For the last five minutes, I’d been parked outside my cousin
Vinnie’s bail bonds office in my crapola car, debating
whether to continue on with my day, or return to my apartment and
crawl back into bed. My name is Stephanie Plum, and Sensible
Stephanie wanted to go back to bed. Loco Stephanie was thinking she
should get on with it.
I was about to do something I knew I shouldn’t do. The signs
were all there in front of me. Sick stomach. Feeling of impending
disaster. Knowledge that it was illegal. And yet, I was going to
forge ahead with the plan. Not that this was especially unusual.
Truth is, I’ve been dealing with impending doom for as long
as I can remember. Heck, when I was six years old I sprinkled sugar
on my head, convinced myself it was pixie dust, wished myself
invisible, and walked into the boys’ bathroom at school. I
mean, you don’t know the water’s over your head until
you jump in, right?
The door to the bonds office opened, and Lula stuck her head out.
“Are you gonna sit there all day, or what?” she yelled
Lula is a black woman with a Rubenesque body and a Vegas wardrobe
that’s four sizes too small. She is a former ’ho,
currently working as a file clerk for the office and a wheelman for
me . . . when the mood strikes. Today, she was wearing big fake-fur
Sasquatch boots, and her ass was packed into poison-green spandex
pants. Her pink sweatshirt had Love Goddess spelled out in sequins
across her boobs.
My wardrobe runs a lot more casual than Lula’s. I was wearing
jeans and a long-sleeved knit shirt from the Gap. My feet were
stuffed into knock-off Ugg boots, and I was bundled into a big
quilted jacket. I have naturally curly brown hair that looks okay
when I wear it shoulder length. When it’s short, the best you
can say is that it has energy. I’d swiped on some extra
mascara today, hoping to boost my bravado. I had a favor to perform
that I suspected was going to come back to haunt me. I grabbed my
bag, wrenched the driver’s side door open, and angled myself
out of the car.
It was the end of February, and there was gloom as far as the eye
could see. It was almost ten a.m., but the streetlights were on,
and visibility in the swirling snow was about six inches. A truck
chugged past, throwing slush halfway up my leg, soaking my jeans,
bringing out my trash mouth. Winter wonderland Jersey-style.
Connie Rosolli looked around her computer at me when I walked into
the office. Connie is Vinnie’s office manager and his first
line of defense against the stream of pissed-off bondees, bookies,
hookers, various bill collectors, and stiffed smut peddlers hoping
to reach Vinnie’s inner sanctum. Connie was a couple years
older than me, a couple pounds heavier, a couple inches shorter, a
couple cups bigger, and had hair a couple inches higher than mine.
Connie was pretty in a kick-ass, central Jersey, third-generation
Italian kind of way.
“I have three new skips,” Connie said. “One of
them is Simon Diggery again.”
Skips are people who fail to show for a court appearance after
Vinnie has bonded them out of jail. Vinnie loses money when bondees
fail to appear, so that’s where I come in. I work for Vinnie
as a fugitive apprehension agent, better known as bounty hunter,
and my job is to find the skips and drag them back into the
“Don’t look to me to help you out with Simon
Diggery,” Lula said, plunking herself down on the brown
Naugahyde couch, picking up her copy of Star magazine. “Been
there, done that. Not doing it again. No way.”
“He’s an easy catch,” I said. “We know
exactly where to find him.”
“There’s no ‘we’ gonna happen. You’re
on your own. I’m not freezing my sweet Jesus, sitting in some
bone orchard in the dead of night, waiting for Simon Diggery to
Diggery was, among other things, a professional grave robber,
relieving the recently deceased of rings, watches, and the
occasional Brooks Brothers suit if it was Diggery’s size.
Last time Diggery was in violation of his bond, Lula and I caught
him hacksawing a cocktail ring off Miriam Lukach. We chased him all
over the cemetery before I tackled him in front of the
I took the three new files from Connie and shoved them into my
shoulder bag. “I’m off.”
“Where you going?” Lula wanted to know.
