Main Top Secret Twenty-One

Top Secret Twenty-One

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Language: english
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Top Secret Twenty-One is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2014 by Evanovich, Inc.
Pros and Cons copyright © 2013 by The Gus Group LLC

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

BANTAM BOOKS and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

Pros and Cons by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg was originally published separately in a digital edition by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC in 2013.

Evanovich, Janet.

Top secret twenty-one : a Stephanie Plum novel / Janet Evanovich.

pages cm. — (Stephanie Plum)

ISBN: 978-0-345-54292-2

eBook ISBN: 978-0-345-54294-6

1. Plum, Stephanie (Fictitious character)—Fiction.  2. Bounty hunters—Fiction.
 3. Trenton (N.J.)—Fiction.  4. Mystery fiction. I. Title.
 PS3555.V2126T67     2014

813' .54—dc23     2014020417

Cover design: Carlos Beltrán




Title Page


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Pros and Cons

Other Books by This Author

About the Author


I WAS PERCHED on a barstool in a dark, noisy, overpriced restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey. I was wearing a red dress that was too tight, too short, and cut way too low. And I was wearing an earbud that connected me to a guy named Ricardo Carlos Manoso, aka Ranger.

My name is Stephanie Plum. I usually work as a bond enforcement agent for my cousin Vinnie, but tonight I was moonlighting as a lookout for Ranger. Ranger was stalking Emilio Gardi, a man many considered to be untouchable. Gardi had friends in high places, an army of thugs guarding his body, and money to burn, and his enemies tended to disappear without a trace. He was currently facing a racketeering charge in Miami, but he’d decided to keep his dinner date in Jersey rather than attend his court hearing in Dade County. This meant that the idiot who’d been dumb enough to post a bond for Gardi was out big money unless Gardi was dragged back to jail. The idiot happened to be Ranger’s cousin.

Ranger owns Rangeman, a small high-tech, high-end security firm. Ordinarily Ranger doesn’t do bond enforcement, but tonight he was making an exception. He was standing off to the side at the entrance to the dining room, and he was watching Gardi.

Gardi was wearing a tan sports jacket over a shirt with red and yellow flowers printed on it—the South Beach–meets–JCPenney look. He was in his fifties. He was balding. He was built like a fireplug. He was drinking red wine and eating rack of lamb, having a good time, entertaining three other men who were laughing too hard at his jokes.

Ranger was in his usual black—a perfectly tailored black suit, and a black dress shirt open at the neck. The Glock at the small of his back was also black. Ranger’s body is perfect. His hair is very dark brown. Cut short. His eyes are dark brown and intense. His skin is the color of hot chocolate, the lucky result of his Latino ancestry. His earbud matched his skin tone and was barely detectable.

Standing beside Ranger was a guy named Tank. Tank is big and solid and lethal. He’d been with Ranger’s unit in Special Forces, and now he’s second in command at Rangeman and watches Ranger’s back.

I didn’t see any of Gardi’s henchmen. They’d waited for him to take his table and then left the room.

“The room is clean,” I said to Ranger via the earbud.

Ranger moved forward, his gaze never wavering from his quarry. Eye of the tiger. I’ve seen him focus like this on other takedowns, and it always raises the hair on my arms and at the nape of my neck.

Tank was steps behind him, surveying the rest of the room. Ranger unbuttoned his jacket to get better access to his gun and handcuffs. He stopped behind Gardi, put his hand on Gardi’s shoulder, and said something to him, close to his ear.

Gardi shrugged Ranger away, said something I couldn’t hear, and everyone at the table laughed.

Ranger didn’t laugh, and even at a distance I knew things were about to get ugly. Ranger made another civil attempt, Gardi got angry and brushed him off, and in one swift move Ranger snatched Gardi out of his chair like a wolverine rooting out a groundhog.

In a heartbeat Gardi’s head was smashed onto the table, everyone grabbed their drinks, and Ranger cuffed Gardi behind his back and handed him over to Tank. Ranger told the table he was sorry for the intrusion and followed Tank and Gardi out of the room. The whole episode had taken maybe a minute.

A Rangeman vehicle idled in front of the restaurant, ready to take Tank and Gardi back to Rangeman headquarters in center city Trenton. In the morning Gardi would be escorted onto a plane and extradited to Miami.

My job done, I turned back to my black sambuca. Okay, I know they put food coloring in the sambuca to make it black. Don’t care. It’s sexy. And I swear the black tastes better. I guess I could also say that about Ranger. Not that he’s my boyfriend or anything, but we have had a moment.

I downed the sambuca, paid my tab, and went outside to meet up with Ranger. The Rangeman SUV was pulling away, and Ranger was waiting for me beside his black Porsche 911 Turbo.

“Babe,” he said.

“Babe” covers a lot of ground for Ranger. It can be a simple greeting, or a warning that a tarantula is sitting on my shoulder. Tonight it came on the heels of a full body scan, and I was pretty sure it suggested he liked my dress.

Ranger slipped an arm around me, leaned close, and kissed me. The kiss was a further indicator that he liked the dress. In fact, the kiss suggested that while he liked the dress a lot, he wouldn’t mind getting me out of the dress as soon as possible. And I was thinking that was a great idea. Fortunately we were in Princeton, and my apartment was at least a half hour away if the traffic was moving. I was going to need that time to talk myself out of sleeping with Ranger.

Ranger keeps me safe from everyone but himself. He’s the panther stalking the gazelle, keeping all other predators away. He enjoys the hunt. And I enjoy being the gazelle, although truth is I’m more prairie chicken than gazelle.

Ranger’s reflexes are quicker, his brain engages faster, his instincts are far superior than the average man’s. My skin heats under his touch, and his kiss sets delicious things in motion in my body. I know from past experience he’s magic in bed. I also know he has dark secrets that take precedence over personal relationships. And I know it’s in my best interests to keep him at arm’s length.

Plus, I sort of have a boyfriend.

Ranger pulled out of the restaurant lot, stopped for a light, and his hand went to my knee and traveled north.

“Um,” I said.

He cut his eyes to me. “Is there a problem?”

“Your hand is moving up my leg.”


“We’ve talked about this.”

“Not lately,” Ranger said.

“Has anything changed?”


“Well, then.”

“Is that a definite ‘Well, then’?”

“Afraid it is.”

“Too bad,” Ranger said.

Thirty minutes later, Ranger parked behind my apartment building and walked me to my door.

“Call me if you get lonely,” he said.

“I have you on speed dial,” I told him.

A barely perceptible smile twitched at the corners of his mouth, he gave me a light kiss, and he left.

Truth is, I would have liked to invite him in, but that wouldn’t have been the smart thing to do. Not that I always do the smart thing, but tonight I’d managed to keep from grabbing him and ripping his clothes off. Two points for Plum.

I let myself into my apartment and went to the kitchen to say hello to my hamster, Rex. Rex lives in an aquarium on my kitchen counter and sleeps in a soup can. He was running on his wheel when I looked in on him.

“Hey,” I said. “How’s it going?”

Rex blinked his round black eyes at me and twitched his whiskers. That’s about as complicated as our conversations ever get. I dropped a peanut into his cage and he jumped off his wheel, shoved the peanut into his cheek, and scurried into his soup can with it.

[image: ]

My cousin Vinnie’s bail bonds office is on Hamilton Avenue. It’s a one-story storefront building with some parking spots by the back door. Vinnie has an inner office where he hides from people he’s stiffed, pissed off, infected with herpes, or previously incarcerated. Vinnie looks like a weasel in a pimp suit. His wife, Lucille, is a saint. His father-in-law, Harry the Hammer, owns the agency and didn’t get his nickname because he was a carpenter.

Connie Rosolli, the office manager and guard dog, was at her desk when I walked in.

“How’d it go last night?” she asked.

“It was good. Ranger walked up to Gardi, yanked him out of his chair, and cuffed him. Very smooth.”


“That was it.”

“No naked Ranger in your bed?”


“Disappointing,” Connie said.

Tell me about it. “Anything new come in for me?”

“I have a failure-to-appear. High money bond. Jimmy Poletti.”

“He owns all those car dealerships, right? He shoots his own commercials. ‘Make a deal with Jimmy!’ ”

“Yeah, turned out some of the deals were taking place in the back room and involved underage girls imported from Mexico.”

I took the file from Connie and paged through it, stopping to look at Poletti’s mugshot. Very respectable. Sixty-two years old. Face a little doughy. Thinning gray hair. Crisp white dress shirt and striped tie. Nice dark blue suit jacket. Looked more like a banker than a car dealer.

“Boy,” I said, “you never know from looking at someone.”

The front door banged open, and Lula stomped in. At 5′ 5″, Lula is a couple inches too short for her weight. She’s a black woman who changes her hair color like other women change their underwear, and her fashion preferences run to tiny spandex skirts and tops. Almost always she overflows out of the skirts and tops, but it seems to work for her.

“I just got a traffic ticket,” Lula said. “Do you believe it? What’s this world coming to when a woman can’t even drive to work without this harassment?”

“What’s the ticket for?” Connie asked.

“Speeding,” Lula said.

I looked over at her. “Were you speeding?”

“Hell, yeah. I was doing forty-three miles an hour in a thirty-mile-an-hour zone and Officer Picky pulled me over. There should be a law against thirty-mile-an-hour zones. My car don’t want to go that slow. It’s painful to drive thirty miles an hour.”

“I’ve got donuts,” Connie said, gesturing to the white bakery box on her desk. “Help yourself.”

Lula’s face brightened. “That helps perk up my mood. I’m taking one with sprinkles. And maybe one with chocolate icing. And look at this one with the pink gooey stuff oozing out of it.”

Lula bit into the one with the sprinkles. “What happened last night with you and Mr. Tall, Dark, Handsome as Hell, and Hot?”

“He captured Gardi. No shots fired.”


“There’s no ‘and.’ ”

“Say what? There’s no ‘and he got naked and waved his magic wand’?”

“Nope,” Connie said. “No magic wand. She didn’t get to see the wand.”

“Well, you know he got one,” Lula said. “How come he didn’t wave it and make her a happy princess?”

Connie and Lula looked at me, eyebrows raised, waiting for an explanation.

“It was a job,” I said. “It didn’t involve his … wand.”

Lula shook her head. “That is so sad. Opportunities wasted. What did you wear? Did you wear some dumpy business suit?”

“I wore the little red dress.”

“I know that dress,” Lula said. “It’s definitely wand-worthy.”

Vinnie stuck his head out of his office. “What’s with all the yammering? I can’t hear myself think in here. And why aren’t you out catching some scumbag? I’m out big money for Jimmy Poletti. Go drag his butt back to jail.”

Vinnie slammed his door shut, and Lula stuck her tongue out at him.

“I saw that,” Vinnie yelled from inside his office. “Have some respect.”

“How’d he see that?” Lula asked.

Connie pointed to a camera newly installed over Vinnie’s office door. “He’s got security cameras all over the place.”

Lula gave the camera the finger.

“I saw that too,” Vinnie yelled.

I shoved Poletti’s file into my messenger bag and hiked the bag up onto my shoulder. “I’m heading out. It shouldn’t be hard to find Poletti. It’s not like he’s a gangbanger.”

“He’s sort of a TV star,” Lula said. “I wouldn’t mind going with you to see what he looks like up close.”

We went out the back door and stood looking at our two cars. Lula was driving a red Firebird, and I was driving a rusted-out Ford Explorer.

“Probably,” Lula said, “we should take your car in case we have to shoot him. It won’t matter if he bleeds out in your car.”

“We’re not going to shoot him.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” Lula said.

