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Notorious Nineteen

By´╝ÜJanet Evanovich

ONE

“I DON’T KNOW why we gotta sit here baking in your car in the middle of the day, in the middle of the summer, in the middle of this crummy neighborhood,” Lula said. “It must be two hundred degrees in here. Why don’t we have the air conditioning on?”

“It’s broken,” I told her.

“Well, why don’t you have your window open?”

“It’s stuck closed.”

“Then why didn’t we take my car? My car’s got everything.”

“Your car is red and flashy. People notice it and remember it. This is the stealth car,” I said.

Lula shifted in her seat. “Stealth car, my big toe. This thing is a hunk of junk.”

This was true, but it was my hunk of junk, and due to a professional dry spell it was all I could afford. Lula and I work for my cousin Vinnie’s bail bonds office in Trenton, New Jersey. I’m a fugitive apprehension agent, and Lula is my sometimes partner.

We were currently parked on Stark Street, doing surveillance on a rooming house, hoping to catch Melvin Barrel coming or going. He’d been accused of possession with intent to sell, Vinnie bonded him out of jail, and Barrel hadn’t shown for his court date. Lula makes a wage as the office file clerk, but I only make money if I catch skips, so I was motivated to tough it out in my hellishly hot car, hoping for a shot at snagging Barrel.

“I worked this street when I was a ’ho,” Lula said, “but I was in a better section. This here block is for losers. No high-class ’ho would work this block. Darlene Gootch worked this block but it turned out she was killing people as a hobby.”

Lula was fanning herself with a crumpled fast food bag she’d found on the floor in the back of my car, and the smell of stale French fries and ketchup wafted out at me.

“You keep waving that bag around and we’re going to smell like we work the fry station at Cluck-in-a-Bucket,” I said to her.

“I hear you,” Lula said. “It’s making me hungry, and much as I like the aroma of food grease, I don’t want it stuck in my hair, on account of I just had my hair done. I picked out the piña colada conditioner so I’d smell like a tropical island.”

Lula’s hair was fire-engine red today and straightened to the texture of boar bristle. Her brown skin was slick with sweat. Her extra-voluptuous plus-size body was squeezed into a size 2 petite poison-green spandex skirt, and the acres of flesh that constituted her chest overflowed a brilliant yellow spaghetti-strap tank top. At 5'5" she’s a couple inches shorter than me. We’re about the same age, which puts us in the proximity of thirtysomething. And we’re both single.

My name is Stephanie Plum and I haven’t got Lula’s body volume or the attitude that goes with it. My attitude goes more toward survival mode. I have shoulder-length curly brown hair, blue eyes almost always enhanced by a swipe of black mascara, decent teeth, a cute nose in the middle of my face, and I can almost always button the top button on my jeans.

“Look at this fool coming at us, walking down the middle of the street,” Lula said. “What the heck is he doing?”

The fool was a skinny guy dressed in homie clothes. Baggy pants, wifebeater T-shirt, $700 basketball shoes. He was jogging more than walking, and every couple steps he’d look over his shoulder and scan the street. He spotted Lula and me, made a course correction, and ran straight for us. He reached my car, grabbed the driver’s side door handle and yanked, but nothing happened.

“What’s with that?” Lula asked.

“My door’s stuck,” I said. “It happens when it gets hot.”

The skinny guy had his face pressed to my window, and he was yelling at us.

“What’s he saying?” Lula asked. “I can’t make it out, and I’m gonna go blind from the sun reflecting on his gold tooth with the diamond chip in it.”

“I think he’s saying if I don’t open the door, he’ll kill me.”

“That don’t sound appealing,” Lula said. “Maybe this is a good time to go get lunch.”

I turned the key in the ignition, and the engine cranked over and died. I turned it again and there was silence. I looked back at the skinny guy and realized he had a gun pointed at me. Not just any old gun either. This gun was big.

“Open your door,” he yelled. “Open your damn door.”

Lula had her purse on her lap and was fumbling around in it. “I got a gun in here somewhere,” she said. “Keep him busy while I find my gun.”

I fidgeted with the door handle on my side so it would look like I was trying to open it. “Here’s the plan,” I said to Lula. “When you find your gun you let me know so I can duck down and you can shoot him.”

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