Okay, here's the funny thing about luck. It's about as predictable as a pack of four-year-olds with a garden hose. Most people have a pretty even mixture of good luck and bad, and that balance can change in an instant whenever it damn well pleases. Personally, my luck has always been kind of lopsided. It's always either really good, or really really bad. Not much of a middle ground. What does that say about my karma?
Anyway. That's basically how I ended up on an all expenses paid romantic dream vacation to Hawaii all by myself. It's also how, while I was strolling through the Honolulu airport all alone, I happened to spot the one person who could lead me to a fugitive felon I thought was beyond my reach in the eternities. And whose capture was worth more than I usually made in a year.
My name is Stephanie Plum. I work bond enforcement for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds in Trenton, New Jersey, and most days I have to convince myself that my job is worth doing. It's not easy being a bounty hunter. At least not for me. And there are a lot of times when tackling wife beaters and car thieves and dragging their sorry asses back to jail hardly seems worth the measly payouts I get for a job well done. Especially when I end up rolling in garbage. Which happens surprisingly often.
So when I got off the plane in Honolulu and spotted Tootie Ruguzzi just walking through the airport, I'm pretty sure my jaw hit the ground. Tootie was married to Simon Ruguzzi, better known as The Rug in the professional circles of New Jersey. And by professional circles, I mean he's a hitman for the Colichio crime family, with a little freelance work on the side. He's actually something of a local celebrity. He ran into a bit of trouble three years ago when he blew holes in seven rivals from a Hispanic gang that was trying to move in on Colichio territory. Big mistake on their part. And the unlucky thing for The Rug was that two other gang members witnessed the executions and survived long enough to see him arrested.
He must have found a sympathetic judge, because The Rug was released on a ridiculously high bail, put up by my cousin Vincent Plum. And when both The Rug and his wife Tootie vanished into thin air, Vinnie forfeited the money he'd paid in good faith to the courts guaranteeing that Ruguzzi would show up for his court date.
Needless to say Vinnie wasn't happy. He put his best man on the hunt to track down Ruguzzi and bring him back to jail. Ricardo Carlos Manoso goes by the street name Ranger, and is about as badass as they come. He's managing partner at Rangeman, a firm that handles mostly high end private security, but I suspect might on occasion dabble in government contracting and the liberation of small third world countries. I'd been helping Ranger look for the Ruguzzis. Unfortunately, the trail had gone so cold we had to wonder if Simon and Tootie had become matching car bumpers.
Obviously, that wasn't the case. At least not for Tootie. And if I was very lucky, not only would Simon be alive, he might be somewhere nearby.
After a moment of shock I hoped no one had noticed, I kept strolling through the terminal, careful not to draw attention to myself. Tootie wasn't looking for a tail. She wasn't darting her eyes around as if she was afraid of being followed. After three years in the wind she'd gotten comfortable enough to think she was safe this far from Trenton. She glanced my way when she pulled her last suitcase off the carousel and I gave her the obligatory polite smile most people put on when they made accidental eye contact with strangers. She didn't think anything of it. Just gathered her things and headed for the sliding glass doors.
I was trying to think of the best plan to follow her when I got outside and saw a shuttle pull up to the terminal. Tootie climbed on, the Honu Ku'ono Resort Hotel printed clearly on the side of the bus. Good deal. I made note of the address and hurried to pick up my rental car. A couple minutes and I'd be right behind her. Lady Luck was certainly my friend today. Actually, she'd been pretty good to me lately, first with the free plane tickets, and now with Tootie.
I'd actually inherited the tickets from this guy I'd been seeing. Turned out to be not such a nice guy. No real surprise to me. I take no responsibility at all for the romantic connection between us. My mother set us up, and he'd refused to take the hints when I said I wasn't interested. Not even when I told him I already had two men in my life, and they both carried very big guns.
My love life is complicated.
I would never have agreed to see him at all, but I got ambushed, and my mother guilted me into it. In the end, we all found out he was serial killer who'd latched onto me as a way to even an old score. Downside, he threatened to kill me if I didn't run away with him. Upside, when he was killed in an unrelated incident involving two other people who were trying to kill me, I got to keep the plane tickets. Win/win for me.
I'd offered the second ticket to Joe Morelli. Morelli is sort of my boyfriend. I say sort of because our relationship has never been what most people would call steady. I've known Morelli since I was a kid. He had dangerous, boyish good looks when we were young. His good looks are still dangerous in a rugged movie star kind of way, with black hair that curled around his ears and soft, liquid brown eyes that turned black when he was excited. We grew up together in a little blue collar section of Trenton called the Burg, where the Morelli boys had a well deserved reputation for bad behavior. Living fast and loose and usually dying early in barroom brawls or from liver necrosis. Back then, Joe was no exception. He'd talked just about every girl in our high school out of her panties at one point or another, and when I was sixteen he managed to be the first one to talk me out of mine, behind the dessert case at the Tasty Pastry bakery.
