Sometimes you get up in the morning and you know it's going to be one of those days. No toothpaste left in the tube, no toilet paper on the cardboard roll, hot water cuts out halfway through your shower, and someone's left a monkey on your doorstep.
My name is Stephanie Plum, and I'm a bail bonds enforcement agent for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. I live in a one bedroom, one bath, unremarkable apartment, in a three-story brick box of a building on the outskirts of Trenton, New Jersey. Usually I live alone with my hamster, Rex, but at eight-thirty this morning my roommate list was enlarged to include Carl-the-Monkey. I opened my door to go to work and there he was. Small brown monkey with long, curled tail, creepy little monkey fingers and toes, crazy bright monkey eyes, and he was on a leash hooked to my doorknob. A note was attached to his collar.
HI! REMEMBER ME? I'M CARL AND I BELONG TO SUSAN STITCH. SUSAN IS ON HER HONEYMOON AND SHE KNOWS YOU'LL TAKE GOOD CARE OF ME UNTIL SHE RETURNS.
First, let me say that I've never wanted a monkey. Second, I barely know Susan Stitch. Third, what the heck am I supposed to do with the little bugger?
Twenty minutes later I parked my Jeep Wrangler in front of the bonds office on Hamilton Avenue. At one time the Wrangler had been red, but it had many lives before it fell into my hands, and now it was a lot less than primo, and the color was motley.
Carl followed me out of the car and into the office, hugging my pants leg like a two year old. Connie, the office manager, looked up from her computer, and Lula, who is office file clerk and wheelman, stood hands on hips.
Connie was wearing a short black pencil skirt and a black and white polka dot blouse with a wide scoop neck. Her black hair was teased high on her head, her eyes were heavily rimmed in black liner, and her lips were high shine fire engine red. Her boobs were smashed together in cleavage so tight you could wedge a quarter in there, turn Connie upside down and nothing would fall out. Rumor has it Connie's Uncle Vito helped make Jimmy Hoffa into an SUV bumper ...but it's just a rumor.
Ordinarily Connie might be an eye-catcher, but she's kicked to the curb when Lula's in the room. Lula is a former 'ho and she's only moderately altered her wardrobe to suit her new job. Lula somehow manages to perform the miracle of squeezing her plus size body into petite size clothes. Her hair is blond this week, her skin is brown, her spandex tube dress is poison green, her shoes are four-inch spike heeled faux leopard Via Spigas.
I'm wearing jeans, black and white Converse sneakers, a girl cut red t-shirt, a grey sweatshirt and an inadequate swipe of lash lengthening mascara. Not only am I feeling like a bran muffin in a bakery case filled with eclairs, I'm also the only one not packing a gun. My eyes are blue, my hair is brown, and my favorite word is cake. I was married for ten minutes in another life, and I'm not inclined to repeat the mistake anytime soon. There are a couple men in my life who tempt me ...just not with marriage.
One of those tempting men is Joe Morelli. He's a Trenton cop with bedroom eyes, and bedroom hands and everything else good that you'd want to find in your bedroom. He's been my off-again, on-again boyfriend for as long as I can remember, and last night he was on-again.
The second guy in my life is Carlos Manoso, AKA Ranger. Ranger's been my mentor, my employer, my lover, my guardian angel, but probably has never totally qualified as a boyfriend. Boyfriend might suggest an occasional date, and I can't see Ranger going there. Ranger is the sort of guy who slips uninvited into a girl's dreams and desires and refuses to leave.
"That better not be what I think it is," Lula said, eyeballing Carl. "I hate monkeys. You know I hate monkeys."
"It's Carl," I told her. "Remember when we busted Susan Stitch for failing to appear? And remember her monkey Carl?"
"Here he is."
"What are you doing with him?"
"He was attached to my doorknob with a note. Susan went on a honeymoon and left him with me."
"She got a lot of nerve," Lula said. "Where's he go to the bathroom? You ever think of that?"
I looked down at Carl. "Well?"
Carl blinked and shrugged.
