My name is Stephanie Plum and I was born and raised in the Chambersburg section of Trenton, where the top male activities are scarfing pastries and pork rinds and growing love handles. The pastry and pork rind scarfing I’ve seen firsthand. The love handle growing happens over time. Thank God for small favors.
The first guy I saw up close and personal was Joe Morelli. Morelli put an end to my virgin status and showed me a body that was masculine perfection . . . smooth and muscular and sexy. Back then Morelli thought a long-term commitment was twenty minutes. I was one of thousands who got to admire Morelli’s best parts as he pulled his pants up and headed for the door.
Morelli’s been in and out of my life since then. He’s currently in and he’s improved with age, butt included. So the sight of a naked ass isn’t exactly new to me, but the one I was presently watching took the cake. Punky Balog had an ass like Winnie the Pooh . . . big and fat and furry. Sad to say, that was where the similarity ended because, unlike Pooh Bear, there was nothing endearing or cuddly about Punky Balog.
I knew about Punky’s ass because I was in my new sunshine yellow Ford Escape, sitting across from Punky’s dilapidated row house, and Punky had his huge Pooh butt plastered against his second-story window. My sometime partner, Lula, was riding shotgun for me and Lula and I were staring up at the butt in open-mouthed horror.
Punky slid his butt side to side on the pane and Lula and I gave a collective, upper lip curled back eeyeuuw!
“Think he knows we’re out here,” Lula said. “Think maybe he’s trying to tell us something.”
Lula and I work for my bail bonds agent cousin, Vincent Plum. Vinnie’s office is on Hamilton Avenue, his big plate-glass front window looking into the Burg. He’s not the world’s best bonds agent. And he’s not the worst. Truth is, he’d probably be a better bondsman if he wasn’t saddled with Lula and me. I do fugitive apprehension for Vinnie and I have a lot more luck than skill. Lula mostly does filing. Lula hasn’t got luck or skill. The thing Lula has going for her is the ability to tolerate Vinnie. Lula’s a plus-size black woman in a size seven white world and Lula’s had a lot of practice at pulling attitude.
Punky turned and gave us a wave with his johnson.
“That’s just so sad,” Lula said. “What do men think of? If you had a lumpy little wanger like that, would you go waving it in public?”
Punky was dancing now, jumping around, wanger flopping, doodles bouncing.
“Holy crap,” Lula said. “He’s gonna rupture something.”
“It’s gotta be uncomfortable.”
“I’m glad we forgot the binoculars. I wouldn’t want to see this up close.”
I didn’t even want to see it from a distance.
“When I was a ho I used to keep myself from getting grossed out by pretending men’s privates were Muppets,” Lula said. “This guy looks like an anteater Muppet. See the little tuft of hair on the anteater head and then there’s the thing the anteater snuffs up ants with . . . except ol’ Punky here’s gotta get real close to the ants on account of his snuffer isn’t real big. Punky’s got a pinky.”
Lula was a ho in a previous life. One night while plying her trade she had a near-death experience and decided to change everything but her wardrobe. Not even a near-death experience could get Lula out of spandex. She was currently wearing a skintight hot pink miniskirt and a tiger-print top that made her boobs look like big round overinflated balloons. It was early June and midmorning and the Jersey air wasn’t cooking yet, so Lula had a yellow angora sweater over the tiger top.
“Hold on,” Lula said. “I think his snuffer is growing.” This produced another eeyeuuw from us.
“Maybe I should shoot him,” Lula said.
“No shooting!” I felt the need to discourage Lula from hauling out her Glock, but truth was, it seemed like it’d be a public service to take a potshot at Punky.
“How bad do we want this guy?” Lula asked.
“If I don’t bring him in, I don’t get paid. If I don’t get paid, I don’t have rent money. If I don’t have rent money, I get kicked out of my apartment and have to move in with my parents.”
“So we want him real bad.”
“And he’s wanted for what?”
“Grand theft auto.”
“At least it’s not armed robbery. I’m gonna be hoping the only weapon he’s got, he’s holding in his hand right now . . . on account of it don’t look like much of a threat to me.”
“I guess we should go do it.”
