Look Alive Twenty-Five – Janet Evanovich

VINCENT PLUM BAIL Bonds is one of several storefront businesses on Hamilton Avenue in Trenton, New Jersey. It’s run by my cousin Vinnie and owned by his wiseguy father-inlaw, Harry the Hammer. Connie Rosolli is the office manager. My name is Stephanie Plum, and my official title is bond enforcement agent. I’m assisted by Lula. We’re not sure exactly what Lula does, and we’ve never been able to come up with a title for her. Connie, Lula, and I were looking out the big plate glass window at a Chevy Bolt parked at the curb. It was a small car overstuffed with large women. “Do you know who’s in that car?” Lula asked Connie. “Madam Zaretsky, Vinnie’s dominatrix, is driving,” Connie said. “Little Sally, his happy endings masseuse, is next to her. It’s hard to see who’s in the back seat, but it might be his bookie.” “Vinnie has a lady bookie?” Lula asked. “She used to be a man,” Connie said, “but Vinnie stayed with her through the transition.” “Good for him,” Lula said.

“He’s always been open-minded anyways. He didn’t even care what sex that duck was.” The women got out of the car and marched into the office. Madam Zaretsky had jet-black hair pulled back in a bun. Her lipstick was blood red. Her nails were creepy long and matched her lips. She was wearing a black bandage dress and spike-heeled black pumps. Little Sally wasn’t all that little. She was a plump five-five with a lot of frizzy red hair, an abundance of boob, and legs like tree trunks. The bookie was almost seven feet tall in heels.

She was tastefully dressed in a paleyellow sheath dress and patent nude pumps. Her makeup was understated. Her hands were big enough to palm a basketball, and she had gym monkey muscles. “Whoa,” Lula whispered to me. “That’s a big bookie.” “Where is he?” Zaretsky said. “We need to talk to him. He owes us money.” “He’s not here,” Connie said. “Can I help you?” “Sure, he’s here,” Lula said.

“He’s in his office.” The bonds office consists of a reception area with Connie’s desk and some uncomfortable seating choices. Vinnie’s private lair is off to one side, and a large storeroom stretches across the back of the building. The three women sashayed over to Vinnie’s office, but before they reached his door I heard Vinnie throw the bolt to lock them out. “I know you’re in there, Vinnie,” Zaretsky said. “Open the door.” Silence. Vinnie wasn’t answering. “Vinnie!” Zaretsky said. “Open this door or Sally is going to kick it in.

” “Makes sense,” Lula said. “Sally’s the one in combat boots. You don’t want to kick a door down wearing Louboutins. You could ruin them doing something like that.” Sally gave the door a good kick with her boot heel, but the door didn’t budge. “Stand back,” Zaretsky said. She took a silver-plated Glock out of her handbag and squeezed off a shot. The round ricocheted off the door and took out Connie’s desk lamp. “His door’s got a steel core,” Connie said. Zaretsky put her gun back into her bag.

“You tell that weasel we want our money.” Connie gathered up the desk lamp pieces. “I’ll pass it along.” “C’mon, girls,” Zaretsky said. “We have better things to do than to hang here all day.” Zaretsky motioned for no one to say anything, and the women flattened themselves against the wall on either side of the door. After a couple minutes, Vinnie opened the door a crack. “Are they gone?” he asked. The women pushed the door open and stormed into the inner office. Vinnie shrieked and tried to scramble around his desk, but the bookie grabbed him.

“I haven’t got any money,” Vinnie said. “I swear to God, I’ll pay you when I get some money.” In a very ladylike fashion, the bookie wrapped her hands around Vinnie’s ankles and effortlessly held him upside down about a foot off the floor. Vinnie is five foot nine and slim. His black hair is slicked back and wouldn’t move in hurricaneforce winds. His pants are narrow-legged and tight across his butt. His shirts are shiny and fit like skin. His complexion is Mediterranean. His dick has an adventuresome spirit and is most likely hideously diseased. The bookie shook Vinnie up and down as if he was trying to empty Vinnie’s pockets, but Vinnie’s pants were too tight for anything to fall out.

