I ran into Ranger coming up from the gym. "Couldn't sleep again, Babe? This is becoming a habit."
As a person who does not willingly get up before the clock shows double digits, the fact that I have been up before the sun for three weeks running showed something was definitely wrong. And the fact I was also at the Rangeman facility, Ranger's exclusive security company that caters to the well-to-do in the Trenton and Newark area, before daybreak further highlighted something was seriously amiss. I pressed the number for the fifth floor, ready to go to my desk and start the day. Ranger pressed the seventh floor button for his penthouse apartment.
"Yeah, I'm definitely having trouble sleeping. Rex is appreciating the nighttime company." Rex is my attack hamster.
"Come up to my apartment and tell me about it", said Ranger. "We can have breakfast together. You can make the coffee while I shower."
"Just coffee for me. I ate already."
"Banana cream pie or key lime?"
Does he know me or what? "Smart ass…I went healthy today. I had strawberry cheesecake." It's healthy, isn't it? After all, it has strawberries and cheese in it. That's two of your main four food groups covered right there. And that is not including the graham cracker crust. Isn't that a grain?
The Rangeman facility is located in downtown Trenton ten minutes away from everything important – the hospital, the police station, and my apartment. It contains staff bachelorettes, office space and training facilities. The penthouse floor contained Ranger's luxurious one-bedroom apartment. I followed Ranger through the doorway and headed for the kitchen. I measured coffee into the basket and added water to the reservoir, turned it on and waited for the machine to make its magic.
The apartment is laid out in two halves. The right half contains a professional grade kitchen, a small dining room and living room. The left half contains the king-sized bedroom, master bath, enormous walk-in closet, and attached office. Separating the halves is the front hallway and a half bath. I have used the apartment as a safe house enough to know the bed linens are silky soft, the shower gel is Bulgari Green and, unlike my apartment, the dishes and cutlery all match. I also know there is a small assortment of my Rangeman uniforms in the closet and I have been assigned a drawer in the bathroom for my toiletries.
I heard the shower turn off and poured coffee into two cups, doctoring mine with cream. I carried the cups into the bedroom and sat on the bed to wait while Ranger finished shaving. He came though wearing only a damp towel and the distinctive scent of his shower gel. I handed him his coffee and admired the view as he walked by. The sight of Ranger in clothes is heart-stopping. The sight of him without is perfection.
When I was growing up I would play Barbies with my friends. Unlike my friends, my dolls all had superpowers and no use for Ken. My Barbies loved GI Joe instead. Ranger is a real life permanently-tanned version of GI Joe. Cuban American with the dark brown eyes and hair to prove his heritage, he is just over six feet and is characterized by a hard body, sharp mind and few words.
I, on the other hand, have no claim to a hard body or few words and I can't speak to my mind. I am Stephanie Plum, and I am a blue-eyed woman with brown, shoulder-length curly hair. I look nothing like Barbie. Instead of the va-va-vroom hourglass shape of the doll, I am of average height and shape, and the only thing remarkable about me is the cute little Hungarian nose I inherited from my grandmother.
I work for my cousin Vinnie's bail bonds office retrieving felons who have missed their court date. When a felon is arrested, they have the option to pay bail to allow them to walk free until their trial. If they don't have enough money and cannot scrounge enough from family and friends to make bail, they can use the services of a bondsman.
A bondsman will pay the bond to the court in exchange for fifteen percent of the bond as well as some collateral. When the accused shows up in court, the court returns the bond money to the bondsman and, in turn, the bondsman returns the collateral to the accused. He keeps the fifteen percent though.
If the accused does not show up in court, the bondsman is not happy as he does not get his bond money returned to him. He needs this money to lend to someone else to earn another fifteen percent. That is where I come in. As a bounty hunter aka bond enforcement agent aka fugitive apprehension agent, I find the accused and force them to return to the court system. For this I get ten percent of the bond money and the bondsman retains the remaining five percent. Good deal for me. The catch is that if I don't capture any felons, I don't get paid. Despite this, I like the job. Whether it is the ability to keep my own hours, the capacity to make emergency runs to the Tasty Pastry bakery, or the knowledge that I am doing something good for society, for some reason it suits me. Hell, maybe it's just that I don't have to wear pantyhose and heels every day.
More recently, however, I started working part time for Rangeman.
Three weeks ago, I was supposed to apprehend a felon named Pete Brodie. Brodie did not want to go back to court, however, and started stalking and harassing me in return. The hunter became the hunted. After several threats and some attempts on my life, I shot him in my apartment. Since then I have reduced my hours working for Vinnie chasing skips to part time and have started working for Ranger part time researching companies and individuals. It is a situation that suits both Ranger and me for the time being. On Ranger's side, he is happy he has someone to fill the research desk but, more importantly, he likes having me there so he can keep tabs on me while I get back on my feet. On my side, this provides a regular paycheque – good for paying the rent. And Ranger offers health benefits and flex hours. All in all, a good deal. Unfortunately, the work is as dry as dust and puts my feet to sleep.
"Tell me about not sleeping. Are you having nightmares?" asked Ranger from the closet as he dressed for the day.
"Yeah. I keep reliving shooting Brodie", I said in disgust.
"That is perfectly natural, Babe. Do you want to move in here for a few days, at least until they get the bloodstains out of your carpet?"
