It was January in Trenton. The sky was gunmetal gray, and the air sat dead cold on cars and sidewalks. Inside the offices of Vincent Plum, bail bond agent, the atmosphere was no less grim, and I was sweating not from heat but from panic.
‘‘I can’t do this,’’ I said to my cousin, Vinnie. ‘‘I’ve never refused a case before, but I can’t pick this guy up. Give the paperwork to Ranger. Give it to Barnes.’’
‘‘I’m not giving this two-bit Failure to Appear to Ranger,’’ Vinnie said. ‘‘It’s the kind of penny-ante stuff you do. For chrissake, be a professional. You’re a bounty hunter. You’ve been a bounty hunter for five fucking months. What’s the big deal?’’
‘‘This is Uncle Mo!’’ I said. ‘‘I can’t apprehend Uncle Mo. Everyone will hate me. My mother will hate me. My best friend will hate me.’’
Vinnie slumped his slim, boneless body into the chair behind his desk and rested his head on the padded leather back. ‘‘Mo jumped bail. That makes him a slimeball. That’s all that counts.’’
I rolled my eyes so far into the top of my head I almost fell over backward.
Moses Bedemier, better known as Uncle Mo, started selling ice cream and penny candy on June 5, 1958, and has been at it ever since. His store is set on the edge of the burg, a comfy residential chunk of Trenton where houses and minds are proud to be narrow and hearts are generously wide open. I was born and raised in the burg and while my current apartment is approximately a mile outside the burg boundary I’m still tethered by an invisible umbilical. I’ve been hacking away at the damn thing for years but have never been able to completely sever it.
Moses Bedemier is a solid burg citizen. Over time, Mo and his linoleum have aged, so that both have some pieces chipped at the corners now, and the original colors have blurred from thirty-odd years under fluorescent lights. The yellow brick facade and overhead sheet metal sign advertising the store are dated and weather-beaten. The chrome and Formica on the stools and countertop have lost their luster. And none of this matters, because in the burg Uncle Mo’s is as close as we come to a historic treasure.
And I, Stephanie Plum, 125 pounds, five feet, seven inches, brown-haired, blue-eyed bounty hunter at large, have just been assigned the task of hauling Uncle Mo’s revered ass off to jail.
‘‘So what did he do?’’ I asked Vinnie. ‘‘Why was he arrested in the first place?’’
‘‘Got caught doing thirty-five in a twenty-five-mile-per-hour zone by Officer Picky . . . better known as Officer Benny Gaspick, fresh out of police academy and so wet behind the ears he doesn’t know enough to take Mo’s get-out-of-jail-free PBA card and forget the whole thing.’’
‘‘Bond isn’t required on a traffic ticket.’’
Vinnie planted a pointy-toed patent leather shoe on the corner of his desk. Vinnie was a sexual lunatic, especially enamored with dark-skinned young men wearing nipple rings and pointy-breasted women who owned fourteenth century torture tools. He was a bail bondsman, which meant he loaned people money to post the bond set by the court. The bond’s purpose was to make it economically unpleasant for the suspect to skip town. Once the bond was posted the incarcerated suspect was set free, enabling him to sleep in his own bed while awaiting trial. The price for using Vinnie’s service was fifteen percent of the bond and was nonrefundable no matter what the outcome of the charges. If the bailee failed to appear for his court appearance, the court kept Vinnie’s money. Not just the fifteen percent profit. The court kept the whole ball of wax, the entire bail bond amount. This never made Vinnie happy.
And that’s where I came in. I found the bailee, who was at that point officially a felon, and brought him back into the system. If I found the Failure to Appear, better known as an FTA, in a timely fashion, the court gave Vinnie his cash back. For this fugitive apprehension I received ten percent of the bond amount, and Vinnie was left with a five percent profit.
I’d originally taken the job out of desperation when I’d been laid off (through no fault of my own) as lingerie buyer for E. E. Martin. The alternative to unemployment had been overseeing the boxing machine at the tampon factory. A worthy task, but not something that got me orgasmic.
I wasn’t sure why I was still working for Vinnie. I suspected it had something to do with the title. Bounty hunter. It held a certain cachet. Even better, the job didn’t require panty hose.
