Carol Zabo was standing on the outermost guardrail on the bridge spanning the Delaware between Trenton, New Jersey and Morrisville, Pennsylvania. She was holding a regulation size yellow fire brick in the palm of her right hand, with about four feet of clothesline stretched between the brick and her ankle. On the side of the bridge in big letters was the slogan "Trenton Makes and the World Takes." And Carol was apparently tired of the world taking whatever it was she was making, because she was getting ready to jump into the Delaware and let the brick do its work.
I was standing about ten feet from Carol, trying to talk her off the guardrail. Cars were rolling past us, some slowing up to gawk, and some cutting in and out of the gawkers, giving Carol 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'm freezing my ass off. Make up your mind about jumping, because I have to tinkle, and I need a cup 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 Chambersburg section of Trenton, just like me, and in the Burg you gave the jacket to your sister, then you jumped off the bridge.
"Hey, you listen, Stephanie Plum," Carol said, teeth chattering. "Nobody sent you an engraved invitation to this party."
I'd gone to high school with Carol. She'd been a cheerleader, and I'd been a baton twirler. Now she was married to Lubie Zabo and wanted to kill herself. If I was married to Lubie I'd want to kill myself too, but that wasn't Carol's reason for standing on the guardrail, holding a brick on a rope. Carol had shoplifted some crotchless bikinis from the Fredericks of Hollywood store at the mall. It wasn't that Carol couldn't afford the panties, it was that she wanted them to spice up her love life and was too embarrassed to take them to the register. In her haste to make 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's get-out-of-jail ticket. If Carol didn't show up for her court date, Vinnie would forfeit the walking 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 his way in to work this morning and had dispatched me to rescue her --- or, if rescue wasn't possible to eyeball the precise spot she splashed down. Vinnie was worried if Carol jumped into the river, and the divers and cops with grappling hooks couldn't find her water-logged corpse, Vinnie might be out his bond money.
"This is really a bad way to do it," I said to Carol. "You're going to look awful when they find 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 of that," 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 ankle boots, a little black dress, and the excellent jacket. Somehow the brick seemed too casual for the 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 and kicked 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 into 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 wear slacks. Carol was going to look like an idiot with her skirt up around her ears and her pantyhose 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 long hair is the style now."
Personally, I wouldn't put a lot of stock in the fashion sense of a man who got his nickname by bragging about his sexual expertise with a greasegun. But hey, that's just me. "So tell me again 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 they make you bend over so they can look for smuggled weapons. And you have to go to the bathroom in front 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 those things, too.
"Maybe you won't have to go to jail," I said. "I know Brian Simon. I could talk to him. Maybe I could 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."
* * *
I packed Carol and the brick off in her car, and then I drove over to the 7-Eleven for coffee and a box of glazed chocolate doughnuts. I figured I deserved the doughnuts, since I'd done such 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 want to run the risk of eating all the doughnuts myself. And I was hoping Vinnie would have more work for me. As a bond enforcement agent I only get paid if I bring somebody in. And at the moment I was clean out of wayward bondees.
"Damn skippy," Lula said from behind the file cabinets. "Here come doughnuts walking through the door."
At five feet five inches weighing in at a little over two hundred pounds, Lula is something of a doughnut expert. She was in monochromatic mode this week, with hair, skin, and lipgloss all the 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's best bounty hunter, and Lula isn't the world's best backup, it's more often than not like the amateur-hour version of The Best of Cops Bloopers.
"Are those chocolate doughnuts?" Lula asked. "Connie and me were just thinking we needed some chocolate 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. "What do you think?"
"I think it's a good thing," Lula told her, helping herself to a doughnut. "Because you're starting to look like Groucho Marx, again."
I sipped my coffee and fingered through some files Connie had on her desk. "Anything new come in?"
The door to Vinnie's inner office slammed open, and Vinnie stuck his head out. "Fuckin' A, we got 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, having saved 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 has failed to appear, because it means I get to earn money by coaxing them back into the system. In this case, there was no money to be had, because if Ranger didn't want to be found, he wasn't going to be found. End of discussion.
Ranger is a bounty hunter, like me. Only Ranger is good. He's close to my age, give or take a few years, he's Cuban-American, and I'm pretty sure he only kills bad guys. Two weeks ago some idiot rookie cop arrested Ranger on carrying concealed without a license. Every other cop in Trenton knows Ranger and knows he carries concealed and they're perfectly happy to have it that way. But no one told the new guy. So Ranger was busted and scheduled to go before the judge yesterday for a slap on the wrist. In the meantime, Vinnie sprung Ranger with a nice chunk of money, and now Vinnie was feeling lonely, high off the ground, out there on a limb all by 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 his disappearance 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 is owned by Alexander Ramos."
Alexander Ramos deals guns, regulating the flow of black market arms from his summer compound on the Jersey shore and his winter fortress in Athens. Two of his three adult sons live in the United 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 of those 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' youngest son, Homer, barbecued in a third floor office. Besides being toasted, he also had a large bullet hole in his head."
"And Ranger's wanted for questioning. The police were here just a few minutes ago, looking for him."