“He’s a businessman. He was wearing a suit for his mugshot. He’s not going to go nuts on us. And besides, we don’t shoot people … hardly ever.”

Lula buckled herself into the passenger seat. “I’m just saying.”

It was nine o’clock Monday morning. It was August. It was hot. It was humid. The air had a brown tinge to it and sort of stuck to your eyeballs and the back of your throat. It was summer in Jersey.

I had my shoulder-length curly brown hair pulled up into a ponytail, and I was wearing jeans and a red tanktop. Lula was wearing a black satin bustier from her Wild West ’Ho House collection, and a poison green skirt that came just a couple inches below her doo-dah. Lula is shorter than me, but there’s a lot more of her. I could be naked standing next to Lula, and no one would give me a second glance.


JIMMY POLETTI LIVED in an upper-end neighborhood on the western edge of the city. According to the bio Connie had given me, he was on his third wife, had two adult sons, and owned a second home on Long Beach Island.

I took Hamilton to Broad and then cut onto State Street. I turned off State and wound around until I found the large brick colonial that belonged to Poletti and his wife, Trudy. I pulled into the drive court, and Lula and I got out and took it all in. Professional landscaping. Four-car garage. Two stories. Oversize mahogany front door. Dog barking somewhere inside. Sounded like a small dog.

I rang the bell, and a woman answered. She was slim. In the vicinity of forty. Long brown hair. Dressed in black Pilates pants and an orange fitted short-sleeve tee.

“I’m looking for Jimmy Poletti,” I said.

“Take a ticket,” she told me. “We’re all looking for him.”

“Does that mean he isn’t here?”

“Last I saw him was at breakfast on Friday. I went to my Pilates class, and he was gone when I came back.”

“Did you report it to the police?”

“No. I didn’t see much point to it. It’s not like he was kidnapped.”

“How do you know he wasn’t kidnapped?”

“He left me a note telling me to remember to take the garbage out on Monday and Thursday.”

“That was it? Nothing else in the note?”

“That was it.”

“No sign of struggle or forced entry here?”


“Did he take anything with him?”

“Some clothes. One of the cars. He took the Mustang.”

“And you haven’t heard from him?”

“Not a word.”

“You don’t seem too upset.”

“The house is paid off, and it’s in my name. And he left the dog and the Mercedes.” She checked her watch. “I need to run. I’m late for Pilates.”

“Guess it was one of them love matches with you and him,” Lula said.

“Yeah,” Trudy said. “I loved his money, and he loved himself.”

I gave her my card. “I represent his bail bonds agent. I’d appreciate a call if you hear from him.”

“Sure,” she said, and slammed the door shut.

Lula and I got back into my Explorer.

“I don’t think she’s gonna call you,” Lula said.

I dialed Connie.

“Did you check on his dealerships?” I asked her. “Has he been going to work?”

“One of them was shut down. I spoke to the managers of the remaining two, and no one’s seen him since his arrest. I guess he talked to them on the phone a few times. But not since he disappeared.”

“Do you have addresses for his kids?”

“One is in North Trenton, the other’s in Hamilton Township. I’ll text Lula the street addresses and also places of business.”

I returned to State Street and headed for North Trenton.

“His one kid lives on Cherry Street,” Lula said, reading Connie’s text message. “And it looks like he works at the button factory.”

Twenty minutes later I parked in front of Aaron Poletti’s house. It was a narrow two-story row house, similar to my parents’ home in the Burg. Postage-stamp front yard with a small statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle of it. American flag hanging from a flagpole jutting out from the tiny front porch.

“It’s a pretty Virgin,” Lula said. “I like when they got a blue dress like this one. It looks real heavenly and peaceful except for the chip in her head. She must have gotten beaned by a baseball or something.”

Lula and I went to the front door, I rang the bell, and a young woman with a toddler on her hip answered.

I introduced myself and told her I was looking for her father-in-law.

“I do not know where he is,” she said. “And he certainly isn’t welcome here. He’s a horrible person. I mean, honestly, I have a little girl, and what he was doing was so awful.”

“Has he been in contact with your husband?”

“No! Well, at least not that I know. I can’t imagine Aaron even talking to him.”

“Aaron works at the button factory?”

“He’s on the line. His father wanted him to be part of the business, but Aaron declined. They’ve never gotten along.”

I gave her my card and asked her to call if she learned anything new about her father-in-law.

“Okay, so she’s not gonna call either,” Lula said when we were back in the Explorer. “Jimmy Poletti’s not gonna hide out there.”

Probably true, but you never know for sure.

“We gonna go to kid number two now?” Lula asked.

“Might as well.”

Kid number two lived in an apartment in Hamilton Township. According to Connie’s information he was twenty-two, single, and worked as a fry cook at Fran’s Fish House on Route 31.

The apartment complex consisted of three unimaginative redbrick chunks of building hunkered down around a blacktop parking lot. Each building was two stories with a single door in its middle. Landscaping was nonexistent. This was not a high-rent deal.

I parked, and Lula and I entered the center building and took the stairs to the second floor. The building was utilitarian. The hall was dimly lit. Probably that was a good thing, because the carpet didn’t look wonderful. We found 2C and rang the bell.

The door got wrenched open, and a skinny guy peered out at us. He was around 5′ 10″, with bloodshot eyes, bed-head hair, reeking of weed, and his arms were decorated with burn scars, which I supposed were from working the fry station. He was wearing pink boxers with red hearts on them.

“Oswald Poletti?” I asked.

“Yeah. You Girl Scouts selling cookies?”

“Nice shorts,” Lula said.

He stared down at them as if he was seeing them for the first time.

“Some girl gave them to me.”

“She must hate you,” Lula said.

I introduced myself and told him I was looking for his dad.

“Haven’t seen him,” he said. “We aren’t close. He’s an even bigger dick than me. I mean, dude, he named me Oswald.”

“Do you know where I might find him?” I asked.


I gave him my card and told him to call me if anything turned up.

“We’re batting zero,” Lula said when we got back into the car. “You’re not gonna get a call from him ’less he needs cookies.”

“So Jimmy Poletti’s kids don’t like him. And his wife doesn’t like him. Who do you suppose likes him?”

“His mama?”

I called Connie. “Do you have an address for Jimmy Poletti’s mother?”

Two minutes later, the address appeared in a text on my phone.

“She lives in the Burg,” I told Lula. “Elmer Street.”

“This is getting boring. No one wants to talk to us. No one knows nothing. This keeps up and I’m gonna need lunch.”

I turned off Hamilton at Spring Street and two blocks later turned onto Elmer. I drove one block and pulled to the curb behind a hearse. The hearse was parked in front of the Poletti house, and the front door to the house was open.

“That don’t look good,” Lula said. “That looks like someone else who isn’t gonna talk to us. Unless it’s Jimmy. Then hooray, case closed.”

I got out and walked to the house and stepped inside. A bunch of people were milling around inside. Two guys who looked like they were from the funeral home, an old man who was dabbing at his nose with a tissue, a man in his fifties who was more stoic, and two women. I knew one of the women, Mary Klotz.

“What’s happening?” I asked Mary.

“It sounds like it was her heart,” Mary said. “She’s been sick for a long time. I live across the street, and the paramedics were always here. I’d see the lights flashing once a week.”

“The two men …”

“Her husband and a relative. I think he’s a nephew or something.”

“No sign of her son?”

“He didn’t come around much. I imagine you’re looking for him.”

“He didn’t show for his court date.” I gave her my card. “I’d appreciate a call if you see him.”

Lula was waiting for me in the car. Lula didn’t like dead people.

“Well?” Lula said.

“Poletti’s mother. Sounds like a natural death. His father is still alive, but I didn’t get to talk to him. I didn’t want to intrude.”

“Did you see her?”


Lula gave a whole-body shiver. “Gives me the creeps just being here. You know there’s spirits swirling all around the house. I could practically hear them howling.”


“That’s what they do! They come to get the dead person’s soul. Don’t you ever go to the movies? You ever see any of them Harry Potter films? Anyways, I’m getting hungry. I could use a Clucky Burger with special sauce and bacon and some cheese fries.”

I took Lula to the drive-thru at Cluck-in-a-Bucket, then dropped her off at the office and headed for my parents’ house. They live a short distance away, in the heart of the Burg, in a duplex house that shares a common wall with a very nice widow who is older than dirt. She lives a frugal existence off her husband’s pension, has her television going every waking minute, and bakes coffee cakes all day long.

My Grandma Mazur was at the door when I parked in front of the house. Grandma came to live with my parents when my grandfather went to the big reality TV show in the sky. We hid my father’s shotgun a month after Grandma moved in. There are times at the dinner table when his face turns red, his knuckles turn white, and we know we did the right thing by removing temptation. My mother has found her own way to cope. She drinks. Personally, I think my grandmother is a hoot. Of course, I don’t have to live with her.

“Just in time for lunch,” Grandma said, opening the screen door. “We’re having leftover meatloaf sandwiches.”

I followed Grandma into the kitchen. My parents don’t have central air. They have freestanding fans in all the rooms, an air conditioner hanging out of a living room window, and similar air conditioners in two of the bedrooms. The kitchen is an inferno. My mother accepts this with quiet resignation, her face flushed, occasionally dripping sweat into the soup pot. My grandmother doesn’t seem to be affected by the heat. She says her sweat glands stopped working when her ovaries went south.

I took a seat at the small kitchen table and dropped my bag onto the floor.

“Are you after Jimmy Poletti?” Grandma asked. “I heard he skipped out on his bail bond.”

“I talked to his wife and both his sons, and no one seems to like him or know where he’s hiding.”

“Yeah, he’s a real stinker. His own mother didn’t even like him.”

“I tried to talk to her too, but she’s dead.”

“I heard,” Grandma said. “Rose Krabchek called an hour ago. Mrs. Poletti is going to be laid out at the funeral home on Hamilton. It’s going to be a good viewing. She’s high-profile now that her son is a fugitive.”

The Burg doesn’t have a movie theater, so everyone goes to viewings at the funeral parlor on Hamilton Avenue.

“Any gossip going around about Jimmy?” I asked Grandma.

“Haven’t heard anything that would be useful. He had a house at the shore, but I’m told it washed away with that last hurricane. I saw pictures, and the beach isn’t even there. What happens with that? Does he own part of the ocean?”

My mother put plates and paper napkins on the kitchen table. “Who wants a meatloaf sandwich?”

I raised my hand. “With lots of ketchup.”

“And chips,” Grandma said. “I want one with chips and a pickle.”

My mother is an older version of me with shorter brown hair and a thicker waist. My grandmother used to resemble my mother, but gravity’s taken its toll and now Grandma has slack skin the color and texture of a soup chicken and steel gray hair permed into tight curls. She’s of an age where she’s fearless and has enough energy to light up Cleveland.

“Jimmy Poletti wasn’t real popular with his family,” Grandma said, “but he sure could sell cars. He was one of them personable people on television. If I was in the market, I’d buy a car from him. He was always dressed up in a nice suit, and you could see he had a good package.”

“He was selling girls out of the back room in his car dealership,” my mother said. “He’s a disgusting human being.”

“I didn’t say he was a good person,” Grandma said. “I just said he had an impressive package. ’Course, maybe he faked it. Like he could have put tennis balls in his Calvins. Or he could have padded them with toilet paper. Do you think men do that?”

I had two men in my life, and neither of them needed tennis balls.

My mother brought the meatloaf sandwiches to the table and took a seat. “I’d see his second wife at mass sometimes. Sometimes she’d have bruises. Just terrible. She’d be praying and crying, poor woman. We were all relieved when she left him.”

