My Uncle Pip died and left me his lucky bottle. I suppose I’m fortunate because he left my Grandma Mazur his false teeth. So, I’ve got this bottle now, and I don’t exactly know what to do with it. It’s not like I have a mantel. My name is Stephanie Plum, and I live in a bare-bones apartment on the outer edge of Trenton, New Jersey. I share the apartment with my hamster Rex, and he doesn’t know what to do with the bottle either. The magic bottle is the size and shape of a beer bottle. The glass is red, and it looks hand-blown. It’s not entirely ugly, especially if you like beer, but it’s also not exotically pretty. And so far it hasn’t been very lucky. I have the bottle sitting on my kitchen counter, between Rex’s hamster cage and the brown bear cookie jar that holds my gun.
It was Monday morning, halfway through June, and Lula was in my apartment doing a pity pick-up because my hunk of junk car was dead, and I needed a ride to work.
“Hunh,” Lula said. “What’s that red bottle on your counter.”
“It’s my lucky bottle.”
“Oh yeah, what’s so lucky about it? It don’t look lucky to me. Looks like one of them designer beer bottles only it’s got a fancy glass stopper in it.”
“It’s my inheritance from Uncle Pip.”
“I remember Uncle Pip,” Lula said. “He was older than dirt, right? Had a big carbuncle on his forehead. He was the one wandered out of the senior complex a couple weeks ago during that thunder storm, pissed on a downed electric wire, and electrocuted himself.”
“Yep. That was Uncle Pip.”
I’m a bond enforcement agent, working for my cousin Vinnie, and Lula is the office file clerk, wheelman, and fashion maven. Lula likes the challenge of fitting her plus size body into a size 8 poison green spandex miniskirt and leopard print top, and somehow it all comes together for Lula. Lula’s skin is milk chocolate, her hair this week is fire engine red, and her attitude is pure Jersey.
I’m a couple inches taller than Lula and where her body is overly voluptuous, mine is more 34B. My idea of fashion is a girl cut stretchy t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. My skin is nowhere near chocolate, my shoulder-length, naturally curly hair is plain ol’ brown and often pulled back into a ponytail, my eyes are blue, and I’m still trying to find my attitude.
I hung my purse on my shoulder and pushed Lula to the door. “We need to move. Connie called ten minutes ago, and she sounded frantic.”
“What’s with that?” Lula said. “Last time Connie was frantic was never.”
Connie Rosolli is the bail bonds office manager. My heritage is half Italian and half Hungarian. Connie is Italian through and through. Connie is a couple years older than I am, has more hair than I do, and a consistently better manicure. Her desk is strategically placed in front of Vinnie’s door, the better to slow down stiffed bookies, process servers, hookers with obviously active herpes, and a stream of perverted degenerates with quick rich schemes hatched while under the influence of who-knows-what.
I live ten minutes from the office on a day without traffic. This wasn’t one of those days, and it took Lula twenty minutes to get her red Firebird down Hamilton Avenue. Vinnie’s bail bonds business is located on Hamilton, just up from the hospital, and between a dry cleaner and a used bookstore. There’s a front room with large plate glass windows, an inner office where Vinnie hides, a row of file cabinets, and behind the file cabinets is storage for everything from guns and ammo to George Foreman grills held hostage until some poor burger loving slob comes up to trial.
Lula parked at the curb, and we pushed through the door into the front room. Lula plunked herself down on the brown fake leather couch against the wall, and I settled into an orange plastic chair in front of Connie’s desk. The door to Vinnie’s office was open, but there was no Vinnie.
“What’s up?” I asked Connie.
“Mickey Gritch snatched Vinnie. Last night he caught Vinnie in a compromising position, pants down on Stark Street, on the corner of Stark and 13th. And from what I’ve pieced together, Gritch and two of his boys dragged Vinnie at gunpoint into the back of a Cadillac Escalade and took off.”
“I know that corner,” Lula said. “That’s Maureen Brown’s corner. Maureen and me used to hang out back when I was a ‘ho. She wasn’t as good a ‘ho as me, but she wasn’t no skank ‘ho either.”
Lula worked Stark Street prior to her job as file clerk. She had a rocky beginning, but she’s getting herself together, and I suspect someday she’ll be the governor of New Jersey.
