WHEN I WAS a kid, I was afraid of spiders and vegetables. As an adult, I’ve eliminated vegetables from my fright-o-meter, but I’ve added a whole bunch of other stuff. Homicidal maniacs, serial rapists, cellulite, Joe Morelli’s Grandma Bella, rabid bats, and any form of organized exercise.
My name is Stephanie Plum, and I work as a bond enforcement officer for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. It’s not a great job, but it allows me to avoid organized exercise, and I hardly ever encounter rabid bats. The remaining fright-o-meter items lurk in the dark shadows of my daily life. Fortunately, there are also good things in those shadows. Joe Morelli without his Grandma Bella, fellow bounty hunter Ranger without his clothes, my crazy family, my hamster, Rex . . . and Lula. Lula actually fits somewhere between the rabid bats and the good stuff. She’s a former ’ho, now working as the office file clerk and apprentice bounty hunter. Lula’s got a plus-size personality and body, and a petite-size wardrobe. She’s got brown skin, blond hair, and last week she had tiny rhinestones pasted onto her eyelids.
It was Monday morning. Connie, the office manager, and I were in the bonds office enjoying our morning coffee, and Lula slid her red Firebird to a stop at the curb. We watched Lula through the big plate-glass window in the front of the small office, and we did a joint grimace. Lula was in a state. She lurched out of the Firebird, beeped it locked, and burst into the office, her eyes wild, rolling around in their sockets, her hands waving in the air.
"I saw it all," she said. "It was terrible. It was horrible. I couldn’t believe it was happening. And right in front of me." She looked around. "What do we got? Do we got doughnuts? ’Cause I need a doughnut. I need a whole bag. And maybe I need one of them breakfast sandwiches with the egg and cheese and bacon and grease. I got a big grease craving."
I knew it would be a huge mistake to ask Lula what she’d seen, but I couldn’t stop myself.
"What was terrible and horrible?" I asked.
Connie leaned forward, elbows on her desk, already knowing the telling of the story would be a car crash. Connie is a couple years older than me, and while my heritage is half Hungarian and half Italian, Connie is Italian through and through. Her hair is jet black, her lipstick is fire-engine red, her body is va-va-voom.
Lula paced in front of Connie’s desk. "First off, I hardly had time for anything this morning. I had a big date last night, and by the time I booted his butt out of my bed, I already missed a lot of my beauty sleep. Anyways, I got up late, and then I couldn’t decide what to wear. One day it’s hot out and next thing it’s cold. And then I had to decide if I needed to wear shoes that kicked ass or were good for ass kicking, on account of there’s a difference, you know."
"Jeez Louise," Connie said. "Could you get to it?"
"The point bein’ I was late," Lula said. "I was tryin’ to put makeup on and drive, and I missed a turn, and before I knew it I was someplace I didn’t want to be. So I pulled over to look around and figure things out, and when I did that my makeup case rolled off the seat next to me, and everything went all over the floor. So I was bent over to get my makeup, and I guess it looked like there was no one in the car, because when I came back up there were two big hairy morons standing right in front of my Firebird, and they were removing a head from some guy’s body."
"This one moron had a giant meat cleaver. And the other moron had a hold of this man in a suit. And whack! No head. The head popped off its neck and bounced down the street."
"And then what happened?" Connie said.
"Then they saw me," Lula said. "They looked real surprised. And I know I looked real surprised. And then I laid down about two feet of rubber and took off."
"Do you know who they were?"
"Did you know the guy in the suit?"
"No, but it was a real nice suit. And he had a nice striped tie, too."
"Did you go to the police?" Connie asked.
"No. I came straight here. It’s not like the police were gonna put Humpty Dumpty back together again," Lula said. "Didn’t seem like there was a big rush, and I needed a doughnut. Holy cow. Holy shit. I really need a doughnut."
"You need to call the police," Connie told Lula.
"I hate the police. They give me the willies. Except for Stephanie’s Morelli. He’s a hottie."
Joe Morelli is a Trenton plainclothes cop, and Lula is right about Morelli being a hottie, but Lula is wrong about Morelli belonging to me. Morelli and I have had an off-and-on relationship for as long as I can remember, and we are currently off. Two weeks ago, we had a disagreement over peanut butter that turned into a disagreement over everything under the sun, and we haven’t seen each other since.
Connie dialed into the police band, and we listened for a couple minutes to see if we could pick up anything to do with decapitation.
"Where did this happen?" Connie asked.
"The three hundred block of Ramsey Street. It was right in front of the Sunshine Hotel."
The Sunshine Hotel is a roach farm that rents rooms by the hour. No one coming or going from the Sunshine Hotel would ever report anything to anyone.
"I seen lots of stuff," Lula said, "but this was disgustin’. Blood shot out like one of them oil gushers. And when the head hit the ground, I swear the eyes were lookin’ at me. I guess I need to tell the police, but I only want Morelli." Lula fixed on me. "You gotta call Morelli."
"No way. I’m not talking to him. You can call him."
"I don’t know him like you know him."
"I don’t know him that way anymore. I’m done with him. He’s a jerk."
"All men are jerks," Lula said. "That don’t mean they aren’t good for some things. And Morelli’s a hot jerk. He could be a movie star or a underwear model if he wasn’t a cop. He got all that wavy black hair and dreamy brown bedroom eyes. He’s kind of puny compared to some men I know, but he’s hot all the same."
Morelli was actually six foot tall and solid muscle, but Lula used to be engaged to a guy who was a cross between an Army tank and Sasquatch, so I suppose by comparison Morelli might measure up short.