Vinnie smiled his oily smile, enjoying the story he was telling me. ‘‘In his misplaced zeal to be Most Hated Cop of the Year, Gaspick delivers a little lecture to Mo on road safety, and while Gaspick is lecturing, Mo squirms in his seat, and Gaspick catches a glimpse of a forty-five stuck in Mo’s jacket pocket.’’
‘‘And Mo got busted for carrying concealed,’’ I said.
Carrying concealed was frowned upon in Trenton. Permits were issued sparingly to a few jewelers, and judges and couriers. Getting caught carrying concealed illegally was considered unlawful possession of a firearm and was an indictable offense. The weapon was confiscated, bail was set and the bearer of the weapon was shit out of luck.
Of course, this didn’t stop a sizable percentage of the population of Jersey from carrying concealed. Guns were bought at Bubba’s Gun Shop, inherited from relatives, passed off among neighbors and friends and purchased second-, third- and fourth-hand from and by citizens who were fuzzy on the details of gun control. Logic dictated that if the government issued a license to own a gun then it must be okay to put it in your purse. I mean, why else would a person want a gun if not to carry it in her purse? And if it wasn’t okay to carry a gun in your purse, then the law was stupid. And no one in Jersey was going to put up with a stupid law.
I was even known, on occasion, to carry concealed. At this very moment I could see Vinnie’s ankle holster causing a bulge at the cuff line of his polyester slacks. Not only was he carrying concealed but I’d lay odds his gun wasn’t registered.
‘‘This is not a big-time offense,’’ I said to Vinnie. ‘‘Not something worth going Failure to Appear.’’
‘‘Probably Mo forgot he had a court date,’’ Vinnie said.
‘‘Probably all you have to do is go remind him.’’
Hold that thought, I told myself. This might not be such a disaster after all. It was ten o’clock. I could mosey on over to the candy store and talk to Mo. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized my panic had been ungrounded. Mo had no reason to go FTA.
I closed the door on my way out of Vinnie’s office, and sidestepped around Connie Rosolli. Connie was the office manager and Vinnie’s guard dog. She held Vinnie in the same high esteem one would reserve for slug slime, but she’d worked for Vinnie for a lot of years, and had come to accept that even slug slime was part of God’s great scheme.
Connie was wearing fuchsia lipstick, matching nail enamel and a white blouse with big black polka dots. The nail enamel was very cool, but the blouse wasn’t a good choice for someone who carried sixty percent of her body weight on her chest. Good thing the fashion police didn’t do too many tours of Trenton.
‘‘You aren’t going to do it, are you?’’ she asked. The tone implying that only a dog turd would cause Uncle Mo a moment of grief.
No offense taken. I knew where she lived. We had the same mental zip code. ‘‘You mean am I going to talk to Mo? Yeah, I’m going to talk to Mo.’’
Connie’s black eyebrows fused into a straight line of righteous indignation. ‘‘That cop had no business arresting Uncle Mo. Everyone knows Uncle Mo would never do anything wrong.’’
‘‘He was carrying concealed.’’
‘‘As if that was a crime,’’ Connie said.
‘‘That is a crime!’’
Lula’s head came up from her filing. ‘‘What’s all the deal about this Uncle Mo, anyway?’’
Lula was a former hooker turned file clerk. She’d just recently embarked on a makeover program that included dyeing her hair blond and then straightening it and recurling it into ringlets. The transformation had her looking like a 230-pound black kick-ass Shirley Temple.
‘‘Moses Bedemier,’’ I said. ‘‘He runs a candy store on Ferris Street. Very popular person.’’
‘‘Uh-oh,’’ she said. ‘‘I think I know him. He about in his early sixties? Going bald on top? Lotta liver spots? Got a nose looks like a penis?’’
‘‘Um, I never really noticed his nose.’’
Vinnie had given me Uncle Mo’s file, which consisted of stapled-together copies of his arrest sheet, his signed bond agreement and a photo. I turned to the photo and stared at Uncle Mo.
Lula stared over my shoulder. ‘‘Yup,’’ she said. ‘‘That’s him all right. That’s Old Penis Nose.’’
