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I knew something bad was going to happen when Vinnie called me into his private office. Vinnie is my boss and my cousin. I read on a bathroom stall door once that Vinnie humps like a ferret. I'm not sure what that means, but it seemsreasonable since Vinnie looks like a ferret. His ruby pinky ring reminded me of treasures found in Seaside Park arcade claw-machines. He was wearing a black shirt and black tie, his receding black hair was slicked back, casino pit boss style. His facial expression was tuned to not happy.
I looked across the desk at him and tried not to grimace. "Now what?"
"I got a job for you," Vinnie said. "I want you to find that ratfink Eddie DeChooch, and I want you to drag his boney ass back here. He got tagged smuggling a truckload of bootleg cigarettes up from Virginia and he missed his court date."
I rolled my eyes so far into the top of my head I could see hair growing. "I'm not going after Eddie DeChooch. He's old, and he kills people, and he's dating my grandmother."
"He hardly ever kills people anymore," Vinnie said. "He has cataracts. Last time he tried to shoot someone he emptied a clip into an ironing board."
Vinnie owns and operates Vincent Plum Bail Bonds in Trenton, New Jersey. When someone is accused of a crime, Vinnie gives the court a cash bond, the court releases the accused until trial, and Vinnie hopes to God the accused shows up for court. If the accused decides to forgo the pleasure of his court date, Vinnie is out a lot of money unless I can find the accused and bring him back into the system. My name is Stephanie Plum and I'm a bond enforcement officer ... aka bounty hunter. I took the job when times were lean and not even the fact that I graduated in the top ninety-eight percent of my college class could get me a better position. The economy has since improved and there's no good reason why I'm still tracking down bad guys except that it annoys my mother and I don't have to wear panty hose to work.
"I'd give this to Ranger, but he's out of the country," Vinnie said. "So that leaves you."
Ranger is a soldier of fortune kind of guy who sometimes works as a bounty hunter. He's very good ... at everything. And he's scary as hell. "What's Ranger doing out of the country? And 0 what do you mean by out of the country? Asia? South America? Miami?"
"He's making a pickup for me in Puerto Rico." Vinnie shoved a file folder across his desk. "Here's the bond agreement on DeChooch and your authorization to capture. He's worth fifty thousand to me ... five thousand to you. Go over to DeChooch's house and find out why he pulled a no-show on his hearing yesterday. Connie called and there was no answer. Christ, he could be dead on his kitchen floor. Going out with your grandma's enough to kill anyone."
Vinnie's office is on Hamilton, which at first glance might not seem like the best location for a bail bonds office. Most bail bonds offices are across from the jail. The difference with Vinnie is that many of the people he bonds out are either relatives or neighbors and live just off Hamilton in the Burg. I grew up in the Burg and my parents still live there. It's really a very safe neighborhood as Burg criminals are always careful to do their crimes elsewhere. Well okay, Jimmy Curtains once walked Two Toes Garibaldi out of his house in his pajamas and drove him to the landfill ... but still, the actual whacking didn't take place in the Burg. And the guys they found buried in the basement of the candy store on Ferris Street weren't from the Burg so you can't really count them as a statistic.
Connie Rosolli looked up when I came out of Vinnie's office. Connie is the office manager. Connie keeps things running while Vinnie is off springing miscreants and/or fornicating with barnyard animals. Connie had her hair teased up to about three times the size of her head. She was wearing a pink V-neck sweater that molded to boobs that belonged on a much larger woman and a short black knit skirt that would have fit a much smaller woman.
Connie's been with Vinnie since he first started the business. She's stuck it out this long because she puts up with nothing and on exceptionally bad days she helps herself to combat pay from the petty cash.
She did a face scrunch when she saw I had a file in my hand. "You aren't actually going out after Eddie DeChooch, are you?"
"I'm hoping he's dead."
Lula was slouched on the faux leather couch that had been shoved against a wall and served as the holding pen for bondees and their unfortunate relatives. Lula and the couch were almost identical shades of brown with the exception of Lula's hair which happened to be cherry red today.
I always feel sort of anemic when I stand next to Lula. I'm a third generation American of Italian-Hungarian heritage. I have my mother's pale skin and blue eyes and good metabolism which allows me to eat birthday cake and still (almost always) button the top snap on my Levi's. From my father's side of the family I've inherited a lot of unmanageable brown hair and a penchant for Italian hand gestures. On my own, on a good day with a ton of mascara and four-inch heels, I can attract some attention. Next to Lula I'm wallpaper.