“I met his third wife,” I said. “I don’t think she’s going to be in church crying and praying.”

“You just never know,” my mother said. “A man like that doesn’t value life. He would do anything.”

“This is good meatloaf,” my grandmother said, taking a bite of her sandwich. “I like that you put barbecue sauce on top of it.”

“I saw it on the Food Network,” my mother said.

“And it’s real moist.”

My mother chewed and swallowed. “I soaked it in bourbon.”


I LEFT MY parents’ house and returned to my apartment. I have some search programs on my computer, and I thought I’d do some snooping around on Poletti. I live in a perfectly okay but not fantastic apartment building on the north edge of Trenton. The building has a fancy door that fronts the street but is never used. Everyone parks in the large lot at the rear. Eighty percent of the residents are senior citizens who wear their handicapped status as a badge of honor and judge the quality of their day by how close they’re able to park to the building’s back door.

My apartment has one bedroom, one bathroom, a small kitchen, and a combined living-and-dining room. My furniture is sparse and mostly secondhand from relatives who made their initial purchases in 1950.

I’d just plugged Jimmy Poletti into a background search program when someone pounded on my door. I went to the door, looked out the security peephole, and saw nothing. I turned to go back to my computer and there was more pounding. I did another look out the peephole.

“Down here,” someone yelled. “Look down, you moron.”

I knew the voice. Randy Briggs. Not one of my favorite people. He was my age, with sandy blond hair. He was about three feet tall. And he was cranky.

I opened the door. “What?”

“How is that for a greeting?” he said, pushing past me into my apartment. “It’s because I’m short, right? You hate me because I’m short.”

“I don’t care that you’re short. I like lots of things that are short. Little dogs and daffodils. I hate you because you’re mean as a snake. Would it kill you to be nice?”

He looked up at me. “Why do you say that? Did you hear something?”

“About what?”

“About killing. Like that someone wants to kill me.”

“So far as I know, everyone who meets you wants to kill you.”

“I’m serious. Did you hear about a contract?”

“On you?”

“Yeah. I’m in trouble.” He went into my kitchen and looked around. “You got anything to drink? I could use a drink. Vodka rocks would be good.”

“I haven’t got any vodka.”

“How about wine? You got a nice pinot noir?”

“I think I have a beer.”

“I’ll take it.”

I opened the beer and handed it to him. He chugged it down, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and gave me the empty bottle.

“I suppose you want to know about the contract,” he said.


“How could you not want to know?”

“Easy. Not my business.”

“Yeah, but we’re friends.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Boy, that’s harsh. After all we’ve been through together.” He went back out into the hall and returned with a duffel bag.

“What’s that?” I asked, staring down at the bag.

“My stuff. I need a place to stay.”

“Not here.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like you.”

“Yeah, but my apartment got blown up. I need to stay with someone who’s got a gun.”

“Oh no. No, no, no, no.”

“I won’t be any trouble. Look at me. I’m little. You won’t even know I’m here.”

“I know you’re here because I have a sharp burning pain behind my left eyeball.”

I grabbed his duffel bag and ran for the door with it. He grabbed my leg, and I went down to one knee a couple feet short of the door.

I tried to shake him loose. “Let go!”

“Not until you say I can stay.”


“Please, please, please. I’ll be nice. You gotta help me. I don’t want to die. Jimmy Poletti is trying to kill me.”

“Jimmy Poletti?”

“Yeah, he looks nice on television but he’s a nasty bugger.”

“Why does he want to kill you?”

“I did his bookkeeping. I know all his secrets. The money laundering, the payoffs, the offshore accounts.”

“He obviously hired you because he knew you were a slime bucket, so why does he suddenly think you’re a threat?”

“When he got arrested, the cops were climbing all over everything. We managed to get rid of the paperwork, but I’m left swinging in the wind.”

“He’s worried you’d rat him out?”


“Would you?”

“Hell, yes.”

“Have you gone to the police?”

“No. I’m sort of implicated in the cooked books. At first, my choice was to die or try a plea deal, but then I thought of you. If you can bring Poletti in, he’ll get locked up for a hundred years and he won’t kill me. And I won’t have to talk to the police.”

“Okay, I’ll buy all that. But why do you have to stay here?”

“No one else will let me in.”

“I’d buy that too.”

“You gotta help me,” Briggs said. “I’m a dead man without you. You know what’s left of my apartment? It’s in that duffel bag. Good thing I was in the basement doing laundry when he rocketed the firebomb through my living room window. The guy’s nuts!”

And he wanted Randy Briggs. And I had Randy Briggs. So maybe I could somehow use Briggs as bait to capture Jimmy Poletti.

“What?” Briggs said. “You’ve got that look. The scary look that means you’re thinking.”

“I might let you stay if you’ll help me find Poletti.”

“Anything.” He released my leg. “What do you want to know?”

I took my hands off the duffel bag and stood. “Do you have any idea where he’s hiding?”

“Not exactly,” Briggs said, “but I know where he owns property, and I know some of his mob friends.”

“Would his mob friends hide him?”

“Depends if they thought they could get their hands on his money. He’s got a load of money stashed away.”

“Do you know where the money is stashed?”

“Who, me? No.”

“You do! That’s why he wants to kill you.”

“It’s not like I have access to it. I just might know where he keeps it.”

Oh boy. “What else?”

“That’s it. I swear.”

I spread a map of Trenton out on my dining room table. “Where are his properties?”

“There’s the three dealerships,” Briggs said. “You know about them. Then there’s a parking garage where he keeps his inventory. It’s by the government buildings. He rents part of it out. It’s at the corner of State Street and Norton. So far as I know there aren’t any offices in it. It’s just parking. He has the house in West Trenton. I’m sure you’ve already been there and met Poletti’s soulmate.” Briggs gave an involuntary shiver. “She scares the crap out of me. They had a house at the shore, but it floated out to sea. He owns a slum on Stark Street that operates as a rooming house. And he owns houses in North Trenton that he rents out.”

Briggs used my red Sharpie to put dots on the map, showing the property locations.

“And his friends?” I asked.

“He doesn’t exactly have friends. He has associates. They all played poker together, and they hung out in the back room of the dealership on Route 41. It was like a social club. Bernie Scootch, Ron Siglowski, Buster Poletti, who’s a cousin, Silvio Pepper, and Tommy Ritt. I’m told two of them have disappeared. Bernie Scootch and Ron Siglowski. They could be with Jimmy or they could be dead.”

“Do you think Jimmy’s cleaning house?”

Briggs shrugged. “He tried to get me while I was crossing a street yesterday. Tried to run me over, but I got out of the way in time. He took a shot at me and missed. And then this morning someone sent a firebomb through my window.”

“Are you sure it was Jimmy?”

“It was Jimmy yesterday. I got a good look at him. I guess I don’t know about this morning, but I know he’s got rocket launchers and flamethrowers. He has a place in the Pine Barrens where he goes with the guys to shoot and blow stuff up. I don’t exactly know where it is.”

“What was he driving yesterday?”

“The Mustang. I rode in it once. It’s all tricked out. Black and silver. Real sweet ride.”

“So where do you think I should start looking for Jimmy?”

“If all he wanted to do was hide, I’d say the Pine Barrens until he could get out of the country. Since he seems to want to kill me, I’d have to go more local. Maybe the slum on Stark Street. Or maybe you want to look in the parking garage. See if there’s an RV with the air-conditioning running.”

I folded up the map and tucked it into my messenger bag. “Let’s go.”

“Are you sure you want to take me? I’ve got a big bull’s-eye painted on my back.”

This was true. And it was the only reason I was even talking to him. Still, I didn’t want to hang him out there unless I absolutely had no other choice. No point putting myself in harm’s way of stray bullets, right? On the other hand, I didn’t feel comfortable leaving him alone in my apartment.

“You can stay in the office while I go look for Poletti. I’ll drop you off and pick Lula up.”

[image: ]

“No,” Connie said. “No way. No how. You can’t leave him here.”

“I can’t take him with me,” I told her. “People will shoot at us.”

“Why can’t you leave him in your apartment?”

“He’ll buy pay-per-view porn and go through my underwear drawer.”

We all looked at Briggs.

“He can’t even reach your underwear drawer,” Lula said.

“I can stand on a chair,” Briggs said.

“How about we take my Firebird and lock him in the trunk,” Lula said.

“How about we auction you off by the pound for a pig roast,” Briggs said.

Lula shoved her hand into her purse and started rummaging around. “I got a gun in here somewhere.”

“You can’t shoot him,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I need him to get Poletti. Anyway, you know you can’t just go around shooting people. It isn’t nice.”

“Yeah, but he insulted me.”

“You insulted me first,” Briggs said. “How’d you like to get locked in a trunk?”

“People wouldn’t want to lock me in a trunk on account of I got a pleasing personality,” Lula said.

“Maybe for a rhinoceros,” Briggs said.

I stepped in front of Briggs to keep Lula from hurling herself across the room at him. “I haven’t got time for this. I need to get Poletti. We’ll take Randy with us, and we’ll disguise him somehow. A hat or something, and he can scrunch down in the backseat.”

Ten minutes later Randy was in the backseat of my Explorer. He was wearing a platinum blond wig and large black-rimmed glasses. He looked like Andy Warhol if Andy Warhol was only three feet tall.

Lula, looking like a ’ho all dressed up for Let’s Make a Deal, was riding shotgun. And weird as it might seem, she made it look pretty good. When I’m with Lula, I always feel like she’s chocolate cake with a lot of fancy frosting and I’m more in the ballpark of a bagel.


I TOOK STATE Street to the parking garage and idled at the entrance. There was a lot of police activity on the second level. I leaned out my window, took a ticket from the machine, and rolled into a ground-level spot.

“Stay here,” I said to Lula and Briggs. “I’ll go investigate and report back.”

I took the stairs and walked to the back of the garage, where cop cars were angle-parked and yellow crime scene tape was already in place. I spotted Joe Morelli standing inside the taped-off area. He’s part of the Crimes Against Persons unit, mostly working homicide cases, so someone was probably dead on the cement floor.

Morelli also happens to sort of be my boyfriend. He’s six feet tall and all lean muscle. He has a lot of wavy black hair, his brown eyes can be soft and sexy or hard and assessing, he’s got a dog and a toaster, and his grandmother is even crazier than mine. Today he was wearing a blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, jeans, and running shoes. He had his Glock clipped to his belt, and his hands were on his hips as he stared down at the guy sprawled on the pavement.

I ducked under the crime scene tape and moved next to him. The guy on the ground was facedown in a pool of dried blood. He had a hole in the back of his head the size of a potato.

“Holy crap,” I said to Morelli, “he looks like he’s been shot with a cannon.”

“It’s the exit wound,” Morelli said. “Whoever killed him flipped him over. Half his brain is splattered on the silver Honda over there.”

A wave of nausea rolled through me, and I felt myself break out in a cold sweat.

“You’re kind of white,” Morelli said. “You’re not going to do the girl thing and faint, are you?”

“ ‘The girl thing’? Excuse me?”

Morelli grinned. “You’re such a cupcake.”

I sucked in some air and made an effort to settle my stomach. So big deal if I am a cupcake. Seemed to me it was a lot better than being a bagel.

“Who is he?” I asked.

“Tommy Ritt.”

“Oh boy. He’s one of Poletti’s poker buddies.”

“And you’re after Poletti,” Morelli said.

“Yes. That’s why I’m here. Poletti owns this property. I was hoping to find him holed up here in a Winnebago.”