Connie was out of her chair. ‘‘Are you telling me Uncle Mo was a client? I don’t believe that for a second!’’
Lula narrowed her eyes and stuck her lip out. ‘‘Yo momma.’’
‘‘Nothing personal,’’ Connie said.
‘‘Hunh,’’ Lula replied, hand on hip.
I zipped my jacket and wrapped my scarf around my neck. ‘‘You sure about knowing Uncle Mo?’’ I asked Lula.
She took one last look at the picture. ‘‘Hard to say. You know how all them old white men look alike. Maybe I should come with you to check this dude out in person.’’
‘‘No!’’ I shook my head. ‘‘Not a good idea.’’
‘‘You think I can’t do this bounty hunter shit?’’
Lula hadn’t yet embarked on the language makeover.
‘‘Well, of course you can do it,’’ I said. ‘‘It’s just that this situation is sort of . . . delicate.”
‘‘Hell,’’ she said, stuffing herself into her jacket. ‘‘I can delicate your ass off.’’
‘‘Yes, but . . .’’
‘‘Anyway, you might need some help here. Suppose he don’t want to come peaceful. You might need a big, full figure woman like me to do some persuading.’’
Lula and I had crossed paths while I was on my first felon hunt. She’d been a streetwalker, and I’d been street stupid. I’d unwittingly involved her in the case I was working on, and as a result, one morning I found her battered and bloody on my fire escape.
Lula credited me with saving her life, and I blamed myself for endangering it. I was in favor of wiping the slate clean, but Lula formed a sort of attachment to me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was hero worship. It was more like one of those Chinese things where if you save a person’s life they belong to you . . . even if you don’t want them.
‘‘We’re not doing any persuading,’’ I said. ‘‘This is Uncle Mo. He sells candy to kids.’’
Lula had her pocketbook looped over her arm. ‘‘I can dig it,’’ she said, following me out the door. ‘‘You still driving that old Buick?’’
‘‘Yeah. My Lotus is in the shop.’’
Actually, my Lotus was in my dreams. A couple months ago my Jeep got stolen, and my mother, in a burst of misguided good intentions, strong-armed me into the driver’s seat of my uncle Sandor’s ’53 Buick. Strained finances and lack of backbone had me still peering over the mile-long powder-blue hood, wondering at the terrible acts I must have committed to deserve such a car.
A gust of wind rattled the Fiorello’s Deli sign next to Vinnie’s office. I pulled my collar up and searched in my pocket for gloves.
‘‘At least the Buick’s in good shape,’’ I told Lula.
‘‘That’s what counts, right?’’
‘‘Hunh,’’ Lula said. ‘‘Only people who don’t have a cool car say things like that. How about the radio? It got a bad radio? It got Dolby?’’
‘‘Hold on,’’ she said. ‘‘You don’t expect me to ride around with no Dolby. I need some hot music to get me in the mood to bust ass.’’
I unlocked the doors to the Buick. ‘‘We are not busting ass. We’re going to talk to Uncle Mo.’’
‘‘Sure,’’ Lula said, settling herself in, giving a disgusted glare to the radio. ‘‘I know that.’’
I drove one block down Hamilton and turned left onto Rose into the burg. There was little to brighten the neighborhood in January. The blinking twinkle lights and red plastic Santas of Christmas were packed away, and spring was still far in the future. Hydrangea bushes were nothing more than mean brown sticks, lawns were frost-robbed of color and streets were empty of kids, cats, car washers and blaring radios. Windows and doors were shut tight against the cold and gloom.
Even Uncle Mo’s felt sterile and unwelcoming as I slowed to a stop in front of the store.
Lula squinted through my side window. ‘‘I don’t want to rain on your parade,’’ she said, ‘‘but I think this sucker’s closed.’’
I parked at the curb. ‘‘That’s impossible. Uncle Mo never closes. Uncle Mo hasn’t been closed a day since he opened in nineteen fifty-eight.’’
‘‘Well guess what? I’m telling you he’s closed now.’’
I hopped out of Big Blue and walked to Mo’s door and looked inside. No lights were on, and Uncle Mo was no where to be seen. I tried the door. Locked. I knocked on the door good and loud. Nothing. Damn.
