Security Twenty-Six: A Stephanie Plum-Inspired Novel
Two days ago Ranger gave me a choice. I could see where a relationship with him went, or I could walk away. The catch? If I wanted to investigate the potential of a relationship, I would have to accept greater security. I would have to wear a tracking watch. I would have to focus on my self-defence lessons. I would have to practice shooting my gun. I would have to pick clothes, cars, hairstyles, lifestyles so that I blend in.
None of that is a problem. Hell, who am I kidding? All of that is a problem. Wearing a watch isn't a big deal, except that I don't like my movements tracked so closely. I sullenly put up with self-defence lessons at the best of times and shooting a gun makes my stomach feel squishy. And while my hair, clothes and makeup blend in already, my car does not. For that matter, neither do some of my friends.
Ranger is my one-time mentor who turned into a friend and protector, who turned into part-time boss, and who now may become something more. Former Special Forces, he is the owner of Rangeman, a high-class security company that caters to the wealthy in Trenton, New Jersey. With the looks of a GQ cover model and the skills of Batman, his dark brown hair and eyes make my insides melt. He is half a foot taller than my 5'7" height, has a muscular build that is testament to his daily workouts in the gym, and only wears black. He is extraordinary in both looks and temperament. Quiet, slow to anger, steady, determined, focused, he has been my rock for a long time.
I am Stephanie Plum. Unlike Ranger, there is nothing extraordinary about me. I have non-descript brown curly hair, boring blue eyes and an average shape. I am a mutt, a mixture of Italian and Hungarian roots all wrapped up as a third generation American. I only have one good feature, and that is a cute little nose I inherited from my grandmother. For some reason, Ranger likes me anyway.
I am a bounty hunter. Not a very good one, but I get by. I work part-time for my cousin, Vinnie, at Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. A bounty hunter is also known as a fugitive apprehension agent, or a bond enforcement officer. He or she is someone who retrieves fugitives and streams them back into the system.
When a felon is arrested, they are assigned a court date to plead their case. A bail amount will also be set. If the felon does not want to wait in jail for their date to show up, they are allowed to pay the bail to let them walk free. This bail is an insurance policy of sorts. The felon will be out that money until they show up for their court date, at which point the money is returned to them.
Many accused do not have the liquid cash to pay the court system, but they also do not want to wait in jail. That is where the bail bonds office comes in. For fifteen percent of the price of the bond and some collateral, the accused can walk free until their court date. When they show up for court they get their collateral back but not their fifteen percent.
If they don't show at court, the bondsman is not happy. That is where I come in. I find the accused and return them to the system. For this, I get two-thirds of the fifteen percent fee and the bondsman retains the other one-third. While although all those ten percents can add up, there is no base salary. My pay is solely dependent upon the number of people who are FTA – Failure to Appear – and upon my ability to capture the skips. That is where the problem lies. I do not have a lot of ability and am successful more based on luck and tenacity rather than skill.
More recently, I started working part-time for Rangeman as a researcher. When a new security system is being designed, or when a client wants background checks on potential new employees, or when Sales wants information to help them tailor a marketing strategy, they come to me. While it does not have the excitement, variety or flexibility that I enjoy as a bounty hunter, it does provide benefits and income security. My bank account thanks Ranger for the opportunity. Personally, I am not so sure. The work is pretty boring.
I was sitting at my desk on the Operations floor of the Rangeman facility, a seven-story office building in the heart of Trenton that contains three floors of staff residences, one of which is Ranger's large and luxurious penthouse apartment; one floor plus the basement of training facilities; with the remaining three floors office space. I was working on researching the staff backgrounds for a new account when Ranger came in my office, shutting the door behind him. He was holding a large jewellery box in his hands. "For you", he said. "I know you have not made any decisions about us yet, but it is important to get you monitored. I don't want to take any chances with you like we did a couple of days ago." I scared Ranger – and myself – two days ago. An infatuated skip tried to kidnap me with the intention of taking me to Mexico. He pistol whipped me and, when I was knocked out, got me into his car. When I came to I was able to convince him that I needed to go back to my apartment to get my passport before I went away with him. More importantly, I was able to stealthily phone Ranger and let him listen in on my conversation with the skip. Ranger was waiting for us at my apartment with Joe Morelli, my ex-boyfriend who wants to be my current boyfriend, and police officer extraordinaire. When I brought the skip through my apartment into my bedroom, Ranger cuffed him and Morelli took him away.
