When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she'd look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked. I'm a bail enforcement agent now --also known as a fugitive apprehension agent, also known as a bounty hunter. I bring 'em back dead or alive. At least I try. And being a bail enforcement agent is sort of like being bare-bottom Barbie. It's about having a secret. And it's about wearing a lot of bravado on the outside when you're really operating without underpants. Okay, maybe it's not like that for all enforcement agents, but I frequently feel like my privates are alfresco. Figuratively speaking, of course.
At the moment I wasn't feeling nearly so vulnerable. What I was feeling at the moment was desperate. My rent was due, and Trenton had run out of scofflaws. I had my hands palms down on Connie Rosolli's desk, my feet planted wide, and hard as I tried, I couldn't keep my voice from sounding like it was coming out of Minnie Mouse. "What do you mean there are no FTAs? There are always FTAs."
"Sorry," Connie said. "We've got lots of bonds posted, but nobody's jumping. Must have something to do with the moon."
FTA is short for failure to appear for a court date. Going FTA is a definite no-no in the criminal justice system, but that doesn't usually stop people from doing it.
Connie slid a manila folder over to me. "This is the only FTA I've got, and it's not worth much."
Connie is the office manager for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. She's a couple years older than me, which puts her in her early thirties. She wears her hair teased high. She takes grief from no on e. And if breasts were money Connie'd be Bill Gates.
"Vinnie's overjoyed," Connie said. "He's making money by the fistful. No bounty hunters to pay. No forfeited bonds. Last time I saw Vinnie in a mood like this was when Madame Zaretsky was arrested for pandering and sodomy and put her trained dog up as collateral for her bond."
I cringed at the mental image this produced because not only is Vincent Plum my employer, he's also my cousin. I blackmailed him into taking me on as an apprehension agent at a low moment in my life and have come to sort of like the job ...most of the time. That doesn't mean I have any illusions about Vinnie. For the most part, Vinnie is an okay bondsman. But privately, Vinnie is a boil on the backside of my family tree.
As a bail bondsman Vinnie gives the court a cash bond as a securement that the accused will return for trial. If the accused takes a hike, Vinnie forfeits his money. Since this isn't an appealing prospect to Vinnie, he sends me out to find the accused and drag him back into the system. My fee is ten percent of the bond, and I only collect it if I'm successful.
I flipped the folder open and read the bond agreement. "Randy Briggs. Arrested for carrying concealed. Failed to appear at his court hearing." The bond amount was seven hundred dollars. That meant I'd get seventy. Not a lot of money for risking my life by going after someone who was known to carry.
"I don't know," I said to Connie, "this guy carries a knife."
Connie looked at her copy of Briggs' arrest sheet. "It says here it was a small knife, and it wasn't sharp."
"That isn't small!"
"Nobody else wil l take this," Connie said. "Ranger doesn't take anything under ten grand." Ranger is my mentor and a world-class tracker. Ranger also never seems to be in dire need of rent money. Ranger has other sources of income.
I looked at the photo attached to Briggs' file. Briggs didn't look so bad. In his forties, narrow-faced and balding, Caucasian. Job description was listed as self-employed computer programmer.
I gave a sigh of resignation and stuffed the folder into my shoulder bag. "I'll go talk to him."
"Probably he just forgot," Connie said. "Probably this is a piece of cake."
I gave her my yeah, right look and left. It was Monday morning and traffic was humming past Vinnie's store front office. The October sky was as blue as sky gets in New Jersey, and the air felt crisp and lacking hydrocarbons. It was nice for a change, but it kind of took all the sport out of breathing.
A new red Firebird slid to curbside behind my '53 Buick. Lula got out of the car and stood hands on hips, shaking her head. "Girl, you still driving that pimp mobile?"
s20Lula did filing for Vinnie and knew all about pimp mobiles first hand since in a former life she'd been a 'ho. She's what is gently referred to as a big woman, weighing in at a little over 200 pounds, standing five-foot-five, looking like most of her weight's muscle. This week her hair was dyed orange and came off very autumn with her dark brown skin.
