LARRY VIRGIL IS a lanky, grease-stained guy in his forties. He lives alone in the back room of his auto body shop on Baker Street in north Trenton, and he hasn’t cut his hair in at least ten years. For all I know that was also the last time he washed it. He has a reputation for drinking too much and abusing women. And he has a hot dog with testicles tattooed on his forehead. I suppose it might be a penis, but it’s not a very good tattoo, and I prefer to think it’s a hot dog.
None of this would be any of my business, but a couple months ago Trenton’s finest caught Virgil hijacking an eighteen-wheeler filled with cases of premium bourbon. Virgil was arrested and subsequently bonded out by my bail bondsman cousin and employer, Vincent Plum. Virgil failed to appear for his court appearance a week ago, and Vinnie isn’t happy. If Virgil isn’t brought back into the system in a timely fashion, Vinnie will lose his bond money.
My name is Stephanie Plum. I’m a college graduate with virtually no marketable skills, so for the past several years I’ve been tracking down Vinnie’s skips. What I lack in expertise I make up for with desperation and tenacity, because I only get paid when I catch someone.
It was ten o’clock at night in mid-September, and cool enough for me to need a sweatshirt over my T-shirt. I was currently pulling surveillance on Virgil’s three-bay garage, hoping to catch him entering or exiting. I was with my wheelman, Lula. We’d been sitting across from the garage for over two hours, and my eyes were crossing out of boredom.
“This isn’t going anywhere,” I said to Lula. “He isn’t answering his phone, and there aren’t any lights on in the building.”
Lula is a former ’ho who Vinnie hired as a file clerk a while back. When files went digital he didn’t have the guts to fire her, so now Lula shows up every day for work and pretty much does whatever she wants. Mostly she hangs with me. She’s shorter than I am. She packs a lot more bodacious voluptuousness into her clothes than I do. Her hair is currently pink. Her skin is always brown. Her attitude is “Say what?”
I’m pale in comparison to Lula. I have shoulder-length mostly unmanageable curly brown hair that’s usually pulled into a ponytail, and I’ve been told I look a little like Julia Roberts when she played a hooker in Pretty Woman. I think this is mostly a compliment, right?
“My personal opinion is that this loser skipped town,” Lula said. “It’s not like he got family here. And we’re not lookin’ at someone with a active social life. Only time this man goes out is to hijack a truck, and he got a crimp put in that activity.”
Lights flashed at the cross street, and an eighteen-wheeler chugged toward us and parked in front of the lot attached to the garage. The lot was enclosed by a six-foot-high chain-link fence topped with razor wire. A man swung down from the cab of the truck and walked to the gate. He fiddled with the lock and the gate swung open.
“It’s him,” Lula said, sticking her hand into her big bedazzled purse and rooting around in it looking for her gun. “It’s that punk-ass Larry Virgil. I told you he’d be back. I got a gun in here somewhere. Hold on while I get my gun.”
“We don’t need guns,” I said. “He’s not known for being armed. All we have to do is wait for him to get inside, and then we’ll sneak in and slap the cuffs on him.”
“I got it,” Lula said. “I got my gun. Let’s go!”
“Not yet,” I said.
Too late. Lula was out from behind the wheel of her Firebird, running across the road, waving her gun and yelling, “Bond enforcement!”
Virgil went deer in the headlights for a moment, and in the next moment he bolted for the corner with Lula in pursuit. Even in the dark of night I could see that Lula was running flat-out in her spike-heeled Via Spigas.
“Stop or I’ll shoot you dead,” Lula yelled to Virgil.
I was running behind Lula, trying to close in on her. “Don’t you dare shoot him,” I shouted at her. “No shooting!”
Virgil crossed the street and ran back toward the garage. He reached Lula’s red Firebird, wrenched the door open, jumped in, and took off.
“He got my Firebird!” Lula shrieked. “He got my baby! And my purse is in there too. I personally bedazzled that purse. It was one of a kind. And it got all my makeup in there.”
“Guess you left the key in the ignition,” I said, gasping for air, coming alongside Lula.
“And you told me not to shoot him,” Lula said. “This is all your fault. If I put some holes in him this would never have happened.”
“I’ll call it in to the police,” I said.
“I’m not waiting for no police,” Lula said. “I’m going after that punk ass.”
“You won’t catch him on foot.”
“I’m not going on foot. I’m taking his truck.”
“Do you know how to drive a truck?”
“Sure I know how to drive a truck,” Lula said. “What’s to know?”
She got a foot onto the first step to the cab but couldn’t get any lift.
“This here stupid thing is too high,” Lula said. “Get your hand under my ass and give me a shove up.”
“Not for all the tea in China,” I said.
“Then go around and pull me in.”
I climbed into the cab from the passenger side, crawled over, and gave Lula a hand up.
“This is a bad idea,” I said. “You don’t have a clue where he’s headed. He’s disappeared, and on top of that he probably stole this truck.”
“I know where he’s going,” Lula said. “He’s going to the chop shop on Stark. He’s gonna sell my Firebird off for pieces. That’s what these creeps do. They got no respect for people’s personal vehicles.”
I took my cellphone out of my pocket. “I’m calling it in.”
Lula stared at the dash. “There’s a awful lot of doohickeys here.”
“I thought you said you knew how to drive one of these.”
“I’m just sayin’ this here’s a fancy rig. It got a cup holder and everything.” She looked down at the floor. “It got a lot of pedals down there. What the heck is that big one?”
“That’s the clutch.”
“Yeah, it’s all coming back to me. I used to drive my Uncle Jimmy’s dump truck before I got established as a ’ho.”