"What do you suppose this third key is for?" I asked Lula.
"It's one of them Yale locks that you put on gym lockers and sheds and stuff."
"Do you remember seeing a shed?"
"I don't know. I guess I wasn't paying attention to that. You think he could be hiding in a shed along with the lawn mower and weed whacker?"
I shut the engine off and we got out of the car and returned to the backyard.
"I don't see a shed," Lula said. "I see a couple garbage cans and a garage. We peered into the dim garage, for the second time.
"Nothing in there but the car," Lula said.
We walked around the garage to the rear and found the shed.
"Yeah, but it's locked," Lula said. "He'd have to be Houdini to get himself in there and then lock it from the outside. And on top of that this shed smells real bad."
I shoved the key in the lock and the lock popped open.
"Hold on," Lula said. "I vote we leave this shed locked. I don't want to know what's smelling up this shed."
I yanked at the handle, the door to the shed swung wide, and Loretta Ricci stared out at us, mouth open, eyes unseeing, five bullet holes in the middle of her chest. She was sitting on the dirt floor, her back propped against the corrugated metal wall, her hair white from a dose of lime that wasn't doing much to stop the destruction that follows death.
"Shit, that ain't no ironing board," Lula said.
I slammed the door shut, snapped the lock in place and put some distance between me and the shed. I told myself I wasn't going to throw up and took a bunch of deep breaths. "You were right," I said. "I shouldn't have opened the shed."
"You never listen to me. Now look what we got. All on account of you had to be nosy. Not only that, but I know what's gonna happen next. You're gonna call the police and we're gonna be tied up all day. If you had any sense you'd pretend you didn't see nothing and we'd go get some fries and a Coke. I could really use some fries and a Coke."
I handed her the keys to my car. "Get yourself some food, but make sure you're back in a half hour. I swear, if you abandon me I'll send the police out after you."
"Boy, that really hurts. When did I ever abandon you?"
"You abandon me all the time!"
"Hunh," Lula said.
I flipped my cell phone open and called the police. Within minutes I could hear the blue-and-white pull up in front of the house. It was Carl Costanza and his partner Big Dog.
"When the call came in, I knew it had to be you," Carl said to me. "It's been almost a month since you found a body. I knew you were due."
"I don't find that many bodies!"
"Hey," Big Dog said, "is that a Kevlar vest you're wearing?"
"Brand new, too," Costanza said. "Not even got any bullet holes in it."
Trenton cops are top of the line, but their budget isn't exactly Beverly Hills. If you're a Trenton cop you hope Santa will bring you a bulletproof vest because vests are funded primarily with miscellaneous grants and donations and don't automatically come with the badge.
I'd removed the house key from DeChooch's key ring and had it safely tucked away in my pocket. I gave the two remaining keys to Costanza. "Loretta Ricci is in the shed. And she's not looking too good."
I knew Loretta Ricci by sight but that was about it. She lived in the Burg and was widowed. I'd put her age around sixty-five. I saw her sometimes at Giovichinni's Meat Market ordering lunch meat.
Vinnie leaned forward in his chair and narrowed his eyes at Lula and me. "What do you mean you lost DeChooch?"
"It wasn't our fault," Lula said. "He was sneaky."
"Well hell," Vinnie said, "I wouldn't expect you to be able to catch someone who was sneaky."
"Hunh," Lula said. "Your ass."
From Seven Up (A Stephanie Plum Adventure), by Janet Evanovich. © June 19, 2001 , St. Martin's Press used by permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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