"What's happening with Martin Munch?" Connie asked me. "Vinnie's in a rant over him. Munch is a big-ticket bond. If you don't drag his ass into court by the end of the month our bottom line won't be good."
This is the way things work in the bail bonds business. A guy gets accused of a crime and before he's released back into society the court demands a security deposit. If the accused doesn't happen to have $50,000 under his mattress to give to the court, he goes to a bail bonds agent and that agent posts the bond for the accused for a fee. If the accused doesn't show up for his court date, the court gets to keep the bondsman's money until someone like me hauls the accused back to jail.
Vincent Plum is my ferret-faced cousin. He owns the bonds office on paper, but he's backed by his father-in-law, Harry the Hammer. If Vinnie writes too many bad bonds and the office runs in the red, Harry isn't happy. And you don't want a guy with a name like Harry the Hammer to be unhappy.
"I've been looking for Munch all week," I said to Connie. "It's like he's dropped off the earth."
Martin Munch is a twenty-one year old genius with a doctorate in quantum physics. A security tape caught Munch lifting a one of a kind monster caesium vapor magneto meter from a lab at a research facility on the outskirts of Trenton. Munch was arrested and booked, but the magneto meter was never recovered. In a moment of insanity, Vinnie wrote a bond for Munch, and now Munch is in the wind with his contraption. Truth is, while I really need my commission from capturing Munch, I'm not all that excited about coming face to face with someone who would steal something called a magneto meter.
"This is a white collar guy," Connie said. "He hasn't grown up in a crime culture. His friends and family are probably horrified. I can't see them hiding him."
"He hasn't got a lot of friends and family," I told her. "From what I can determine he has neighbors who have never spoken to him, and the only family is a grandmother in a retirement home in Cadmount. He was employed at the research facility for six months, and he never socialized. Before that he was a precocious student at Princeton, and was known as a loner. His neighbors tell me he sometimes had a male visitor late at night. The visitor drove a black Ferrari and had long black hair. Sometimes Munch would leave with him and not come back for several days. That's the whole enchilada."
"I don't know nothin' about Munch," Lula said. "How come I don't know nothin'?"
"You were home sick all last week," Connie told her.
"Oh yeah," Lula said. "I forgot."
"So what was it?" I asked her. "The flu?"
"I don't know what it was. My eyes were all swollen, and I was sneezing and wheezing, and I felt like I had a fever. I just stayed in my apartment, drinking medicinal whiskey and taking cold pills, and now I feel fine. What's this Munch look like?"
I took his file from my Prada knockoff messenger bag and showed Lula a photo.
"Good thing he's a genius," Lula said, "on account of he don't have much else going on."
At five feet tall Munch looked more like fourteen than twenty-one. He had curly strawberry blond hair, and pale freckled skin. The photo was taken outdoors and Munch was squinting into the sun. He was wearing jeans and sneakers and a SpongeBob t-shirt, and it occurred to me that he probably shopped in the kid's department. I imagine you have to be pretty secure in your manhood to pull that one off.
"I'm feeling hot today," Lula said. "I bet I could find that Munch. I bet he's sitting home in his tighty-whities watching the weather channel."
"I guess it wouldn't hurt for us to check out his house one more time," I said. "He's renting one of those little tiny row houses on Crocker Street, down by the button factory."
"What are you gonna do with the monkey?" Lula wanted to know.
I looked over at Connie.
"Forget it," Connie said. "I'm not babysitting a monkey. Especially not that monkey."
"Well I don't let monkeys ride in my car," Lula said. "If that monkey's going with us you're gonna have to drive your car. And I'm sitting in the back, so I can keep an eye on him. I don't want no monkey sneaking up behind me giving me monkey cooties."
"I got two new skips in," Connie said to me. "One of them ran over his former wife's husband with a pickup truck, twice. And the other, Denny Guzzi, robbed a convenience store and accidentally shot him self in the foot trying to make his get-a-way. Both idiots failed to show for their court appearance."
Connie shoved the paperwork to the edge of the desk. I signed the contract and took the files that contained a photo, the arrest sheet and the bond agreement for each man.