“I’m ready to rock ’n’ roll,” Lula said. “I’m ready to kick some Punky butt. I’m ready to do the job.”
I turned the key in the ignition. “I’m going to drop you at the corner so you can cut through the back and take the back door. Make sure you have your walkie-talkie on so I can let you know when I’m coming in.”
“And no shooting, no breaking doors down, no Dirty Harry imitations.”
“You can count on me.”
Three minutes later, Lula reported she was in place. I parked the Escape two houses down, walked to Punky’s front door, and rang the bell. No one responded so I rang a second time. I gave the door a solid rap with my fist and shouted,
“Bond enforcement! Open the door!”
I heard shouting carrying over from the backyard, a door crashing open and slamming shut, and then more muffled shouting. I called Lula on the talkie, but got no response. A moment later the front door opened to the house next to me and Lula stomped out.
“Hey, so excuse me,” she yelled at the woman behind her. “So I got the wrong door. It could happen, you know. We’re under a lot of pressure when we’re making these dangerous apprehensions.”
The woman glared at Lula and slammed and locked her door shut.
“Must have miscounted houses,” Lula said to me. “I sort of let myself in through the wrong door.”
“You weren’t supposed to open any door.”
“Yeah, but I heard someone moving around inside. Guess that’s ’cause it was the neighbor lady’s house, hunh? So what’s going on? How come you’re not in yet?”
“He hasn’t opened the door.”
Lula took a step back and looked up. “That’s because he’s still mooning you.”
I followed Lula’s line of sight. She was right. Punky had his ass to the window again.
“Hey,” Lula yelled up. “Get your fat ass off the window and get down here! We’re trying to do some bond enforcement!”
An old man and an old woman came out of the house across the street and settled themselves on their front stoop to watch.
“Are you going to shoot him?” the old man wanted to know.
“I don’t hardly ever get allowed to shoot anybody,” Lula told him.
“That’s darn disappointing,” the man said. “How about kicking the door down?”
Lula gave the man one of her hand-on-hip get real looks.
“Kick the door down? Do I look like I could kick a door down in these shoes? These are Via Spigas. You don’t go around kicking down doors in Via Spigas. These are classy shoes. I paid a shitload of money for these shoes and I’m not sticking them through some cheap-ass door.”
Everyone looked at me. I was wearing jeans, a T-shirt topped by a black jeans jacket, and CAT boots. CAT boots could definitely kick down a door, but they’d have to be on someone else’s foot because door kicking was a skill I lacked.
“You girls need to watch more television,” the old man said. “You need to be more like those Charlie’s Angels. Nothing stopped them girls. They could kick doors down in all kinds of shoes.”
“Anyways, you don’t need to kick the door in,” the old woman said. “Punky never locks it.”
I tried the door and, sure enough, it was unlocked.
“Sort of takes the fun out of it,” Lula said, looking past the door into Punky’s house.
This is the part where if we were Charlie’s Angels we’d get into crouched positions, holding our guns in two hands in front of us, and we’d hunt down Punky. This didn’t work for us because I left my gun home, in the cookie jar on my kitchen counter, and Lula’d fall over if she tried to do the crouch thing in her Via Spigas.
“Hey Punky,” I yelled up the stairs, “put some clothes on and come down here. I need to talk to you.”
“If you don’t get down here, I’m going to send Lula up to get you.”
Lula’s eyes got wide and she mouthed, Me? Why me?
“Come up here and get me,” Punky said. “I have a surprise for you.”
Lula pulled a Glock out of her handbag and gave it over to me. “You should take this on account of you’re gonna be the one going up the stairs first and you might need it. You know how I hate surprises.”
“I don’t want the gun. I don’t like guns.”
“Take the gun.”
“I don’t want the gun,” I told her.
“Take the gun!”
Yeesh. “Okay, okay. Give me the stupid gun.”
I got to the top of the stairs and I peeked around the corner, down the hall.
“Here I come, ready or not,” Punky sang out. And then he jumped from behind a bedroom door and stood spread eagle in full view. “Ta-dahhhh.”
