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Some men enter a woman's life and screw it up forever. Jimmy Rosolli did this to my Grandma Mazur. Not forever, but for an afternoon last week when he married her in the casino at Atlantis and dropped dead forty-five minutes later.
So far as I know, the trip to the Bahamas was a last-minute decision, and the marriage was even more unplanned. I guess they were just a couple of wild-and-crazy seniors having a moment.
My name is Stephanie Plum. I'm five seven with shoulder-length brown hair that curls whether I want it to or not. I've inherited a good metabolism from my mother's Hungarian side of the family, so I can eat cheeseburgers and HŠagen-Dazs and still button my jeans. The hair and a bunch of rude hand gestures I get from my father's Italian ancestry.
I work for my cousin Vinnie as a bail bonds enforcement agent. It's a crappy job, but it's not as bad as my present job of escorting Grandma to Jimmy's viewing at Stiva's funeral home.
"What do you think of my outfit?" Grandma asked. "I got a black dress for the funeral, but it's not my best color, so I thought I'd lighten things up for the viewing. It's going to be a doozy. All the bigwigs from the mob and the K of C will be there."
Grandma was wearing a simple pale green dress that made her complexion look like she'd been embalmed right along with Jimmy. Grandma was in her mid-seventies and didn't look a day over ninety. She had the posture and energy of a twenty-year-old marine, but gravity had taken its toll. She carried slack skin over lean muscle and spindle bone and was in many respects the human version of a soup chicken. The day before her ill-fated trip with Jimmy Rosolli she'd decided to shake things up at the hair salon and had gone with a short punk cut and flame red hair. If you knew Grandma you wouldn't be surprised at this, and in fact, I thought it suited her.
"I saw the Queen of England wearing a dress just like this," Grandma said. "She had a hat on that matched the dress, but I couldn't find one of those."
Grandma came to live with my parents when Grandpa Mazur ate his last pork chop, sucked in the last drag on his Marlboro, and went to heaven to keep his eye on Jesus. It's been a bunch of years now. So far, my father hasn't killed Grandma-only because we took his guns away and we never leave sharp knives lying out in the open.
My parents live in Trenton, New Jersey, in a small two-story house in a pleasant lower middle-class neighborhood called the Burg. My mom has always been a homemaker. My dad is retired from the post office.
"It's too bad your mother is in bed with a bad back," Grandma said to me. "It's not every day that her stepfather is laid to rest."
"He was only her stepfather for forty-five minutes," I said.
"Still, this is an important occasion for me. I get to stand at the head of the casket and be the grieving widow. There's lots of women out there who would kill to be Jimmy's widow."
I had doubts about the source of my mother's back pain. She self-diagnosed on Google and was self-medicating with bourbon. I was pretty sure the pain had more to do with my grandmother being my mother's worst nightmare than with my mother having a potentially herniated disk.
"We better get a move on," Grandma said. "I don't want to be late. They said I could get a private viewing before they let all the other people in. You're lucky to come along with me on account of you get to go to the private viewing, too."
I was escorting Grandma because my mother had threatened to never again make another pineapple upside-down cake if I didn't stick to Grandma like glue. Then she sweetened the deal with the promise of lifetime unlimited laundry service, which included folding and ironing.
StivaÕs funeral home is no longer owned by Stiva. ItÕs changed hands several times and has been given a bunch of different names, but everyone still calls it StivaÕs. ItÕs a large white colonial-type house with black shutters, a wide front porch, a utilitarian brick addition in the rear, and garages behind the addition. I parked in the small lot designated vip parking and followed Grandma to the side door.
Grandma knows every inch of Stiva's by heart. Ladies of a certain age use Stiva's as a social center. Grandma and her girlfriends are there four nights out of seven, whether they know the deceased or not. Two of the remaining nights are reserved for bingo at the firehouse. I suppose it could be worse. I mean, it's not like they're frequenting strip clubs or crack houses.
Mervin Klack, the current owner and funeral director of Stiva's, met us at the door.