Morelli had grown up a lot since then. He'd straightened out his life and become a semi respectable property owner and Trenton plainclothes cop. He even got a dog. Go figure, right?
Sometimes we were pretty sure we were in love. We even talked about getting married on occasion. The problem is neither of us is really ready to commit, and every time we tried it eventually caused a chain reaction between his red hot Italian temper and my defiant Hungarian side that always culminated in inevitable combustion. Lots of shouting and arm waving involved, and more often than not a break up. I admit it's not the healthiest pattern, but it's what we've got.
A few months ago we decided in the heat of battle that it might not be a bad idea to explore other options. Not that either of us planned on taking those options. It was more a technicality than anything, like letting off the gas in a truck so it can coast downhill. Problem was I already had two men in my life, and the other one has always been something of an opportunist.
That would be Ranger. Ranger was my mentor when I first started out in bond enforcement. Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle do Trenton. And like Higgins and Doolittle, after a while our relationship evolved into something more than strictly student and mentor. But unlike My Fair Lady, this progress wasn't leading toward an altar. I didn't really know what was between me and Ranger. Whatever it was, it had a low melting point and shouldn't be handled around open flames.
The shuttle was just pulling away from the curb when I got to the immaculate beachfront resort. Most of the streets I'd passed on my way had been green and full of life, lined with coconut palms and bright flowers, the scenic expanse of the ocean visible between the buildings and across the public beaches. The front of the resort made me rethink my concept of beauty. Every perfectly landscaped inch of the entrance was green and vibrant, swaying in perfect serenity in the sultry island breeze.
A wall of windows led into the lobby from the grand circular driveway and covered port. I could see the porters and valets moving around, gathering luggage and helping guests. I chose to park on the street rather than bother the valets. No need to make things complicated, right?
The glass doors made a sound like a contented sigh when I stepped through to the lobby.
It was the most luxurious hotel I'd ever been in. Polished white marble, expensive furniture, a grand double staircase that joined together at one end of the lobby and wrapped itself around the second floor, a breathtaking crystal chandelier sparkling in the ambient light. I suddenly felt very underdressed in my jean shorts and stretchy pink t-shirt. Might as well have been wearing flip flops.
I'd only had a few seconds to take it all in before I was accosted by a trim man with short, light brown hair, a tasteful white and green Hawaiian shirt, and a pleasant but assessing smile. His name tag said Thomas. He looked doubtful. Could be because I didn't have any luggage with me.
"Not exactly. I was just looking for my friend, she—"
He cut me off before I had to chance to get into the clever lie I'd come up with. That was a shame, really. It's the only bounty hunter skill I truly excelled at. I'm only decent when it comes to tracking people down, and the whole cuffing and bringing them in thing has always kind of eluded me, but I'm a world class liar.
"I'm so sorry," he said, gesturing toward the door. "We're hosting a special retreat this month. The only guests we're allowing are those partaking in our Sanctuary for Marriage events."
"But if I could just talk to her—"
I glanced around the lobby again, this time ignoring the opulence. There were security cameras covering all of the high traffic areas. No doubt the closed circuit feed was monitored by someone on sight. That would make it difficult to sneak in. Men in uniforms were posted near the entrances, too, along with a few out of uniform throughout the lobby that I might not have noticed if I hadn't moonlighted with Rangeman so often.
Not a bad set up. Not as good as Ranger's, but not bad.
No point trying to pull the fugitive apprehension agent card. It would probably get me tossed from the building in a not so gentle way. I had learned one important thing, though. If Tootie was inside, it meant she had a husband with her. And considering that she was still in hiding, I was betting it was The Rug.
I thanked Thomas and left, retracing my way back to my rental car.
As it turns out, it was probably another stroke of luck that Morelli wasn't with me. I couldn't see him letting me go after a dangerous, high level hitman like The Rug. Morelli wasn't thrilled with my being a bounty hunter. He'd prefer I go with a safer profession, like high-rise tightrope walker or shark wrestler. And his attitude would have been even worse given the other complication I was facing.
