Explosive Eighteen

#18 in the series


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Explosive Eighteen


New Jersey was 40,000 feet below me, obscured by cloud cover. Heaven was above me, beyond the thin skin of the plane. And hell was sitting four rows back. Okay, maybe hell was too strong. Maybe it was just purgatory.

My name is Stephanie Plum, and I work as a bail-bonds enforcer for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds in Trenton, New Jersey. I’d recently inherited airline vouchers from a dead guy and used them to take a once-in-a-lifetime Hawaiian vacation. Unfortunately, the vacation didn’t go as planned, and I’d been forced to leave Hawaii ahead of schedule, like a thief sneak-
ing off in the dead of night. I’d abandoned two angry men in Honolulu, called my friend Lula, and asked her to pick me up at Newark Airport.

As if my life wasn’t enough in the toilet, I was now on the plane home, seated four rows ahead of a guy who looked like Sasquatch and was snoring like a bear in a cave. Good thing I wasn’t sitting next to him, because I surely would have strangled him in his sleep by now. I was wearing airline–distributed earphones pumped up to maximum volume, but they weren’t helping. The snoring had started somewhere over Denver and got really ugly over Kansas City. After several loud passenger comments suggesting someone take the initiative and smother the guy, flight attendants confiscated all the pillows and began passing out free alcoholic beverages. Three–quarters of the plane was now desperately drunk, and the remaining quarter was either underage or alternatively medicated. Two of the underage were screaming-crying, and I was pretty sure the kid behind me had pooped in his pants.

I was among the drunk. I was wondering how I was going to walk off the plane and navigate the terminal with any sort of dignity, and I was hoping my ride was waiting for me.

Sasquatch gave an extra loud snork, and I ground my teeth together. Just land this friggin’ plane, I thought. Land it in a cornfield, on a highway, in the ocean. Just get me out of here!

Lula pulled into my apartment building parking lot, and I thanked her for picking me up at the airport and bringing me home.

“No problemo,” she said, dropping me at the back door to the lobby. “There wasn’t nothing on television, and I’m between honeys, so it wasn’t like I was leaving anything good behind.”

I waved her off and trudged into my apartment building. I took the elevator to the second floor, dragged my luggage down the hall and into my apartment, and shuffled into my bedroom.

It was after midnight, and I was exhausted. My vacation in Hawaii had been unique, and the flight home had been hellish. Turbulence over the Pacific, a layover in L.A., and the snoring. I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself. I was back to work tomorrow, but for now I had to make a choice. I was completely out of clean clothes. That meant I could be a slut and sleep naked, or I could be a slob and sleep in what I was wearing.

Truth is, I’m not entirely comfortable sleeping naked. I do it from time to time, but I worry that God might be watching or that my mother might find out, and I’m pretty sure they both think nice girls should wear pajamas to bed.

In this case, being a slob required less effort, and that’s where I chose to go.

Unfortunately, I was in the same wardrobe predicament when I dragged myself out of bed the next morning, so I emptied my suitcase into my laundry basket, grabbed the messenger bag that serves as a purse, and headed for my parents’ house. I could use my mom’s washer and dryer, and I thought I had some emergency clothes left in their spare bedroom. Plus, they’d been babysitting my hamster, Rex, while I was away, and I wanted to retrieve him.

I live in a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in an aging three–story brick–faced apartment building located on the edge of Trenton. On a good traffic day, at four in the morning, it’s a ten–minute drive to my parents’ house or the bonds office. All other times, it’s a crapshoot.

Grandma Mazur was at the front door when I pulled to the curb and parked. She’s lived with my parents since Grandpa Mazur took the big escalator to the heavenly food court in
the sky. Sometimes I think my father wouldn’t mind seeing Grandma step onto that very same escalator, but I can’t see it happening anytime soon. Her steel-gray hair was cut short and tightly curled on her head. Her nails matched her bright red lipstick. Her lavender-and-white running suit hung slack on her bony shoulders.

“What a good surprise,” Grandma said, opening the door to me. “Welcome home. We’re dying to hear all about the
vacation with the hottie.”

My parents’ home is a modest duplex, sharing a common wall with its mirror image. Mrs. Ciak lives in the other half. Her husband has passed on, and she spends her days baking coffee cake and watching television. The outside of her half is painted pale green, and the exterior of my parents’ house is mustard yellow and brown. It’s not an attractive combination, but it feels comfortable to me since it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. Each half of the house has a postage- stamp front yard, a small covered front porch, a back stoop leading to a long narrow backyard, and a detached single-car garage.

