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Trigger Happy 23

By mackiecam

Romance / Action

Chapter 1


Chapter One

Pete Brodie was out tending his garden. It had rained hard earlier in the day and the garden beds were more mud than dirt. Brodie was out planting anyway.

"Isn't it too wet to plant flowers?" I asked Lula, my sometimes assistant.

"What do I know? We didn't have no flowers in the crack houses where I grew up. The closest we got was when someone opened a grow op, and those plants grew indoors under lights rather than outside. And anyway, does it matter? It's not like he'll be able to tend his flowers when he goes to jail", Lula pointed out.

An airline pilot, Brodie was arrested for assault when he threw hot coffee in the face of a barista at his local coffee shop. This had resulted in first and second degree burns to the barista's face, chest and upper arms. Instead of waiting in jail, Brodie chose to make bond using a bondsman. He then failed to show up for court, resulting in a need for a bounty hunter – that's me – to pick him up to reschedule his court date.

And now he was outside, calmly planting flowers in the mud lining the walkway from his driveway to his house.

"He don't look like no assaulter", said Lula. "He looks like a Tom Thumb. Wasn't he good at gardening?"

"No, Tom Thumb was little. You have a green thumb if you are good at gardening."

"Hunh. He's not little, and I'm not sure how good at gardening he is if he thinks planting flowers in this slop will work."

Lula and I got out of the car and walked up to Brodie. "Bond enforcement", I said. "You missed your court date and need to come with us to reschedule".

"I'm not going to reschedule. I'm not going to jail", he said. I reached down with my cuffs to snag his wrist, but before I could snap them on he took a couple of handfuls of mud and threw them in my face. I jumped back, but not fast enough. I still got dirt in one of my eyes. My eye was watering, I was stumbling around and swearing, and Brodie got up and ran to his car, hopped in and drove away. My name is Stephanie Plum, and I get a lot of mud in my eye. Figuratively speaking.

"Did you see that?" Lula asked. "He was looking all peaceful, planting his flowers and then WHAM! You've got dirt in your eye. You've got such bad luck. At least I didn't get mud in my eye. And you've got it all over your shirt. I'm glad I didn't get it on my shirt. This shirt is dry-clean only. It's the sequins, you know."

Lula is a former 'ho whose wardrobe hasn't kept up with her change in profession. She regularly tests the limit of spandex, and glitter and animal prints are her favourite fabrics. If the glitter can be combined with the animal print, all the better. Her skin is the colour of a chocolate milkshake, her hair regularly changes colour to match her clothes, and her personality is as vibrant as her hair.

If Lula was a chocolate milkshake, I am more of a vanilla one. Half Italian and half Hungarian, I have shoulder-length brown curly hair typically pulled back into a ponytail, blue eyes and a cute little nose I inherited from my Hungarian grandmother. I try not to wear dry-clean only clothes and am most comfortable in a stretchy t-shirt and jeans.

Squinting through the one eye that wasn't affected by the mud, I looked down at my shirt. "Damn", I said. "I hope this mud comes out. This is my favourite shirt. It's a genuine knock-off Tommy Hilfiger." I handed Lula the keys to Ranger's Cayenne.

Ranger, aka Carlos Ricardo Manosa, is my one-time mentor, good friend and, for a couple of memorable times, my lover. Former Special Forces, Ranger is a part-owner of an ultra-elite security company that rivals the Pentagon in technology and defense. Over the years I have seen him morph from a tough street fighter to a tough but sophisticated business owner. If I'm a vanilla milkshake, Ranger is a caramel latte, mysterious and full-bodied. His Cuban-American roots have given him dark brown hair and intense brown eyes that dilate to black when aroused. His hard body is indicative of the self-discipline that defines him. He is a man that smiles rarely, talks minimally, and shares little.

