Disclaimer: Characters you recognize belong to JE and are used without permission. The story and anyone new that shows up belong to me.
A/N: To those of you following 'Divine Madness' - don't worry, I'm still working on it! This idea just keeps bugging me so I decided to get it started. This doesn't belong to the 'Agreement' series, or the 'Divine Madness' world…this one is all by itself.
Chapter One - Flash Point
Stephanie stood in the back of the parking lot just in front of the police cars, watching her apartment burn with simmering rage. It had only been ten months since the last time her apartment got destroyed and she was really tired of trying to replace her things. This time the fire-bomber had almost gotten her, too, since she'd gotten home right before the Molotov cocktail came through her window. She was singed and wet and huddled in a blanket shivering. There was fire extinguisher foam and soot in her hair and staining her face, hands, and clothes. The back of her throat hurt – partly from the smoke, and partly from screaming at Joe.
She and her long-time on-and-off boyfriend Detective Joe Morelli had parted ways about six months ago after the mother of all fights. After several weeks they'd cooled enough to be civil to each other but their friendship was still strained. Tonight he'd been among the first officers to arrive, and to give him credit his immediate concern had been for her safety. Unfortunately as soon as he'd seen she was okay he started yelling about her insane job and things had gone downhill from there. Big Dog and Carl had been forced to step in and separate them before they'd come to blows.
She probably could have taken all of it in stride if the bomber hadn't blown her car up yesterday. Twice in two days was more than even Stephanie Plum could handle. All she was left with now was her phone and her purse, which for once actually held her gun.
Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of Ranger's Turbo slipping into a spot at the curb and she sighed. They'd gotten closer after her breakup with Joe and they'd become lovers for a while. But two months ago he'd disappeared without a word for what she later discovered was a government job, so she wasn't very happy with him, either.
"Are you okay, Babe?" he asked from just behind her.
She sighed and answered without turning around. "I'm okay. But my apartment it toast. I think it even got the bathroom this time."
"I heard your car got it yesterday. Sounds like you've had a busy week."
Stephanie started to turn and caught sight of Joe heading toward them. Carl was trying to run interference but he was barely slowing Joe down.
She could have handled it. She had handled confrontations between the two men many times – too many times. But tonight it was one problem too many and she blew up.
Joe had started in, as usual. He'd baited Ranger, asking where he'd been while his girlfriend was in danger. Ranger had bristled and made a cutting reply, and it had gone back and forth in the regular pattern. It wasn't until Ranger tried to steer Steph toward the Porsche that she erupted, and she rounded on both men.
"You know, I can take care of myself," she shouted, pulling her arm out of Ranger's loose grip. She turned to Joe. "You are NOT my boyfriend anymore and you have NO right to be yelling at me about anything! And you!" she turned on Ranger and surprised both men by stabbing a finger into his chest. "You just left me hanging for two damned months without a word! I don't need your help either!"
And she turned on her heel and went to Eddie.
"Eddie, would you give me a ride to my parents' house?"
Eddie shot a nervous look at the two angry men behind her. "Sure, Steph. No problem."
Stephanie's mother and grandmother were waiting at the door when Eddie's cruiser dropped her off in front of the house. Grandma Mazur was no fool; she took one look at Steph's face and posture and retreated to the safety of the living room. Stephanie's mom wasn't as perceptive.
"What's happened now, Stephanie? Susie Markowitz called and said your apartment building was on fire," she started in, and Stephanie's rage boiled over on her, too.
"The asshole that bombed my car yesterday decided to firebomb my apartment, Mom. And I was in the room when the Molotov cocktail exploded. My apartment is a total loss, again, but I'm okay – thanks for asking!"
She brushed past her shocked mother and stalked through the house, ignoring the wary looks from Grandma and her dad as she headed for the stairs and her old room.
I can't do this anymore, Steph thought as she dropped her purse on the bed, stripped out of her ruined jeans and shirt, and stuffed them into a trash bag. I'm sick of trying to keep my head above water when every psycho in town knows my home address, the cops bet on me, and even my own mother never lets up. I need a break… a place no one knows me… time off from crazies…normal time…
She grabbed the old robe on the back of her bedroom door and crossed the hall into the bathroom. Once behind the locked door she took off her bra and panties and washed them out in the sink. Then she stepped into the shower to scrub herself clean, washing away the sweat of fear along with the soot and foam. When she was done and dried off she went back to her room, dressing in a old pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. She stuck a note on the door to please not disturb her - that she wasn't hungry or hurt - and she went to bed.
