It had been one hell of a day. My name is Stephanie Plum, and I’m a Bond Enforcement Agent (BEA) for my cousin Vincent Plum at Plum Bail Bonds. Basically it works like this, he bails people out of jail when they can’t afford to pay the fee themselves, and if they fail to appear in court, he sends me to bring them in. In return for successfully capturing someone and bringing them to jail, I get a percent of the bond-- all money he would have forfeit without me.
Sometimes Vinnie feels like he needs lots of money, often because his wife is renovating the house again or he needs to buy her affections after another transgression. When that’s the case, he writes way more bonds for people who are more likely to flee, and I wind up too busy to manage until he’s gotten enough money to feel comfortable again. Other times, he’s feeling flush, and he hardly comes into the office, let alone writes bonds, and it becomes a bit of a famine for me. Often quite literally.
Today, with my bank account getting dangerously close to being in the red and all my credit cards maxed out, I’d agreed to go after an FTA (what we call people guilty of failing to appear in court) who was beyond my means and skill set. Usually I was cautious and refused those, having Vinnie send them to my friend, mentor, and once-or-twice-or-so-upon-a-time lover Ranger and his company Rangeman Securities, LLC. I hadn’t been difficult to convince this time though for a couple reasons.
First, as previously mentioned, I was broke. And I wasn’t going to be able to afford food if I didn’t bring someone in. That would mean I would have to go to my parents for handouts, which would require subjecting myself to my mother’s constant litany of criticism and “suggestions” of how to improve my life. Those had only gotten more pointed when I’d declined to move to California with my former on-again-off-again boyfriend Joe Morelli, firmly planting him in the ex category.
Second, I really wanted to catch this guy, Mario. He was part of the late Benito Ramirez’s entourage before Ramirez had gone all crazy stalker who attempted to murder me only to be killed by another one of my crazy FTAs. Anytime I’d come across Mario in my cases, he’d harass me and make it clear that he was thinking about taking up where Ramirez had left off. The harassment had been steadily growing to the point where I was considering asking Ranger for help when his file came across Connie’s desk.
She’d given me first rights of refusal on it, knowing that I badly needed the money, but also that it would be personally gratifying to bring him him. Vinnie had goaded me when I hadn’t instantly taken the file, as though him calling me a chicken would actually convince me. I saw through his efforts anyway; he paid me a smaller percent of the fee than he would pay Rangeman if he had to call them in.
Regardless of the reasons why I decided to take the case, once I had, it was really very easy to find Mario. And he really hadn’t wanted to be brought in, especially by me. Through sheer force of will, I’d managed to take him down without bringing in backup. Unfortunately, it was not without getting grazed by a bullet or two, dodging a knife, skinning my hands and knees, having ridiculous amounts of trash thrown at me, and getting covered in flour. Again. At least now I’d be able to eat and put a decent amount toward rent for the month. I nibbled my lip as I parked the car. I only had another week and a half to make rent and I wasn’t sure I was going to get there in time.
I opened my apartment door, pulling my gun and flipping off the safety when it wasn’t locked, and relaxing slightly when I saw Ranger with two strangers standing in my kitchen. One of the strangers, who was dressed to the nines, was looking around appalled, and Ranger had his hands up before saying, “just me, Babe. And I brought some friends who need your help with a job.”
“There’s nothing I can do that you can’t do better, Ranger.” I replied, snarling at Spiffy Stranger when he looked me up and down and wrinkled his nose. The second man, I decided to call him Unassuming Stranger, looked taken aback, but not quite as offensively so.
“That’s not true, and trust me, you’re the better choice for this job.” He looked me over and grimaced, “should you be at the hospital?”
“Probably, but I’m not going to die if I don’t go, so I’m not going and you can’t make me.”
Okay, he had a point, he definitely could make me, but we both knew it would not be in his best interest to do so.
“I’m going to get cleaned up. Grab a seat if you’d like. There’s…” I paused mentally going through the kitchen inventory or lack thereof “glasses in the cabinet and water in the faucet”.
“Babe, where’s Rex?”
