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Out of the Frying Pan

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Being a bond enforcement agent (BEA), or bounty hunter as some like to call us, was a tough job for many reasons.

First of all, I wasn't a very good bounty hunter. I definitely wasn't the worst bounty hunter I knew, but I was also far from being the best. So far.

Ricardo Carlos Manoso, aka Ranger, was hands down the best bounty hunter I knew, and he wasn't even a bounty hunter anymore. He was retired, for the most part, unless a really good case came up or he needed to get me out of a tight spot.

I hadn't been in a tight spot for a couple weeks, mostly because I had a broken leg. And part of what made being a bond enforcement agent so difficult was the fact that it was an inconsistent (and often insufficient) source of income— especially when you weren't all that great at it. If you weren't very good, it took you longer to bring in each FTA.

FTA was short for "failure to appear" and is what we called a person who was bonded out by a bail bondsman and then didn't show up for their court date.

The way it worked was when someone got arrested, a judge might set bail. Bail was an amount of money that, if paid, served as collateral guaranteeing that a person would show up in court for their trial. If a person received bail and paid it, they could go home until their trial. If they couldn't afford to pay the amount bail was set at, they hired a bondsman who, for a fee, paid the bond on their behalf. If the bonded person showed up for their scheduled court date, the money was returned to the bail bondsman and the trial ensued. If they skipped their court date, the money was forfeit. When that happened, the bail bondsman was out all the money unless they returned the FTA, or skip, back to jail.

BEAs were hired by bondsman, like my cousin Vinnie who ostensibly owned Plum Bail Bonds, to bring in skips in exchange for a portion of the money the bondsman would have otherwise lost.

Being a bounty hunter was also basically a contract gig. You got paid per skip, end of story. No salary to fall back on, and no benefits. When it took you longer to bring in skips, like it often did for me, that meant you could bring in fewer skips total, and you made less money.

About six weeks ago I had been hit by a car driven by one of my skip's henchmen in an effort to kidnap and then kill me. They wanted to keep me from uncovering their drug dealing operation.

They'd made it most of the way through their plan, but the bonds office file clerk and my sometimes partner, Lula, had called in the cavalry, and I'd been rescued before I'd been killed. All I had taken away from the incident was the broken leg and some nightmares about being frozen alive and turned into a cherry popsicle.

No joke— that had been their plan. That was a whole different story involving an ice cream factory and organized crime.

But with bounty hunting being a contract position, I didn't have disability. And I certainly couldn't go after skips with my leg in a cast. So that meant that while I was healing, I hadn't had any income.

Six weeks later, the nightmares were less frequent, my already paltry bank account was almost on empty from lack of making money, I was going absolutely stir crazy, and I wanted to murder Joe Morelli. Morelli was my on-again-off-again boyfriend with who I'd mostly been living while in my convalescence. We've had our unstable relationship for years, but we'd been mostly been in an "on" phase recently.

In fact, Joe Morelli and I were maybe engaged to be engaged. Every once in a while, we talked about getting married sometime in the distant future, and then we didn't mention it again for months. Morelli started skipping dinners with my family to avoid the possibility of a wedding being planned. It was a whole cycle.

When my leg had been broken and I'd been put in a cast, I'd had to move in with either Morelli or my parents to get by. My parents lived in a small, three bedroom house with only one bathroom. My Grandma Mazur had lived with them ever since my Grandpa Mazur went to the Big Hotel in the Sky, and between her and my father, bathroom time was almost non-existent for anyone else.

Morelli only had one bathroom as well, but I only had to share with him. Plus he had Bob, an adorable giant of a dog who was dumb as a load of bricks but doled out love unconditionally and enthusiastically. Bob was great for the first few weeks of my recovery keeping my spirits up.

But the last couple weeks had been absolutely brutal. When my follow-up appointment showed that my fracture was healing well and wouldn't require surgery, I'd talked the doctor into a smaller brace rather than cast.

