"We need to talk, Babe".
Those were some of the last words Ranger spoke to me before he left for the week, and I was obsessing over them. At times I thought of them as a positive sign that he might be interested in getting more serious. At other times I thought they meant he was going to open up about his mysterious past. And at other times again, when I was feeling a little less optimistic, I thought of them as a death toll on any potential relationship I might have with him.
And fledgling relationship with him is what I had. I had known Ranger for some time, and over the years he has morphed from my mentor, into a good friend and periodic lover, into something a little more personal. I don't know how to define our relationship. We aren't girlfriend and boyfriend. I am not sure if Ranger could even become that committed. But I broke up with my long-time boyfriend partly because of Ranger. I am addicted to the way Ranger treats me, as if I was the most important person in the world.
Ranger, or Ricardo Carlos Manosa, is owner of Rangeman, a two-city, high-tech security company that specializes in providing a wide range of protection services to the elite in the Trenton and Miami areas. As my grandmother would say, Ranger is a tall sip of iced tea on a hot summer's day. He is second generation Cuban-American, has the complexion and dark brown hair and eyes to prove it, and is blessed with the self-discipline and dedication to make sure he exercises his mind and body frequently.
I am Stephanie Plum. Unlike Ranger's more tanned colouring, I have the skin colour, shoulder length brown curly hair, blue eyes and cute little nose of my Hungarian grandparents on my mother's side and the traditional upbringing of my Italian grandparents on my father's. Also unlike Ranger is my lack of self-discipline and non-existent dedication to exercise.
I am a bounty hunter, also known by the more official name of fugitive apprehension agent. I work for my cousin Vinnie at Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. A bond is a sort of guarantee. When someone is accused of a crime, they can either await their trial date in jail or can pay a bond, an insurance policy if you will, to the courts to ensure they show up for their trial. When they show up for their court date, they get the money back. If they don't show up, they are considered a wanted felon.
There are many accused who don't want to wait in jail but do not have the money to pay their bail. That is where the bonds office comes in. For the price of fifteen percent of the bond, the office will accept some collateral and will pay the bond for the accused. When the accused shows up for court, the office will return the collateral but will keep the fifteen percent.
If the accused does not show up for court, they are considered a wanted fugitive. The bonds office wants the money back for the bond so they can lend the money out to someone else. So they send out a bounty hunter – that's me – to pick up the felon and return them to court. For this I get ten percent of the bond value and the bonds office retains the remaining five percent. While this sounds like easy money, the ability to capture felons is not and income is solely related to how many felons skip out on bail. No felons skipping out on bail, no income for me.
A month ago I started working part time for Rangeman as a researcher. In this job I research companies and individuals for either the design of security systems, clients' ongoing security requirements, or to allow Sales to tailor their marketing to various potential clients. The job is as dry as dust, but it provides the income stability and benefits that my job with Vinnie lacks.
A week ago, Vinnie took out advertising to get more people to choose Vincent Plum as their bonding agent. This has resulted in a lot of cases for Vinnie to handle and he has overextended himself. He is consequently panicking and is manically texting me hourly to remind me that he needs all outstanding fugitives found yesterday.
"What you thinking about?" asked Lula. Lula is my friend and fellow Vincent Plum employee. A former 'ho with the wardrobe still reflecting her old profession, she has the attitude and physical attributes of a brown sumo wrestler. She is technically the file clerk but is terrible at her job. She spends most of the time instead chasing criminals with me. She is not much better at skip chasing and, since I am not that good at skip chasing either, I think we more resemble Lucy and Ethyl than we do Dog the Bounty Hunter. It's just as well. I would feel like an idiot acting like Dog, running around in black leather yelling "freeze".
We were on a stakeout of sorts. We were chasing Gavin Pilkin, a man arrested for vehicular manslaughter. He had been driving down the street with his girlfriend in a compromising sexual position. He got excited and, just as he was shooting off, he jerked his car into the oncoming traffic and hit another car. His girlfriend had not been wearing a seatbelt and died instantly when the airbag deployed into the back of her head.
We were sitting in my car just down the street from Pilkin's house, waiting for Pilkin to come home, eating our late lunch of McDonalds. I had a quarter pounder with cheese and, with a nod to the fact that my recent doughnut consumption had left my jeans too tight to button, I had a salad and a diet coke. Lula, who only wears overstretched spandex in a size two, had no such reservations. She was eating a ten-pack of nuggets, two Big Macs, large fries, a large coke and two apple pies. I looked at my salad with distaste and wished that salad tasted as good as fries.
"So what are you sighing about?" Lula prompted again.
"Just thinking about Ranger." I did not want to tell Lula about Ranger's desire to talk to me. If I did, she would want to know later on what we talked about. Ranger is a pretty private person and I wasn't sure the subject of Ranger's talk was something he wanted to share with the world at large.
"I would sigh, too, thinking about Ranger. That man is the hottest looking man I ever did see, and I saw a lot during all my years as a 'ho." I had to agree. Ranger was definitely fine looking. "So you are sure Morelli is out of the picture now?"
