My name is Stephanie Plum and at this very moment, I'm sitting in my pain in the butt, piece of crap car. I'm parked illegally in front of Giovichinni's deli waiting on my sometimes partner-in-crime, Lula.
This time yesterday, I was sitting in a very nice parlor at my Cousin Abbey's wedding shower. She moved back to Trenton about a month ago from Rhode Island. She's engaged to this Charlie guy. He's some sort of scientist, but he doesn't fly an airplane or work on a rocket ship or anything cool like that. I haven't met him yet, but he supposedly has connections to a friend of mine, Ranger.
Anyway, so I had just pulled up in my shitty car to this fancy pants part of Trenton when Abbey's mom, Candice, pulls me out of the car and squishes the air out of me with a bear hug. My partner, Lula, was with me as my bring-a-friend. Lula is about 5'5", a lot of pounds, and for the most part, her clothes do not fit. She was wearing pink for the occasion, a short spandex skirt, a sparkly leopard print shirt and a pale pink Sunday jacket. She also wore this ridiculous hat; it was purple and pink and green and it had orange feathers tucked into the cerulean blue ribbon.
"Who's this, Stephanie? Is this your friend, Stephanie?" Aunt Candy insists on putting my name at the end of every sentence addressed to me.
"Yes, this is my business associate, Lula." Lula thrust out her hip. I blew out a sigh, "And yeah, she's my friend."
"How nice, Stephanie. Come along Stephanie and… friend." She smiled dryly and led Lula and me through a maze of hedges to the back of the… house for lack of better word. Back there was a lot more well-manicured shrubbery, tea lights, lollipop trees and well dressed women about mine and Abbey's age. I'd say Lula's too, but she can't make up her mind on how old she is when I ask her.
"Stephanie-eeeeeeeee!" Abbey hops up when she sees me, spilling her plate of goodies, bouncing along towards me in her high, high heels. She grabs me in a tight hug around my neck and bobs up and down some more. Lula stands to one side of us, craning her neck to get a good look at the food.
"How ya doin'? Whatcha been up to?" Abbey spies Lula and hugs her one-armed around the waist with her other arm still around me. "Hi, I'm Abbey, I'm Stephanie's cousin! This is such a pretty suit! Ooh! And where did you get your shoes?"
To say that Abbey's enthusiastic would be just a bit of an understatement. Anywho, once Abbey and Lula were introduced and Abbey dragged us to the wedding party and we'd been introduced there, we were allowed to eat. I ate some cake, some more cake, and a ham sandwich. Lula ate everything else. There wasn't anything but water and some vodka-spiked punch to drink, and I wasn't really feeling water. So, needless to say, I was a little tipsy at about 2 o'clock when the questioning started.
"So, have you finally gotten a real job, Stephanie?" was the one from Aunt Candice that really pissed me off. I can handle the questions about my car, my apartment, my favorite places to eat, bars, bands, pets, (non-existent) investments, friends, and my boyfriend(s). But for her to insult my job? I was P. . Mental sigh. She wasn't wrong. Bounty huntering is not a real job. It's a terrible job. Most of the time, I hate it with a passion. The pay sucks and the people I go after try to shoot at me – a lot. But that doesn't mean she gets to… debase me in front of all these classy rich ladies. So I decided a polite smile and a bite of cake would work best. Lula, on the contrary, did not.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean? Bounty hunter is just as real as a job as you can get. Shee-it, it might be realer than your job. What do you do, Ms. Lady Pants?"
Mental head slap. Or maybe it wasn't, I don't remember. After that, Aunt Candy was real keen on getting me and Lula out of there.
So here we are today, sitting in front of Giovichinni's, and I've been waiting for Lula for over a half an hour. I'd texted her about twelve times. I'm about to get out of the car and go fetch her when my passenger side door opens and Joe Morelli slides into the seat.
"Hey, Cupcake. How's it going?"
I squint at him, "What do you want?"
His eyes flick down to my shirt. It's nothing special. A hang loose Hawaii shirt from an effed up vacation a few weeks back. That doesn't ever stop a Morelli though. He smiles and the temperature in the car heats up to about a hundred and twelve degrees.
"Besides that?" I roll my eyes.
He chuckles and kisses me on the tip of my nose. "Not much. Ranger is out of town. He told me to tell you."
"Tank is usually assigned to me." I start looking around for the black SUV.
"Tank's going with him."
"Really?" Tank is Ranger's right hand. He's big and brown and he likes cats. A big old softie.