"Shouldn't be hard to tag Denny Guzzi," Connie said. "He's got a big bandage on his foot, and he can't run."
"Yeah, but he's got a gun," I said to Connie.
"This is Jersey," Connie said. "Everyone's got a gun ...except you."
We left the bond's office and Lula stood looking at my car.
"I forgot you got this dumb Jeep," Lula said. "I can't get in the back of this thing. Only Romanian acrobats could get in the back of this. I guess the monkey's gotta ride in back, but I swear he makes a move on me, and I'm gonna shoot him."
I slid behind the wheel, Lula wedged herself into the passenger side seat, and Carl hopped into the back. I adjusted my rear-view mirror, locked onto Carl, and I swear it looked to me like Carl was making faces at Lula and giving her the finger.
"What?" Lula said to me. "You got a strange look on you."
"It's nothing," I said. "I just thought Carl was...never mind."
I drove across town, parked in front of Munch's house on Crocker Street, and we all piled out of the Jeep.
"This here's a boring ass house," Lula said. "It looks like every other house on the street. If I came home after having two cosmos I wouldn't know which house was mine. Look at them. They're all red brick. They all have the same stupid black door and black window trim. They don't even have no front yard. Just a stoop. And they all got the same stupid stoop."
I glanced at Lula. "Are you okay? That's a lot of hostility for a poor row house."
"It's the monkey. Monkeys give me the willies. And I might have a headache from all that medicinal whiskey."
I rang Munch's doorbell and looked through sheers that screened the front window. Beyond the sheers the house was dark and still.
"I bet he's in there," Lula said. "I bet he's hiding under the bed. I think we should go around to the back and look."
There were fifteen row houses in all. All shared common walls, and Munch was almost dead middle. We returned to the Jeep, I rolled down the street, turned left at the corner and took the alley that cut the block. I parked, we all got out and walked through Munch's postage stamp back yard. The house set-up was similar to the front. A door and then two windows. The door had a small swinging trap door at the bottom for a pet, and Carl instantly scurried inside.
I was dumbstruck. One minute Carl was in the Jeep, and then in an instant he was inside the house.
"Whoa," Lula said. "He's fast!"
We looked in a window and saw Carl in the kitchen, bouncing off counters, jumping up and down on the small kitchen table.
I pressed my nose to the glass. "I have to get him out."
"Like hell you do," Lula said. "This here's your lucky day. I say finders keepers."
"What if Munch never returns? Carl will starve to death."
"I don't think so," Lula said. "He just opened the refrigerator."
"There has to be a way to get in. Maybe Munch hid a key."
"Well, someone could accidentally break a window," Lula said. "And then someone else could crawl in and beat the living crap out of the monkey."
"No. We're not breaking or beating."
I rapped on the window, and Carl gave me the finger.
Lula sucked in some air. "That little fucker just flipped us the bird."
"It was probably accidental."
Lula glared in at Carl. "Accident this!" she said to him, middle finger extended.
Carl turned and mooned Lula, although it wasn't much of a moon since he wasn't wearing clothes to begin with.
"Oh yeah?" Lula said. "You want to see a moon? I got a moon to show you."
"No!" I said to Lula. "No more moons. Bad enough I just looked at a monkey butt. I don't want your butt burned into my retina."
"Hunh," Lula said. "Lotta people paid good money to see that butt."
Carl drank some milk out of the carton and put the carton back into the refrigerator. He opened the crisper drawer and pawed around in it, but clearly didn't find anything he wanted. He closed the refrigerator, scratched his stomach and looked around.
"Let me in," I said to him. "Open the door."
"Yeah, right," Lula said. "As if his little pea brain could understand you."
Carl gave Lula the finger again. And then Carl walked to the door, threw the deadbolt, opened the door and stuck his tongue out at Lula.
"If there's one thing I can't stand," Lula said, "it's a show-off monkey."