“Tell Connie to give you the petty cash,” Vinnie said. “It’s all I’ve got.” The bookie dropped Vinnie, and the three women went to Connie. “I’ve got two hundred and twenty dollars here,” Connie said. “Sign this receipt.” Zaretsky signed the receipt and took the cash. “This isn’t nearly enough,” she shouted to Vinnie. “We expect payment in full by the end of the week, or we’re going to your wife. And until you pay up you’re cut off from services.” The women turned, huffed out of the office, got into the little car, and sped off.

“How old do you think Madam Zaretsky is?” Lula asked. “She’s in her sixties,” Connie said. “Vinnie’s been with her for a long time.” “She’s in good shape,” Lula said. “She’s got excellent biceps. Must be from all that whipping she does.” Vinnie was on his feet. “What the hell were you thinking?” he yelled at Lula. “Why did you tell them I was in my office?” “You need to pay the ladies,” Lula said. “It’s not good to stiff service providers.

And you better shape up, because Madam Zaretsky said she was going to your wife next.” “Maybe if you two loser enforcers would actually make a capture I could pay the ladies,” Vinnie said. “It’s like I’m running a charity bailout here. How about if you stop snarfing those donuts on Connie’s desk and make a feeble attempt to haul in Victor Waggle. Is that too much to ask?” “How about if I rearrange your face so your nose is in the back of your head?” Lula said. Vinnie closed his door and slid the bolt. “Who’s Victor Waggle?” Lula asked Connie. “Failed to appear for court on Friday. High bond. Nutcase.

Stabbed two people on State Street and urinated on their dog.” “That’s a terrible thing to do,” Lula said. “It’s not nice to urinate on a dog. I hope that dog’s okay. What kind of dog was it?” “Shih tzu,” Connie said. “What about the people?” I asked. “They’ll live,” Connie said. “Motive?” I asked. “Waggle said he was having a bad day.” Connie handed his file to me, and I paged through it.

Photo of a guy with crazy bugged-out eyes and punked-up hair. Twenty-three years old. Eye color red. Hair color black. Had a tattoo of a snake coiled around his neck. “Did anyone else come in?” I asked Connie. “Annie Gurky didn’t show for court on Friday. She’s a low bond. Shoplifting while drunk and disorderly. And Wayne Kulicki.

Eat and Go shorted him on his fries, so he destroyed the place.” “I’ve been shorted on fries there too,” Lula said. “It’s the drive-thru window. They always screw you over at the drive-thru window.” Connie handed me the two additional files, and I organized all three in order of difficulty. I’d go after Annie Gurky first, Wayne Kulicki second, and hope Victor Waggle got run over by a truck before I started searching for him. Vinnie popped out of his office again. “And don’t forget about the deli.” “Deli?” I asked. Vinnie narrowed his eyes at Connie.

“Didn’t you tell them about the deli?” “I was getting to it,” Connie said. “Well, get to it faster,” Vinnie said. “It’s not gonna run itself.” Vinnie retreated back into his office. Lula and I looked over at Connie. “You remember Ernie Sitz,” Connie said. “He skipped out on a racketeering charge last year.” “He’s still in the wind,” I said. “The rumor is that he’s in South America somewhere.” Connie nodded.

“One of his many businesses was Red River Deli. He used it as collateral on his bond, and two weeks ago Vincent Plum Bail Bonds was awarded ownership.” “Red River Deli,” Lula said. “It does a good lunch trade. It’s in one of them gentrified high-crime areas.” Vinnie reappeared. He had his arms wrapped around a paper grocery bag, and he had a Red River Deli ball cap on his head. “I got your uniforms here,” Vinnie said to Lula and me. “Aprons and ball caps.” Lula leaned forward.

