When I was a kid I was afraid of spiders and
vegetables. As an adult I’ve eliminated vegetables from
my fright-o-meter, but I’ve added a whole bunch of
other stuff. Homicidal maniacs, serial rapists, cellulite,
Joe Morelli’s Grandma Bella, rabid bats and any form of
My name is Stephanie Plum, and I work as a bond
enforcement officer for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. It’s
not a great job, but it allows me to avoid organized
exercise, and I hardly ever encounter rabid bats. The
remaining fright-o-meter items lurk in the dark shadows
of my daily life. Fortunately there are also good things
in those shadows. Joe Morelli without his Grandma
Bella, fellow bounty hunter Ranger without his clothes,
my crazy family, my hamster Rex…and Lula. Lula
actually fits somewhere between the rabid bats and the
good stuff. She’s a former ‘ho, now working as the
office file clerk and apprentice bounty hunter. Lula’s
got a plus-size personality and body, and a petite sized
wardrobe. She’s got brown skin, blond hair, and last
week she had tiny rhinestones pasted onto her eyelids.
It was Monday morning, Connie the office manager
and I were in the bonds office enjoying our morning
coffee, and Lula slid her red Firebird to a stop at the
curb. We watched Lula through the big plate glass
window in the front of the small office, and we did a
joint grimace. Lula was in a state. She lurched out of
the Firebird, beeped it locked and burst into the office,
her eyes wild, rolling around in their sockets, her hands
waving in the air.
“I saw it all,” she said. “It was terrible. It was
horrible. I couldn’t believe it was happening. And right
in front of me.” She looked around. “What do we got?
Do we got doughnuts? ‘Cause I need a doughnut. I
need a whole bag. And maybe I need one of them
breakfast sandwiches with the egg and cheese and
bacon and grease. I got a big grease craving.”
I knew it would be a huge mistake to ask Lula what
she saw, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“What was terrible and horrible?” I asked.
Connie leaned forward, elbows on her desk,
already knowing the telling of the story would be a car
crash. Connie is a couple years older than me, and while
my heritage is half Hungarian and half Italian, Connie is
Italian through and through. Her hair is jet black, her
lipstick is fire engine red, her body is va va voom.
Lula paced in front of Connie’s desk. “First off, I
hardly had time for anything this morning. I had a big
date last night, and by the time I booted his butt out of
my bed I already missed a lot of my beauty sleep.
Anyways I got up late, and then I couldn’t decide what
to wear. One day it’s hot out and next thing it’s cold.
And then I had to decide if I needed to wear shoes that
kicked ass or were good for ass kicking, on account of
there’s a difference, you know.”
“Jeez Louise,” Connie said. “Could you get to it?”
“The point bein’ I was late,” Lula said. “I was tryin’
to put make-up on and drive, and I missed a turn, and
before I knew it I was someplace I didn’t want to be. So
I pulled over to look around and figure things out, and
when I did that my make-up case rolled off the seat
next to me, and everything went all over the floor. So I
was bent over to get my make-up, and I guess it looked
like there was no one in the car, because when I came
back up there were two big hairy morons standing right
in front of my Firebird, and they were removing a head
from some guy’s body.”
“This one moron had a real big knife, like a
machete. And the other moron had a hold of this man
in a suit. And whack! No head. The head popped off
its neck and bounced down the street.”
“And then what happened?”
“Then they saw me,” Lula said. “They looked real
surprised. And I know I looked real surprised. And then
I laid down about two inches of rubber and took off.
“Do you know who they were?”
“Did you know the guy in the suit?”
“No, but it was a real nice suit. And he had a nice
striped tie, too.”
“Did you go to the police?” Connie asked.
“No. I came straight here. It’s not like the police
were gonna put Humpty Dumpty back together again,”
Lula said. “Didn’t seem like there was a big rush, and I
needed a doughnut. Holy cow. Holy shit. I really need
“You need to call the police,” Connie told Lula.
“I hate the police. They give me the willies.
Except for Stephanie’s Morelli. He’s a hottie.”
Joe Morelli is a Trenton plainclothes cop, and Lula
is right about Morelli being a hottie, but Lula is wrong
about Morelli belonging to me. Morelli and I have had an
off and on relationship for as long as I can remember,
and we are currently off. Two weeks ago we had a
disagreement over peanut butter that turned into a
disagreement over everything under the sun, and we
haven’t seen each other since.
Connie dialed into the police band, and we listened
for a couple minutes to see if we picked up anything to
do with decapitation.
“Where did this happen?” Connie asked.
“The three hundred block of Ramsey Street. It
was right in front of the Sunshine Hotel.”
The Sunshine Hotel is a roach farm that rents
rooms by the hour. No one coming or going from the
Sunshine Hotel would ever report anything to anyone.