‘‘He must be sick,’’ I said to Lula.
The candy store sat on a corner, facing Ferris Street, with the side of the store running down King. A long line of neat duplexes stretched the length of Ferris, pushing their way to the heart of the burg. King, on the other hand, had fallen on hard times, with most of its duplexes converted to multiple families. The tidy white sheers and starched Martha Washington curtains of the burg weren’t in evidence on King. Privacy on King came by way of tacked-up sheets and tattered shades, and from an unpleasant sense that this was no longer a desired community.
‘‘Some scary old lady’s looking at us out of the window of that house next door,’’ Lula said.
I looked one house down on Ferris and shivered. ‘‘That’s Mrs. Steeger. She was my teacher when I was in the third grade.’’
‘‘Bet that was fun.’’
‘‘Longest year of my life.’’
To this day I got cramps when I had to do long division.
‘‘We should talk to her,’’ I said to Lula.
‘‘Yeah,’’ Lula said. ‘‘Nosy old woman like that probably knows lots of stuff.’’
I hiked my pocketbook higher on my shoulder, and Lula and I marched over and knocked on Mrs. Steeger’s door.
The door was opened just far enough for me to see that Mrs. Steeger hadn’t changed much over the years. She was still rail thin, with a pinched face and snappy little eyes lying in wait under eyebrows that appeared to have been drawn on with brown marker. She’d been widowed last year. Retired the year before that. She was dressed in a brown dress with little white flowers, stockings and sensible shoes. Her glasses hung from a chain around her neck. Her hair was curled tight, dyed brown. She didn’t look like she was adapting to a life of leisure.
I handed her my business card and introduced myself as a fugitive apprehension agent.
‘‘What’s that mean?’’ she wanted to know. ‘‘Are you a police officer?’’
‘‘Not exactly. I work for Vincent Plum.’’
‘‘So,’’ she said, considering the information. ‘‘You’re a bounty hunter.’’
This was said with the same affection one would have for a drug pusher or child abuser. The tilt of her chin warned of possible disciplinary action, and her attitude implied if I’d mastered long division I might have made something of myself.
‘‘What’s this have to do with Moses?’’ she asked.
‘‘He was arrested on a minor charge and then missed a court appearance. The Plum agency arranged bail, so I need to find Mo and help him set a new date.’’
‘‘Mo would never do anything wrong,’’ Mrs. Steeger said.
‘‘Do you know where he is?’’ I asked.
She drew herself up an extra half inch. ‘‘No. And I think it’s a shame you can’t find anything better to do than to go out harassing good men like Moses Bedemier.’’
‘‘I’m not harassing him. I’m simply going to help him arrange a new court date.’’
‘‘Liar, liar, pants on fire,’’ Mrs. Steeger said. ‘‘You were a little fibber in the third grade, and you’re a little fibber now. Always trying to sneak gum into my classroom.’’
‘‘Well, thanks anyway,’’ I said to Mrs. Steeger. ‘‘Nice seeing you after all these years.’’
SLAM. Mrs. Steeger closed her door.
‘‘Should of lied,’’ Lula said. ‘‘You never learn anything telling the truth like that. Should of told her you worked for the lottery commission, and Mo won a shitload of money.’’
‘‘Maybe next time.’’
‘‘Maybe next time we just open the door and start out with some bitch slapping.’’
I gave Lula a horrified glare.
‘‘Just a suggestion,’’ Lula said.
I stepped over to the next porch and was about to knock when Mrs. Steeger stuck her head out her door again.
‘‘Don’t bother,’’ she said. ‘‘The Whiteheads are in Florida. Harry always takes his vacation this time of the year. Won’t be back for two weeks.’’
SLAM. She vanished behind the closed door.
‘‘No problem,’’ I said to Lula. ‘‘We’ll try door number three.’’
Dorothy Rostowski opened door number three.
‘‘I didn’t realize you were living here.’’
‘‘Almost a year now.’’
She had a baby on her hip and another in front of the television. She smelled like she’d been knocking back mashed bananas and Chablis.
‘‘I’m looking for Uncle Mo,’’ I said. ‘‘I expected he’d be working in the store.’’