She didn't sleep. But sometime during the long night she decided what she wanted to do.
Stephanie was up at first light, rummaging through the cast-off clothes that had accumulated in the room. She found a pair of Valerie's drawstring pants that fit pretty well, and an old college t-shirt. There wasn't any underwear, though, so she was glad she'd thought to wash hers out or she'd be going commando.
Once she was dressed she sat on the bed with the little notebook from her purse and a pen, and started a list. Just after eight she called Lula to beg a ride. Then she pulled a small folding file out from under the bed, grabbed her purse and the trash bag with her ruined clothes, and headed downstairs.
She greeted her parents and grandmother quietly, turned down breakfast, and took the trash bag to the can at the curb. A few minutes later Lula rolled up, and they left.
"You don't look quite like yourself this mornin', girl," Lula said when they were halfway to the office. "And it ain't just your clothes."
"I'm not myself today, I guess. I didn't sleep last night."
Lula snorted. "I'm not surprised. The last few days haven't exactly gone too good for you." She shot Stephanie a sidelong look, considering, and decided to say what was on her mind. "Tank said he heard there was a lot of shouting going on last night – between you and Joe, Joe and Ranger, and that you even yelled at Batman before you walked off. He said Ranger was in a mood when he got back to the building."
When there was nothing forthcoming, she prodded a little. "You do know yelling at Ranger is asking for trouble, right?"
"I know. But he pissed me off." Stephanie sighed, "I hate my life."
"Stephanie, you're not thinkin' of doing anything rash, are you?" Lula sounded worried for her friend.
"I'm not going to kill myself, if that's what you're thinking," Steph reassured her with a small laugh. "But rash…? Maybe."
They'd pulled into the small lot at the rear of the office, and Lula shut off the car with a frown. Before she could question her further, though, Stephanie interrupted.
"I'll explain later. Could I get you to drive me around today? At least for a while?"
"It's been slow lately. Let me tell Connie and I'll be your wheels for the day."
"Thanks, Lula." Stephanie smiled the first real smile of the week at her friend.
In the office Connie asked Stephanie if she was okay, and if there was anything she could do.
"I'm okay, just a little singed and that's nothing new for me." She pulled two body receipts out of her purse and gave them to Connie. "I'm glad these were in my purse. If I can get my check for these I can go get some necessities. I think even my bathroom got toasted last night."
Connie made a sympathetic noise, then added the receipts and started writing a check. Behind them the front door dinged, and Lester came in.
"Good morning, ladies. Hey, Steph, are you okay? I heard you were home when the psycho came calling."
"Yeah, I'm okay. I made it behind the door before it flashed."
Lester paled. "You were in the room?"
"Yes, but I'm okay."
"Jez," he said softly, and a moment later he made a visible effort to shake it off. Then he gave her a hesitant look. "Um, Steph… This guy is seriously nuts. Let us bring him in for you before he manages to really hurt someone."
Stephanie's face clouded. "I can catch him."
"I know you can, Beautiful," Lester backpedaled, trying to persuade her without getting her temper up, but it was too late.
"I'm not giving up my skip, Lester. Not to you, not to Ranger. I'll bring him in myself," Steph said flatly.
"But…" he tried, but he stopped when she glared. He sighed. "I told Ranger you wouldn't go for it. He knew it, too. Will you at least call if you need help?"
Steph nodded, but she'd hesitated. And from the stubborn set to her jaw Lester very much doubted that she meant it. He gave up trying to argue with her, though, and to everyone's surprise he stepped forward and wrapped Stephanie in a hug.
"Just be careful. Please," he said softly into her slightly-fried curls, then he left.
An uncomfortable silence fell for a moment until Connie broke it by handing Stephanie her check. She also gave her fifty dollars from the petty cash box. "I know this won't go far, but it may help a little."
"Thanks, Connie. I won't need a lot for right now and this will help."
"I'm gonna be her driver for today," Lula added. "Just call me if something comes up."
"No problem. Let me know if there is anything I can help with."