“Say what?” “Harry has decided he needs to diversify,” Connie said. “He’s not going to sell the deli. He’s going to keep it and run it.” “I’m not seeing the connection,” Lula said. “Harry wants to keep the businesses under one umbrella,” Vinnie said. “So, he’s made Stephanie deli manager, and you’re the assistant manager.” “I don’t know anything about running a deli,” I said. “And when am I supposed to do this job?” “The deli doesn’t open until noon,” Vinnie said. “It’s not like a grocery deli. It’s more of a restaurant deli.

You’ve got a couple line cooks and a waitress who do all the work. You just have to keep things running nice and smooth. You start today. The keys are in the bag. Deli opens at noon, but the cooks come in at ten.” “No,” I said. “I already have a job that I suck at. I don’t need another one.” “Yeah,” Lula said. “Me too.

” “You’ll get five hundred dollars a week plus lunch,” Vinnie said to me. I reached for the bag. “I’ll take it.” “What about me?” Lula asked. “What do I get?” “You get lunch,” Vinnie said. “You already draw a salary for doing nothing.” “Works for me,” Lula said. “I like lunch. It’s one of my favorite things.” I’m five foot seven with blue eyes, shoulder-length curly brown hair, and a body that won’t get me a job walking the Victoria’s Secret runway but is good enough to get me a boyfriend.

Lula is two inches shorter than me and has a lot more volume. Much of the volume is in boobs and booty, giving her a voluptuousness that would be hard to duplicate with surgery. Lula achieved her voluptuousness the old-fashioned way. Pork chops, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, tubs of mac and cheese and potato salad, barbecue ribs, chili hot dogs. Her hair was magenta today. Her skin is polished mahogany. Her dress and five-inch stiletto heels are from her Saturday night ’ho collection and two sizes too small. The overall effect is spectacular, as usual. I stuffed the new files into the deli bag, and Lula and I headed out. “I think we should take your car,” Lula said.

“I just had my baby detailed, and that neighborhood is gentrified from what it used to be but that don’t mean it’s perfect.” Lula’s baby is a shiny, perfectly maintained red Firebird with a sound system that could shake the fillings loose from your teeth. My car is an ancient faded blue Chevy Nova. It has a lot of rust, and a while back someone rudely spray-painted pussy on it. I covered the writing with silver Rust-Oleum glitter paint that was on sale. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough paint to cover the whole car. I got into the Nova and pulled the Gurky file out of the bag. “We don’t have to be at the deli until ten,” I said to Lula. “We have time to do a drive-by on Annie Gurky. According to her file she lives in an apartment complex in Hamilton Township.

Married with two adult children. Age seventy-two.” “What did she shoplift?” “A box of Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpets, a family-size bag of M& M’s, a carton of Marlboros, two bags of Fritos, and a box of Twinkies. Apparently, she had them shoved into her tote bag and walked out of the store. An employee chased her across the parking lot, and she punched him in the nose.” “Did she drive away?” Lula asked. “No. The police report says she couldn’t remember where she parked her car. She was working her way through the box of Butterscotch Krimpets when she was arrested.” “Well, at least she’s got good judgment when it comes to dessert.

You can’t do much better than Tastykakes and Twinkies.” CHAPTER TWO I MADE A U-turn in front of the bonds office and drove to Hamilton Township. Gurky lived around the corner from Delio’s gas station. She was in a large, sprawling complex of two-story buildings that each housed six garden-level apartments and six second-floor apartments. Gurky was in a gardenlevel apartment. She answered the door with a smile. I introduced myself and explained to her that she’d missed her court date and would need to come with me to reschedule. “I’m in the middle of breakfast,” she said. “Maybe some other time.” Lula grinned.

“Lady, you smell like you’re having a hundred-proof breakfast.” “I like a splash of vodka in my orange juice,” Gurky said. “This won’t take long,” I told her. “We’ll put the orange juice in the fridge, and you can finish it when you get back.” “This is all a misunderstanding,” she said. “I wasn’t stealing anything. I just forgot to pay. And then that horrible man attacked me.” “The one you punched in the nose?” Lula asked. “Yes.