"I'd offer to help drag his behind back to jail," Lula said. "You could probably use the help of a plus-size woman like me. But too bad I don't like when they're dead. Dead creeps me out."
"Well, I don't actually know if he's dead," I said.
"Good enough for me," Lula said. "Sign me up. If he's alive I get to kick some sorry-ass butt, and if he's dead ... I'm outta there."
Lula talks tough, but the truth is we're both pretty wimpy when it comes to actual butt kicking. Lula was a ho in a former life and is now doing filing for Vinnie. Lula was as good at ho'ing as she is at filing ... and she's not much good at filing.
"Maybe we should wear vests," I said.
Lula took her purse from a bottom file drawer. "Suit yourself, but I'm not wearing no Kevlar vest. We don't got one big enough and besides it'd ruin my fashion statement."
I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and didn't have much of a fashion statement to make so I took a vest from the back room.
"Hold on," Lula said when we got to the curb, "what's this?"
"I bought a new car."
"Well dang, girl, you did good. This here's an excellent car."
It was a black Honda CR-V and the payments were killing me. I'd had to make a choice between eating and looking cool and looking cool had won out. Well hell, there's a price for everything, right?
"Where we going?" Lula asked, settling in next to me. "Where's this dude live?"
"We're going to the Burg. Eddie DeChooch lives three blocks from my parents' house."
"He really dating your grandma?"
"She ran into him at a viewing two weeks ago at Stiva's Funeral Home and they went out for pizza after."
"Think they did the nasty?"
I almost ran the car up on the sidewalk. "No! Yuck!"
"Just asking," Lula said.
DeChooch lives in a small brick duplex. Seventy-something Angela Marguchi and her ninety-something mother live in one half of the house and DeChooch lives in the other. I parked in front of the DeChooch half and Lula and I walked to the door. I was wearing the vest and Lula was wearing a stretchy animal-print top and yellow stretch pants. Lula is a big woman and tends to test the limits of Lycra.
"You go ahead and see if he's dead," Lula said. "And then if it turns out he's not dead you let me know and I'll come kick his ass."
"Hunh," she said, lower lip stuck out. "You think I couldn't kick his ass?"
"You might want to stand to the side of the door," I said. "Just in case."
"Good idea," Lula said, stepping aside, "I'm not afraid or anything, but I'd hate to get blood stains on this top."
I rang the bell and waited for an answer. I rang a second time. "Mr. DeChooch?" I yelled. Angela Marguchi stuck her head out her door. She was half a foot shorter than me, white-haired and bird-boned, a cigarette rammed between thin lips, eyes narrowed from smoke and age. "What's all this racket?"
"I'm looking for Eddie."
She looked more closely and her mood brightened when she recognized me. "Stephanie Plum. Goodness, haven't seen you in a while. I heard you were pregnant by that vice cop, Joe Morelli."
"A vicious rumor."
"What about DeChooch," Lula asked Angela. "He been around?"
"He's in his house," Angela said. "He never goes anywhere anymore. He's depressed. Won't talk or nothing."
"He's not answering his door."
"He don't answer his phone either. Just go in. He leaves the door unlocked. Says he's waiting for someone to come shoot him and put him out of his misery."
"Well that isn't us," Lula said. "'Course if he was willing to pay for it I might know someone ... "
I carefully opened Eddie's door and stepped into the foyer. "Mr. DeChooch?"
f0The voice came from the living room to my right. The shades were drawn and the room was dark. I squinted in the direction of the voice.
"It's Stephanie Plum, Mr. DeChooch. You missed your court date and Vinnie is worried about you."
"I'm not going to court," DeChooch said. "I'm not going anywhere."
I moved further into the room and spotted him sitting in a chair in the corner. He was a wiry little guy with white rumpled hair. He was wearing an undershirt and boxer shorts and black socks with black shoes.
"What's with the shoes?" Lula asked.
DeChooch looked down. "My feet got cold."
"How about if you finish getting dressed and we take you to reschedule," I said.
"What are you, hard of hearing? I told you, I'm not going anywhere. Look at me. I'm in a depression."
"Maybe you're in a depression on account of you haven't got any pants on," Lula said. "Sure would make me feel happier if I didn't have to worry about seeing your Mr. Geezer hanging out of your boxer shorts."
