Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
My name is Stephanie Plum and I’m a fugitive apprehension agent in Trenton, New Jersey. I’m not especially brave, so you would think I’d pretty much stay out of trouble. Unfortunately, I occasionally ignore the obvious signs of danger and stumble into something ugly with the potential for disaster. This was one of those times. I was in a tunnel under a strip club, and I was with my coworker, Lula.
“This is a bad idea,” Lula said to me. “My nipples are all shrunk up and trying to hide inside my body. It’s like what men’s gonads do when someone comes at them with a butcher knife. Those suckers abandon ship and there’s nothing left but an empty nut sack. Not that I know firsthand. I’m just sayin’ what I hear.”
Aside from being a bounty hunter, I think I’m pretty normal. I have shoulder-length curly brown hair that’s usually pulled back into a ponytail, blue eyes from my mother’s Hungarian ancestors, and a bunch of rude hand gestures from my father’s Italian side of the family. My nipples aren’t as smart or nearly as big as Lula’s. They were currently snug inside my sports bra, going along for the ride, and not paying attention to much of anything.
“Not only that, but I think my hair’s standing on end,” Lula said. “Look at it. Is it standing on end? It feels like it. My scalp is all tingly. That’s a for-sure sign that something horrible is going to happen to us.”
Lula’s hair is always a surprise. Some days it’s lavender. Some days it’s braided. Some days it isn’t even Lula’s real hair. Today it was a massive puffball of chemically induced black ringlets shot through with hot pink highlights and sprinkled with glittery tiny pink stars. It was awesome. The rest of Lula is equally awesome, as her bounty runneth over in booty and boob and everything else. Today she was packed into a yellow spandex mini bandage dress that was sized for a much, much smaller woman. I was in my usual uniform of sneakers, jeans, and girly T-shirt.
Lula and I were playing hooky from bounty huntering to track down Lou Salgusta, a mob guy who specializes in information extraction and revenge by barbecuing various body parts of his victims. He’s one of six hit men who, years ago, bought a strip club called the Mole Hole. It’s located in downtown Trenton, and it’s famous for its cheap drinks, outstanding burgers, and mob-occupied back room. It was common knowledge that the six club owners each had a personal La-Z-Boy recliner in the back room, and the possession of one of those recliners was as good as, if not better than, being made.
Recently, Salgusta and one of his La-Z-Boy pals, Charlie Shine, decided my grandmother had the key to a treasure. They kidnapped Grandma and me, and while we endured some terrifying moments, we were able to escape with minimum damage. Problem is, Shine and Salgusta still want the key to the treasure, and we saw them murder a man in cold blood while we were captive. So, there’s incentive for Salgusta and Shine to capture us again, persuade Grandma to give them the key, and then kill us.
“I know it’s a righteous undertaking to protect your granny,” Lula said, “but we aren’t exactly that Die Hard guy.”
“No, Bruce Willis. I’m guessing you don’t even have a gun. I’m guessing your gun is home in your brown bear cookie jar.”
She was right about the gun, and she was right about us not being Bruce Willis. Unfortunately, I can’t let any of that stop me, because I love my grandma, and I will do whatever it takes to protect her. And as I see it, the only way to protect her is to track down Salgusta and Shine and get them behind bars.
Twenty minutes ago, I got a call from my mom, who’d gotten a call from Margie Wisneski, who’d gotten a call from her alcoholic brother that he was having his midmorning pick-me-up at the Mole Hole, and that Lou Salgusta had just walked in and gone straight to the back room.
Lula and I rushed to the scene, but the back room was empty when we arrived. Margie’s brother was still at the bar and swore that Salgusta went into the back room and didn’t come out.
“There’s gotta be a secret way out of that room,” Lula said. “That’s the way it always is in the gangster movies. You’ve got to have a way to sneak out when the bulls show up. That’s what they used to call the police. I know all about this because I got the classics movie channel on my TV package.”
We returned to the back room and looked around. Six La-Z-Boy chairs. A monster safe. A card table with four folding chairs. Big-screen TV. No windows or doors other than the door opening to the barroom.
