I'd like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of
Alex Evanovich, Peter Evanovich, and my
St. Martin's Press editor and friend,
Men are like shoes. Some fit better than others. And sometimes you go out shopping and there'snothing you like. And then, as luck would have it, the next week you find two that are perfect,but you don't have the money to buy both. I was currently in just such a position… not withshoes, but with men. And this morning it got worse.
A while ago, a guy named Diesel showed up in my kitchen. Poof, he was there. Like magic. Andthen days later, poof, he was gone. Now, without warning, he was once again standing in frontof me.
"Surprise," he said. "I'm back."
He was imposing at just over six feet. Built solid with broad shoulders and deep-set, assessingbrown eyes. He looked like he could seriously kick ass and not break a sweat. He had a lot ofwavy, sandy blond hair cut short and fierce blond eyebrows. I placed his age at late twenties,early thirties. I knew very little about his background. Clearly he'd been lucky with the genepool. He was a nice-looking guy, with perfect white teeth and a smile that made a woman get allwarm inside.
It was a cold February morning, and he'd dropped into my apartment wearing a multicolored scarfwrapped around his neck, a black wool peacoat, a washed-out three-button thermal knit shirt,faded jeans, beat-up boots, and his usual bad attitude. I knew that a muscular, athletic bodywas under the coat. I wasn't sure if there was anything good buried under the attitude.
My name is Stephanie Plum. I'm average height and average weight and have an average vocabularyfor someone living in Jersey. I have shoulder-length brown hair that is curly or wavy,depending on the humidity. My eyes are blue. My heritage is Hungarian and Italian. My family isdysfunctional in a normal sort of way. There are a bunch of things I'd like to do with my life,but right now I'm happy to put one foot in front of the other and button my jeans withouthaving a roll of fat hang over the waistband.
I work as a bond enforcement agent for my cousin Vinnie, and my success at the job has more todo with luck and tenacity than with skill. I live in a budget apartment on the outskirts ofTrenton, and my only roommate is a hamster named Rex. So I felt understandably threatened byhaving this big guy suddenly appear in my kitchen.
"I hate when you just show up in front of me," I said. "Can't you ring my doorbell like anormal person?"
"First off, I'm not exactly normal. And second, you should be happy I didn't walk into yourbathroom when you were wet and naked." He flashed me the killer smile. "Although I wouldn'thave minded finding you wet and naked."
"In your dreams."
"Yeah," Diesel said. "It's happened."
He stuck his head in my refrigerator and rooted around. Not a lot in there, but he found onelast bottle of beer and some slices of American cheese. He ate the cheese and chugged the beer."Are you still seeing that cop?"
"Joe Morelli. Yep."
"What about the guy behind door number two?"
"Ranger? Yeah, I'm still working with Ranger." Ranger was my bounty hunter mentor and more.Problem was, the more part wasn't clearly defined.
I heard a snort and a questioning woof from the vicinity of my bedroom.
"What's that?" Diesel asked.
"Morelli's working double shifts, and I'm taking care of his dog, Bob."
There was the sound of dog feet running, and Bob rounded a corner and slid to a stop on thekitchen linoleum. He was a big-footed, shaggy, orange-haired beast with floppy ears and happybrown eyes. Probably golden retriever, but he'd never win best of breed. He sat his ass down onDiesel's boot and wagged his tail at him.
Diesel absently fondled Bob's head, and Bob drooled a little on Diesel's pant leg, hoping for ascrap of cheese.
"Is this visit social or professional?" I asked Diesel.
"Professional. I'm looking for a guy named Bernie Beaner. I need to shut him down."
If I'm to believe Diesel, there are people on this planet who have abilities that go beyondwhat would be considered normal human limitations. These people aren't exactly superheroes.It's more that they're ordinary souls with the freakish ability to levitate a cow or slow-pitcha lightning bolt. Some are good and some are bad. Diesel tracks the bad. The alternativeexplanation for Diesel is that he's a wacko.
"What's Beaner's problem?" I asked.
Diesel dropped a small leftover chunk of cheese into Rex's cage and gave another chunk to Bob."Gone off the edge. His marriage went into the shitter, and he blamed it on anotherUnmentionable. Now he's out to get her."
"That's what we call ourselves. It sounds better than freak of nature."
Bob was pushing against Diesel, trying to get him to give up more cheese. Bob was about ninetypounds of rangy dog, and Diesel was two hundred of hard muscle. It would take a lot more thanBob to bulldoze Diesel around my kitchen.
"And you're in my apartment, why?" I asked Diesel.