My name is Stephanie Plum, and the world needed to watch out. I was mobile.

If I was very careful, I thought I could probably drive. So I dropped by my parents' house to see if I could borrow Big Blue, a powder blue 1953 Buick Roadmaster that Grandma Mazur had inherited from my great uncle Sandor.

Grandma Mazur didn't have a license to drive and was becoming more blind practically by the day, so Big Blue pretty much just stayed in my parents' garage and occasionally I borrowed it when I found myself without a car. I hated driving Big Blue because it ate through gas like a termite through wood, but it was better than no car. You couldn't chase down skips and drag them into jail on foot.

Well, maybe Ranger could, but I could not. And I was pretty sure Ranger wouldn't do it, even if he could.

My mother and Grandma Mazur were out at the hair salon when I texted Grandma to ask about the car, so I was expecting a minimal exchange with my father, mostly in grunts while he watched some sort of sporting event on the TV with one eye, as I grabbed the keys.

"Hi, Dad!" I called to him as I limped past the living room toward the kitchen and the keys to the Buick. "Can you tell Grandma I said, 'thanks again' for letting me borrow Big Blue?"

Much to my surprise, I heard the TV turn off and my father yell out, "Stephanie?"

I grabbed the keys off the hook by the back door then poked my head into the living room to look at him.

"That a problem?" I asked.

"No no, no problem. It's better you have it than that old bat anyway!" He told me, waving off my concern. He gestured to the couch across from his recliner, so I moved over and lowered my self down. "How's the leg?"

"Pretty good!" I told him, amping up the enthusiasm more than I was actually feeling. "My leg mostly doesn't hurt anymore, and I got the sign off to start doing more again from the doctor. This is mostly just here to keep me from breaking it again."

And mostly that was true.

"Going back to work?" He asked.

"Well, I'm not sure I'm up for solo takedowns right now, but I need something to do. I'll probably take some of the easier FTAs who just forgot to go to court or are otherwise easy to talk into going in to reschedule. Then maybe I'll do some research and help Lula find people and get her to do the physical stuff for now. Split the fee with her." I shrugged my shoulders.

Truth be told it was taking everything in my power not to panic over money these days. Being in a brace was definitely not going to help my bottom line.

I watched curiously as my father opened his mouth then shut it again a couple times. It was obvious he wanted to talk about something, but he couldn't bring himself to do so for some reason.

"What's up? Grandma Mazur and mom really are just at the hair salon, right?!" I asked, panic beginning to creep in. Grandma Mazur was a force to be reckoned with, but she was also old. Had something happened to her?

"There's this guy I used to work with before I retired, Dale Simms. His son, Jason, is missing. I thought maybe you could have a look around for him if you had some time. But if you're starting up work again-" he trailed off awkwardly and rubbed his head a bit.

This was my father.

Asking me for a favor.

My father never asked for anything more than for someone to pass him the gravy at dinner time.

"Why doesn't he go to the police?" I asked.

"Jason's in his twenties, and he doesn't live with them. The cops aren't going to do anything because they say maybe he's just not taking his parents calls."

I wanted to say no.

I wanted to tell him I had enough on my plate with the broken leg and trying to earn money however I could.

But then again, I didn't want to worry him. And I didn't want him to offer me money- either to have or as payment for the job.

And then there was the Catholic guilt. I was mostly a lapsed Catholic other than Christmas and Easter or anytime I was worried I was going to die. But the guilt was a habit formed from going to mass every Sunday growing up, and it was telling me to honor my father.

Taking a deep breath, I pasted a smile on my face, and assured my dad it would be no problem. I asked him for the relevant details- not that he had many to give me- and I told him I'd let him know when I had more information he could pass on to good old Dale Simms.

When my father turned the TV back on and resumed watching it, I figured that was my sign to leave.

