Finger Lickin' Fifteen

ONE

WHEN I WAS a kid, I was afraid of spiders and vegetables. As an adult, I’ve eliminated vegetables from my fright-o-meter, but I’ve added a whole bunch of other stuff. Homicidal maniacs, serial rapists, cellulite, Joe Morelli’s Grandma Bella, rabid bats, and any form of organized exercise.

My name is Stephanie Plum, and I work as a bond enforcement officer for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. It’s not a great job, but it allows me to avoid organized exercise, and I hardly ever encounter rabid bats. The remaining fright-o-meter items lurk in the dark shadows of my daily life. Fortunately, there are also good things in those shadows. Joe Morelli without his Grandma Bella, fellow bounty hunter Ranger without his clothes, my crazy family, my hamster, Rex . . . and Lula. Lula actually fits somewhere between the rabid bats and the good stuff. She’s a former ’ho, now working as the office file clerk and apprentice bounty hunter. Lula’s got a plus-size personality and body, and a petite-size wardrobe. She’s got brown skin, blond hair, and last week she had tiny rhinestones pasted onto her eyelids.

It was Monday morning. Connie, the office manager, and I were in the bonds office enjoying our morning coffee, and Lula slid her red Firebird to a stop at the curb. We watched Lula through the big plate-glass window in the front of the small office, and we did a joint grimace. Lula was in a state. She lurched out of the Firebird, beeped it locked, and burst into the office, her eyes wild, rolling around in their sockets, her hands waving in the air.

“I saw it all,” she said. “It was terrible. It was horrible. I couldn’t believe it was happening. And right in front of me.” She looked around. “What do we got? Do we got doughnuts? ’Cause I need a doughnut. I need a whole bag. And maybe I need one of them breakfast sandwiches with the egg and cheese and bacon and grease. I got a big grease craving.”

I knew it would be a huge mistake to ask Lula what she’d seen, but I couldn’t stop myself.

“What was terrible and horrible?” I asked.

Connie leaned forward, elbows on her desk, already knowing the telling of the story would be a car crash. Connie is a couple years older than me, and while my heritage is half Hungarian and half Italian, Connie is Italian through and through. Her hair is jet black, her lipstick is fire-engine red, her body is va-va-voom.

Lula paced in front of Connie’s desk. “First off, I hardly had time for anything this morning. I had a big date last night, and by the time I booted his butt out of my bed, I already missed a lot of my beauty sleep. Anyways, I got up late, and then I couldn’t decide what to wear. One day it’s hot out and next thing it’s cold. And then I had to decide if I needed to wear shoes that kicked ass or were good for ass kicking, on account of there’s a difference, you know.”

“Jeez Louise,” Connie said. “Could you get to it?”

“The point bein’ I was late,” Lula said. “I was tryin’ to put makeup on and drive, and I missed a turn, and before I knew it I was someplace I didn’t want to be. So I pulled over to look around and figure things out, and when I did that my makeup case rolled off the seat next to me, and everything went all over the floor. So I was bent over to get my makeup, and I guess it