I looked at Ranger with a quivering lower lip and he gave me probably one of the closest things I’d seen to a look of sympathy from him-- other than when Grandma Mazur had died a few months ago. Not wanting to talk about it, I continued to my bedroom, shutting the door and stripping before climbing into the shower. I winced as the hot water went over my wounds, but managed to keep from crying as that would probably result in Ranger joining me in the bathroom which I wasn’t really game for anymore. Once I felt that I was suitably cleaned up, and the water was cooling too much to stay anyway, I dried off and got dressed before heading back out to the living room. I was wearing a sports bra with a tank top over it and some loose, short gym shorts.
Ranger was standing by the couch with an open field kit next to him, and he pointed me to the couch and raised a brow. I sighed but flopped down. When Ranger gave me a once over that was strictly business and started gathering supplies, Unassuming Stranger stepped forward.
“My name is Bruce. I don’t technically have formal medical training, but I have lots of training in related fields and I spent years acting as a doctor of sorts for the poor in Calcutta. I’d like to help if you’ll let me.”
I looked over at Ranger and asked, “you trust him?”
When he nodded at me, I smiled at Bruce and said, “Hi, I’m Stephanie. It’s nice to meet you. If you’re sure you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it. I’m sure Ranger has gloves and I assure you I’m disease free.”
He chuckled at that, and I wasn’t sure what was so funny, but he followed it up by nodding his head in gratitude. He started out cleaning the more superficial wounds as Ranger asked, “Do I need to take care of someone, Babe? Or make a body disappear?”
“No, I handled him. Mario. He’s already been dropped off with Trenton PD. Bruce gently tugged my arm so that he had a better angle on the first graze wound, “bullet?” he asked calmly, though I could see a bit of anger in the tightening of his jaw and a flash of… was that green?... in his eyes.
I nodded and said with a slightly too cheery voice, “Turns out Mario did not want to go back to jail. He took a little bit of… persuading.”
“Babe?” The question was clear.
“Don’t worry, Ranger. He’s alive and there were no witnesses to the persuading. I’m pretty sure it would have been ruled self defense anyway.” Asshole grabbed me from behind and told me he was going to rape me. Both strangers tensed up and Ranger looked ready to kill, so I realized I’d accidentally said that last bit of information out loud. Ranger pulled out his cell phone, and I cut him off, “leave it Ranger. He’s back in jail. I already told Vinnie not to bond him out again, even if he makes bail. And he’s going to prison for a very long time.”
Ranger just held up a finger and growled into the phone, “if you bail that man out again, it will be the last thing you do.” He slammed the phone shut and I was pretty sure that across town Vinnie had just peed his pants.
Bruce cleaned and bandaged my arm and the wound on my calf, but when I stuck my palms out he shoved them aside gently but firmly, suddenly much more concerned. "Stephanie, you’ve got blood all over your shirt."
“Damn, I thought I’d avoided the knife. Didn’t even feel it.” I pulled off my shirt and all three men winced. Once I looked down and caught sight of it, I did the same. “I definitely feel it now, why’d you have to go and tell me about it?” I pouted and Ranger just reached into the bag and pulled out some little bottles and a syringe.
“She should really go to the hospital,” Bruce said.
“I’m really not going to. But Ranger can stitch it up if you don’t want to.”
Bruce sighed and said, “I’ll do it. I assume your tetanus shot is up to date.”
“You know it! This is not my first rodeo and no where near the worst,” then looking over to Ranger I added, “the training has definitely helped though.”
“I wish you’d come work for me full time and let us train you more regularly.”
I shrugged. Ranger and I had this debate every few weeks, but I was unwilling to do so for a few reasons. The biggest being Ranger. We’d had several sexual encounters since I’d known him, and a long history of flirtation, but when Joe had moved out of the picture for good, Ranger hadn’t moved in as I had expected. We’d talked about it, and he wasn’t willing to be anything more than occasional fuck buddies when the mood struck him, and I wasn’t willing to accept those terms. We both had reached a tentative truce over the matter, and our friendship/mentorship was doing well again, but I wasn’t willing to work for Ranger full time. And I was calling him for favors and backup much less frequently, even though he still tried to tell me there was no price for anything he gave me and I didn’t need to stop. He did still call me in for occasional jobs when he knew money was getting tight for me, and I’d been expecting that call a couple days ago at the earliest. I figured that was the point of today’s visit.
