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Hot Six

By James Wright,2014-11-04 20:16
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Hot Six

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    Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum and Trenton vice cop Joe Morelli join forces to find the madmankiller who shot and barbecued the youngest son of international black-market arms dealerAlexander Ramos.

    Carlos Manoso, street name Ranger, is caught on video just minutes before the crime occurs.He's at the scene, he's with the victim, and he's the number-one suspect. Manoso is formerspecial forces turned soldier of fortune. He has a blue-chip stock portfolio and no knownaddress. He moves in mysterious circles. He's Stephanie's mentor—the man who taught hereverything she knows about fugitive apprehension. And he's more than her friend.

    Now he's the hunted and Stephanie's the hunter, and it's time for her to test her skillsagainst the master. But if she does catch him . . . what then? Can she bring herself to turnhim in?

    Plus there are other things keeping Stephanie awake at night. Her maternal grandmother has setup houskeeping in Stephanie's apartment, a homicidal maniac has selected Stephanie as his nextvictim, her love life is in the toilet, she's adopted a dog with an eating disorder, and shecan't button the top snap on her Levi's.

    Experience the world of Plum—in Janet Evanovich's new thriller. It's surreal, it's frenetic,

    Hot Six . It's the best yet.it's incendiary.

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    OKAY, SO HERE'S the thing. My mother's worst fear has come true. I'm a nymphomaniac. I lustafter a lot of men. Of course, maybe that's because I don't actually actually have sex with any. And some of my lustings probably aren't going anywhere. Probably it's unrealistic tothink I'll ever get it on with Mike Richter, the goalie for the New York Rangers. Ditto IndianaJones.

    On the other hand, two of the men on my list of desirables actually desire me back. The problembeing that they both sort of scare the hell out of me.

    My name is Stephanie Plum. I'm a bounty hunter, and I work with both these men. Both areinvolved in law enforcement. One is a cop. And the other takes a more entrepreneurial approachto deterring crime. Neither is very good at following rules. Both outclass me when it comes tolusting experience .

    Anyway, there comes a time in a girl's life when she needs to take the bull by the horns (orsome other appropriate body part) and take charge of her life. And this is what I just did. Imade a phone call, and I invited one of the scary men over for a visit.

    Now I'm trying to decide if I should let him in.

    My fear is that this could be an experience similar to the time when at age nine I got carriedaway in a Wonder Woman fantasy, fell off the Kruzaks' garage roof, destroyed Mrs. Kruzak'sprize rosebush, ripped my shorts and flowered cotton underpants, and spent the rest of the daynot realizing my ass was exposed.

    Mental eyeroll. Get a grip! There's no reason to be nervous. This is the will of God. Afterall, didn't I pick this man's name out of a hat tonight? Well, actually it was a bowl, butstill, this is a cosmic meeting. All right, so the truth is, I cheated a little and peeked whenI picked. Hell, sometimes fate needs some help. I mean, if I could rely on fate to do the job Iwouldn't have had to make the stupid phone call, would I?

    Besides, I have some things going for me. I'm prepared for the task ahead. Man-eater dress,short and black. Anklestrap heels. Glossy red lipstick. Box of condoms hidden in my sweaterdrawer. Gun fully loaded, on standby in the cookie jar. Stephanie Plum, woman on a mission.Take 'im down, dead or alive.

    Just seconds ago, I heard the elevator doors slide open, and I heard footsteps in the hall. Thefootsteps stopped outside my apartment door, and I knew it was him because my nipplescontracted.

    He rapped once, and I stood paralyzed, staring at the lock. I opened the door on the secondknock and stepped back, and our eyes met. He showed no sign of the nervousness I felt.Curiosity, maybe. And desire. Lots of desire. Desire in spades .

    "Howdy," I said.

    He stepped forward into the foyer, closed the door, and locked it. His breathing was slow anddeep, his eyes were dark, his expression serious as he studied me.

    "Nice dress," he said. "Take it off."

    "Maybe some wine first," I said. Procrastinate! I thought. Get him drunk! Then if it's adisaster he might not remember.

He slowly shook his head. "I don't think so."

    "Sandwich?"

