All the recognizable characters in this story are created by and belong to Janet Evanovich. I use them without permission and I derive no financial benefit from this story.

Several characters are my creations (Paco Lopez, Alicia Lopez, Andy Lopez, Hank and several bit characters) as is the story line.

A general warning that there are spoilers everywhere. I have assumed that you've read everything (One for the Money all the way through to Finger Lickin' Fifteen). You may find adult content (bad language, bad habits, violence, probably sex) either inferred or depicted. I try not to do it gratuitously.

EDIT 22 JULY 2009

I've had a number of complaints about the twists and turns in this story, so I want to add this rider: I treat Joe very nicely; I treat Ranger even better (because the man is hot, right?). Steph is as confused as always but she comes good in the end. All I ask is that you keep the faith.

oOoOoOo

The Usual Mayhem

Chapter 1: The Job Offer

My job doesn't come with what you would call side benefits but if I had to name a perk it would be that I don't have to wear panty hose. It's not much as perks go but you've got to suck the joy where you can get it, right?

My name is Stephanie Plum and I'm a bounty hunter – a Bond Enforcement Agent if you want to get formal. I work for my cousin's agency, Vincent Plum Bail Bonds, in Trenton, New Jersey, chasing down scofflaws who are FTA – fail to appear – for a court date. I convince them to change their minds by using a mix of tenacity, sneakiness and sheer dumb luck.

I'm not the world's greatest bounty hunter but I've learned a lot since I took on the job. The improvement, and the fact that I'm still alive, is due to my friend and mentor, Ricardo Carlos Manoso, who goes by the street name Ranger. He's Cuban American, with piercing, dark eyes and dark hair, skin like dusky caramel silk, a killer body and a smile that makes women walk into walls.

In an earlier life, Ranger was Special Forces and he has skills that border on superhero. Just like a superhero, no one knows much about him, though I know more than most. When I met him, he was Vinnie's numero uno bounty hunter and he still takes on the high bond cases I can't handle. Ranger can be a scary guy but I trust him and he's become a constant in my life. When things go pear-shaped, he's there to catch me. He's the one I turn to, and not just when a skip is too much to handle.

These days he runs his own successful company, Rangeman, dealing in security – personal, corporate and global. Sometimes I suspect he's on call with the FBI, CIA, Interpol, the UN and the Justice League. Having Ranger as a friend is equal parts exhilarating and scary and it creates all kinds of complications in my life.

I had just pulled into my building's lot and managed to score a parking space close to the back door. I'd taken down my skip with minimal embarrassment; I hadn't rolled in garbage, ripped my clothes, been chased by humping dogs, shot at or wrestled any greased up naked men to the ground. And, I'd netted myself two hundred dollars. Not much for a week's work but it meant I was bringing home grocery bags. That made for a good day, so when the Batman theme song rang out on my cell the buzz of success made me braver than usual when I answered.

"Yo," I said, using Ranger's standard phone greeting.

"I need you tomorrow, babe." Ranger doesn't do chitchat.

"Gee, Ranger, I don't know. This is so sudden. I may need to wash my hair." There was a beat of silence at the other end and I hoped it meant he was smiling.

"Playful," he said, his voice soft and deep. "Glad you had a good day, babe. I've got some fun lined up for you tomorrow."

I chewed my lip. Ranger has a strange sense of fun. He calls me in when a job needs feminine distraction in the form of sexy heels and short skirts. I rarely do any of the heavy lifting although Ranger appreciates my Spidey-sense and my talent for sneaky. Usually, I provide cleavage courtesy of Victoria's Secret while Ranger and his Merry Men do the rest, but any job I get involved in has a way of getting out of hand.

"I can hear the gears working, babe. You need me to come over and persuade you?"

Tempting but dangerous. Ranger is hotter than July and far too persuasive. "Tomorrow is Saturday," I countered.

"You got plans?"

"Maybe. Maybe I'm holding out for a date."

"You want a date, babe? I can help you with that."

Instant hot flash. Ranger doesn't date and I was pretty sure he was messing with me but just thinking about the possibility caused a temporary lapse of cognitive function. A while ago we spent one, spectacular, mind-blowing night together and the experience had added a whole new dimension to my fantasy life. There were some powerful emotional and sexual feelings between us and, for me, that night had added fuel to the flame rather than dampening it down. Problem was, Ranger had made it clear that he wasn't a commitment kind of guy, so no way was I going there again. Still, the sexual tension simmers and causes me chronic stupidity when I'm around him. It's an itch I can't scratch.

"How about you tell me about the job?" I asked.

"A day at the beach. We're flushing out a woman trying to smuggle her son out of the country and his father objects."

"Why does she want to smuggle out her son? Why are you helping the dad? Is he the good guy?"

"Yeah, he's the good guy. You'll need to come here first to change. See you at eight."

He disconnected and left me chewing over the problem of how to avoid setting off a Morelli explosion.

Joe Morelli is six feet of lean, hard, Italian stud muffin and my on and off boyfriend. Currently, we're on. After a misspent youth brawling in bars and sowing wild oats through most of Jersey, the terror of Trenton motherhood had gone against all odds for Morelli men and developed a sense of responsibility. He's a good cop and has turned out a decent guy. Morelli still looks like trouble, the kind men don't want to tangle with and women fantasize about. I, personally, have been tangling with him since I was six years old.

Their jobs mean Morelli and Ranger have a professional relationship and a grudging, mutual respect. They also have an uneasy, Alpha-male truce going on that allows them to cooperate when I'm in trouble. Usually, that's convenient because it means I don't get dead. The rest of the time, I try not to think about the weird-ass triangle happening between the three of us. Taking the job tomorrow meant I'd have to navigate through it - again.

