Men are like shoes. Some fit better than others. And sometimes you go out shopping and there’s nothing you like. And then, as luck would have it, the next week you find two that are perfect, but you don’t have the money to buy both. I was currently in just such a position . . . not with shoes, but with men. And this morning it got worse.
A while ago, a guy named Diesel showed up in my kitchen. Poof, he was there. Like magic. And then days later, poof, he was gone. Now, without warning, he was once again standing in front of me.
“Surprise,” he said. “I’m back.”
He was imposing at just over six feet. Built solid with broad shoulders and deep-set, assessing brown eyes. He looked like he could seriously kick ass and not break a sweat. He had a lot of wavy, sandy blond hair cut short and fierce blond eyebrows. I placed his age at late twenties, early thirties. I knew very little about his background. Clearly he’d been lucky with the gene pool. He was a nice-looking guy, with perfect white teeth and a smile that made a woman get all warm inside.
It was a cold February morning, and he’d dropped into my apartment wearing a multicolored scarf wrapped around his neck, a black wool peacoat, a washed-out three-button thermal knit shirt, faded jeans, beat-up boots, and his usual bad attitude. I knew that a muscular, athletic body was under the coat. I wasn’t sure if there was anything good buried under the attitude.
My name is Stephanie Plum. I’m average height and average weight and have an average vocabulary for someone living in Jersey. I have shoulder-length brown hair that is curly or wavy, depending on the humidity. My eyes are blue. My heritage is Hungarian and Italian. My family is dysfunctional in a normal sort of way. There are a bunch of things I’d like to do with my life, but right now I’m happy to put one foot in front of the other and button my jeans without having a roll of fat hang over the waistband.
I work as a bond enforcement agent for my cousin Vinnie, and my success at the job has more to do with luck and tenacity than with skill. I live in a budget apartment on the outskirts of Trenton, and my only roommate is a hamster named Rex. So I felt understandably threatened by having this big guy suddenly appear in my kitchen.
“I hate when you just show up in front of me,” I said. “Can’t you ring my doorbell like a normal person?”
“First off, I’m not exactly normal. And second, you should be happy I didn’t walk into your bathroom when you were wet and naked.” He flashed me the killer smile. “Although I wouldn’t have minded finding you wet and naked.”
“In your dreams.”
“Yeah,” Diesel said. “It’s happened.”
He stuck his head in my refrigerator and rooted around. Not a lot in there, but he found one last bottle of beer and some slices of American cheese. He ate the cheese and chugged the beer. “Are you still seeing that cop?”
“Joe Morelli. Yep.”
“What about the guy behind door number two?”
“Ranger? Yeah, I’m still working with Ranger.” Ranger was my bounty hunter mentor and more. Problem was, the more part wasn’t clearly defined.
I heard a snort and a questioning woof from the vicinity of my bedroom.
“What’s that?” Diesel asked.
“Morelli’s working double shifts, and I’m taking care of his dog, Bob.”
There was the sound of dog feet running, and Bob rounded a corner and slid to a stop on the kitchen linoleum. He was a big-footed, shaggy, orange-haired beast with floppy ears and happy brown eyes. Probably golden retriever, but he’d never win best of breed. He sat his ass down on Diesel’s boot and wagged his tail at him.
Diesel absently fondled Bob’s head, and Bob drooled a little on Diesel’s pant leg, hoping for a scrap of cheese.
“Is this visit social or professional?” I asked Diesel.
“Professional. I’m looking for a guy named Bernie Beaner. I need to shut him down.”
If I’m to believe Diesel, there are people on this planet who have abilities that go beyond what would be considered normal human limitations. These people aren’t exactly superheroes. It’s more that they’re ordinary souls with the freakish ability to levitate a cow or slow-pitch a lightning bolt. Some are good and some are bad. Diesel tracks the bad. The alternative explanation for Diesel is that he’s a wacko.
“What’s Beaner’s problem?” I asked.
Diesel dropped a small leftover chunk of cheese into Rex’s cage and gave another chunk to Bob. “Gone off the edge. His marriage went into the shitter, and he blamed it on another Unmentionable. Now he’s out to get her.”
“That’s what we call ourselves. It sounds better than freak of nature.”
Bob was pushing against Diesel, trying to get him to give up more cheese. Bob was about ninety pounds of rangy dog, and Diesel was two hundred of hard muscle. It would take a lot more than Bob to bulldoze Diesel around my kitchen.
“And you’re in my apartment, why?” I asked Diesel.
“I need help.”
“No. No, no, no, no, no.”
“You have no choice, sweetie pie. The woman Beaner’s looking for is on your most-wanted list. And she’s in my custody. If you want your big-ticket bond, you have to help me.”
“That’s horrible. That’s blackmail or bribery or something.”
“Yeah. Deal with it.”
“Who’s the woman?” I asked Diesel.