There have been times in the past when I have had car problems, and Ranger has lent me the use of one of his cars. It is either that or borrow my Uncle Sandor's '53 Buick that my parents keep in their garage for car emergencies. Neither option makes me feel good. The Buick is a gas-guzzling behemoth in which it is impossible to be stealthy. It corners like a tank and drives like a mattress. However, it means I don't have to borrow a car from Ranger. Borrowing a car from Ranger always makes me wonder what I will have to do to pay Ranger back. Not that anything I would do with Ranger would necessarily be a bad thing, but it is a little unnerving to not know. Unfortunately for me, borrowing cars happens more frequently than I would like. I have a history of explosions, theft and vandalism.

"Can you drive? My eye's still watering", I asked.

"Sure. When are you going to get your own car? Not that this car isn't a good one. It's a fine car. What did you say you were going to do in return?" she asked.

"I didn't say, because I don't know. And I'll get a car as soon as I have a chance to find a suitable one."

"I don't know if I would want to be indebted to Ranger. Not that it wouldn't be fabulous to have to pay him back, though. He's a fine looking man. In fact, he's the hottest looking man I ever did see. But it's the not knowing that would get to me. I like things straight out. You see what I'm sayin'?"

We got in the car and headed back to the office. Lula and I work for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. Lula is the file clerk and often provides back-up to me; I am a fugitive apprehension agent aka bond enforcement agent aka bounty hunter. When people are arrested they can either wait for their court date in jail, or they can pay a bond and be allowed to live their lives normally until their court date arrives. When they show up at court, their bond is returned.

For those who don't want to wait in jail but who don't have the money to pay their bond, they can use the services of a bondsman. This bondsman will pay the bond for the fee of fifteen percent of the bond value and the exchange of collateral. When the felon goes to court they get their collateral back but not the fifteen percent.

When a person who uses a bondsman fails to show for court, the bondsman is out the price of the bond. This doesn't make the bondsman happy. So the bondsman hires a bounty hunter to retrieve the felon and return them back into the system, thereby getting the bond back from the courts. For this, the bounty hunter – me – gets ten percent of the bond and the bondsman retains the remaining five percent. I don't get a base salary though, so if I don't bring in any felons, I don't get paid. And I needed to get paid. I needed to buy a new car.

This meant I was pretty bummed about not picking up Brodie. Due to increased flight risk, the pilot had a high bond and would have netted me a significant amount of money. And my favourite t-shirt stained and mud in my eye weren't helping with eradicating my general bad mood. I dropped off Lula at the office and drove home.

Home for me is a low-budget, one-bedroom apartment in a three-story building characterized by 1970's décor and appliances. It is low on landscaping and high on utilitarianism, but it has an elevator and plenty of parking spots. Residents are primarily seniors, with the odd newly-wed couple or single non-retired person thrown in. It may not be luxurious, but I like it.

My apartment faces the parking lot, which lets me see if there are any lights on in my apartment when I get home. Today they were on, meaning I had company. This could be one of two people – Ranger, or my boyfriend Joe Morelli. I had given a key to Morelli a while ago; Ranger doesn't need a key. He can get in anywhere, anytime.

I took the elevator up to the second floor and walked down to my apartment. I opened the door and heard the paws of Bob, Morelli's big, orange, shaggy-haired beast that is part golden retriever, part Sasquatch, pounding the floor as he ran across the living room trying to get to me.

"Sit!" I said forcefully. Bob sat, tail frantically swishing across the floor. I was surprised. He had never followed that command before. I looked at Morelli, eyebrows raised.

"Yeah, this last round of obedience lessons seems to be working a bit. I guess the sixth time is the charm". He looked at me and raised his own eyebrows. "You look like you've been rolling in the mud, and your eye is all red. You okay, Cupcake?"

"Yeah. A skip threw mud in my eye."

"Did you get him?"

"No", I said in disgust. Morelli smiled. He was well familiar with my ineptitude.

