My name is Stephanie Plum, and I'm a bounty hunter, working for my cousin Vinnie. At least, I have been, up until now.
Vincent Plum Bail Bonds on Hamilton Ave has been recently rebuilt following a slight case of arson, which was totally Vinnie's fault. Vinnie didn't burn it down. But he pissed off the guy that did.
I was standing in Vinnie's office, which was larger than ever with a private bathroom, giving him my fiercest death glare, my blue eyes narrowed to slits. After rewarding himself with his glorified office, he bought second-hand furniture and filing cabinets for Connie, his office manager, and Lula, our filing clerk. I still had to buy my own handcuffs. My brown hair was pulled back in a pony tail, but I felt disheveled from nearly tearing my hair out only moments ago. Vinnie is a hedonistic, ferret-faced, weasel and a menace to ducks everywhere. If that doesn't make sense to you now, it will when you meet him.
At 5'9", Vinnie may be a few inches taller than I am, but right now he's sinking fast into his leather office chair, as if slipping under his desk is going to save him.
"Vinnie!" I yelled, hands fisted on my hips, trying hard not to jump over the desk to remove this rotten branch from my family tree, permanently.
"What?" he whined in his most pathetic voice, his nasal Jersey accent making it all that much more annoying. His greasy black Italian hair, slicked back as usual, was leaving an oily trail down the back of the chair. I could see he was reaching for the gun he usually kept taped up under the desk, but he wasn't finding it. I knew this, because it was pressing into my back under my waistband. I grabbed it while I was chasing him around the desk, trying to get my hands around his throat.
"This is the last straw!" I screamed. "You know how I feel about Joyce Barnhardt! You know that I have put my own blood, sweat, and tears into this job. And I deserve better than this! The Masterson case was mine!"
"Look, it's a job. You do the job, or you don't get paid. You're the one who blackmailed me to get this job. Now you act like you don't want it. You've had that case for three days. Where's Masterson?"
"It's only been three days! Masterson is wanted for triple homicide. He's lying low. I'm not going to find him standing on a street corner, Vinnie!"
"I think you're scared. Why don't you just take the flasher in the park. I'll bet he's standing on a street corner, just waiting for you. Joyce doesn't mind going after the high dollar bonds."
"Are you serious!" I yelled, pressing my hands to my temples to keep my head from exploding. "Just a few months ago, you racked up a $786,000 gambling debt and got the bond's office burned down! Who came to your rescue? You were chained up naked being guarded by scary men with prison tats. They only gave you a few days to live unless they got their money. Who risked life and limb to get you out? Who fought a prehistoric alligator to steal the money to save your scrawny, perverted hide? And you're calling me a coward? I should have left you there. I can't believe I was such an idiot!"
"Hey, we're family. You have no choice when it comes to family. But this is business," Vinnie started.
"That's where your wrong," I said, grabbing the revolver from my back and pulling the hammer. "I have a choice. If this is what you plan to do with the life I saved," I said, unable to even finish, I was so angry.
"Wait! Wait! We can talk!" Vinnie squealed, slipping under the desk. "Connie! Connie! Help!"
"You're on your own," Connie yelled back from the other room.
I unloaded into the left and right side drawers of the wooden desk, knowing I would probably miss Vinnie unless I got lucky and he was caught by a ricochet. I couldn't really kill my own cousin, but it was tempting. He was screaming like a little girl, and he'd no doubt wet his polyester pants. That was going to have to be enough satisfaction for me, at least for now.
The gun was too warm to put back into my waistband, so I tossed it in my bag.
"I quit," I told him. "You want Joyce to work for you, fine. Good luck with that."
I stormed out, not even looking at Lula or Connie. They were both sitting on the couch looking shell shocked.
I hate Joyce Barnhardt. In kindergarten, Joyce spit in my milk. In second grade, she spilled water down the back of my chair and told everyone I wet my pants. In sixth grade, she started a rumor that I didn't wear underwear. In high school, she ruined relationships and published locker room photos. Somewhere during that time, the fat kid with an overbite filled out and started stealing my would-be boyfriends. When I was 24, after less than a year of marriage, I found Joyce's bare ass on my new dining room table, playing hide the salami with my very-soon-to-be-ex-husband.