“You’ve gotta be kidding. Vinnie’s on a rant over her. I spent all day yesterday looking for her. She’s wanted for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.”
“It’s all bogus . . . not that either of us gives a rat’s ass.” Diesel was systematically going through my cupboards looking for food, and Bob was sticking close. “Anyway, bottom line is I’ve got her tucked away until I can sort things out with crazy Bernie.”
“Bernie is the . . . um, Unmentionable who’s after Annie?”
“Yeah. Problem is, Annie’s one of those crusader types. Takes her job real serious. Says it’s her calling. So, the only way I could get Annie to stay hidden was to promise her I’d take over her caseload. I suck at the kind of stuff she does, so I’m passing it off to you.”
“And what do I get out of this?”
“You get Annie. As soon as I take care of Bernie, I’ll turn Annie over to you.”
“I don’t see where this is a big favor to me. If I don’t help you, Annie will come out of hiding, I’ll snag her, and my job will be done.”
Diesel had his thumbs hooked into his jeans pockets; his eyes were locked onto mine, his expression was serious. “What’ll it take? I need help with this, and everyone has a price. What’s yours? How about twenty bucks when you close a case?”
“A hundred, and nothing illegal or life-threatening.”
“Deal,” Diesel said.
Here’s the sad truth, I had nothing better to do. And I needed money. The bonds office was beyond slow. I had one FTA to hunt down, and Diesel had her locked away.
“Just exactly what am I supposed to do?” I asked him. “Annie’s bond agreement lists her occupation as a relationship expert.”
Diesel gave a bark of laughter. “Relationship expert. I guess that could cover it.”
“I don’t even know what that means! What the heck is a relationship expert?”
Diesel had dropped a battered leather knapsack onto my counter when he popped into my kitchen. He went to the knapsack, removed a large yellow envelope, and handed it over to me. “It’s all in this envelope.”
I opened the envelope and pulled out a bunch of folders crammed with photographs and handwritten pages.
“She’s got a condensed version for you clipped to the top folder,” Diesel said. “Got everything prioritized. Says you better hustle because Valentine’s Day is coming up fast.”
“Personally, I don’t get turned on by Valentine’s Day, with the sappy cards and creepy cupids and the hearts-and-flowers routine. But Annie is to Valentine’s Day what Santa Claus is to Christmas. She makes it happen. Of course, Annie operates on a smaller scale. It’s not like she’s got ten thousand elves working for her.”
Diesel was a really sexy-looking guy, but I thought he might be one step away from permanent residence at the funny farm. “I still don’t get my role in this.”
“I just handed you five open files. It’s up to you to make sure those five people have a good Valentine’s Day.”
“Listen, I know it’s lame,” Diesel said, “but I’m stuck with it. And now you’re stuck with it. And I’m going to have a power shortage if I don’t get breakfast. So find me a diner. Then I’m going to do my thing and look for Bernie, and you’re going to do your thing and work your way down Annie’s list.”
I clipped a leash onto Bob’s collar and the three of us walked down the stairs and out to my car. I was driving a yellow Ford Escape that was good for hauling felons and Bob dogs.
“Does Bob go everywhere?” Diesel wanted to know.
“Pretty much. If I leave him at home, he gets lonely and eats the furniture.”
Forty minutes later, Diesel was finishing up a mountain of scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes, home fries, and sourdough toast with jam . . . all smothered in maple syrup.
I’d ordered a similar breakfast but had to give up about a third of the way through. I pushed my plate away and asked that the food be put in a to-go box. I drank my coffee and thumbed through the first file. Charlene Klinger. Age forty-two. Divorced. Four children, ages seven, eight, ten, and twelve. Worked for the DMV. There was an unflattering snapshot of her squinting into the sun. She was wearing sneakers and slacks and a sweater than didn’t do a lot to hide the fact that she was about twenty pounds overweight. Her face was pleasant enough. No makeup. Not a lot of hairstyle going on. Short brown hair pushed behind her ears. The smile looked tense, like she was making an effort, but she had bigger fish to fry than to pose for the picture.
There were four more pages in Charlene’s file. Harvey Nolen, Brian Seabeam, Lonnie Brownowski, Steven Klein. reject had been written in red magic marker across each page. A sticky note had been attached to the back of the file. there’s someone for everyone, the note read. I supposed this was Annie giving herself a pep talk. And a second sticky note below the first. find charlene’s true love. A mission statement.
I blew out a sigh and closed the file.
“Hey, it could be worse,” Diesel said. “You could be hunting down a skip who thinks it’s open season on bounty hunters. Unless you really piss her off, Charlene probably won’t shoot at you.”
“I don’t know where to begin.”
Diesel stood and threw some money on the table. “You’ll figure it out. I’ll check in with you later.”
“Wait,” I said. “About Annie Hart—”
“Later,” Diesel said. And in three strides he was across the room and at the door. By the time I got to the lot, Diesel was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, he hadn’t commandeered my car. It was still in its parking space, Bob looking at me through the back window, somehow understanding that the Styrofoam box in my hand contained food for him.