I lugged the laundry basket through the living room and dining room to the kitchen, where my mother was chopping vegetables.

“Soup?” I asked her.

“Minestrone. Are you coming for dinner?”

“Can’t. Got plans.”

My mother glanced at the laundry basket. “I just put a load of sheets into the washer. If you leave that here, I’ll do it later for you. How was Hawaii? We didn’t expect you home until tomorrow.”

“Hawaii was good, but the plane ride was long. Fortunately, I sat next to a guy who got off when we stopped in L.A., so I had more room.”

“Yeah, but you were also next to Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome.” Grandma said.

“Not exactly.”

This got both their attentions.

“How so?” Grandma asked.

“It’s complicated. He didn’t fly back with me.”

Grandma stared at my left hand. “You got a tan, except on your ring finger. It looks like you were wearing a ring when you got a tan, but you’re not wearing it no more.”

I looked at my hand. Bummer. When I took the ring off, I hadn’t noticed a tan line.

“Now I know why you went to Hawaii,” Grandma said. “I bet you eloped! Of course, being that you don’t got the ring on anymore would put a damper on the celebration.”

I blew out a sigh, poured myself a cup of coffee, and my phone rang. I dug around in my bag, unable to find the
phone in the jumble of stuff I’d crammed in for the plane trip. I dumped it all out onto the little kitchen table and pawed through it. Granola bars, hairbrush, lip balm, hair scrunchies, notepad, wallet, socks, two magazines, a large yellow envelope, floss, mini flashlight, travel pack of tissues, three pens, and my phone.

The caller was Connie Rosolli, the bail bonds office manager. “I hope you’re on your way to the office,” she said, “because we have a situation here.”

“What sort of situation?”

“A bad one.”

“How bad? Can it wait twenty minutes?”

“Twenty minutes sounds like a long time.”

I disconnected and stood. “Gotta go,” I said to my mother and grandmother.

“But you just got here,” Grandma said. “We didn’t get to hear about the eloping.”

“I didn’t elope.”

I returned everything to my messenger bag, with the exception of the phone and the yellow envelope. I put the phone in an outside pocket, and I looked at the envelope. No writing on it. Sealed. I had no clue how it had gotten into my bag. I ripped it open and pulled a photograph out. It was an 8310 glossy of a man. He was standing on a street corner, looking just past the photographer. He looked like he didn’t know he was being photographed, like someone had happened along with their cell phone camera and snapped his picture. He was possibly midthirties to early forties, and nice looking in a button–down kind of way. Short brown hair. Fair–skinned. Wearing a dark suit. I didn’t recognize the street corner or the man. Somehow on the trip home, I must have picked the envelope up by mistake—-maybe when I stopped at the newsstand in the airport.

“Who’s that?” Grandma asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I snatched it up with a magazine.”

“He’s kind of hot. Is there a name on the back?”

“Nope. Nothing.”

“Too bad,” Grandma said. “He’s a looker, and I’m thinking about becoming a cougar.”

My mother cut her eyes to the cupboard where she kept her whiskey. She glanced at the clock on the wall and gave up a small sigh of regret. Too early.

I dropped the envelope and the photo into the trash, chugged my coffee, grabbed a bagel from the bag on the counter, and ran upstairs to change.

Twenty minutes later, I was at the bonds office. I use
the term office lightly since we were operating out of a converted motor coach parked on Hamilton Avenue directly
in front of the construction site for a new brick-and-mortar office. The new construction had been made necessary by a fire of suspicious origin that totally destroyed the original building.

My cousin Vinnie bought the bus from a friend of mine, and while it wasn’t perfect, it was better than setting up
shop in the food court at the mall. Connie’s car was parked behind the coach, and Vinnie’s car was parked behind

Vinnie is a good bail bondsman but a boil on my family’s backside. In the past, he’s been a gambler, a womanizer, a philanderer, a card cheat, and I’m pretty sure he once had a romantic encounter with a duck. He looks like a weasel in pointy–toed shoes and too-tight pants. His father–in–law, Harry the Hammer, for all purposes owns the agency, and due to recent scandalous events involving misappropriated money, gambling, and whoring, Vinnie’s wife, Lucille, now owns

I parked my junker Toyota RAV4 behind Vinnie’s Caddy, and checked out the scene in front of me. The cinder-block shell of the new bonds office was complete. The roof was on. Workers were inside banging in nails and using power tools. I looked from the construction site to the bonds bus, where I could see light creeping out from drawn shades. It all looked like business as usual.