I did a fast walk-through on the house. Not much to see. Two small bedrooms, living room, single bath, small eat-in kitchen. These houses were built by the button factory after the war to entice cheap labor, and the button factory didn't waste money on frills. The houses have been sold many times over since then and were now occupied by an odd assortment of senior citizens, newly marrieds and crazies. Seemed to me, Munch fit into the crazy category.
There were no clothes in the closet, no toiletries in the bathroom, no computer anywhere. Munch had cleared out, leaving a carton of milk, some sprouted onions and a half-empty box of Rice Krispies behind.
"It's the strangest thing," Lula said. "I got this sudden craving for coffee cake. Do you smell cinnamon? It's like it's mixed up with Christmas trees and oranges."
I'd noticed the scent. And I was afraid I recognized it.
"How about you?" I asked Carl. "Did you smell cinnamon?"
Carl did another shrug and scratched his butt.
"Now all I can think of is cinnamon buns," Lula said. "I got buns on the brain. We gotta go find some. Or maybe a doughnut. I wouldn't mind a dozen doughnuts. I need a bakery. I got cravings."
Everyone vacated the kitchen, I locked the back door, and we all piled into the Jeep. I found my way to Hamilton and stopped at Tasty Bakery.
"What kind of doughnut do you want?" I asked Lula.
"Any kind. I want a Boston Cream, a strawberry jelly, a chocolate glazed, one of them with the white icing and pretty colorful sprinkles, and a blueberry. No wait. I don't want the blueberry. I want a vanilla cream and a cinnamon stick."
"That's a lot of doughnuts."
"I'm a big girl," Lula said. "I got big appetites. I feel like I could eat a million doughnuts."
"How about you?" I asked Carl. "Do you need a doughnut?"
Carl vigorously shook his head yes and jumped up and down in his seat and made excited monkey noises.
"It's creepy that this monkey knows what we're saying," Lula said. "It's just not right. It's like he's a alien monkey or something."
"Sometimes Morelli's dog Bob knows what I'm saying. He knows walk, and come and meatball."
"Yeah, Tank knows some words too, but not as many as this monkey," Lula said. "Of course that's 'cause Tank's the big strong silent type."
Tank is Lula's fiance, and his name says it all. He's Ranger's right-hand man, second in command at Ranger's security firm Rangeman, and he's the guy Ranger trusts to guard his back. To say that Tank is the big, strong, silent type is a gross understatement on all accounts.
Fifteen minutes later we were in the Jeep and we'd eaten all the doughnuts.
"I feel a lot better," Lula said. "Now what?"
I looked down at my shirt. It had powdered sugar and a big glob of jelly on it. "I'm going home to change my shirt."
"That don't sound real interesting," Lula said. "You could drop me at the office. I might have to take a nap."
I parked my Jeep in the lot behind my apartment building, and Carl and I crossed the lot and pushed through the building's rear entrance. We took the elevator to the second floor, and Carl waited patiently while I opened my door.
"So," I said to him, "do you miss Susan?"
"You do a lot of shrugging," I told him.
He studied me for a moment and gave me the finger. Okay, so it wasn't a shrug. And giving and getting the finger is a way of life in Jersey. Still, getting the finger from a monkey isn't normal even by Jersey standards.
My apartment consists of a small entrance foyer with hooks on the wall for coats and hats and handbags. The kitchen and living room open off the foyer, a dining area is tucked into an extension of the living room, and at the other end is a short hallway leading to my bedroom and bathroom. My dÈcor is mostly whatever was discarded by relatives. This is okay by me because Aunt Betty's chair, Grandma Mazur's dining room set, and my cousin Tootie's coffee table are comfortable. They come to me infused with family history, and they give off a kind of gentle energy that my life is sometimes lacking. Not to mention, I can't afford anything else.
I hung my tote on one of the hooks in the foyer and stared down at a pair of scruffy men's boots that had been kicked off and left in the middle of the floor. I was pretty sure I recognized the boots plus the battered leather backpack that had been dumped on Tootie's coffee table.
I walked into the living room and stared down at the backpack. I blew out a sigh and rolled my eyes. Why me? I thought. Isn't it enough that I have a monkey? Do I really need one more complication?