The bail bonds office is a small storefront affair on Hamilton Avenue, just a ten-minute drive from the diner. I parked at the curb and pushed my way through the front door. Connie Rosolli, the office manager, looked up when I entered. Connie is a couple years older than me, a couple pounds heavier, a couple inches shorter, a lot more Italian, and consistently has a better manicure.
“You must be tuned in to the cosmic loop this morning,” Connie said. “I was just about to call you. Vinnie’s bananas over Annie Hart.”
Vinnie’s ferret face appeared in the doorway of his inner office. “Well?” he asked me.
“Tell me you’ve got her locked up nice and neat. Tell me you’ve got a body receipt.”
“I’ve got a lead,” I told Vinnie.
“Only a lead?” Vinnie clapped his hands to his head. “You’re killing me!”
Lula was on the faux leather couch, reading a magazine. “We should be so lucky,” Lula said.
Lula is a 180-pound black woman crammed into a five-foot, five-inch body. At the moment, she was wearing a red skin-tight spandex T-shirt that said kiss my ass in iridescent gold lettering, jeans with rhinestones marching down side seams that looked like they might burst apart at any minute, and four-inch high-heeled boots. Lula does the office filing when she’s in the mood, and she rides shotgun for me when I need backup.
“What’s the lineup look like?” I asked Connie.
“Nothing new. Annie Hart is the only big bond in the wind. It’s always slow at this time of the year. All the serious crackheads killed themselves over Christmas, and it’s too cold for the hookers and pushers to stand on the street corners. The only good crime we’ve got going on is gang shooting, and those idiots get held without bond.”
“It’s so slow Vinnie’s going on a cruise,” Lula said.
“Yeah, and the cruise isn’t cheap,” Vinnie said. “So get your ass out there and find Annie Hart. I’m not running a goddamn charity here. I take a hit on Hart’s bond, and I’ll have to fake a stroke and cash in my cruise insurance. And Lucille wouldn’t like that.”
Lucille is Vinnie’s wife. Her father is Harry the Hammer, and while Harry might understand about the need for the occasional illicit nooner, he definitely wouldn’t be happy to see Lucille get stiffed on the cruise.
“It’s one of them champagne Valentine’s Day cruises,” Vinnie said. “Lucille’s got her bags packed already. She thinks this is going to rejuvenate our marriage.”
“Only way it’ll rejuvenate your marriage is if Lucille brings handcuffs and a whip and Mary’s little lamb,” Lula said.
“So sue me,” Vinnie said. “I’ve got eclectic tastes.”
We all did a lot of eye rolling.
“I’m out of here,” I told Connie. “I’ll be on my cell if you need me.”
“I’m going with you,” Lula said, grabbing her Prada knockoff shoulder bag. “I’m feeling lucky today. I bet I could find Annie Hart right off.”
“Thanks,” I said to Lula, “but I can handle it.”
“The hell,” Lula said. “Suppose you gotta go into some cranky neighborhood, and you need some muscle. That would be me. Or suppose you need to make a doughnut choice at that new place on State Street. That would be me, too.”
I cut my eyes to Lula. “So what you’re saying is that you want to test-drive the new doughnut shop on State?”
“Yeah,” Lula said. “But only if you need a doughnut real bad.”
Fifteen minutes later, I cruised away from Donut Delish and headed for the DMV.
“I can’t believe you’re not eating any of these doughnuts,” Lula said, a bag of doughnuts resting on her lap. “These are first class. Look at this one with the pink and yellow sprinkles on it. It’s just about the happiest doughnut I ever saw.”
“I had a huge late breakfast. I’m stuffed.”
“Yeah, but we’re talking about primo doughnuts here.”
Bob was in the cargo area of the Escape. His head was over the backseat, and he was panting in our direction.
“That dog could use a breath mint,” Lula said.
“Try a doughnut.”
Lula flipped Bob a doughnut. Bob caught the doughnut midair and settled down to enjoy it.
“Where the heck are we going?” Lula wanted to know. “I thought we were going after Annie Hart. Don’t she live in North Trenton?”
“It’s complicated. I had to make a deal. Annie Hart is inaccessible until I wrap up her caseload.”
“Are you shitting me? And what’s that mean anyways? Does that mean you’re taking on her customers? Personally, I can’t see you doing that. I read her file. She said she was a relationship expert, and I figured that’s code for ’ho.”
“It’s not like that. It’s more like matchmaking. First person on my list is Charlene Klinger. She’s forty-two and divorced, and we need to find her true love.”
“Oh boy, true love. That’s a bitch. You sure she wouldn’t be satisfied if we just found her some nasty sweaty sex? I got a couple names in my book for that one.”
“I’m pretty sure it has to be true love.”
Copyright © 2007 by Evanovich, Inc. All rights reserved.