"This is a classic car," I told Lula. Like we both knew I really gave a fig about classic cars. I was driving The Beast because my Honda had caught fire and burned to a cinder, and I didn't have any money to replace it. So here I was, borrowing my Uncle Sandor's gas guzzl ing behemoth ...again.
"Problem is, you aren't living up to your earning potential," Lula said. "We only got chicken shit cases these days. What you need is to have a serial killer or a homicidal rapist jump bail. Those boys are worth something."
"Yeah, I'd sure like to get a case like that." Big fib. If Vinnie ever gave me a homicidal rapist to chase down I'd quit and get a job selling shoes.
Lula marched into the office, and I slid behind the wheel and reread the Briggs file. Randy Briggs had given the same address for home and work. Cloverleaf Apartments on Grand Avenue. It wasn't far from the office. Maybe a mile. I pulled into traffic, made an illegal U-turn at the intersection, and followed Hamilton to Grand.
The Cloverleaf Apartments building was two blocks down Grand. It was red brick faced and strictly utilitarian. Three stories. A front and a back entrance. Small lot to the rear. No ornamentation. Aluminum-framed windows that were popular in the fifties and looked cheesy now.
I parked in the lot and walked into the small lobby. There was an elevator to one side and stairs to the other. The elevator looked claustrophobic and unreliable, so I took the stairs to the second floor. Briggs was 2B. I stood outside his door for a moment, listening. Nothing drifted out. No television. No talking. I pressed the doorbell and stood to the side, so I wasn't visible through the security peep hole.
Randy Briggs opened his door and stuck his head out. "Yeah?"
He looked exactly like his photo, with sandy blond hair that was neatly combed, cut short. He was unbearded, unblemished. Dressed in clean khakis and a button-down shirt. Just like I'd expected from hi s file ...except he was only three feet tall. Randy Briggs was vertically challenged.
"Oh shit," I said, looking down at him.
"What's the matter?" he said. "You never see a short person before?"
"Only on television."
"Guess this is your lucky day."
I handed him my business card. "I represent Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. You've missed your court date, and we'd appreciate it if you'd reschedule."
"No," Briggs said.
"No. I'm not going to reschedule. No. I'm not going to court. It was a bogus arrest."
"The way our system works is that you're supposed to tell that to the judge."
"Fine. Go get the judge."
"The judge doesn't do house calls."
"Listen, I got a lot of work to do," Briggs said, closing his door. "I gotta go."
"Hold it!" I said. "You can't just ignore an order to appear in court."
"You don't understand. I'm appointed by the court and Vincent Plum to bring you in."
"Oh yeah? How do you expect to do that? You going to shoot me? You can't shoot an unarmed man." He stuck his hands out. "You gonna cuff me? You think you can drag me out of my apartment and down the hall without looking like an idiot? Big bad bounty hunter picking on a little person. And that's what we're called, Toots. Not midget, not dwarf, not a freaking Munchkin. Little person. Get it?"
My pager went off at my waist. I looked down to check the read-out and slam. Briggs closed and locked his door.
"Loser," he called from inside.
Well, that didn't go as smoothly as I'd hoped. I had a choice now. I could break down his door and beat the bejeezus out of him, or I could answer my moth er's page. Neither was especially appealing, but I decided on my mother.
My parents live in a residential pocket of Trenton nicknamed the Burg. No one ever really leaves the Burg. You can relocate in Antarctica, but if you were born and raised in the Burg you're a Burger for life. Houses are small and obsessively neat. Televisions are large and loud. Lots are narrow. Families are extended. There are no pooper-scooper laws in the Burg. If your dog does his business on someone else's lawn, the next morning the doodoo will be on your front porch. Life is simple in the Burg.
I put the Buick into gear, rolled out of the apartment building lot, headed for Hamilton, and followed Hamilton to St. Francis Hospital. My parents live a couple blocks behind St. Francis on Roosevelt Street. Their house is a duplex built at a time when families needed only one bathroom and dishes were washed by hand.
