One for the Money (Stephanie Plum #1)(15) by Janet Evanovich

I was reminded of road kill. Ashes to ashes … mayo to its various components. Doesn’t matter whether it’s cats or cole slaw, death is not attractive.

I did a rundown of everyone I knew, but I couldn’t think of anyone dumb enough to climb into the Dumpster for me. Okay, I told myself, now or never. I swung my leg up and over the side and hung there for a moment, gathering courage. I lowered myself slowly, upper lip curled. If I smelled even the hint of rat breath, I was out of there.

Cans rolled underfoot, giving way to soft, squishy gunk. I felt myself slide and hooked a hand onto the Dumpster rim, cracking my elbow against the side in the process. I swore and blinked back tears.

I found a plastic bread bag that was relatively clean and used it like a glove to carefully paw through the slop, moving cautiously, scared to death I’d fall face first into the artichoke and calf brains vinaigrette. The amount of discarded food was sobering, the wastefulness almost as revolting as the all-pervasive odor of rot that seared the inside of my nose and clung to the roof of my mouth.

After what seemed like an eternity I discovered the keys sunk into some yellow-brown glop. I didn’t see any Pampers nearby, so I hoped the glop was mustard. I stuck my bagged hand in whatever-it-was and gagged.

I held my breath, tossed the keys over the edge onto the blacktop, and didn’t waste any time following. I wiped off the keys as best I could with the bread bag. Most of the yellow stuff came off, rendering the keys good enough for emergency driving. I got out of my shoes by stepping on the heels, and I used the two-fingers sissy approach to peel my socks away. I inspected the rest of me. Aside from some Thousand Island dressing smeared on the front of my shirt, I seemed unscathed.

Newspapers had been stacked for recycling beside the Dumpster. I covered the driver’s seat with the sports section, just in case I’d missed seeing some noxious substance stuck to my ass. I spread paper over the passenger-side floor mat and gingerly set my shoes and socks in the center.

I glanced at the remaining section of paper, and a headline jumped out at me. “Local Man Killed in Drive-by Shooting.” Beneath the headline was a picture of John Kuzack. I’d seen him on Wednesday. Today was Friday. The paper in my hand was a day old. I read the story without breathing. Kuzack had been gunned down late Wednesday night in front of his apartment building. It went on to say how he’d been a hero in Nam, getting the purple heart, and how he was a colorful, well-liked neighborhood figure. As of press time, the police had no suspect and no motive.

I leaned against the Cherokee, trying to absorb the reality of John Kuzack’s death. He’d been so big and alive when I’d spoken to him. And now he was dead. First Edleman, the hit and run, and now Kuzack. Of the three people who’d seen and remembered the missing witness, two were dead. I thought about Mrs. Santiago and her children and shivered.

I carefully folded the paper and slid it into the map pocket. When I got back to my apartment I’d call Gazarra and try to get some reassurance of Mrs. Santiago’s safety.

I was beyond being able to smell myself, but I drove with the windows down as a precaution.

I parked in the laundromat lot and slipped in barefoot to get my clothes. Only one other person was in the room, an elderly woman at the folding table on the far wall.

“Oh my goodness,” she said, looking bewildered. “What is that smell?”

I felt my cheeks heat up. “Must be outside,” I said. “Must have followed me in when I opened the door.”

“It’s awful!”

I sniffed, but I couldn’t smell anything. My nose had shut down in self-defense. I glanced at my shirt. “Does it smell like Thousand Island dressing?”

She had a pillowcase pressed to her face. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

I rammed my laundry into the basket and made my exit. Halfway home I stopped for a light and noticed my eyes were watering. Ominous, I thought. Fortunately, no one was afoot when I swung into the parking lot to my apartment building. The foyer and the elevator were both empty. So far so good. The elevator doors opened to the second floor and no one was about there, either. I breathed a sigh of relief, dragged my laundry to my door, slunk into my apartment, stripped off my clothes, and tied them up in a big black plastic garbage bag.

I jumped into the shower and lathered and scrubbed and shampooed thrice. I dressed in clean clothes and went across the hall to Mr. Wolesky as a test.

He opened the door and instantly clamped a hand over his nose. “Whoa,” he gasped. “What’s that smell?”

“That’s what I was wondering,” I said. “It seems to be hanging in the hall here.”

“Smells like dead dog.”

I sighed. “Yeah. That was my first impression, too.”