    "Later. A lot later."

    I did some mental knuckle-cracking.

    He smiled. "You're cute when you're nervous."

    I narrowed my eyes. I hadn't been shooting for cute when I'd set this up and fantasized theevening.

    He pulled me in to him, reached behind my back, and slid the zipper down on my dress. The dressdropped from my shoulders and pooled at my feet, leaving me in my slut shoes and Victoria'sSecret barely-there string bikinis.

    I'm five feet seven inches, and the heels added another four, but he still had an inch on me.He had a lot more muscle, too. His hands skimmed the length of my back, and he looked me over.

    "Pretty," he said.

    He seen it before, of course. He'd had his head under my skirt when I was seven. He'd relievedme of my virginity when I was eighteen. And, in more recent history, he'd done things to methat I wouldn't soon forget. He was a Trenton cop, and his name was Joe Morelli.

    "Remember when we were kids and we used to play choo-choo?" he asked.

    "I was always the tunnel, and you were always the train."

    He hooked his thumbs into the waistband of my panties and inched them down. "I was a rottenkid," he said.

    "True."

    "I'm better now."

    "Sometimes."

    This got me a wolfish smile. "Cupcake, don't you ever doubt it."

    And then he kissed me, and my undies floated to the floor.

    Oh, boy !Oh, boy.

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    FIVE MONTH LATER . . .

    Carol Zabo was standing on the outermost guardrail on the bridge spanning the Delaware betweenTrenton, New Jersey, and Morrisville, Pennsylvania. She was holding a regulation-size yellowfire brick in the palm of her right hand, with about four feet of clothesline stretched betweenthe brick and her ankle. On the side of the bridge in big letters was the slogan "Trenton Makesand the World Takes." And Carol was apparently tired of the world taking whatever it was shewas making, because she was getting ready to jump into the Delaware and let the brick do itswork.

    I was standing about ten feet from Carol, trying to talk her off the guardrail. Cars wererolling past us, some slowing up to gawk, and some cutting in and out of the gawkers, givingCarol the finger because she was disturbing the flow.

    "Listen, Carol," I said, "it's eight-thirty in the morning, and it's starting to snow. I'mfreezing my ass off. Make up your mind about jumping, because I have to tinkle, and I need acup of coffee."

    Truth is, I didn't for a minute think she'd jump. For one thing, she was wearing a four-hundred-dollar jacket from Wilson Leather. You just don't jump off a bridge in a four-hundred-dollar jacket. It isn't done. The jacket would get ruined. Carol was from the Chambersburgsection of Trenton, just like me, and in the Burg you gave the jacket to your sister, then youjumped off the bridge.

    "Hey, you listen, Stephanie Plum," Carol said, teeth chattering. "Nobody sent you an engravedinvitation to this party."

    I'd gone to high school with Carol. She'd been a cheerleader, and I'd been a baton twirler. Nowshe was married to Lubie Zabo and wanted to kill herself. If I was married to Lubie I'd want tokill myself too, but that wasn't Carol's reason for standing on the guardrail, holding a brickon a rope. Carol had shoplifted some crotchless bikinis from the Frederick's of Hollywood storeat the mall. It wasn't that Carol couldn't afford the panties, it was that she wanted them tospice up her love life and was too embarrassed to take them to the register. In her haste tomake a getaway, she'd rear-ended Brian Simon's plainclothes cop car and had left the scene.Brian had been in the car at the time, and had chased her down and thrown her into the pokey.

    My cousin Vinnie, president and sole proprietor of Vincent Plum Bail Bonds, had written Carol'sget-out-of-jail ticket. If Carol didn't show up for her court date, Vinnie would forfeit thewalking money—unless he could retrieve Carol's body in a timely manner.

    This is where I come in. I'm a bond enforcement agent, which is a fancy term for bounty hunter,and I retrieve bodies for Vinnie. Preferably live and unharmed. Vinnie had spotted Carol on hisway in to work this morning and had dispatched me to rescue her—or, if rescue wasn't possible,to eyeball the precise spot where she splashed down. Vinnie was worried if he'd be out his bondmoney if Carol jumped into the river, and the divers and cops with grappling hooks couldn'tfind her water-logged corpse.