I wrenched the coach door open and climbed the three steps up to the cockpit and beyond. Connie was at the dinette table, her purse on the bench seat next to her. Her laptop computer was closed.

Connie is a couple years older than me and a much better shot with a gun. She was wearing a magenta sweater with
a deep V–neck, showing more cleavage than I could ever
hope to grow. Her black hair had recently been straightened and was pulled up into a messy knot on the top of her head. She was wearing big chunky gold earrings and a matching necklace.

She stood when she saw me. “I’m going downtown to the courthouse,” she said. “I need to bond out Vinnie. He’s been arrested, and they won’t let him write his own bond.”

Oh boy. “Now what?”

“He had a dispute with DeAngelo and took a tire iron to his Mercedes. DeAngelo fired off a couple rounds at Vinnie’s Caddy, Vinnie Tasered DeAngelo, and that’s when the police showed up and dragged them both off to jail.”

Salvatore DeAngelo was the contractor Harry had hired to rebuild the bonds office after it burned to the ground. DeAngelo was better known as the contractor from hell since he did everything his way, did nothing without a bribe, and worked on DeAngelo Time, which had no relationship to an actual workweek.

“Well, at least it’s nothing serious,” I said.

“Yeah, but it could be if DeAngelo gets bonded out before Vinnie and comes back and sets fire to Vinnie’s bus.”

“Do you think DeAngelo would do that?” I asked Connie.

“Hard to tell what DeAngelo would do. That’s why I didn’t want to leave until you got here to stand guard.” Connie handed me the key to the gun cabinet. “You might want to pick something out and keep it handy.”

“You want me to shoot him?”

“Only if you have to,” Connie said, clomping down the stairs to the coach door in her four–inch cork wedges. “I won’t be long. And the files on the table are for you. They’re the no–shows for court that came in while you were on vacation.”

Oh great, I was supposed to babysit a bus that might at any moment go up in flames. On the other hand, Vinnie was my cousin and employer. And without the bus, we’d be renting space from the adult bookstore or working out of Connie’s Hyundai. All that still didn’t mean I was willing to get toasted protecting Vinnie’s makeshift office.

I took the Failure to Appear files outside, hauled a lawn chair out of the storage compartment under the bus, and set the chair in the shade. This way, I could divert a Molotov cocktail and not get trapped inside a flaming inferno.

I sat in the chair and paged through the files. Purse snatcher, armed robbery, domestic violence, a burglary suspect, credit card fraud, assault, a second armed robbery. I wanted to be back in Hawaii. I closed my eyes and sucked in some air, searching for the smell of the sea and instead catching exhaust fumes and a funky stench coming off the construction Dumpster.

A car eased to a stop behind my RAV4 and two men got out. One of them was Salvatore DeAngelo, a short, barrel–chested guy with a lot of wavy black hair going gray. He was wearing pleated dress slacks, a silky black short–sleeved shirt, and a thick gold chain that was stuck in a mat of chest hair that looked slightly singed . . . no doubt from Vinnie shooting a bunch of volts into him with his Taser.

DeAngelo sauntered over to me and stood hands in pants pockets, jiggling change. “Hey, cutie,” he said. “What’s up? Any special reason why you’re sitting outside? Like, are you looking for street business? ’Cause I might have some business for you, if you know what I mean.”

I was thinking Vinnie did the right thing when he Tasered DeAngelo.

“I’m just doing my job,” I said. “I’m supposed to shoot you if you firebomb the bus.”

“I don’t see no gun.”

“It’s hidden.”

“I bet,” he said. “Let me know if you change your mind about takin’ care of my business. And give me some credit here. I don’t firebomb buses in broad daylight. I do that shit at night when no one’s around.”

DeAngelo turned away and walked into the half–finished bonds office building, and I returned to my files.

The subject of the last file in the stack was a surprise. Joyce Barnhardt. She’d allegedly stolen a necklace from a downtown jewelry store and had assaulted the owner when he’d tried to retrieve it. Vinnie had bonded her out of jail, and she’d failed to show for court three days later.

I’d gone all through school with Joyce, and she’d made my life a misery. She was an obnoxious, sneaky, mean kid, and now she was an unscrupulous, self–serving, man–eating adult. From time to time, she’d tried her hand at working for Vinnie in various capacities, but none of the jobs stuck. Truth is, Joyce made her money through serial marriage, and last I looked, she was doing just fine. Hard to believe she’d stolen a necklace. Easy to believe she’d assaulted the store owner.

Explosive Eighteen Copyright © 2011 by Evanovich, Inc.  Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Random House, Inc., 1745 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10019