I retreated back to my apartment. I needed to rewash everything, and I’d run out of quarters. I was going to have to go home to do my laundry. I looked at my watch. It was almost six. I’d call my mother on the car phone and warn her I’d be there for dinner after all.

I parked in front of the house, and my mother appeared like magic, driven by some mysterious maternal instinct always to know when her daughter set foot on the curb.

“A new car,” she said. “How nice. Where did you get it?”

I had the basket under one arm and the plastic trash bag under the other. “I borrowed it from a friend.”

“Who?”

“You don’t know him. Someone I went to school with.”

“Well, you’re lucky to have friends like that. You should bake him something. A cake.”

I pushed past her, heading for the cellar stairs. “I brought my laundry. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t mind. What’s that smell? Is that you? You smell like a garbage can.”

“I accidentally dropped my keys in a Dumpster, and I had to climb in and get them out.”

“I don’t understand how these things happen to you. They don’t happen to anyone else. Who else do you know dropped their keys in a Dumpster? No one, that’s who. Only you would do such a thing.”

Grandma Mazur came out of the kitchen. “I smell throw-up.”

“It’s Stephanie,” my mother said. “She was in a Dumpster.”

“What was she doing in a Dumpster? Was she looking for bodies? I saw a movie on TV where the mob splattered some guy’s brains all over the place and then left him for rat food in a Dumpster.”

“She was looking for her keys,” my mother told Grandma Mazur. “It was an accident.”

“Well that’s disappointing,” Grandma Mazur said. “I expected something better from her.”

When we were done eating, I called Eddie Gazarra, put the second load of laundry in the washer, and hosed down my shoes and my keys. I sprayed the inside of the Jeep with Lysol and opened the windows wide. The alarm wasn’t usable with the windows open, but I didn’t think I was running much risk of the car being reclaimed from in front of my parents’ house. I took a shower and dressed in clean clothes fresh from the dryer.

I was spooked over John Kuzack’s death and not anxious to walk into a dark apartment, so I made a point of getting home early. I’d just locked the door behind me when the phone rang. The voice was muffled, so that I had to strain to hear, squinting at the handset as if that would help.

Fear is not a logical emotion. No one can physically hurt me on the phone, but I flinched all the same when I realized it was Ramirez.

I immediately hung up, and when the phone rang again I snapped the plug from the wall jack. I needed an answering machine to monitor my calls, but I couldn’t afford to buy one until I made a recovery. First thing in the morning I was going to have to go after Lonnie Dodd.

I AWOKE TO THE STEADY DRUMMING OF RAIN on my fire escape. Wonderful. Just what I needed to complicate my life further. I crawled out of bed and pulled the curtain aside, not pleased at the sight of an all-day soaker. The parking lot had slicked up, reflecting light from mysterious sources. The rest of the world was gunmetal gray, the cloud cover low and unending, the buildings robbed of color behind the rain.

I showered and dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, letting my hair dry on its own. No sense fussing when I was going to get drenched the instant I stepped out of the building. I did the breakfast thing, brushed my teeth, and applied a nice thick line of turquoise eyeliner to offset the gloom. I was wearing my Dumpster shoes in honor of the rain. I looked down and sniffed. Maybe I smelled a hint of boiled ham, but all things considered I didn’t think that was so bad.

I did a pocketbook inventory, making sure I had all my goodies—cuffs, bludgeoning baton, flashlight, gun, extra ammo (not much good to me since I’d already forgotten how to load the gun—still, you never knew when you might need something heavy to throw at an escaping felon). I crammed Dodd’s file in along with a collapsible umbrella and a package of peanut butter crackers for emergency snacking. I grabbed the ultracool black and purple Gore-Tex jacket I’d purchased when I was of the privileged working class, and I headed for the parking lot.

This was the sort of day to read comic books under a blanket tent and eat the icing from the middle of the Oreos. This was not the sort of day to chase down desperados. Unfortunately, I was hard up for money and couldn’t be choosy about selecting desperado days.

Lonnie Dodd’s address was listed as 2115 Barnes. I hauled my map out and looked up the coordinates. Hamilton Township is about three times the size of Trenton proper and roughly shaped like a wedge of pie that’s suffered some nibbles. Barnes ran with its back pressed to the Conrail tracks just north of Yardville, the beginning of the lower third of the county.