"Yeah." Morelli was my on-again, off-again boyfriend for the last few years. A Trenton plainclothes detective, he is more Italian than me. He is also incredibly good looking. But a month ago I shot someone in my line of work and he blew up at me. We broke up for what feels like the millionth time. I doubt we will get back together this time around though. Our argument highlighted some basic differences in our outlook. I don't like his job and he doesn't like mine any better, and neither of us are willing to change. While I am confident in my decision to not get back together with Morelli, he is regretting the fight and would love to hook up again.
"'Cause I heard this before about you and Morelli."
"I know. But it just feels different this time. It feels more permanent, more definite, less angry, less reactionary."
"Hunh", she grunted. Lula finished her meal, stuffed the wrappings in the paper bag, and tossed the paper bag into the back seat. As we watched, a woman driving a red Smart Car drove into the Pilkin's driveway. We waited until she got out of the car, making sure she wasn't the maid or something, and walked up the driveway to greet her as she was removing groceries. She luckily did not have many groceries as she did not have much car to carry them in.
"Hi, my name is Stephanie Plum and I am looking for Gavin Pilkin", I said.
"I am sorry, but he is at work right now."
"No, he isn't. I already checked there. They said he was fired two weeks ago."
"Fired? Not again! I wonder what he has been doing, day in and day out."
I looked at my file again. "Are you Marie?" I asked. Marie was Pilkin's sister.
"Yes, I am. Am I supposed to know you?"
"No. I represent Vincent Plum Bail Bonds office and he missed his court date. I am sure it was just an honest mistake – it happens all the time that felons forget their date – but we will need to take him into jail to get his date rescheduled."
"He missed his date? That means we could lose the house, doesn't it?" She was horrified. "He took the deed to the house without me knowing and handed that in as his collateral. He did not, however, tell the bonds office that the name on the deed is still our parents and that half of the house is technically mine. I was furious with him when I found out. He is not the most reliable person you could ever meet and I was afraid something like this would happen." She worried her lip between her teeth and said "I am not sure where to find him. Probably at one of his honeys, but I am not sure who they all are. He has so many and they change constantly."
"He has many honeys?" asked Lula, her ears perking up.
"Yes. My brother is very good looking and women fall at his feet. He has a charm that makes women accept a whole lot of crap from him. It is hard to say 'no' to him. My parents and I were some of the worst offenders. Now that I am older I can see past that charm."
"My day just got better", said Lula. "It would be nice to bring in a good looking skip for a change. Better than all those sorry-assed jerks we usually bring in."
"Doesn't make any difference to me", I said. "I don't care what they look like as long as I bring them in. I could use the money. I want to pay Ranger back for the bodywork he had done on my car." A week ago one of the people I was researching for Rangeman slashed my tires. Ranger had my tires replaced and, when my car was being fixed, he had bodywork done to remove all the rust. While the replacement of my tires was appreciated and in some ways justified, the bodywork was not. It goes against my need for independence. I went to the company accountant and got a copy of the bodywork bill, and am currently trying to earn enough money to pay the bill off without going into my line of credit.
"You can say that because you have two hot men interested in you. I don't have any. I appreciate a hot man any day of the week", said Lula.
"Just don't let him out of the cuffs when he bats his sexy little eyes at you", I warned.
"Would I do that?" asked Lula.
"Absolutely, you would." I handed my business card to Ms. Pilkin and asked her to call when she saw her brother. She said she would.
Lula and I headed back to the car. "It is three in the afternoon and I don't have it in me to do another stakeout today. My butt is sore from sitting for so long. I need to go and stretch out on the couch in the office, and perhaps try for more people tomorrow."
I knew Lula wanted to go and have a nap. I wouldn't let her sleep while we were on stakeout. She snores so loud the car rattles and little kids playing in the street start to cry. It is almost an instant headache when she sleeps on a stakeout.
"That's all right. I have some files at Rangeman to follow up on." I drove Lula back to the office, dropping her off at the door. I did not want to go in and have to deal with Vinnie. His panic at being overextended was not conducive to my good mental health.
I drove to the Rangeman offices, a seven-story office building on a quiet side street in the heart of Trenton. The office is located ten minutes from everything important in the city – the hospital, the police station and courthouse, the bonds office, and my apartment. The building has one floor of training facilities, three floors of staff residences, and three floors of office space. I work on the fifth floor and when I have needed a safe house, have stayed in Ranger's penthouse apartment.
I parked in the underground parking lot in one of Ranger's personal parking spaces. He has four spaces and three personal vehicles – a Porsche Turbo 911, a Porsche Cayenne, and a Toyota Tacoma truck. All are black, all are new, and all are in pristine condition. My car is also black and, thanks to Ranger's bodywork, looks to be in better condition that its ten-year age would imply. It, however, is not new and does not look like it belongs.
I took the elevator up to the fifth floor, exiting into the control room. This is the heart of the Rangeman security system. There is one person who continually monitors Rangeman vehicles, staff, buildings, and the police scanner. Another monitors all clients. Each person monitors using both video and audio feed. The Rangeman operation has grown so much, however, that over the next two weeks the monitoring stations are going to be doubled and my office will move from a nook off the control room to my own office with a door in the main office space of Operations. I was happy about the change. The dim lights and quiet atmosphere of the control room are perfectly conducive to sleep and I have been known to succumb from time to time.