"You don't know nothing," DeChooch said. "You don't know what it's like to be old and not to be able to do anything right anymore."
"Yeah, I wouldn't know about that," Lula said.
What Lula and I knew about was being young and not doing anything right. Lula and I never did anything right.
"What's that you're wearing?" DeChooch asked me. "Christ, is that a bulletproof vest? See, now that's so fucking insulting. That's like saying I'm not smart enough to shoot you in the head."
"She just figured since you took out that ironing board it wouldn't hurt to be careful," Lula said.
"The ironing board! That's all I hear about. A man makes one mistake and that's all anybody ever talks about." He made a dismissive hand gesture. "Ah hell, who am I trying to kid. I'm a has-been. You know what I got arrested for? I got arrested for smuggling cigarettes up from Virginia. I can't even smuggle cigarettes anymore." He hung his head. "I'm a loser. A fuckin' loser. I should shoot myself."
"Maybe you just had some bad luck," Lula said. "I bet next time you try to smuggle something it works out fine."
"I got a bum prostate," DeChooch said. "I had to stop to take a leak. That's where they caught me ...at the rest stop."
"Don't seem fair," Lula said.
"Life isn't fair. There isn't nothing fair about life. All my life I've worked hard and I've had all these ...achievements. And now I'm old and what happens? I get arrested taking a leak. It's goddamn embarrassing."
His house was decorated with no special style in mind. Probably it had been furnished over the years with whatever fell off the truck. There was no Mrs. DeChooch. She'd passed away years ago. So far as I knew there'd never been any little DeChooches.
"Maybe you should get dressed," I said. "We really need to go downtown."
"Why not," DeChooch said. "Don't make no difference where I sit. Could just as well be downtown as here." He stood, gave a dejected sigh, and shuffled to the stairs stoop-shouldered. He turned and looked at us. "Give me a minute."
The house was a lot like my parents' house. Living room in front, dining room in the middle, and kitchen overlooking a narrow backyard. Upstairs there'd be three small bedrooms and a bathroom.
Lula and I sat in the stillness and darkness, listening to DeChooch walking around above us in his bedroom.
"He should have smuggled Prozac instead of cigarettes," Lula said. "He could have popped a few."
"What he should do is get his eyes fixed," I said. "My Aunt Rose was operated on for cataracts and now she can see again."
"Yeah, if he got his eyes fixed he could probably shoot a lot more people. I bet that'd cheer him up."
Okay, maybe he shouldn't get his eyes fixed.
Lula looked toward the stairs. "What's he doing up there? How long does it take to put a pair of pants on?"
"Maybe he can't find them."
"You think he's that blind?"
"Come to think of it, I don't hear him moving around," Lula said. "Maybe he fell asleep. Old people do that a lot."
I went to the stairs and yelled up at DeChooch. "Mr. DeChooch? Are you okay?"
I yelled again.
"Oh boy," Lula said.
I took the stairs two at a time. DeChooch's bedroom door was closed so I rapped on it hard. "Mr. DeChooch?" Still no answer.
I opened the door and looked inside. Empty. The bathroom was empty and the other two bedrooms were empty. No DeChooch.
"What's going on?" Lula called up.
"DeChooch isn't here."
Lula and I searched the house. We looked under beds and in closets. We looked in the cellar and the garage. DeChooch's closets were filled with clothes. His toothbrush was still in the bathroom. His car was asleep in the garage.
"This is too weird," Lula said. "How could he have gotten past us. We were sitting right in his front room. We would have seen him sneak by."
We were standing in the backyard and I cut my eyes to the second story. The bathroom window was directly above the flat roof that sheltered the back door leading from the kitchen to the yard. Just like my parents' house. When I was in high school I used to sneak out that window late at night so I could hang with my friends. My sister Valerie, the perfect daughter, never did such a thing.
"He could have gone out the window," I said. "He wouldn't have had a far drop either because he's got those two garbage cans pushed against the house."
"Well he's got some nerve acting all old and feeble and goddamned depressed and then soon as we turn our back he goes and jumps out a window. I'm telling you, you can't trust nobody anymore."
"He snookered us."
I went into the house, searched the kitchen and with minimum effort found a set of keys. I tried one of the keys on the front door. Perfect. I locked the house and pocketed the keys. It's been my experience that sooner or later, everyone comes home. And when DeChooch does come home he might decide to shut the house up tight.