Getting into Big Blue, I said a little prayer that I would actually be able to drive it safely. I figured it couldn't hurt since I was apparently trying to get into God's good graces today anyway and Big Blue was a bit of a boat and hard to drive on the best of days. And the cast on my leg was a definite sign that it wasn't the best of days.

My parents lived in a part of Trenton, New Jersey known as The Burg. The Burg was a nicer area of Trenton with mostly hard working, middle-class men and women. Everyone was always in everyone else's business. Vincent Plum Bail Bonds was just across from the Burg in Trenton, and most of its clients were from the Burg. It wasn't as good of a location as, say, a spot across from the police station might be, but it did well enough.

And it was conveniently not too long of a drive from my parents' house.

Still, by the time I pulled up and parked on the street, thankfully right outside the office, I was pretty sure I'd broken out in a light sweat from the effort. I wasn't in great shape before I broke my leg, and six weeks mostly off my feet didn't seem to have helped much in that regard.

Connie Rosolli was the office manage for Plum Bail Bonds, and she looked a little like Betty Boop. She kept the office running, and her desk was in the open office area, just in front of Vinnie's private office. She kept people who might want to attack or bother Vinnie (he was a weasel of a person) at bay, and she tried not to hear anything that happened inside the office.

Vinnie was married to Harry the Hammer's daughter, and Harry was connected. Somehow despite having a father-in-law in the mob, Vinnie still managed to be a sexually deviant philanderer. His rumored exploits were numerous, and more than one involved different farm animals, so I thought Connie was smart to turn a deaf ear to his office. And to keep Lysol around.

When I walked in the door, Connie looked up and gave me a small smile. Lula was sleeping on the couch across the office, and her snore turned into a startled snort when the door slammed shut behind me.

"Whossat?" Lula gasped out as she bolted upright, causing Connie to roll her eyes.

I gave a little finger wave when Lula's eyes settled on me.

"Skinny Ass White girl!" Lula jumped up and I had to avert my gaze to keep from being flashed in the process. See, Lula was a lot of woman, and a former hooker. Mostly she still dressed like a prostitute, and shoved way too much Lula into way too small of some sort of Spandex contraption. Today's involved a lot of leopard print. She sorted out her dress and said, "are you back?"

The door to Vinnie's office opened and he stuck his head out yelling, "you better be back! After all I've done for you, you just up and disappear! I'm not paying you to shack up with Morelli! Do you know how many FTAs we have right now? I'm going to lose my business because of you!"

A quick look at Connie's face showed strain that could only mean the office really was in financial trouble. See when it came to bounty hunters, they really only had me. They used to have Ranger, but he'd mostly gotten out of the bounty hunter business and these days stuck to his private security company Rangeman of which he was CEO.

Lula was my partner sometimes, but as far as I knew, she'd never actually brought in a skip solo. There were a few people they called in from time to time part time, and I was sure that they had used them, but they weren't too reliable. I was also pretty sure Vinnie paid them more than he paid me.

"Hey!" I yelled right back at Vinnie. "It's not like I was on vacation! My LEG was BROKEN. It still kinda is, but I'm allowed up and about without crutches now. And I have this brace instead of a cast, so I thought I'd come in and see what I could do. Not to mention, you HAVEN'T been paying me!"

While I'd been talking, Vinnie had snapped his mouth shut. At the same time, Connie and Lula's mouths had dropped open and they were staring behind me with dazed expressions. Since nobody hit the floor, I assumed we weren't being robbed. I felt movement behind me a split second before I felt a warm arm snake around my waist.

Ranger.

While some might think the arm looked proprietary, and from the shocked looks on Connie's and Lula's faces they were thinking along those lines, I knew it wasn't. What Ranger was actually doing was taking some of my weight and giving my leg a bit of a rest.

"Babe," Ranger said casually though his eyes were fixing Vinnie with a dead look. "Should you be back already? I'm sure your cousin wouldn't want anything bad to happen to you if you came back too early. And he told me you would have a job when you were healed."

