In my mind, my kitchen is filled with crackers and cheese, roast
chicken leftovers, farm fresh eggs, and coffee beans ready to
grind. The reality is that I keep my Smith & Wesson in the
cookie jar, my Oreos in the microwave, a jar of peanut butter and
hamster food in the over-the-counter cupboard, and I have beer and
olives in the refrigerator. I used to have a birthday cake in the
freezer for emergencies, but I ate it.
Truth is, I would dearly love to be a domestic goddess, but the
birthday cake keeps getting eaten. I mean, you buy it, and you eat
it, right? And then where are you? No birthday cake. Ditto cheese
and crackers and eggs and the roast chicken leftovers (which were
from my mother). The coffee beans are light-years away. I don't own
a grinder. I guess I could buy two birthday cakes, but I'm afraid
I'd eat both.
My name is Stephanie Plum, and in my defense I'd like to say that I
have bread and milk on my shopping list, and I don't have any
communicable diseases. I'm five feet, seven inches. My hair is
brown and shoulder length and naturally curly. My eyes are blue. My
teeth are mostly straight. My manicure was pretty good three days
ago, and my shape is okay. I work as a bond enforcement agent for
my cousin Vinnie, and today I was standing in Loretta Rizzi's
kitchen, thinking not only was Loretta ahead of me in the
kitchen-needs-a-makeover race, but she made me look like a piker in
the Loose Cannon Club.
It was eight in the morning, and Loretta was wearing a long, pink
flannel nightgown and holding a gun to her head.
"I'm gonna shoot myself," Loretta said. "Not that it would matter
to you, because you get your money dead or alive, right?"
"Technically, that's true," I told her. "But dead is a pain in the
tuchus. There's paperwork."
A lot of the people Vinnie bonds out are from my Chambersburg
neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey. Loretta Rizzi was one of those
people. I went to school with Loretta. She's a year older than me,
and she left high school early to have a baby. Now she was wanted
for armed robbery, and she was about to blow her brains out. Vinnie
had posted Loretta's bond, and Loretta had failed to show for her
court appearance, so I was dispatched to drag her back to jail. And
as luck would have it, I walked in at a bad moment and interrupted
"I just wanted a drink," Loretta said.
"Yeah, but you held up a liquor store. Most people would have gone
to a bar."
"I didn't have any money, and it was hot, and I needed a Tom
Collins." A tear rolled down Loretta's cheek. "I've been thirsty
lately," she said.
Loretta is a half a head shorter than me. She has curly black hair
and a body kept toned by hefting serving trays for catered affairs
at the firehouse. She hasn't changed much since high school. A few
crinkle lines around her eyes. A little harder set to her mouth.
She's Italian-American and related to half the Burg, including my
offand- on boyfriend, Joe Morelli.
"This was your first offense. And you didn't shoot anyone. Probably
you'll get off with a hand-slap," I told Loretta.
"I had my period," she said. "I wasn't thinking right."
Loretta lives in a rented row house on the edge of the Burg. She
has two bedrooms, one bath, a scrubbed-clean, crackerbox kitchen,
and a living room filled with secondhand furniture. Hard to make
ends meet when you're a single mother without a high school
The back door swung open and my sidekick, Lula, stuck her head in.
"What's going on in here? I'm tired of waiting in the car. I
thought this was gonna be a quick pickup, and then we were going
Lula is a former 'ho, turned bonds office file clerk and wheelman.
She's a plus-size black woman who likes to squash herself into too
small clothes featuring animal print and spandex. Lula's cup
runneth over from head to toe.
"Loretta is having a bad morning," I said.
Lula checked Loretta out. "I can see that. She's still in her
"Notice anything else?" I asked Lula.
"You mean like she's tryin' to style her hair with a Smith &
"I don't want to go to jail," Loretta said.
"It's not so bad," Lula told her. "If you can get them to send you
to the workhouse, you'll get dental."
"I'm a disgrace," Loretta said.
Lula shifted her weight on her spike-heeled Manolo knock-offs. "You
be more of a disgrace if you pull that trigger. You'll have a big
hole in your head, and your mother won't be able to have an
open-casket viewing. And who's going to clean up the mess it'll
make in your kitchen?"
"I have an insurance policy," Loretta said. "If I kill myself, my
son, Mario, will be able to manage until he can get a job. If I go
to jail, he'll be on his own without any money."
"Insurance policies don't pay out on suicides," Lula said.
"Oh crap! Is that true?" Loretta asked me.
"Yeah. Anyway, I don't know why you're worried about that. You have
a big family. Someone will take care of Mario."