"Mrs. Rosolli," he said, "my sincere condolences."
Grandma turned to look behind her before remembering that she was Mrs. Rosolli.
"Thank you," Grandma said. "Where's he at? You got him in Slumber Room Number One, don't you?"
"Of course," Klack said. "Nothing but the best for Mr. Rosolli."
"And he's in the mahogany casket with the satin lining?"
"Yes," Klack said. "I think you'll be pleased when you see him. He's wearing the tie you picked out, and he looks very dapper."
Grandma hurried down the corridor, past the refreshment kitchen, to the foyer with the center hall table and massive floral display. The double doors that led to the front porch were closed, but I could hear noise from the crowd that had gathered on the other side.
Slumber Room Number One was the largest of the viewing rooms. It was reserved for lodge members and the occasional decapitation that was sure to draw a crowd. Grandma marched down the center aisle, past the rows of empty folding chairs, and went straight to the casket at the far end of the room. She looked at Jimmy and nodded her approval.
"Yep, he looks good, all right," she said. "He's got good color to his cheeks." She looked around, checking out the flowers. "We got a good amount of flowers, too. Jimmy was real popular."
Good amount couldn't begin to describe the flowers. They were overwhelming. They were crammed in everywhere. My nose was clogged with the scent of carnations, and my eyes were burning.
"Okay," Grandma said to Klack. "I'm satisfied. Open the doors and let's get started."
I heard the front doors bang open and the mourners surge forward. Three old ladies dressed in black were the first to charge down the center aisle. I recognized all three. They were Jimmy's sisters. Angie, Tootie, and Rose. Tootie was using a walker hooked up to a travel pack of oxygen, but she was keeping up with the other two. Jimmy's daughter was close behind. And Jimmy's two ex-wives were behind her.
Angie stopped at the casket and looked down at her brother. Her lips were pressed tight together. Her eyes were narrowed. "Stupid man," she said. She glared at Grandma. "Slut."
"I'm no slut," Grandma said. "I'm a married widow woman."
"You took advantage of my brother's weakness," Angie said. "He could never stay away from the women. And he always went after the young chickies."
Grandma perked up at being lumped in with the young chickies.
"He had no business getting married at his age," Rose said to Grandma. "And look at you, all dressed up like you're going to a party. Where's your respect? A decent widow woman would be in black."
"A lot you know," Grandma said. "The Queen of England has a dress just like this."
"I bet it cost you a pretty penny," Rose said. "No doubt bought with my brother's money."
"I bought it with my own money," Grandma said. "I haven't got your brother's money yet. I'm waiting for the lawyers to give it all to me."
The six women dressed in black sucked in air.
Angie leaned in and got a grip on the casket. "You'll never get his money. You don't deserve his money. I'll see you dead and buried before you get his money. That money goes to the family, not to some gold-digging whore."
Grandma went squinty-eyed on Angie. "Get your hands off my honey's casket, you frump crone."
"I'll put my hands where I want them," Angie said. "I'll put them around your scrawny turkey neck and squeeze the life out of you."
"We'll see about that," Grandma said, and the lid to the casket slammed down on Angie's fingers.
Mervin Klack jumped in and wrenched the lid up. "Ladies!"
Angie wobbled away from the casket. "She broke my fingers! They're all broke."
"It was an accident," Grandma said. "The lid just let go. It was an act of God."
"You did it on purpose!" Angie said.
"You can't prove that," Grandma said. "And anyway, you're going to have to move along. You're holding up the line."
Klack half-dragged Angie away, promising medical aid and cookies, and the rest of the women followed.
Harry Dugan moved forward.
"Howdy," Grandma said to Harry. "Nice of you to show up here for Jimmy."
"My condolences," Harry said, standing at a safe distance, careful not to put his hands on the casket.
Klack had everyone cleared out and the front doors locked by nine oÕclock. I exited the side door first and looked around to make sure no one was waiting to ambush Grandma. When I gave the all-clear signal, she scurried to the car with me. We jumped in and locked the doors.