That’s the one. The purse snatcher. He tried to rob me. He grabbed my tote bag.” “You might have been confused on account of you had too much orange juice,” Lula said. “I need a lot of orange juice,” Gurky said. “I have a lot of anger. I’ve been married to the same man for fifty-two years and last month he decided I wasn’t ‘doing it for him anymore,’ so he ran off with my sister. My sister! I always knew she was a slut. And he took my cat, Miss Muffy.

He never even liked Miss Muffy.” “Boy, that’s so crummy,” Lula said. “What a pig. You know what we should do? We should get Miss Muffy back. We should catnap her.” “We’re not in the catnap business,” I said to Lula. “And you’re allergic to cats.” I looked at my watch. Time was ticking away. We had to open the deli’s doors for the cooks at ten o’clock.

“We need to take you downtown to check in with the court,” I said to Gurky. “We’ll help you lock up the house.” “I won’t have to stay in jail, will I?” Gurky asked. “No,” I told her. “Court is in session. We’ll get you rescheduled and rebonded.” A half hour later we buckled Gurky into the back seat of my Nova. She’d put on lipstick, changed her shoes, slurped down some more orange juice, checked her door locks fifteen times, and tried to sneak out her back door. “This is going to be tight,” Lula said. “I don’t see how you’re going to drop her off at the courthouse and get back to the deli in time.

” “I’ll stop at the deli first, open the door and make sure everyone gets in, and then we’ll take Gurky to the courthouse.” “Good thinking,” Lula said. “That’ll work.” Red River Deli isn’t anywhere near a river. It’s near the train station, next to a hotel that rents rooms by the hour. The gentrification process put in streetlamps that looked like gaslights, and brick-fronted a bunch of row houses and apartment buildings that previously had looked like a slum. The row houses and apartment buildings were gutted and renovated and sold to young professionals who worked in New York and wanted to be close to the train station. Unfortunately, some of the vagrants and gangbangers who roamed the area didn’t get the gentrification memo so from time to time the area could be a little sketchy. I parked on the street in front of the deli, and Lula and I looked over our shoulders at Annie Gurky in the back seat. Her hands were cuffed in front of her for comfort, and she was slumped over, softly snoring.

“Looks like she’s sleeping off all that orange juice,” Lula said. “Seems a shame to wake her. Maybe we should just crack a window and lock her in.” “Hey!” I said. “Annie!” No response. Two men were standing in front of the deli. One was Caucasian and the other looked Indian subcontinent. They were wearing baggy striped chef’s pants, white chef’s coats, and Red River Deli ball caps turned backward. They were smoking weed and texting. “Guess those are our chefs,” Lula said.

“They look real professional. They got chef suits and everything. Maybe we should put our hats on.” “Maybe not,” I said. “Personally, I’m all about being an assistant restaurant manager,” Lula said. “It’s a excellent advancement opportunity. I hope you’re not going to rain on my parade.” “There is no parade. We know nothing about running a restaurant. We have no experience.

” “That’s not true. I eat in restaurants all the time. And I saw Ratatouille.” “Ratatouille is a cartoon.” “Well, I watch other shows too. I used to watch Hell’s Kitchen with that cranky Ramsay guy.” I got out of the car and Lula followed. I introduced myself and asked the two men if they were our chefs. “We are very much so,” the smaller man said. “My name is Raymond.

I have my green card.” The other chef was lanky and about six foot tall. He had black hair, a soul patch, and a gold tooth. He looked down at me through a weed haze. “Stretch,” he said. “Even I do not know his true name,” Raymond said. “He has always been Stretch.” I unlocked the front door and told them they couldn’t smoke weed inside. “This is not a good beginning,” Raymond said. “I’m hoping you do not have more onerous rules we must follow.