I let out a sigh of relief when I felt Bruce tie off the sutures and finish tending to the knife wound. He gently cleaned and bandaged my palms and my knees, and at a gesture from Ranger, I did a slow spin so they could make sure I wasn’t bleeding anywhere else. Once they were satisfied, I slid my shirt back on and flopped back onto the couch. I thanked Bruce before looking over at Spiffy Stranger and raised a brow, “Hi, I’m Stephanie Plum. Who are you and what do you want?”
“Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself because I figured it was obvious. I’m Tony. I need you to find some people for me.”
He slid a stack of pictures towards me and I glanced at the top one long enough to see what looked like a homeless man with shaggy dark hair.
“Look, I don’t know what Ranger told you. Normally I like helping people, but I just can’t afford to right now. I’ve got a couple small bond FTAs to pick up tomorrow then I’ve got to hope more come in who won’t beat me quite this badly otherwise I’m not going to make rent at the end of next week. If you can wait, I’ll help you out after that, but I’ve got to take care of that first.”
Tony stared at me looking absolutely shocked and a bit put off as well; I guessed he wasn’t used to people saying no to him.
“Babe, why didn’t you tell me.”
I rolled my eyes, “I don’t need your money, Ranger.”
Tony spoke up, “clearly, you do.”
I shrugged. “Not yet. Not really. And I’m not taking it at any rate. And the building super, Dillon, usually helps buy me a couple extra days. Look, like I said. I’d like to help any friend of Ranger’s, and if a big bond comes in and I make rent early, I can give you a call and let you know. But if this is time sensitive, you’re going to have to find someone else. I don’t understand why Ranger can’t help if it is that important. I just can’t afford to right now.”
Tony was still staring at me with wide eyes when he said, “you seriously don’t recognize me?”
“Should I? Ranger, I swear to God, if he’s a fugitive, I’m throwing you out right now. I don’t have the time or the energy for this mysterioso shit today. I need a nap, then I need to go into the office to drop off my body receipt and see if Connie has any new files for me.”
“I’m Tony Stark. You know, Iron Man? And I think you misunderstood. I’m asking for your help, but with every intention of paying you. This is not going to be entirely safe and it will take a significant amount of time. We’ll make payments on this place for you while you’re gone, for as long as you want to keep it. In addition, we’ll be providing you a fully furnished, fully stocked apartment and Stark Industries will pay you a competitive salary with benefits-- including hazard pay. It can be a temporary contract until you’ve found these people, then we can discuss hiring you on to a permanent position if you want, or you can move back here if you don’t. As I said, this apartment will be waiting for you, and you’ll have a nice nest egg saved up.”
I gaped at him for a little and then over at Ranger who nodded his head and gestured at the pictures in front of me. I spread them out in front of me and gasped. “I won’t have a job though, Vinnie won’t hold my job for me. And furthermore, I don’t think I can do this, Mr. Stark. You’ve come to the wrong place; I operate on luck and these people require skill.” I said hastily stacking them back up and trying to hand them back to Tony.
“Ranger tells me he’ll ensure your job is waiting for you. He also assures me that you can do this job, or at least have the best shot of anyone he knows, and that’s enough for me. We need someone who we can hire on full time for an unknown length of time, and Ranger has his own company to run, so that’s not going to happen.”
“Even if I could, Steph, you’ll have better luck. These people have the same type of training as I do; I believe it will take someone with more unconventional tactics to find them and successfully make contact without sending them on the offensive.”
“Ranger, if I’m not mistaken, well I don’t know who this first guy is, but that’s Captain America, the guy with wings who is some kind of new partner of his,” I nodded in acknowledgment when Tony supplied the name Falcon before continuing, “Hawkeye, and The Black Widow. The Black Widow, Ranger. If she goes on the offensive, or just doesn’t like that I’m trying to find her, she’ll kill me in about two seconds flat.”
“She’d kill you before you even knew to start counting if she wanted to,” said Bruce, “but I really don’t think she will. I wouldn’t be here trying to help Tony convince you if I thought she’d kill you. The guy you don’t recognize, you DON’T make contact with and you find him last, okay? We will make contact once you’ve gathered everyone else for us. He’s The Winter Soldier.”