"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. I'm not going after Ranger!" I told Vinnie.
"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 the invisible 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't available I'm going to have to give the stinker to you."
I flipped the top file open. Morris Munson. Arrested for vehicular manslaughter. "Could be worse," I said. "Could be a homicidal rapist."
"You didn't read down far enough," Connie said. "After this guy ran over the victim, who just happened to be his ex-wife, he beat her with a tire iron, raped her, and tried to set her on fire. He was charged with vehicular manslaughter because according to the M.E. she was already dead when he took the tire iron to her. He had her soaked in gasoline and was trying to get his Bic 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 put my head between my legs.
"You okay?" Lula asked.
"Probably it's just low blood sugar," I said. Probably it's my job.
"It could be worse," Connie said. "It says here he wasn't armed. Just bring your gun along, and I'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 wrote bail on this maniac?"
"Hey, I'm not a judge. I'm a businessman. He didn't have any priors," Vinnie said. "And he has a 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 said last 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 domestic violence. And Walter Moon Man Dunphy, wanted for drunk and disorderly and urinating in a public place.
I tucked the three folders into my shoulder bag and stood. "Page me if you hear anything on Ranger."
"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 the snowstorm was having a hard time working itself up into anything serious. There was some slush on 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. The blurry object was Joe Morelli.
Most women would have an orgasm on the spot to find Morelli sitting in their car. He had that effect. 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 flannel shirt hung under the jacket. Under the flannel shirt he wore a black T-shirt and a .40 caliber Glock. His eyes were the color of aged whiskey and his body was a testament to good Italian genes and hard work at the gym. He had a reputation for living fast, and the reputation was well 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 was driving a six-year-old blue Honda Civic that was perfectly good transportation but didn't enhance 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 hunt down 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' 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 his involvement here?"
"He had a late-night meeting with Ramos. They were caught on a lobby security camera. The building is locked up at night, but Ramos had a key. He arrived first, waited ten minutes for Ranger, then opened the door for him. The two of them crossed the lobby and took the elevator to the third floor. Thirty-five minutes later Ranger left alone. And ten minutes that, the fire alarm went off. Forty-eight hours worth of tape has been run, and according to the tape 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. Why didn'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 smoke detector was in the hall."
"Ranger isn't stupid. He wouldn't let himself get caught on videotape if he was going to kill someone."
"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 an accelerant used?"
"Small amount of lighter fluid."
"You think Ranger did it?"
"Hard to say with Ranger."
"Connie said Ramos was shot."
"So you think Ranger is hiding from the police?"
"Allen Barnes is the primary on the homicide investigation. Everything he's got so far leads to Ranger. If he brought Ranger in for questioning, he could probably hold him for a while based on priors, like the carrying charge. No matter how you look at it, sitting in a cell isn't in Ranger's best interest right now. And if Barnes has Ranger nailed as his number one suspect, there's a good chance Alexander Ramos has reached the same conclusion. If Ramos thought Ranger blew Homer away, Ramos wouldn't wait for justice to be served by the court."
The doughnut was sitting in a big lump in my throat. "Or maybe Ramos has already gotten to Ranger."
"That's a possibility, too."
Shit. Ranger is a mercenary with a strong code of ethics that doesn't necessarily always correspond to current popular thinking. He came on board as my mentor when I first started working for Vinnie, and the relationship has evolved to include friendship, which is limited by Ranger's lone-wolf lifestyle and my desire for survival. And, truth is, there's been a growing sexual attraction between us, which scares the hell out of me. So my feelings for Ranger were complicated to begin with, and now I added a sense of doom to the list of unwanted emotions. Morelli's pager beeped. He looked at the read-out and sighed. "I have to go. If you run across Ranger, pass my message on to him. We really need to talk."
"It'll cost you."
"Fried chicken," I said. "Extra greasy."
I watched him angle out of the car and cross the street. I enjoyed the view until he was out of sight, and then I turned my attention back to the files. I knew Moon Man Dunphy. I'd gone to school with him. No problem there. I just had to go pry him away from his television set.
Lenny Dale lived in an apartment complex on Grand Avenue and had listed his age as eighty-two. Big groan on this one. There is no good way to apprehend an eighty-two-year-old man. No matter how you cut it, you look and feel like a creep.
Morris Munson's file was left to read, but I didn't want to go there. Best to procrastinate and hope Ranger came forward.
I decided to go after Dale first. He was only about a quarter mile from Vinnie's office. I needed to make a U-turn on Hamilton, but the car was having none of it. The car was heading for center city and the burned-out building.
Okay, so I'm nosy. I wanted to see the crime scene. And I guess I wanted to have a psychic moment. I wanted to stand in front of the building and have a Ranger revelation.
I crossed the railroad tracks and inched my way along in the morning traffic. The building was at the corner of Adams and Third. It was redbrick and four stories high, probably about fifty years old. I parked on the opposite side of the street, got out of my car, and stared at the fire-blackened windows, some of which were boarded over. Yellow crime-scene tape stretched the width of the building, held in place by sawhorses strategically positioned on the sidewalk to prevent snoops like me from getting too close. Not that I'd let a detail like crime-scene tape stop me from taking a peek.