He was buck naked and slick as a greased pig. Lula and I swallowed hard and we both took a step backward.
“What have you got all over you?” I asked.
“Vaseline. Head to toe and extra heavy in the cracks and crevices.” He was smiling ear to ear. “You want to take me in, you have to wrestle with me.”
“How about we just shoot you,” Lula said.
“You can’t shoot me. I’m not armed.”
“Here’s the plan,” I said to Lula. “We cuff him and put him in leg irons and then we wrap him in a blanket so he doesn’t get my car greasy.”
“I’m not touching him,” Lula said. “Not only is he an ugly naked motherfucker, but he’s a dry cleaning bill waiting to happen. I’m not ruining this top. I’ll never find another top like this. It’s genuine fake tiger. And Lord knows what he’d do to rabbit.”
I reached for him with the cuffs. “Give me your hand.”
“Make me,” he said, waggling his butt. “Come get me, sweetie pie.”
Lula looked over at me. “You sure you don’t want me to shoot him?”
I took my jacket off and snatched at his wrist, but I couldn’t hold tight. After three attempts I had Vaseline up to my elbow, and Punky was skipping around going, “. . . Nah, nah, nah. Kiss my can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Vaseline man.”
“This guy’s in the red zone on the Breathalyzer,” Lula said.
“Think he might also be missing a few marbles in his greased up jug head.”
“I’m crazy like a fox,” Punky said. “If you can’t catch hold of me, you can’t take me in. If you can’t take me in, I don’t go to jail.”
“If I don’t take you in, I don’t pay my rent and I get kicked out of my apartment,” I told Punky, lunging for him, swearing when he slid away from me.
“This here’s embarrassing,” Lula said. “I can’t believe you’re trying to grab this funky fat man.”
“It’s my job. And you could help! Take the damn top off if you don’t want it to get ruined.”
“Yeah, take your top off, momma. I’ve got plenty of extra Vaseline for you,” Punky sang out.
Punky turned away from me, I gave him a good hard kick to the back of his knee, and he crashed to the floor. I threw myself on top of him and yelled to Lula to cuff him. She managed to get both cuffs on and my cell phone chirped.
It was my Grandma Mazur on the phone. When my Grandpa Mazur cashed in his two-dollar chips and moved on to the High Rollers’ Suite in the sky, my Grandma Mazur moved in with my parents.
“Your mother’s locked herself in the bathroom and she won’t come out,” Grandma said. “She’s been in there for an hour and a half. It’s the menopause. Your mother was always so sensible until the menopause hit.”
“She’s probably taking a bath.”
“That’s what I thought at first, but she’s never in there this long. I went up and yelled and banged on the door just now and there’s no answer. For all I know, she’s dead. She could have had a heart attack and drowned in the tub.”
“Anyways, I thought you could get over here and unlock the door like you did last time when your sister locked herself in the bathroom.”
At Christmastime my sister Valerie locked herself in the bathroom with a pregnancy test kit. The test kit kept turning up positive, and if I was Valerie I would have wanted to spend the rest of my life locked in the bathroom, too.
“I wasn’t the one who unlocked the door,” I told Grandma.
“I was the one who climbed onto the roof over the back stoop and went in through the window.”
“Well, whatever you did, you better get over here and do it again. Your father’s off somewhere and your sister’s out. I’d shoot the lock off, but last time I tried to do that the bullet ricocheted off the doorknob and took out a table lamp.”
“Are you sure this is an emergency? I’m sort of in the middle of something.”
“Hard to tell what’s an emergency in this house anymore.”
My parents lived in a small three-bedroom, one-bathroom house that was bursting at the seams with my mom and dad, my grandma, my recently divorced, very pregnant sister, and her two kids. Emergencies tended to blend with the normal.
“Hang tight,” I told Grandma. “I’m not far away. I’ll be there in a couple minutes.”
Lula looked down at Punky. “What are we gonna do with him?”
“We’re going to take him with us.”
“The hell you are,” Punky said. “I’m not getting up. I’m not going anywhere.”
“I don’t have time to mess with this,” I said to Lula. “You stay here and babysit and I’ll send Vinnie over to do the pickup.”
