Excerpts for Notorious Nineteen
"I don't know why we gotta sit here baking in your car in the middle of the day, in the middle of the summer, in the middle of this crummy neighborhood," Lula said. "It must be two hundred degrees in here. Why don't we have the air conditioning on?"
"It's broken," I told her.
"Well, why don't you have your window open?"
"It's stuck closed."
"Then why didn't we take my car? My car's got everything."
"Your car is red and flashy. People notice it and remember it. This is the stealth car," I said.
Lula shifted in her seat. "Stealth car, my big toe. This thing is a hunk of junk."
This was true, but it was my hunk of junk, and due to a professional dry spell it was all I could afford. Lula and I work for my cousin Vinnie's bail bonds office in Trenton, New Jersey. I'm a fugitive apprehension agent, and Lula is my sometimes partner.
We were currently parked on Stark Street, doing surveillance on a rooming house, hoping to catch Melvin Barrel coming or going. He'd been accused of possession with intent to sell, Vinnie bonded him out of jail, and Barrel hadn't shown for his court date. Lula makes a wage as the office file clerk, but I only make money if I catch skips, so I was motivated to tough it out in my hellishly hot car, hoping for a shot at snagging Barrel.
"I worked this street when I was a 'ho," Lula said, "but I was in a better section. This here block is for losers. No high-class 'ho would work this block. Darlene Gootch worked this block but it turned out she was killing people as a hobby."
Lula was fanning herself with a crumpled fast food bag she'd found on the floor in the back of my car, and the smell of stale French fries and ketchup wafted out at me.
"You keep waving that bag around and we're going to smell like we work the fry station at Cluck-in-a-Bucket," I said to her.
"I hear you," Lula said. "It's making me hungry, and much as I like the aroma of food grease, I don't want it stuck in my hair, on account of I just had my hair done. I picked out the piña colada conditioner so I'd smell like a tropical island."
Lula's hair was fire-engine red today and straightened to the texture of boar bristle. Her brown skin was slick with sweat. Her extra-voluptuous plus-size body was squeezed into a size 2 petite poison-green spandex skirt, and the acres of flesh that constituted her chest overflowed a brilliant yellow spaghetti-strap tank top. At 5'5" she's a couple inches shorter than me. We're about the same age, which puts us in the proximity of thirtysomething. And we're both single.
My name is Stephanie Plum and I haven't got Lula's body volume or the attitude that goes with it. My attitude goes more toward survival mode. I have shoulder-length curly brown hair, blue eyes almost always enhanced by a swipe of black mascara, decent teeth, a cute nose in the middle of my face, and I can almost always button the top button on my jeans.
"Look at this fool coming at us, walking down the middle of the street," Lula said. "What the heck is he doing?"
The fool was a skinny guy dressed in homie clothes. Baggy pants, wifebeater T-shirt, $700 basketball shoes. He was jogging more than walking, and every couple steps he'd look over his shoulder and scan the street. He spotted Lula and me, made a course correction, and ran straight for us. He reached my car, grabbed the driver's side door handle and yanked, but nothing happened.
"What's with that?" Lula asked.
"My door's stuck," I said. "It happens when it gets hot."
The skinny guy had his face pressed to my window, and he was yelling at us.
"What's he saying?" Lula asked. "I can't make it out, and I'm gonna go blind from the sun reflecting on his gold tooth with the diamond chip in it."
"I think he's saying if I don't open the door, he'll kill me."
"That don't sound appealing," Lula said. "Maybe this is a good time to go get lunch."
I turned the key in the ignition, and the engine cranked over and died. I turned it again and there was silence. I looked back at the skinny guy and realized he had a gun pointed at me. Not just any old gun either. This gun was big.
"Open your door," he yelled. "Open your damn door."
Lula had her purse on her lap and was fumbling around in it. "I got a gun in here somewhere," she said. "Keep him busy while I find my gun."
I fidgeted with the door handle on my side so it would look like I was trying to open it. "Here's the plan," I said to Lula. "When you find your gun you let me know so I can duck down and you can shoot him."