“Anyway, I guess Vinnie had a run of bad luck at the track, and now he owes Mickey $786,000,” Connie said.
“Whoa,” Lula said. “That’s a lot of money.”
“Some of it’s vig,” Connie told her. “The vig might be negotiable.”
Mickey Gritch has been Vinnie’s bookie for as long as I can remember, and this isn’t the first time Vinnie’s owed money, but I can’t ever remember him owing this much money.
“Mickey Gritch works for Bobby Sunflower now,” Lula said. “You don’t want to mess with Bobby.”
“Is this serious?” I asked Connie.
“Times are tough, and Mickey wants his money,” Connie said. “Too many people stiffing him, so they’re going to make an example of Vinnie. If Vinnie doesn’t come up with the money by the end of the week they’re going to kill him.”
Bobby Sunflower would do it,” Lula said. “He made Jimmie Sanches disappear…permanently. Lots of other people too from what I hear.”
“Have you gone to the police?” I asked Connie.
“The police aren’t my first choice. Vinnie owes this guy for illegal gambling. Knowing Vinnie it’s possible some of the money came out of the business. We used to be owned by Vinnie’s father-in-law, but last year it was sold to an insurance company. The insurance company isn’t going to tolerate Vinnie’s gambling with their money. If this gets out we could all be out of a job.”
“What about the father-in-law?” Lula asked. “Everyone knows he got a lot of money. Plus he could squeeze Bobby Sunflower.”
Vinnie’s father-in-law is Harry the Hammer. As long as Vinnie does right by Harry’s daughter Lucille, it’s all good, but I suspect Harry wouldn’t be happy to hear Vinnie got snatched while he was boffing a Stark Street ‘ho.
“Gritch already went to Harry. Not only won’t Harry fork up the money to spring Vinnie, if Vinnie gets out of this alive Harry will bludgeon him to death,” Connie said.
“Well that settles it then,” Lula said. “I guess it’s adios Vinnie. Personally I could use one of them breakfast sandwiches from Cluck in a Bucket. Anyone interested in a Cluck in a Bucket run?”
“If there’s no Vinnie, there’s no bail bonds office,” Connie said. “No bail bonds office means we don’t get paid. We don’t get paid and there’s no Cluck in a Bucket for anyone.”
“That’s not good,” Lula said. “I’m used to a certain standard of living. Cluck in a Bucket is one of my first food choices. Not to mention I got bills. I charged a fabulous pair of Via Spigas last week. I only wore them once so I guess I could take them back, but then I don’t have shoes to wear with my new red dress, and I got a date Friday worked around the dress.”
“We don’t have a lot of options,” Connie said. “We’re going to have to do this ourselves.”
“I’d like to help,” I said, “but I don’t have that kind of money.”
That was a gross understatement. I didn’t have any kind of money. I was a month behind on my rent, my car was trash, and my boyfriend’s dog ate my sneaker. Actually I use the term boyfriend loosely. His name is Joe Morelli, and I’m not sure how I’d categorize our relationship. Sometimes we were pretty sure it was love, and other times we suspected it was insanity. He’s a Trenton plainclothes cop with a house of his own, a grandmother from hell, a lean muscled body, and brown eyes that can make my heart skip beats. We grew up together in lots of ways, and the truth is, he’s probably more grown up than I am.
“I wasn’t thinking of money,” Connie said. “You’re a bounty hunter. You find people. All you have to do is find Vinnie and bring him in.”
“Oh no. No, no, no. Not a good idea. This is Bobby Sunflower we’re talking about. He’s mean! He wouldn’t like it if I stole his hostage.”
“Hey girl,” Lula said. “They’re gonna ventilate Vinnie if you don’t do something. And you know what that would amount to.”
“No Via Spigas?”
“You bet your ass.”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” I said.
“You could begin with Ranger,” Lula said. “He knows everything, and he’s got a thing for you.”
Ranger is the other man in my life, and if I described my relationship with Morelli as confused, there would be no words for my relationship with Ranger. He’s former Special Forces, currently runs and partially owns a security firm, is drop dead handsome in a dark Latino kind of way, and is sex walking. He drives expensive black cars, wears only black clothes, and he sleeps naked. I know all this first hand. I also know prolonged Ranger exposure is dangerous. Ranger can be addicting, and it’s a bad addiction for a traditionally raised woman like me, since his life plan doesn’t include marriage. For that matter, considering the number of enemies Ranger’s made, his life plan might not even include living.
