Ranger and Stephanie still belong to Janet. The mistakes are mine alone.

"Go ahead, Bounty Hunter Barbie ... blow me away. It ain't like I got much to live for. At least I won't have to work here anymore if I'm dead."

"Wait ... what?" I said, cutting my eyes to my gun like I wasn't aware it was in my hand. "I'm not going to shoot you. The gun is for effect."

"You pulled it out ... so use it."


"You scared?"

"Of your current mood?" I said to her. "Yes."

I'm not stupid. I still have pepper spray and my stun gun on my belt, but without taking my eyes off her, I put the actual deadly weapon back in my bag ... to protect her more from herself than to protect her from me. Thanks to Ranger and the guys, I can probably subdue an angry grizzly if I need to, even without a gun.

"How about you tell me why you want someone to shoot you ... instead of begging them not to?" I suggested.

"Why? No one cares what I say or do. Trust me, you'd be killing multiple problems with one bullet. That's if you have decent aim and the guts to pull the trigger."

Ranger made it his goal in life to make sure I can shoot a dime out of the sky ... which I wouldn't actually do just because I find pocket change nostalgic in a plastic-pay option world, but I'm sure as hell not bragging about my shooting skills to an apparently suicidal, or just really fed up with life, skip. And I'm definitely keeping my mouth shut about shooting and killing more people than even I can live with at times.

"I'm not killing anyone today, so you're out of luck." I sat down at the step beside her at the back entrance of the liquor store where she collects what I'm guessing is a measly paycheck. The dingy little store is only a mile from where Hudson Monrow ... the sulky, chain-smoking brunette currently sitting next to me, lives. "You should do more explaining and less ordering."

"There's no reason to. Talking either gets me pissed off or in trouble. Why should I bother?"

"Because eventually ... someone like me comes along who'll listen."

Her 'you're so full of shit' snort said more than anything else could about her life up to this point.

"I like helping people and unfortunately for you - or fortunately depending on how you want to look at it - you're currently in my sights, so you're going to bear the brunt of my goodwill for the ones I couldn't help. Now ..." I said to her. "Are we talking family problems? A health issue? This shitty job? Another asshole ex trying to get back at you? Is some whacko stalking you? Or a psycho trying to kill you? Whatever it is ... I promise I've been through it or something similar, and I can give you some pretty good advice on how you can deal with it."

"Have you ever been told you're crazy?"

I was trying to remain mature here, but I couldn't help but match her snort with a 'are you kidding me?' one of my own. "Oh ... you have no idea just how many times I've been called crazy, certifiable, insane, nuts, and a master of doing pretty much everything wrong. In fact, a few years ago I could count on only one hand, with a few fingers left over, the people in my life who didn't tell me I could teach a course on crazy."

"What if it's the person who gave birth to you being the loudest name-caller? I bet my dad would be in on it, too, if I had a clue who the fuck he is."

"Check that one off the list, too," I said. "After thirty-plus years, my mom's still convinced the hospital switched her sweet, docile, level-headed, daughter with the nutso, risk-taking, independent, one you're making 'you're totally BS-ing me' faces at right now. My dad has always been in the picture, and he doesn't call me names, but he doesn't stop my mom from doing it or really speak to me at all unless he thinks my car needs something. I think my vehicles get more care and consideration than I do."

"How do you deal with it ... and her? Because I'm sick of it. I leave my phone turned off now because it seems like she's trying to get everyone I know to join her 'kick Hudson when she's already down' game."

"I've learned that keeping your distance from anyone who makes you feel like shit, or who you mentally attack with a meat cleaver whenever their name comes up, is helpful in preventing actual charges from being filed against you. What's even better ... is building a new family full of people who love you by choice, not just for show or because it's required. That's done wonders for me. Blood isn't a lifelong binder. If the people you know right now can't seem to love you, you're free to leave them in the dust as you fill your life with new people who will. My guy refuses to even joke that I'm being annoying, behaving irrationally, or acting nuts, even when I know I'm out of control a little - though in my defense ... that usually only happens now when I'm scared for him - just because he knows who has said those things to me in the past ... and what hearing it over and over again did to me."

I felt the moment she started paying attention so I kept talking.