Morelli had made it clear, with much yelling and waving of arms, that he didn't want me working with Ranger. Apart from the personal issues, he thinks Ranger is not entirely sane and has a malleable attitude to the law. That last part is true; maybe even the first part. Ranger operates in accordance with a strict, personal moral code but I know he often walks on the dark side. Thing is, when it came down to the wire, I wasn't ever going to say no to Batman.

"So, how sneaky are you willing to be, Stephanie?" I asked myself. Talking to myself in the car seemed a little nuts so I got out and pulled the grocery bags from the back seat.

I spared a moment to smile at the shiny, yellow Mustang convertible that is all mine. It rattles at stops and the brakes have a mind of their own but it had survived two months without a scratch or a bullet hole – a personal record. The monthly payments were one of the reasons my cupboards were bare and I was having regular lunches and dinners at my parents' house.

I swung through the entry to the elevator. My building is a three-storey 1970s block and strictly utilitarian. Dillon, the building super, keeps things clean and functional but the building was never an architectural marvel and it has seen better days. Most of the residents are seniors whose main interests are the price of Metamucil, the calibre of their firearms and gossip.

Mr Landowski shuffled out of the elevator when the doors opened, his pants hitched up to his armpits. He was wearing a yellowing undershirt and the skin of his bony arms was sagging like it was three sizes too big. The sight was not a happy advertisement for aging well.

"Hey, chickie. Has it cooled down any out there? It's been too hot to go to the store."

"It's still pretty warm out, Mr Landowski." It was the beginning of June but the weather was late July.

He shook his head, shuffling towards the parking lot. "It's supposed to be hotter tomorrow. I hate this heat, it gives me the runs."

I nodded sympathetically as I hit the second floor button. Everything gives Mr Landowski the runs. He was right, though, it was unseasonably hot. Should be good for the beach tomorrow.

Stephanie, Stephanie, Stephanie, said the tiny voice of responsible Stephanie in the back of my head as I walked toward my door, you're playing with fire.

The stupid Stephanie was trying to talk me into it. This is business, I thought, unlocking my three locks. I need the money and Morelli has no right to interfere in my work. I won't lie to him, I'll just omit some information. And it's not like Ranger is asking me on a date. I tingled at the thought. Just another working day.

My apartment overlooks the back parking lot and the fire escape outside my bedroom window is an excellent place to sit on a hot summer evening with a beer. It could double as an isolation unit for houseplants with aphids, except I don't have any houseplants. The inside of my apartment is as utilitarian as the outside.

My small entry foyer has hooks for bags and jackets, the kitchen comes off the hall and the entry opens into a small living-dining room. One bed and one bath. After the most recent fire, everything is new and everything is beige – carpet, drapes, walls and the whole kitchen. Except for the bathroom, which is resplendent in its original '70s brown and green tile. Just my luck that the bathroom was, once again, the only room to survive the firebomb intact. My furniture is functional, budget and there's not much of it. Occasionally I have decorating ideas involving throw cushions and bric-a-brac but finances usually put the brakes on any interior design momentum.

I dumped the bags on the kitchen counter and tapped on Rex's aquarium. "Hey buddy, I've got food!"

The wood shavings moved around and Rex backed his little hamster butt out of his soup can. I dug around in one of the bags and dropped two grapes in his bowl. He twitched his whiskers and his beady little black eyes glistened as he stuffed both grapes into his cheek and disappeared back into the can. Food is the way into a hamster's heart.

Morelli rang as I was putting the finishing touches to a peanut butter and olive sandwich. "Hey, Cupcake, how was your day?"

"It was excellent! I have food."

"If it's your mom's leftovers, save some for me."

"Nope. I have my very own groceries. I took in Beany Otis."

"I heard. Costanza said it lacked the usual level of excitement. He sounded disappointed." Carl Costanza is a cop and an old friend who considers my take-downs a form of personal entertainment.

"I was completely professional. I'm celebrating with a gourmet sandwich."

Morelli chuckled, then his voice deepened to whiskey-smooth. "We could celebrate some more later. I'll be done in a couple hours. You could come over, we could get naked and sweaty and I'll set off some fireworks for you."

No kidding. Morelli gets a lot of practice in lighting my fireworks.

"Aren't you knee-deep in the Becker case?" I asked. "It sounded like you'd be pulling an all-nighter."

"We're at a stalemate. I'm taking the night off to get some perspective. I'm thinking you could help me with that. I'm thinking a night of wild gorilla sex would give me just the right perspective for tomorrow."

I pricked my ears. Not at the wild gorilla sex, because that was standard Morelli, but if he was working tomorrow he'd be out the door by seven and I wouldn't have to come up with any awkward explanations for how I was spending the day.

"I can see how that would motivate you but what's in it for me?" I asked.

"Wild gorilla sex." I could hear the smile in his voice and I felt a goofy grin spread over my face.

"You going in early?" I checked.

"Yeah. I have to be at the office by seven and I don't know when I'll get out. So. Tonight's celebration. Your place or mine?" he asked.

"Yours. Otherwise Bob will eat the couch while you're gone." Morelli's dog, Bob, is a friendly, orange, hairy mutt with a bottomless appetite and no discrimination.

"Good call, Cupcake."

"You remember it's Friday, right?" Friday dinner with my parents is a non-negotiable fixture and it has the added benefit of leftovers for the next day. The last couple of years Morelli has filled a chair, on and off.

"Highlight of my week. I'll meet you there at six."

TBC

oOoOoOo

A brief comment letting me know whether you have enjoyed this chapter (or not) would be very much appreciated.

Ssi