I crossed the street and ducked under the tape. I tried the double glass door, but found it locked. Inside, the lobby seemed relatively unscathed. Lots of grimy water and smoke-smudged walls, but no visible fire damage.
I turned and looked at the surrounding buildings. Office buildings, stores, a deli-style restaurant on the corner.
Hey Ranger, are you out there?
Nothing. No psychic moment.
I ran back to the car, locked myself in, and hauled out my cell phone. I dialed Ranger's number and waited through two rings before his answering machine picked up. My message was brief: "Are you okay?"
I disconnected and sat there for a few minutes, feeling creepy and hollow-stomached. I didn't want Ranger to be dead. And I didn't want him to have killed Homer Ramos. Not that I cared a fig about Ramos, but whoever killed him would pay, one way or another.
Finally I put the car in gear and drove away. A half-hour later I was standing in front of Lenny Dale's door, and apparently the Dale's were at it again because there was a lot of shouting going on inside the apartment. I shifted foot to foot in the third-floor hall, waiting for a lull in the racket. When it came, I knocked. This led to another shouting match over who was going to get the door.
I knocked again. The door was flung open, and an old man stuck his head out at me. "Yeah?"
"You're looking at him, sis."
He was mostly nose. The rest of his face had shrunk away from that eagle's beak, his bald dome was dotted with liver spots, and his ears were oversized on his mummified head. The woman behind him was gray-haired and doughy, with tree-trunk legs stuffed into Garfield the Cat bedroom slippers.
"What's she want?" the woman yelled. "What's she want?"
"If you'd shut up I'd find out!" he yelled back. "Yammer, yammer, yammer. That's all you do."
"I'll give you yammer, yammer," she said. And she smacked him on top of his shiny skull.
Dale wheeled around and clocked her square on the side of her head.
"Hey!" I said. "Stop that!"
"I'll give you one, too," Dale said, jumping at me, fist raised.
I put my hand out to ward him off, and he stood statue still for a moment, frozen in the raised-fist position. His mouth opened, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he fell over stiff as a board and crashed to the floor.
I knelt beside him. "Mr. Dale?"
His wife toed him with Garfield. "Hunh," she said. "Guess he had another one of them heart attacks."
I put my hand to his neck and couldn't find a pulse.
"Oh jeez," I said.
"Is he dead?"
"Well, I'm no expert ... "
"He looks dead to me."
"Call 911 and I'll try CPR." Actually I didn't know CPR, but I'd seen it done on television, and I was willing to give it a shot.
"Honey," Mrs. Dale said, "you bring that man back to life and I'll hit you with the meat mallet until your head looks like a veal patty." She bent over her husband. "Anyway, look at him. He's dead as a doorknob. A body couldn't get any deader."
I was afraid she was right. Mr. Dale didn't look good.
An elderly woman came to the open door. "What's happening? Lenny have another one of them heart attacks?" She turned and yelled down the hall. "Roger, call 911. Lenny had another heart attack."
Within seconds the room was filled with neighbors, commenting on Lenny's condition and asking questions. How did it happen? And was it fast? And did Mrs. Dale want a turkey noodle casserole for the wake?
Sure, Mrs. Dale said, a casserole would be nice. And she wondered if Tootie Greenberg could make one of those poppyseed cakes like she did for Moses Schultz.
The EMS unit arrived, looked at Lenny, and agreed with the general consensus. Lenny Dale was as dead as a doorknob.
I quietly slipped out of the apartment and did a fast shuffle to the elevator. It wasn't even noon and already my day seemed too long and cluttered with dead people. I called Vinnie when I reached the lobby.
"Listen," I said, "I found Dale, but he's dead."
"How long's he been like that?"
"About twenty minutes."
"Were there any witnesses?"
"Shit," Vinnie said, "it was self-defense, right?"
"I didn't kill him!"
"Are you sure?"
"Well, it was a heart attack, and I guess I might have contributed a little ... "
"Where is he now?"
"He's in his apartment. The EMS guys are there but there's nothing they can do. He's definitely dead."
"Christ, couldn't you have given him a heart attack after you got him to the police station? This is gonna be a big pain in the ass. You wouldn't believe the paperwork on this kind of thing. I tell you what, see if you can get the EMS boys to drive Dale over to the courthouse."
I felt my mouth drop open.
"Yeah, this'll work," Vinnie said. "Just get one of the guys at the desk to come out and take a look. Then he can give you a body receipt ... "
"I'm not dragging some poor dead man off to the municipal building!"
"What's the big deal? You think he's in a rush to get embalmed? Tell yourself you're doing something nice for him --you know, like a last ride."
Ugh. I disconnected. Should have kept the whole box of doughnuts for myself. This was shaping up to be an eight-doughnut day. I looked at the little green diode blinking on my cell phone. Come on, Ranger, I thought.
Excerpted from HOT SIX (c) Copyright 2000 by Janet Evanovich. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.