"It's not that easy. My mother is in rehab from when she had the
stroke. She can't take him. And my brother, Dom, can't take him. He
just got out of jail three days ago. He's on probation."
"What about your sister?"
"My sister's got her hands full with her own kids. Her rat turd
husband left her for some pre-puberty lap dancer."
"There must be someone who can baby-sit for you," Lula said to
"Everyone's got their own thing going. And I don't want to leave
Mario with just anybody. He's very sensitive. . . and
I counted back and placed her kid in his early teens. Loretta had
never married, and so far as I know, she'd never fingered a father
"Maybe you could take him," Loretta said to me.
"What? No. No, no, no, no."
"Just until I can make bail. And then I'll try to find someone more
"If I take you in now, Vinnie can bond you out right away."
"Yeah, but if something goes wrong, I need someone to pick Mario up
"What can go wrong?"
"I don't know. A mother worries about these things. Promise you'll
pick him up if I'm still in jail. He gets out at two-thirty."
"She'll do it," Lula said to Loretta. "Just put the gun down and go
get dressed so we can get this over and done. I need coffee. I need
one of those extra-greasy breakfast sandwiches. I gotta clog my
arteries on account of otherwise the blood rushes around too fast
and I might get a dizzy spell."
Lula was sprawled on the brown Naugahyde couch hugging the wall in
the bonds office, and Vinnie's office manager, Connie Rosolli, was
at her desk. Connie and the desk had been strategically placed in
front of Vinnie's inneroffice door with the hope it would
discourage pissed-off pimps, bookies, and other assorted lowlifes
from rushing in and strangling Vinnie.
"What do you mean she isn't bonded out?" I asked Connie, my voice
rising to an octave normally only heard from Minnie Mouse.
"She has no money to secure the bond. And no assets." "That's
impossible. Everyone has assets. What about her mother? Her
brother? She must have a hundred cousins living in a ten-mile
"She's working on it, but right now she has nothing. Bupkus. Nada.
So Vinnie's waiting on her."
"Yeah, and it's almost two-thirty," Lula said. "You better go get
her kid like you promised."
Connie swiveled her head toward me and her eyebrows went up to her
hairline. "You promised to take care of Mario?"
"I said I'd pick him up if Loretta wasn't bonded out in time. I
didn't know there'd be an issue with her bond."
"Oh boy," Connie said. "Good luck with that one."
"Loretta said he was sensitive and artistic."
"I don't know about the sensitive part, but his art is limited to
spray paint. He's probably defaced half of Trenton. Loretta has to
pick him up from school because they won't let him on a school
I hiked my bag onto my shoulder. "I'm just driving him home. That
was the deal."
"There might be some gray area in the deal," Lula said.
"You might've said you'd take care of him. And anyways, you can't
dump him in an empty house. You get child services after you for
"Well, what the heck am I supposed to do with him?"
Lula and Connie did I don't know shoulder shrugs.
"Maybe I can sign for Loretta's bond," I said to Connie.
"I don't think that'll fly," Connie said. "You're the only person I
know who has fewer assets than Loretta."
"Great." I huffed out of the office and rammed myself into my
latest P.O.S. car. It was a Nissan Sentra that used to be silver
but was now mostly rust. It had doughnut-size wheels, a Jaguar hood
ornament, and a bobble-head Tony Stewart doll in the back window. I
like Tony Stewart a lot, but seeing his head jiggling around in my
rearview mirror doesn't do much for me. Unfortunately, he was stuck
on with Crazy Glue and nothing short of dismantling the car was
going to get him out of my life.
Loretta had given me a photo of Mario and a pickup location. I
cruised to a spot where a group of kids were shuffling around,
looking for their rides. Easy to spot Mario. He resembled Morelli
when Morelli was his age. Wavy black hair and slim build. Some
facial similarities, although Morelli has always been movie star
handsome and Mario was a little short of movie star. Of course, I
might have been distracted by the multiple silver rings piercing
his eyebrows, ears, and nose. He was wearing black-and-white
Converse sneakers, stovepipe jeans with a chain belt, a black
T-shirt with Japanese characters, and a black denim jacket.
Morelli had been an early bloomer. He grew up fast and hard. His
dad was a mean drunk, and Morelli got good with his hands as a kid.
He could use them in a fight, and he could use them to coax girls
out of their clothes. The first time Morelli and I played doctor, I
was five years old, and he was seven. He's periodically repeated
the performance, and lately we seem to be a couple. He's a cop now,
and against all odds, he's mostly lost the anger he had growing up.