"That would be a good plan," Lula said, "but I might not have my gun with me. I might have left it home when I changed from my red purse to my yellow purse. You know how I am about the right accessories."
The guy was really agitated now. He had the gun against my window and his forehead was glued to the gun, like he was sighting for the kill.
"Maybe you should open the door and see what he wants," Lula said. "Maybe he just feels like going for a ride. In which case he could have this piece of dog doodie car, and I'd be happy to take a bus home."
"Hold on," I yelled at the guy. "I'm going to open the door."
"What?" he yelled back.
I hauled back and rammed the door full force with my shoulder. The door flew open, catching the guy by surprise, the gun discharged, and he went down to the ground and didn't move.
We got out of the car and stared down at the guy. He was statue-still and bleeding from his forehead.
"You killed him," Lula said. "You hit him with the door, and he shot hisself."
"It was an accident."
"Don't matter. You killed him all the same." Lula toed him, but he still didn't move. "Yep," she said. "He's dead."
I looked at my car and realized a bullet was embedded in the roof, just over the window. I bent down and took a closer look at the skinny guy.
"He's not shot," I said. "He got hit in the head when the gun kicked back. He's just knocked out."
"Hunh," Lula said. "That would have been my second theory."
We dragged him to the gutter so he wouldn't get run over and we got back into my car. I tried the key, but there was no response.
"I bet your battery's no good," Lula said. "That's my professional opinion. You're gonna have to call someone to juice up your battery. And in the meantime I'm going across the street to that sad-ass grocery store to get a soda. I'm all dehydrated."
I crossed the street with Lula, we got sodas, and we stood in front of the store chugging them down. A black Cadillac Escalade rolled down the street and stopped by my car. Two idiots wearing gang colors got out, scooped the skinny guy up, and threw him into the Escalade. A yellow Hummer careened around the corner, jerked to a stop half a block in front of the Escalade, and two guys in the Hummer leaned out the window and opened fire. The Escalade returned fire. A guy wearing a crooked ball cap popped his head out of the sunroof on the Hummer, aimed a rocket launcher at the Escalade, and phoonf! the rocket went wide of the Escalade and blew up my car. There was a moment of silence, then both cars roared away.
Lula and I stared wide-eyed and openmouthed at the fireball consuming my car.
"Jeez Louise," I said.
"Yeah, but you gotta look on the positive side," Lula said. "You don't have to worry about charging up the battery."
Lula's comment might have seemed casual considering the gravity of the situation, but truth is this wasn't the first time someone had exploded my car.
My cellphone rang, and I knew from the ringtone it was Ranger.
"You're off the grid," Ranger said when I answered.
"Someone blew up my car."
There was a moment of silence. "And?"
"I guess I could use a ride."
"Babe," Ranger said. And he disconnected.
"He coming for us?" Lula asked.
Ranger is Latino and former Special Forces turned semi-legitimate businessman. He's part owner of a security firm located in an inconspicuous seven-story building in the center of the city. I work for him on occasion, I've had one or two romantic skirmishes with him, and he has the sometimes annoying, sometimes convenient habit of installing tracking devices on my vehicles. His hair is dark brown and currently cut short. His eyes are mostly black. His body is perfect from the tip of his toes to the top of his head. He plays by his own rules, and his attitude is uncompromising. He only wears black, and he only drives black cars. He's smart. He's strong in every possible way. And being in his crosshairs is flat out scary.
No one came out of the little grocery store to look at the fire. No police cars or fire trucks screeched to the scene. It was as if this was business as usual and best ignored.
I looked down the street at the rooming house, wondering if Melvin Barrel was in there melting down in a pool of sweat. No air conditioners sticking out of any of the windows in the rooming house. For sure no central air.
"I bet that skinny guy you almost killed was running away from someone, and that's why he wanted your car," Lula said.
I leaned against the building. "It was a bad choice of cars."