    "This is really a bad way to do it," I said to Carol. "You're going to look awful when theyfind you. Think about it—your hair's gonna be a wreck."

    She rolled her eyes up as if she could see on the top of her head. "Shit, I never thought ofthat," she said. "I just had it highlighted, too. I got it foiled."

    The snow was coming down in big wet blobs. I was wearing hiking boots with thick Vibram soles,but the cold was seeping through to my feet all the same. Carol was more dressy in funky ankleboots, a little black dress, and the excellent jacket. Somehow the brick seemed too casual forthe rest of the outfit. And the dress reminded me of a dress I had hanging in my own closet.I'd only worn the dress for a matter of minutes before it had been dropped to the floor andkicked aside . . . the opening statement in an exhaustive night with the man of my dreams.Well, one of the men, anyway. Funny how people see clothes differently. I wore the dress,hoping to get a man in my bed. And Carol chose it to jump off a bridge. Now in my opinion,jumping off a bridge in a dress is a bad decision. If I was going to jump off a bridge I'd wearslacks. Carol was going to look like an idiot with her skirt up around her ears and herpantyhose hanging out. "So what does Lubie think of the highlights?" I asked.

    "Lubie likes the highlights," Carol said. "Only he wants me to grow it longer. He says longhair is the style now."

    Personally, I wouldn't put a lot of stock in the fashion sense of a man who got his nickname bybragging about his sexual expertise with a grease gun. But hey, that's just me. "So tell meagain why you're up here on the guardrail."

    "Because I'd rather die than go to jail."

    "I told you, you're not going to jail. And if you do, it won't be for very long."

    "A day is too long! An hour is too long! They make you take off all your clothes, and then theymake you bend over so they can look for smuggled weapons. And you have to go to the bathroom infront of everyone. There's no, you know, privacy. I saw a special on television."

    Okay, so now I understood a little bit better. I'd kill myself before I'd do any of thosethings, too.

    "Maybe you won't have to go to jail," I said. "I know Brian Simon. I could talk to him. Maybe Icould get him to drop the charges."

    Carol's face brightened. "Really? Would you do that for me?"

    "Sure. I can't guarantee anything, but I can give it a shot."

    "And if he won't drop the charges, I'll still have a chance to kill myself."

    "Exactly."

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    I PACKED CAROL and the brick off in her car, and then I drove over to the 7-Eleven for coffeeand a box of glazed chocolate doughnuts. I figured I deserved the doughnuts, since I'd donesuch a good job of saving Carol's life.

    I took the doughnuts and coffee to Vinnie's storefront office on Hamilton Avenue. I didn't wantto run the risk of eating all the doughnuts myself. And I was hoping Vinnie would have morework for me. As a bond enforcement agent I only get paid if I bring somebody in. And at themoment I was clean out of wayward bondees.

    "Damn, skippy," Lula said from behind the file cabinets. "Here come doughnuts walking throughthe door."

    At five feet five inches, weighing in at a little over two hundred pounds, Lula is something ofa doughnut expert. She was in monochromatic mode this week, with hair, skin, and lip gloss allthe color of cocoa. The skin color is permanent, but the hair changes weekly.

    Lula does filing for Vinnie, and she helps me out when I need backup. Since I'm not the world'sbest bounty hunter, and Lula isn't the world's best backup, it's more often than not like theamateur-hour version of The Best of "Cops" Bloopers .

    "Are those chocolate doughnuts?" Lula asked. "Connie and me were just thinking we needed somechocolate doughnuts, weren't we, Connie?"

    Connie Rosolli is Vinnie's office manager. She was at her desk, in the middle of the room,examining her mustache in a mirror. "I'm thinking of having more electrolysis," she said. "Whatdo you think?"

    "I think it's a good thing," Lula told her, helping herself to a doughnut. "Because you'restarting to look like Groucho Marx, again."

    I sipped my coffee and fingered through some files Connie had on her desk. "Anything new comein?"

    The door to Vinnie's inner office slammed open, and Vinnie stuck his head out. "Fuckin' A, wegot something new . . . and it's all yours."