” Stretch playfully put his hand on Lula’s boob, and Lula kicked him in the nuts. Stretch doubled over and sucked air. “Onerous that rule,” Lula said, and she sashayed inside. The deli consisted of one room with booths lining two walls. Six tables for four were positioned in the middle of the room, and there was counter seating on the far end. The floors were scarred wood. The booths were red leather. Lighting was close to daylight and appropriate for a deli. There was a very slight lingering odor of fried onion rings, but overall it didn’t smell bad. In fact, it smelled good if you were a fan of onion rings.

I walked past the counter seating and entered the kitchen. It was a galley setup with a large pantry to one side. It looked almost clean. I didn’t see any roaches that were sneakers-up. I took that as a good sign. I looked at a plastic-coated menu. Sandwiches, hot and cold. The usual sides. Standard deli desserts. Nothing complicated.

Maybe Lula and I could pull this off. “Okay,” I said to Raymond and Stretch. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing here. Lula and I will check back around noon.” “Whoa, not so fast,” Stretch said. “What about the deliveries?” “What about them?” “You have to take inventory and schedule them. Then you have to make sure we get the right stuff on time. And you have to arrange for payment.” “You don’t do that?” “I make sandwiches, Cookie Puss.” I looked over at Raymond.

“What about him?” “He’s the fry guy.” “Who did it yesterday?” I asked. “No one,” Stretch said. “So, we’re up shit’s creek today. We had a manager, but he disappeared. Went out for a break two days ago and never came back. He’s the third manager in two weeks to disappear.” “And we always find one shoe,” Raymond said. “One manager shoe by the dumpster, but no manager.” “Do the police know about this?” “Oh yes,” Raymond said.

“They have been fully informed. They said it is a great mystery.” “I’m glad I’m not the new manager,” Lula said to me. “I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes . especially since sometime soon he could be left with only one. I would hate that. I take my shoes seriously.” “I’m the new manager,” I said. “Oh yeah,” Lula said. “I forgot for a minute.

Bummer. On the other hand, you could see the bright side and think this might be like Cinderella. She left a shoe behind and look how good it turned out for her.” “I can’t take inventory right now,” I told Stretch. “You’re going to have to do it. Order whatever you need. I’ll be back before you open at noon.” “I need a raise,” Stretch said. “Can I order that?” Lula and I walked out of the deli and stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. “Where did we park the car?” Lula asked.

“Here,” I said. “We parked it right here in front of the deli.” “I don’t usually like to jump to conclusions, but I think someone stole your car,” Lula said. “It might have been that Annie Gurky. She could have woke up and needed more orange juice.” That would be the best-case scenario. The worst would be that some thug took the car with Annie Gurky in it. I hauled my cellphone out of my bag and placed a call. There are two men in my life. Joe Morelli is a Trenton cop who works plainclothes in crimes against persons.

Morelli and I have a long history together that includes being engaged and not being engaged and several times almost being engaged. He has a nice little house on Slater Street that he inherited from his Aunt Rose. He has a big orange dog, two brothers, two sisters, and a crazy grandmother named Bella. He’s also totally sexy in an Italian movie star, homicide detective kind of way. The other guy is Ricardo Carlos Manoso, better known as Ranger. He’s Latino. He’s former Special Forces. He’s hot. He owns Rangeman, a high-end security business operating out of a hightech, low-profile building in downtown Trenton. And he’s dedicated to keeping me alive and in sight.

His motives aren’t entirely altruistic. “Are you calling the cops?” Lula asked. “No. I’m calling Ranger. It’s the fastest way to find my car.” CHAPTER THREE RANGER ATTACHES TRACKING devices to my cars. It was initially annoying, but I’ve gotten used to it, and in all honesty, it’s come in handy on occasions like this. “Babe,” Ranger said. Depending on the inflection, Babe could mean many things. Irritation, affection, desire, curiosity.