A Trenton cop working in the Crimes Against Persons department, Morelli had no such ineptitude. He was overly dedicated to his job and was good at it. He was also good at being a boyfriend. Six feet tall with a hard body, brown hair perpetually needing a cut, and heart-melting brown eyes, he was kind, had a good sense of humour, was a good dog-father, and was a wonderfully satisfying and fun lover. Morelli and I have a long history, starting with playing choo-choo – I was the tunnel – when I was six, moving to giving him my virginity when I was sixteen, to becoming my on-again, off-again boyfriend in my late twenties. We have come a long way in our relationship since I was six. We have weathered some rocky patches and now acknowledge that we love each other, but are each happy with the status quo and are even hesitant to formalize what we have by labelling each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. Despite family trying to push us into marriage, we have been able to avoid that level of commitment with each other so far. I periodically think about what it would be like to be married to Morelli, but I have trouble envisioning it. At this point, I like having my own space and freedom too much.

"Did you remember we are expected at your parents for dinner?" Morelli asked. "I've already fed and walked Bob".

"Damn. No. Just give me a few minutes to shower to get all the mud out of my hair."

"Do you need help? I could rinse your eye for you." Morelli smiled and pulled out the neckline of my shirt to look down at my assets.

"No. I think this better be solo showering or we will never make it for dinner". Dinner at my parents is precisely at six o'clock. Being late meant you were holding up dinner. Even five minutes late meant a pot roast declared too dry, cabbage rolls too mushy, or pasta too soft and sticky. It also meant my mother would be imagining all sorts of dreadful reasons for the lateness – the most common reason that you had been killed. For everyone's sake, being late is something to be avoided at all costs.

"I could be fast", Morelli offered.

"Enticing – but no", I said with a mock grimace. "Perhaps I could take a rain check – just not on the fastness part?"

Quickly having a shower, I pulled my wet hair back into a ponytail and changed into clean clothes. I was ready fifteen minutes before dinner. Since it takes ten minutes to drive from my apartment to my parents' house, we had five minutes to spare. I wouldn't have to ask Morelli to use his Kojak light today.

My parents live in the Burg, the Italian section of Trenton where Morelli and I grew up. Comprised of several bars, a few social clubs, two funeral parlours, two grocery stores and a number of mom-and-pop type of businesses, Burg residents are an insular bunch. Gossip is rife and family is key. Morelli and I each live just outside the Burg, but once a Burgite, always a Burgite. I have learned it is impossible to ever truly leave the community.

We drove up and parked at the curb. My sister Valerie's car was there as well, so this meant that Valerie, her husband Albert, and her four kids would be joining us for dinner. A full house for my mom. She would love it. It also meant I would be hearing about providing grandkids in the near future once again.

My parents live in the right hand side of a duplex on a quiet street. It is a modest house with a living room, dining room, and kitchen on the main floor and three small bedrooms and a bathroom on the upper floor. Yellow siding on the top and brown siding on the bottom, with daffodils and tulips poking out of the tiny garden in front of the small covered porch. Individually, the house doesn't look so bad. When combined with the lime-green house next door, however, it looked like a train wreck. But it's my train wreck and I love it. It has been, and will always be, a safe haven where nothing ever changes.

My grandmother was waiting at the front door. Grandma Mazur moved in with my parents a few years ago, when Grandpa Mazur started pushing up the daisies in the big florist shop in the sky. It is an arrangement that mostly seems to suit both my mother and my grandmother, but not my father. My grandmother and father don't really get along and just tolerate each other for the sake of family harmony. My mother quietly got rid of my dad's gun when Grandma Mazur moved in. It's a decision she has been thankful for many times since.

Grandma is seventy going on seventeen in mind, and seventy going on ninety in body. Her body is slack as only an older person can get, and all her wrinkles make you think she could use a good ironing. Her mind is still nimble where her body is not, though, and she remains curious about everything life has to offer. Unlike my mother, she is starved for excitement, but like my mother she lives for Burg gossip.

