Chapter 1

Another day, another fight. I was tired of this, tired of trying to live up to the ideals that both Joe and my mother had for me. Tired of being told that I didn't measure up to goals that I'd never set for myself. Tired of being told I was a failure and an embarrassment.

I'd heard this so many times before, that Joanie Bertulli's daughter never worried her mother like I did mine, that Paul Johnson's girlfriend never showed up covered in garbage or stalked by a psycho. So it really shouldn't have been a big deal since I'm so used to it. Somehow, though, I'd just reached my limit.

My name is Stephanie Plum and I'm a bond enforcement agent for my pond scum cousin, Vinnie. I'm not very good at it in the usual sense, but I always got my man or my woman. I'm tenacious like a bulldog and incredibly nosy, and those two traits helped me when physical fitness or the ability to fire a gun couldn't. I seem to be a trouble magnet, but I swear that I never set out to get embroiled in all of these crazy situations. Somehow, I just end up in the middle of all the crap.

I was married for about two minutes years ago. I married The Dick to make my mother happy and proud of me, but that only lasted until I walked in to find The Dick screwing my arch nemesis, that skank whore Joyce Bernhardt, on our brand new dining room table. It's been all downhill from then, at least according to my mother.

So now I'm listening to Joe rant and rave about how I don't ever stop to think about how it makes him feel when I'm off chasing skips or am up to my eyebrows in some screwed up dilemma. He's flapping his arms and cursing in both English and Italian, shouting at me. I just snapped.

"Joe, stop it." I stood up and grabbed my purse. Thankfully, we were in the off phase of our on-off relationship, so there was nothing else to pack up in Joe's house. If we'd been semi-living together again, I'd have had to pack up all my stuff and haul them out of the house and into my tiny POS car du jour.

Joe stopped for a second to glare at me before he was off on another tirade.

"Joe." I spoke in a deadly calm voice, not at all usual for me. Usually if I'm mad, I'm acting more like Joe with the yelling and stomping around.

He stopped and looked at me. "What?" He snapped at me, his body and voice still vibrating with anger.

"This isn't working. I can't be who you want me to be, and clearly you can't accept me as I am. You've spent so much time yelling about how your ulcer is acting up that you haven't even asked me if I'm okay or not. And that tells me a lot about how you really feel about me. So, we're done. I hope we can be friends eventually, but this, this crazy ass thing we'd had going, it's just not going to work for me anymore." Still calm. I think I'm freaking Joe out even more than usual since I'm not yelling or screaming or flipping him off. I'm not one to do calm.

"Wait, what?" Joe looked confused, which isn't a normal look for him. I just stood still and let him process what I'd just said for a moment. "It's him, isn't it? It's because you want to go see him." He put a contemptuous emphasis on the word him and I knew exactly who he meant. We'd had that argument before, too.

I just sighed. "No, Joe, it's not about Ranger, it's about me. And you and I aren't good for each other. Not when I was six years old, and not now."

Joe wasn't listening, again. Nothing new there either. He was working himself into a whole new level of pissy and all of a sudden, I just felt tired. I already had my purse on my shoulder, so I simply walked out of Joe's house.

I threw myself in my POS car, a beaten up old Honda Civic of an indeterminable color thanks to all the rust. It started on the second try and I drove myself home.

There were no black cars waiting in the parking lot tonight. Thank God, I thought to myself. I didn't think I could manage a confrontation with Ranger or any of his Merry Men tonight.

The elevator had an out of order sign taped to it, so I grumbled to myself as I hauled myself up the stairs to my apartment. I blew one of my brown curls out of my eyes as I closed and locked the door to my apartment. I'm not sure why I even bother with locking the door since it seems everyone in Trenton, New Jersey, but me could pick the locks in under two seconds, but it was just the principle of the matter I suppose.

I tapped on the side of Rex's cage and he scurried out of his soup can. He stood up on his back paws with his beady eyes watching me while his whiskers twitched frantically.

"Hi, Rex. You still love me though, right?" No answer from Rex. I didn't really expect one, but it would be nice. Rex has been the most constant male in my life over the last few years, and it would be great if he could speak English.

I tossed a couple hamster crunchies into his cage, and he grabbed them. He stuffed them into his cheeks, making him look like a miniature, deranged chipmunk. His whiskers twitched again and then he dove back into his soup can home.

I dropped my imitation Prada purse on the countertop and sighed again. My answering machine light was blinking frantically, but I wasn't in the mood to listen to messages from my mom. My cell phone had been trashed again in the take down, and I was sure that my mother had left numerous "why me?" messages on my answering machine. I wasn't ready to deal with that. I might never be ready to deal with it. I hit the mute button on the phone and turned the answering machine off. I'd deal with it when I was ready.

I looked around my apartment. It was depressingly boring with bland colors and furniture. It was also a dump. Old pizza boxes and Tasty Pastry bags littered the floor and all other flat spaces. Clothes were scattered everywhere, and there was a laundry basket full of nice folded clean clothes sitting precariously on top of a pile of pizza boxes on the coffee table.

With another loud sigh, I grabbed the clean clothes and walked into the bedroom. Bedroom was just as messy, except more clothes flung everywhere and less food debris. I'd rolled around in garbage, again, today so it was great that my mom had washed some clothes for me earlier in the week.

I peeled off my stinky, stained clothes and dropped them in a pile on the floor. I needed a shower badly. After washing my hair twice and getting all of my nooks and crannies clean, I wrapped myself in a towel and glared at myself in the medicine cabinet mirror. Either the towel had shrunk in the wash or I had grown. Given the number of donut bags and pizza boxes in the small apartment, I didn't think the towel had shrunk.

I looked at the bruises forming on my face and chest. One eye was starting to darken from when I'd taken an elbow to the eye. I had scratches and bruises across my chest and shoulders from rolling around on the busted up sidewalk. There were a string of bruises circling my neck from when the skip had tried to choke me after I'd tackled him. I gave a slight smirk when I realized that as bad as I looked, the skip was probably in far more pain. I'd shoved his gonads into next Tuesday, and he was probably still in the fetal position in jail.

Even that small movement made my face and head hurt. I finished drying my shoulder length, curly brown hair, working some anti-frizz cream into my hair after towel drying it. My curls have a tendency to get super fluffy and frizzy, and I start looking like the girl character with the triangle hair in Dilbert if I'm not careful. I was trying to be careful since I had a large goose egg on the back of my head from hitting the ground with a thud. Good thing I'm hard headed or that could have really done some damage.

There wasn't much I could do about the bruises, but I spread antibiotic ointment on the scratches. The last thing I needed was to get some kind of infection. I didn't have health insurance and, at this point, I couldn't afford even a trip to the urgent care center.

I hung the towel back up, and pulled on a pair of silky pink panties and a Rangers jersey t-shirt as a sleep shirt. I walked back into my bedroom and flopped onto the bed. It was still early, not yet 8 pm, but I was exhausted mentally and physically. Despite my emotional turmoil, the physical tiredness won, and I was asleep in a matter of minutes.