"Diesel?" I yelled.
I moved to the bedroom and there he was, sprawled on my bed. Over six feet of gorgeous, hard-muscled, slightly tanned male. His eyes were brown and assessing, his hair was sandy blond, thick and unruly. His eyebrows were fierce. Hard to tell his age. Young enough to be lots of trouble. Old enough to know what he was doing. He was wearing new grey sweatsocks, tattered jeans, and a faded t-shirt that advertised a dive shop in the Caicos.
He rolled onto his back and smiled up at me when I came into the room.
"Hey," he said.
I pointed stiff armed to the door. "Out!"
"What, no kiss hello?"
"Get a grip."
He patted the bed next to him.
"No way," I said.
Of course I was afraid. He made the Big Bad Wolf look like chump change.
"How do you always manage to smell like Christmas?" I asked Diesel.
"I don't know. It's just one of those things." The smile widened showing perfect white teeth, and crinkle lines appeared around his eyes. "It's part of my appeal," he said.
"You were in Martin Munch's house earlier today, weren't you?"
"Yeah. You came in the back door, and I went out the front. I would have hung around, but I was following someone."
"I lost him."
"Hard to believe."
"Are you sure you don't want to roll around on the bed with me?"
"Rain check," I told him.
Here's the thing with Diesel. I'd be crazy not to want to take him for a test drive, but I've already got two men in my life and that's actually one too many. Truth is, I'm a good Catholic girl. The faith has always been elusive, but the guilt is intractable. I'm not comfortable having simultaneous intimate relationships . . . even if it's only for a glorious ten minutes. And Diesel isn't a normal guy. At least that's his story.
If Diesel is to be believed, there are people living among us with abilities beyond normal. They look just like anyone else and most hold normal jobs and live relatively normal lives. They're called Unmentionables and some are more unmentionable than others. From what I've seen, Diesel is about as unmentionable as a guy could get. Diesel travels the world tracking Unmentionables who've gone to the dark side, and then he pulls the power plug. I don't know how he accomplishes this. I'm not even sure I believe any of it. All I know is one minute he's here, and then he's gone. And when he leaves the barometric pressure improves.
Diesel stood and stretched, and when he stretched there was a tantalizing flash of skin exposed between shirt and low-riding jeans. It was enough to make my eyes glaze over and my mouth go dry. I struggled to replace the image with thoughts of Morelli naked, but I was only partially successful.
"I'm hungry," Diesel said. "What time is it? Is it lunch time?" He looked at his watch. "It's after noon in Greenland. Close enough."
He ambled out of the bedroom and into the kitchen where Carl was sitting on the counter, staring into Rex's aquarium.
"What's with the monkey?" Diesel asked, his head in the refrigerator.
Diesel gathered up some cold cuts and sliced cheese and turned to me. "You don't strike me as especially maternal."
"I have my moments." Admittedly not very many, but probably they're just waiting for the right time to pop out.
Diesel found bread and made himself a sandwich. "He got a name?"
Diesel flipped Carl a slice of bread and Carl caught it and ate it.
"Are you a monkey man?" I asked Diesel.
"I can take 'em or leave 'em."
Carl shot Diesel the finger, and Diesel gave a bark of laughter. Diesel ate some sandwich and looked my way. "You two must get along great. You taught him that, right?"
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"You never just visit."
Diesel got a Bud Light from the fridge, chugged it and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I'm looking for a guy who has been known to hang with your friend Munch."
"Does this guy drive a black Ferrari and have long black hair?"
"Yes. Have you seen him?"
I shook my head. "No. I've talked to Munch's neighbors and apparently he was Munch's only visitor. Munch didn't have much of a social life."
"What kind of leads do you have?" Diesel asked.
"The usual. Nothing. And you?"
"I tracked my man to Munch's house but missed him by minutes. I've been trying to tag him for over a year. He can sense my approach, and he moves on before I get too close."
"He's afraid of you."
"No. He's enjoying the game."
"Gerwulf Grimoire," Diesel said.
"Wow, that's a really bad name."