After several minutes of searching, we found a trapdoor hidden under a rug. We opened the door, climbed down a ladder, and stood squinting in the dim light of an escape tunnel that was approximately six feet high and three feet wide. It was encased in concrete and lit by a single bulb that was about thirty feet in front of the ladder.
Lula and I were now standing under that bulb. The tunnel changed from concrete to dirt at this point. It was supported by wood posts at regular intervals and it narrowed slightly.
“I’m going back,” Lula said. “No way in hell am I going to squeeze myself into that dirt tunnel. First off, it’s going to smudge up my dress. And second, it’s the tunnel to death and doom.”
“I imagine you got the death-and-doom message from your nipples?”
“Don’t underestimate my nipples. I got nipple radar. When they talk, I listen.”
Lula turned and huffed back to the ladder. She climbed the ladder and stopped at the top.
“This here door’s closed,” she said.
“You followed me down. Did you close the door?”
“Yeah. I didn’t want anyone to know we were down here. I didn’t count on it being so hard to get open again.”
“Maybe there’s a latch somewhere. A button to push,” I said.
“I’m feeling all around and I don’t see no button.”
“Are you sure you can’t push the door open?”
“Would I be standing here on this freaking ladder if I could get the freaking door open?” Lula said.
I replaced Lula on the ladder and tried the door. No luck. I climbed down the ladder and pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. No bars. I looked down the corridor at the dark, dirt tunnel of death and doom.
“Guess what?” I said.
“I don’t like ‘guess what.’ And I don’t like the way this place smells,” Lula said, following me to the end of the concrete.
“It smells like dirt.”
“Exactly,” Lula said. “There’s no other smells besides dirt, and that would indicate that we’re underground with no windows or anything. Like we’re in a tomb. You see what I’m saying?”
“We aren’t in a tomb. We’re in a tunnel that Lou Salgusta just used so it has to go somewhere.”
Okay, truth is, I was every bit as creeped out as Lula. I didn’t like being underground. It was claustrophobic. The air was heavy with dirt and damp, and I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t suffocating. Even worse was the thought that Lou Salgusta might be waiting at the other end. I wanted to capture him, but I wasn’t confident that I could do it under these circumstances.
I tapped my phone’s flashlight app. “Stay close behind me and don’t use your phone,” I said to Lula. “We should save your battery.”
“Do you want my gun, being that you’re first in line?”
I took the gun from her not so much for self-defense as to make sure Lula didn’t panic and accidentally shoot me in the back.
We walked a short distance and the tunnel curved. The single lightbulb disappeared from view and there was only blackness in front of us and behind us.
“I can’t see what I’m walking on,” Lula said. “It feels squishy and I hear water dripping.”
Water was dripping from the top of the tunnel and the dirt underfoot was muddy. I could see men’s footprints in the mud. Salgusta, I thought. Maybe someone else. Hard to tell in the dark. The tunnel came to a T-intersection. I flashed the light in both directions and saw nothing but endless dark tunnel. I went right, following the footprints.
“There’s something dropped on my neck,” Lula said. “I can feel it crawling. It’s one of them big tarantulas. Lord help me, I got them all over me!”
I turned and flashed the light on Lula. “I don’t see anything. I think you’re just getting dripped on.”
“It was on me and then it jumped off.”
I directed the light to the ground and a small rat scurried away.
“Holy hell,” Lula said.
I bit into my lip to keep from screaming and moved forward.
“I bet there’s snakes up ahead,” Lula said. “That’s the way it is with Indiana Jones. First the tarantulas and rats and then the snakes. Where’s the end of this freaking tunnel? I want to see the light. Where the heck is the light?”
“Hang on,” I said. “I’m following footprints.”
“I think we must be coming to the end because I smell something different,” Lula said. “It doesn’t smell like just dirt anymore. It smells like kerosene or gasoline or something.”
I’d noticed the smell when we turned the corner a while back. I didn’t think it was a good sign since we were following a man whose best friend was an acetylene torch.
“What’s those red dots in front of us?” Lula asked.
I flashed the light at the dots. “Rats,” I said.
I wasn’t going to waste bullets on rats. I was saving them for whatever more horrible, more ferocious creatures might be lurking in the dark. Alligators or a slimy mud monster or Lou Salgusta.