“It’s almost lunchtime. I don’t suppose
you’re gonna be passing by some place I could get a meatball
sub. I could use a meatball sub on a nasty day like
“I’m going downtown,” I told her. “I need
to talk to Dickie.”
“Say what?” Lula was up on her feet. “Did I hear
you right? Is this the Dickie that called the police on you last
time you were in his office? Is this the Dickie you told to go fuck
hisself? Is this the Dickie you were married to for fifteen minutes
in another life?”
“Yep. That’s the Dickie.”
Lula grabbed her coat and scarf from the chair. “I’ll
ride with you. I gotta see this. Hell, I don’t even care
about the meatball sub anymore.”
“Okay, but we’re not making a scene,” I said to
Lula. “I need to talk to Dickie about a legal issue. This is
going to be non-confrontational.”
“I know that. Non-confrontational. Like two civilized
“Hold on. I’m going too,” Connie said, getting
her purse from her bottom desk drawer. “I don’t want to
miss this. I’ll close the office for a couple hours for this
“I’m not making a scene,” I told her.
“Sure, but I’m packin’ just in case it gets
ugly,” Connie said.
“Me too,” Lula said. “It isn’t diamonds
that’s a girl’s best friend. It’s a .9mm
Connie and Lula looked at me.
“What are you carrying?” Connie asked.
“A brand-new can of hairspray and this lip gloss I’ve
“It’s a pretty good lip gloss,” Lula said,
“but it wouldn’t hurt to have a piece as a
Connie stuffed herself into her coat. “I can’t imagine
what legal problem you’d want to discuss with Dickie, but it
must be a bitch to get you out in this weather.”
“It’s sort of personal,” I said, relying on the
one really decent bounty hunter skill I possessed . . . the ability
to fib. “It dates back to when we were married. It has to do
with . . . taxes.”
We all went head-down into the cold. Connie locked the office door,
and we got into Lula’s red Firebird. Lula cranked the engine
over, hip-hop blasted out of the CD player, and Lula motored
“Is Dickie still downtown?” Lula wanted to know.
“Yes, but he’s in a new office. 3240 Brian Place. His
firm is Petiak, Smullen, Gorvich, and Orr.”
Lula cruised down Hamilton and turned onto North Broad. The wind
had cut back, and it was no longer snowing, but there was still a
thick cloud cover overhead. At best, the weather could now be
described as grim. I was silently rehearsing my fake speech about
how I needed information for an audit. And I was making promises to
myself as performance incentive. I was seeing macaroni and cheese
in my near future. Butterscotch Tastykakes. Onion rings. Snickers
bars. Okay, so this had all the makings of a cluster fuck, but
there was a Dairy Queen Oreo CheeseQuake Blizzard waiting for me
Lula took a left at Brian and found a parking place half a block
from Dickie’s office building.
“I’m gonna smack you on the head if you don’t
stop cracking your knuckles,” Lula said to me. “You
gotta chill. You need some tax information, and he’s gotta
give it to you.” Lula cut her eyes to me. “That’s
all there is to it, right?”
“Uh oh,” Lula said. “There’s more,
We all got out of the Firebird and stood huddled against the
“Actually, I have to plant a couple bugs on him for
Ranger,” I told Lula. There it was, out in the open, swinging
in the breeze . . . the favor from hell.
Carlos Manoso goes by the street name Ranger. He’s my friend,
my bounty hunter mentor, and in this case . . . my partner in
crime. He’s Cuban American with dark skin and dark eyes and
dark brown hair recently cut short. He’s half a head taller
than I am, and two months older. I’ve seen him naked, and
when I say every part of him is perfect you can take it to the
bank. He was Special Forces, and while he’s no longer
military, he’s still got the skills and the muscle. He owns a
security company named RangeMan now. Plus, he does the high-bond
skips for Vinnie. He’s a hot guy, and there are strong
feelings between us, but I try to keep some distance. Ranger plays
by his own set of rules, and I don’t have a complete
“I knew it!” Lula said. “I knew this would be
“You need something better than taxes,” Connie said.