"This is a really bad guy. And he wields a lot of power. Somehow he connected with Munch and now they're palling around together with Munch's magnetometer."
"Why was What's-his-name in Munch's house?" I asked Diesel.
"Gerwulf Grimoire, but he goes by Wulf. I suppose he went back to get something. Or maybe he was playing with me. The house was clean when I got there. I followed Wulf's breadcrumbs to Broad Street, and then they disappeared."
"Cosmic debris. Hard to explain."
"Do I leave cosmic debris?"
"Everyone leaves it. Some people leave more than others. Wulf and I leave a lot because we're dense. We both carry high energy."
"Tell me about it," Diesel said. "You should walk in my shoes." He crossed to the foyer, took my bag off its hook and stuck his hand in.
"Hey!" I said. "What are you doing?"
"I want to read your case file on Munch."
"How do you know it's in there?"
"I know. Just like I know you're wearing a pink lace thong, and you think I'm hot."
"How? What?" I said.
"Lucky guess," Diesel said, pulling the file out of my bag, scanning the pages.
"I do not think you're hot."
"That's a big fib," Diesel said.
"I can save you some time," I told him. "There isn't anything in Munch's file. Only a grandmother."
"Then let's talk to the grandmother."
"I've already talked to her."
Diesel shoved his feet into his boots and laced up. "Let's talk to her again."
I changed my shirt, and we headed out.
"Your car or mine?" I asked him when we got to the lot.
"What are you driving?"
"The Jeep that used to be red."
"I like it," Diesel said.
"What are you driving?"
I looked over at the black Harley. No room for Carl and it would wreck my hair. "Probably it's easier to follow cosmic dust when you're on a bike," I said.
Diesel settled himself into the Jeep's passenger side seat and grinned at me. "You don't really think there's cosmic dust, do you?"
I plugged the key into the ignition. "Of course not. Cosmic dust would be . . . ridiculous."
Diesel hooked an arm around my neck, pulled me to him and kissed me on the top of my head. "This is going to be fun," he said.
Cadmount is a sleepy little town on the Delaware River a few miles north of Trenton. It looks quaintly historic --- a bunch of big, white, clapboard houses with black shutters and yards shaded by oak and maple trees. Lydia Munch's retirement home was a sprawling single-story redbrick structure. The architect had enhanced the entrance with a portico and four white columns in an attempt to make it look less like a retirement home. The result was that it looked a lot more like a funeral parlor.
I parked in the visitor lot, and we shuffled into the lobby. The walls were a pleasant pale peach, and the floor was covered in dove gray industrial pile carpet. It was a relatively small area, large enough to accommodate the reception desk manned by two green-smocked women, a uniformed security guard old enough to be a resident, and a couple wingback chairs for tired guests.
I asked for Lydia Munch and was directed to a lounge in her wing. I'd already done this drill twice before, but no one seemed to remember me, and the rules and directions were precisely repeated. They would tell Lydia she had a visitor, and Lydia would meet us in the lounge. Diesel and I moved toward the corridor leading to the lounge, and one of the green- smocked women called after us.
"Excuse me," she said. "There's a monkey following you."
We turned and looked down at Carl. We'd forgotten he was with us.
"Go back to the car," I said to Carl.
Carl looked at me with his bright monkey eyes. The eyes dimmed down a notch, and he blinked.
"Don't play dumb," I said to him. "I know you understand."
"We don't allow monkeys," the woman said.
Carl flipped her the finger and took off down the corridor toward the lounge.
"Security!" the woman shouted, waving her hand at the old man at the door. "Expel that monkey."
The security guard looked around. "What monkey? I don't see no monkey."
Carl scampered down the length of the hall and swung through the door to the lounge. A murmur went up from the room when Carl entered, a woman screamed, and something crashed to the floor.
Diesel and I followed Carl into the lounge and found a little old lady who looked like Mother Goose pressing herself into a corner. A little old man with his pants hiked up to his armpits was scrabbling after Carl. The little old man was trying to smack Carl with his cane, but Carl was too fast. Carl was scurrying around, avoiding the cane, jumping on tables, knocking lamps to the floor, climbing up the drapes. He jumped onto Mother Goose's head, leaned over into her face, and gave her a kiss on the lips.