Today it was without inflection. Today it was simply hello. “My car is missing,” I said. “I parked it in front of Red River Deli, and now it’s gone.” There was silence while he pulled my car up on his computer. “It’s on lower Stark Street,” Ranger said. “Probably headed for the chop shop on the fourth block. I’ll send someone out to retrieve it.” “It might have an elderly woman in the back seat.” “Anyone I know?” “Doubtful. I was returning her to the court.” “Babe,” Ranger said. And he disconnected. “Now what?” Lula asked. “We wait,” I said. Ranger keeps several mobile units constantly patrolling accounts throughout the city. He was going to send one of them to Stark to intercept my car, and I was hoping he’d send another to rescue me. Five minutes passed and a shiny black SUV rolled down the street and stopped at the curb. A guy who looked like a Marine recruit got out and motioned us into the back seat. He was wearing black Nikes, black cargo pants, and a form-fitting black T-shirt. The T-shirt had a Rangeman logo on the short sleeve that spanned his bulging biceps. “Hal has your car,” he said. “Did you know there’s a woman in the back seat?” “Yes. Is she okay?” “Hal said she was asleep.” My car was parked one block off Stark. A black Rangeman SUV was parked behind it, and Hal was standing between the two cars. Hal is an over-muscled giant who faints at the sight of blood. A couple of skinny teens were sitting on the curb. Their hands were cuffed behind their backs, and one looked like he’d smashed his face into Hal’s massive fist. “Are you feeling all right?” I asked Hal. “Yeah,” Hal said. “He’s only bleeding a little. It was an accident.” “I bet. What are you going to do with them?” “Turn them loose. They’re under the age limit.” Hal grinned. “They freaked out when I told them they kidnapped an old lady. They hadn’t noticed her in the back seat.” I glanced in at Annie. She was still sleeping. I thanked Hal, and I called Connie to tell her we would be turning Annie Gurky over to the court in about fifteen minutes, and she would want to get rebonded. Lula and I weren’t certified to write bond, so Connie or Vinnie would have to make a trip downtown. Lula and I got into my Nova, and I drove to the police station. I pulled into the lot across from the municipal building, and Annie woke up. “Are we here already?” she asked. I walked her through the front door and left her with the desk lieutenant. I told him someone would be in shortly to bond her out so he shouldn’t misplace her. “We gotta get back to the deli,” Lula said. “It’s almost noon and I want my free lunch.” I wasn’t anxious to get back to the deli. Truth is, I was thinking about bailing on the deal. I was freaked by the manager disappearances and the fact that my car had been stolen the instant I stepped away from it. “I think I might quit,” I told Lula. “Vinnie can find someone else to be manager.” “You can’t quit,” Lula said. “You’ve only just got the job. How do you know you don’t like it? And we’ve never even had any of our free lunches. I already memorized the menu. I’m gonna have a number twelve and a number sixteen and a number twenty-two today.” “Three sandwiches?” “Number twenty-two is a dessert.” I gave up a sigh, returned to my Nova, and headed for the deli. I would quit after lunch. “I’m always excited about new beginnings,” Lula said. “This could turn into something big for us. I got a good feeling about this.” “I have a horrible feeling about this. What about the disappearing managers?” “It could be a big hoax. Like a joke. Or fake news. There’s a lot of that fake news going around these days. Heck, we could be in the middle of a reality show. It’s not like they found mutilated dead bodies. They just found a shoe, so how bad could it be?” I cruised past the deli, looking for a parking place. There weren’t any open spaces, so I drove down the one-lane alley that intersected the block and found parking next to the deli’s small dumpster. Lula and I entered through the back door and tiptoed through the kitchen. Raymond was working the fry station and griddle. Stretch was assembling sandwiches and plating. A twentysomething woman with a blond ponytail and a lot of tattoos was waiting