My late 20's to early 30's had Joyce following me around trying to steal my paycheck as well as Joe Morelli. Joe is a Trenton cop turned homicide detective, and he's movie star handsome with a hot Italian libido. He's plain clothes, wearing t-shirts, jeans and sneakers. He's always got a five o'clock shadow and his hair is careless perfection. Joe was my childhood crush and, years later, had the potential to become the love of my life. He loves animals, including my hamster, Rex, and his dog, Bob. He loves to eat, and so do I. We like the same movies and music. We know all the same people. We would be very comfortable together except that Joe hates my job and wants me to be a housewife and I would rather chew glass.
And then there's Ranger. Ranger is former special forces. He worked for Vinnie for a while early on, but now he owns Rangeman, offering security services of all kinds with offices in Trenton and Miami. He opened and sold offices in Boston and Atlanta. Ranger was my mentor in the fugitive apprehension business. He's Cuban-American, with delicious mocha-latte skin, smoldering black eyes, and a body like Rambo, but better. He always wears black, usually looking like SWAT. He's tough mentally and physically. He lives like Batman. His bat cave is his apartment on the 7th floor of the Rangeman building in the center of the city. And like Bruce Wayne, he has money to buy top of the line cars and equipment. He still works off and on as a mercenary, or so he lets me believe. No one really knows where Ranger goes, but every once in a while, he disappears for a few weeks. Lula was the first to notice that these disappearances seem to coincide with the rise and fall of Third World or South American countries, or at least, notable skirmishes in the area.
At first, Ranger took me on as a sort of joke, for his own amusement. I remember the first time we met, he said, "There's me, and then there's you, and you aren't ever gonna be as good as me, Sweet Thing." I have spent years trying to learn from Ranger, but in the end, he was right. An average Jersey Girl my have a lot of spunk and attitude, and I may even get the job done, but I'll never hold a candle to a Special Forces Army Ranger when it comes to wrestling a skip to the ground, let alone, all the way to the cop shop. I can't pick locks. I hate guns. I don't know how to tell a bomb from a birthday present, let alone how to defuse one. I don't have access to listening devices or tracking equipment. I don't know how to signal with Morse Code or flags or smoke signals. I speak Burg English and can make Italian hand gestures, but that's it. Ranger can do all this an so much more. Ranger's number one when he's got the intel. But, here's the thing: the Army, the FBI, the CIA, even Interpol doesn't have the intel connections of a Jersey Girl. These days, Ranger sometimes relies on me to find his man, and I sometimes rely on Ranger to help me bring in my toughest skips. It's become a symbiotic relationship. And at times, it's become more than that.
But today, that was all going to change. Today, Vinnie had given his number one skip to Joyce Barnhardt, despite the fact that he knew Connie and Lula and I would strenuously object to having Joyce around at all. We all knew he did this in exchange for kinky sexual favors, and I didn't want details. I couldn't care less. But what killed me was that Vinnie was continuing in his old ways, thinking with his Johnson and showing no consideration for those around him. It was Connie and Lula and I who were keeping him from ending up in little pieces in the landfill.
Joyce was probably still involved with my ex-husband, the less-than-notable attorney Dickie Orr. Last time I was in his office, there was a framed photo of him and Joyce on his desk. Her power over men and their private parts was not to be believed. While Joe sometimes joked about having Joyce over, Ranger referred to dealing with Joyce as being "thrown into the shark tank,". I knew neither of them would ever give her the time of day, let alone a tumble. It was driving her crazy. But to tell the truth, every time I saw Joyce tailing Ranger or saw evidence that she'd been in Joe's house, it made me feel like I was standing in the doorway of my dining room all over again.
For years, Joe and I had considered marriage. Ranger had offered a lot of other things, but marriage wasn't one of them. Still, I had resisted both men as far as solid commitment was concerned. I made a lot of excuses, but today I had clarity. Today I knew it was fear. Fear that one day I would find my man with Joyce, or someone like Joyce...maybe Jean Ellen Burrows, Ranger's competitor and Cat Woman to his Batman, or Terry Gilman, Joe's former girlfriend with the perfect body. I had always feared that I would never be good enough to keep either Joe or Ranger long term. And I was sick of it.
Joyce seemed to be obsessed with making my life miserable. I didn't know why, but I was going to find out. My new mission was two fold. First, I was going to find out what I had done to make Joyce crazy. And then, I was going to figure out how to make her life hell. It was petty, maybe. Revenge is best served cold. Sure. I should bide my time. But right now, all I was seeing was red.