"I need help."
"No. No, no, no, no, no."
"You have no choice, sweetie pie. The woman Beaner's looking for is on your most-wanted list.And she's in my custody. If you want your big-ticket bond, you have to help me."
"That's horrible. That's blackmail or bribery or something."
"Yeah. Deal with it."
"Who's the woman?" I asked Diesel.
"You've gotta be kidding. Vinnie's on a rant over her. I spent all day yesterday looking forher. She's wanted for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon."
"It's all bogus… not that either of us gives a rats ass." Diesel was systematically goingthrough my cupboards looking for food, and Bob was sticking close. "Anyway, bottom line is I'vegot her tucked away until I can sort things out with crazy Bernie."
"Bernie is the… um, Unmentionable who's after Annie?"
"Yeah. Problem is, Annie's one of those crusader types. Takes her job real serious. Says it's
calling. So, the only way I could get Annie to stay hidden was to promise her I'd take overher
her caseload. I suck at the kind of stuff she does, so I'm passing it off to you."
"And what do I get out of this?"
"You get Annie. As soon as I take care of Bernie, I'll turn Annie over to you."
"I don't see where this is a big favor to me. If I don't help you, Annie will come out ofhiding, I'll snag her, and my job will be done."
Diesel had his thumbs hooked into his jeans pockets; his eyes were locked onto mine, hisexpression was serious. "What'll it take? I need help with this, and everyone has a price.
What's yours? How about twenty bucks when you close a case?"
"A hundred, and nothing illegal or life-threatening."
"Deal," Diesel said.
Here's the sad truth, I had nothing better to do. And I needed money. The bonds office wasbeyond slow. I had one FTA to hunt down, and Diesel had her locked away.
"Just exactly what am I supposed to do?" I asked him. "Annie's bond agreement lists heroccupation as a relationship expert."
Diesel gave a bark of laughter. "Relationship expert. I guess that could cover it."
"I don't even know what that means! What the heck is a relationship expert?"
Diesel had dropped a battered leather knapsack onto my counter when he popped into my kitchen.He went to the knapsack, removed a large yellow envelope, and handed it over to me. "It's allin this envelope."
I opened the envelope and pulled out a bunch of folders crammed with photographs andhandwritten pages.
"She's got a condensed version for you clipped to the top folder," Diesel said. "Got everythingprioritized. Says you better hustle because Valentine's Day is coming up fast."
"Personally, I don't get turned on by Valentine's Day, with the sappy cards and creepy cupidsand the hearts-and-flowers routine. But Annie is to Valentine's Day what Santa Claus is toChristmas. She makes it happen. Of course, Annie operates on a smaller scale. It's not likeshe's got ten thousand elves working for her."
Diesel was a really sexy-looking guy, but I thought he might be one step away from permanentresidence at the funny farm. "I still don't get my role in this."
"I just handed you five open files. It's up to you to make sure those five people have a goodValentine's Day."
"Listen, I know it's lame," Diesel said, "but I'm stuck with it. And now you're stuck with it.And I'm going to have a power shortage if I don't get breakfast. So find me a diner. Then I'm
my thing and look for Bernie, and you're going to do your thing and work your waygoing to do
down Annie's list."
I clipped a leash onto Bob's collar and the three of us walked down the stairs and out to mycar. I was driving a yellow Ford Escape that was good for hauling felons and Bob dogs.
"Does Bob go everywhere?" Diesel wanted to know.
"Pretty much. If I leave him at home, he gets lonely and eats the furniture."
Forty minutes later, Diesel was finishing up a mountain of scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes,home fries, and sourdough toast with jam… all smothered in maple syrup.
I'd ordered a similar breakfast but had to give up about a third of the way through. I pushedmy plate away and asked that the food be put in a to-go box. I drank my coffee and thumbedthrough the first file. Charlene Klinger. Age forty-two. Divorced. Four children, ages seven,eight, ten, and twelve. Worked for the DMV. There was an unflattering snapshot of her squintinginto the sun. She was wearing sneakers and slacks and a sweater than didn't do a lot to hidethe fact that she was about twenty pounds overweight. Her face was pleasant enough. No makeup.Not a lot of hairstyle going on. Short brown hair pushed behind her ears. The smile lookedtense, like she was making an effort, but she had bigger fish to fry than to pose for thepicture.
There were four more pages in Charlene's file. Harvey Nolen, Brian Seabeam, Lonnie Brownowski,Steven Klein. REJECT had been written in red magic marker across each page. A sticky note hadbeen attached to the back of the file, THERE'S SOMEONE FOR EVERYONE, the note read. I supposedthis was Annie giving herself a pep talk. And a second sticky note below the first, FINDCHARLENE'S TRUE LOVE. A mission statement.