“I seen lots of stuff,” Lula said, “but this was
disgustin’. Blood shot out like one of them oil gushers.
And when the head hit the ground I swear the eyes
were lookin’ at me. I guess I need to tell the police, but
I only want Morelli.” Lula fixed on me. “You gotta call
“No way. I’m not talking to him. You can call
“I don’t know him like you know him.”
“I don’t know him that way any more. I’m done
with him. He’s a jerk.”
“All men are jerks,” Lula said. “That don’t mean
they aren’t good for some things. And Morelli’s a hot
jerk. He could be a movie star or a underwear model if
he wasn’t a cop. He got all that wavy black hair and
dreamy brown bedroom eyes. He’s kind of puny
compared to some men I know, but he’s hot all the
Morelli was actually six-foot tall and solid muscle,
but Lula used to be engaged to a guy who was a cross
between an Army tank and Sasquatch, so I suppose by
comparison Morelli might measure up short.
“I’ll call Morelli,” Connie said. “He’s a cop, for
crying out loud. You don’t need a complicated
relationship to call a cop.”
I was halfway to the door. “I’m leaving. Things to
do. And I don’t want to see Morelli.”
“Oh no,” Lula said. “You get your boney ass back
here. We’re in this together. Through thick and
“Since now. And before that, too. Remember
when I rescued you from that big snake in the mobile
home? And what about when we were lost in the Pine
“You ran screaming like a little girl when you
thought you saw the snake. And Ranger found us in
the Pine Barrens.”
“Yeah, but if he hadn’t found us I would have got
“You were up to your armpits in a cranberry bog.”
“I don’t never want to see another cranberry
neither,” Lula said.
Twenty minutes later Morelli sauntered in to the
bonds office. He was dressed in jeans and running
shoes, a blue button down shirt that was open at the
neck, and a navy blazer. He looked entirely edible and a
“What’s up?” Morelli asked, eyes on me.
Okay, so I was no longer interested in Morelli. At
least I was pretty sure I wasn’t interested. Still, I was
wishing I’d spent more time on my hair and make-up
this morning, so he felt really rotten about what he was
missing. I have naturally curly shoulder length brown
hair that was currently pulled back into a ponytail. I
have blue eyes that look a lot better when they have a
swipe of liner and mascara, an okay mouth that so far
hasn’t needed artificial plumping, and a little nose that I
consider my best feature. Morelli always thought my
best feature was located considerably lower on my
“It was horrible! It was terrible!” Lula said. “I
Morelli shifted his attention to Lula. He didn’t say
anything, but he looked over at her and raised his
eyebrows a little.
“I never saw nothing like it,” Lula told him. “One
minute I was having a day like any other, and then
whack and this guy didn’t have no head. And blood
came out of him like he was a fountain. And when his
head hit the ground his eyes were lookin’ at me. And I
think the head might have smiled at me too, but I’m not
sure of that.”
Morelli was back on his heels, thumbs hooked into
his jeans pockets. “Is this for real?”
“Hell yeah,” Lula said. “Who makes up shit like
that? Don’t I look traumatized? I’m practically turned
white. I think my hand might even be shaking. Look at
my hand. Is it shaking?”
Morelli’s eyes cut back to me. “Were you with
“Did anyone call 911?”
Lula was hands on hips, starting to look pissed.
“We called you,” she said to Morelli.
Morelli did a fast office scan. “You don’t have the
head here, do you?”
“So far as I know the head and everything else is
still in front of the Sunshine Hotel,” Lula told him. “And
I’m not sure I like your attitude. I’m not sure you’re
takin’ this seriously.”
Morelli stared down at his shoe. Hard to tell if he
was trying hard not to laugh or if he was getting a
migraine. After a five-count he took his cell phone out,
called dispatch and sent a uniform to the Sunshine
“Okay ladies,” Morelli said when he got off the
phone. “Let’s take a field trip.”
I made a big show of looking at my watch. “Gee,
I’ve got to run. Things to do.”
“No way,” Lula said. “I need someone with me in
case I get faint or something.”
“You’ll have him,” I said.
“He’s a fine man, but he’s the cop representative
here, and I need someone from my posse, you see what
I’m saying. I need a BFF.”
“It’s not gonna be me,” Connie said. “Vinnie is
picking up a skip in Atlanta, and I have to run the
Morelli cut his eyes to me and gave his head a
small shake, like he didn’t believe any of this. Like I was
a huge, unfathomable pain in the ass, and in fact maybe
that was how he felt about women in general right now.
I understood Morelli’s point of view because it was
precisely my current feeling about men.
“Terrific,” I said on a sigh. “Let’s get on with it.”