"He frenched me!" Mother Goose said. "I've been Frenched by a monkey."
Diesel grabbed Carl by the tail, lifted him off Mother Goose, and held him at arm's length, where Carl meekly dangled like a dead opossum. The old man took a swipe at Carl with the cane but missed and tagged Diesel. Diesel held Carl with one hand, and with the other, he snatched the cane away from the man and snapped it in half.
"I need mouthwash," Mother Goose said. "I need a tetanus shot. I need a Tic Tac."
"I'm looking for Lydia Munch," Diesel said.
"Two doors down on the right," the man told him. "Apartment 103."
Diesel thanked him, and we trooped out of the lounge with Carl riding on Diesel's shoulder. Several residents were in the hall. Lydia Munch was among them. Easy to recognize Lydia. She was five-foot-nothing and had the same curly strawberry blond hair and freckled skin as her grandson.
"What's the ruckus in the lounge?" she asked. Her eyes focused on Carl. "Is that a real monkey?"
"Yep, it's a real monkey," I told her. "And this big guy is Diesel. He'd like to talk to you about your grandson."
"Martin? I don't know what to say about him. I haven't seen him since Christmas. I know he's accused of stealing something where he worked, but it's hard to believe. He's such a nice young man."
"I need to find him," Diesel said. "Do you have any idea where he might be staying?"
"He has a house in Trenton. Other than that, I don't know. There's not a lot of family left. His mother and father were killed in a car wreck five years ago. He doesn't have any brothers or sisters. The rest of the family is in Wisconsin. He was never close to any of them."
"Friends?" Diesel asked.
"He never mentioned any. It was always hard for him, being so smart. He didn't go through school with kids his own age. And then he had that whole Star Trek thing where he dressed up like Mr. Spock. I told my daughter to get him help, but she said it was just a phase. And when he took the job at the research center, he was working on something secret that he couldn't talk about. He was real excited about it. He worked all the time on it. Weekends and nights. I thought he should be going out with girls, making some friends, but he said everyone he met was boring."
"Did he ever mention someone named Wulf?" Diesel asked.
"No," she said. "I would have remembered."
Diesel gave Lydia a business card. "I'd appreciate a call if you hear from Martin."
I looked over at the card. It said Diesel, and below that was a phone number.
"Very professional," I told him.
Diesel nodded adios to Lydia, took my hand, and pulled me down the hall toward the back door. "They were a Christmas present from one of my handlers. He said I had to stop writing my phone number on people's foreheads."
"The guys who move me around."
"So you can follow the cosmic dust?"
Diesel opened the back door and pushed me through.
"Very funny. Keep in mind not everything I say is bullshit."
"What would you say is the bullshit percentage? Twenty? Thirty?"
"Thirty might be low."
We circled the building and jumped into my Jeep. I cranked the engine over, and an animal control van rolled into the lot just as we were leaving.
"Now what?" I asked Diesel.
"Did you thoroughly search Munch's house?"
"Lula and I walked through the rooms and looked in closets and drawers. There wasn't much to see. The house was empty. No clothes, no food, no toothbrush in the bathroom."
"Maybe we should take a second look."
I made the trip back to Trenton in less than thirty minutes. Traffic was non ex is tent at midday, and I didn't get a single red light. Diesel took credit for this, but I thought his claim might register a ten on the bullshit- o-meter. Then again, maybe not.
I turned onto Crocker and immediately saw two cop cars and an EMT truck angled into the curb in front of Munch's house. I did a slow drive-by, turned at the corner, and stopped at the entrance to the alley. There were two more cop cars parked with lights flashing halfway down, plus a crime lab truck, an unmarked cop car, and what looked like the medical examiner's meat wagon.
"This doesn't look good," I said to Diesel. Diesel stared down the alley. "Call your boyfriend and find out what happened."
I crept forward, parked just past the alley, and dialed Morelli.