My mother was at the door when I pulled to the curb. My grandmother Mazur stood elbow to elbow with my mother. They were short, slim women with facial features that suggested Mongol ancestors ...probably in the form of crazed marauders.
"Thank goodness you're here," my mother said, eyeing me as I got out of the car and walked toward her. "What are those shoes? They look like work boots."
"Betty Szajak and Emma Getz and me went to that male dancer place last week," Grandma said, "and they had some men parading around, looking like construction workers, wearing boots just like those. Then next thing you knew they ripped their clothes off and all they had left was those boots and these little silky black baggie things that their ding-dongs jiggled around in."
My mother pressed her lips together and made the sign of the cross. "You didn't tell me about this," she said to my grandmother.
"Guess it slipped my mind. Betty and Emma and me were going to Bingo at the church, but it turned out there wasn't any Bingo on account of the Knights of Columbus was holding some to-do there. So we decided to check out the men at that new club downtown." Grandma gave me an elbow. "I put a fiver right in one of those baggies!"
"Jesus H. Christ," my father said, rattling his paper in the living room.
Grandma Mazur came to live with my parents several years ago when my Grandpa Mazur went to the big poker game in the sky. My mother accepts this as a daughter's obligation. My father has taken to reading Guns & Ammo.
"So what's up?" I asked. "Why did you page me?"
"We need a detective," Grandma said.
My mother rolled her eyes and ushered me in to the kitchen. "Have a cookie," she said, setting the cookie jar on the small Formica-topped kitchen table. "Can I get you a glass of milk? Some lunch?"
I lifted the lid on the cookie jar and looked inside. Chocolate chip. My favorite.
"Tell her," Grandma said to my mother, giving her a poke in the side. "Wait until you hear this," she said to me. "This is a good one."
I raised my eyebrows at my mother.
"We have a family problem," my mother said. "Your Uncle Fred is missing. He went out to the store and hasn't come home yet."
"When did he go out?"
I paused with a cookie halfway to my mouth. "It's Monday!"
"Isn't this a pip?" Grandma said. "I bet he was beamed up by aliens."
Uncle Fred is married to my Grandma Mazur's first cousin Mabel. If I had to guess his age I'd have to say somewhere between seventy and infinity. Once people start to stoop and wrinkle they all look alike to me. Uncle Fred was someone I saw at weddings and funerals and once in awhile at Giovichinni's Meat Market, ordering a quarter pound of olive loaf. Eddie Such, the butcher, would have the olive loaf on the scale and Uncle Fred would say, "You've got the olive loaf on a piece of waxed paper. How much does that piece of waxed paper weigh? You're not gonna charge me for that waxed paper, are you? I want some money off for the waxed paper.
I shoved the cookie into my mouth. "Have you filed a missing persons report with the police?"
"Mabel did that first thing," my mother said.
"And they haven't found him."
I went to the refrigerator and poured out a glass of milk for myself. "What about the car? Did they find the car?"
"The car was in the Grand Union parking lot. It was all locked up nice and neat."
"He was never right after that stroke he had in ninety-five," Grandma said. "I don't think his elevator went all the way to the top anymore, if you know what I mean. He could have just wandered off like one of those Alzheimer's people. Anybody think to check the cereal aisle in the supermarket? Maybe he's just standing there 'cause he can't make up his mind."
My father mumbled something from the living room about my grandmother's elevator, and my mother slid my father a dirty look through the kitchen wall.
I thought it was too weird. Uncle Fred was missing. This sort of thing just didn't happen in our family. "Did anybody go out to look for him?"
"Ronald and Walter. They covered all the neighbo rhoods around the Grand Union, but nobody's seen him."
Ronald and Walter were Fred's sons. And probably they'd enlisted their kids to help, too.
"We figure you're just the person to take a crack at this," grandma said, "on account of that's what you do ...you find people."
"I find criminals."
"Your Aunt Mabel would be grateful if you'd look for Fred," my mother said. "Maybe you could just go over and talk to her and see what you think."