tables. She was wearing jeans and a tank top and looked like she could kick my ass. “Howdy,” Lula said to her. “I’m Lula, the new assistant manager, and this is Stephanie Plum, standing next to me. She’s the new manager.” “Dalia Koharchek,” the woman said, extending her hand to me, looking down at my feet. “Congratulations, you’ve still got two shoes.” “About those managers . ” I said. “Number seven up,” Stretch said. Dalia grabbed two plates off the service counter and whisked them away to a booth. “I want my lunch now,” Lula said to Stretch. “A number twelve with extra bacon and a sixteen.” “Yeah, and I want a BJ,” he said. “You know what our chances of getting any of those anytime soon are?” “You should be more careful,” Lula said. “That might be considered a sexually improper response.” Stretch sliced a hoagie roll and threw some shredded lettuce in it. “Bite me.” I grabbed Lula by the arm and dragged her out of the kitchen. “He’s lucky he said that to me on account of those off-color remarks don’t bother me,” Lula said. “I even kind of like them, but there’s less-fun people who would report him to the PC police, and he could be in big trouble.” “Hey, Cookie Puss,” Stretch yelled. “I got shorted by my purveyor. You’re gonna need to do a market run.” “My name is Stephanie,” I said. “Stephanie.” “Yeah, whatever,” Stretch said. “We got an account at the market two blocks down. I need six dozen eggs and four loaves of thick-cut white bread.” “I’ll keep an eye open here,” Lula said to me. “Since you’re going shopping anyway, I’d appreciate it if you could pick up a Star magazine.” I walked the two blocks, bought my eggs, bread, and Star magazine, and walked back. Lula was standing on the sidewalk in front of the deli, and she was waving at me. “I need a Xanax,” Lula said. “I’m having hallucinations. I just saw a man disappear in a puff of smoke. He wasn’t any ordinary man, either. He was like Satan, if Satan was totally hot and wearing black Armani. I could tell this wasn’t even an Armani knockoff. Actually, it might not have been Armani. It might have been Tom Ford. I’m having a hormone attack. He looked me in the eye and I think I might have had an orgasm. Maybe it was just a rush. I was too flustered to appreciate it. Am I sweating? Is my face red? Maybe I don’t need a Xanax. Maybe I just need a sandwich. I could be hallucinating from hunger.” “Where was this man?” I asked. “He popped out of the little alleyway between the buildings. I came out here to get some air, and he just suddenly appeared.” “Did he say anything?” “No,” Lula said. “He just stood there, staring. It felt like my skin was on fire. And then he waved his hand, and there was a flash of light and a whoosh of smoke, and he was gone.” “Dark hair, dark eyes, slim?” I asked. “About six foot tall?” “Yeah,” Lula said. “And wicked hot. Do you know him?” “Maybe. A while back I ran across a man who had a flair for the dramatic and fit that description.” “And he could disappear in smoke?” Lula asked. “He’s a magician. Among other things. His name is Gerwulf Grimoire. Most people know him as Wulf. He’s Swiss born, and he speaks perfect English with a slight British accent.” “ ‘Gerwulf Grimoire’ is a horrible name,” Lula said. “It could leave you damaged to have a name like that. You could be tainted.” I didn’t think Wulf was tainted, but I didn’t think he was normal, either. Wulf was a slightly scary enigma. I gave Lula her magazine and handed the bread and eggs over to Stretch. “We got a big takeout order,” Stretch said. “It’s on the counter behind me. Takeout boxes are on the overhead shelves.” “And?” “And fill it. I’m going flat-out, and Raymond’s up to his tits in fries.” I looked at the list on the counter. Ten sandwiches, four fries, six sides of slaw, two mac and cheese, one rice pudding, and two pieces of apple pie. “Move over,” Lula said. “I’m all about this.” She took a red flowered scarf out of her purse and wrapped it around her hair bandanna style. “Where’s my hat? I need my hat.” I gave her one of the hats and took a step back. “You get to be the sous chef,” Lula said, taking the list from me. “Put your hat on and get me a loaf of bread. It says here we gotta start with a number