I walked back to the break room and grabbed a coffee. Then, set for the afternoon, I headed back to my desk. I ran into Tank on the way. Built like his name suggests, Tank is 6'6" of pure muscle. He was a fellow Special Forces soldier with Ranger and has had Ranger's back ever since. He is second in command at Rangeman.
"You haven't been in the shooting range since before Ranger left, Steph", he said.
"I know. I hate guns."
"I could tell by the fact you weren't wearing yours again. Just because Ranger isn't here doesn't mean you don't have to wear your gun. You know it is a requirement when you work here."
Chastised, I looked down at my shoe. "I know. I just hate wearing it. It makes my stomach all squishy."
"Take a Pepto-Bismol. You need to wear it. Will you go down to the range by yourself, or do you need me to go down with you?"
"I will go down myself", I said dejectedly.
"Good. Just be glad you have that broken rib, or I would be after you to get into the gym again as well." A week ago, in a scuffle between me and someone I had researched, the guy kicked me and broke my rib. It was healing although it was still sore.
"I guess there is something good in everything!"
Tank smiled. My hatred of exercise was legendary. "Why are you back here today? I thought you were out skip chasing for the afternoon."
"We had finished chasing one skip and Lula wanted a nap. I didn't want to let her nap in the car. I didn't think I could put up with the snoring, so I took her back to the office to irritate the hell out of Vinnie." Vinnie was my weasel-like cousin who was the namesake of the bail bonds office. He was a substandard sexual deviant who, despite his personality flaws – or maybe because of them – was an excellent bonding agent.
"I hear you. I always had to sleep with earplugs in when I stayed at her house." Tank and Lula had been engaged for a brief period in a past life. They broke up when Tank adopted three cats and Lula was allergic to them.
I left Tank and headed back to my desk. I had six files from Sales to search. I put in the information for the first search and sipped my coffee.
After I had completed the files, I searched the files for the bonds office again. There was no new information there, but it never hurt to try. I headed down to the range and practiced shooting for half an hour and then, feeling very virtuous, I went up to the break room to see what was left for dinner. Helping myself to a bowl of baked bean casserole and an orange juice, I sat down at one of the tables to eat. Hal came in to get some food. "What are you still doing here?" he asked. I have known Hal for a while now. Nicknamed "Halosaurus" due to his enormous size and gentle disposition, he has periodically worked as my bodyguard in the past.
"Just getting caught up on work", I said. I didn't want to tell him that right now I didn't have anything to go home to, other than my hamster, Rex. That sounded pathetic even to my ears. "I'm going home as soon as I finish dinner. What about you? What are you doing here? I thought you worked the earlier shift today."
"I did. But after work I did an hour at the range, and a couple of hours in the gym, and then I visited with Jorge in his apartment for a while. I'm just grabbing some dinner before I head off to my place." He sat down with his own heaping bowl of baked bean casserole, an apple, a banana, a container of baby carrots and celery, and two buns with butter. I guess it takes a lot to feed a Halosaurus.
Finishing my dinner, I cleaned up my dishes and said goodbye to Hal, gathered my purse and took off my gun, and left the building for the night. I drove home on autopilot, thinking about Ranger again. With using his apartment as a safe house extensively over the last month and spending a lot of time with him while I stayed there, I missed him greatly. I had thought that something might be developing between us, but then he had to go away. I wondered again what Ranger had meant by his declaration that we needed to talk.
I live in a no-frills ancient apartment building just outside the Burg, the community in Trenton in which I grew up. I live on the second floor overlooking the parking lot. While the building is not fancy – we don't have a swimming pool or underground parking – it is serviceable and I like it. The residents are primarily seniors who, despite the frequency of vandalism, break-ins, and murdered people found in my apartment, seem to like me anyway. I am grateful they have not yet kicked me out of the building.
Out of habit, I looked up at my apartment and saw the lights were off. That was a good sign. It meant there was no felon waiting for me. It would not have been the first time I came home to find one of my skips sitting on my couch.
Entering the building, I said "hi" to Mrs. Bestler. She is as old as dirt and bored stiff. She likes to amuse herself by playing elevator operator. She said she likes pushing the buttons, and she gets to know all the residents that way. She reported no visitors. Good to know.
I walked down to my apartment and opened the door, listening for a few seconds before I entered. All I could hear was Rex, my attack hamster, running on his wheel. I entered and turned on the lights. Rex stopped running and stared at me, whiskers twitching, his beady little eyes full of excitement. I think he equated me coming home with food. Not wanting to disappoint him, I took a raisin out of the bag in the cupboard and put it in his dish. He ran over, stuffed it in his cheek, and scurried over to his soup can hidey hole to store for later.
I put my holster on the counter and my gun in my cookie jar. I had two guns. My own .38 Special that Ranger bought me when I first started in the business, and my Rangeman baby Glock. When I am at home I keep them in my cookie jar. In the absence of a gun cabinet, I figured this would be as good a hiding place as any. After all, who would suspect that something so lethal would live in something as heart-warming as a cookie jar?