Back in the Firebird, Lula turned to Steph. "First stop the mall?"
"Not yet." Shooting her friend an apologetic look, Steph said, "Actually, I need to go to the police station first. I need to give my statement and request a copy of the police report for my insurance company so I can put in my claim. You can just drop me off if you want, and I'll call you when I'm done."
"No, I can wait in the parking lot. I'll listen to music while I'm waiting. It'll be fine."
Stephanie went through the statement process with the speed of experience and put in the report request, and managed to avoid Joe. She was surprised to see Lula still waiting for her when she headed back out. Not so surprisingly Ranger was waiting too, leaning against an SUV.
He waited until she was close before he spoke.
"Babe," he started but broke off when Stephanie stopped just out of his reach. "Let me take this skip, Babe. Please."
"No. I can do this, Ranger. He didn't hurt me, he pissed me off -- and I will bring him in."
Ranger's face went blank and Stephanie knew he was going to argue. She started to walk away then turned back for a moment.
"Don't have anyone follow me, either," she said in a hard voice, then continued to the Firebird.
A muscle flexed in Ranger's clenched jaw as he watched her climb into Lula's car and drive away, then he turned and yanked the SUV door open.
Lula had watched the confrontation. She wisely didn't say a word, but she hoped Steph knew what she was doing.
They went to the bank and then to the bakery for some breakfast. Then Stephanie shocked Lula by asking to go to the big discount store on Route One instead of the mall.
"I need clothes and I don't want to spend much," she explained. "I may get trashed bringing the asshole in. I can always upgrade later."
Lula accepted that explanation and drove her to the store. Steph got a cart and told Lula she didn't have to walk along with her if there was anything she wanted to look at, so Lula headed for the electronics department to wait. Steph would call when she was done.
Pulling her list out of her purse, Steph set off towards the toiletries department first. She selected shampoo, conditioner, bath gel, and a moisturizer, then picked up a box of tampons and some deodorant. She hesitated but decided to skip the makeup section for now. She had mascara and a powder compact in her purse. She could make do with that for a few days.
Next stop was clothes. She hit the clearance racks and found several t-shirts and one nicer polo shirt for a pittance. She grabbed all the clearance-rack jeans close to her size and spent fifteen minutes in the dressing room, emerging with three pairs that fit. Two inexpensive but comfortable bras, a 7-pack of underwear, a pack of socks, and two pairs of boxer shorts from the men's clearance rack, and she was done. She'd only have the tennis shoes she was wearing but she could get by for a while, and hopefully her insurance money would come through soon. After the fiasco last year she'd purchased replacement-cost renter's insurance. Because of her high-risk rating the premiums nearly killed her, but hopefully it would pay off. She'd kept a file with receipts for all the items she'd had to replace last time for proof of cost so there shouldn't be any problems.
She called Lula and told her she was heading for the check-out. By the time she'd paid for her purchases Lula had the Firebird waiting at the door, and they headed to McDonald's.
Over lunch, Steph told Lula about her decision. As she'd expected, Lula didn't take it well. It was a good thing the dining room was almost empty.
"What do you mean you're gonna leave?"
"Lula," Steph started, motioning for Lula to keep her voice down. She didn't see anyone she knew but she didn't want her plans broadcast, either. "Just listen to me for a minute. I'm not happy here anymore. I've enjoyed my job but I'm not great at it and I don't really make enough money to live without eating at my parents' house. I'm over thirty and I don't have much to show for my life. I tried getting a normal job and I got someone else killed and nearly died myself. I can't start over here because everyone knows me and the psychos know where I live. I have to leave. Maybe then I can have a normal life."
Lula sat unmoving, thinking hard. "You can't just move to a different town here in New Jersey? Somewhere I could visit?"
Stephanie shook her head. "How many times have I been in the damned papers? No, I need more distance."
"Where? Where will you go?"
"I have no idea. I'll miss you," she admitted, softening to smile sadly at the outrageous woman who'd become a good friend. "I don't know how, yet, but I will find a way to stay in touch."
Lula pushed her food away, no longer hungry. "I understand. I don't like it, but I can see what you're saying. But Steph, there's a man or two in your life that won't like it if you just disappear. They'll find you."
"I'm working on that, too."