It particularly hit home with Ranger. He had just returned from leading a rescue mission for the wife of a co-worker of his, someone who had been kidnapped as a result of her husband's secret government work. At first when I was kidnapped Ranger thought that I was also taken because of his own covert work. Normally overprotective, he has become even more so ever since.
"No matter what happens with us, I would like you to wear this watch. Just by knowing me you are in danger."
I opened the box to find a beautiful silver metal watch with a bracelet band. The face, on the largish-side, was gunmetal gray done in a mother-of-pearl finish with silver hands, and there was a small diamond at the twelve o'clock position. It exactly suited my style – classic but fashionable at the same time. My mouth dropped open.
"I didn't think you were the sport watch sort of person", he said. "And I thought you would be able to wear this watch with anything." I just looked at him for a minute, stunned. I could not believe that Ranger was talking about accessorizing women's clothing.
"It's beautiful", I said. "I just feel kind of bad. I didn't get you anything." I smiled. "Seriously though, I do feel bad. You wouldn't be doing this for any of your other staff members."
"Besides Ella, you are the only other female staff member." Ella is Ranger's housekeeper and chef. She is responsible for feeding the entire Rangeman staff as well as making Ranger's life organized and easy. "You are a natural target. I would want you monitored just for that reason. Our personal relationship makes that need to monitor you all the more necessary."
"I already am monitored. I have a tracking device in my purse and another in my car. I have even stopped trying to remove and dispose of them."
"If anything ever happened, you would likely be taken from your car and often your purse would be left behind. We were just lucky a couple of days ago that you were allowed to keep your purse. There is a lesser chance of having your watch removed. Having said that, I would like to continue to have your car monitored and a tracker in your purse."
"Don't you think this is a little bit of overkill? I know I was in danger, but I am always in danger. That wasn't the first time I have been kidnapped and, realistically speaking, it probably won't be the last." And, unfortunately, that was true. I had a long history of getting into scrapes and Ranger had a long history of getting me out of them.
"Exactly why it makes sense for you to have a tracker in your watch." When I hesitated he said, somewhat exasperated, "look, do you like it?"
"I love it. It's beautiful."
"Then forget it has a tracker in it and wear it just because it is pretty. Because it is something I bought for you."
I took a deep breath. "Okay." I got it out of the box.
"That particular watch can go anywhere. It is waterproof up to fifty metres, so you can wear it in the shower. You should never have it off your wrist, even when you are sleeping."
I struggled not to scream. It felt like the walls were closing in around me. "Does it work like a normal watch, or does it have a panic button built into it? Can I talk directly to the control room through it? Can I say 'beam me up, Scotty' and instantly move from one location to another?"
Ranger looked like he was thinking about smiling. "Smart-ass. It's just a watch that works in a normal way except for the fact that it has a small tracking device in the back of it."
"Okay", and then, because it would make Ranger feel better, I put it on. It did look pretty, and I thanked Ranger for thinking of me.
"Don't mention to anybody that you are wearing a tracker. That will be our insurance policy. The control room knows, but I don't want the general public to know. If that information got out, no matter how innocently, it could result in the watch being removed and then I would have no way of tracking you should you need it."
"I won't. It will be our – and the control room's – secret." I got up and walked around my desk over to Ranger, and captured him in a hug. "I'm fine. You're fine. Everybody's fine. We made it through the last crisis and hopefully we will not have another one again." I gave him a kiss meant to reassure, but instead quickly turned passionate. After a few minutes, both of us were breathing hard.
Ranger reluctantly pulled away. "I have a meeting with Tank in a few minutes." With another kiss, he said "are we still on for training this afternoon?" I grimaced, then nodded my head. Ranger smiled at my look. "See you at four o'clock in my office. We can do half an hour in the shooting range followed by an hour of stretching in the gym."