Dorothy shifted the baby. ‘‘He hasn’t been here for two days. You aren’t looking for him for Vinnie, are you?’’
‘‘Actually . . .’’
‘‘Mo would never do anything wrong.’’
‘‘Well, sure, but . . .’’
‘‘We’re just trying to find him on account of he won the lottery,’’ Lula said. ‘‘We’re gonna lay a whole load of money on his ass.’’
Dorothy made a disgusted sound and slammed the door closed.
We tried the house next to Dorothy and received the same information. Mo hadn’t been at the store for two days. Nothing else was forthcoming, with the exception of some unsolicited advice that I might consider seeking new employment.
Lula and I piled into the Buick and took another look at the bond agreement. Mo listed his address as 605 Ferris. That meant he lived over his store.
Lula and I craned our necks to see into the four second story windows.
‘‘I think Mo took a hike,’’ Lula said.
Only one way to find out. We got out of the car and walked to the back of the brick building where outdoor stairs led to a second-story porch. We climbed the stairs and knocked on the door. Nothing. We tried the doorknob. Locked. We looked in the windows. Everything was tidy. No sign of Mo. No lights left burning.
‘‘Mo might be dead in there,’’ Lula said. ‘‘Or maybe he’s sick. Could of had a stroke and be laying on the bathroom floor.’’
‘‘We are not going to break in.’’
‘‘Would be a humanitarian effort,’’ Lula said.
‘‘And against the law.’’
‘‘Sometimes these humanitarian efforts go into the gray zone.’’
I heard footsteps and looked down to see a cop standing at the bottom of the stairs. Steve Olmney. I’d gone to school with him.
‘‘What’s going on?’’ he asked. ‘‘We got a complaint from old lady Steeger that someone suspicious was snooping around Uncle Mo’s.’’
‘‘That would be me,’’ I said.
‘‘We think he might be dead,’’ Lula said. ‘‘We think someone better go look to see if he’s had a stroke on the bathroom floor.’’
Olmney came up the stairs and rapped on the door.
‘‘Mo?’’ he yelled. He put his nose to the door. ‘‘Doesn’t smell dead.’’ He looked in the windows. ‘‘Don’t see any bodies.’’
‘‘He’s Failure to Appear,’’ I said. ‘‘Got picked up on carrying concealed and didn’t show in court.’’
‘‘Mo would never do anything wrong,’’ Olmney said.
I stifled a scream. ‘‘Not showing up for a court appearance is wrong.’’
‘‘Probably he forgot. Maybe he’s on vacation. Or maybe his sister in Staten Island got sick. You should check with his sister.’’
Actually, that sounded like a decent idea. Lula and I went back to the Buick, and I read through the bond agreement one more time. Sure enough, Mo had listed his sister and given her address.
‘‘We should split up,’’ I said to Lula. ‘‘I’ll go see the sister, and you can stake out the store.’’
‘‘I’ll stake it out good,’’ Lula said. ‘‘I won’t miss a thing.’’
I turned the key in the ignition and pulled away from the curb. ‘‘What will you do if you see Mo?’’
‘‘I’ll snatch the little fucker up by his gonads and squash him into the trunk of my car.’’
‘‘No! You’re not authorized to apprehend. If you see Mo, you should get in touch with me right away. Either call me on my cellular phone or else call my pager.’’ I gave her a card with my numbers listed.
‘‘Remember, no squashing anyone into the trunk of your car!’’
‘‘Sure,’’ Lula said. ‘‘I know that.’’
I dropped Lula at the office and headed for Route 1. It was the middle of the day and traffic was light. I got to Perth Amboy and lined up for the bridge to Staten Island. The roadside leading to the toll booth was littered with mufflers, eaten away from winter salt and rattled loose by the inescapable craters, sinkholes and multilevel strips of macadam patch that composed the bridge.
I slipped into bridge traffic and sat nose to tail with Petrucci’s Vegetable Wholesalers and a truck labeled DANGEROUS EXPLOSIVES. I checked a map while I waited. Mo’s sister lived toward the middle of the island in a residential area I knew to be similar to the burg.
