When I was a young girl all I even wanted was to have the chance to fly. While other girls played with their Barbies, I was pretending I was Peter Pan and jumping off rooftops. In my mind I lived in Never Never Land leading the lost boys on new adventures. But to everyone else, I was Mr. and Mrs. Plum's insane daughter who had a death wish. Sadly their opinions haven't changed. And sometimes I agree with them.
I'm a bail enforcement agent or in less fancy terms, a bounty hunter. My job is to escort the criminals who have failed to appear in court (FTA's) back to jail or court. But it's never as easy as it sounds. I am possibly the worst bounty hunter in the world, aside from my sometimes partner Lula. Fortunately I happen to be extremely lucky and I always end up catching my man. On certain instances my job feels rewarding, like when I manage to capture a FTA and put him safely behind bars. But those instances are rare and the real reason I keep my job is because I can wear jeans instead of a panty hose. For that I feel pretty grateful.
Although, today is not one of those days where I feel grateful. Today I am wondering why I ever blackmailed my cousin Vinnie into giving me this job. Then I remembered. I needed rent money badly. And today I need more which is why I am standing in front of Connie's desk praying that she has some FTA's for me to bring in. Preferably ones who won't shoot at me or attack me with a tire iron.
"I only have one for you today and it doesn't pay that much," Connie handed me the file, "name's Steve Mueller and he's convicted of carrying concealed."
I quickly scanned through the file and studied his photograph. He was about 6'2, 200 pounds of pure muscle, brown hair, blue eyes, and had a cleft chin. He used to be in the army until he was discharged three years a go. Since I needed the money I didn't have much choice. I hoped it was just a simple misunderstanding and he would be co-operative. I mean the guy could rip me in half!
Taking the file with me, I walked out of the office and got into my new used Honda Civic, which I bought the insurance money I had finally received from my last car. Lula wasn't in the office when I arrived so I was on my own. In a weird way I missed her. Going after an FTA without Lula didn't seem right. I almost felt lonely.
After shaking my head to clear my thoughts I checked the address given. Mueller lived at 32 Clarke Street which was just on the outskirts of the Burg. I drove down Wilson Road and turned on Church Street. Church Street took me straight took Clarke Street. I cruised down Clarke until I found the right address. A black Ford truck was parked in the driveway, indicating he was home. My intuition gave me a bad feeling about this place but the desire for rent money pulled me out of my car and up the driveway to his front door. I debated ringing the doorbell. After all I had bad experience with men like him in the past. But I didn't want others to think I was a big chicken bounty hunter, even though I was. I had a reputation to uphold.
"Mr. Mueller," I banged on the door, "My name is Stephanie Plum and I'm here to tell you that you forgot your court date. I need you to come with me so we can reschedule." I have used that line over a hundred times. It's never worked once. But usually there's a reaction. This was not the case at Mueller's house. No one answered my calls. While I waited for a response I took a good look at the neighborhood. One thing you can always count on in Trenton is nosy neighbors. Strangely enough, I didn't see one. Not even an old couple sitting on their front porch or someone peeking through the living room windows. It was like a ghost town and a strange chill ran through me.
"Mr. Mueller!" I cried impatiently, banging loudly on his door. I wanted to get out of there as fast as I could. Something wasn't right here. I finally turned to leave when I heard yelling coming from inside.
"Mr. Mueller?" I knocked again. The yelling continued and I was ignored. I walked over to the living room window to see if I could see what the commotion was about.
Peering through the glass, I saw two men arguing. Both were pushing the other around. One, I noted, was the same height and weight as Mueller. I watched in amazement as the fighting grew more physical.
I wanted to move or at least look away, but it was like watching a car crash. I continued to stare as the man I suspected was Mueller pull a gun out of his belt and aim it at the other man. An earsplitting bang occurred and Mueller's opponent dropped to the floor dead. My eyes widened and my mouth dropped opened in shock. I kept telling myself to leave, fast, but my legs stayed cemented to the ground.