Ranger turned and, opening the door, walked out of my office, leaving me to stare at my new watch. The bracelet was designed to be loose, more of a chain than a band, and fit more like a bangle than a standard watch. It slid around my wrist and was quite comfortable. In truth, I adored the watch. I just didn't adore the increased level of scrutiny.
I walked into Ranger's office at four o'clock, the completed research file in hand. I placed it on his desk. "Let's get this over with", I said.
Ranger smiled and got up, followed me into the storeroom and picked up a box of bullets for my gun. He picked up a box of bullets for his own gun as well. "I haven't been in the range myself for a while. I booked the range for both of us to practice at the same time."
We took the elevator down to the gun range in the basement. Walking along the hallway to the range, I could feel my body protesting in much the same way it always protests. My heart pounded, my feet dragged, my eyes prickled – I hate shooting guns. It does not help that I have shot and killed three people, the most recent a couple of months ago. Taking someone's life leaves a mark, and the mark it left on me is that my distaste of guns has grown even more. That is saying something, since I hated them to start off with. It does not matter that in each case the person was shot in self-defence. I cannot seem to get past the thought of the person as a son, brother, and friend. In each case the person who was shot is all too human to me, and that is what gives me nightmares.
Getting to the shooting range, we put on protective gear and sent targets down to the far end. I let Ranger start shooting first. Then, concentrating on my stance and aiming carefully, I emptied a clip into the target. All shots hit the circles, although only some were bulls-eyes. This was an improvement from over a month ago, when none were bulls-eyes and more were outside the circles than were in. I looked at Ranger's target. All shots went through the very centre of the bulls-eye, carving out the paper to the point where it appeared as though only one very fat bullet went through the heart of the target. I looked at my own haphazard target and sighed.
"You will get there, Babe. It just takes practice. I didn't start out this way." He came over to me, caught me up in a hug, and kissed the top of my head. He reached around me and put up a clean target and sent it down to the end of the range. "Again", he said. He stood back and watched me.
I refilled my clip with bullets, aimed, and fired. After I finished shooting another clip into the target, again with mixed results, I was frustrated. In my head I was visualizing shooting a whole clip into the centre of the bulls-eye. In reality, however, only half hit the bulls-eye and only one hit the absolute centre. And the one that hit the centre was a lucky surprise.
We refilled our clips and sent clean targets down to the end. Then Ranger adjusted my stance and gave me a couple of pointers. We each dumped our clips into our targets, then stood back. I got a greater percentage of bulls-eyes than I had before. Once again, all of Ranger's shots were dead centre. We refilled our clips and again sent clean targets down to the end. Trying to remember everything that Ranger had ever taught me, I shot another clip into the crosshairs. My aim was getting better even though my frustration level was getting higher.
"Now we will practice on body targets", said Ranger as he cued up new targets for us. "You okay?" he asked. After the last time I shot someone, I found it very hard to shoot at body targets. Even though it was just a piece of paper with the outline of a person on it, it reminded me too much of actually trying to hit someone. I would get very upset and would have difficulty shooting at them. While I don't like them any more now, I don't fall to pieces like I did immediately after shooting Brodie.
I nodded my head. Taking a deep breath, I said "let's do it." Ranger smiled at my resoluteness. Out loud I chanted "it's just a piece of paper". Inside I was screaming "help me!" But I was able to get a full clip into the target with a number of bulls-eyes. Ranger cued up another target and said "pretend that this time the target is a skip who has been threatening you." I gave Ranger a dirty look. He looked like he was thinking about smiling. I put the gun down and closed my eyes for a moment. Envisioning Berginni's face, the skip who tried to kidnap me a few days ago, I transferred his face up on the target in my mind's eye. I opened my eyes, brought up the gun, and shot a clip into the target's chest. "Good", said Ranger when I had finished. "You got a couple of kill shots in there, and you incapacitated him with the rest. Now do it again." He cued up a fresh target and sent it down to the end. I shot another clip, but I was starting to get tired and my aim was showing the strain. We refilled the clips and put the guns back in their holsters. Ranger shoved the used targets into the recycling bin and picked up the boxes of remaining bullets. Then, taking off our protective gear, we headed upstairs to the gym.