I blew out a sigh and closed the file.
"Hey, it could be worse," Diesel said. "You could be hunting down a skip who thinks it's openseason on bounty hunters. Unless you really piss her off, Charlene probably won't shoot atyou."
"I don't know where to begin."
Diesel stood and threw some money on the table. "You'll figure it out. I'll check in with youlater."
"Wait," I said. "About Annie Hart—"
"Later," Diesel said. And in three strides he was across the room and at the door. By the timeI got to the lot, Diesel was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, he hadn't commandeered my car. Itwas still in its parking space, Bob looking at me through the back window, somehowunderstanding that the Styrofoam box in my hand contained food for him.
The bail bonds office is a small storefront affair on Hamilton Avenue, just a ten-minute drivefrom the diner. I parked at the curb and pushed my way through the front door. Connie Rosolli,the office manager, looked up when I entered. Connie is a couple years older than me, a couplepounds heavier, a couple inches shorter, a lot more Italian, and consistently has a bettermanicure.
"You must be tuned in to the cosmic loop this morning," Connie said. "I was just about to callyou. Vinnie's bananas over Annie Hart."
Vinnie's ferret face appeared in the doorway of his inner office. "Well?" he asked me.
"Tell me you've got her locked up nice and neat. Tell me you've got a body receipt."
"I've got a lead," I told Vinnie.
"Only a lead?" Vinnie clapped his hands to his head. "You're killing me!"
Lula was on the faux leather couch, reading a magazine. "We should be so lucky," Lula said.
Lula is a 180-pound black woman crammed into a five-foot, five-inch body. At the moment, shewas wearing a red skin-tight spandex T-shirt that said KISS MY ASS in iridescent goldlettering, jeans with rhinestones marching down side seams that looked like they might burstapart at any minute, and four-inch high-heeled boots. Lula does the office filing when she's inthe mood, and she rides shotgun for me when I need backup.
"What's the lineup look like?" I asked Connie.
"Nothing new. Annie Hart is the only big bond in the wind. It's always slow at this time of theyear. All the serious crackheads killed themselves over Christmas, and it's too cold for thehookers and pushers to stand on the street corners. The only good crime we've got going on isgang shooting, and those idiots get held without bond."
"It's so slow Vinnie's going on a cruise," Lula said.
"Yeah, and the cruise isn't cheap," Vinnie said. "So get your ass out there and find AnnieHart. I'm not running a goddamn charity here. I take a hit on Hart's bond, and I'll have tofake a stroke and cash in my cruise insurance. And Lucille wouldn't like that."
Lucille is Vinnie's wife. Her father is Harry the Hammer, and while Harry might understandabout the need for the occasional illicit nooner, he definitely wouldn't be happy to see
Lucille get stiffed on the cruise.
"It's one of them champagne Valentine's Day cruises," Vinnie said. "Lucille's got her bagspacked already. She thinks this is going to rejuvenate our marriage."
"Only way it'll rejuvenate your marriage is if Lucille brings handcuffs and a whip and Mary'slittle lamb," Lula said.
"So sue me," Vinnie said. "I've got eclectic tastes."
We all did a lot of eye rolling.
"I'm out of here," I told Connie. "I'll be on my cell if you need me."
"I'm going with you," Lula said, grabbing her Prada knockoff shoulder bag. "I'm feeling luckytoday. I bet I could find Annie Hart right off."
"Thanks," I said to Lula, "but I can handle it."
"The hell," Lula said. "Suppose you gotta go into some cranky neighborhood, and you need somemuscle. That would be me. Or suppose you need to make a doughnut choice at that new place onState Street. That would be me, too."
I cut my eyes to Lula. "So what you're saying is that you want to test-drive the new doughnutshop on State?"
"Yeah," Lula said. "But only if you need a doughnut real bad."
Fifteen minutes later, I cruised away from Donut Delish and headed for the DMV.
"I can't believe you're not eating any of these doughnuts," Lula said, a bag of doughnutsresting on her lap. "These are first class. Look at this one with the pink and yellow sprinkleson it. It's just about the happiest doughnut I ever saw."
"I had a huge late breakfast. I'm stuffed."
"Yeah, but we're talking about primo doughnuts here."
Bob was in the cargo area of the Escape. His head was over the backseat, and he was panting inour direction.
"That dog could use a breath mint," Lula said.