Mueller looked at the dead man with no reaction on his face. A sick smile spread on his face and his eyes shone with delight in what he had committed. I was truly terrified. His sight turned away from his victim to the window and in that spilt second I knew I was doomed. The smile slide off his face. Before I could register what was happening he whipped out his gun once more. The spell of the disturbing scene had finally ended and I fled as fast as I could. Gun shots rang out and I ran even faster to my car. Once inside my hands shook as I put the keys into the ignition and my foot on the gas. Mueller appeared outside the house and was taking shots at my car. One bullet hit my backseat window and another hit my rearview mirror. Pushing the exhilarator as far down as it could go, I peeled out of there. I had just narrowly escaped with my life.
Five minutes later, when my heartbeat had finally slowed down enough so I wouldn't go into cardiac arrest, I was faced with a problem. I wasn't sure where to go. I thought about returning to my apartment, but the persistent voice in my head kept nagging me to tell someone. On the other hand, I didn't want to go to the police. I had experienced enough cop humor in my life and I didn't want to face the new batch of jokes they had cooking up for me. Sighing, I knew I had only one other option and it came in the form of Joe Morelli, cop extraordinaire. He was bound to find out sooner or later and the way I saw it he was used to my outrageous stories. He'd probably be flattered that I had come to him first. With these and more reasonings in my head I made an illegal U-turn and followed the familiar route to his house. I eventually wound up on his driveway.
Grimacing inwardly, I dragged my feet up to his doorstep and rang the bell. Morelli opened the door with a grin on his face but it turned into a hard line when he saw the state I was in.
"I'm not going to like what comes out of your mouth next am I?" he asked unhappily, already knowing. I nodded.
We walked over to the kitchen where I immediately plopped down into a kitchen chair and proceeded in telling him what I had witnessed. After I finished, Morelli walked over to the cupboards and got out a pink bottle. He then sank into the chair next to me, unscrewed the cap off. He took a swing.
"Pepto Bismol," Morelli answered my curious stare, "you have me drinking it the case full!"
"It's not my fault!"
"Cupcake it's never your fault and yet these things happen to you on a regular basis! Why can't I have a normal girlfriend who doesn't find dead bodies, witnesses murders and blows up cars?"
"You sound like my mother."
"Can you blame me? You're a walking disaster! You destroy everything in your path!"
"I don't ask for theses things to happen! They just do!"
"If you had another job theses things wouldn't happen!"
We both glared at each across the kitchen table. Our fights always come back to my work of choice. Joe wanted me to work at the button factory or become a housewife. I always defended my job. So what if I got shot at, blew up cars and became the most feared but laughed at woman in Trenton. My job was exciting, or at least had its moments. And returning to the idea of becoming a housewife, there was no way in hell. I can barely take care of myself!
"Cupcake," Morelli heaved a sigh after our very intense staring contest, "I care about you and I don't like it when these things happen. I worry, a lot when it comes to your safety." I felt my face soften.
"I better get home," I arose from my seat. Things were winding down and it was a bit uncomfortable. Joe jumped up.
"Why don't you spend the night here? I mean you look pretty rattled still." He was right, but I knew where things would lead. I shook my head.
"Come on, I'd make it worth your while," Morelli said smiling slyly. I'd come to know that tone of voice and that smile very well over the course of my lifetime. It still had the same affect on me. I felt the familiar wave of heat wash over me.
"Sorry, but I really do have to go home. Anyways, all my stuff is over there."
"Cupcake, we can deal with that tomorrow." Another sly smile. Lord help me.
"I have to feed Rex."
"Always second to a hamster," Morelli sighed defeated.
"Goodnight Joe," I quickly said. I didn't know how long my self restraint would last, and I didn't want to test it.
And with that and walked out the door and got into my car. I was partly glad that I could resist Morelli, but partly sad that I'd be sleeping alone tonight. I glanced at the rearview mirror that had survived the shooting. Eek! No wonder he grimaced when he saw me. My hair was a ball of frizz and my eyes had dark bags under them. Moaning to myself I started the car and drove home.