She called out to everyone that we were there. "Hurry up", my grandmother said. "Dinner's in four minutes and drinks still need to be poured." Valerie and I hustled to get milk, water and wine while my mother removed the lasagne from the oven and Grandma poured the extra red sauce into the gravy boat. Dinner was on the table with one minute to spare.

I supervised getting the kids' hands washed while Valerie put the baby in the high chair. The men came in from watching TV. We sat down and started to dish up the lasagne and pass the red sauce. My father was served the first piece and waited white-knuckled and salivating, fork and knife in hand, for everyone else to be served. As the last piece was dished out it was like a starting bell went off, with everyone digging in, focused on scarfing down their dinner as fast as they possibly could.

My grandmother looked at me. "Your eye is all red. What did you do to it? Did you poke your eye with your mascara wand? I hate it when that happens." she said.

"No, I was chasing a skip and he threw mud in it", I replied.

"Mud in it?" my mother cried. "You better be careful with that. Myra Moneski got mud in her eye when she was gardening and she got an eye infection. She's dead now, God rest her soul". My mother crossed herself. Everyone at the table followed suit, saying "God rest her soul".

"Yeah, but she didn't die of an eye infection. Didn't she die of a heart attack?" I asked.

"Yes, but you can never be too careful."

"Told you I should have rinsed your eye, Cupcake", Morelli whispered in my ear as he slid his hand up my thigh. I gave him a dirty look and he smiled.

I turned to the girls and asked them how school was going. Having finished her dinner, Angie sat, hands primly folded in her lap, waiting quietly for dessert. "Fine, thank you, Aunt Stephanie", she replied.

"I don't like school", her younger sister Mary Alice said. "They don't teach you anything useful", and she whinnied. For some time now Mary Alice has believed she is a horse.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Like, in math." She whinnied again. "What do I care about how big the area of a triangle is inside if I know the length of the three sides?" There was silence at the table.

"Well, I guess you could use the area to figure you how big a horse's pen would be, and if it would be big enough for one horse or two", Grandma said.

"I didn't think of that", said Mary Alice. I was glad Grandma had come up with a reason. I, too, didn't see the point in knowing how to calculate the area and I didn't want to tell her but I have never had to do so since leaving school.

Lasagne finished, we moved on to dessert, in my opinion the best part of a meal. I love dessert. All dessert. Chocolate cake, rice pudding with cinnamon, pineapple upside down cake with whipped cream, ice cream with Vienna cookies, chocolate chip cookies, vanilla pudding, it all brings a smile to my face. Mom had made banana cream pie, one of my favourites. I had two pieces. Pushing away from the table, Valerie and Albert took the kids home for baths and bedtime; Morelli sat with my father to watch the ball game; and I cleaned up the kitchen with my mother and grandmother. When all the dishes were washed and put away, the tablecloth changed and the floor swept, Morelli and I went back to my place, taking with us a doggie bag from my mom. The doggie bag contained a slab of leftover lasagne, the last piece of banana cream pie, a dozen oatmeal raisin cookies, half a loaf of Italian bread, a pound of shaved ham, a half-pound of Swiss cheese, and an apple.

I entered my apartment, hearing Bob come running towards me. I yelled "stop", but he kept on coming, tackling me and pushing me back into Morelli. Like dominoes, I pushed Morelli back into the front door. "I guess he doesn't know that command yet", I said to Morelli. I held the doggie bag in the air. Bob licked my arms enthusiastically, jumping up and down, trying to get to the hand holding the doggie bag. Just before Bob had a chance to sink his teeth into the bag, Morelli grabbed it and held it even higher as he walked to the kitchen, Bob continuing to hop up and down behind him as he followed Morelli – and the bag – to the fridge.

I also went into the kitchen. "Hello, Rex", I said to my hamster's butt. His head was stuffed in his soup can. I don't think he knew – or cared – that he wasn't completely in his hidey-hole. I changed his water and gave Rex some hamster crunchies. I dropped a piece of apple into his food bowl. Rex backed out of his soup can and scurried over to the apple. He shoved the apple into his cheek, vibrating with excitement, before he dove back into his soup can. An exciting Friday night for Rex.