"Yep." Morelli just sits there and watches me. Awkwardly. We had a bit of a disagreement in Hawaii that included Ranger and ended with both men handcuffed, stun-gunned and dropped off at a Hawaiian ER – by yours truly. Morelli and I had a spectacular sixteen hours a week ago. We both called in sick to work and then turned off our cell phones. My grandma Mazur says that a lady never tells, but I will say that neither of us had clothes on that day. Since then though, we've only seen each other a couple of times, once for work, once on an arranged date, once when he met me in the alley behind the bonds office. There's another story for another time though.
BANG! BANG! BANG! And then there's Lula. Pounding on the backseat window on the passenger's side. I sigh and unlock the door for her. She slithers in the backseat with our lunch.
"I got you ham and cheese on an Italian roll and I saw that Officer Hottie was here so I got him a turkey club. I got a Reuben and a tub of chicken salad. I was gonna get potato salad 'cept that I remembered the last time I had potato salad I just about died." She dug into her pint of chicken salad.
Joe grinned, "Hey, thanks. This is perfect. You ladies and turkey club."
Lula had her head buried in the chicken salad, "Un huh."
So there the three of us sat. Snarfing down lunch and… ahem, enjoying each others' company. At three 'til twelve, Morelli kissed me good bye, thanked Lula again and headed off to rid the world (or at least Trenton) of bad guys. Lula did a Chinese fire drill and wound up in the recently vacated passenger's seat.
Once she was settled, Lula turned to me, "So who're we catchin' today? Rapist? Serial killer? The chicken guy from Cluck-In-A-Bucket?"
Honestly, the only one Lula and I could handle out of that group was the guy in the chicken suit. And even he might take us a while to get a handle on. "None of the above. The only open case that I've got a lead on is…" I dug around in the file for a name, "Cathie-Lou Chenkoff. She's Russian."
"Well what'd she do? How much this bitch worth?"
"She stole a car. And she's only worth two thousand dollars."
"Hunh," Lula said. "Well what kind of car did she steal at least?"
"Mercedes. From her next door neighbor."
Six or seven minutes later, Lula and I found ourselves in a well-to-do part of Trenton.
"Creek Woods Haven Apartment Community," Lula read. "'Don't see no trees or creeks. I do see a lot of eviction notices. What apartment is this crazy Russian lady in?"
"Uh… Apartment 5N."
I had parked right in front of the apartment offices. It looked like the apartment buildings: red brick with white and black shutters, well manicured hedges and yellow daffodils. The door was yellow. I looked around; the doors were all different colors. The one closest to us was bright blue with a large orange sun painted on it.
"This one of them hippie joints?" Lula asked, "I seen a documentary about these on TV last week."
"No, it's not a hippie joint," I said, "I hope."
I called the number listed for Cathie-Lou. Nobody picked up on the other line. There was an interesting message at the end though; "privet eto ·eeti -Lu, ya poshel, chtoby posetitʹ bolʹshoĭ shtat Nʹyu-Ĭork. Ne nazyvaĭ menya, ne idti za Mnoyu. Do svidaniya." Or at least, that's what it sounded like.
We walked into the apartment office. Sometimes it's easier to kick down the door when searching a felon's apartment. Most other times, it's easiest to get a key. Ranger can slide under the door like smoke. But only when no one is watching. Every time he's helped me break into someone's apartment, he's kicked down the door, known the code, had the key, or picked the lock. As neither Lula nor I are Ranger, and neither of us have any of those skills, usually the building super works best.
The office was a nice little room with every wall painted a different pastel. One was lavender, pale green, sky blue, baby yellow, and the ceiling was painted a light orange. The carpet was pink. A little old lady whose hair was the color of the blue wall and hung to her ass sat behind a desk in the middle of the room, reading a book. She looked up as we entered.
"Oh! Hello there, my dears. I'm Shirley and its such pleasantry to meet you!" She smiled. She had no teeth. I squelched a grimace. Lula was right. This place was a hippie shelter.
"Hi, I'm Stephanie and this is Lula. We work with Cathie-Lou Chenkoff. We've got her number, but she didn't answer. Lula and I were going to surprise her with a birthday cake, but we didn't have a key. Do you know who might have one?"
"Oh, so you two are models too?"
Out of all that, and she only caught that we worked with her. Wonderful. "Yeah… models. May we use your key to her apartment so that we can surprise her? Please?" I said a little louder.
"Yes, yes dear! I love it when you young people throw parties for one another. Oh how it amuses me!"
Lula mad the cuckoo sign behind Shirley's back. "I've always wanted to be a model!" She whispered to me.
"You'd make a great model." I said, rolling my eyes.
Shirley led us around and through the complex until we reached 5N. The door was green with sunflowers on it.