“Sorry, I haven’t seen any Winnebagos.” He turned his attention to me. “Mike Kelly said he saw you with Ranger last night.”

“It was business.”

Morelli continued to look at me with what I call his cop eyes. They’re hard and unwavering. An emotionless stare he uses to extract confessions from killers in the interrogation room.

“Not going to work,” I told him. “I have nothing to confess.”

That got another grin. “You know all my tricks.”

I raised an eyebrow, and his grin widened.

“Randy Briggs showed up on my doorstep this morning,” I said. “He claims Poletti tried to run him down with his Mustang and took a shot at him. And then someone shot a firebomb into his apartment.”

“I heard about the apartment. I didn’t know it belonged to Briggs. What’s his connection to Poletti?”

“He was Poletti’s accountant.”

“Ow. Not a healthy job choice. Did Briggs stop by to tell you he was on his way to Argentina?”

“Something like that. I don’t suppose you have any idea where I might find Poletti?”

“Not at the moment,” Morelli said, “but I’ll let you know if something turns up. We’ll be looking for him too. He’s a person of interest in this shooting.”

“He’s driving a tricked-out black and silver Mustang. And he’s probably packing a rocket launcher.”

Morelli ducked under the tape with me and walked me to the stairs. “Bob misses you,” he said.

Bob is Morelli’s big orange, floppy-eared, shaggy-haired dog.

“I miss him too.”

Morelli pulled me behind a van and wrapped his arms around me. “How about me? Do you miss me?”

“Maybe a little.”

“The Yankees are playing Boston tonight. You could come over, catch the game, and spend the night.”

“No can do.”

“Okay, I’ll throw in a pizza.”

“Tempting, but no.”


“If only it was that simple. Briggs is staying with me.”

“You hate Briggs.”

I blew out a sigh. “I don’t hate him. I just find him enormously annoying. Poletti exploded his apartment. He needed a place to stay.”

The cop part of Morelli’s brain put the pieces together. “You’re using Briggs as bait to get Poletti.”

“I’d rather think of my generosity as a charitable act.”

“So why is this charitable act keeping you from spending the night with me?”

“I don’t trust him alone in my apartment. He’ll drink milk directly out of the carton and sleep in my bed.”

“Maybe I can arrest him for something, or you can get Ranger to shoot him. Nothing serious. A flesh wound that would send him to the hospital for a day or two.”

“Boy, you must really miss me.”

“It’s Bob,” Morelli said. “Bob’s desperate.”

Morelli slid his hand under my shirt, kissed me with some tongue action, and I felt heat rush through my stomach and head south. A cop on the other side of the garage yelled for Morelli, and Morelli broke from the kiss.

“Think about it,” Morelli said, stepping away, turning toward the crime scene. “Ranger would probably like the opportunity to shoot someone.”

I took the stairs to the ground level and returned to my Explorer.

“What’s going on up there?” Lula asked.

I put the car in gear and drove out of the garage. “Tommy Ritt is facedown on the cement, and his head has a big hole in it.”

“How bad is it?” Briggs asked.

“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men aren’t going to put Tommy Ritt back together again.”

“It’s Poletti,” Briggs said. “He’s freaking nuts.”

“Where we going now?” Lula asked. “I’m tired of sitting in this car with short stuff here. He’s kind of creeping me out in that wig.”

“I could take it off,” Briggs said, “but then Poletti might put a bazooka up your butt.”

Lula glared at him. “Is that a dig at my former profession? Because I wasn’t that kind of ’ho. That’s a specialty ’ho what does that.”

“Cripes,” Briggs said.

I took State Street to Stark Street and counted off blocks. The lower part of Stark wasn’t so bad, with legitimate bars, tenement-style apartment buildings, and mom-and-pop businesses. As the street went on it got progressively worse until it resembled a bombed-out war zone where only the rats and the crazies lived.

Poletti’s rooming house was on the fourth block of Stark. Not the worst part of Stark, but not the best either. Gang graffiti covered the buildings, and the stoop sitters were blank-faced druggies. I parked across the street from the rooming house, and we stared out at it. Three stories of grime-coated red brick missing a front door. One window on the third floor was painted black, and two windows on the second floor were cracked. Black soot around one of the third-floor windows suggested there’d been a fire. A rat ran out of the open doorway and scurried down the sidewalk.

“We should take a look,” I said. “And someone needs to stay with the car to make sure it’s not stolen.”

We all sat still as statues. Hard to tell if it was worse to stay with the car or go into the building.

“Okay, I’m going in,” I said. “And I’ll take Briggs with me.”

“Hunh,” Lula said. “How come I have to be the one to stay behind?”

“You’re the one with the gun.”

Lula looked at Briggs. “He don’t have a gun?”

“It got blown up in my apartment,” Briggs said.

I got out of the Explorer, and Briggs hopped out after me. We crossed the street and went into the small entrance hall of Poletti’s building.

“I knew it was a slum, but this is worse than I imagined,” Briggs said. “It smells like a warthog died in here.”

There were two doors on the ground floor. One had MANAGER written on it. I knocked on that door, and it was answered by a small Hispanic woman who was somewhere between fifty and ninety.

“What?” she asked.

“I’m looking for Jimmy Poletti.”

“Don’t know him.”

“He owns this building.”

“Good for him. Tell him my toilet don’t work.”

She attempted to close the door, but I shoved my messenger bag between the door and the frame.

“I’m legal,” she said. “I got a driver’s license.”

“Are you the building manager?” I asked her.

“The what?”

“It says ‘manager’ on your door.”

“No manager here. It must be wrong.” And she slammed the door shut.

I turned and hammered on the door across the hall. I heard a lot of scrambling going on in the apartment, and finally a crazy-eyed, emaciated woman answered the door. “There’s no butterflies here,” she said. “You got the wrong place.”

“I’m not looking for butterflies,” I told her. “I’m looking for Jimmy Poletti.”

“Poletti confetti,” she said. “Poletti confetti.” She spied Briggs standing behind me and leaned forward for a closer look. “Nice doggy,” she said, patting him on the head.

Briggs growled at her, and she jumped back into the apartment and slammed the door shut.

There were four doors at the next level. Two of them were open, and the apartments were trashed. Soiled, lumpy mattresses on the floor. Garbage everywhere. Used drug paraphernalia. A bunch of giant roaches lying sneakers up. Probably overdosed. It looked like someone had had a bonfire in one of the units.

“They weren’t cooking hotdogs and marshmallows here,” Briggs said.

I knocked on one of the closed doors, and a moment later a shotgun blast blew the top half of the door apart.

“Holy crap,” Briggs said, diving to the floor.

The door opened and a totally tattooed guy looked out. Hard to tell his age. Somewhere in his twenties, maybe. I was flattened against the wall with my heart beating hard in my throat.

“Did Jiggy send you?” he asked.

I shook my head no.

“Fuck,” he said. “Fucking Jiggy.”

I inched my way toward the stairs. “I might have knocked on the wrong door.”

Briggs got to his feet and straightened his wig. “You could have killed us, asshole,” he said to the tattooed guy.

“I would have been doing you a favor,” the guy said. “That’s the worst wig I ever saw.”

“I’m in disguise,” Briggs said. “Do you know Jimmy Poletti?”

“What’s he look like?”

“He looks like a fat middle-aged car salesman and slum owner,” Briggs said.

The guy shook his head. “Don’t think I know him.”

“Who lives in the apartment next to you?” I asked.

“About forty Guatemalans,” the guy said. “They make noise all night long. They’re almost as bad as the damn dogs.”

“You got a dog problem?” Briggs asked.

“Feral Chihuahuas. There’s a whole pack of them. They’ll eat you alive.”

I trudged up the stairs with Briggs several steps behind me. Four more units here, but three of them were charred, gutted, and closed off with boards hammered across their doorways. The fourth unit’s door was ajar. I stepped in and looked around. One room plus bath. A fridge like you might find in a dorm. Fridge door open. Not plugged in. A double mattress that had been ripped to shreds. A single sneaker about a size 12 and mostly chewed. This was the room with the window painted black.

“Looks like the Chihuahuas were here,” Briggs said.

We took the stairs to the street, and we gasped when we saw the Explorer. It was up on cinderblocks, missing all four wheels and some of its innards. No one was around. Just the picked-clean car sitting at the curb all by itself.

Lula was inside, slumped behind the wheel, head back, eyes closed, mouth open. I didn’t see any blood. She wasn’t moving. I wrenched the driver’s side door open, and Lula snorted and opened her eyes.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

“Yep. It’s like a ghost town here. Nothing going on.” She looked straight ahead, out the windshield, and saw that the hood was up. “What’s with that?” she asked.

“Someone stripped the car while you were asleep,” Briggs said. “Boy, are you stupid.”

Lula got out and stared at what was left of the Explorer. “That’s just rude. I rest my eyes for a minute, and Mr. Sneaky Thief comes along. These people have no respect. They took our wheels. What’s with that? Anyone could see I was in the car and needed those wheels to get home. How am I supposed to get home without wheels?”

Briggs stood on tiptoes and looked under the hood. “They took more than wheels.”

I called Connie and asked her to come rescue us.

“Can’t,” Connie said. “Vinnie isn’t here, and I can’t leave the office.”

I couldn’t ask Joe. He was working. I didn’t want to ask my father. My mother would have a cow if she knew I was on Stark Street. That left Ranger. He was also working, but he had a lot of flexibility. And if he couldn’t personally rescue me, he could send one of his men.

“Babe,” he said when I called him.

“Someone took my wheels.”

“Your car is on the fourth block of Stark Street.”

Ranger has the annoying but sometimes life-saving habit of hacking into my cellphone and placing tracking devices on my car. So Ranger knows where I am 24/7.

“Yes, and I’m with my car, but my wheels are apparently someplace else.”

There was a moment of silence, and I knew he was smiling. Ranger finds me amusing.

“I’m with Lula and Randy Briggs,” I said. “And I could use a ride to my parents’ house so I can get Big Blue.”

“I’m in the middle of something, but I can send Hal. He’s in the neighborhood.”

“Is Gardi back in Miami?”

“He’s got a nine o’clock flight tonight.”


BIG BLUE IS a 1953 powder blue and white Buick Roadmaster that’s been retrofitted with seat belts and power brakes. It gets three miles to the gallon, and it does nothing for my self-esteem, as I aspire to be a slick Porsche person. My budget sees me more as a broken-down-junker-car person. My Great Uncle Sandor bequeathed the Buick to my Grandma Mazur, and it now lives in my parents’ garage in anticipation of automotive emergencies. Unfortunately, I have these on a regular basis.

Ranger’s guy met us on Stark, removed my plates from the Explorer carcass, and drove us to the Burg. I got the car keys from Grandma and backed the Buick out of the garage. Lula and Briggs got in, and we drove to North Trenton to scope out Poletti’s rental properties.

“It’s the white house coming up on the right,” Briggs said. “Personally, I can’t see him in any of these rentals. They’re leased through a management company. Strictly investment deals. I’m not sure he even knows he has them.”

“No stone unturned,” I said. “We’ll just do a drive-by unless we see the Mustang or some other sign of Poletti.”

An hour later I dropped Lula off at the office and returned to my apartment.

Briggs followed me in and pulled the wig off his head. “I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?”

“I was going to have a peanut butter sandwich.”

“That’s not dinner. That’s lunch if you’re seven years old.”

“What did you have in mind?”


“Are you buying?”

“My money and my credit cards got blown up.”

“Then I guess you’re not having steak.”

Briggs looked in my fridge. “There’s nothing in here.”

“Not true. I have olives. I put them on my peanut butter sandwich.”