I paid my toll and inched forward, sucking in a stew of diesel exhaust and other secret ingredients that caught me in the back of the throat. I adjusted to the pollution in less than a quarter of a mile and felt just fine when I reached Mo’s sister’s house on Crane Street. Adaptation is one of the great advantages to being born and bred in Jersey. We’re simply not bested by bad air or tainted water. We’re like that catfish with lungs. Take us out of our environment and we can grow whatever body parts we need to survive. After Jersey the rest of the country’s a piece of cake. You want to send someone into a fallout zone? Get him from Jersey. He’ll be fine.
Mo’s sister lived in a pale green duplex with jalousied windows and white-and-yellow aluminum awnings. I parked at the curb and made my way up two flights of cement stairs to the cement stoop. I rang the bell and found myself facing a woman who looked a lot like my relatives on the Mazur side of my family. Good sturdy Hungarian stock. Black hair, black eyebrows and no-nonsense blue eyes. She looked to be in her fifties and didn’t seem thrilled to find me on her doorstep. I gave her my card, introduced myself and told her I was looking for Mo.
Her initial reaction was surprise, then distrust.
‘‘Fugitive apprehension agent,’’ she said. ‘‘What’s that supposed to mean? What’s that got to do with Mo?’’
I gave the condensed version by way of explanation.
‘‘I’m sure it was just an oversight that Mo didn’t appear for his court session, but I need to remind him to reschedule,’’ I told her.
‘‘I don’t know anything about this,’’ she said. ‘‘I don’t see Mo a whole lot. He’s always at the store. Why don’t you just go to the store?’’
‘‘He hasn’t been at the store for the last two days.’’
‘‘That doesn’t sound like Mo.’’
None of this sounded like Mo.
I asked if there were other relatives. She said no, not close ones. I asked about a second apartment or vacation house. She said none that she knew of.
I thanked her for her time and returned to my Buick. I looked out at the neighborhood. Not much happening. Mo’s sister was locked up in her house. Probably wondering what the devil was going on with Mo. Of course there was the possibility that she was protecting her brother, but my gut instinct said otherwise. She’d seemed genuinely surprised when I’d told her Mo wasn’t behind the counter handing out Gummi Bears.
I could watch the house, but that sort of surveillance was tedious and time-consuming, and in this case, I wasn’t sure it would be worth the effort.
Besides, I was getting a weird feeling about Mo. Responsible people like Mo didn’t forget court dates. Responsible people like Mo worried about that kind of stuff. They lost sleep over it. They consulted attorneys. And responsible people like Mo didn’t just up and leave their businesses without so much as a sign in the window. Maybe Lula was right. Maybe Mo was dead in bed or lying unconscious on his bathroom floor.
I got out of the car and retraced my steps back to the sister’s front door.
The door was opened before I had a chance to knock. Two little frown lines had etched themselves into Mo’s sister’s forehead. ‘‘Was there something else?’’ she asked.
‘‘I’m concerned about Mo. I don’t mean to alarm you, but I suppose there’s the possibility that he might be sick at home and unable to get to the door.’’
‘‘I’ve been standing here thinking the same thing,’’ she said.
‘‘Do you have a key to his apartment?’’
‘‘No, and as far as I know no one else does, either. Mo likes his privacy.’’
‘‘Do you know any of his friends? Did he have a girlfriend?’’
‘‘Sorry. We aren’t real close like that. Mo is a good brother, but like I said, he’s private.’’
An hour later I was back in the burg. I motored down Ferris and parked behind Lula.
‘‘How’s it going?’’ I asked.
Lula was slouched at the wheel of her red Firebird.
‘‘Isn’t going at all. Most boring bullshit job I ever had. A person could do this in a coma.’’
‘‘Anyone stop around to buy candy?’’
‘‘A momma and her baby. That’s all.’’
‘‘Did they walk around back?’’
‘‘Nope. They just looked in the front door and left.’’
I glanced at my watch. School would be out soon. There’d be a lot of kids coming by then, but I wasn’t interested in kids. I was interested in an adult who might show up to water Mo’s plants or retrieve his mail.
‘‘Hang tight here,’’ I said. ‘‘I’m going to speak to more neighbors.’’