“The guy that just tried to murder Captain America, Falcon, and Black Widow in DC.”
“There’s a little more to it than that, which we’ll explain once you agree and sign a ton of NDAs, but essentially, yes. Oh, and I’m the one they call Hulk, by the way.”
I stared at him for a few beats. “Cool. Thank you both for, you know, saving the world and all, by the way.”
We sat there in silence for a little longer and I spread out the photos and stared at them in turn, though I’ll admit my eyes lingered just a little longer on Captain America.
“Why do you want to find them? Are you going to hurt them?”
“No, we want to help them and bring them back to New York. I’ve rebuilt my tower with space for everyone to live, and I need them to help with our Global Security Division, which you’ll be part of if you decide to stay on long term. The world needs them, and I need you to help us make sure they know they have a safe space and backup if they need it.”
I stared into his eyes for a while longer, and looked over at Bruce as well.
“What do you think, Ranger?”
“I think it is important that you do everything you can to help them. And I think getting away from Trenton for a bit will be good for you.”
I rolled that around in my mind for a bit. I hadn’t been happy for a while, that was for sure. I knew there was nothing here for me relationship-wise with Ranger, and staying around him wouldn’t be great for me to convince myself to move on and try finding someone new. Joe was gone, and I’d slowly become less close with Connie, Lula, and Mary Lou. Since Grandma’s death, my relationship with my family was strained at best.
My mother and sister both blamed me, and what they deemed my encouragement of Grandma Mazur’s unhealthy behaviors, for her death. How it was my fault that she had a stroke, wasn’t clear to me, but any attempts to make them understand my point of view had resulted in shouting matches. They generally focused on the fact that she had the stroke at a strip club in Atlantic City. My father had gruffly told me it wasn’t my fault and they’d see reason once they got over their grief, then went back to being his silent self.
All in all, it did seem like a good time for a change. Still though, “I’m willing to try, but I can’t promise you I’ll find them, Mr. Stark.”
“Seriously, call me Tony, and I understand that you can’t make any promises. I’ve looked for months myself and been unsuccessful, which is why I’m begging you to try. Just do your best, okay?”
“Alright then, let’s do this. When do we leave?”
“How soon can you be ready?”
I walked into my bedroom and started throwing some things into a bag. Ranger followed me and said quietly, “you don’t have to do this Steph. It will be dangerous. And there’s always searches you can run at Rangeman if you need a job.”
“I know, Ranger. But it sounds really important. Important to the world important, so I might as well try. If anyone asks, not that I think they will, tell them I’m okay?”
“Of course, Babe. And believe me, they’ll ask. Leave your body receipt with me, and I’ll see that it gets deposited in your account. Similarly, I’ve already arranged the rent payments with Tony and I’ll handle that with Dillon. I’ve got a bag of gear for you in Tony’s car. All legally registered to you with Tony’s help. There’s also a panic button in there. I won’t track you, but if you need me, call or push that and I or some of my men will get to you as fast as we can. If it isn’t me, I’ll make sure they make it obvious I sent them. Tony promised to add himself to its contact list. And he has someone who is going to help you keep up on your training.”
I quickly finished packing and walked out to the living room, carting my two bags with me. Tony tapped a button on his phone, and there was a brief knock on the door before it opened up showing a very friendly but tough looking man in a suit.
“Stephanie, Ranger, this is Happy Hogan. He is head of security for Stark Industries, and sometimes he still drives me around for old times’ sake. He’ll take those bags, if you’re ready to go.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Happy. And please, you all can call me Steph. Yep, I’m ready to go. I don’t have much to take with me.”
I let Happy take my bag and then after a moment of realization that I wasn’t going to be back for I don’t know how long, I walked over to the cookie jar and took out what I now thought of as my back-up gun and its bullets. With a glance at Ranger with both of us knowing the gun wasn’t registered to me, even if pretty much every cop in Trenton knew about it, I handed it over to him. Then I picked up the cookie jar and cradled it to myself before giving him a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“Take care of yourself, Ranger.”
That meant I better take care of myself too.