"She needs a detective," I said. "I'm not a detective."
"Mabel asked for you. She said she didn't want this going out of the family."
My internal radar dish started to hum. "Is there something you're not telling me?"
"What's to tell," my mother said. "A man wandered off from his car."
I drank my milk and rinsed the glass. "Okay, I'll go talk to Aunt Mabel. But I'm not promising anything."
Uncle Fred and Aunt Mabel live on Baker Street, on the fringe of the Burg, three blocks over from my parents. Their ten-year-old Pontiac station wagon was parked at the curb and just about spanned the length of their row house. They've lived in the row house for as long as I can remember, raising two children, entertaining five grandchildren and annoying the hell out of each other for over fifty years.
Aunt Mabel answered my knock on her door. She was a rounder, softer version of Grandma Mazur. Her white hair was perfectly permed. She was dressed in yellow polyester slacks and a matching floral blouse. Her earrings were large clip-ons, her lipstick was a bright red, and her eyebrows were brown crayon.
"Well, isn't this nice," Aunt Mabel said. "Come into the kitchen. I got a coffee cake from Giovic hinni today. It's the good kind, with the almonds."
Certain proprieties were observed in the Burg. No matter that your husband was kidnapped by aliens, visitors were offered coffee cake.
I followed after Aunt Mabel and waited while she cut the cake. She poured out coffee and sat opposite me at the kitchen table.
"I suppose your mother told you about your Uncle Fred," she said. "Fifty-two years of marriage, and poof, he's gone."
"Did Uncle Fred have any medical problems?"
"The man was healthy as a horse."
"How about his stroke?"
"Well, yes, but everybody has a stroke once in awhile. And that stroke didn't slow him down any. Most of the time he remembered things no one else would remember. Like that business with the garbage. Who would remember a thing like that? Who would even care about it? Such a fuss over nothing."
I knew I was going to regret asking, but I felt compelled. "What about the garbage?"
Mabel helped herself to a piece of coffee cake. "Last month there was a new driver on the garbage truck, and he skipped over our house. It only happened once, but would my husband forget a thing like that? No. Fred never forgot anything. Especially if it had to do with money. So at the end of the month Fred wanted two dollars back on account of we pay quarterly, you see, and Fred had already paid for the missed day."
I nodded in understanding. This didn't surprise me at all. Some men played golf. Some men did crossword puzzles. Uncle Fred's hobby was being cheap.
"That was one of the things Fred was supposed to do on Friday," Mabel said. "The garbage company was making him crazy. He went there in the morning, but the y wouldn't give him his money without proof that he'd paid. Something about the computer messing up some of the accounts. So Fred was going back in the afternoon."
For two dollars. I did a mental head slap. If I'd been the clerk Fred had talked to at the garbage company I'd have given Fred two dollars out of my own pocket just to get rid of him. "What garbage company is this?"
"RGC. The police said Fred never got there. Fred had a whole list of errands he was going to do. He was going to the cleaners, the bank, the supermarket, and RGC."
"And you haven't heard from him."
"Not a word. Nobody's heard anything."
I had a feeling there wasn't going to be a happy ending to this story.
"Do you have any idea where Fred might be?"
"Everyone thinks he just wandered away, like a big dummy."
"What do you think?"
Mabel did an up-and-down thing with her shoulders. Like she didn't know what to think. Whenever I did that, it meant I didn't want to say what I was thinking.
"If I show you something, you have to promise not to tell anyone," Mabel said.
She went to a kitchen drawer and took out a packet of pictures. "I found these in Fred's desk. I was looking for the checkbook this morning, and this is what I found."
I stared at the first picture for at least thirty seconds before I realized what I was seeing. The print was taken in shadow and looked underexposed. The perimeter was a black plastic trash bag, and in the center of the photo was a bloody hand severed at the wrist. I thumbed through the rest of the pack. More of the same. In some the bag was spread wider, revealing more body parts. What looked l ike a shinbone, part of a torso maybe, something that might have been the back of the head. Hard to tell if it was man or woman.