"Yeah, but he didn't know that. All's he saw was two women sitting in a car like a couple dummies. He probably figured if we was stupid enough to be sitting in the car, we was stupid enough to give it over to him."
"He was wrong."
"Not by much," Lula said.
Fifteen minutes later Ranger eased his black Porsche Cayenne to a stop in front of Lula and me. I got into the front passenger seat, and Lula got into the back.
Ranger glanced at the charred cadaver of twisted metal and smoldering tires that used to be my car. "Yours?" he asked me.
"Yep," I said.
"Do I need to know how this happened?"
Ranger idled in front of the bonds office and Lula got out. I moved to follow Lula, and Ranger wrapped his hand around my wrist. "Stay. I want to talk to you."
I'm not currently in a physical relationship with Ranger. Ranger has clear priorities and matrimony isn't high on the list. In fact, it isn't on the list at all. Until recently marriage hasn't been high on my priorities list either, but my mother feels otherwise, and as much as I hate to admit it my mother is wearing me down.
"I need a date," Ranger said.
My voice ratcheted up an octave. "You want me to get you a date?"
"No. I want you to be my date. I have to attend a black tie event, and I need someone watching my back."
"Me?" I wasn't exactly The Terminator.
"People would talk if I brought Tank."
Tank is appropriately named. He's Ranger's shadow and second in command at Rangeman. And Ranger was right. Tank would make a controversial date.
"When is this?" I asked Ranger.
"Tomorrow? I can't just drop everything and do this tomorrow. You should have asked me sooner. I'm seeing Morelli. It's Friday date night. We're going to the movies and then?.?.?.?"
"I can give you a better and then," Ranger said.
I went breathless for a beat at the thought of Ranger's and then. Morelli was an amazing lover, but Ranger was magic. I pulled myself together and narrowed my eyes at Ranger, hoping I looked determined.
"You and I are done doing and then with each other," I said. "There is absolutely no more and then. Morelli and I have an understanding."
"I'm serious this time. I might be ready to have a committed adult relationship."
Joe Morelli is a Trenton cop working plainclothes, crimes against persons. I've known him forever and our relationship has progressed from downright hostile, to deliciously hot, to maybe we could actually live with each other without complete mayhem. He's six feet of hard muscle and Italian libido. His hair is black and wavy. His eyes are brown and assessing. His style is casual. He wears jeans, untucked shirts, and a Glock 19, and he has a big shaggy dog named Bob.
"I'll pay you," Ranger said.
"I'll hire you for the night. You can be my bodyguard."
At the risk of sounding mercenary, this got my attention. I was a month behind on my rent, and I wasn't having great luck with the fugitive apprehension stuff. Vinnie had mostly low bond skips this month, and I was barely making pizza money, much less rent money. And I was pretty sure I could muster enough self-control to keep from ripping Ranger's clothes off.
"What exactly would bodyguarding entail?" I asked him.
"The usual. You take a bullet for me if necessary, and you manage the small talk."
"You can't manage your own small talk?"
"Making polite conversation isn't at the top of my skill set."
"I've noticed." Okay, so this doesn't sound so bad, plus I'd get dinner, right? "What time will you pick me up?"
"Six o'clock. This event is in Atlantic City. Dinner is at eight."
I left Ranger and joined Lula in the bonds office. The building was brand-new and light-years better than the old office. It had been built on the same footprint as the old office but the walls were freshly painted, the tile on the floor was unscuffed, the furniture was inexpensive but comfortable and free from food and coffee stains.
Lula had claimed her usual spot on the faux leather couch, and Connie, the office manager, was at her desk. Connie is a couple years older than me, a much better shot, and better connected. Connie's family is old school Italian mob and far more professional than Trenton's gangsta morons when it comes to crime-related skills such as whacking, hijacking, and money laundering. Connie looks a lot like Betty Boop with big hair and a mustache. Today she was wearing a short black pencil skirt, a wide black patent-leather belt, and a tight red sweater with a low scoop neck that showed a lot of her Betty Boopness.