rescue Vinnie? Morelli asked.