"Is there something going on in Martin Munch's house on Crocker Street?" I asked him.
"A call came in reporting two women and a monkey doing a B&E," Morelli said. "One of the women was fat and black and stuffed into not nearly enough green spandex, and the other was wearing jeans and a red T-shirt. I don't suppose you were in the area?"
"Shit," Morelli said. "Where'd you get the monkey?"
"Fine. I don't actually want to know. Fortunately, it's not my case. I have a nice, sane, multiple gang- slaying to work on."
"The usual. A bunch of kids shot each other."
"No. What happened at Munch's house?"
"A uniform responded to the call. He looked in the windows and tried the doors and was on his way back to his car parked in the alley when his attention was caught by a pack of vultures sitting on a white '91 Cadillac. The car was parked one house down from Munch's. Long story short, there was a body in the trunk."
"Unidentified male. Not Munch. No bullet holes or stab wounds. Bucky Burlew pulled the case, and since the guy's head was facing in the wrong direction, Bucky's thinking his neck was broken. Ordinarily, I wouldn't know any of this, but I was supposed to meet Bucky at Pino's for lunch. This is half- price day for meatball subs."
"Did you get a sub anyway?"
"Yeah. I went with Joe Zelock. He's in town with those naked male dancers. He's their token heterosexual."
Zelock used to be a Trenton cop. He rose in the ranks, went politico, and got busted for acting in a porno film. Somehow, he got himself onto one of those reality talent shows. He didn't win, but he got a gig with a traveling Chippendales- style dance troupe. Word on the street is that he's making okay money. Of course, some of it gets stuffed into some pretty strange places, but I guess a little disinfectant spray, and the money's as good as any other.
I disconnected and told Diesel about the dead guy.
"Did Morelli say there was anything unusual about the victim?"
"I've seen Wulf's handiwork. He likes to break his victim's neck. Nice and neat. Doesn't get blood on his clothes. He uses an ancient Chinese technique that only a few men have ever mastered. In fact, it's said you have to be born with the Dragon Claw."
"What's a Dragon Claw?"
"Wulf can channel energy to his hands and use them to burn a brand into flesh. When he uses his hands to kill, he also inflicts a perfect print of his hand on the victim's neck."
I felt the blood drain out of my brain, my vision went cobwebby, and bells clanged in my head. Diesel reached over and put his hand to the back of my neck. "Breathe," he said.
His hand was warm, and the warmth radiated out to my fingertips and toes and everyplace in between.
"Are you okay?" he asked me. "Your face turned white, and I felt your blood pressure drop."
"Too much information. I didn't need to know about the Dragon Claw."
Diesel smiled wide. "You're such a girl."
"I'm going to take that as a compliment."
"I need to crash," Diesel said. "I was brought in from Moscow last night and I'm beat."
"Where do you want me to drop you?"
"Take me home."
"You have a home?"
"Take me to your home. I'm staying with you."
"Oh no. No, no, no."
"Give it up," Diesel said. "It's not like you can kick me out."
"You are not staying in my apartment. Where will you sleep?"
"I'll sleep with you."
"Never happen. No way. Forget about it."
"You'll come around. Anyway, I want your bed, not your body."
"No. That was a flat- out lie."
"Honey, kicking me out of your car won't change anything."
I pointed stiff- armed. "Out!"
Diesel heaved himself out of the Jeep. "Do you want me to take the monkey?"
Carl hopped out of the backseat onto Diesel's shoulder. I suspected they'd both be in my apartment waiting for me when I returned to night, but at least I wouldn't have driven them there. Sort of a hollow victory, but it was the best I could manage. I took off, and from my rearview mirror I could see Carl give me the finger.
I reached the corner and blew out a sigh. I couldn't do it. I couldn't abandon Carl. I hooked a U-turn to retrieve the little guy, but Diesel and Carl had disappeared. Poof.
Excerpted from PLUM SPOOKY: A Stephanie Plum Between-the-Numbers Novel © Copyright 2011 by Janet Evanovich. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Paperbacks. All rights reserved.