“That’s sick.”

I pulled a box of Froot Loops out of the overhead cabinet. “How about cereal?”

“You don’t have any milk.”


“You’re supposed to have cereal with milk.”

“These are Froot Loops. They’re perfect right out of the box. They’re pretty, they don’t stick to your fingers, and the box says they’re filled with vitamins and minerals.”

“Maybe I should rethink this. I’d get better food in prison.”

I made myself a peanut butter and olive sandwich and ate it while I leaned against the kitchen counter.

“Where do we go from here?” I asked Briggs.

“We could check out the poker players. Of course, one’s dead and two are missing, but last I heard, Buster was still around.”

“The cousin.”

“Yeah. He was tight with Jimmy. He was the guy Jimmy trusted to go to Mexico to solve labor issues.”

“You mean with the cars?”

Briggs ate a handful of Froot Loops. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask questions. I just tapped in Buster’s travel expenses. Hotels and planes and stuff. I came to the dealership on Broad twice a week and cooked the books. It didn’t seem like such a big deal. Everyone hates the IRS, right?”

“Do you know where Buster lives?”

“Downtown Trenton. I don’t know exactly where. His wife kicked him out of the house and took out a restraining order, so now he lives in an apartment over a pizza place. I think he owns the building.”

I went to my computer and ran Buster through a search program.

“He’s on the third block of Stark,” I said. “So far as I can see, he hasn’t got a job.”

“He had some kind of deal with Jimmy. He got money under the table. And there’s a holding company called Bust Inc. that I think is his.”

I gave the last chunk of my sandwich to Rex and grabbed my messenger bag. “Let’s take a look at Buster.”

“Great, but I’m not wearing the wig. It itches. And it’s a stupid disguise. I’m four feet tall if I wear lifts and lie. People figure it out.”

“If those people who figure it out start shooting at you, I’d appreciate it if you’d step away from me.”

[image: ]

I rolled down the third block on Stark and slowed as we approached the pizza place. A bunch of guys were hanging in front of it, smoking whatever, trying hard to look bad. Heck, what do I know … probably they were bad. Probably they were the ones who’d taken my wheels.

“This pizza place is a dump,” Briggs said, “but it’s full of people.”

“Dinnertime,” I told him. “It’s easy food.”

Briggs was sitting on his knees, his nose pressed to the window. “I swear I can smell it! Oh man, would I love a piece of pizza! We should check it out. You want to talk to Buster anyway, right?”


I found a parking place across the street from Buster’s building.

“I’m going to sit here and watch the second-floor windows,” I said to Briggs. “You can run across and get a slice of pizza.”

“I’ll get trampled. You have to come with me.”

“You won’t get trampled. I’ve seen you in action. You’ve destroyed more knees than pro football.”

“Yeah, but then there’s usually a riot.”

This was true.

“Okay, I’ll come with you, but you have to promise not to bite anyone or whack anyone with your iPhone.”

The pizza place was just counter service. Strictly takeout. No tables. The room was packed. A single fan spun overhead. No air. We squeezed in and inched along with the rest of the people who were making their way to the counter.

“Do you see the pizza?” Briggs asked. “What have they got?”

“I can’t see the pizza. I can’t see anything.”

“I want extra cheese and pepperoni.”

“I’m on it.”

“Are we almost there?”

“Yeah. I think so.”

I like pizza, but I was finding it hard to believe the pizza here was that good. There were other options on Stark. There were a bunch of fast-food pizza places, plus you could dial a pizza and have it delivered. Either this pizza was super cheap or it came with a side of weed.

Five minutes later we had our pizza and were out the door. We crossed the street and leaned against the Buick while we ate.

“This is good,” Briggs said. “Greasy, with just the right amount of cheese. Real Jersey pizza.”

I finished my pizza, wiped my hands on my jeans, and looked across the street. The pizza place took up the entire first floor of Buster’s building, with the exception of a door at the end. I assumed this door led to the apartment on the second floor. There were five second-floor windows looking out at the street. None had shades drawn. So far, I hadn’t seen any shadows pass in front of the windows.

“What’s the plan?” Briggs asked.

“We go to the door and ring the bell.”

“Suppose no one answers?”

“I call his phone.”

“What if he doesn’t answer his phone?”

“I write him a letter.”

I had the car keys in one pocket, pepper spray in another, and cuffs tucked into my jeans at the small of my back. Just in case.

“Let’s go,” I said to Briggs. “Let’s see if Buster wants to talk to us.”

We crossed the street, went to the door, and I was about to ring the bell when I heard someone inside thundering down the stairs. The door was yanked open, and a guy rushed out and slammed into me. He looked at me, then he looked down at Briggs and his face flushed.

“You son of a bitch,” Briggs yelled at him. “You blew up my apartment. What the fuck is the matter with you?”

“Jimmy Poletti?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yeah,” he said. “What are you doing here with the runt?”

“Runt?” Briggs said, his voice an octave higher than normal, a vein popping out in his forehead.

I grabbed my cuffs and clapped one onto Poletti’s wrist. “I represent your bail bondsman.”

“Of all the crap luck,” Poletti said. Then he gave me a hard shove into Briggs. Briggs went flat on his back, I tumbled on top of him, and Poletti turned and ran. I scrambled to my feet and chased Poletti down Stark. He had a good lead, but I was faster. We ran to the end of the block and around the corner. He cut down an alley, and I was almost at arm’s length when he slipped into a building, slammed the door shut, and threw the bolt. It was, I realized, the rear entrance to the pizza place.

Briggs pulled up behind me.

“Stay here in case he tries to sneak back out,” I told him. “I’m going around to the front.”

“What if he shoots at me?”

“Yell for help.”

“I could be dead.”

“Deal with it,” I said, and I raced back to Stark.

Just as I rounded the corner, Poletti jumped into a car and roared away. The car wasn’t the Mustang. It was a small silver sedan. It all happened too fast for me to get the plate or the make of the car.

I took a moment to catch my breath, then I texted Briggs and told him to come around to the front. I rang the bell while I waited. No answer. I called the phone number I had for Buster, but no one picked up, and I couldn’t hear the phone ringing upstairs.

“Where is he?” Briggs asked when he reached me. “What happened?”

“He got away.”

“Now what?”

I looked at the door that led to the second-floor apartment. It was still open. “We go upstairs and look around,” I said.

“Is that legal?”

“Yes. I have reason to believe there’s a felon up there.”



Briggs’s eyebrows shot up. “Really?”

“No. Not really. Not even maybe.”

We stepped inside and closed and locked the door behind us. I paused at the top of the stairs and announced myself. “Bond enforcement. Anyone home?”


“This is a pretty nice apartment,” Briggs said, looking around. “He’s got a flat-screen television and a leather recliner. And he’s got a real kitchen.”

The refrigerator was stocked with food. Dirty dishes in the half-filled dishwasher. An iPhone charger on the kitchen counter. No iPhone. We moved into the bedroom and found a guy stretched out on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.

“Is this Buster?” I asked Briggs.

“No. It’s Bernie Scootch. He doesn’t look so good. Is he okay?”

Bernie was definitely not okay. He was lying in a pool of blood, and his chest had a bunch of bullet holes in it. For that matter, I wasn’t doing so great either. I was clammy with cold sweat and the horror of Bernie Scootch leaking his bodily fluids all over the carpet.

I bit into my lower lip. “I’m pretty sure he’s dead.”

“Oh jeez,” Briggs said. “That’s bad. That sucks.”

I dialed 911 and gave the dispatcher the address and the big picture. Five minutes later a uniform arrived, with Morelli following. I was on the sidewalk when they angle-parked at the curb.

“I was on my way home from my mom’s house when I heard the call come in,” Morelli said. “What’s the deal here?”

“There’s a dead guy upstairs. Randy identified him as Bernie Scootch. He’s been shot … a lot.”

Morelli went upstairs to take a look and returned after a couple minutes. “You’re right,” he said. “He’s been shot a lot. What were you doing in the apartment?”

“I was looking for Jimmy Poletti.”

“You had reason to believe he was there?”

“It’s sort of a gray area.”

Morelli looked like he needed a Rolaid. “You didn’t shoot Scootch, did you?”


I gave Morelli the long version while more people showed up—the coroner, a crime photographer, a couple more uniforms, the crime lab techs, and Bryan Kreider.

Kreider is another plainclothes cop in the Crimes Against Persons unit. He nodded and smiled at me. “Hey, Steph, how’s it going?”

“It’s going good except for the dead guy upstairs.”

Kreider looked at Morelli. “Have you seen him?”

“Yeah. Multiple bullet wounds. Looks recent.”

Kreider trudged upstairs, and Morelli turned back to me.

“So this is Buster’s apartment,” he said, “but there’s no Buster.”

“Haven’t seen him,” I said. “I also haven’t seen the murder weapon. It wasn’t near the body, and Poletti didn’t have it on him.”

“You’re sure he wasn’t carrying?”

“He was wearing a shirt tucked into slacks and there was no gun. Plus he didn’t try to shoot Briggs.”

The line of Morelli’s mouth tightened a little. “Opportunities missed.”

The sun was low on the horizon, hidden by the urban landscape. Stark Street was in deep shade. Lights blinked on in Buster’s apartment. The customers were beginning to thin out at the pizza place. A few people were standing around, gawking at the police activity, but a murder on Stark doesn’t draw much of a crowd.

“I’ll pass the information on to Kreider,” Morelli said, “and then I’m heading home. I’ve got Bob in the car.”

“I’m heading home too,” I said, looking across the street at the Buick. “I’ve got Briggs in the car.”

Briggs was on the edge of his seat when I slid behind the wheel.

“Did you hear them?” he asked, eyes wide, hands braced on the dash.


“The dogs. The Chihuahua pack. I heard them yipping. Like tiny coyotes. And at the end of the block I saw a tiny shadow with glowing red eyes. It was eerie. It gave me goosebumps.”

“I didn’t hear them. Are you sure you didn’t imagine it?”

“I got it on my phone.”

Briggs passed me his phone, and I looked at a dark screen with two little red dots.

“This could be anything,” I said. “It’s just dots.”

“Those are the eyes of a wild demon Chihuahua,” Briggs said.


IT WAS A little after nine A.M. when I got to the office with Briggs in tow.

“You look like crap,” Lula said to me. “You either had a really good night or a really bad night.”

“I had a horrible night. Randy and I checked out Buster Poletti’s apartment and found Bernie Scootch stretched out on the floor with a bunch of holes drilled into him. That’s two dead men in one day! I couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing the bodies. And then when I finally fell asleep I had nightmares.”

“Sounds like the only one having a worse night was Ranger,” Connie said.

I helped myself to coffee. “What’s with Ranger?”

Connie’s eyebrows went up. “You didn’t hear? His building is sealed off. I don’t know all the details, but they had to evacuate. Gardi and one of the Rangeman guys are in the hospital. It’s all a big secret. No one’s saying anything.”

“I bet it’s anthrax,” Briggs said. “It’s always anthrax when they seal off a building.”

I tapped Ranger’s number into my phone.

“What happened at Rangeman last night?” I asked him.

“There was an incident with Gardi.”

“Was it anthrax?”

“No. It wasn’t anthrax. I’ll catch you later.” And he disconnected.

“It wasn’t anthrax,” I told everyone.

“He’s supposed to be a real hotshot in bed,” Lula said, “but he sure don’t waste any time explaining things.”

I made an effort not to smile too wide. “He has his moments.”

Lula fanned herself with her copy of Star magazine, and Connie did an eye roll.