The shock of the pictures had me holding my breath, and I was getting a buzzing sensation in my head. I didn't want to ruin my bounty hunter image and keel over onto the floor, so I concentrated on quietly resuming breathing.
"You have to give these to the police," I said.
Mabel gave her head a shake. "I don't know what Fred was doing with these pictures. Why would a person have pictures like this?"
No date on the front or the back. "Do you know when they were taken?"
"No. This is the first I saw them."
"Do you mind if I look through Fred's desk?" "It's in the cellar," Mabel said. "Fred spent a lot of time down there."
It was a battered government-issue desk. Probably bought at a Fort Dix yard sale. It was positioned against the wall, opposite the washer and dryer. And it was set on a stained piece of wall to wall carpet that I assumed had been saved when new carpet was laid upstairs.
I pawed through the drawers, finding the usual junk. Pencils and pens. A drawer filled with instruction booklets and warranty cars for household appliances. Another drawer devoted to old issues of National Geographic. The magazines were dog-eared, and I could see Fred down here, escaping from Mabel, reading about the vanishing forests of Borneo.
A cancelled RGC check had been carefully placed under a paperweight. Fred had probably made a copy to take with him and had left the original here. ar
There are parts of the country where people trust banks to keep their checks and to simply forward computer-generated stateme nts each month. The Burg isn't one of those places. Residents of the Burg aren't that trusting of computers or banks. Residents of the Burg like paper. My relatives hoard cancelled checks like Scrooge McDuck hoards quarters.
I didn't see any more photos of dead bodies. And I couldn't find any notes or sales receipts that might be connected to the pictures.
"You don't suppose Fred killed this person, do you?" Mabel asked.
I didn't know what I supposed. What I knew was that I was very creeped out. "Fred didn't seem like the sort of person to do something like this," I told Mabel. "Would you like me to pass these on to the police for you?"
"If you think that's the right thing to do."
Without a shadow of a doubt.
I had phone calls to make, and my parentsÕ house was closer than my apartment and less expensive than using my cell phone, so I rumbled back to Roosevelt Street.
"How'd it go?" grandma asked, rushing into the foyer to meet me.
"It went okay."
"You gonna take the case?"
"It's not a case. It's a missing person. Sort of."
"You're gonna have a devil of a time finding him if it was aliens," Grandma said. I
dialed the central dispatch number for the Trenton Police Department and asked for Eddie Gazarra. Gazarra and I grew up together, and now he was married to my cousin Shirley the Whiner. He was a good friend, a good cop and a good source for police information.
"You need something," Gazarra said.
"Hello to you, too."
"Am I wrong?"
"No. I need some details on a recent investigation."
"I can't give you that kind of stuff."
"Of course you can," I said. " Anyway, this is about Uncle Fred."
"The missing Uncle Fred?"
"That's the one."
"What do you want to know?"
He was back on the line a couple minutes later, and I could hear him leafing through papers. "It says here Fred was reported missing on Friday, which is technically too early for a missing person, but we always keep our eyes open anyway. Especially with old folks. Sometimes they're out there wandering around, looking for the road to Oz."
"You think that's what Fred's doing? Looking for Oz?"
"Hard to say. Fred's car was found in the Grand Union parking lot. The car was locked up. No sign of forced entry. No sign of struggle. No sign of theft. There was dry cleaning laid out on the backseat."
"Anything else in the car? Groceries?"
"Nope. No groceries."
"So he got to the dry cleaner but not the supermarket."
"I have a chronology of events here," Gazarra said. "Fred left his house at one oÕclock, right after he ate lunch. Next stop that we know of was the bank, First Trenton Trust. Their records show he withdrew two hundred dollars from the automatic teller in the lobby at two thirty-five. The cleaner, next to Grand Union in the same strip mall, said Fred picked his cleaning up around two forty-five. And that's all we have."
"There's an hour missing. It takes ten minutes to get from the Burg to Grand Union and First Trenton."
"Don't know," Gazarra said. "He was supposed to go to RGC Waste Haulers, but RGC says he never showed up."
