It's Stephanie Plum, New Jersey's "fugitive apprehension" agent (aka bounty hunter), introducedto the world by Janet Evanovich in the award-winning novel One for the Money .
Now Stephanie's back, armed with attitude—not to mention stun gun, defense spray, killerflashlights, and her trusty .38. Stephanie is after a new bail jumper, Kenny Mancuso, a boyfrom Trenton's burg. He's fresh out of the army, suspiciously wealthy, and he's just shot hisbest friend.
With her bounty hunter pal Ranger stepping in occasionally to advise her, Stephanie staggersknee-deep in corpses and caskets as she traipses through back streets, dark alleys, and funeralparlors.
And nobody knows funeral parlors better than Stephanie's irrepressable Grandma Mazur, a ladywhose favorite pastime is grabbing a front-row seat at a neighborhood wake. So Stephanie usesGrandma as a cover to follow leads, but loses control when Grandma warms to the action, packinga cool pistol. Much to the family's chagrin, Stephanie and Granny may soon have the elusiveKenny in their sites.
Fast-talking, slow-handed vice cop Joe Morelli joins in the case, since the prey happens to behis young cousin. And if the assignment calls for an automobile stakeout for two with the womanwho puts his libido in overdrive, Morelli's not one to object.
Low on expertise but learning fast, high on resilience, and despite the help she gets fromfriends and relatives, Stephanie eventually must face the danger alone when embalmed body partsbegin to arrive on her doorstep and she's targeted for a nasty death by the most loathsomeadversary she's ever encountered. Another case like this and she'll be a real pro.
To Alex and Peter
Because they've always had more faith than common sense—and are careful not to step on a
I knew Ranger was beside me because I could see his earring gleaming in the moonlight.Everything else about him—his T-shirt, his flack vest, his slicked-back hair, and 9-mmGlock—was as black as the night. Even his skin tone seemed to darken in shade. Ricardo CarlosManoso, the Cuban-American chameleon.
I, on the other hand, was the blue-eyed, fair-skinned product of a Hungarian-Italian union andwas not nearly so cleverly camouflaged for clandestine evening activities.
It was late October, and Trenton was enjoying the death throes of Indian summer. Ranger and Iwere squatting behind a hydrangea bush at the corner of Paterson and Wycliff, and we weren'tenjoying Indian summer, each other's company, or much of anything else. We'd been squattingthere for three hours, and squatting was taking its toll on our good humor.
We were watching the small clapboard Cape Cod at 5023 Paterson, following a tip that KennyMancuso was scheduled to visit his girlfriend, Julia Cenetta. Kenny Mancuso had recently beencharged with shooting a gas station attendant (who also happened to be his former best friend)in the knee.
Mancuso had posted a bail bond via the Vincent Plum Bonding Company, insuring his release fromjail and returning him to the bosom of polite society. After his release he'd promptlydisappeared and three days later failed to show face at a preliminary hearing. This did notmake Vincent Plum happy.
Since Vincent Plum's losses were my windfalls, I saw Mancuso's disappearance from a moreopportunistic perspective. Vincent Plum is my cousin and my employer. I work for Vinnie as abounty hunter, dragging felons who are beyond the long arm of the law back into the system.Dragging Kenny back was going to net me ten percent of his $50,000 bond. A portion of thatwould go to Ranger for assisting with the takedown, and the rest would pay off my car loan.
Ranger and I had a sort of loose partnership. Ranger was a genuine, cool-ass, numero-uno bountyhunter. I asked him to help me because I was still learning the trade and needed all the help Icould get. His participation was in the ballpark of a pity fuck.
"Don't think this is gonna happen," Ranger said.
I'd done the intel and was feeling defensive that maybe I'd had my chain yanked. "I spoke toJulia this morning. Explained to her that she could be considered an accessory."
"And that made her decide to cooperate?"
"Not exactly. She decided to cooperate when I told her how before the shooting Kenny had beensometimes seeing Denise Barkolowski."
Ranger was smiling in the dark. "You lie about Denise?"
"Proud of you, babe."
I didn't feel bad about the lie since Kenny was a scumbag felon, and Julia should be settingher sights higher anyway.
"Looks like maybe she thought twice about reaping the rewards of revenge and waved Kenny away.You find out where he's living?"
"He's moving around. Julia doesn't have a phone number for him. She says he's being careful."
"He a first-time offender?"
"Probably nervous about checking into the big house. Heard all those stories about date rape."
We turned silent as a pickup approached. It was a new Toyota 4 x 4 fresh off the showroomfloor. Dark color. Temporary plates. Extra antennae for a car phone. The Toyota eased up at theCape Cod and pulled into the driveway. The driver got out and walked to the front door. Hisback was to us and the lighting was poor.