“You’re going to need a diversion if you want to plant
“Yeah,” Lula said. “You need us to go along with
you. You need some hustle and bustle.”
“How about if we say we want to start a business
together,” Connie said. “And we need advice on permits
and partnership agreements.”
“What kind of business we got?” Lula asked. “I
gotta know what I’m getting into with you.”
“It’s not a real business,” Connie said.
“We’re just pretending.”
“I still gotta know,” Lula said. “I’m not
putting my good name on just any old thing.”
“For crissake,” Connie said, flapping her arms and
stamping her feet to keep warm. “It could be anything. We
could cater parties.”
“Yeah, that’s believable,” Lula said. “On
account of we’re all such gourmet cooks. The only time I turn
my oven on is to heat up my apartment. And Stephanie probably
don’t even know where her oven is.”
“Okay, how about a dry cleaner, or chauffeured limos, or dog
walking—or we could buy a shrimp boat?” Connie
“I like the limo idea,” Lula said. “We could buy
a Lincoln and dress up in bad-ass uniforms. Something with some
“It’s okay with me,” Connie said.
I nodded and pulled my scarf up over my nose. “Me too.
Let’s go inside. I’m freezing.”
“Wait,” Lula said. “We need a name. You
can’t have a limo company without a name.”
“Lucky Limos,” Connie said.
“The hell,” Lula said. “I’m not joining up
with a limo company’s got a lame name like that.”
“Then you name it,” Connie said to Lula. “I
don’t give a fig what the friggin’ company is called.
My feet are numb.”
“It should be something that reflects on us,” Lula
said. “Like The Bitches Limos.”
“That’s a stupid name. No one’s going to hire a
limo from a company with a name like that,” Connie
“I know some people,” Lula said.
“Lovely Limos, Lonely Limos, Loser Limos, Lumpy Limos, Looney
Limos, La De Da Limos, Limos for Liars, Lampshade Limos, Landfill
Limos, Leaky Limos, Lemon Limos, Long Limos, Large Limos, Lazy
Limos, Loosey Goosey Limos,” I said.
Connie looked at me and grimaced.
“Maybe it should be called Lula’s Limos,” I
“Yeah, that got a ring to it,” Lula said.
“Then it’s a deal. Lula’s Limos.”
“Deal,” Connie said. “Get out of my way, so I can
get inside and defrost.”
We all pushed through the front door to Dickie’s building and
stood in the foyer, sopping up the sudden blast of heat. The foyer
opened to a reception area, and I was relieved to see an unfamiliar
face behind the desk. If anyone had recognized me from my last
visit, they would have immediately called for security.
“Let me do the talking,” I said to Lula.
“Sure,” Lula said. “I’ll be quiet as a
mouse. I’ll zip my lip.”
I approached the desk and made an attempt at demure.
“We’d like to see Mr. Orr,” I told the
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No,” I said. “I’m terribly sorry to drop
in like this, but we’re starting a new business, and we need
some legal advice. We were down the street looking at real estate
and thought we’d take a chance that Mr. Orr might have a
moment for us.”
“Of course,” the woman said. “Let me see if
he’s available. The name?”
“Capital City Limos.”
“Hunh,” Lula said behind me.
The woman buzzed Dickie and relayed our information. She got off
the phone and smiled. “He has a few minutes between
appointments. You can take the elevator to your left. Second
We all moved into the elevator, and I pushed the button for the
“What was that?” Lula wanted to know. “Capital
“It just popped out, but it sounds classy,
“Not as classy as Lula’s Limos,” Lula said.
“I’d call Lula’s Limos any day of the week over
Capital City Limos. Capital City Limos sounds like it got a stick
up its ass, but you’d be in for a good time in Lula’s
The door opened, and we spilled out of the elevator into another
reception room with another new face at the desk.
“Mr. Orr is expecting you,” the woman said. “His
office is at the end of the corridor.”