‘‘Hang tight, hunh. I’m gonna like freeze to death sitting in this car. This isn’t Florida, you know.’’
‘‘I thought you wanted to be a bounty hunter. This is what bounty hunters do.’’
‘‘Wouldn’t mind doing this if I thought at the end of it all I’d get to shoot someone, but there isn’t even any guarantee of that. All I hear’s don’t do this and don’t do that. Can’t even stuff the sonovabitch in my trunk if I find him.’’
I crossed the street and spoke to three more neighbors. Their replies were standard. They had no idea where Mo could be, and they thought I had a lot of nerve implying he was a felon.
A teenager answered in the fourth house. We were dressed almost identically. Doc Martens, jeans, flannel shirt over T-shirt, too much eye makeup, lots of brown curly hair. She was fifteen pounds slimmer and fifteen years younger. I didn’t envy her youth, but I did have second thoughts about the dozen doughnuts I’d picked up on my way through the burg, which even as we spoke were calling to me from the backseat of my car.
I gave her my card, and her eyes widened.
‘‘A bounty hunter!’’ she said. ‘‘Cool!’’
‘‘Do you know Uncle Mo?’’
‘‘Sure I know Uncle Mo. Everybody knows Uncle Mo.’’ She leaned forward and lowered her voice. ‘‘He do something wrong? Are you after Uncle Mo?’’
‘‘He missed a court date on a minor charge. I want to remind him to reschedule.’’
‘‘That is like amazing. When you find him are you going to rough him up and lock him in the trunk of your car?’’
‘‘No!’’ What was with this trunk business? ‘‘I just want to talk to him.’’
‘‘I bet he did something really terrible. I bet you want him for cannibalism.’’
Cannibalism? The man sold candy. What would he want with fingers and toes? This kid had great taste in shoes, but her mind was a little scary. ‘‘Do you know anything about Mo that might be helpful? He have any close friends in the neighborhood? Have you seen him recently?’’
‘‘I saw him a couple days ago in the store.’’
‘‘Maybe you could keep a lookout for me. My numbers are on the card. You see Mo or anyone suspicious you give me a call.’’
‘‘Like I’d almost be a bounty hunter?’’
I jogged back to Lula. ‘‘Okay,’’ I told her, ‘‘you can return to the office. I found a replacement. The kid across the street is going to spy for us.’’
‘‘Good thing too. This was getting old.’’
I followed Lula to the office and called my friend Norma, who worked at the DMV. ‘‘Got a name,’’ I told her. ‘‘Need a plate and a car.’’
‘‘What’s the name?’’
‘‘That’s the one.’’
‘‘I’m not giving you information on Uncle Mo!’’
I gave her the bull about rescheduling, which was sounding very tired.
Computer keys clicked in the background. ‘‘If I find out you harmed a single hair on Uncle Mo’s head I’ll never give you another plate.’’
‘‘I’m not going to hurt him,’’ I said. ‘‘I never hurt anyone.’’
‘‘What about that guy you killed last August? And what about when you blew up the funeral home?’’
‘‘Are you going to give me this information, or what?’’
‘‘He owns a ninety-two Honda Civic. Blue. You got a pencil? I’ll read off the plate.’’
‘‘Oh boy,’’ Lula said, peering over my shoulder.
‘‘Looks like we got more clues. We gonna look for this car?’’
‘‘Yes.’’ And then we’d look for a key to the apartment. Everyone worries about getting locked out. If you don’t have someone in the neighborhood you can trust with your key, you hide it nearby. You carefully place it over the doorjamb, put it in a fake rock next to your foundation or slide it under the doormat.
I wasn’t about to do forced entry, but if I found a key . . .
‘‘I haven’t had any lunch,’’ Lula said. ‘‘I can’t keep working if I don’t have lunch.’’
I pulled the bag of doughnuts out of my big black leather shoulder bag, and we dug in.
‘‘Things to do. Places to go,’’ I said minutes later, shaking powdered sugar off my shirt, wishing I’d stopped at two doughnuts.
‘‘I’m going with you,’’ Lula said. ‘‘Only this time I drive. I got a big motherfucker stereo in my car.’’