I don't know what I traditionally hate more. Shooting a gun or working out in the gym. It didn't matter, however. Ranger made both gun and self-defence training a requirement of my job. Unlike shooting a gun, over time I have learned not to abhor working out so much. It still wasn't my favourite thing to do though.
Three weeks ago an assailant and I got in a fight. He kicked me when I was down and cracked one of my ribs. I have successfully used this as an excuse to not work out in the gym. This excuse works on everyone except Ranger. Now that he is back from his rescue mission, he is determined to get me into the gym again.
We walked over to the mats. There were three staff working out. All of them looked like their day had just gotten better by my being there. I ignored them, taking off my gun and stripping down to my sports bra and yoga pants. There was a collective intake of breath. Ranger turned to them. "I am shutting down the gym for the next hour. Go for a run and do your cardio outside." There were some good-natured grumblings, but the men left quickly. Ranger's word was law.
Ranger locked the door after them. He then started me on stretches. I hate stretches. Ranger is built like a rubber band. Me? Not so much. I gamely did my best, Ranger helping me gently extend the stretch at times. After twenty minutes of stretching, Ranger announced that we would be doing a light workout. "I don't want you to lose everything you learned before you were hurt. We will do the actions in slow motion so you can practice the steps and teach your body the way it needs to move. Then we will finish with some more stretches." My distaste must have shown on my face, because Ranger pulled out the ultimate bribe. "After we work out, you can have a shower, we can have some dinner, and then I will give you a massage."
"Which hold do you want me to start with?" I asked. Ranger smiled, but really, what could I say? Ranger's massages are amazing. He knows just the right pressure to use and when to use it.
When I had removed all my clothing except for my panties and was lying on the bed, I said "there is something I wanted to talk to you about." I hummed as Ranger hit a particularly stubborn knot.
"What is that?"
"It is getting time for me to return to my own place." Ranger faltered in his massage, then quickly resumed kneading my muscles. "I have been living in your place for the past month continuously and for most of the month beforehand and, no matter how nice it is, it isn't home."
"This is it? That is your decision? You don't want to try to see if a relationship is possible?"
"Going back to my own apartment has nothing to do with seeing if a relationship between the two of us is possible. It is just recognition that this is not my place and as of yet, we don't have a relationship. We are good friends, friends with benefits. But whether you or I would like to develop that relationship into something more is irrelevant. What is relevant is this isn't my place."
"Did you not feel comfortable living here for the past month?"
"Of course I did. That is part of the problem. I felt too comfortable. I find I am thinking of your place as home, and that is dangerous because it isn't."
"Your apartment isn't safe. Everybody and their brother can and has broken into your space."
"It is true that I have a higher incident rate of break-ins than is normal." Ranger let out a snort on that. "But there is danger everywhere and you cannot keep me wrapped in cotton wool. I cannot stay in the Rangeman building 24/7. I have to leave to do my job."
There was a pause. "We still haven't taken down the camera over your front door", said Ranger. "If you are determined to go back, I would like to leave the camera there for as long as the building superintendent will let us. Then it can be monitored along with the rest of the Rangeman buildings. And, if the building super will let us, I would like to monitor your fire escape."
"Deal." I figured it was as good as I was going to get.
"Is it so bad living here?"
"No, it is just too comfortable living here. I like it too much. But this is your life, not mine. I have been living your life extensively over the last couple of months. It is time for me to face reality and return to my own life. And it's time for you to face reality again as well. I am fine. I will be careful. But I have a job to do and it is time for me to go out and capture some skips. Vinnie has three for me to do, and I think Connie said a few more are due in court this week." Connie Rosolli is the office manager for the bonds office. Born into a mob family with the skills to prove it, Connie is more Italian than I am in every way, from her short buxom figure to her fine brown mustache to her frequent and expressive hand gestures. She is a good person and is one of my closest friends.
"Are you staying here tonight?"
"Yes. I will move back home to my apartment tomorrow."