I led the parade in a sedate march to Dickie’s office. I got
to his open door and rapped lightly. I peeked in and smiled.
Dickie looked up and gasped.
He’d put on a few pounds since the last time I saw him. His
brown hair was thinning at the top, and he was wearing glasses. He
was dressed in a white shirt, red and blue striped tie, and dark
blue suit. I’d thought he was handsome when I married him,
and he was still a nice-looking guy, in a corporate sort of way.
But he felt soft compared to Joe Morelli and Ranger, the two men
who were currently in my life. Dickie lacked the heat and raw male
energy that surrounded Morelli and Ranger. And of course, I now
knew Dickie was an asshole.
“No need for alarm,” I said calmly. “I’m
here as a client. I needed a lawyer, and I thought of
“Lucky me,” Dickie said.
I felt my eyes involuntarily narrow and did some mental deep
“Lula and Connie and I are thinking about starting a limo
service,” I said to Dickie.
“You bet your ass,” Lula said. “Lula’s
“And?” Dickie said.
“We don’t know anything about starting a
business,” I said. “Do we need some sort of partnership
agreement? Do we need a business license? Should we
Dickie slid a piece of paper across his desk. “Here are the
law firm rates for services.”
“Wow,” I said, looking at the rates. “This is a
lot of money. I don’t know if we can afford you.”
“Again, lucky me.”
I felt my blood pressure edge up a notch. I planted my hands on my
hips and glared down at him. “Am I to assume you would rather
not have us as clients?”
“Let me think about that for a nanosecond,” Dickie
said. “Yes! Last time you were in my office you tried to kill
“That’s an exaggeration. Maim you, yes. Kill you,
“Let me give you some free advice,” Dickie said.
“Keep your day jobs. The three of you in business will be a
disaster, and if you last long enough to go into menopause as
business partners, you’ll turn into cannibals.”
“Did I just get insulted?” Lula asked.
Okay, so he’s a jerk, I said to myself. That doesn’t
change the mission. You have to keep your eye on the prize. You
need to be cordial and find a way to plant the bugs. Hard to do
when Dickie was in his chair behind the desk, and I was standing in
front of it.
“You’re probably right,” I said to Dickie. I
looked around and moved to the mahogany shelves that lined one
wall. Law books interspersed with personal flotsam. Photographs,
awards, a couple carved-wood ducks, some art glass. “You have
a wonderful office,” I told him. I went from photograph to
photograph. A picture of Dickie with his brother. A picture of
Dickie with his parents. A picture of Dickie with his grandparents.
A picture of Dickie graduating from college. A picture of Dickie on
some ski slope. No pictures of Dickie’s ex-wife.
I’d inched my way along his wall, and I was now slightly
behind him. I cleverly turned to admire the handsome desk set . . .
and that was when I saw it. A picture of Dickie and Joyce
Barnhardt. Dickie had his arm around Joyce, and they were laughing.
And I knew it was recent because Dickie’s forehead was
unusually high in the photograph.
I sucked in some air and told myself to stay calm, but I could feel
pressure building in my fingertips, and I worried my scalp might be
“Uh oh,” Lula said, watching me.
“Is that J-J-Joyce?” I asked Dickie.
“Yeah,” Dickie said. “We’ve reconnected. I
had a thing with her a bunch of years ago, and I guess I never got
over the attraction.”
“I know exactly how many years ago. I caught you porking that
pig on my dining room table fifteen minutes before I filed for
divorce, you scum-sucking, dog-fucking lump of goose
Joyce Barnhardt had been a fat, buck-toothed, sneaky little kid who
spread rumors, picked at emotional wounds, spit on my dessert at
lunchtime, and made my school years a nightmare. By the time she
was twenty, the fat had all gone to the right places. She dyed her
hair red, had her breasts enlarged and her lips plumped, and she
set out on her chosen career of home wrecker and gold digger.