“You’re in trouble now,” Lula said to Punky. “I bet Vinnie likes greased-up fat men. People tell me Vinnie used to be romantically involved with a duck. I bet he’s gonna think you’re just fine.”
I hustled down the stairs and out the front door to the Escape. I called Vinnie on the way to my parents’ house and gave him the word on Punky.
“What are you, nuts?” Vinnie yelled at me. “I’m not gonna go out to pick up some greased-up naked guy. I write bonds. I don’t do pickups. Read my lips . . . you’re the pickup person.”
“Fine. Then you go to my parents’ house and get my mother out of the bathroom.”
“All right, all right, I’ll do your pickup, but it’s come to a sad state of affairs when I’m the normal member of this family.”
I couldn’t argue with that one.
Grandma Mazur was waiting for me when I pulled to the curb. “She’s still in there,” Grandma said. “She won’t talk to me or nothing.”
I ran up the stairs and tried the door. Locked. I knocked. No answer. I yelled to my mother. Still no response. Damn. I ran down the stairs out to the garage and got a step ladder. I put the ladder up to the back stoop and climbed onto the small shingled roof that attached to the back of the house and gave me access to the bathroom window. I looked inside.
My mom was in the tub with earphones on, eyes closed, knees sticking out of the water like two smooth pink islands. I rapped on the window, and my mom opened her eyes and gave a shriek. She grabbed for the towel and continued to scream for a good sixty seconds. Finally she blinked, snapped her mouth shut, pointed straight-armed to the bathroom door, and mouthed the word go.
I scuttled off the roof, down the ladder, and slunk back to the house and up the stairs, followed by Grandma Mazur.
My mother was at the bathroom door, wrapped in a towel, waiting. “What the hell were you doing?” she yelled. “You scared the crap out of me. Dammit. Can’t I even relax in the tub?”
Grandma Mazur and I were speechless, standing rooted to the spot, our mouths open, our eyes wide. My mom never cursed. My mom was the practical, calming influence on the family. My mom went to church. My mom never said crap.
“It’s the change,” Grandma said.
“It is not the change,” my mother shouted. “I am not menopausal. I just want a half hour alone. Is that too much to ask? A crappy half hour!”
“You were in there for an hour and a half,” Grandma said.
“I thought you might have had a heart attack. You wouldn’t answer me.”
“I was listening to music. I didn’t hear you. I had the headset on.”
“I can see that now,” Grandma said. “Maybe I should try that sometime.”
My mother leaned forward and took a closer look at my shirt. “What on earth do you have all over you? It’s in your hair and on your shirt and you have big grease stains on your jeans. It looks like . . . Vaseline.”
“I was in the middle of a capture when Grandma called.”
My mother did an eye roll. “I don’t want to know the details. Not ever. And you should be sure to pretreat when you get home or you’re never going to get that stuff out.”
Ten minutes later I was pushing through the front door to Vinnie’s office. Connie Rosolli, Vinnie’s office manager and guard dog, was behind her desk, newspaper in hand. Connie was a couple years older than me, an inch or two shorter, and had me by three cup sizes. She was wearing a blood red V-neck sweater that showed a lot of cleavage. Her nails and her lips matched the sweater.
There were two women occupying the chairs in front of Connie’s desk. Both women were dark-skinned and wearing traditional Indian dress. The older woman was a size up from Lula. Lula is packed solid, like a giant bratwurst. The woman sitting across from Connie was loose flab with rolls of fat cascading between the halter top and the long skirt of her sari. Her black hair was tied in a knot low on her neck and shot through with gray. The younger woman was slim and I guessed slightly younger than me. Late twenties, maybe. They both were perched on the edges of their seats, hands tightly clasped in their laps.
“We’ve got trouble,” Connie said to me. “There’s an article in the paper today about Vinnie.”
“It’s not another duck incident, is it?” I asked.
“It’s about the visa bond Vinnie wrote for Samuel Singh. Singh is here on a three-month work visa and Vinnie wrote a bond insuring Singh would leave when his visa was up. A visa bond is a new thing, so the paper’s making a big deal about it.”