"I’ll call Morelli," Connie said. "He’s a cop, for crying out loud. You don’t need a complicated relationship to call a cop."
I was halfway to the door. "I’m leaving. Things to do. And I don’t want to see Morelli."
"Oh no," Lula said. "You get your boney ass back here. We’re in this together. Through thick and through thin."
"Since now. And before that, too. Remember when I rescued you from that big snake in the mobile home? And what about when we were lost in the Pine Barrens?"
"You ran screaming like a little girl when you thought you saw the snake. And Ranger found us in the Pine Barrens."
"Yeah, but if he hadn’t found us, I would have got us out."
"You were up to your armpits in a cranberry bog."
"I don’t never want to see another cranberry, neither," Lula said.
Twenty minutes later, Morelli sauntered in to the bonds office. He was dressed in jeans and running shoes, a blue button-down shirt that was open at the neck, and a navy blazer. He looked entirely edible and a little wary.
"What’s up?" Morelli asked, eyes on me.
Okay, so I was no longer interested in Morelli. At least I was pretty sure I wasn’t interested. Still, I was wishing I’d spent more time on my hair and makeup this morning, so he’d feel really rotten about what he was missing. I have naturally curly shoulder-length brown hair that was currently pulled back into a ponytail. I have blue eyes that look a lot better when they have a swipe of liner and mascara, an okay mouth that so far hasn’t needed artificial plumping, and a little nose that I consider my best feature. Morelli always thought my best feature was located considerably lower on my body.
"It was horrible! It was terrible!" Lula said. "I almost fainted."
Morelli shifted his attention to Lula. He didn’t say anything, but he looked over at her and raised his eyebrows a little.
"I never saw nothin’ like it," Lula told him. "One minute, I was having a day like any other, and then whack and this guy didn’t have no head. And blood came out of him like he was a fountain. And when his head hit the ground, his eyes were lookin’ at me. And I think the head might have smiled at me, too, but I’m not sure of that."
Morelli was back on his heels, thumbs hooked into his jeans pockets. "Is this for real?"
"Hell yeah," Lula said. "Who makes up shit like that? Don’t I look traumatized? I’m practically turned white. I think my hand might even be shaking. Look at my hand. Is it shaking?"
Morelli’s eyes cut back to me. "Were you with her?"
"Did anyone call 911?"
Lula was hands on hips, starting to look pissed. "We called you," she said to Morelli.
Morelli did a fast office scan. "You don’t have the head here, do you?"
"So far as I know, the head and everything else is still in front of the Sunshine Hotel," Lula told him. "And I’m not sure I like your attitude. I’m not sure you’re takin’ this seriously."
Morelli stared down at his shoe. Hard to tell if he was trying hard not to laugh or if he was getting a migraine. After a five-count, he took out his cell phone, called dispatch, and sent a uniform to the Sunshine Hotel.
"Okay, ladies," Morelli said when he got off the phone. "Let’s take a field trip."
I made a big show of looking at my watch. "Gee, I’ve got to run. Things to do."
"No way," Lula said. "I need someone with me in case I get faint or something."
"You’ll have him," I said.
"He’s a fine man, but he’s the cop representative here, and I need someone from my posse, you see what I’m saying. I need a BFF."
"It’s not gonna be me," Connie said. "Vinnie is picking up a skip in Atlanta, and I have to run the office."
Morelli looked at me and gave his head a small shake, like he didn’t believe any of this. Like I was a huge, unfathomable pain in the ass, and in fact maybe that was how he felt about women in general right now.
I understood Morelli’s point of view because it was precisely my current feeling about men.
"Terrific," I said on a sigh. "Let’s get on with it."
Lula and I followed Morelli in my ten-year-old Ford Escort that used to be blue. We didn’t take the Escort because we liked riding in it. We took it because Lula thought she might be too overwrought to drive her Firebird, and she suspected she would need a bacon cheeseburger after visiting the scene of the crime and Morelli might not be inclined to find a drive-through for her.
THERE WERE ALREADY two cruisers angled into the curb in front of the Sunshine Hotel when Lula and I arrived. I parked, and Lula and I got out and stood next to Morelli and a couple uniforms. We all looked down at a red splotch that sprayed out over about a four-foot diameter. A couple smaller splotches trailed off the big splotch, and I assumed that was where the head had hit the pavement. I felt a wave of nausea slide through my stomach, and I started to sweat.
"This here’s the spot," Lula said. "You can see it’s just like I told you. There was a big gusher of blood when they whacked the head off. It was like Old Faithful going off, only it was blood. And then the head rolled down the sidewalk. It was like the head was a bowlin’ ball with eyes. And the eyes were like big googly eyes kinda popping out of the head and lookin’ at me. And I think I might have heard the head laughin’, or maybe it was the guys who did the whackin’ who were laughin’."
The uniforms all did a grimace, Morelli was impassive, and I threw up. Everyone jumped away from me, I gagged one last time and did some deep breathing.
"Sorry," I said.
"No problem," Morelli told me. "I feel like throwing up a lot on this job."
One of the uniforms brought me some paper towels and a bottle of water, and Lula stood a good distance away.
"You got lots of room for lunch now that you’re empty," she yelled to me. "I could get a early start with one of them extra-crispy bird burgers they’re servin’ at Cluck-in-a-Bucket. Have you heard about them? They got some new secret sauce."
Excerpted from Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich.
Copyright 2009 by Evanovich, Inc.
Published in June 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.