Lula and I followed Morelli in my ten-year old Ford
Escort that used to be blue. We didn’t take the Escort
because we liked riding in it. We took it because Lula
thought she might be too over-wrought to drive her
Firebird, and she suspected she would need a bacon
cheeseburger after visiting the scene of the crime, and
Morelli might not be inclined to find a drive-thru for her.
There were already two cruisers angled in to the
curb in front of the Sunshine Hotel when Lula and I
arrived. I parked, and Lula and I got out and stood next
to Morelli and a couple uniforms. We all looked down at
a red splotch that sprayed out over about a four foot
diameter. A couple smaller splotches trailed off the big
splotch, and I assumed that was where the head hit the
pavement. I felt a wave of nausea slide through my
stomach, and I started to sweat.
“This here’s the spot,” Lula said. “You can see it’s
just like I told you. There was a big gusher of blood
when they whacked the head off. It was like Old
Faithful going off, only it was blood. And then the head
rolled down the sidewalk. It was like the head was a
bowlin’ ball with eyes. And the eyes were like big
googly eyes kinda popping out of the head and lookin’
at me. And I think I might have heard the head laughin’,
or maybe it was the guys who did the whackin’ who
The uniforms all did a grimace, Morelli was
impassive, and I threw up. Everyone jumped away from
me, I gagged one last time and did some deep
“Sorry,” I said.
“No problem,” Morelli told me. “I feel like throwing
up a lot on this job.”
One of the uniforms brought me some paper
towels and a bottle of water, and Lula stood a good
“You got lots of room for lunch now that you’re
empty,” she yelled at me. “I could get a early start with
one of them extra crispy bird burgers they’re servin’ at
Cluck-in-a-Bucket. Have you heard about them? They
got some new secret sauce.”
I wasn’t interested in secret sauce. I wanted to go
home and go to bed and not get up until it was a new
day. I was done with this one.
“We got a couple footprints heading south,” a
uniform said. “One of these guys had real big feet.
Looks like a size fourteen. And there’s some skid marks
where they dragged the body to the curb. Imagine they
dumped it into a car and took off.”
“You need to come downtown and give me some
information,” Morelli said to Lula.
“No way. Un ah. I got a allergic reaction to police
stations. I get irritable bowel and hives and the
“You witnessed a murder.”
“Yeah, but there’s extenuating circumstances
here. I got a medical condition. I got a extreme
sensitivity to cops.”
Morelli looked like he wanted to pull his gun out of
its holster and shoot himself.
“I’ll get you some cheese burgers and a side of
onion rings,” he said to Lula.
Lula stood hands on hips. “You think I could be
bought for some lame ass burgers? What kinda woman
you think I am?”
“I’ll throw in a bucket of chicken and an ice cream
cake from Carvel,” Morelli said. “That’s my final offer.”
“Deal,” Lula told him. “We goin’ in your car? On
account of I’m not riding in a cop car, and I hate to say
this but Stephanie don’t smell too good.”
Twenty minutes later I parked in the lot to my
apartment building. My building straddles the line
between Trenton proper and Trenton improper. It’s a
three-story utilitarian brick box filled with tenants who
are struggling to make ends meet. Frequently I have a
gap between my ends, resulting in a lot of dinners
mooched from my parents who live ten minutes away in
a blue-collar chunk of Trenton called The Burg.
My apartment is on the second floor and my
windows look out at the parking lot. My only roommate
is a hamster named Rex. I manage to keep a good
supply of hamster food in my fridge and in my
cupboard. People food is spotty. I own a fry pan and a
pot. Perfectly adequate since I mostly eat peanut
butter sandwiches. Peanut butter and banana, peanut
butter and jelly, peanut butter and potato chips, peanut
butter and olives, and peanut butter and marshmallow
goo. So sue me, I like peanut butter. The rest of the
apartment consists of dining alcove, living room with
television, one bedroom and bath.
I hustled from my car to my apartment, stripped
and jumped into the shower. I was approaching boiled
lobster skin tone when I finally emerged and wrapped
myself in a towel. I stepped out of the bathroom and
spotted Ranger lounging in the club chair across from
my bed. I gave a startled yelp and jumped back into
“Babe,” Ranger said.
I stuck my head out and looked at him. “What are
you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you.”
“You could have called. Or how about ringing my
Ranger looked like he was thinking about smiling.
His attention focused on the top of my towel and slowly
moved to the bottom hem that hung a half-inch below
my doodah. His brown eyes dilated black, and I took a
stronger grip on my towel.
Ranger was the second biggest complication in my
life, and now that Morelli is out of the picture, I suppose
Ranger is elevated to numero uno. He’s close to six
foot, one way or the other, is Latino with medium
brown skin and dark brown hair cut short. His teeth are
white and even, and he has a killer smile that is only
seen on special occasions. He dresses in black, and
today he was wearing black T-shirt and black cargo
pants. His given name is Carlos Manoso. His street
name, Ranger, is a holdover from time spent in Special
Forces. These days he does the occasional high-risk
bond enforcement job, and is the managing partner of a
security firm located in a stealth building in center city.