“Jeez,” Briggs said. “Does anybody know I’m standing here? This is an embarrassing conversation. And just to set the record straight, there are some ladies who think I’m hot.”

“That’s a disturbing announcement,” Lula said. “I don’t want to meet those ladies.”

I stepped outside and called Morelli.

“What happened at Rangeman last night?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. I haven’t been briefed on it, but it must be serious because the building is sealed and the feds are in charge. And Gardi is in St. Francis in isolation with a security guard in front of his door.”

“Ranger said it wasn’t anthrax.”

“Ranger should know.”

“Anything new on the two murders? Did Buster ever turn up?”

“Buster came home at ten o’clock. He said he’d been in Atlantic City all day. One of those package deals with a bus trip included. He went with his girlfriend. It checked out.”

“How did Jimmy get into his apartment?”

“Jimmy had a key. Buster gave it to him years ago when he first bought the building. He said they were using the apartment like a storeroom, but I’m guessing it was used to house the girls they imported.”

“Did you find the murder weapon?”

“No. Not yet.”

I’ve seen enough violent death to know that Bernie hadn’t been dead long and that he’d been killed in the bedroom. So it bothered me that the police couldn’t find the gun and that Poletti didn’t have it on him when he rushed out of the apartment. Of course he might have killed Bernie earlier, left the apartment, and then returned without the gun for some reason. Still, it felt off.

“Have you talked to the remaining poker players?”

“Kreider questioned Silvio Pepper. He said Pepper was nervous. We can’t find Ron Siglowski. Kreider interviewed his neighbors and got nothing. Ditto his relatives.”

“I get that Pepper is nervous. I’d be nervous too. Poletti is cleaning house. Most likely Siglowski is already dead, and just hasn’t turned up yet. That leaves Pepper and Briggs.”

“Is Briggs still hiding out in your apartment?”

“Yes. And it’s not fun.”

“Maybe we should tie him to a parking meter downtown and see if Poletti takes the bait.”

“Tempting, but I can’t see Poletti being that stupid.”

“I have to run,” Morelli said. “Let me know if you come up with something better than the parking meter.”

I went back inside and asked Connie to run checks on Silvio Pepper and Ron Siglowski. Five minutes later I had more information than I needed on both men. I had photos, ages, street addresses, second-grade spelling scores, sock sizes, cheese preferences, and colonoscopy reports.

“First up is Silvio Pepper,” I said to Lula. “Do you want to ride shotgun?”

“Is short stuff going?”

I looked at Connie.

“Yeah,” Connie said, “he’s going.”

“I guess I’ll go anyway,” Lula said. “If someone takes a potshot at him, I don’t want to miss it.”

Silvio Pepper lived in a small two-story house on the northern edge of the Burg. He was sixty-three years old, married, and the owner of a long-haul trucking company with offices on Broad Street.

I took Hamilton Avenue to Broad Street and turned left. Pepper Trucking was a relatively small operation several blocks down Broad. The single-story redbrick building had a small parking lot attached to it. Not big enough for an eighteen-wheeler, so the trucks were obviously kept elsewhere. I parked in the lot and told Lula and Briggs to wait in the car.

“Why do I have to wait in the car?” Lula asked. “Waiting in the car is boring.”

“I don’t want to drag everyone in there with me,” I said. “Two people are partners. Three people make a parade.”

“So why can’t we leave Briggs here? We can crack a window for him.”

“Jeez,” Briggs said. “What do I look like, a golden retriever?”

“I want Poletti, and Briggs is my bait. I don’t want to come back and find Briggs gunned down or missing and Poletti long gone.”

“I guess I could see that,” Lula said, “but how do you expect me to pull off this Briggs rescue?”

“I guess you could shoot Poletti in a nonvital area.”

“Like his knee?”


“Okay, I’m cool with that,” Lula said.

I slung my messenger bag over my shoulder, crossed the lot, and pushed my way through the front door of Pepper Trucking. The woman at the front desk was in her forties and looked overworked, overfed, and underpaid.

“I’d like to talk to Silvio,” I told her.

Looking like she could care less, she punched a button on her multiline phone.

“There’s a woman here to see you,” she said. She rolled her eyes and looked over at me. “Who are you?”

“Stephanie Plum.”

“Stephanie Plum,” she repeated into the phone. She hung up and looked down the hall. “Second door on the right.”

Silvio looked like his photo but more wrinkled.

“You’re the bounty hunter, right?” he said. “I know you from around. I guess you’re looking for Jimmy.”

“Do you know where he is?”

“No, but I know where he should be. He should be in the nuthouse. He was always this smart guy. Businessman. Good poker player. Okay, maybe he had a weakness for the ladies, but who doesn’t? And so he made some bad business decisions, but hey, that’s no reason to go off the deep end and kill people.”

“So you think he’s the one who killed Bernie and Tommy?”

“Who else would kill them?”

I shrugged.

“I think it’s Jimmy,” Silvio said. “I think he’s afraid he’ll get ratted out. We were all pretty close. Not that we were involved, but we knew stuff.”

“What about Buster? Was he in business with Jimmy?”

“I don’t know exactly. Jimmy would send him on trips, and we figured it was business, but it could have been just to get cars.”

“I guess you’re worried.”

“Damn right I’m worried. Two of my best friends are dead. It’s terrible. How does stuff like this happen?”

“Maybe you should disappear for a while, like Ron.”

“Ron’s retired. He can go wherever he wants. I got a company to run. I’ve got people depending on me.”

“I don’t suppose you know where Ron is?”

He shook his head. “He just took off. No goodbye or anything. I hate to say it out loud, but he could be dead somewhere. He could have been the first one Jimmy took out.”

I gave him my card. “Let me know if you hear anything.”

He took the card and stared at it, blank-faced. “Sure.”

I went back to the Buick and got behind the wheel.

“Well?” Lula asked. “How’d it go?”

“As expected,” I said. “He knows nothing. He wasn’t involved. He thinks Jimmy’s gone postal.”

“Do you think all that’s true?” Lula asked.

“I don’t think any of it is true,” I said.

“I think the part about Jimmy going postal is true,” Briggs said.

I called Connie and asked her to do some snooping on Pepper Trucking. Was Silvio Pepper the sole owner? Where were the trucks kept when they were in town? What did the trucks haul?

I disconnected, then scanned Ron Siglowski’s background report. He was seventy years old and widowed. No children. He’d sold his insurance business five years ago and moved into a golf course community in Cranbury. His credit check didn’t turn up any recent airline tickets. No new withdrawals from his bank account. No new action on his credit cards. So either he was being smart and not leaving a trail, or else he was dead. I had no gut feeling either way.

The next stop was Pepper’s house. I knew a lot of people in the Burg, but I didn’t know Miriam Pepper. I left Lula and Briggs in the car and went to the door. Miriam answered the bell in a fuzzy pink bathrobe. She was in her sixties. She had short brown hair streaked with gray. She was chubby and rosy-cheeked. And the drink in her hand looked like Coke but smelled like hundred proof.

“You must be Stephanie Plum,” she said. “Silvio called and said you might be stopping by. He said I shouldn’t talk to you because goodness knows what I might say.”

It was eleven o’clock and the woman was in her bathrobe, getting cozy with Jim Beam. How lucky was this?

“You seem like an intelligent woman,” I said. “I’m sure you wouldn’t say anything inappropriate.”

“Thank you. I’m very discreet.”

“And that’s a lovely pink bathrobe.”

“Pink is my favorite color. It’s a happy color.”

“That’s so true. And I can see that you’re a happy person.”

“Especially when I have a little nip of something.” She leaned forward and whispered at me. “Actually, I’m an alcoholic. Would you like a Manhattan? I make an excellent Manhattan.”

“Thanks, but no. It’s early for me.”

“I like to get a head start on the day.”

“I wanted to ask you about Jimmy Poletti.”

Miriam knocked back some Manhattan. “He’s a pig.”

“In what way?”

“He’s a man. Isn’t that enough?”

“I was hoping you could be more specific.”

“Well, there’s his wife.”


“She’s thin.”

“I know,” I said. “I’ve met her.”

“How am I supposed to compete with that?”

“I’m sure Silvio loves you just the way you are.”


“Silvio. Your husband.”

She did a major eye roll. “Him! All he thinks about is that trucking company. I’ve had it up to here with that trucking company.”

“What sort of stuff does he haul?”

“He has a contract with a plant in Mexico that makes salsa and a plant in Newark that makes the containers. He carts the containers to Mexico and comes back with them full of salsa.”

Okay, now I’m getting somewhere. Another Mexican tie-in.

“Does he ever haul anything other than salsa?” I asked.

“I only know about the salsa. I’ve got a garage filled with five-gallon cans of the stuff. What the heck am I supposed to do with it all? I mean, do they pay him in salsa?”

“Did he ever haul anything for Jimmy?”

She stared into her whiskey glass. “It’s empty,” she said. “I hate when that happens.”

“About Jimmy.”

“Boy, I could use a cigarette,” she said. “Do you have any cigarettes on you?”

“No. Sorry. I don’t smoke.”




Standing just inside the front door, I saw a car pull into the driveway. Silvio.

I gave Miriam my card. “Call me if you want to talk.”

“Sure,” she said, “but you have to bring cupcakes.”

I passed Silvio on the sidewalk.

“Your wife is lovely,” I said. “You’re a lucky man.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Lucky me.”


“THIS ISN’T WORKING for me,” Lula said when I got back to the Buick. “I don’t want to be locked in the car with short stuff anymore.”

“Hey, what about me?” Briggs said. “You aren’t exactly my dream date.”

“You’d be lucky if I’m your dream date,” Lula said. “You never had a dream as good as me.”

“You’re not a dream,” Briggs said. “You’re a nightmare.”

“Oh yeah? How’d you like me to nightmare you a broken nose?”

“There’s not going to be any broken noses,” I said. “Jeez Louise, can we have some civility here?”

“We need a fun activity,” Lula said. “I think we should ride by Rangeman and see what’s going on. Maybe there’s guys in hazmat suits. Or maybe they got the building covered by one of them big yellow tents they use when you got termites.”

I headed out of the Burg and took Broad Street to downtown Trenton. Rangeman was located on a quiet side street, in a seven-story building that had secure underground parking. Ranger’s private apartment was on the top floor. Other floors were used for temporary housing of employees and detainees, a command center, offices, a gym, and an apartment for the building manager. A small plaque by the front door announced the name of the business. Windows were impact glass. All floors with the exception of the seventh were under constant surveillance.

I turned right off Broad and was stopped from making another turn by orange cones and yellow crime scene tape. The entire Rangeman block was cordoned off. An eighteen-wheeler crime scene lab was parked in front of the building, plus a bunch of cop cars, an EMT truck, a fire truck, and a hazmat unit truck.

A uniformed cop from the sheriff’s office was manning the barricade.

“What’s going on?” I asked him.

“There’s a contaminant in one of the buildings here,” he said. “No one’s allowed on the street until the building checks out.”

“How long is that going to be?” Lula asked.

The cop didn’t know.

A news service helicopter hovered over the building. Rangeman would be on the evening news. Ranger would hate that.

“I don’t get how something could contaminate this building,” Lula said. “This building is scary secure.”

I called Morelli.

“I’m idling at a barricade to Ranger’s street,” I said. “The whole street is blocked off, and there’s an eighteen-wheeler crime scene lab parked here. I’ve never seen an eighteen-wheeler crime scene lab. What’s going on?”

“I can’t talk now,” Morelli said. “I’ll meet you for lunch at Pino’s. Twelve o’clock.” And he disconnected.

Lula looked over at me. “Well? What’s going on?”