I do mostly lower bonds in Trenton. Assaults, drug possession, petty theft. I'll handle the occasional high risk bond, usually with Ranger's help, but if the skip leaves Jersey, the case automatically goes to my back burner. I'm not authorized to handle extradition. That would be territory best left to Vinnie and Ranger. Which means that even if I made the capture all on my own, I still had to call either Ranger or Vinnie to come and collect him. Not something I could see Morelli getting excited about. Especially if it was Ranger. Morelli thought Ranger was dangerous, and he was right on several different levels. There was a strong rivalry between them that was only kept in check by professional courteously, and the common goal they shared of keeping me safe. Without those basic levels of civility, I'm pretty sure things would get ugly real quick.
Okay, so there were my two options. I could call my cousin Vinnie. Ugh. Even thinking it made me grimace. Vinnie was a good bail bondsman, mostly because he understood the criminal mind from the inside and was a decent judge of human nature, but his measure as a human being was best equated to a whippet with a leg-humping fetish. He'd been decent enough to give me a job a few years ago when I was at a particularly low point. Actually, I'd sort of had to blackmail him into it, but still.
That left option number two. Infinitely better, but equally as troubling for a few very specific reasons. I swallowed my trepidation, pulled out my phone and called Ranger.
Babe had a lot of meanings the way Ranger said it. This time I could hear that I'd surprised him. He'd probably doubted that I would call him from Hawaii. I hadn't exactly told him that I'd invited Morelli, but I was sure he'd figured it out by process of elimination, and calling him for anything that wasn't important would have been awkward with Morelli standing next to me.
In fact, given the way things had gone between us before I left, it was a little awkward even without Morelli.
"Babe?" he said when I was quiet too long. "Is something up or are you just checking in? The hotel you're sitting in front of isn't the one you're supposed to have reservations for."
"How did you know where I was sitting?"
There was a pause and I knew his mouth was pulling up at the corners as though he was thinking about smiling. "Babe, you still have my GPS unit in your bag. They call it a Global Positioning System for a reason."
"You're tracking my bag?"
"You didn't know?"
Yeah. I guess I should have. Ranger was always tracking me in one way or another. Usually the GPS was on my car, but Ranger has always been one to understand the value of diversifying, and he had an almost pathological need to keep me on his radar screen. A normal person might find this creepy, but to be honest it's saved my life so many times that I've come to appreciate why he sees it as a necessity.
I could sense another smile through the silence. "So, did you want something from me? Because I'm limited in what I can help you with from here." And there was the flirting I'd come to expect from Ranger. The opening move in a verbal game of cat and mouse that he intended to play whether Morelli was standing next to me or not. I could already feel a familiar heat uncurling in my belly just at the sound of his voice, but I wasn't about to tell him that.
"Actually, I called because you'll never guess who I just saw walking through the airport." I told him about Tootie and the shuttle.
"And you're not authorized for extradition."
"What about Morelli? How's he feel about me crashing your romantic vacation?"
I bit my lip and heard it when Ranger read the silence.
"He couldn't get away from work. He sort of stayed behind."
Now it was Ranger's turn to be silent as he processed the implications. I knew this time he'd be wearing a full on smile. Probably somewhere between charming and big bad wolf. "So Morelli made you go to Oahu all by yourself and now you want me to come join you?"
"It's not like that. This is business."
"Of course it is. If any other woman had made this call, I would have assumed she was making up the sighting to get me on the island. But with you, it's not the least bit surprising you could take a vacation and stumble across the trail of a high bond FTA we assumed was dead. I suppose it's better to be lucky than good any day."
Great. That's flattering. I thought about protesting that I could be lucky and good, but we both knew that would be a lie. I was three steps shy of incompetent most of the time, relying heavily on luck and blind tenacity. "So are you coming or what?"
"Babe, I'd have been on the next plane just hearing Morelli skipped out."
"There's more. Turns out the resort they're staying at is doing this special retreat thing. Married couples only."
"This just gets better and better."
"Could you be serious please?"
"Babe, if I get any more serious there could be consequences." He paused a moment and I heard the tapping of his keyboard. He was most likely at the computer in his den when I called, in the Zen apartment he kept on the seventh floor of the Rangeman building. I'd spent enough time in his apartment to know what a bastion of calm it was. Professionally furnished in soothing earth tones and expensively appointed details Ranger would never have chosen for himself, but suited him as if he had. When I first met him, the address on his driver's license was a vacant lot. Life had been good to Ranger.
"All the flights for tonight have left already, but I could be on a plane first thing in the morning. Go to your hotel tonight, then check out tomorrow and meet me at the airport. I'll take care of everything else."
"I'm going to regret this, aren't I?"
Again, the smile. "Maybe, but it'll be worth it."