Come to think about it, I had wondered why Vinnie hadn't fired me for being out so long or bothered me once while I was recovering.

"Doctor said I was good to start walking around and stuff, and I figured Lula would be willing to work with me on takedowns," I explained.

"Fucking right I am," Lula agreed. "I got my gun and everything!"

Ranger was completely silent for a few beats after that, and I knew he was contemplating the fact. Lula with a gun was scary. She never hit what she was aiming at.

"Can I have a word with you outside?" Ranger turned and said to me.

"Sure, just give me a second," I agreed, holding in a sigh when Ranger let go of the hold he had on me, pausing only briefly to make sure my leg was going to hold me up.

He walked out the door, and Connie looked at me, "haven't you been living with Morelli?"

"Yes," I said. "He was taking care of me while my leg was hurt, and I was staying with him to make it easier."

"Was?" Lula asked. "You staying with Rambo now?"

She pointed at the door Ranger had just left.

"No. Still staying with, Morelli," I huffed out.

Truth be told though, I was thinking I would move back into my apartment. As long as I could scrape up enough money to pay the next month of rent. Whenever I stayed with Morelli too long, I started to get more and more frustrated and wanted my own space back. Then there were the matters of the pool table, xanthan gum, and Disney incidents.

The pool table was the easiest one. I'd thought Morelli was saving up to buy me an engagement ring since we'd agreed we'd be getting engaged down the road. Then a pool table had shown up in his house, and I'd realized that was what he had been saving money for.

And we still weren't really engaged. Just "engaged to be engaged" whatever that was worth, which I was beginning to suspect was nothing.

The xanthan gum incident was a bit of an emotional minefield, as just thinking about it was prone to get me pissed off. Joe had started having digestional issues and started seeing doctors and specialists. They'd thought it was various intolerances, and Joe had thought it was possible that he was going to die. That or the issues were caused by stress. Either way though, he'd decided that rather than divulge all his worries to me, he'd sleep with me then dump me and tell me to see other people (as long as those people weren't Ranger). I'd been mad that he was going through this huge thing and didn't talk to me about it. And I was REALLY mad that he would sleep with me THEN dump me THEN act like it was no big deal.

The Disney incident was tricky. See during the ice cream investigation, Ranger and I had gone to Disney. We'd been stuck overnight unexpectedly, shared a hotel room, and I'd gotten Tinkerbell panties. Really it was the panties fault that I'd slept with Ranger (though not for the first time). But he'd said something that really stuck with me. He'd told me I was no closer to getting Morelli to marry me than when I was five years old and Morelli tricked me into playing "Choo Choo" with him in his garage. I was the tunnel, Morelli was the train. ANYWAY, Ranger had a point.

Then I'd gotten back to Trenton and the whole broken leg thing had happened, and I'd spent six weeks living with Morelli while quietly fuming over these Incidents (really they probably all needed to be capital "I" incidents), and one of these days I was going to explode.

So I needed to get out of Morelli's house before I exploded, and to do that, I needed to keep my apartment. And to keep my apartment, I needed money.

Connie was holding out a stack of folders for me, so I took them as I asked, "can you run a check on someone for me?"

I grabbed a sticky note from her desk when she nodded and wrote down the little information my dad had given me on Jason and handed it to Connie.

Turning to Lula I said, "I've got some reading and planning to do, and I need to go see what Ranger wants. I don't think I'll be ready to go after anyone until tomorrow at the earliest, if that's alright with you?"

She nodded her head and I heard a muffled thunking sound and a curse from Vinnie's office, but I knew he was too scared of Ranger to say anything else for the day. I stood there flipping through the folders for a couple minutes, waiting for the first few printouts on Jason I knew Connie could get for me quickly but also not wanting to keep Ranger waiting for too long. When Connie held out a few papers me told me that she'd get me something more in the morning, I thanked her and said bye to her and Lula for the day then headed out to talk to Ranger.