“He couldn’t talk.”

“Did he say if it was terrorists?”

“No, but I think it’s unlikely terrorists would target Ranger’s building.”

“This is killing me,” Lula said. “I hate when I don’t know stuff.”

It was killing me too. I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Something really bad had happened here. I was worried about Ranger. And I was worried about his men.

I drove away from the crime scene, turned at the next corner, and cut across town to Stark. As long as I was sort of in the neighborhood it wouldn’t hurt to check on Buster, and it would take my mind off Ranger. It was midmorning and the pizza place was filled with people. The area around it looked normal. No sign of police activity. I parked half a block away, on the opposite side of the street, and I watched the building while Lula and Briggs went to get pizza.

I tapped in Buster’s number, and he answered on the second ring. I introduced myself, and he hung up. I tried again, and he didn’t pick up. I ran across the street and banged on his door. Nothing. The door was locked.

Lula and Briggs joined me. Lula was carrying a large pizza box.

“We got a whole pie,” Lula said. “They were having a half-price sale.”

We backed up on the sidewalk and looked at the second-floor windows. No moving shadows. No television sounds drifting down to us.

“Did you try knocking on the door?” Lula asked.


“Then I’m guessing nobody is home, and we should go eat our pizza.”

[image: ]

I didn’t want to drag Lula and Briggs along on my lunch date, so I dropped Lula at the office and took Briggs to my parents’ house.

“Just in time for lunch,” Grandma said, opening the front door.

“I can’t stay,” I told her, “but I was hoping I could leave Randy here.”

“I suppose that would be okay,” Grandma said. “How long do we have to keep him?”

“An hour or two.”

“As long as you pick him up by three o’clock. Your mother has a dentist appointment, and I’m getting my hair done for the viewing tonight. It’s going to be a good viewing what with all the scandal. The place will be packed. And people are going to be hoping to get a showing from Jimmy.”

Grandma and her lady friends went to viewings four days out of seven, whether they knew the deceased or not. The funeral home served cookies, was filled with flowers, and was the Burg’s premier place to be seen and swap gossip.

“I doubt Jimmy will make an appearance,” I said to Grandma. “And I can’t see him going to the funeral either. He’d be instantly arrested.”

“Well, I’m going anyway,” she said. “There’s nothing on television but reruns.”

“I’m going too. Even if Jimmy isn’t there, the place will be filled with friends and relatives. Do you need a ride?”

“Sure, I could use a ride. You could come for dinner, and we could go together. Your mother is making pot roast tonight, with chocolate cake for dessert.”

“I love pot roast and chocolate cake,” Briggs said.

“I guess he could eat here too,” Grandma said.

“You have to behave yourself,” I said to Briggs. “No growling, biting, or kicking.”

“Yeah, we don’t give out chocolate cake to biters,” Grandma said.

“Jeez,” Briggs said. “You make me sound like an animal.”

I set my hands on my hips and looked down at him.

“Okay,” he said. “I might have done some of those things in the past, but they were justified. I gotta compensate for my size. It’s not like I can punch a guy in the nose.”

“That’s true,” Grandma said. “He has a point.”

“Thanks,” Briggs said. “You’re all right for an old lady.”

“I’m not so old,” Grandma said. “I got some good years left.”

I had my hand on the door handle. “I have to go,” I said to Grandma. “Put the television on for him. Cartoons or something. And don’t give him the remote or he’ll sign up for porn.”

“Those porn films have the best titles,” Grandma said. “I wouldn’t mind seeing some of them. I bought one once, but it was all naked girls and I wanted to see naked men.”

[image: ]

Morelli was already seated at a table when I walked into Pino’s. Pino’s is the restaurant of choice for most of the cops. It’s got a good bar, a small side room with a handful of tables, and a menu heavy on pizza and Italian American comfort food.

I sat across from him and glanced at the menu. It was a formality, because I knew the menu by heart. I’d been eating at Pino’s for years, and the menu never changed.

“Meatball sub,” I told the waitress. “And a Coke.”

“Same for me,” Morelli said.

He was wearing jeans, a black T-shirt, and a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows. His hair was about four weeks overdue for a cut, curling over his ears and at the nape of his neck. His brown eyes were serious, but there was a sensual softness to his mouth. He looked like the movie star version of an undercover cop.

“Did you leave Briggs locked in the car?” he asked.

“No. I dropped him off at my parents’ house.”

“I was afraid I’d be eating lunch with him.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Morelli grinned. “What would you do to me?”

“All sorts of good things,” I said.

“And what can I do to you?” he asked.

“I have a list.”

“Am I going to get to walk my fingers down that list anytime soon?”

“As soon as I capture Poletti and get rid of Briggs.”

Morelli ate part of a breadstick. “I’m working on it. I have my own reasons for wanting to talk to Poletti.”

“Any leads?”

He shook his head. “No leads, but his wife invited me to come back anytime.”

“So it wasn’t a total loss?”

Another grin. “I’m saving myself for you.”

I mostly believed him, but truth is, Morelli just about leaks excess testosterone from his pores. We have a tense relationship that skirts permanent commitment but acknowledges the “L” word. I’m careful not to question him too closely on his sex life beyond our relationship, because if I ever found out he was sleeping with someone else I’d have to kill her. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t kill her, but I’d certainly buy out the candy aisle at 7-Eleven, eat it all, and throw up.

“Let’s change the subject,” I said. “Tell me about Ranger.”

“Ranger had Emilio Gardi in custody, waiting for extradition to Miami. Gardi apparently had some very bad stuff with him that he was going to use to take out Ranger and his whole operation. Something went wrong, and Gardi accidentally took the hit. One of the Rangeman guys is also pretty sick, but everyone else got out in time.”

“Gardi was a setup?”

“Looks that way. I don’t know all the details. The feds aren’t releasing any information on the contaminant, but Gardi and the Rangeman guy are in isolation and being treated for radiation poisoning. And the first responders said Gardi was screaming about polonium, begging for medical help.”

“What’s polonium?”

“I don’t know exactly. I didn’t have time to Google it, but I’m told it’s the stuff some speculate killed Yasser Arafat. Supposedly it’s not a nice death.”

“That’s creepy.”

“Yeah. Probably you’re going to be too creeped out to sleep tonight and you’re going to need a big strong guy like me to keep you safe.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Did you make all this up just so I’d sleep with you?”

“No. I’m not that clever, but I am getting desperate, so let me know if it’s working.”

“I have Briggs to protect me.”

“I hear some sarcasm there, but I know Briggs, and he’s a mean little bastard. I wouldn’t underestimate him in a bar fight.”

Our food arrived, and we dug in.

“This doesn’t add up for me,” I finally said. “I was under the impression that Ranger and Gardi hadn’t met prior to Gardi’s arrest. Why was Gardi trying to take down Rangeman?”

“I imagine Gardi was working for someone. When it all went down, someone at Rangeman hit the big red button and the call simultaneously brought in the feds, the hazmat team, and Trenton first responders. The feds immediately took over and put a lid on any information coming from Gardi. I’m surprised you don’t know more from Ranger.”

“I spoke to him briefly, but he couldn’t talk.”

“I’m sure he’s scrambling, trying to keep his business running without his control room.”

And knowing Ranger, he was on the hunt for whoever’d sent Gardi.

“How long do you think he’ll be out of the building?” I asked Morelli.

“No one’s saying. This is the tightest security I’ve ever seen. Everyone’s walking around with their ass clenched.”

Welcome to my world. My sphincter isn’t exactly relaxed. Ranger has lots of enemies, and he sits with his back to the wall, so I’ve become used to a certain element of danger that always surrounds him. This was a whole other deal. This was stone cold scary.

“What are you doing this afternoon?” I asked.

“Paperwork. And I want to walk around Buster’s backyard. We still haven’t found the murder weapon.”

“I have my theory.”

Morelli finished his Coke and sat back in his chair. “I bet we both have the same theory.”

“I’m thinking Poletti isn’t the killer.”

“Yeah, it’s worth throwing into the mix. He could have let himself into the apartment for whatever reason, found another dead poker player, left in a panic, and ran into you on the way out.”

“Buster was in Atlantic City, so who else has a key?”

Morelli signaled for the check. “Turns out lots of people had keys, including Scootch.”

“Did you talk to Miriam Pepper?” I asked Morelli.

“I did. She was completely hammered at one in the afternoon. And I got a better offer from her than I did from Poletti’s wife.”

“Let me guess. She offered you a Manhattan.”

Morelli pushed back from the table. “I was inches from taking it.”


I LEFT MORELLI, drove back to my parents’ house, and retrieved Briggs.

“I got to take a look at tonight’s cake,” he said. “It’s awesome. Chocolate cake and chocolate frosting. And the frosting is real thick.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t carve off a chunk when no one was watching.”

“Someone was always watching. What are we doing now?”

“I don’t know. I’m at a dead end with Poletti.”

“If you haven’t got anything special to do, maybe we could drive past my apartment. The last time I saw it, fire trucks were all over the place and it was still smoking.”

I rolled out of the Burg and followed Hamilton to Grand Avenue. I parked across the street from Briggs’s building, and we looked over at it in silence. It was an ugly redbrick building built in the fifties. Three stories. Briggs lived on the second floor, and it was clear which apartment was his. The windows had been blown out in the explosion and were now patched with plywood. Thick black soot stained the brick on the second and third floors. The building’s front door was open, and hoses snaked out and dumped grimy gray water into the gutter. Two fire restoration vans were parked at the curb.

“Do you want to go in?” I asked him.

He shook his head. “I just wanted to take a look at the building. No point going in. I got a call from the insurance adjuster, and he said there was nothing left. He said the explosion blew a hole in the ceiling, and the fire spread to the third floor. Lucky no one was home there, either. No one got hurt.”

“Sorry about your apartment,” I said. “It’s hard to lose all your stuff like that.”

“You’ve had your place blown up a couple times,” Briggs said. “It must have been bad for you too.”

“The first time it happened was the worst. I was really rattled. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before.”

“Hard to believe,” Briggs said. “You’re a magnet for disaster. I figured you were one of those kids who had their bike run over by the garbage truck.”

“Only once,” I said. “But it was never blown up.”

“Yeah, there’s something about getting your shit blown up that takes it to a whole new level.”

“I’ve pretty much gone through my bag of tricks for tracking down Poletti,” I said. “I think it’s time to hang you out there as bait.”

“What? Are you nuts? He wants to kill me.”

“I’ll take precautions.”

“Such as?”

“I’ll be watching.”


“And I’ll catch him before he kills you.”

“How are you going to catch him?”

“I’ll rush him,” I said. “And give him a faceful of pepper spray.”

“I’m not completely comfortable with that.”

“I’ll use my stun gun.”

“What if you can’t get close enough to him?”

“Okay, how about if I put bullets in my .45, and then I can shoot him?”

Briggs nodded. “Bullets are good. That’s a good start. How’s your aim?”

“I’m a crack shot at ten feet.”

“You’re making me nervous. I might be getting diarrhea. I’m not well. I got IBS.”

“This won’t be a big deal. All you have to do is walk up and down Stark Street in front of Buster’s building.”

“What if I get diarrhea? I can feel it coming on just thinking about it.”

“Go into the pizza place and use their bathroom.”

“They might not have a public bathroom,” Briggs said.

“Then go out the back door and hide behind the dumpster.”

“Boy, that’s cold,” Briggs said.

“It’s Stark Street. People probably go behind the dumpster all the time.”

“All right. I guess I could try it, but I want to see your gun.”

“I don’t actually have my gun with me,” I said.

Briggs crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not doing it unless you have a gun.”

