Sometimes, as a bounty hunter, you feel great about your job. You bring in wife beaters, drug pushers, people threatening kids and old folks. At other times the job sucks. I'm Stephanie Plum and this is one of those times where the job just plain sucks.
"You want me to catch Robin Hood?" I yelled to Vinnie. "No way, no how. He's a modern-day legend. I'll have the whole police force against me. Give him to anyone else. Give him to Joyce Barnhardt. I don't care. Just don't give him to me."
Robin Hood, aka Roberto Mendez, is accused of stealing fifty flak vests. He then gave these stolen vests to the local police department. The police were very appreciative and would likely not have looked very hard for him. Unfortunately for Roberto, however, he was caught on a security camera both when stealing the vests and when leaving them on the stoop of the cop shop.
Most people would rather give him a sainthood than a jail sentence – including me. But now it was my job to bring him in.
"How hard will it be?" asked Lula. Lula is the office file clerk and my sometimes sidekick. She's a plus size woman in a petite size wardrobe. A former 'ho, her clothes haven't kept up with her change in profession, frequently testing the limits of spandex. Today she was wearing a gold sequined top which struggled to contain her girls with a Day-Glo orange skirt that had a hemline two inches below her doodad and four-inch spike-heeled slut shoes. Her chocolate skin is a perfect foil for her vibrant hair. Today her hair was orange to match her skirt. Lula is big in body and even larger in personality. She's a good friend, but I've learned I shouldn't always listen to her. She is constantly getting me in trouble.
Lula is the direct opposite to me. Half Italian and half Hungarian, my skin is several shades lighter than Lula's. I have shoulder-length brown curly hair and blue eyes and a cute little nose I consider to be my best feature. I am of average height and weight and I have an average body shape. My daily outfit is a pair of jeans, Converse sneakers, t-shirt and hoody. I am more reserved than Lula, but I still have a history of getting into trouble.
Another of my good friends is Connie Rosolli. Of Italian descent, she looks like Betty Boop on steroids. A couple of inches shorter, a couple of pounds heavier, a couple of cup sizes bigger than me, her connections to the mob and her ability to withstand Vinnie qualify her for the job as office manager. She agreed with Lula. "Any person dumb enough to get caught on camera – twice – while playing Robin Hood shouldn't be too hard to catch."
Vinnie, my sleazy weasel-creep cousin and namesake of the Vincent Plum Bail Bonds office in which I work, chimed in. "Can't be too hard. The police found it easy to catch him the first time. He was practically waiting with cuffs on. He probably just forgot his court date." And then he delivered the clincher. "If I have to put Joyce on this you'll be fired. I'll take away all your files and give the whole lot to her."
My mind screamed in panic. No files means no job. No job means no rent. No rent means living with my parents and grandmother. And faced with the idea of returning to a house with only one bathroom, I gave in. "Okay, okay. I'll pick him up. How hard can it be?" I comforted myself. I took the file and looked over the particulars. Most I knew already. Lives just outside the Burg, the Italian section of Trenton in which I grew up. Like the Burg, houses in Roberto's neighbourhood are modest, residents hard-working and cars are American. Roberto is fifty-three, father to Silvio, Carla, Hector and Amelia. Silvio was a police officer, killed on duty just two months ago. Cause of death not attributed to the drug dealer who shot him, but rather to the lack of budget for flak vests. The police force in Trenton is notoriously under-budgeted, understaffed and overworked. Nicknamed "Robin Hood" by the media, Roberto's actions raised awareness for a real problem. I looked at his picture. At 5'6", he was a portly man with a monk's haircut. I thought he looked more like Friar Tuck than Robin Hood.
And now he's disappeared, ready to be brought in by yours truly. Lucky me.
"Okay, I'm off. Do you want to ride shotgun?" I asked Lula.
"Hell, yeah. Not every day I see you take down a hero." Lula paused for a moment. "But I'll only go if we can stop for a snack. I missed breakfast this morning. A big beautiful woman like me needs her breakfast. I've got to maintain this level of beauty, do you see what I'm saying? If I'm going hero hunting, I need a doughnut!"
Lula and I stopped at the Tasty Pastry, the bakery in which I worked my way through high school. I picked out two doughnuts – a jelly filled and a Boston Cream. Lula had a bit more difficulty choosing. Her eyes were shiny, her nose quivering, her body vibrating with the strain of choosing just two doughnuts. I went outside, leaving Lula to contemplate the joys of the pastry case.
Standing in the sun, polishing off the last bite of jelly doughnut, I saw Joe Morelli's car take a quick right into the Tasty Pastry parking lot. Morelli is my on-again, off-again boyfriend. He's six feet of Italian testosterone, packaged in a hard body of which men are jealous and women love. He's got chocolate brown eyes that can be hard and assessing when in cop mode, but can quickly switch to soft and sensual when he's interested in more amorous pursuits. I have a long history with Joe, starting with losing my virginity to Morelli behind the counter of the Tasty Pastry when I was sixteen and hitting him – by accident, of course – with a car when I was eighteen. While he was a trouble maker back then, over time and with military and police training he has morphed into a law-abiding citizen and a good cop. I'm not sure where we currently are in the relationship. I guess you could say we have a vague understanding. We acknowledge the "L" word but have difficulty committing to each other for various reasons. I don't like his job as a cop; he doesn't like my job as a bounty hunter; and perhaps more importantly, he's not the only man in my life.