"If you want to return the favor, I could use a baby-sitter Saturday night."
Gazarra coul d always use a baby-sitter. His kids were cute but death on baby-sitters.
"Gee Eddie, I'd love to help you out, but Saturday's a bad day. I promised somebody I'd do something on Saturday."
"Listen Gazarra, last time I baby-sat for your kids they cut two inches off my hair."
"You shouldn't have fallen asleep. What were you doing sleeping on the job, anyway?"
"It was one in the morning!"
My next call was to Joe Morelli. Joe Morelli is a plainclothes cop who has skills not covered in the policeman's handbook. A couple months ago, I let him into my life and my bed. A couple weeks ago, I kicked him out. We'd seen each other several times since then on chance encounters and arranged dinner dates. The chance encounters were always warm. The dinner dates took the temperature up a notch and more often than not involved loud talking, which I called a discussion and Morelli called a fight.
None of these meetings had ended in the bedroom. When you grow up in the Burg there are several mantras little girls learn at an early age. One of them is that men don't buy goods they can get for free. Those words of wisdom hadn't stopped me from giving my goods away to Morelli, but they did stop me from continuing to give them away. That plus a false pregnancy scare. Although I have to admit, I had mixed feelings about not being pregnant. There was a smidgen of regret mixed with the relief. And probably it was the regret more than the relief that made me take a more serious look at my life and my relationship with Morelli. That and the realization that Morelli and I don't see eye to eye on a lot of things. Not that we'd entirely given up on the relation ship. It was more that we were in a holding pattern with each of us staking out territory ...not unlike the Arab-Israeli conflict.
I tried Morelli's home phone, office number, and car phone. No luck. I left messages everywhere and left my cell phone number on his pager.
"Well what did you find out?" Grandma wanted to know when I hung up.
"Not much. Fred left the house at one, and a little over an hour later, he was at the bank and the cleaner. He must have done something in that time, but I don't know what."
My mother and my grandmother looked at each other.
"What?" I asked. "What?"
"He was probably taking care of some personal business," my mother said. "You don't want to bother yourself with it."
"What's the big secret?"
Another exchange of looks between my mother and grandmother. "There's two kinds of secrets," Grandma said. "One kind is where nobody knows the secret. And the other kind is where everybody knows the secret, but pretends not to know the secret. This is the second kind of secret."
"It's about his honeys," Grandma said.
"Fred always has a honey on the side," Grandma said. "Should have been a politician."
"You mean Fred has affairs? He's in his seventies!"
"Midlife crises," Grandma said.
"Seventy isn't midlife," I said. "Forty is midlife."
Grandma slid her uppers around some. "Guess it depends how long you intend to live."
I turned to my mother. "You knew about this?"
My mother took a couple deli bags of cold cuts out of the refrigerator and emptied them on a plate. "The man's been a philanderer all his life. I don't know ho w Mabel's put up with it."
"Booze," Grandma said.
I made myself a liverwurst sandwich and took it to the table. "Do you think Uncle Fred might have run off with one of his girlfriends?"
"More likely one of their husbands picked Fred up and drove him to the landfill," Grandma said. "I can't see cheapskate Fred paying for the cleaning if he was going to run off with one of his floozies."
"You have any idea who he was seeing?"
"Hard to keep track," Grandma said. She looked over at my mother. "What do you think, Ellen? You think he's still seeing Loretta Walenowski?"
"I heard that was over," my mother said.
My cell phone rang in my shoulder bag.
"Hey Cupcake," Morelli said. "What's the disaster?"
"How do you know it's a disaster?"
"You left messages on three different phones plus my pager. It's either a disaster or you want me bad, and my luck hasn't been that good today."
"I need to talk to you."
"It'll only take a minute."
The skillet is a sandwich shop next to the hospital and could be better named the Grease Pit. Morelli got there ahead of me. He was standing, soda in hand, looking like the day was already too long.