Looking back on it all, I had to admit Joyce had done me a favor by
being the catalyst to get me out of my marriage to Dickie. That
didn’t alter the fact that Joyce will never be my favorite
“That’s right,” Dickie said. “Now I
remember. I thought I could finish up before you got home, but you
came home early.”
And next thing, Dickie was on the floor, my hands around his neck.
He was yelling as best he could, considering I was choking him, and
Lula and Connie were in the mix. By the time Lula and Connie
wrestled me off him, the room was filled with clerical staff.
Dickie dragged himself up and looked at me wild-eyed.
“You’re all witnesses,” he said to the roomful of
people. “She tried to kill me. She’s insane. She should
be locked up in a looney bin. Call the police. Call animal control.
Call my lawyer. I want a restraining order.”
“You deserve Joyce,” I said to Dickie. “What you
don’t deserve is this desk clock. It was a wedding present
from my Aunt Tootsie.” And I took the clock, turned on my
heel, tipped my nose up ever so slightly, and flounced out of his
office, Connie and Lula right behind me.
Dickie scrambled after us. “Give me that clock! That’s
Lula whipped out her Glock and pointed it at Dickie’s nose.
“Were you paying attention? Her Aunt Tootsie gave her that
clock. Now get your little runt ass back in your office and close
the door before I put a big hole in your head.”
We took the stairs for fear the elevator might be too slow,
barreled out the front door, and speed-walked down the block before
the police could show up and haul me off to the clink. I saw the
shiny black SUV parked across the street. Tinted windows. Motor
running. I paused and gave the car a thumbs-up, and the lights
flashed at me. Ranger was listening to the bugs I’d just left
in Dickie’s pockets.
We rammed ourselves into Lula’s Firebird, and Lula rocketed
the car away from the curb.
“I swear, I thought you were gonna burst into flames when you
saw that picture of Dickhead and Joyce,” Lula said. “It
was like you had those glowing demon eyes you see in horror movies.
I thought your head was gonna rotate.”
“Yeah, but then a calm came over me,” I said.
“And I saw I had a chance to plant the bugs in Dickie’s
“The calm must have come while you were squeezing his neck
and banging his head against the floor,” Connie said.
I blew out a sigh. “Yep. That was about the
We had food spread all over Connie’s desk. Meatball subs in
wax paper wrappers, a big tub of coleslaw, potato chips, pickles,
and diet sodas.
“This was a good idea,” I said to Lula. “I was
“Guess going apeshit makes you hungry,” Lula said.
“What’s up next?”
“I thought I’d do some phone work on Simon Diggery.
Maybe I can get a lead on him that’ll take me someplace other
than a graveyard.”
Diggery was a wiry little guy in his early fifties. His brown hair
was shot with gray and tied back in a ponytail. His skin looked
like old leather. And he had arms like Popeye from years of hauling
dirt. Most often, he worked alone, but on occasion he could be seen
walking the streets at two in the morning with his brother Melvin,
shovels on their shoulders like Army rifles.
“You’re not going to get anywhere with phone
calls,” Lula said. “Those Diggerys are
I pulled a previous file on Diggery and copied phone numbers and
places of employment. In the past, Diggery had delivered pizzas,
bagged groceries, pumped gas, and cleaned kennel cages.
“It’s a place to start,” I said to Lula.
“Better than knocking on their doors.”
The Diggerys all lived together in a raggedy double-wide in
Bordentown. Simon, Melvin, Melvin’s wife, Melvin’s six
kids, Melvin’s pet python, and Uncle Bill Diggery. If you
knocked on the door to the double-wide, you’d only find the
python. The Diggerys were like feral cats. They scattered into the
woods behind their home the minute a car stopped in the
When the weather was especially bad and the ground was frozen,
grave robbing was slow work and Simon would sometimes take odd
jobs. I was hoping to catch him at one of those jobs. Since the
jobs were random, the only way to learn of them was to trick a
family member or neighbor into giving Simon up.
“What’s the charge this time?” Lula asked.
I paged through the file. “Drunk and disorderly, destruction
of private property, attempted assault.”