"That was a beauty of a viewing," Grandma said. "Capacity crowd. The funeral is going to be something."
The funeral was going to be a freaking disaster.
"It's Wednesday," I said. "Why are you waiting until Saturday for the funeral?"
"I couldn't get all the arrangements made any sooner. And Betty Hauck is getting buried tomorrow. Not that she's any competition, but Klack had the big flower car already promised to Betty. And mostly it was that I had to find a place for the wake. Your mother didn't want it at the house, and it wouldn't have been big enough anyway. Lucky, I remembered Jimmy owned the Mole Hole. They said it would be an honor to hold his wake there Saturday morning."
The Mole Hole was a strip club that was famous for its massive Angus beef burgers and its cheap drinks. The drinks were cheap because they were all watered down, and half the time the booze was bootleg. Jimmy and his geriatric cronies met in the back room to play cards, plan the occasional whacking, and take naps in their La-Z-Boy recliners.
"You don't seem very upset about Jimmy," I said to Grandma.
"You get to be my age and you have relations with an old codger, you got to expect these things are going to happen. It's not like he's the first man who kicked the bucket on me. I have to admit it was a shock when it happened, and the first couple hours were rough. I went through a lot of Kleenex. But then I got to thinking it was a pretty good way to go. He hit the jackpot on one of the poker machines. One minute he was real happy and the next minute . . . dead. Death don't get much better than that."
There was a stretch of silence in the car while we took it all in.
"I want to go at bingo," Grandma finally said.
I put the car in gear and drove Grandma home. I idled at the curb until she was safe inside, and then I returned to Hamilton Avenue and drove to my apartment building.
I live in a clunky, three-story, no-frills apartment building about fifteen minutes from my parentsÕ house. My one-bedroom apartment is on the second floor and faces the parking lot at the back of the building. I have a hamster named Rex as a roommate, and a boyfriend named Joe Morelli who does an occasional sleepover. Most of my furniture was handed off to me by my relatives, and since they wouldnÕt give their furniture away if it was any good, my decorating style and color palette is shabby blah.
I parked in the lot and looked up at my windows. Lights were on. This meant one of the two men in my life was upstairs, waiting for me. Morelli had a key, and the other guy, Ranger, didn't need a key. Nothing stopped Ranger, least of all a door lock.
I entered the lobby, sighed at the out of order sign taped to the elevator door, and trudged up the stairs. I let myself into my apartment and called out a Hello.
Morelli answered from the living room. "I've got pizza, and there's beer in the fridge. Hockey is on. Preseason."
I grabbed a beer and joined Morelli and his dog, Bob, on the couch.
Morelli is a Trenton PD cop working plainclothes in crimes against persons. Mostly he pulls homicides and gang-related shootings and stabbings. He's a good cop and an equally excellent boyfriend . . . most of the time. His hair is black and wavy. His eyes are brown and sexy. His body is perfectly put together.
Bob is big and shaggy and sort of orange.
"I thought you could use a diversion after the viewing," Morelli said. "How bad was it?"
"I don't know where to begin. I suppose the highlight was when the lid to the casket let go and smashed Angie Rosolli's fingers."
"It just fell down on its own?"
"Grandma said it was an act of God. I wouldn't mind having a police escort for the funeral. It's on Saturday."
"I've already got it on my calendar. I figure if I'm there, I'll have a head start at solving whatever homicides go down."
"I don't think you have to worry about Angie. I'm pretty sure she's got a broken trigger finger."
"Angie is the least of it. There are rumblings that something was lost besides Jimmy's life, and there's a lot of panic and finger-pointing going on by the La-Z-Boys. Jimmy was known as the Keeper of the Keys. And the keys seem to be missing."
"This is a big deal?"
"Apparently," Morelli said.
"How hard would it be to find keys? Did they look in his house?"
"My source tells me they looked everywhere. Jimmy's house, his office, his car, and the box he was flown home in."
"I'm thinking sooner or later the search committee is going to get to your grandmother." Morelli looked over at the pizza box on the coffee table. "Do you want that last piece?"