I grabbed a beer each for Morelli and me, and played back the messages on my answering machine. Three hang-ups, two heavy breathers and one offer for a free cruise. Morelli listened at the same time. "Do you know who the heavy breather is?" he asked.

"No idea. I don't recognize the breathing." I smiled. "Do you want to watch the rest of the game, or what?"

"Or what", Morelli answered with a slow smile. "The breathing is giving me ideas". And then he gave me a kiss that had my hair smoking and my toes curling. His hand slipped up under the hem of my shirt and I was lost. We shucked our clothes even before we got to the bedroom.

The next morning, over coffee, Morelli and I reviewed our upcoming day. Despite that it was Saturday and Morelli not scheduled for a shift, he was going into the office to catch up on paperwork. On my side, the bonds office is open a half day on Saturday. As a bounty hunter I have a bit more flexibility regarding when I work, but I often find weekends to be a better time to find skips as, like evenings, skips are often at home. It is quite common for me to work both days on the weekend, as well as evenings during the week. In truth, I never really stop working; I am always scanning faces wherever I go.

I went to the office, getting there before Lula but after Connie. Connie Rosolli is the office manager. With dark brown curly hair and brown eyes, Connie is one hundred percent Italian and she's got the Mediterranean hourglass figure and the fine dark brown mustache to prove it. Related to half the New Jersey arm of the mob, she is tougher, more connected, and a better shot than me. She is a good person to have on your side, and I consider her to be a good friend.

Today Connie was looking a little wild-eyed. "What's wrong?" I asked.

"I need to talk to you, but I can't talk here", she replied. "Vinnie has the office bugged again, and I don't think I have found them all yet." Vinnie is the namesake of the bonds office and is my cousin. He is a boil on the backside of the Plum family and we generally don't own up to knowing him, let alone being related to him. He is a weasel of a man with the boneless features of a ferret, and his greased-back hair, tight clothes, multiple gold necklaces and pointy shoes make his 5'6" height look more like a pimp than a business owner. While he does write bond for the office, he spends most of his time on internet gambling sites, porn channels and meeting with various sexual partners. Despite his shortcomings, or perhaps because of them, he is a good bondsman and can understand the psyche of the depraved.

The bonds office is owned by Vinnie's father-in-law, Harry the Hammer, a former mob enforcer. With the constant threat that Harry could pull the funding for the office and shut down the business if he didn't agree with Vinnie's life choices, this meant Harry had Vinnie's nuts in a vise. By association, this meant Lucille, Vinnie's wife, also had hold of Vinnie's nuts. This doesn't make for a very comfortable situation for Vinnie, but it is one that doesn't seem to faze him too much. Despite the constant threat, he still continues to have frequent barnyard sex.

Vinnie is known to bug the office, and has security cameras focused on the outer office where Connie sits and Lula files. We know of his practices, however, and work around this invasion in our privacy. We are just glad there are no security cameras in the washrooms. That seems like the kind of thing Vinnie would do.

"Will you be home this afternoon, after the office closes?" Connie asked.

"I can be", I replied.

"Okay, I will meet you at your apartment at two o'clock. And can you please keep it quiet?"

My curiosity was definitely peaked. I agreed to keep it a secret from Vinnie. I guessed that keeping it quiet meant not telling Lula as well. Lula couldn't keep a secret if her life depended upon it. No matter how much you may want Lula to keep quiet, it will just not happen. I kept my curiosity to myself as Lula walked in the door.

"Hey, girl, how's it hanging?" Lula said.

"Good", I answered. "Are you ready to go catch some skips?"

"Let's see. You look like you're in a good mood. That means that you probably got some last night. Did you? Because if you didn't I'm not going chasing after skips with you. You are Miss Cranky-Pants when you don't get any."

