Nowicki's mother lived on Howser Street. She'd posted the bond and had put her house up as collateral. At first glance this seemed like a safe investment for my cousin Vinnie. Truth was, getting a person kicked out of his or her house was a chore and did nothing to endear a bail bondsman to the community.
I got out my street map and found Howser. It was in north Trenton, so I retraced my route and discovered Mrs. Nowicki lived two blocks from Eddie Kuntz. Same neighborhood of well-kept houses. Except for the Nowicki house. The Nowicki house was single family, and it was a wreck. Peeling paint, crumbling roof shingles, saggy front porch, front yard more dirt than grass.
I picked my way over rotting porch steps and knocked on the door. The woman who answered was faded glory in a bathrobe. It was getting to be mid-afternoon, but Mrs. Nowicki looked like she'd just rolled out of bed. She was a sixty year old woman wearing the ravages of booze and disenchantment with life. Her doughy face showed traces of make-up not removed before calling it a night. Her voice had the rasp of two packs a day, and her breath was hundred proof.
"Yeah," she said.
"I'm looking for Maxine."
"You a friend of Maxy's?"
I gave her my card. "I'm with the Plum Agency. Maxine missed her court date. I'm trying to find her, so we can get her rescheduled."
Mrs. Nowicki raised a crayoned brown eyebrow. "I wasn't born yesterday, honey. You're a bounty hunter, and you're out to get my little girl."
"Do you know where she is?"
"Wouldn't tell you if I did. She'll get found when she wants to."
"You put your house up as security against the bond. If Maxine doesn't come forward you could loose your house."
"Oh yeah, that'd be a tragedy," she said, rummaging in the pocket of her chenille robe, coming up with a pack of Kools. "Architectural Digest keeps wanting to do a spread, but I can't find the time." She stuck a cigarette in her mouth and lit up. She sucked hard and squinted at me through the smoke haze. "I owe five years back taxes. You want this house you're gonna hafta take a number and get in line."
Sometimes bail jumpers are simply at home, trying to pretend their life isn't in the toilet, hoping the whole mess will go away if they ignore the order to appear in court. I'd originally thought Maxine would be one of these people. She wasn't a career criminal, and the charges weren't serious. She really had no reason to skip out.
Now I wasn't so sure. I was getting an uncomfortable feeling about Maxine. Her apartment had been trashed, and her mother had me thinking maybe Maxine didn't want to be found right now. I slunk back to my car and decided my deductive reasoning would be vastly improved if I ate a donut. So I cut across town to Hamilton and parked in front of Tasty Pastry Bakery.
I'd worked part-time at Tasty Pastry when I was in high school. It hadn't changed much since then. Same green and white linoleum floor. Same sparkling clean display cases filled with Italian cookies, chocolate chip cannolli, biscotti, napoleons, fresh bread and coffee cakes. Same happy smell of fried sweet dough and cinnamon.
Lennie Smulenski and Anthony Zuck bake the goodies in the back room in big steel ovens and troughs of hot oil. Clouds of flour and sugar sift onto table surfaces and slip under foot. And lard is transferred daily from commercial sized vats directly to local butts.
Copyright © 1998 by Evanovich, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of St. Martin's Press, Inc.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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