"Not only do I have him, I made it my mission to earn the trust and respect of his family and friends. And they all seem to love me now, and every one of them wants to help - and improve - me daily. Aside from who I have to arrest who may not be, I only associate with kind and caring people who leave me feeling good about myself, and feeling like I'm worth a hell of a lot more than just a 'good time'. Sometimes you have to let go of anyone who's trying to make you the kind of crazy they accuse you of being. They're the crazy ones for not being able to appreciate women like the two of us. We're unique. It takes really special people to love us, and we shouldn't settle for anything less than the best."

"But what if you don't have anybody except the ones driving you nuts?" Hudson asked.

If I didn't have the past that I do, I wouldn't be able to answer that one for her, because ever since I met Ranger, even when we weren't an actual couple yet, I knew I had him supporting me in everything I did, I could call him anytime I needed him, and I could also drop in whenever I felt he needed me.

"You do have someone wanting the best for you ... me. And I'm available 24/7 for pep talks, snack runs, or just a session of family-bashing ... whatever you need at the time. And you don't need to get arrested again to reach me, just call the number on my card. We can leave the police totally out of it."

I dug out one of the simple black and silver business cards Ranger insisted on having made for me. It had nothing except the phone number linked to a secure cell that was both Hector and Ranger-approved. I'm pretty sure by now, everyone knows I live in the Rangeman building and can be reached there as well.

"You're saying all the right shit, but how do I know you're not just fucking with me?"

"You don't. That's another tough lesson I had to learn. You have to first trust your gut when it's screaming at you that someone's good or someone's scary bad. And then you have to take it one step further and have faith in the people trying to help you and believe that they won't hurt you in the process."

"Easy for you to say," she told me.

I shook my head so hard, the end of my ponytail got dangerously close to the smoking tip of her cigarette. "It wasn't even remotely easy. It was hard as hell. But I did it ... and I've never been happier. You can be, too, if you really want to change. But with everything that's worthwhile in life, it's going to take some work."

Another snort was her response.

"I'm serious," I told her. "I honestly believed no one could love me unless I changed who I was, but turns out I just had to wait for the one person who would love me unconditionally no matter what I did ... and then actually allow him to do it."

"I don't want to wait or have to work any harder than I have been for things to get better. I want my life to get better or end now."

"Sorry, kid, you don't have a choice in the matter now. I'm not shooting you so you aren't dying. And don't even think about trying to take my weapon away from me, because you can't. I've been trained by the best. Let's get you off the wanted list and then you can redirect your 'my life bites' thinking into making it less soul-sucking."

"So they do free lobotomies in jail now?"

With that joke, I felt confident enough that she's going to be okay once she passes this hurdle, so I gave her a friendly shoulder-shove like I would've done to Mary Lou.

"No surgical procedures for you outside of tattoos," I told her, staring at her arms. "And you have enough of those already."

On her right forearm there was a black and gray shield almost engulfed in overgrown and extremely thorny bluishy-pink roses. On her left forearm was a clock stuck on eight-twenty-five, hovering above a field of multicolored wildflowers surrounded by a broken barbed wire fence. Both were done really well, but they couldn't completely hide her scars. Connie told me how Hudson's ex believed that her body and property belonged to him, and he tried to destroy both right after she told him to go to hell by setting her car on fire while she was still buckled inside it. If she was going to get herself arrested, she really should've done some damage to him before he got locked up, instead of damaging the mall's front entrance.

"You can never have too many," she insisted, also glancing down at her arms with an oddly peaceful expression on her face.

She'd made a decision while we were sitting here, and I was hoping that meant she remembered how hard she'd fought to survive then, and that she can do it again now.

"Coming from someone who doesn't even have one," I said to her, "I think there can be a limit." I paused as I thought of something. "Since you're obviously an expert on getting them, and you're my only pickup for the day, how about I hang around while Connie gets you legal again ... and then you and I can both go get something to represent a new phase in our lives? I'll pay and everything."

"You're shitting me? You want to pop your tattoo cherry with me?"

"I'm not sure," I started to say, but my mind did a flip book-style picture show of Ranger ... undressed and making love to me, in a tux protecting me, soaking wet after saving me, and smiling at my shocked expression as he proposed to me. I changed my mind on what I was originally going to say. "I mean yes ... I want one. The sooner the better."

I've been 'Ranger's Babe' on the street and in Ranger's mind for years, it's only right that I become one of the flesh as well.