I just smiled. Getting some didn't accurately describe the extent of my evening. And nighttime. And morning. Morelli is a brilliantly gratifying lover. I always leave with a smile on my face after "getting some" with him. If a lack of sex causes me to be in a bad mood, there will be no danger of me being a cranky-pants today.

"I recognize that smile", Lula said. "Okay, let's go looking for skips."

I started to leaf through my pile of files. "We've got an identity theft, a robbery and a driving under the influence in addition to the pilot and his assault from yesterday. The assault, as you know, is a high bond. The identity theft carries a medium bond, and the robbery and DUI are low bonds. Does anything stick out at you as being good?"

"Let's do the DUI later. A Saturday morning, after the Friday night parties, might not be the best time. They will be more likely to come with us when they are less hung over." I couldn't agree more with Lula's suggestion. Hung over skips are usually argumentative and abusive. "The fact the robbery is only a low bond means the robber is probably pretty stupid and has likely just missed his court date. Let's go after him".

"Okay", I agreed. I looked over his file and started to laugh. "It says here that Michael Minetti, age 23, robbed a bank with a banana in his pocket. He told everyone that it was a gun. The only problem was that the security guard in the bank was a little trigger happy and believed Minetti, shooting his arm in an effort to subdue him. The security guard then tackled the injured Minetti, squishing the banana in the process. This guy doesn't seem too smart. I think it's a good idea to go after him first. Do you want to take Ranger's car?"

"Sure. When did you say you were going to look for a new car?" Lula asked.

"Tomorrow."

"That's good. I'm free tomorrow. I love car shopping. Just tell me the time and I will go with you. I don't even have any honeys staying over tonight, so I can be ready bright and early. Say noon?" We made arrangements to meet at my apartment at noon.

I looked over the Minetti file again. Minetti worked at the copy shop on Broad. I phoned the store and asked if Minetti was working today. They confirmed he was. Lula and I got in the car and motored over to the copy shop. Entering the store, we recognized Minetti right away. He was the gangly guy who looked more like a young teenager than a twenties-something man, with his arm in a sling. His hair was long and greasy, and his red-eyes showed remnants of the night before. I went up to him and introduced myself. "Hi", I said. "My name is Stephanie Plum and I represent your bail bonds office. You have missed your court date and I am here to take you into the station to get your date rescheduled."

"But I don't want to get rescheduled. I don't want to go to jail", and Minetti turned his back on us and walked away, back to the rear of the store. I called Minetti, asking him to come back, and started to follow him back behind the counter. The manager came out of his office to talk to me.

"Excuse me? Is there a problem?" he asked.

"No", I said. "It's just that Michael has missed his court date and we need to take him in to get rescheduled. That will not be a problem, is it?"

"No", he answered. "You can take him right away. I always try to cooperate with the police." I didn't want to tell him we weren't police. After all, it's not like I told him that we were the police. I can't help it if he assumed that. And that assumption seemed to be buying us some cooperation with him.

I called out Minetti's name. There was no response. I called out again. There was still no response. I looked at the manager. He walked to the back of the store and looked in the office and the storeroom. "He's not here", he called out.

"Damn", I cried out. "We have a runner". Lula and I ran out of the store and stood on the sidewalk looking around. "You look here. I will look at the back of the strip plaza." I ran around the end of the stores but by the time I got there I could not see anybody. Minetti had flown the coop.

I walked back to the front of the store. Lula was sitting on the curb. "I didn't see anything", she said. I didn't bother pointing out to her that she wouldn't see anything from the vantage point of the curb anyway. Minetti had disappeared no matter where we sat or watched for him.

I trudged back into the store and spoke to the manager again. I gave him my card and asked him to call if Minetti showed up for work again. And I asked him when his next shift was, confirming it was the nine to five shift on Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the upcoming week . I didn't feel it was worthwhile to stake out the copy shop. I didn't think Minetti would be back to the store that day.