His face looked grim as he got out of the car. He was dressed in jeans and boots and a cream cable-knit sweater pushed up to his elbows. The sight of his hard body brought a warm rush heading straight south to my lower region. He came over to join me, reaching in the bakery bag to snag the Boston Cream. "I need to talk to you", he said in a serious tone.
"Uh-oh. What have I done wrong this time?"
"Nothing. It's me that has a problem and I need your help, but I can't talk now. Can I meet you at Pino's at noon?" Pino's is an Italian pizzeria commonly frequented by hospital staff and cops. It is the safest place to have a heart attack outside of the hospital.
Morelli took a bite of the Boston Cream and gave the rest back to me. He gave me a quick kiss goodbye. I knew something was really bothering him. He didn't finish the doughnut and he didn't look down my shirt to check out my assets before he left.
Lula interrupted my worry. She had a box of twelve doughnuts. "Apprehending a hero is exhausting work. I need my strength. Besides, I couldn't decide. How is a person supposed to decide? They've got cake doughnuts, raised doughnuts, iced doughnuts, filled doughnuts, plain-assed doughnuts… it's not fair. How are you supposed to choose?" I agreed. Sometimes it is hard to choose.
Lula and I cruised the street where Roberto Mendez lived. The Mendez house was the left side of a duplex. Painted white with black trim, it was a tasteful contrast to the orange and green exterior next door. The house was well maintained. Not the home of the drug dealers and pimps I usually chase, but after a few years as a bounty hunter nothing surprised me. Besides, this was Robin Hood, not your typical felon.
No cars, no sign of activity at the house. We sat in the car watching the house for half an hour, eating doughnuts to fill the time. I had one more; Lula had 10. She would have had the last but decided we should save one for Connie. "I can eat these doughnuts", Lula exclaimed. "I'm on a new diet. This one is gonna work. It's the movement diet. All I have to do is keep moving, using calories and I can eat what I want." Hunh. That explains why Lula is constantly jiggling her leg and shaking the car. I thought she had to go to the bathroom.
When the half hour was up we felt sufficiently sick and decided it was time to approach the Mendez house.
"Who we gonna be? Girl Scouts? Bible thumpers? Soccer team fundraiser? This don't look like no hooker neighbourhood", Lula said.
"No, we aren't being anything. We will just go up, ring the doorbell and explain that he is in violation of his bond agreement and he needs to come in to reschedule. It's supposed to be easy, remember?"
When a person is arrested, the judge can set a bond and, if paid, the accused can walk amongst the free until their court date. When they show up for court, the bond is paid back to the accused.
If the accused does not have the money to pay the bond, they can use the services of a bondsman. The bondsman – that's the company I work for – will pay the bond in exchange for collateral. For this service, the bondsman charges fifteen percent of the price of the bond. If the accused shows up for court, they get the collateral back but the bondsman keeps the fifteen percent. If the accused fails to show for court, the court keeps the bond until the accused is brought back into the system. This doesn't make the bondsman happy and so a bond enforcement agent, aka bounty hunter, is hired to retrieve the accused and bring them back into the system. That's me. For this I get ten percent of the bond value and the bondsman keeps the remaining five percent. Good deal for me. It is piecemeal work though. If I don't bring people back to court, I don't get paid. And if I can't find them, Vinnie keeps the collateral to cover the cost of the bond.
I got out of the car, transferring my cuffs to the back pocket of my jeans, my pepper spray to my front sweatshirt pocket and my attitude to the forefront. The big bad bounty hunter taking down Robin Hood. Sometimes I hate my job.
"Do you think I need my gun?" Lula asked.
"No! No guns! This is Robin Hood, not the Grim Reaper. Besides, didn't you say this would be easy? That he would be practically waiting with cuffs on?"
"Hunh. I'll just keep it in my pocket. You never know with these Robin Hoods. I might need my gun and where would we be if I left it in the car? It's not like you are carrying one." She looked questioningly at me. Nope, my gun was at home in my cookie jar, just like always.
"Okay", I replied. It's not like I could stop Lula even if I wanted to. "But no shooting!"
"Hunh. You always have all these rules. Little miss rule-maker. Why do you get to always make the rules?"
"Because I am the bond enforcement agent and you are my assistant?"
We walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell. No response. We rang it again and looked in the windows. No curtains twitching, no footsteps, no dogs barking. Nothing. The neighbour stuck her head out the door. "If you are looking for Roberto, he's not there right now. I know he's around, but I haven't seen him in over a week."
"Is he expected back soon?" I asked.
"I don't know. I haven't talked to him in a while. But I know I wouldn't hang around. I would disappear if I was him. Did you know the police arrested him for helping them? No appreciation. He's a good man. He was just trying to help. Now they are going to fry him. It's not fair. There's no justice in this world." I nodded my head. Sometimes it did seem like there was no justice in the world.
Lula and I walked back to the car. Lula was unusually quiet. I wasn't sure if it was the thought of no justice or the ten doughnuts, but her silence was creeping me out. On my side, I was thinking no matter the reason, he still stole property. And that is wrong.