Normally, once inside the building I would have debated the stairs versus the elevator, but I wanted the fastest route to my apartment. The stairs took too long and they were too open. I didn't want to give anyone out there easy access to me. This whole thing with Mueller really had me frightened.
"Going up?" Mrs. Bestler asked. When ever Mrs. Bestler got bored she played elevator operator. "Ladies dresses, designer shoes and handbags second floor."
I left the elevator and scurried into my apartment. Once inside and safely locked in I allowed myself the pleasure of a sigh. Now that my fear had been reduced to a small pit in my stomach I realized how hungry I was. After giving Rex a grape I peered into my refrigerator. I grabbed some worthless white bread and slapped on some peanut butter and olives. Food for champions.
"This is the life Rex." I told him. Although, by now Rex had returned to his soup can leaving me to talk to myself.
With nothing better to do I sank into my couch and watched three hours of mindless television. Satisfied that I had turned my brain into mush I collapsed into bed. Being shot at really tires a person out. I was asleep before my head even hit the pillow.
I awoke with a start. Loud creaking was coming from the fire escape. I quickly glanced at my clock. It was only 2 a.m. The noise suddenly stopped and I sat up frozen in my bed. My heart was banging out of my chest.
Bang! A bullet had just narrowly missed my shoulder by mere inches. I sprung from my paralyzed state and rolled out of bed. Shrieking I ran towards the door. My gunman chased after me. I was still screaming when my fingers flew as they unlocked my door. I ran out into the hall where I found Mr. Wolesky with a gun in his hand.
"Call the police! Call the police!" I shrieked hysterically. Mueller appeared out of the apartment eyes crazy and a gun in his hand. I was the only one without a weapon.
Bang! Mr. Wolesky fired his gun at Mueller. He had missed by a foot but it was enough to scare Mueller. He ran back into my apartment and disappeared. Five minutes later I was outside the building telling the police what had happened.
"Morelli's going to be thrilled. You should see what you've got him drinking." Costanza, a cop I had become friendly with since I had become a bounty hunter. He and his partner Big Dog always got a kick out of my misadventures.
"He's drinking? What's he drinking?"
"Pepto Bismol. He keeps loads of bottles in his desk. Cracks a new one open every time you're mentioned." The other cops started laughing. Great. I was sorry I'd asked.
"Speak of the devil," Big Dog said looking over at Morelli, who had just gotten out of his truck and was walking over. Uh oh.
"Why me?" Morelli whined as he approached. He sounded exactly like my mother. I thought of telling him it wasn't my fault but his look said, don't even bother.
"So Mueller was having a party on your fire escape I hear. God, how do you find these people? I mean you only met him today and he's already tried to kill you twice!"
"He's insane! And I don't ask to meet these people I just do!"
"Cupcake, that's not natural!"
Although I felt like shooting him, he was right. It wasn't natural. I've lost count of all the strange occurrences that have happened to me the last few years. I felt even lower and my bottom lip started to tremble.
"Cupcake, it's all right." Morelli pulled me into his arms after noticing my distress. Lord, please don't let me cry in front of Morelli and his cop friends. Bad enough I'm already the butt of their jokes. I'll never live it down.
"I should go back in," I said after I regained my composure. The crowd of cops and curious bystanders had thinned.
"You're coming over to my house tonight Cupcake." For once I didn't object. I didn't want to be alone after all this. After grabbing the necessities from my apartment and Rex's cage, I climbed into Morelli's truck and off we went. Thank God for Morelli.
My adrenaline had slackened by the time we arrived. I felt dead tired. Morelli had to drag me out of his car and into the house. I'm pretty sure I fell asleep while Morelli was unlocking his door.
The next morning I woke up on the couch. I guess Morelli got tired of dragging me half way to bed and left me on the couch. I walked over to the kitchen where Morelli was sitting at the table drinking coffee.
"Morning," I said. Morelli looked up.
I grabbed a mug from the cupboard and poured myself a cup of coffee.
"I bought doughnuts," Morelli pointed to the box lying on the table. My hero.