“Do you have any suggestions other than Ranger?” I asked Lula.
“Sure. I got lots of suggestions. Mickey Gritch is easy to find. Vinnie got him in his Rolodex. Hell, Gritch probably has a website, and a Facebook page.”
“Do you know where he lives? Where he conducts business? Where he might have Vinnie stashed?”
“No. I don’t know none of those things,” Lula said. “Hey wait a minute, I know one of them. I know where he does business. He does it from his car. He drives a black Mercedes. It’s got purple pimp lights running around the license plate. Sometimes I see him parking in the lot next to the 7-Eleven on Marble Street. It’s a good spot since it’s close to the government buildings. You work all day in government, and you want to either blow your brains out or buy a lottery ticket.”
“What about Bobby Sunflower?” I asked her.
“Nobody knows where he hangs. He’s like the phantom. He comes and goes and disappears like he’s smoke.”
“I guess we could sit at 7-Eleven and watch for Gritch,” I said.
“Hold on,” Connie said. “Let me run him through the system. If he owns a car I can give you a home address.”
People have a television idea about bounty hunters chasing felons down back alleys and kicking in doors in the middle of the night. I’ve chased a few guys down back alleys, but I’ve never mastered the art of door kicking. Mostly real bounty hunters track people on the computer and make sneaky phone calls pretending to be conducting a survey or delivering a pizza. The age of electronic information is pretty amazing. Connie has computer programs that will help you access your next-door neighbor’s third grade report card.
“I have a couple addresses for Gritch,” Connie said. “One is his home address and the other is his sister’s. Her name is Jean. Looks like she’s a single mom. Works at the DMV. I have six business properties for Bobby Sunflower. A pawnshop, a garage, a car wash, a residential slum on Stark, a titty bar, and a mortuary.”
The translation was that Sunflower was into fencing stolen goods, chopping up stolen cars, laundering money, pimping women, and probably the mortuary had a crematorium.
“So I guess we gotta keep Vinnie from visiting Bobby Sunflower’s mortuary,” Lula said.
“What about all my open bonds cases?” I asked Connie. “Last week you gave me six guys who failed to appear for court. And that was on top of a stack of older files. I can’t look for Vinnie and find felons at the same time.”
“Sure we can,” Lula said. “Probably half of those idiots you’re looking for will be at Sunflower’s titty bar. I say we go do some surveillance, and first thing we stop at the bakery. I changed my mind on the breakfast sandwich. I’m in a doughnut mood now.”
I followed Lula out of the office and three minutes later we were parked at the curb in front of Tasty Pastry.
“I’m only getting one doughnut,” Lula said, getting out of the Firebird. “I’m on a new diet where I only have one of anything. Like I can have one pea. And I can have one piece of asparagus. And I can have one loaf of bread.”
We walked into the bakery and conversation stopped while we sucked in the smell of sweet dough and powdered sugar, and we gaped at the cases of cakes and pies, cookies, cinnamon rolls, doughnuts, and cream filled pastries.
“I don’t know what I want,” Lula said. “How can I choose? There’s too much, and I only got one doughnut. I can’t be making a mistake on this. This is critical. I could ruin the whole rest of the day if I pick the wrong doughnut.”
I had my doughnuts bagged and paid for and Lula was still undecided, so I went outside to wait in the morning sunshine. I was debating which of the two doughnuts I’d eat first, and before I reached a decision Morelli’s green SUV rolled to a stop in front of me.
Morelli got out and walked over. His black hair was curling along his neck and over his ears, not by design but by neglect. He was wearing jeans and running shoes and a blue buttondown shirt with the sleeves rolled. At six foot he was half a head taller than me, which meant if he stood close enough he could look down my tank top.
“Are you working?” I asked him.
“Yeah. I’m riding up and down the street doing cop things.” He hooked his finger into my scoop neckline and looked in.
“Jeez,” I said.
“It’s been a while. I wanted to make sure everything was still there.”
“You could ask!”
“If I guess what’s in the bakery bag do I get one of the doughnuts?”
“You got a Boston Cream and a jelly doughnut.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “How do you know that?”
“It’s what you always get.”