Lula and I drove to Minetti's home. Living with his parents, Minetti lived just outside the Burg in a run-down single-detached house. We went and knocked on the door and asked his mom for Michael. "I think he's at work right now", she replied. "You aren't another banana salesman, are you? There are only so many bananas that we can eat, you know."

"No, I actually represent his bondsman. He missed his court date and needs to go back to court to reschedule".

"Do you want some bananas to take with you then? Ever since Michael held up that bank we have had boxes and boxes of bananas given to us by banana growers. I have never seen so many bananas in such a short period of time. My family, and all our friends are getting tired of bananas. And I can't keep up with eating them. I have been making banana bread and banana muffins and banana cake continually, and my freezer is now filled with baked goods. I have enough to last me for the next year. Do you want some banana bread to go with the bananas? Please take some. I'm begging you."

Lula and I thanked Mrs. Minetti, taking away a loaf of banana bread, a dozen banana muffins and a bunch of bananas each. We also took away the promise that she would call if and when Michael came home.

"I have an appointment to get my hair coloured this afternoon", said Lula. "I need to get dropped off at the office so I can get my car."

"What colour will you get this time?" I asked, eyeing her current canary yellow hair. It didn't look to me like it needed to be coloured, but what do I know?

"I don't know. I'm wondering about pink, or maybe putting in orange streaks. I've got a new orange top I want to match. I need to talk to my colourist."

"Well, good luck with that". I dropped Lula off at her car and went home. I drove into the parking lot, parking as far away from the disabled parking spaces as I could. The disabled parking was located close to the building, and amongst the other disabled the visually impaired try to snag those spots as soon as they open up. I have found that my car gets significantly fewer scrapes in the paint the farther away from the building I park. And since I was driving a borrowed car, I had additional incentive to not get my car scraped.

I walked into the building and over to the stairs. However, when the elevator doors opened up and Mrs. Bestler sang out "first floor, going up", I decided to play along. Mrs. Bestler gets bored and often fills her time playing elevator attendant. I got in the elevator, telling Mrs. Bestler I would like to go to the second floor. I talked about the weather with Mrs. Bestler until we got to my stop, at which point she sang out "second floor, ladies' lingerie and better dresses". I smiled, wished Mrs. Bestler a good day, and walked down to my apartment. Opening the door, I listened before I entered. All seemed quiet. I entered and shut the door, walking into the kitchen to say hello to Rex. He seemed to be in fine form, sleeping in his soup can with his butt stuck out.

I made myself a ham and Swiss sandwich on Italian bread. I sniffed the orange juice in the fridge. It smelled okay, so I poured myself a glass. Taking my feast into the living room, I sat on the couch and turned on the TV. Flipping through the channels, I ate my sandwich and drank my juice. By the time I finished my lunch I decided there was nothing good on the boob tube to watch. I turned off the TV and went into the kitchen to do the dishes. On the way past the answering machine, I listened to the messages. There were three more mouth breathers, one credit card offer and a person selling new windows and doors. I deleted the messages. Nothing of importance there.

I washed the dishes and started to do some weekly cleaning before Connie came. I cleaned out Rex's cage, putting him in the tub while I threw out his soup can and bedding and cleaned the cage. I gave him fresh bedding, a new soup can, and new hamster crunchies and water. I returned him to his cage and put him back in the kitchen. Then, using a bleach spray, I cleaned the tiles and tub area. A knock interrupted my cleaning. Connie had arrived.

I let Connie in and closed the door. She walked over to the couch, not sitting but pacing in front of it. I brought a plate of banana muffins out which I held out to Connie, and offered her a cup of coffee. Connie declined both. "What's up?" I asked as I put the muffin plate on the coffee table. Connie was always so calm, it was disturbing to see her so wound up.

"You know my cousin Paulo?" she asked. "He was arrested for running numbers a few weeks ago."

"Okay." I hadn't known that, but that was nothing new. I didn't know much about what happens at the bond end of things. I didn't come into the loop until after people have skipped their court date.