‘‘Just don’t drive too fast. I don’t want to get picked up by Officer Gaspick.’’
‘‘Uh-oh,’’ Lula said. ‘‘You carrying concealed like Uncle Mo?’’
Not at the moment. My .38 Smith & Wesson was at home, sitting on my kitchen counter, in the brown bear cookie jar. Guns scared the hell out of me.
We piled into Lula’s red Firebird and headed for Ferris with rap rattling windows in our wake.
‘‘Maybe you should turn it down,’’ I yelled to Lula after a couple blocks. ‘‘I’m getting arrhythmia.’’ Lula punched the air. ‘‘Un ha, ha, ha, haa.’’
She cut her eyes to me. ‘‘You say something?’’
I edged the volume back. ‘‘You’re going to go deaf.’’
‘‘Hunh,’’ Lula said.
We cruised down Ferris and looked for blue Civics, but there were none parked near the store. We scoped out the cross streets and parallel streets on either side. No blue Civics. We parked at the corner of Ferris and King and walked the alley behind the store, looking into all the garages. No blue Civics. The single-car garage that sat at the edge of the small yard backing off from the candy store was empty.
‘‘He’s flown the coop,’’ Lula said. ‘‘I bet he’s in Mexico laughing his ass off, figuring we’re out here doing the two-step through a bunch of bullshit garages.’’
‘‘What about the dead on the bathroom floor theory?’’ Lula was wearing a hot-pink down ski jacket and white fake-fur knee-high boots. She pulled the jacket collar up around her neck and glanced up at Mo’s second-story back porch. ‘‘We would of found his car. And if he was dead he would of started to smell by now.’’
That’s what I thought, too.
‘‘Course, he could have locked himself in the ice cream freezer,’’ Lula said. ‘‘Then he wouldn’t smell on account of he’d be frozen. Probably that didn’t happen though because Mo would have had to take the ice cream out before he could fit himself in, and we already looked in the store window, and we didn’t see a lot of ice cream cartons sitting around melting themselves into next year. Of course, Mo could have eaten all the ice cream first.’’
Mo’s garage was wood and shingle with an old-fashioned double wood door that swung open on hinges and had been left ajar. The garage accessed from the alley, but it had a side door toward the rear that led to a short cement sidewalk running to the back of the store.
The interior of the garage was dark and musty, the walls lined with boxes of Tastee Straws, napkins, cleanser, Drygas, Del Monte fruit cup, Hershey’s syrup and 10W40 motor oil. Newspapers were stacked in the corner, awaiting recycling.
Mo was a popular person and presumably a trusting soul, but leaving his garage doors open when his garage was filled with store supplies seemed like an excessive burden on human nature. Possibilities were that he left in a hurry and was too distracted to think about the door. Or perhaps he wasn’t planning to return. Or maybe he’d been forced to leave, and his abductors had other things on their minds besides garage doors.
Of all the possibilities I liked the last one the least. I pulled a flashlight out of my pocketbook and gave it to Lula with instructions to search the garage for a house key.
‘‘I’m like a bloodhound on a scent when it comes to house keys,’’ Lula said. ‘‘Don’t you worry about that house key. It’s as good as found.’’
Mrs. Steeger glared at us from the window next door. I smiled and waved, and she stepped back. Most likely en route to the telephone to call the cops on me again.
There was a small yard stuck between the store and the garage, and there were no signs of recreational use of the yard. No swing sets, grills, rusting lawn chairs. Only the sidewalk broke the scrubby grass and hard-packed dirt. I followed the sidewalk to the store’s back entry and looked in the trash cans lining the brick wall. All cans were full, garbage neatly bagged in plastic sacks. Some empty cardboard cartons had been stacked beside the garbage cans. I toed through the area around the cans and the boxes, looking for some sign of a hidden key. I found nothing. I felt over the doorjamb on the back door that led to the candy store. I walked up the stairs and ran my hand under the railing on the small back porch. I knocked on the door one more time and looked in the window.
Lula emerged from the garage and crossed the yard. She climbed the stairs and proudly handed me a key.
‘‘Am I good, or what?’’ she said.
Three to Get Deadly Copyright © 1997 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 St. Martin’s Press 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010