    Lula screwed her mouth up to the side. And Connie did a nose wrinkle.

    I had a bad feeling in my stomach. Usually I had to beg for jobs and here Vinnie was, havingsaved something for me. "What's going on?" I asked.

    "It's Ranger," Connie said. "He's in the wind. Won't respond to his pager."

    "The schmuck didn't show up for his court date yesterday," Vinnie said. "He's FTA."

    "FTA" is bounty-hunter-speak for "failure to appear." Usually I'm happy to hear someone hasfailed to appear, because it means I get to earn money by coaxing them back into the system. Inthis case, there was no money to be had, because if Ranger didn't want to be found, he wasn'tgoing to be found. End of discussion.

    good . He's close to my age, give or take aRanger is a bounty hunter, like me. Only Ranger is

    few years; he's Cuban-American; and I'm pretty sure he only kills bad guys. Two weeks ago someidiot rookie cop arrested Ranger on carrying concealed without a license. Every other cop inTrenton knows Ranger and knows he carries concealed, and they're perfectly happy to have itthat way. But no one told the new guy. So Ranger was busted and scheduled to go before thejudge yesterday for a slap on the wrist. In the meantime, Vinnie sprung Ranger with a nicechunk of money, and now Vinnie was feeling lonely, high off the ground, out there on a limb allby himself. First Carol. Now Ranger. Not a good way to start a Tuesday.

    "There's something wrong with this picture," I said. It made my heart feel leaden in my chest,because there were people out there who wouldn't mind seeing Ranger disappear forever. And hisdisappearance would make a very large hole in my life.

    "It's not like Ranger to ignore his court date. Or to ignore his page."

    Lula and Connie exchanged glances.

    "You know that big fire they had downtown on Sunday?" Connie said. "Turns out the building isowned by Alexander Ramos."

    Alexander Ramos deals guns, regulating the flow of black market arms from his summer compoundon the Jersey shore and his winter fortress in Athens. Two of his three adult sons live in theUnited States, one in Santa Barbara, the other in Hunterdon County. The third son lives in Rio.None of this is privileged information. The Ramos family has made the cover of Newsweek four

    times. People have speculated for years that Ranger has ties to Ramos, but the exact nature ofthose ties has always been unknown. Ranger is a master of keeping things unknown.

    "And?" I asked.

    "And when they could finally go through the building yesterday they found Ramos's youngest son,Homer, barbecued in a third-floor office. Besides being toasted, he also had a large bullethole in his head."

    "And?"

    "And Ranger's wanted for questioning. The police were here just a few minutes ago, looking forhim."

"Why do they want Ranger?"

    Connie did a palms-up.

    "Anyway, he's skipped," Vinnie said, "and you're gonna bring him in."

    My voice involuntarily rose an octave. "What, are you crazy? I'm not going after Ranger!"

    "That's the beauty of it," Vinnie said. "You don't have to go after him. He'll come to you.He's got a thing for you."

    "No! No way. Forget it."

    "Fine," Vinnie said, "you don't want the job, I'll put Joyce on it."

    Joyce Barnhardt is my archenemy. Ordinarily, I'd eat dirt before I'd give anything up to Joyce.In this case, Joyce could take it. Let her spend her time spinning her wheels, looking for theinvisible man.

    "So what else have you got?" I asked Connie.

    "Two minors and a real stinker." She passed three folders over to me. "Since Ranger isn'tavailable I'm going to have to give the stinker to you."

    I flipped the top file open. Morris Munson. Arrested for vehicular manslaughter. "Could beworse," I said. "Could be a homicidal rapist."

    "You didn't read down far enough," Connie said. "After this guy ran over the victim, who justhappened to be his ex-wife, he beat her with a tire iron, raped her, and tried to set her onfire. He was charged with vehicular manslaughter because according to the M.E. she was alreadydead when he took the tire iron to her. He had her soaked in gasoline and was trying to get hisBic to work when a blue-and-white happened to drive by."

    Little black dots danced in front of my eyes. I sat down hard on the fake-leather couch and putmy head between my legs.