"Yum," I said after taking a bite. I could get used to this. Morelli smiled and we both dug in.
"So what are you going to do today?" Morelli asked after we finished our breakfast. His tone was too casual and I knew something was up. This was a familiar route.
"Well, I was going to have a shower and then go down to the office to see if they have anymore FTA's for me to bring in." Just because I had been shot at twice in one day didn't mean I could stop working. I needed rent money.
"What if you stayed here and watched television and read and rest instead?"
"Will you be here with me?"
"No, I've got to go to work."
"And so do I."
"Stephanie there's a man out there trying to kill you! And you still want to go to work and find him?"
"Yes, I realize that Joe," I said coldly, "That there's someone out there who's upset with me but I have a job to do and I need to see if any other FTA's came in."
"He's more than upset with you! He wants to murder you! And you act like you're not even worried!"
I was worried. I was more than worried. But the idea of me sitting in this house for a whole day not doing enough drove me wild. There was an uncomfortable silence between us.
"Look Joe, I'm going to work today. I'll be careful. And I won't be alone. Lula will be there with me."
"And that's supposed to make me feel better?"
"No one will mess with Lula and me." This wasn't true. When I'm with Lula disaster always strikes.
"You and Lula are magnets for trouble. You'll probably be in more danger with her than if you went out alone!"
"That's not true! Look Joe I'm going to work and you can't stop me."
This made Morelli mad. Three times more mad than he already was at me.
"I am going to handcuff you and the shower pole and lock the door." He wasn't kidding either. He had already done this to me before.
"If you even come near me with handcuffs I will leave so fast your head will spin. And I can promise you I won't return!" I felt like leaving him right now. But I would come back. I always came back.
"You're impossible! Lot's of women are happy to stay at home! You on the other hand would rather be shot at than spend a couple of hours doing nothing!" Morelli looked at the kitchen clock. "Great! And now I'm late! You go ahead and go to work! Just don't come crawling to me when there's a bullet lodged in you!"
"Fine! I won't! Just go already! Nothing is keeping you here!"
"You can say that again," Morelli muttered. He grabbed his jacket off the keys and slammed the door. I watched his truck pull out of the driveway from the living room window. I was still burning mad at his comment, but I was sad because this morning went so badly and now he probably hated me. Damn Morelli. The last thing I wanted was him to be mad at me.
I looked at the clock. Now I was running late. I took the world records fastest shower, pulled my still wet hair into a half-assed ponytail and took off. I was still cursing Morelli when I arrived at the office.
"Uh oh, I know that look. And that look spells trouble." Connie said as I walked into the office. So I did look as I felt. Like a crazed beast.
"Dang, girl," Lula said.
"Where were you yesterday?" I turned to Lula. I was feeling very bitter this morning and talking to Lula and Connie wasn't making things better.
"I was sick. I ate a bad bean burrito." Okay, sorry I asked. "But what's with this thing with Mueller? Dang, if I had been there none of that shit would have happened. Nobody messes with Lula. I would have popped one in his ass." In reality, Lula would have been running away even faster than me.
"Connie is there any new FTA's?" I asked turning me head from Lula.
"Yep! Michael Barroni. He got caught dealing."
"Shouldn't Ranger have him?" I don't usually get the drug dealers.
"No he's not dangerous. And Ranger doesn't take anything under 10 grand."
"Wait, you said Michael Barroni? Mickey B?" Lula asked.
"You know him?"
"Hell yeah! I saw him on Starke Street all the time. He was a customer of Jackie's. Used to sell to the kiddies."
"What did he sell?"
"Weed. He was scum." Connie and I nodded.
"So you know his hangouts?"
"Yeah, just check out the elementary schools near Starke Street. He'll be there selling to the kids at recess."
"Come on," I grabbed his file and we walked out of the office.
"You finally got rid of ole Big Blue then hunh?"
"Yes, my insurance money finally came in."
"About damn time." I couldn't agree more.