Everyone knew Diggery was Trenton’s premier grave robber, but
his arrests were seldom associated with desecration of the dead. He
was most often arrested for disorderly conduct and assault. When
Simon Diggery got drunk, he swung a mean shovel.
I gathered my information together and stuffed it into my bag along
with the clock. “I’m working at home for the rest of
“I feel like working at home until July,” Lula said.
“I’m fed up with this weather.”
I’d just gotten into my car when my mom called on my
“Where are you?” she wanted to know. “Are you at
the bail bonds office?”
“I was just leaving.”
“I was wondering if you would stop at Giovichinni’s for
me on your way home. Your father is out in the taxi all day, and my
car won’t start. I think I need a new battery. I want a
half-pound of liverwurst, a half-pound of ham, a half-pound of
olive loaf, and a half-pound of turkey. Then you can get me some
Swiss cheese and some good rye. And a rump roast. And get an
Entenmann’s. Your grandmother likes the raspberry coffee
“Sure,” I said. “I’m on my
The bail bonds office sits with its back to downtown Trenton and
its front to a small ethnic neighborhood known as the Burg. I was
born and raised in the Burg, and while I now live outside Burg
limits, I’m still tethered to it by family and history. Once
a Burgerbit, always a Burgerbit. Giovichinni’s is a small
family-owned deli a short distance down on Hamilton, and it’s
the Burg deli of choice. It’s also a hotbed of gossip, and I
was certain news of my rampage was circulating through every corner
of the Burg, including Giovichinni’s.
I was currently driving a burgundy Crown Vic that used to be a cop
car. I’d needed a car fast, and this was the only car I could
afford at Crazy Iggy’s Used Car Emporium. I promised myself
the Vic was temporary, put it in gear, and motored to
I hurried through the store, head down, all business, hoping no one
would mention Dickie. I walked away from the butcher unscathed,
rushed past Mrs. Landau and Mrs. Ruiz without saying hello, and I
stood in line at the checkout behind Mrs. Martinelli. Thank
goodness, she didn’t speak English. I looked past Mrs.
Martinelli and knew my luck had run out. Lucy Giovichinni was at
“I hear you trashed your ex’s office this
morning,” Lucy said, checking my groceries. “Is it true
you threatened to kill him?”
“No! I was there with Lula and Connie. We had some legal
issues we wanted to run by him. Honestly, I don’t know how
these rumors get started.”
And this was only the beginning. I could see it coming. This was
going to turn into a disaster of biblical proportions.
I carried my bags to the Vic, loaded them into the trunk along with
Aunt Tootsie’s desk clock, and got behind the wheel. By the
time I reached my parent’s house, sleet was slanting onto the
windshield. I parked in the driveway and dragged the bags to the
front door, where my Grandma Mazur was waiting.
Grandma Mazur came to live with my parents when my Grandpa Mazur
bypassed the FDA and took his trans-fat needs to a higher
“Did you get the coffee cake?” Grandma asked.
“Yep. I got the coffee cake.” I slid past her and
carried everything to the kitchen, where my mother was
“How long has she been ironing?” I asked Grandma.
“She’s been at it for about twenty minutes. Ever since
the call came in about you sending Dickie to the hospital and then
eluding the police.”
My mother ironed when she was stressed. Sometimes she ironed the
same shirt for hours.
“I didn’t send Dickie to the hospital. And there were
no police involved.” At least none that I ran across.
“Lula and Connie and I went to Dickie for some legal advice
and somehow these rumors got started.”
My mother stopped ironing and set the iron on end. “I never
hear rumors about Miriam Zowicki’s daughter, or Esther
Marchese’s daughter, or Elaine Rosenbach’s daughter.
Why are there always rumors about my daughter?”
I cut myself a slice of coffee cake, wolfed it down, and crammed my
hands into my jeans pockets to keep from eating the whole
Grandma was stowing the food in the fridge. “Stephanie and me
are just colorful people, so we get talked about a lot. Look at all
the crazy things they say about me. I swear, people will say