"Try a doughnut."
Lula flipped Bob a doughnut. Bob caught the doughnut midair and settled down to enjoy it.
"Where the heck are we going?" Lula wanted to know. "I thought we were going after Annie Hart.Don't she live in North Trenton?"
"It's complicated. I had to make a deal. Annie Hart is inaccessible until I wrap up hercaseload."
"Are you shitting me? And what's that mean anyways? Does that mean you're taking on hercustomers? Personally, I can't see you doing that. I read her file. She said she was arelationship expert, and I figured that's code for 'ho."
"It's not like that. It's more like matchmaking. First person on my list is Charlene Klinger.She's forty-two and divorced, and we need to find her true love."
"Oh boy, true love. That's a bitch. You sure she wouldn't be satisfied if we just found hersome nasty sweaty sex? I got a couple names in my book for that one."
"I'm pretty sure it has to be true love."
Charlene Klinger was behind the counter at the DMV, working the registration-only line. She wasprettier in person. Her hair still lacked style, but it was thick and glossy and suited her.Her face was animated, and she smiled a lot. After thirty-five minutes, Lula and I had inchedour way up to her. I introduced myself to Charlene and explained I was substituting for AnnieHart.
"That woman is a nut," Charlene said. "I don't know where she came from, but good riddance ifshe's gone. And I don't need a substitute nutcase. I'm doing fine. I don't want a man in mylife. I've got enough problems."
"Didn't you hire Annie?"
"Heck no. She just popped into my kitchen one day. Happens to me all the time. The kids leavethe door open and next thing I know, some half-starved cat's wandered into the house and won'tleave."
"I was under the impression you wanted to find your true love," I said to Charlene.
Charlene looked at the powdered sugar that had sifted onto Lula's chest. "I'd sooner find a bagof doughnuts. Don't have to shave your legs to enjoy a bag of doughnuts."
"Amen to that," Lula said.
"You're going to have to move along if you don't want to register something," Charlene said."You hold up the line too long and this crowd will get ugly."
Lula and I left the building and hustled to my car. It was freezing cold, and we walked withour heads tucked down against the wind.
"Now what?" Lula wanted to know.
I slid behind the wheel and pulled another file out of the envelope. "I have more."
Lula picked a doughnut out of the bag. "Me, too."
"Yesterday you told me you were going on a diet."
"Yeah, but it's something new. It's called the afternoon diet. You get to eat all you wantuntil noon. Then the diet starts."
"Next up is Gary Martin. Runs a vet clinic on Route 1. Never been married. Looks like a niceguy." I passed his picture to Lula.
"He looks like a dork," Lula said. "He's wearing a bow tie, and he's got a comb-over. He don'tneed a matchmaker. He needs a woman with scissors."
I put the car in gear and rolled out of the lot. "According to Annie's file, he needs helpgetting his girlfriend back."
"And we're gonna help him? Excuse me if I'm a skeptic, but it don't seem to me we're all thatgood at relationships. I only date losers, and you have commitment issues. Plus, you can't evenmake up your mind about who you want as your commitment recipient. You're double-dipping withMorelli and Ranger."
"I'm not double-dipping."
"You're mentally double-dipping."
"That doesn't count. Everyone mentally double-dips. Keep your eyes open for Municipal AnimalHospital."
The Municipal Animal Hospital waiting room was bright and cheery and sparkling clean. And itwas empty of patients. A young woman sat behind the big wraparound desk. She was also sparklingclean, but she didn't look all that cheery.
"Yo," Lula said to her. "I'm Lula, and this here's the world-famous Stephanie Plum, and we'relooking for Gary Martin."
"He's in surgery," the woman said. "Office hours start at one o'clock."
"Maybe he could squeeze us in between surgeries," Lula said. "It's a personal matter."
"Dr. Martin doesn't like to be disturbed when he's in surgery."
"See, here's the thing," Lula said. "I got a doughnut with my name on it out in the car, and Idon't want to sit around until one o'clock. I mean, it's not like ol' Gary's doing open heart.He's cutting the balls off a cat, right?"
I pointed stiff-armed to the door. "Out," I said to Lula.
"Just trying to communicate with Miss Stick-up-her-ass," Lula said.
I waited until Lula left, and then I turned to the receptionist. "Maybe I could leave a notefor Dr. Martin."
There was a long awkward pause, and I assumed the receptionist was contemplating hitting thepolice button on the security system… or at the very least unleashing Dobermans from a holdingpen. This was a vet office. They had dogs, right?