seven. What the heck is a number seven?” “I thought you had the menu memorized.” “I only memorized the ones I wanted to eat. Some fool don’t know better than to order a number seven. Maybe we should do him a favor and give him a number twelve.” “The menu says a number seven is turkey and Swiss on whole grain.” “Three ounces of turkey and two slices of Swiss,” Stretch said. “The turkey is pre-measured. Mustard on the Swiss side and mayo on the turkey. Every sandwich gets two deli pickles.” “Boy, they got this to a science,” Lula said. “Everything’s in these bins. All I need is the bread. Who eats multigrain, anyway? Multigrain don’t melt in your mouth like white bread.” I gave Lula the bread and she slathered mustard on one and mayo on the other. She added the turkey and Swiss and shook her head. “This isn’t a Lula sandwich,” she said. “I can’t be proud sending out a sandwich like this.” She added Tabasco and two strips of bacon. “This person is gonna thank me. I’m giving them a superior culinary experience.” She sliced the sandwich in half, and I put it in one of the plastic containers with two pickles. “You gotta move faster,” Stretch said. “Pickup’s waiting.” “You gotta chill,” Lula said. “I’m making gastrointestinal history. You can’t rush this artistic shit.” We slapped together nine more sandwiches, got the sides put together and boxed up the pie. Dalia bagged everything and took it all to the pickup counter. “I need pie,” Lula said. “I got a pie craving.” “What about the sandwiches you wanted?” “I ate a lot of the fixings while we were doing the takeout order, but I didn’t get any pie.” Connie called on my cellphone. “I’m at the courthouse, and there’s no Annie Gurky. Did you get a receipt for her?” “No,” I said. “I was in a rush to get back to the deli, so I told the cop at the desk to give you the receipt.” “He’s saying you didn’t make it clear that she needed to be held.” “She was cuffed!” “He might not have noticed. Anyway, responsibility is in a gray zone right now, so see if you can find her. She probably called Uber and is back in her house.” I looked out at the dining area. The lunch trade seemed to be winding down. Half of the booths were empty. “I’m taking off for a while,” I said to Stretch. “Things to do.” Like tell Vinnie he should hire a new manager. “You need to be back here at five o’clock,” Stretch said. “It gets nuts when the rush hour trains roll in.” “And do not go out the back door,” Raymond said. “My car is parked in the back,” I said. “No, no, no,” he said. “Do not ever park there. We call that the Domain of the Death Dumpster. That is where managers go to disappear.” “I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, “but I’m going to chance it this one time.” Raymond handed me a meat cleaver. “Take this with you. You must protect yourself.” “She don’t need that,” Lula said. “I’m packing a loaded Glock. And I’m taking a pie as backup.” “Good luck,” Raymond said. “Keep your eyes open. I hope you return. We will soil ourselves trying to get through the evening covers without an extra hand.” Lula pulled a pumpkin pie from the fridge, grabbed a fork, and followed me out. She stopped in the middle of the small lot and looked around. “So, this is where it happens,” she said. “I guess it’s like poof and no more manager. Just a shoe left behind. Maybe it’s aliens beaming up managers. That would be the most logical explanation. I could see that happening.” “Why would aliens leave a shoe behind?” “It could be a thoughtful gesture so his family knew he was taken by aliens. Or maybe when you get beamed up your shoe falls off. It could be a side effect of beaming up. If you don’t mind I’m not standing too close to you in case you suddenly get beamed up.” I allowed myself a grimace and a single eye roll, and I got into my Nova. Lula buckled up next to me and forked into the pie. “Annie Gurky wandered away from the police station,” I said to Lula. “Connie is canvassing the area around the municipal building, and I’m going to go back to Annie’s house.” “It would be bad if someone finds one of her shoes,” Lula said. “That would mean the aliens were looking to diversify in their beaming.”

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