"What do you think?" Ranger asked. "Is that Mancuso?"
I couldn't tell from this distance. The man was the right height and weight. Mancuso wastwenty-one years old, six feet tall, 175 pounds, dark brown hair. He'd been discharged from thearmy four months ago, and he was in good shape. I had several pictures that were obtained whenthe bond had been posted, but they didn't do me any good from this angle.
"Could be him, but I can't swear to it without seeing his face," I said.
The front door of the house opened and the man disappeared inside. The door closed shut.
"We could go knock on the door nice and polite and ask if he's the man," Ranger said.
I nodded in agreement. "That might work."
We stood and adjusted our gun belts.
I was dressed in dark jeans, long-sleeved black turtleneck, navy Kevlar vest, and red Keds. Ihad my curly, shoulder-length brown hair tied in a ponytail, tucked under a navy ball cap. Iwore my five-shot .38 Smith & Wesson Chief's Special in a black nylon webbed hip holster withcuffs and a defense spray wedged into the back of the belt.
We walked across the lawn and Ranger rapped on the front door to the house with a flashlightthat was eighteen inches long and eight inches round at the reflector. It gave good light, andRanger said it was excellent for making serious head dents. Fortunately, I've never had towitness any bludgeoning. I'd fainted flat out watching Reservoir Dogs and had no illusions
about my blood-and-guts comfort level. If Ranger ever had to use the flashlight to crack skullswhile I was around, I intended to close my eyes . . . and then maybe I'd take up anotherprofession.
When no one answered I stepped to the side and unholstered my revolver. Standard procedure forthe backup partner. In my case, it was more or less an empty gesture. I religiously went to therange to practice, but truth is I'm hopelessly unmechanical. I harbor an irrational fear ofguns, and most of the time keep my little S & W empty of bullets so I won't accidentally blastthe toes off my foot. On the one occasion I'd had to shoot somebody I'd been so flustered I'dforgotten to take my gun out of my pocketbook before pulling the trigger. I wasn't eager torepeat the performance.
Ranger rapped again, with more force. "Fugitive apprehension agent," he called out. "Open thedoor."
This drew a response, and the door was opened, not by Julia Cenetta or Kenny Mancuso, but byJoe Morelli, a Trenton Police Department plainclothesman.
We all stood silent for a moment, everyone surprised to see everyone else.
"That your truck in the driveway?" Ranger finally asked Morelli.
"Yeah," Morelli said. "Just got it."
Ranger nodded. "Good-looking vehicle."
Morelli and I were both from the burg, a blue-collar chunk of Trenton where dysfunctionaldrunks were still called bums and only pansies went to Jiffy Lube for an oil change. Morellihad a long history of taking advantage of my naïveté. I'd recently had the opportunity to eventhe score, and now we were in a period of reevaluation, both of us jockeying around forposition.
Julia peeked at us from behind Morelli.
"So what happened?" I said to Julia. "I thought Kenny was supposed to stop around tonight?"
"Yeah, right," she said. "Like he ever does anything he says."
"Did he call?"
"Nothing. No call. Nothing. He's probably with Denise Barkolowski. Why don't you go knock onher stupid door?"
Ranger stayed stoic, but I knew he was smiling inside. "I'm out of here," he said. "Don't liketo get involved in these domestic unpleasantries."
Morelli had been watching me. "What happened to your hair?" he asked.
"It's under my hat."
He had his hands shoved into his jeans pockets, "Very sexy."
Morelli thought everything was sexy.
"It's late," Julia said. "I gotta go to work tomorrow."
I looked at my watch. It was ten-thirty. "You'll let me know if you hear from Kenny?"
Morelli followed me out. We walked to his truck and stared at it in silence for a while,thinking our own thoughts. His last car had been a Jeep Cherokee. It had been bombed and blownto smithereens. Fortunately for Morelli, he hadn't been in the car at the time.
"What are you doing here?" I finally asked.
"Same as you. Looking for Kenny."
"I didn't think you were in the bond enforcement business."
"Mancuso's mother was a Morelli, and the family asked if I'd look for Kenny and talk to himbefore he got himself into any more trouble."
"Jesus. Are you telling me you're related to Kenny Mancuso?"
"I'm related to everyone."
"You're not related to me."
"You have any leads besides Julia?"
He gave that some thought. "We could work together on this."
I raised an eyebrow. Last time I worked with Morelli I'd gotten shot in the ass. "What wouldyou contribute to the cause?"
Kenny might be dumb enough to turn to family. "How do I know you won't cut me out at the end?"As he was sometimes prone to do.
His face was all hard planes. The sort of face that started off handsome and gained characteras it aged. A paper-thin scar sliced through his left eyebrow. Mute testimony to a life livedoutside the normal range of caution. He was thirty-two. Two years older than me. He was single.And he was a good cop. The jury was still out on its assessment of him as a human being.