I saw a flicker of light far down the tunnel. Another flicker eerily illuminated a smiling face, and WHOOOSH, the face disappeared behind a curtain of fire. Flames licked at the ground in front of a monstrous fireball and raced toward us.
I turned and shoved Lula. “Run!”
We ran blind in the dark, my flashlight beam bouncing around. A swarm of rats were also running for their lives, squealing beside us. I stepped on one and kicked another out of the way. Lula was huffing and puffing in front of me.
“Run faster!” I yelled. “I’ve got a wall of fire behind me.”
We reached the intersection, made the turn, and the fire roared past us. We were bent over, catching our breath and I thought I heard footsteps, far off in one of the tunnels.
“We need to get to the trapdoor,” I said to Lula. “Get moving.”
“What happens when we get to the trapdoor?” Lula asked.
“We open it.”
The dirt was dry underfoot in this part of the tunnel and the single bulb was visible in front of us. We passed under the light and I stared up at the wood door.
“Stand back,” I said to Lula.
I emptied the clip into the door where I thought the latch was located. The door was pocked with rounds, and I could see through a couple of holes I’d drilled in the wood. I climbed the ladder and pushed, but the door didn’t budge. I heard the scuff of shoes and muffled speech. I banged on the door and yelled for help.
The trapdoor was wrenched open and a young guy in a black Mole Hole T-shirt looked down at me. “What the heck?” he said, taking my hand, helping me out.
Lula was right behind. “No kidding, what the heck,” she said. “You gotta fix that door. Bad enough you got a creep-ass tunnel down there, but your door don’t even work when you want to get out. I got ruined Via Spigas, and I gotta take this dress to the cleaners. You know how much they charge to clean a dress? And on top of that, there’s fireballs and rats down there, and I’m pretty sure I got the rat cooties on me.” She tugged her skirt down over her ass and looked at the guy who helped me out. “You’re the bartender, right? I want one of them man-eater burgers with extra fries and a chardonnay.”
“Not a good idea,” I said. “There might be someone following us, and I’m out of bullets.”
“Yeah, but I really need a burger,” Lula said. “I’m about having a heart attack. I need something to calm myself. I need meat and grease and cheese.”
I could identify. My blood pressure was just a couple of notches below stroke level, but a burger wasn’t going to do it for me. I wanted to get out of the Mole Hole. I needed air. I needed distance from the smiling face of Lou Salgusta.
“We can get a burger on the way to the office,” I said. I looked at the bartender. “Thanks for the help. We appreciate it.”
“Yeah, no problem. I wouldn’t have heard the gunshots, but the music shut off between sets.” He looked down at the open trapdoor. “I didn’t know there was a tunnel.”
I turned to go and almost bumped into a woman who was standing behind me. She was my height and about my age. She was exotically pretty, with long brown hair and large almond-shaped eyes. She was dressed in black. Black Louboutin combat boots with signature spikes covering the toes. Black skinny jeans. Black tank top with a black, Loro Piana Traveller jacket. Her lipstick was perfectly outlined just like her eyes.
“Did I hear you say there was a tunnel?” she asked.
“This here is the tunnel from hell,” Lula said.
The woman moved closer and studied the ladder. “What’s down there?”
“Mostly mud and rats,” I said.
“Interesting,” she said. “A tunnel under a strip club. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll investigate.”
“And fire,” I said. “Did I mention the fire?”
She was already halfway down the ladder.
“Hey!” I yelled at her. “The tunnel is dangerous. You shouldn’t be exploring down there.”
She disappeared from view, her boots echoing on the concrete for a short time, and then there was silence.
“Do you know her?” I asked the bartender.
“Never saw her before,” he said.
“She’s not from Jersey,” Lula said. “She doesn’t talk right. She sounds like Eliza Doolittle. And she’s a crazy lady, but she got good taste in purses. She had a Fendi mini backpack hanging from her shoulder. I always wanted one of them.”
Lula and I were splattered with mud and smelled of gasoline. We left the back room, walked through the dimly lit barroom, and went out the door. We stood blinking in the bright sunlight.
“I need to get out of these clothes before I got spontaneous combustion going on,” Lula said.