    "You okay?" Lula asked.

    job ."Probably it's just low blood sugar," I said. Probably it's my

    "It could be worse," Connie said. "It says here he wasn't armed. Just bring your gun along, andI'm sure you'll be fine."

    "I can't believe they let him out on bail!"

    "Go figure," Connie said. "Guess they didn't have any more room at the inn."

    I looked up at Vinnie, who was still standing in the doorway to his private office. "You wrotebail on this maniac?"

    "Hey, I'm not a judge. I'm a businessman. He didn't have any priors," Vinnie said. "And he hasa good job working at the button factory. Homeowner."

    "And now he's gone."

    "Didn't show up for his court date," Connie said. "I called the button factory, and they saidlast they saw him was Wednesday."

    "Have they heard from him at all? Did he call in sick?"

    "No. Nothing. I called his home number and got his machine."

    I glanced at the other two files. Lenny Dale, missing in action, charged with domesticviolence. And Walter "Moon Man" Dunphy, wanted for drunk and disorderly and urinating in apublic place.

    I tucked the three folders into my shoulder bag and stood. "Page me if you hear anything onRanger."

    "Last chance," Vinnie said. "I swear I'll give his file to Joyce."

    I took a doughnut from the box, gave the box over to Lula, and left. It was March and thesnowstorm was having a hard time working itself up into anything serious. There was some slushon the street, and a layer of ice had accumulated on my windshield and my passenger-side

    windows. There was a large blurry object behind the window. I squinted through the ice. Theblurry object was Joe Morelli.

    Most women would have an orgasm on the spot to find Morelli sitting in their car. He had thateffect. I'd known Morelli for most of my life, and I almost never had an on-the-spot orgasm,anymore. I needed at least four minutes.

    He was wearing boots and jeans and a black fleece jacket. The tails of a red plaid flannelshirt hung under the jacket. Under the flannel shirt he wore a black T-shirt and a .40-caliberGlock. His eyes were the color of aged whiskey and his body was a testament to good Italiangenes and hard work at the gym. He had a reputation for living fast, and the reputation waswell deserved but dated. Morelli focused his energy on his job now.

    I slid behind the wheel, turned the key in the ignition, and cranked up the defroster. I wasdriving a six-year-old blue Honda Civic that was perfectly good transportation but didn'tenhance my fantasy life. Hard to be Xena, Warrior Princess in a six-year-old Civic.

    "So," I said to Morelli, "what's up?"

    "You going after Ranger?"

    "Nope. Not me. No siree. No way."

    He raised his eyebrows.

    "I'm not magic," I said. Sending me after Ranger would be like sending the chicken out to huntdown the fox.

    Morelli was slouched against the door. "I need to talk to him."

    "Are you investigating the fire?"

    "No. This is something else."

    "Something else that's related to the fire? Like the hole in Homer Ramos's head?"

    Morelli grinned. "You ask a lot of questions."

    "Yeah, but I'm not getting any answers. Why isn't Ranger answering his page? What's hisinvolvement here?"

    "He had a late-night meeting with Ramos. They were caught on a lobby security camera. Thebuilding is locked up at night, but Ramos had a key. He arrived first, waited ten minutes forRanger, then opened the door for him. The two of them crossed the lobby and took the elevatorto the third floor. Thirty-five minutes later Ranger left alone. And ten minutes after that,the fire alarm went off. Forty-eight hours' worth of tape has been run, and according to thetape no one else was in the building with Ranger and Ramos."

    "Ten minutes is a long time. Give him three more to ride the elevator or take the stairs. Whydidn't the alarm go off sooner, if Ranger started the fire?"

    "No smoke detector in the office where Ramos was found. The door was closed, and the smokedetector was in the hall."

    "Ranger isn't stupid. He wouldn't let himself get caught on videotape if he was going to killsomeone."

    "It was a hidden camera." Morelli eyed my doughnut. "You going to eat that?"

    I broke the doughnut in half and gave him a piece. I popped the other into my mouth. "Was anaccelerant used?"

    "Small amount of lighter fluid."

    "You think Ranger did it?"

    "Hard to say with Ranger."

    "Connie said Ramos was shot."

    "Nine millimeter."

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