"Guess you'll just have to trust me," he said, grinning, rocking back on his heels.
He opened the door to the Toyota and new-car aroma washed over us. He hitched himself up behindthe wheel and cranked the engine over. "Don't suppose Kenny will show up this late," he said.
"Not likely. Julia lives with her mother. Her mother's a nurse on the night shift at St.Francis. She'll be home in half an hour, and I can't picture Kenny waltzing in when Momma'shere."
Morelli nodded agreement and drove off. When his taillights disappeared in the distance Iwalked to the far corner of the block where I'd parked my Jeep Wrangler. I'd gotten theWrangler secondhand from Skoogie Krienski. Skoogie had used it to deliver pizza from Pino'sPizzeria, and when the car got warm it smelled like baking bread and marinara sauce. It was theSahara model, painted camouflage beige. Very handy in case I wanted to join an army convoy.
Probably I was right about it being too late for Kenny to show, but I figured it wouldn't hurtto hang out a little longer and make sure. I snapped the top on the Jeep so I wouldn't be sovisible, and slouched back to wait. It wasn't nearly as good a vantage point as the hydrangeabush, but it was okay for my purposes. If Kenny appeared, I'd call Ranger on my cellular phone.I wasn't anxious to do a single-handed capture of a guy going down for grievous wounding.
After ten minutes a small hatchback passed by the Cenetta house. I slunk down in my seat andthe car continued on. A few minutes later, it reappeared. It stopped in front of the Cape Cod.The driver beeped the horn. Julia Cenetta ran out and jumped into the passenger seat.
I rolled my engine over when they were half a block away, but waited for them to turn thecorner before I hit the lights. We were on the edge of the burg, in a residential pocket ofmoderately priced single-family houses. There was no traffic, making it easier to spot a tail,so I stayed far behind. The hatchback connected with Hamilton and headed east. I hung tight,closing the gap now that the road was more traveled. I held this position until Julia andfriend pulled into a mall lot and parked on the dark fringe.
The lot was empty at this time of night. No place for a nosy bounty hunter to hide. I cut mylights and eased into a parking place at the opposite end. I retrieved binoculars from thebackseat and trained them on the car.
I almost jumped out of my shoes when someone rapped on my driver-side door.
It was Joe Morelli, enjoying the fact that he'd been able to catch me by surprise and scare theheck out of me.
"You need a night scope," he said affably. "You're not going to see anything at this distancein the dark."
"I haven't got a night scope, and what are you doing here anyway?"
"I followed you. Figured you'd watch for Kenny a while longer. You're not very good at this lawenforcement stuff, but you're freaking lucky, and you've got the temperament of a pit bull witha soup bone when you're on a case."
Not a flattering assessment, but dead accurate. "You on good terms with Kenny?"
Morelli shrugged. "Don't know him all that well."
"So you wouldn't want to drive over there and say hello."
"Hate to ruin Julia's good time if it isn't Kenny."
We were both staring at the truck, and even without a night scope we could see it had begun torock. Rhythmic grunting sounds and whimpers carried across the empty lot.
I resisted the urge to squirm in my seat.
"Damn," Morelli said. "If they don't pace themselves they're going to kill the shocks on thatlittle car."
The car stopped rocking, the motor caught, and the lights flashed on.
"Jeez," I said. "That didn't take long."
Morelli hustled around to the passenger seat. "Must have gotten a head start on the way over.Wait until he hits the road before you use your lights."
"That's a great idea, but I can't see without my lights."
"You're in a parking lot. What's to see besides three acres of unobstructed macadam?"
I crept forward a little.
"You're losing him," Morelli said. "Step on it."
I pushed it up to 20, squinting into the darkness, swearing at Morelli that I couldn't seejackshit.
He made chicken sounds, and I mashed the gas pedal to the floor.
wump , and the Wrangler bucked out of control. I slammed my foot to the brakeThere was a loud
and the car came to a sudden stop with the left side tilted at a 30degree angle.
Morelli got out to take a look. "You're hung up on a safety island," he said. "Back up, and youshould be okay."
I eased off the island and rolled several feet. The car pulled hard to the left. Morelli didthe take-a-look thing again while I thrashed around in the driver's seat, sputtering and fumingand berating myself for listening to Morelli.
"Tough break," Morelli said, leaning into the open window. "You bent your rim when you hit thecurb. You got road service?"
"You did this on purpose. You didn't want me to catch your rotten cousin."
"Hey, cupcake, don't blame me just because you made some bad driving decisions."
"You're scum, Morelli. Scum."
He grinned. "Better be nice. I could give you a ticket for reckless driving."