I’ve seen him naked, and you can take it to the bank
when I tell you he’s all hard muscle and perfect in every
possible way. And I mean every possible way.
Ranger and I have three things in common. We’re
the same age. We’re both single. And we both were
previously married for about ten seconds. That’s where
the common ground ends. I’m an open book with a lot
of blank pages. His book is filled with life experience
but written in disappearing ink. I have three locks on
my front door plus a sliding bolt, and I’m sure they were
all in place. Somehow this never stops Ranger. He’s a
man of mysterious talents.
Ranger crooked his finger at me. “Come here.”
“That’s no fun,” Ranger said.
“I didn’t know you were interested in fun.”
There was a very slight curve to the corners of his
mouth. “I have my moments.”
I had a big, cuddly pink robe in my closet, but I had
to cross in front of Ranger to get to it. I wasn’t worried
Ranger would jump me. My fear was that if I got too
close, I’d get sucked into his force field, and I’d jump
him. And jumping Ranger was a dangerous deal. He’d
made it clear that his emotional involvement would
always have limitations. Plus, there was Morelli. Morelli
was currently out of the picture, but he’d been out
before, and he’d always slid back in. Getting naked with
Ranger would make a reconciliation with Morelli much
more difficult. Of course that wasn’t currently an issue
because I wasn’t in a mood to reconcile anything.
“What did you want to talk to me about?” I asked
“Three of my clients have been robbed in the last
two months. All three had state of the art security
systems. And in all three cases the systems were shut
down for exactly fifteen minutes and then reactivated.
My clients weren’t home at the time. There was no sign
of physical tampering.”
“I see them using gizmos in the movies that can
figure out codes.”
“This isn’t a movie. This is real life.”
“Someone hacked into your system?”
“That leaves an unpleasant possibility,” I said to
“In theory there are only a few people in my
organization who have access to the codes, and I can’t
imagine any of those men being involved in this. For
that matter everyone I employ is rigorously screened.
Plus, the entire building, with the exception of private
living spaces, is monitored 24 hours.”
“Have you changed the codes?”
“I changed them after each break-in.”
“Yeah,” Ranger said. “Someone on the inside is
beating my system.”
“Why are you telling this to me?”
“I need you to come in and snoop around without
raising suspicion. I can’t trust anyone already inside.”
Tank is exactly what his name would imply. He’s
big and solid inside and out. He’s second in command
at Rangeman, and he’s the guy who watches Ranger’s
“You’ve worked for me before doing computer
searches, and that’s where I’d like to put you again.
Ramon has been doing the searches, but he’d like to get
out of the cubby and back on the street. You’d be
working on the fifth floor in the control room, but you’d
have total access within the building. Every man in my
organization knows you and understands that you’re my
personal property, so they’re not going to talk freely
when you’re around, but they’re also not going to think
I hired you to snoop. They’ll assume I gave you the job
to have you close to me.”
“Babe, you’re the only one who would question it.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I am not personal
property. A car is personal property. A shirt is
personal property. A human being is not personal
“In my building we share cars and shirts. We don’t
share women. In my building you’re my personal
property. Deal with it.”
At a later time, when I was alone and gave it some
thought I’d probably find the flaw in that reasoning, but
oddly enough it made sense at the moment.
“What about my cases at the bond office?” I
“I’ll help you.”
This was a really good deal because I was a crappy
bounty hunter and Ranger was the best. Not to
mention I’d be drawing salary from Rangeman. All I had
to do was keep my hands off Ranger and everything
would be peachy.
“Okay,” I said. “When do you want me to start?”
“Now. Do you have uniforms left from the last
time you worked for me?”
“I have a couple T-shirts, and I have some black
“Good enough. I’ll have Ella order some more.”
Ella and her husband Louis serve as live-in
property managers for Rangeman. They keep the
building clean and running efficiently, and they keep the
men fed and clothed.
“I assume you still have your key fob?” Ranger
The key fob got me into the high security
Rangeman building, and it also got me into Ranger’s
private 7th floor apartment. In the past I’d used the
apartment when I felt I was in danger. It wasn’t a move
I made lightly because I had to weigh the danger at
hand against the danger of living with Ranger.
Ranger’s cell phone buzzed, and he looked at the
screen. “I have to go,” he said. “Tank and Ramon are
expecting you. Ramon will bring you up to speed and
then you should be able to take over. You know the
drill.” His eyes moved from my face to the towel and
then back to my face. “Tempting,” he said. And he
Finger Lickin' Fifteen Copyright © 2009 by Evanovich, Inc.
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