"Well," she took a deep breath, "he arranged bail through our office." No surprise there. I still couldn't see why Connie was so worked up. "I arranged bail for him. It was a high bond since it wasn't his first infraction." She took another deep breath. "I let him procure the bond using his TV as collateral." Now I was starting to see what had Connie panicked. It was bad bond. The collateral would not cover the bond value.

"Let me guess – he didn't show up for court?"

"No. And no one knows where he is. I have talked to all my relatives, and no one has seen him. This is bad. This is really bad. If Vinnie finds out, I could lose my job." She took another deep breath and finally sat down, taking a muffin off the plate. "It is time for me to transfer the file over to you anyway, but I wanted to let you know the background on it and to ask you to be quiet in front of Vinnie about it. I am hoping it will fly under the radar and he will never know what I did. It's not like I do this all the time. It's just that Paulo is my favourite cousin, you know how it is. I will continue to work the family angle, but if you could work whatever angles you can find I would greatly appreciate it."

"Sure, Connie. I'll do whatever I can. I'll have to tell Lula, though, since she will probably be helping me search for him. I just won't tell her about the collateral issue. That okay with you?"

"Sure. Thanks for keeping this quiet and for understanding why I need you to work fast on this file."

"No problem." I showed Connie out and went back to my cleaning. I used the bleach spray to clean the bathroom sink and the counters, and swished around toilet cleaner and used a bleach wipe to clean the toilet. I wiped down all the counters and appliances in the kitchen, and dusted my meager furnishings. I tidied the books and magazines and vacuumed the carpets. Finally, I mopped the floors, all the while thinking about Connie's problem. I wasn't any closer to the solution when I finished the cleaning, so I went and fell back on the bed, covering my face with my pillow, assuming my favourite thinking position. This position is very similar to my napping position, and my brain got confused this time. I woke up as the pillow was lifted up off my head. As my eyes focused in the light I saw Ranger looking down at me.

"Thinking or napping, Babe?" he asked. Ranger is well familiar with my favourite thinking position.

"Both, apparently. It started out as thinking and progressed to napping", I said.

"What are you thinking about?" I told him about Connie's predicament. He listened all the way to the end, doing some thinking himself.

"It's just I'm not sure what I can do if Connie has already tried the family. I want to help but I am at a loss as to what I should do next." I concluded. "What would you do?"

"I would talk to all the family members again, pulling out the fact that Connie is will lose her job if Paulo isn't found. You can't use the threat that the collateral will be lost like you normally would, but you can use the fact that Connie will lose her job. Paulo has multiple properties in Trenton. I would check each of those, too. And I would check the shore. Paulo was running numbers here in Trenton, but he had another operation in Point Pleasant. He probably has a house or something there." He continued. "I would like to stay and help you with this, Babe, but I will be out of the country for a while. I am going up to Canada to pick up a skip and am not scheduled to come back for a few days. If you need anything when I am gone, call Tank. And let Tank know if you need to use any of our search engines for researching Paulo." Tank is Ranger's right-hand man and is another good person to have on your side. Also former Special Forces, he is extremely loyal to Ranger.

Ranger gave me a kiss that sent a warmth down into my nether regions, pulling me closer and deepening the kiss before pulling away and looking at me regretfully. "Tank is waiting for me in the parking lot. I have to go." Probably a good thing. Sometimes with Ranger it was hard to remember I had an understanding with Morelli. Ranger gave me a gentle tug on my ponytail, gave me another quick kiss, and left the apartment.

I decided I probably would not do any more napping that afternoon, so I went to my computer and started to run some searches on Paulo. After several hours I had the names and contact information for most of his extended family, and the addresses to half a dozen businesses and rental properties. What I didn't have were the addresses to any properties on the shore, or the name of any potential holding companies. I decided I would follow up the leads on Monday, as the next day I would be looking for a new car.

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