"Oh!" exclaimed Shirley, "I forgot to tell you, Cathie-Lou's off to New York, on a job. It must've been real sudden, seeing as you all didn't know about it." She smiled, "Well, have a nice day!" And our guide was gone.
"Fab!" Lula said, "Let's go shopping."
At one-thirty, Lula and I were at Macy's. Lula had on a stretchy, made-for-teenagers purple mini dress. I was wearing a gold, off the shoulder long-skirted prom dress. Neither of us were going to prom. I was admiring myself in the full sized mirror when Ranger appeared out of nowhere behind me. Except, he didn't look Ranger. The Ranger we all know and love usually wears black- all black. His hair is dark brown and so are his eyes. His body is pure muscle and he moves like a cat with military posture. He's a lot richer than me, and he's a much better bounty hunter than I am. However, he's almost never a bounty hunter, except when something over my head comes in. Some people (hi, Mom) would argue that every FTA is over my head.
He was wearing professionally worn and paint spattered jeans that showed his nicely packaged goods, a blue button up long sleeved shirt and a light-weight zipping sweatshirt, unzipped. The sweatshirt had random words on it that looked like Swedish. His hair had highlights, a nice light red that brought out his eyes. He was gorgeous.
"Babe. I could eat you up in that." He smiled. He'd grown a small goatee.
"Jeez, you scared the heck outta me, I didn't know who you were. What's with the highlights?" I gawked at him in the mirror.
"Do you like them? I could let you watch Clarissa if she redoes them." A couple of teenage girls came out of one of the dressing rooms to look in the full length mirrors. When they saw Ranger, I thought I saw one of them drool. The other, a red-head, looked at me speculatively.
"I like your dress," she said. "But I think I know of one you'd like better. I'll be right back." She disappeared.
"Sorry. She does this a lot. I'm Caroline. She's Lisbeth. You're pretty." She said, still looking at Ranger.
"Who? Me or her?" Ranger asked.
"Hm? Oh," Caroline flushed red, "all of the above!" She ran back into her dressing room.
I turned around to face Ranger. "So seriously, what's with this new look? Morelli said you and Tank were out of town."
"Well, obviously Captain Obvious – thanks."
"You're welcome, Lieutenant Sarcasm." Ranger replied, doing an all-out Ranger smile. "We leave tomorrow. I didn't think Morelli'd get to you this fast. The clothes are top secret. We're going undercover." Jeez, Mr. Chatty Cathy over here.
The girl – Lisbeth, rushed to a stop with her arms full of clothes. A mall attendant was with her. Lisbeth held out a black sheath of fabric to me. It was long and sheer and parts of it were so gossamer that you could see all the way through it. This dress was definitely not Jersey, more like California, or New York.
"Do you like it?" The girl asked.
"How did you know my favorite color is black?" Ranger cut me off.
"Eeeh!" She squealed and grabbed my hand. She dragged me off to a dressing room, not mine, and was unzipping the gold dress. She was a flurry, getting me to step out of the gold and into the black; during the midst of all this action, I vaguely remember wondering where Lula was during all of this.
Finally, I was allowed out of the dressing room, after the attendant came in with thread and pins and other sorts of sewing things. Lisbeth tucked and trimmed and the lady offered advice and lended a finger when needed. The bodice was perfectly fitted and the whole thing flowed and it had a train.
Ranger was talking to Lula and Caroline and three other salespeople, two male, when my party preceded me out. "…My girlfriend, Stephanie. And I'm Ricardo." Everyone gasped when they saw me. I gasped when I saw me. I was beautiful.
One of the men talking to Ranger stared me down speculatively and said, "Oh yes, she'll do perfectly."
He held out his arm and Ranger put mine through it. Ranger kept my left hand and my pocket book. "This is Damian. He's good. Just go with it." He whispered in my ear.
Damian had taken us to the makeup department. Lula was there and she looked spectacular. She was in royal purple, and her makeup had to have been done by whoever did Barbie's makeup originally. She had her headphones plugged into her phone and was rocking out. "Wigglewigglewigglwigglewiggl e, I'm sexy and I know it!" She belted out. I was seated in the chair next to her and told to close my eyes.
Now, I'm from the Burg, and I've been putting makeup on Barbie since before I was born. But I have never been pampered like this. At least not in Jersey. I was flustered. They removed my miniscule amount of makeup, shampooed and dried my hair, and then redid my makeup. I almost didn't recognize myself in the mirror when they let me up. I didn't have time to ask any questions, either. Lisbeth and Damian had me and Lula into a small white room before we knew what was happening. Ranger wasn't anywhere to be found.
I had a chance to really look at Lula. Her purple gown had silver accents, lace trimming and she was wearing cheetah print pumps. I wondered how they let her get away with that one.