Connie handed me the paper and I looked at the photo accompanying the feature. Two slim, shifty-looking men with slicked-back black hair, smiling. Singh was from India, his complexion darker, his frame smaller than Vinnie’s. Both men looked like they regularly conned old ladies out of their life savings. Two Indian women stood in the background, behind Vinnie and Singh. The women in the photo were the women sitting in front of Connie.
“This is Mrs. Apusenja and her daughter Nonnie,” Connie said. “Mrs. Apusenja rented a room to Samuel Singh.”
Mrs. Apusenja and her daughter were staring at me, not sure what to do or say about the globs of goo in my hair and gunked into my clothes.
“And this is Stephanie Plum,” Connie told the Apusenjas. “She’s one of our bond enforcement agents. She’s not usually this . . . greasy.” Connie squinted at me. “What the hell have you got all over you?”
“Vaseline. Balog was covered with it. I had to wrestle him down.”
“This looks sexual to me,” Mrs. Apusenja said. “I am a moral women. I do not want to become involved with this.” She clapped her hands to her head. “Look at me. I have my ears covered. I am not hearing this filth.”
“There’s no filth,” I shouted at her. “There was this guy I had to bring in and he was covered in Vaseline . . .”
“Lalalalalalala,” Mrs. Apusenja sang.
Connie and I rolled our eyes.
Nonnie pulled her mother’s hand away from her head. “Listen to these people,” she said to her mother. “We need them to help us.”
Mrs. Apusenja stopped singing and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Mrs. Apusenja is here because Singh’s disappeared,” Connie said.
“This is true,” Mrs. Apusenja said. “We are very worried. He was an exemplary young man.”
I skimmed the article. Samuel Singh’s bond was up in a week. If Vinnie couldn’t produce Singh in a week’s time, he was going to look like an idiot.
“We think something terrible happened to him,” Nonnie said. “He just disappeared. Poof.”
The mother nodded in agreement. “Samuel has been staying with us while working in this country. My family is very close to Samuel Singh’s family in India. It’s a very good family. Nonnie and Samuel were to be married, in fact. She was to travel to India with Samuel to meet his mother and father. We have a ticket for the plane.”
“How long has Samuel been gone?” Connie asked.
“Five days,” Nonnie said. “He left for work and he never returned. We asked his employer and they said Samuel didn’t show up that day. We came here because we hoped Mr. Plum would be able to help us find Samuel.”
“Have you checked Samuel’s room to see if anything is missing?” I asked. “Clothes? Passport?”
“Everything seems to be there.”
“Have you reported his disappearance to the police?”
“We have not. Do you think we should do that?”
“No,” Connie said, voice just a tad too shrill, hitting Vinnie’s cell phone number on her speed dial.
“We’ve got a situation here,” Connie said to Vinnie. “Mrs. Apusenja is in the office. Samuel Singh has gone missing.”
At two in the morning when the weather is ideal and the lights are all perfectly timed, it takes twenty minutes to drive from the police station to the bail bonds office. Today, at two in the afternoon, under an overcast sky, Vinnie made the run in twelve minutes.
Ranger, Vinnie’s top gun, had ambled in a couple minutes earlier at Vinnie’s request. He was dressed in his usual black. His dark brown hair was pulled back from his face and tied into a short ponytail at the nape of his neck. His jacket looked suspiciously like Kevlar and I knew from experience it hid a gun. Ranger was always armed. And Ranger was always dangerous. His age was somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five and his skin was the color of a mocha latte. The story goes that Ranger had been Special Forces before signing on with Vinnie to do bond enforcement. He had a lot of muscle and a skill level somewhere between Batman and Rambo.
A while ago Ranger and I spent the night together. We were in an uneasy alliance now, working as a team when necessary, avoiding contact or conversation that would lead to a repeat sexual encounter. At least I was avoiding a repeat encounter. Ranger was his usual silent mysterious self, his thoughts unknown, his attitude provocative.
He’d looked me over before taking a chair. “Vaseline?” he asked.
“I am thinking it must be something sexual,” Mrs. Apusenja said. “No one has told me otherwise. I am thinking this one must be a slut.”