"So what schools does he usually sell to?" I asked Lula as we turned down Starke Street. She gave me the list. The first three were duds. When we arrived to the fourth it was lunch recess.
"I see him! Down by the fence!" Lula jumped up and down in excitement, testing my cars shocks. We both got out of the car and walked over. A group of rough looking kids stood on the other side of the fence.
"Damn Skippy," Lula said as we approached. "Look at 'em." The kids looked over at us. Probably wondered what the hell was going on.
"Michael Barroni? My name is Stephanie Plum and I'm here to remind you that you forgot your court date. I'm here to escort you back so we can reschedule."
"I'm not going any where with you! Who do you take me for…?" He looked over at Lula. "Lula? How's it been? I haven't seen you in awhile. You just disappeared!" He looked back at me. "Ah, she picked you up too?"
It wasn't difficult to still picture Lula as a hooker. Even though her job and attitude had changed, her wardrobe didn't. Today she was clad in hot pink spandex pants and a yellow sequined shirt that had hot written on it. He hair colour matched her shirt.
"No. I got a new job now and that job is to take your ass back to jail."
"You can't be serious can you? I mean come on Lula. We're friends."
"We're not friends! We never have been."
"Now if you could please follow us back to the car," I said while slapping a cuff on his wrist. He pulled back his arm and tried to take off. I caught him in a tackle. We both landed on the ground, hard. He tried to get up but I wrestled him down. We both tried unsuccessfully to hurt each other. Are arms and legs were flailing around, hardly making contact were we wanted them to go. I dug my nails in his arm and he kicked me in the shin.
The kids were yelling and calling Lula and I every name in the book but I hardly noticed. I was starting to lose the fight. He was rising to get up when Lula swung her purse out of nowhere and hit him square in the face. He fell to the ground with a thud. Lula clasped the other cuff on his remaining wrist.
"Why didn't you do that earlier?" I asked out of breath.
"You looked like you were winning and I didn't want to take the fun away from you."
"Hunh, well help me get him up." The kids were still booing at us. Where was a teacher when you need one? Lula and I dragged him to the backset of the car. He started to struggle and Lula hit him again.
"What did you do that for? You're not supposed to do that!"
"It was an accident! Besides, you hit him too. And he was starting to fight back. I did us favor." I couldn't argue with her so I shrugged it off and we loaded him into the backseat.
"We are taking you back to the police station now." I said to him. He just stared at his feet pouting.
We were about three blocks away from the police station when I noticed a black truck pull in behind us.
"Could he be any closer to your bumper?" Lula stated. I looked back. Our cars were so close they were almost touching. I drove faster but the car stayed the same distance away. I looked back at the truck. It seemed vaguely familiar. I was getting worried so I sped up. The truck stayed right on my tail. I realized where I had seen that truck. It was the on sitting in Steve Mueller's driveway. By this time I gunned it. Mueller followed right behind. Gunshots rang out. Two of the bullets had gone straight through my back shield and through the front.
"Jesus Christ!" Barroni yelled aloud.
"Everyone duck down!" I screamed. Lula and Barroni were already way ahead of me.
"God don't let me die today with my hair like this!" I heard Lula say. I swerved through traffic hoping to lose Mueller. He swerved too, trying to get closer. I was only a few blocks away from the police station, so I kept my foot on the pedal and pushed it to the floor. Mueller was doing the same. A red light was up ahead but I couldn't slow down. I prayed to God that I wouldn't get us killed in a collision. But at the same time I wasn't going to let Mueller take shots at us. Keeping my eyes closed, I past through the red light. Several horns blared. I reopened my eyes to find that we had past safely through the lights and no cars were affected. In the rearview mirror I watched Mueller try to do the same thing. He wasn't so lucky. Mueller collided with a little red convertible. Not wanting to stick around, I didn't take my foot from the pedal until we reached the police station. That was too close.
"Are we alive?" Barroni asked, dazed from the backseat.
"Yes you idiot!" Lula responded her voice high and shrill. She then closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
"Come on, let's go return Barroni." I said to Lula after we had had a minute to breathe.