The door to the bakery was shoved open, and Lula barreled out. “Okay,” she said. “I’m ready to go rescue Vinnie.” She realized Morelli was standing next to me, and she did a fast stop. “Oops.”
“Rescue Vinnie?” Morelli asked.
“He’s sort of missing,” I told him.
Morelli took the Boston Cream out of the bag, ate half, and gave the rest to me. “Word on the street is that a bunch of people are very unhappy with Vinnie. Word is he owes a lot of money. Do you need help?”
“Would I have to file a police report?”
“No, but you’d have to give me the rest of the doughnut.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I have some leads. I’ll stumble along on my own this morning and see what turns up.”
Morelli gave my ponytail a tug and jogged back to his car.
I looked at the two bags Lula was holding. “I thought you were getting just one doughnut.”
“And that’s exactly what I did. I got one of everything. I’m telling you this is a beauty of a diet.”
We sat at the small table in front of the bakery and ate our doughnuts while I read through the files on Mickey Gritch and Bobby Sunflower.
“We have home addresses for Gritch and his sister, but I can’t see Gritch stashing Vinnie in either of those place,” I said to Lula. “That leaves Bobby Sunflower’s businesses. The Pawn Shop is on Market Street, the car wash is in Hamilton Township, and the rest are on Stark Street. Let’s do drive-bys and see if anything jumps out at us.”
“Might as well do the car wash first,” Lula said. “If I like the looks of it I might let them wash my Firebird.”
* * *
Bobby Sunflower’s car wash was next to Figaroa Diner. It didn’t look like it had a lot of room for holding a bail bondsman hostage, but it advertised brushless washing and personal attention, so Lula got into the queue.
“I don’t know about this car wash,” I said to Lula. “I don’t like the looks of the attendants.”
“You mean on account of they’re waggin’ their tongues at us and making kissey sounds?”
“Yeah.” Plus the multiple piercings, tattoos, ridiculous homey pants, and I was pretty sure one of them had a boner.
“They’re just bein’ boys,” Lula said.
I looked in my bag to see if I had pepper spray or a stun gun.
The pack of idiots swaggered over to us, and one leaned in the window at Lula.
“Hey momma,” he said. “We gonna wash your car like it never been washed before.”
“This isn’t no ordinary car,” Lula said. “This is my baby. I don’t want to see no scratches on it when you’re done.”
“You be nice to me and my boys and we’ll wash your baby by hand.”
“How nice do I gotta be?” Lula asked.
“Real nice,” he said, smiling wide so we could see he had industrial grade diamonds embedded in his decayed teeth.
“That’s disgusting,” Lula said. “You need to show some respect and act like professional car washers. And get your head out of my window.”
“I think me and my boys need to show you what we got and maybe we teach you some respect.”
Lula pulled her Glock out of her purse and stuck it in his face.
“You got ten seconds before I blow your nose off,” Lula said.
“Yow, momma!” the guy said.
They all turned and ran, and Lula squeezed off six rounds, managing to miss all of the car washers at pretty much point blank range.
“Hunh,” Lula said, rolling her window up, driving out of the lot. “They don’t make these guns like they used to. I can’t believe I didn’t hit a single one of those fools.”
Next stop was the pawnshop. Lula parked on the street, and we got out and looked around. There was an apartment above the shop, but so far as we knew it wasn’t owned by Sunflower. A consignment store was to one side of the pawnshop and a pizza place was to the other side.
“This doesn’t look promising,” I said to Lula, “but I’m going to go in and scope it out.”
“Who am I?” Lula wanted to know. “Am I good cop or bad cop?”
“You’re nothing. There’s no cop. We’re just browsing and leaving.”
“No problemo. I can do that. I’m a excellent browser.”
We went inside the pawnshop, Lula walked up to the counter, looked in the display case, and called the pawnshop guy over.
“It’s not like I need the money or anything, but I was wondering how much I could get for this ring I got on,” Lula said.
“Is that a real stone?” he asked her.
“You bet your ass it’s real. A gentleman gave me this ring for certain favors. He bought it for his wife but decided I earned it.”
“I don’t suppose you have any documentation. Like an appraisal.”
“I guess I could give you forty-five.”
“Forty-five hundred?” Lula asked.
“No, just forty-five. Cripes lady, what do I look like a sap?”