Finally, the woman exhaled and slid a pad and pen my way. "I guess that would be okay," shesaid.
I was halfway through the note when Gary Martin emerged from a back room and approached thereceptionist.
"Any emergency calls?" he asked her. "Any, um, personal calls?"
She shook her head, no.
"Are you sure? Not a single personal call?"
Gary Martin looked like a big, forty-year-old cherub. He was about five foot six with chubbycheeks and a soft middle. He was wearing a light blue lab coat that was unbuttoned over tanslacks and a yellow button-down shirt. He was entirely adorable in a dorky kind of way. And hewas clearly disappointed that no one had called.
I stuck my hand out and introduced myself. "Annie Hart is temporarily indisposed," I said. "I'mher replacement."
I wasn't sure what to expect after Charlene Klinger, but Gary Martin seemed excited to see me.He ushered me into his little office and closed the door.
"I've been waiting," he said. "I was expecting Ms. Hart, but I'm sure you're wonderful, too."
"I understand you need help getting your girlfriend back."
"I don't know what happened. Two weeks ago, she just said it was over. I don't know what wentwrong. I must have done something terrible, but I don't know what it was. I was going to askher to marry me on Valentine's Day. And now I don't know what to do. She won't talk to me onthe phone, and she won't let me into her apartment. And last time I tried to talk to her shesaid I was a pest. A pest!"
"I'm curious," I said. "How did you hear about Annie Hart?"
"It was odd. I found her card in my jacket pocket. Someone must have given it to me. It saidMs. Hart was a relationship expert… and I thought, that's just what I need! So I called Ms.Hart, and we had a meeting. That was four days ago." Martin took a photo off his desktop andhanded it to me. "Ms. Hart wanted a picture of Loretta."
The sticky note attached to the back told me this was Loretta Flack, and Martin had neatlyprinted Loretta's address and phone number below her name. The front of the photo showed asmiling blond with a Barbie doll shape. It had been taken at some sort of street fair, and shewas holding a teddy bear.
"She's a bartender," Martin said. "She works the lunch shift at Beetle Bumpkin. It's a sportsbar just up the road. They have good sandwiches at lunchtime, but Loretta said she didn't wantme in there anymore."
"She's pretty," I said.
"Yes, she's way too pretty for me. And probably too young. I don't know why she even went outwith me in the first place. I thought maybe you could tell her I joined a gym, and I have aprivate trainer now. And I think my hair is growing back."
I looked up at the three strands of hair plastered to the top of his dome.
"I thought I might have seen some fuzz this morning," Gary Martin said.
"Anything else you want me to tell her?"
"I'll leave it up to you. You're a relationship expert, right? I mean, you know the rightthings to say."
never said the right thing. Lula was right. I was a relationshipOh boy, we were in trouble. I
"Sure," I told him. "Leave it to me. I'll get this fixed up."
Lula settled her ass on a Beetle Bumpkin barstool and looked around. "Beetle Bumpkin is one ofthem new mini chains," she said. "There's one just opened downtown. The sandwiches are goodbecause they fry them. Everything's fried. That's the Beetle Bumpkin secret ingredient."
Loretta Flack was taking an order at the other end of the bar. Her hair was yellow under theBumpkin bar lights, and her breasts were packed into a red Beetle Bumpkin T-shirt. I figuredshe was maybe fifteen years younger than Gary Martin.
"Let me do the talking this time," I said to Lula.
"My lips are sealed. I'm only here in case you need backup. Like suppose she tries some karatemoves or she pulls a gun on you."
"I don't think that's going to happen."
"You never know. Best to be prepared, I always say. People are unpredictable. I learned that inmy human behavior course at the community college. Did I ever tell you I took a human behaviorcourse?"
"It could help in this situation. It's just about qualified me to be a relationship expert.Plus I got a lot of expertise all those years when I was a 'ho. I bet I could relationship theass off you."
"No doubt. Let me talk anyway."
Loretta made her way down to us. "Ladies?" she said.
"Diet Coke and tuna on rye," I told her.
"I'll have the Beetle special sandwich and cheese fries and a Coke," Lula said.
I looked at my watch. It was twelve-thirty. "What about your afternoon diet?"
"It's more like a suggestion than a rule. And anyway, I thought since we're working on thesecases I should keep my strength up. I might get all weak and hypoglycemic if I don't havecheese fries."
"So," Loretta said. "Working ladies."
"Yep. We're relationship experts," Lula said. "We fix up relationships. You got any that needsfixin'?"
"No. I'm good with relationships. I'm in a dreamy one right now. He's a lawyer."