And see, that's the problem. I would really like to. But Ranger is not the only man in my life. I had an on-again, off-again relationship with a Trenton cop over the last few years. Joe Morelli is six feet of Italian testosterone. He is a good dog father, a kind and loving boyfriend, and an overly dedicated cop. When Brodie threatened me, Morelli blew up, saying things to me he should not have said. It was an old argument between us. He doesn't want me to be a bounty hunter and feels that my affinity for getting into trouble is dangerous to myself and my family. And in some ways he is right. But on my side I don't like his lack of balance in his life, the danger associated with his job, or his lack of respect for what I do for a living. He wants me to become a wife and a stay-at-home mom, and he does not want to change a thing about himself.
Besides his attitude, I don't know what I even want him to change. I just know I would go nuts as a stay-at-home mom. I'm not even sure what I think about babies. They seem the kind of thing you like when they are smelling sweet and fresh from the bath but once you have to deal with sticky hands in your hair, leftover Lego on the floor, and finger painting on the wall, they lose their appeal. And that's not even taking into account the sleepless nights or poopy diapers.
So, in short, I think we want different things in life and I am not willing to change and neither is he. We had been happily ignoring our issues for quite a while, living in dreamland as an uncommitted couple. But after Brodie was caught, Morelli drew a line in the sand and said I had to quit my job if I wanted to stay with him. I walked away from him instead. I am not exactly regretting it. I think it was a long time in coming, but while I recognize something had to change, I am still grieving the loss of the friendship. He is a good man and I miss him. On Morelli's side, now that his Italian temper has cooled he is regretting the outburst. He has phoned several times to apologize. I have consistently let his messages go to voicemail.
"I think it is better for me to stay at my own place, thanks."
"My place is always available if you change your mind."
I know from experience there is only one bed in the apartment and, although it is technically plenty big enough for both of us, I tend not to be able to keep my hands to myself and I migrate over to his side of the bed when I sleep. And with the unsettled feelings I have been having lately, that sort of migration would be a bad idea. It would be fun for the moment but, until I get my feet back under me, my desire for self-preservation says solo sleeping is the best alternative.
Ranger came out of the closet dressed in his Rangeman uniform – black fatigues, black t-shirt, black hoody, and a gun at his side. Ranger always dresses all in black. It makes it easier to dress in the morning. Everything matches.
"What is up for today?" asked Ranger.
"I am researching some potential employees for Jay Technologies for Tank, and I have that new file from you to research. And a few for Sales, of course." Tank is the head of Operations and is Ranger's right hand man. Built like his name suggests, he is 6'6" with enough muscle to make him as intimidating as hell. He talks even less than Ranger, if that is even possible. Also former Special Forces, Tank and Ranger served together and Tank has had Ranger's back ever since. "Then, this afternoon, I am picking up Lula and we are going to try to clean up my list of outstanding skips. It's only a couple of low-value bonds, but they will still be good to tidy up. And there are a couple of new files that Connie wants me to pick up."
"It is time for you to head back to the shooting range and the gym as well, Babe. I have some time at four o'clock today to train you." Ella, Ranger's housekeeper, cook and general staff mother, came through the door with Ranger's breakfast. He took the tray from her, thanked her, and closed the door behind her.
"I don't want to practice shooting. Bad things happen when I have a gun in my hand."
"Worse things would have happened if you hadn't had a gun in your hand", countered Ranger. "Brodie would have shot you dead. You killed him in self-defense. It was not your fault."
"Yet it was my bullet that shot him. I would say that makes it my fault."
"You can't afford to doubt yourself. You did what you had to do. I will meet you at your desk at five to four and we will go down to the shooting range then."
I did some deep breathing and struggled not to cry. There was nothing I wanted to do less than go and shoot a gun again. "I may not be back from skip chasing in time", I said hopefully.
"This is part of your job. You have to be comfortable shooting a gun, both skill-wise as well as psychologically. I will meet you at your desk just before four o'clock. Which brings me to another point. You know the rules about Rangeman. You need to wear your gun at all times. The last three weeks you have not been wearing it."
"I have it in my purse."
"That is not going to help you if you need it. With the amount your purse holds it might take you an hour to find it." He was right. It would take me some time to find it. Morelli used to say I carried everything except the kitchen sink and, one year for my birthday, he bought me a Barbie-sized kitchen sink to put in my purse. I still have it there. While I might not be able to find my gun in time, all the crap in my purse would make it a sufficient weight to hit someone with. I thought that was a much better self-defense plan. "You need to wear it while you are in the building, just like the rest of the staff. Do you have your holster in your purse as well?"
I considered saying 'no', but I knew Ranger would just get me another from the storeroom. "Yes", I admitted.
"Good. Use it."
I stood up to get another cup of coffee and Ranger snagged me about the waist and sat me down on his lap. "You are going to be okay, Babe. But you have to get back in the saddle. You cannot continue second guessing yourself." He angled his head down for a kiss and, when our tongues touched, heat arrowed straight down to my doodad. I think I might have moaned and I was seriously reconsidering my decision to sleep solo. Ranger pulled back. "I'm sorry, but I have a meeting in ten minutes. What are you going to put on before you leave the apartment today?"
"My gun", I said, resigned. Ranger's lips twitched at the petulant tone to my voice.
"I know you don't like it, but it is important." He put the last mouthful of strawberries in his mouth, drank his last mouthful of coffee, and got up from the table. He went in the bathroom and finished up while I put on my holster and gun and then, smiling a half-smile when he saw me wearing it, walked with me out of the apartment down to the fifth floor.