I knocked on Angela's door and asked if she wasn't by any chance harboring Eddie DeChooch. She claimed she hadn't seen him all day, so I left her with my card and gave instructions to call me if DeChooch turned up.
Lula and I got into the CR-V, I cranked the engine over and an image of DeChooch's keys floated to the forefront of my brain. House key, car key ...and a third key. I took the key ring out of my purse and looked at it.
"What do you suppose this third key is for?" I asked Lula.
"It's one of them Yale locks that you put on gym lockers and sheds and stuff."
"Do you remember seeing a shed?"
"I don't know. I guess I wasn't paying attention to that. You think he could be hiding in a shed along with the lawn mower and weed whacker?"
I shut the engine off and we got out of the car and returned to the backyard.
"I don't see a shed," Lula said. "I see a couple garbage cans and a garage. We peered into the dim garage, for the second time.
"Nothing in there but the car," Lula said.
We walked around the garage to the rear and found the shed.
"Yeah, but it's locked," Lula said. "He'd have to be Houdini to get himself in there and then lock it from the outside. And on top of that this shed smells real bad."
I shoved the key in the lock and the lock popped open.
"Hold on," Lula said. "I vote we leave this shed locked. I don't want to know what's smelling up this shed."
I yanked at the handle, the door to the shed swung wide, and Loretta Ricci stared out at us, mouth open, eyes unseeing, five bullet holes in the middle of her chest. She was sitting on the dirt floor, her back propped against the corrugated metal wall, her hair white from a dose of lime that wasn't doing much to stop the destruction that follows death.
"Shit, that ain't no ironing board," Lula said.
I slammed the door shut, snapped the lock in place and put some distance between me and the shed. I told myself I wasn't going to throw up and took a bunch of deep breaths. "You were right," I said. "I shouldn't have opened the shed."
"You never listen to me. Now look what we got. All on account of you had to be nosy. Not only that, but I know what's gonna happen next. You're gonna call the police and we're gonna be tied up all day. If you had any sense you'd pretend you didn't see nothing and we'd go get some fries and a Coke. I could really use some fries and a Coke."
I handed her the keys to my car. "Get yourself some food, but make sure you're back in a half hour. I swear, if you abandon me I'll send the police out after you."
"Boy, that really hurts. When did I ever abandon you?"
"You abandon me all the time!"
"Hunh," Lula said.
I flipped my cell phone open and called the police. Within minutes I could hear the blue-and-white pull up in front of the house. It was Carl Costanza and his partner Big Dog.
"When the call came in, I knew it had to be you," Carl said to me. "It's been almost a month since you found a body. I knew you were due."
"I don't find that many bodies!"
"Hey," Big Dog said, "is that a Kevlar vest you're wearing?"
"Brand new, too," Costanza said. "Not even got any bullet holes in it."
Trenton cops are top of the line, but their budget isn't exactly Beverly Hills. If you're a Trenton cop you hope Santa will bring you a bulletproof vest because vests are funded primarily with miscellaneous grants and donations and don't automatically come with the badge.
I'd removed the house key from DeChooch's key ring and had it safely tucked away in my pocket. I gave the two remaining keys to Costanza. "Loretta Ricci is in the shed. And she's not looking too good."
I knew Loretta Ricci by sight but that was about it. She lived in the Burg and was widowed. I'd put her age around sixty-five. I saw her sometimes at Giovichinni's Meat Market ordering lunch meat.
* * *
Vinnie leaned forward in his chair and narrowed his eyes at Lula and me. "What do you mean you lost DeChooch?"
"It wasn't our fault," Lula said. "He was sneaky."
"Well hell," Vinnie said, "I wouldn't expect you to be able to catch someone who was sneaky."
"Hunh," Lula said. "Your ass."
"Dollars to doughnuts he's at his social club," Vinnie said.
It used to be there were a lot of powerful social clubs in the Burg. They were powerful because numbers were run out of them. Then Jersey legalized gambling and pretty soon the local numbers industry was in the toilet. There are only a few social clubs left in the Burg now and the members all sit around reading Modern Maturity and comparing pacemakers.
"I don't think DeChooch is at his social club," I told Vinnie. "We found Loretta Ricci dead in DeChooch's tool shed, and I think DeChooch is on his way to Rio."
Copyright © 2001 by Evanovich, Inc.