“I am not a slut,” I said. “I had to capture a guy who was all greased up and some of the gunk rubbed off on me.”
The back door burst open and Vinnie came in like gangbusters, followed by Lula.
“Talk to me,” Vinnie said to Connie.
“Not much to tell. You remember Mrs. Apusenja and her daughter Nonnie. Samuel Singh rented a room in the Apusenja house and they were at the photo session last week. They haven’t seen him in five days.”
“Christ,” Vinnie said. “National print coverage on this. A week to go. And this sonovabitch goes missing. Why didn’t he just come over to my house and feed me rat poison? It would have been an easier death.”
“We think there might be foul play involved,” Nonnie said. Vinnie made a halfhearted effort to squash a grimace.
“Yeah, right. Give me a refresher course on Samuel Singh.
What was his normal routine?” Vinnie had the file in his hand, flipping pages, mumbling as he read. “It says here he worked at TriBro Tech. He was in the quality control department.”
“During the week Samuel would be at work from seven thirty to five. Every night he would stay home and watch television or spend time on his computer. Even on weekends he would spend most of his time on the computer,” Nonnie said.
“There is a word to call him,” Mrs. Apusenja said. “I can never remember.”
“Geek,” Nonnie said, not looking all that happy about it.
“Yes! That’s it. He was a computer geek.”
“Did he have friends? Relatives in the area?” Vinnie asked.
“There were people at his workplace that he spoke of but he didn’t spend time with them socially.”
“Did he have enemies? Debts?”
Nonnie shook her head no. “He never spoke of debts or enemies.”
“Drugs?” Vinnie asked.
“No. And he would drink alcohol only on special occasions.”
“How about criminal activity? Was he involved with anyone shady?”
Ranger was impassive in his corner, watching the women. Nonnie was leaning forward in her chair, uncomfortable with the situation. Mama Apusenja had her lips pressed tight together, her head tipped slightly, not favorably impressed with what she was seeing.
“Anything else?” Vinnie asked.
Nonnie fidgeted in her seat. Her eyes dropped to the purse in her lap. “My little dog,” Nonnie finally said. “My little dog is missing.” She opened her purse and extracted a photo. “His name is Boo because he is so white. Like a ghost. He disappeared when Samuel vanished. He was in the backyard, which is fenced, and he disappeared.”
We all looked at the photo of Nonnie and Boo. Boo was a small cocker spaniel and poodle mix with black button eyes in a fluffy white face. Boo was a cockapoo.
I felt something tug inside me for the dog. The black button eyes reminded me of my hamster, Rex. I remembered the times when I’d been worried about Rex, and I felt the same sharp stab of concern for the little dog.
“Do you get along okay with your neighbors?” Vinnie asked. “Have you asked any of them if they’ve seen the dog?”
“No one has seen Boo.”
“We must leave now,” Mrs. Apusenja said, glancing at her watch. “Nonnie needs to get back to work.”
Vinnie saw them to the door and watched them cross the street to their car. “There they go,” Vinnie said. “Hell’s message bearers.” He shook his head. “I was having such a good day. Everyone was saying how good I looked in the picture. Everyone was congratulating me because I was doing something about visa enforcement. Okay, so I took a few comments when I dragged a naked, greased-up fat guy into the station, but I could handle that.” He gave his head another shake. “This I can’t handle. This has to get fixed. I can’t afford to lose this guy. Either we find this guy, dead or alive, or we’re all unemployed. If I can’t enforce this visa bond after all the publicity, I’m going to have to change my name, move to Scottsdale, Arizona, and sell used cars.” Vinnie focused on Ranger. “You can find him, right?”
The corners of Ranger’s mouth tipped up a fraction of an inch. This was the Ranger equivalent of a smile.
“I’m gonna take that as a yes,” Vinnie said.
“I’ll need help,” Ranger told him. “And we’ll need to work out the fee.”
“Fine. Whatever. You can have Stephanie.”
Ranger cut his eyes to me and the smile widened ever so slightly—the sort of smile you see on a man when he’s presented with an unexpected piece of pie.
To the Nines Copyright © 2003 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