I yanked the phone out of my pocketbook and called Al's Auto Body. Al and Ranger were goodfriends. During the day Al ran a legitimate business. I suspected that at night he ran a chopshop, hacking up stolen cars. It didn't matter to me. I just wanted to get my tire fixed.
An hour later I was on my way. No sense trying to track down Kenny Mancuso. He'd be long gone.I stopped at a convenience store, bought a pint of artery-clogging coffee ice cream, and headedfor home.
I live in a blocky three-story brick apartment building located a couple miles from my parents'house. The front door to the building opens to a busy street filled with little businesses, anda tidy neighborhood of single-family bungalows sprawls to the rear.
My apartment is in the back of the building, on the second floor, overlooking the parking lot.I have one bedroom, one bath, a small kitchen, and a living room that combines with the diningarea. My bathroom looks like it came off the set from The Partridge Family, and due to
temporarily strained finances my furniture could be described as eclectic—which is a snootyway of saying nothing matches.
Mrs. Bestler from the third floor was in my hall when I got off the elevator. Mrs. Bestler waseighty-three and didn't sleep well at night, so she walked the halls to get exercise.
"Hey, Mrs. Bestler," I said. "How's it going?"
"Don't do no good to complain. Looks like you've been out working tonight. You catch anycriminals?"
"Nope. Not tonight."
"That's a pity."
"There's always tomorrow," I said, unlocking my door, slipping inside.
My hamster, Rex, was running on his wheel, his feet a blur of pink. I tapped on the glass cageby way of greeting, causing him to momentarily pause, his whiskers twitching, his shiny blackeyes large and alert.
"Howdy, Rex," I said.
Rex didn't say anything. He's the small, silent type.
I dumped my black shoulder bag on the kitchen counter and got a spoon from the cutlery drawer.I popped the top on the ice cream container and listened to my phone messages while I ate.
All of the messages were from my mother. She was making a nice roast chicken tomorrow, and Ishould come for dinner. I should be sure not to be late because Betty Szajack's brother-in-law
died and Grandma Mazur wanted to make the seven o'clock viewing.
Grandma Mazur reads the obituary columns like they're part of the paper's entertainmentsection. Other communities have country clubs and fraternal orders. The burg has funeralparlors. If people stopped dying the social life of the burg would come to a grinding halt.
I finished off the ice cream and put the spoon in the dishwasher. I gave Rex a few hamsternuggets and a grape and went to bed.
I woke up to rain slapping against my bedroom window, drumming on the old-fashioned blackwrought-iron fire escape that serves as my balcony. I liked the way rain sounded at night whenI was snug in bed. I couldn't get excited about rain in the morning.
I needed to harass Julia Cenetta some more. And I needed to run a check on the car that hadpicked her up. The phone rang, and I automatically reached for the portable at bedside,thinking it was early to be getting a phone call. The digital readout on my clock said 7:15.
It was my cop friend, Eddie Gazarra.
" 'Morning," he said. "Time to go to work."
"Is this a social call?" Gazarra and I had grown up together, and now he's married to my cousinShirley.
"This is an information call, and I didn't make it. Are you still looking for Kenny Mancuso?"
"The gas station attendant he nailed in the knee got dead this morning."
This put me on my feet. "What happened?"
"A second shooting. I heard from Schmidty. He was working the desk when the call came in. Acustomer found the attendant, Moogey Bues, in the gas station office with a big hole in hishead."
"I thought you might be interested. Maybe there's a tie-in, maybe not. Could be Mancuso decidedshooting his pal in the knee wasn't enough, and he came back to blow the guy's brains out."
"I owe you."
"We could use a baby-sitter next Friday."
"I don't owe you that much."
Eddie grunted and disconnected.
I took a fast shower, blasted my hair with the hair dryer, and squashed it under a New YorkRangers hat, turning the brim to the back. I was wearing button-fly Levi's, a red plaid flannelshirt over a black T-shirt, and Doc Martens in honor of the rain.
Rex was asleep in his soup can after a hard night on the wheel, so I tiptoed past him. Iswitched the answering machine on, grabbed my pocketbook and my black-and-purple Gore-Texjacket, and locked up behind myself.
The gas station, Delio's Exxon, was on Hamilton, not far from my apartment. I stopped at aconvenience store on the way and got a large coffee to go and a box of chocolate-covereddoughnuts. I figured if you had to breathe New Jersey air there wasn't much point in gettingcarried away with always eating healthy food.
There were a lot of cops and cop cars at the gas station, and an emergency rescue truck hadbacked itself up close to the office door. The rain had tapered off to a fine drizzle. I parkedhalf a block away and made my way through the crowd, taking my coffee and doughnuts with me,looking to spot a familiar face.
The only familiar face I saw belonged to Joe Morelli.