“Okay, great, fine, whatever. I’ll go get Lula. She always has a gun.”

[image: ]

“Damn right I got a gun,” Lula said, taking the front passenger seat. “I don’t mind using it either if it’s for a good cause. Or in this case to get Poletti before he rids the world of Mr. Poopie Pants.”

“It’s a legitimate medical condition,” Briggs said.

“So where are we gonna show him off?” Lula asked.

I put the Buick in gear and pulled into traffic. “I thought we’d start on Stark Street. We can stand him in front of Buster’s building.”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” Lula said. “Buster could look out his window, and see Briggs, and call Poletti to come off him.”

“Cripes,” Briggs said. “Could you phrase it some other way?”

“Your problem is you don’t know how to relax,” Lula said to Briggs. “You take everything so serious.”

“You’re talking about people killing me,” Briggs said. “That’s serious!”

“Do you have your cellphone?” I asked Briggs.

“Yeah. I got my cellphone.”

“When we get to Stark Street I’m going to drop you off in front of the pizza place, and then I’m going to park, and Lula and I will take up surveillance somewhere. Keep your cellphone handy, because I’ll call you if I think you’re in danger.”

“You’re going to be close, right? I mean, you’re only accurate to ten feet.”

“No problem,” I said. “We’ll make sure you’re covered.”

“And if you have to poop,” Lula said, “you tell us so we know we can take a break. I might need a piece of pizza or a donut or something.”

“Sure. How long do I have to do this?”

“I’m thinking until someone shoots at you, or runs you over with a car,” Lula said.

I stopped in front of the pizza place, and Briggs got out. He had his cellphone in his hand, and his face was white.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “You’ll be fine.”

He nodded and shuffled around a little.

“There’s a parking place on the other side of the street,” Lula said. “Go around the block and come back the other way.”

I drove around the block and parked two doors down and across the street from Briggs. He was still clutching his cellphone, and he was pacing the length of Buster’s building. Back and forth. Back and forth.

“He don’t look natural,” Lula said. “Nobody’s gonna shoot him with him looking like that.”

“We don’t want him shot,” I said. “We just want to drag Poletti out into the open.”

“I guess that’s one way to go.”

A half hour later a black SUV cruised down the street and stopped in front of Briggs and the pizza place.

“I can’t see Briggs anymore,” Lula said. “That big-ass black car is in my way.”

“Give me your gun.”


“Your gun!”

Lula stuck her hand into her purse and rooted around. “It’s in here somewhere.”

I was out of the Buick, running across the street, when the SUV took off. No Briggs on the sidewalk. I ran back to the Buick, jumped behind the wheel, and roared after the SUV.

“They’ve got him,” I said to Lula. “Have you found your gun yet?”

“I might have left it in my other purse. At the last minute I decided to wear these purple shoes, and you know how important it is to coordinate properly.”

I have two purses. One is a messenger bag I use every day. The other is a little evening bag I use three times a year. They’re both black.

The Buick has no pickup, but once it gets rolling it’s a tank. I was half a block behind the SUV when it stopped for a light. I rammed the Buick into the back of the SUV, bouncing it halfway into the intersection. One of the doors opened on the passenger side, and Briggs was tossed out. The light changed, and the crumpled SUV drove off.

Lula and I got out and picked Briggs up off the road.

“Are you okay?” I asked him.

“No thanks to you. I just got kidnapped.”

“Was it Poletti?”

“No. It was two whacked-out guys who said they always wanted to kidnap a midget. I mean, what the heck is wrong with this world? What has it come to?”

“Did you explain to them you aren’t a midget no more?” Lula asked. “That you are a very short person now?”

“No. I punched one of them in the nuts, and he threw me out of the car. I thought you were supposed to be protecting me. Suppose that was Poletti?”

“Hey, she crashed into that car for you,” Lula said. “She didn’t even care about damaging her own personal property.”

We all looked at the Buick. Not a scratch on it. The Buick is invincible.

Cars were pulling around us, beeping their horns. Briggs was giving them the finger.

“We should get in the car,” Lula said. “Not a good idea for a little white man to be giving the finger to people in this neighborhood.”

I drove us the length of Stark and turned left at State Street. I cut through town and took a small detour to check out Ranger’s building. The street was still cordoned off and filled with emergency vehicles. My heart stuttered in my chest, and a chill ripped through me. I circled the block and continued on to the bail bonds office. I dropped Lula off and brought Briggs back to my apartment.

“I thought we were going to your parents’ house for dinner,” he said. “Why are we here?”

“I have to change my clothes. I’m going to Mrs. Poletti’s viewing after dinner, and I can’t go in jeans and a T-shirt.”

“Why not?”

“It would be disrespectful. And my mother would hear about it, and she’d yell at me and get out the ironing. She irons when she’s upset. You want to stay away from her when she’s ironing.”

“If you ask me, your whole family is goofy.”

“I like to think we’re normally dysfunctional.”

I set Briggs in front of the television, then changed into a tailored black suit and a stretchy white tanktop with a scoop neck. I stuffed my feet into black heels, brushed my hair out and pulled it up into a new ponytail, added an extra swipe of mascara to my lashes, and I was good to go.

“Well, la-di-da,” Briggs said when he saw me. “Look at you all dressed up. If Poletti comes after me, you can spear him with the heel on your shoe.”


GRANDMA WAS WEARING shocking pink lipstick, a shocking pink dress, and white tennis shoes.

“You’re right on time,” she said, opening the front door and motioning us inside. “We’re having beer with the meal, but you could have a snort now if you need it.”

“Sounds good,” Briggs said. “I wouldn’t mind a cocktail. What have you got?”

“We got whiskey,” Grandma said. “I could fancy it up with ice, or you could take it like a man.”

“Whatever,” Briggs said.

Grandma ran off to get the whiskey, and I wandered into the living room with Briggs. My father was in his chair, watching television and doing the Jumble.

“Oh jeez,” he said when he looked up and saw Briggs. “You again.”

“It’s always a delight to see you, sir,” Briggs said.

“Boy, you really want that chocolate cake bad,” I said to Briggs.

“Fuckin’ A,” Briggs said.

Grandma trotted in with a tumbler of whiskey for Briggs. Briggs looked at the glass, looked at my father, and belted back half the whiskey. He gasped, and choked, and his eyes watered.

“Good,” Briggs said. “Smooth.”

Grandma and I helped my mother get the food to the table, and we all took our seats.

“God bless,” my father said, offloading half a cow onto his plate. He added a mound of mashed potatoes and four green beans, then poured gravy over everything. My father never got the memo about red meat, colonoscopies, or heart disease. His philosophy was that if you never went to the doctor, you never found out there was something wrong with you. So far it was working for him.

“This is delicious,” Briggs said to my mother, taking the pot roast for a test drive. “How do you get the gravy to look black like this?”

“She burns the meat,” Grandma said. “That’s the secret to good gravy. It’s got to be full of them carcinogens.”

Briggs gulped down the rest of his whiskey, looked at me, and mouthed “Help.”

“Just keep thinking about the cake,” I told him.

“This is going to be a real good viewing,” Grandma said. “There’s going to be lots of people there. We have to go early to get a good seat up front.”

My father kept his head down, working on his pot roast. And Briggs scraped the gravy off his potatoes.

“I hear they had to scramble to get a good casket for poor Mrs. Poletti,” Grandma said. “Nobody made arrangements ahead of time. Can you imagine? I got my casket all picked out. I’ve got it on the layaway plan. It’s a beauty. It’s got a white silk lining and everything.”

My father kept eating, but his knuckles were turning white holding his fork.

“No, sir,” Grandma said, “I’m not going to be caught short. I’m even working on my bucket list.”

Everyone stopped eating and turned to Grandma.

“What’s on your bucket list?” I asked.

“I got six things so far,” Grandma said. “First off, I want new breasts. These ones I got are a mess. They got all flattened and droopy. Second, I want to see Ranger naked. If I can’t see him naked, I’ll settle for almost naked. Except, I sure would like to see his privates. I bet they’re a sight, and I don’t get to see a lot of privates these days.”

My mother’s face flushed, Briggs squirmed in his seat, and a piece of pot roast fell out of my father’s mouth.

“And then I want to get Joe’s Grandma Bella,” Grandma said. “She don’t scare me with her evil eye baloney. I don’t know how I’m going to get her, but I’m going to get her good. The fourth thing is I want to march in a parade. The fifth thing is I want to take down a bad guy. And the last thing is a secret.” Grandma looked over at Briggs. “How about you? Do you have a bucket list?”

“Nothing formal,” Briggs said. “Mostly I’d like to stay out of prison and not die anytime soon.”

“That’s a good start,” Grandma said.

With the exception of the boob job, my bucket list was about the same as Grandma’s. It might be fun to march in a parade, and I’d already seen Ranger naked but he was worth another look … or two or three or many. And that thought gave me a small anxiety attack. I sent him a text message that said Talk to me, and he texted back Patience.

Briggs washed his pot roast down with two beers, and I thought he looked a little glassy-eyed.

“Are you okay?” I asked him.

“Mmmm,” he said. “Mmmmarvelous.” And his eyes drooped closed.

“Maybe he needs some cake to perk him up,” Grandma said.

“He’s trashed,” my father said.

Grandma looked at him. “Guess he’s not so good with liquor.”

Considering he was only about three feet tall and had just chugged down a water glass of hooch plus two beers, I thought he’d done okay. If I drank all that, I’d be under the table.

I helped Grandma clear the dishes, and my mom brought the cake to the table. Briggs opened his eyes and tried to focus.

“Cake,” he said. “Cake good.”

He plowed through his piece of cake and slumped in his seat. His eyes slid closed, and a little chocolate drool oozed from the side of his mouth.

“Maybe we should get him to the couch and let him sleep it off,” I said.

“There’s no way in hell I’m sharing my living room with him,” my father said. “If you want him to keep breathing, you’ll dump him someplace far away from my television.”

“We could lay him out on the kitchen floor,” Grandma said. “That way he won’t mess anything up with his drooling. And if we put him behind the table, no one will step on him.”

My mother took one foot, Grandma took the other, I got Briggs under the armpits, and we lugged him into the kitchen. We stretched him out behind the table, and Grandma put a kitchen towel under his head.

“He looks real peaceful there,” Grandma said.

I thought about handcuffing him to the stove so he wouldn’t wake up and wander away, but I only had one pair of handcuffs with me, and I might need them if I found Poletti.

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I was lucky enough to get the last spot in the small parking lot attached to the funeral home. A few people were gathered on the big front porch, and more people were milling around in the lobby. Mrs. Poletti was in Slumber Room No. 1, which was a spot of honor reserved for the deceased who were expected to draw larger than usual crowds—mob bosses, victims of violent deaths, minor celebrities, and Grand Poobahs of the Knights of Columbus.

Grandma marched straight to the viewing room without so much as a nod to the cookie table. Her eyes narrowed and her lips compressed when she saw that the first row in front of the casket was already taken by the Poletti family. She would have to settle for a seat in the second row.

“Some of them family members should be standing at the head of the casket with the husband of the deceased,” Grandma said. “This new generation don’t know much.”

I recognized the two grandsons, Oswald and Aaron, Aaron’s wife, and Buster. “Who’s the man sitting next to Buster?” I asked Grandma. “He was at the house the day Mrs. Poletti died.”

“He’s some out-of-state relative who was visiting while he was on a job interview,” Grandma said.

“And the three older women next to him?”

“Sisters of the deceased. All of them spinsters. There was rumors of them always being a little off.”

“In what way?”

“I heard they liked