I took Chambers to Broad and cut up on Apollo. Barnes struck off from Apollo. The sky had lightened marginally, and it was possible to read house numbers as I drove. The closer I got to 2115 the more depressed I became. Property value was dropping at a frightening rate. What had begun as a respectable blue-collar neighborhood with trim single-family bungalows on good-sized lots had deteriorated to neglected low-income to no-income housing.

Twenty-one fifteen was at the end of the street. The grass was overgrown and had gone to seed. A rusted bike and a washing machine with its top lid askew decorated the front yard. The house itself was a small cinder block rancher built on a slab. It looked to be more of an outbuilding than a home. Something intended for chickens or porkers. A sheet had been tacked haphazardly over the front picture window. Probably to afford the inhabitants privacy while they crushed cans of Bull’s-Eye beer against their foreheads and plotted mayhem.

I told myself it was now or never. Rain pattered on the roof and sluiced down the windshield. I pumped myself up by applying fresh lipstick. There was no great surge of power, so I deepened the blue liner and added mascara and blush. I checked myself out in the rearview mirror. Wonder Woman, eat your heart out. Yeah, right. I studied Dodd’s picture one last time. Didn’t want to overwhelm the wrong man. I dropped my keys into my pocketbook, pulled my hood up, and got out of the car. I knocked on the door and caught myself secretly hoping no one was home. The rain and the neighborhood and the grim little house were giving me the creeps. If the second knock goes unanswered, I thought, I’ll consider it the will of God that I’m not destined to catch Dodd, and I’ll get the hell out of here.

No one answered on the second knock, but I’d heard a toilet flush, and I knew someone was in there. Damn. I gave the door a few good shots with my fist. “Open up,” I yelled at the top of my voice. “Pizza delivery.”

A skinny guy with dark, tangled shoulder-length hair answered the door. He was a couple inches taller than me. He was barefoot and shirtless, wearing a pair of filthy, lowslung jeans that were unsnapped and only half zipped. Beyond him I could see a trash-filled living room. The air drifting out was pungent with cat fumes.

“I didn’t order no pizza,” he said.

“Are you Lonnie Dodd?”

“Yeah. What’s with the pizza delivery shit?”

“It was a ploy to get you to answer your door.”

“A what?”

“I work for Vincent Plum, your bond agent. You missed your trial date, and Mr. Plum would like you to reschedule.”

“Fuck that. I’m not rescheduling nothing.”

The rain was running off my jacket in sheets, soaking my jeans and shoes. “It would only take a few minutes. I’d be happy to drive you.”

“Plum doesn’t have no limo service. Plum only hires two kinds of people … women with big pointy tits and scumbag bounty hunters. Nothing personal, and it’s hard to see with that raincoat on, but you don’t look like you got big pointy tits. That leaves scumbag bounty hunter.”

Without warning he reached out into the rain, grabbed my pocketbook off my shoulder, and tossed the contents onto the tan shag carpet behind him. The gun landed with a thunk.

“You could get into a lot of crap carrying concealed in this state,” he said.

I narrowed my eyes. “Are you going to cooperate here?”

“What do you think?”

“I think if you’re smart you’ll get a shirt and some shoes and come downtown with me.”

“Guess I’m not that smart.”

“Fine. Then just give me my stuff, and I’ll be more than happy to leave.” Truer words were never spoken.

“I’m not giving you nothing. This here stuff looks like my stuff now.”

I was debating kicking him in the nuts when he gave me a shove to the chest, knocking me backward off the small cement pad. I came down hard on my ass in the mud.

“Take a hike,” he said, “or I’ll shoot you with your own fu**ing gun.”

The door slammed shut and the bolt clicked into place. I got up and wiped my hands on my jacket. I couldn’t believe I’d just stood there flat-footed and let him take my shoulder bag. What had I been thinking?

I’d been thinking about Clarence Sampson and not about Lonnie Dodd. Lonnie Dodd wasn’t a fat drunk. I should have approached him with a much more defensive posture. I should have stood farther back, out of his reach. And I should have had my defense spray in my hand, not in my pocketbook.

I had a lot to learn as a bounty hunter. I lacked skills, but even more problematic, I lacked attitude. Ranger had tried to tell me, but it hadn’t taken hold. Never let your guard down, he’d said. When you walk the street, you have to see everything, every second. You let your mind wander, and you could be dead. When you go after your FTA, always be prepared for the worst.

It had seemed overly dramatic at the time. Looking at it in retrospect, it had been good advice.