“No, you look kinda hot,” Lula said, leaning her boobs on the counter. “What have you got in that back room, sugar?”
“There’s no back room. Just a bathroom that even I won’t use.”
“Movin’ on,” Lula said. And she turned on her heel and sashayed out of the pawnshop.
Ten minutes later we were idling in front of Sunflower’s garage on lower Stark. It was a one-story cinderblock structure with three bays, all doors open.
“I can’t see them keeping Vinnie here,” I said to Lula. “There are too many people around, and there’s no space to hide someone.”
Next stop was the topless bar. The neon sign was flashing, and electronic dance music dribbled out the open door. A wasted guy in a baggy white t-shirt leaned against the graffiti covered building, smoking. He looked at us through slitted eyes, and Lula drove on.
“Nothing but trouble there,” she said.
We parked in front of the mortuary and stared at the building. Brown brick, two stories. Upper windows were blacked out. There was a magenta and black awning over the door, and Melon Funeral Parlor was written on the awning.
“I don’t know what’s more depressing,” Lula said, “this dreary ass funeral home or a titty bar in the morning.”
“Maybe the bar was serving breakfast.”
“I didn’t think of that,” Lula said. “I guess that would be okay.”
“This place has real hostage potential. I’d go in and pretend I’m a customer, but I don’t look like I belong in this neighborhood.”
“You mean on account of you’re the only white woman on this whole street, dead or alive?”
“I see your point, but I’m not going in there. I hate funeral parlors, and I hate dead people even more. I get the creepy crawlies just sitting here thinking about it.”
“Okay, we’ll do this later. Let’s take a look at the apartment building.”
The apartment building was half a block away and looked like the Tower of Terror. It was four stories tall, black with grime, and slightly lopsided.
“Holy bejeezus,” Lula said, eyes bugged out, looking at the building. “This is scaring the crap out of me. This is like where Dracula would live if he didn’t have any money and was a crack-head. I bet it’s filled with rabid bats and killer snakes and hairy spiders as big as dinner plates.”
I thought it looked like it would be filled with despair and craziness and broken plumbing. Either way, it wasn’t anywhere I wanted to go. Unfortunately it was also a good place to stash Vinnie.
“How bad do we want to find Vinnie?” I asked Lula, unable to take my eyes off the hellish building.
“The way I see it either we find Vinnie, or I’m gonna be working the fry basket at Cluck in a Bucket. Not that there’s anything wrong with the fry basket, but all that grease floatin’ in the air isn’t gonna be good for my hairdo. And what if they already got someone working the fry basket? What if I can’t get another job and they come repossess my Via Spigas?”
And what if I don’t come through, and they kill Vinnie? How could I live with that? I thought.
I speed dialed Ranger’s cell phone.
Ranger picked up and there was a moment of silence as if he was sensing me at the other end, taking my body temperature and heart rate long distance. “Babe,” he finally said.
“Do you know the slum apartment building Bobby Sunflower owns on Stark?”
“Yes. It’s on the same block as his funeral home.”
“That’s the one. I’m going in to look for someone. If you don’t hear from me in a half hour maybe you could send someone to check.”
“Is this a smart thing to do?”
“As long as you know,” Ranger said. And he disconnected.
“I got two doughnuts left,” Lula said, “and I’m eating them before I go in just in case I don’t come out.”
I angled out of the Firebird. “Take them with you. If I don’t go in now I’ll chicken out.”
The front door was ajar, leading to a small, dark foyer spray painted with a bunch of gang symbols. Stairs going up to the left. A bank of mailboxes to the right. No names on the mailboxes. Most were open and empty. Some didn’t have doors at all. The message was clear. If you lived here you didn’t get mail.
Two doors led off the foyer. Lula and I listened at the doors. Nothing. I tried one of the doors. Locked. The second door opened to cellar stairs.
Lula poked her head in the doorway. “There’s stairs going down, but I can’t see nothing. It’s blacker’n night down there. Don’t smell too good either.”
“I hear scritching sounds,” I said to Lula.
“Yeah, I hear it too. Kinda squeaky.”
And then a tsunami of rats swept up the stairs and over our feet.
“Rats!” Lula yelled. “Rats!”
Excerpted from SIZZLING SIXTEEN: A Stephanie Plum Novel © Copyright 2011 by Janet Evanovich. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Paperbacks. All rights reserved.