He smiled when he saw me . . . and it was the nice smile that included his eyes. He draped an arm around my neck, pulled me to him, and kissed me. "Just so my day isn't a complete waste," he said.
"We have a family problem."
"Boy, you know everything. You should be a cop."
"Wiseass," Morelli said. "What do you need?"
I handed him the packet of pictures. "Mabel found these in Fred's desk this morning."
He shuff led through them. "Christ. What is this shit?"
"Looks like body parts."
He tapped me on the head with the stack of pictures. "Comedian."
"You have any ideas here?"
"They need to go to Arnie Mott," Morelli said. "He's in charge of the investigation."
"Arnie Mott has the initiative of a squash."
"Yeah. But he's still in charge. I can pass them on for you."
"What does this mean?"
Joe shook his head, still studying the top photo. "I don't know, but this looks real."
I made an illegal U-turn on Hamilton and parked just short of Vinnie's office, docking the Buick behind a black Mercedes S600V, which I suspected belonged to Ranger. Ranger changed cars like other men changed socks. The only common denominatorwith Ranger's cars was that they were always expensive and they were always black.
Connie looked over at me when I swung through the front door. "Was Briggs really only three feet tall?"
"Three feet tall and uncooperative. I should have read the physical description on his application for appearance bond before I knocked on his door. Don't suppose anything else came in?"
"Sorry," Connie said. "Nothing."
"This is turning into a real bummer of a day. My uncle Fred is missing. He went out to run errands on Friday, and that was the last anyone's seen him. They found his car in the GrandUnion parking lot." No need to mention the butchered body.
"I had an uncle do that once," Lula said. "He walked all the way to Perth Amboy before someone found him. It was one of them senior moments."
The door to the inner office was closed, and Ranger was nowhere to be seen, so I guessed he was talking to Vi nnie. I cut my eyes in that direction. "Ranger in there?"
"Yeah," Connie said. "He did some work for Vinnie."
"Don't ask," Connie said.
"Not bounty hunter stuff."
I left the office and waited outside. Ranger appeared five minutes later. Ranger's Cuban-American. His features are Anglo, his eyes are Latino, his skin is the color of a mocha latte, and his body is as good as a body can get. He had his black air pulled back into a ponytail. He was wearing a black T-shirt that fit him like a tattoo and black SWAT pants tucked into black high-top boots.
"Yo," I said.
Ranger looked at me over the top of his shades. "Yo yourself."
I gazed longingly at his car. "Nice Mercedes."
"Transportation," Ranger said. "Nothing fancy."
Compared to what? The Batmobile? "Connie said you were talking to Vinnie."
"Transacting business, babe. I don't talk to Vinnie."
"That's sort of what I'd like to discuss with you . . . business. You know how you've kind of been my mentor with this bounty hunter stuff?"
"Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins Do Trenton."
"Yeah. Well, the truth is, the bounty huntering isn't going all that good."
"No one's jumping bail."
Ranger leaned against his car and crossed his arms over his chest. "And?"
"And I've been thinking maybe I should diversify."
0"And I thought you might help me."
"You talking about building a portfolio? Investing money?"
"No. I'm talking about making money."
Ranger tipped his head back and laughed softly. "Babe, you don't want to do that kind of diversifying."
I narrowed my eyes.
"Okay," he said. "What did you have in mind?"
"There's all kinds of legal."
"I want something entirely legal."
Ranger leaned closer and lowered his voice. "Let me explain my work ethic to you. I don't do things I feel are morally wrong. But sometimes my moral code strays from the norm. Sometimes my moral code is inconsistent with the law. Much of what I do is in that gray area just beyond entirely legal."
"All right then, how about steering me toward something mostly legal and definitely morally right."
"You sure about this?"
"Yes." No. Not at all.
Ranger's face was expressionless. "I'll think about it."
He slipped into his car, the engine caught, and Ranger rolled away.
I had a missing uncle who quite possibly had butchered a woman and stuffed her parts into a garbage bag, but I also was a month overdue on my rent. Somehow I was going to have to manage both problems.
Copyright © 1999 by Evanovich, Inc.