He inherited a nice little house from his Aunt Rose and has become
domestic enough to own a dog and a toaster. He hasn't as yet
reached the crockpot, toilet seat down, live plant in the kitchen
level of domesticity. Mario looked like a late bloomer. He was
short for his age and had "desperate geek" written all over
I got out of my car and walked to the group of kids.
"Who wants to know?"
"I do," I said. "Your mother can't pick you up today. I promised
her I'd bring you home."
This produced some moronic comments and snickers from Mario's idiot
"The name is Zook," Mario said to me. "I don't answer to
I rolled my eyes, grabbed Zook by the strap on his backpack, and
towed him to my car.
"This is a piece of shit," he said, hands dangling at his sides,
taking the car in.
He shrugged and wrenched the door open. "Just saying." I drove the
short distance to the bonds office and pulled to the curb.
"What's this?" he asked.
"Your mother's been returned to lockup because she failed to show
for her court appearance. She can't make her bail, and I can't take
you home to an empty house, so I'm parking you in the bonds office
until I can find a better place for you."
"What do you mean no? No isn't an option."
I'm not getting out of the car."
"I'm a bounty hunter. I could rough you up or shoot you or
something if you don't get out of the car."
"I don't think so. I'm just a kid. Juvie would be all over your
ass. And your eye is twitching."
I hauled my cell phone out of my bag and dialed Morelli. "Help," I
"You remember your cousin Loretta's kid, Mario?"
"I've got him in my car, and he refuses to leave."
"Possession is nine-tenths of the law."
Zook was slouched down, watching me from the corner of his eye.
Arms crossed over his chest. Sullen. I blew out a sigh and told
Morelli the deal with Loretta.
"I'm off at four," Morelli said. "If Loretta isn't bonded out by
then, I'll take the kid off your hands. In the meantime, he's all
I disconnected and dialed Lula.
"Yeah?" Lula said.
"I'm outside, and I have Loretta's kid in the car."
Lula's face appeared in the front window to the bonds office. "I
see you and the kid. What's going on?"
"He won't get out of the car," I said. "I thought you might help
"Sure," Lula said. "I could persuade the hell out of him."
The bonds office door opened, and Lula swung her ass over to my car
and yanked the door open.
"What's up?" Lula said to the kid.
Zook didn't answer. Still pouting.
"I'm here to escort you out of the car," Lula said, leaning in,
filling the doorframe with her red hair extensions and acres of
chocolate-colored boob barely contained in a low scoop neck
Zook focused on Lula's gold tooth with the diamond chip, and below
that what seemed like a quarter mile of cleavage, and his eyes
almost fell out of his head.
"Cripes," he said, kind of croaky-voiced, shrinking back into his
seat, fumbling to get out of his seat belt.
"I got a way with men," Lula said to me.
"He's not a man," I told her. "He's just a kid."
"Am too a man," he said. "Want me to prove it?"
"No," Lula and I said in unison.
"What's this?" Connie wanted to know when the three of us walked
into the bonds office.
"I need to leave Mario someplace for an hour while I hop over to
"I told you my name is Zook! And what's Rangeman?"
"I work with a guy named Ranger, and Rangeman is the security
company he owns."
"Are you the Zook that writes his name all over town?" Lula asked
him. "And what kind of name is that anyway?"
"It's my Minionfire name."
"What's a Minionfire?"
"Are you kidding me? You don't know Minionfire? Minionfire's only
the world's most popular, most powerful, totally awesome, badass
difficult game. Don't tell me you've never heard of the Nation of
"In my neighborhood, we only got the nation of Bloods, Crips, and
Islam. Maybe a few Baptists, but they don't hardly count anymore,"
Zook took his laptop out of his backpack. "I can hook up here,
"Don't you have homework?" Connie asked him.
"I did my homework in detention. I gotta check on Moondog. He's a
griefer, and he's massing the wood elves." That caught Lula's
attention. "Are these wood elves the same as Santa's elves?"
"Wood elves are evil, and they can only be stopped by a third-level
Blybold Wizard like Zook."
"You don't look like no Blybold Wizard," Lula said. "You look like
a kid that's drilled too many holes in hisself. You keep doing
that, and stuff's gonna start leaking out."
Zook's hand unconsciously went to his ear with the six piercings.
"Chicks dig it."
"Yeah," Lula said, "they probably all want to borrow your
"Getting back to the problem at hand," I said, "I need to park
Mario, or Zook, or whoever the heck he is. Ranger wants to talk to
me about working a job for him."
"Oh boy," Lula said.
"A real job," I told her.
"Sure," Lula said. "I knew that. What kind of job?"
"I don't know."
"Oh boy," Lula said.
Carlos Manoso is my age, but his life experience is worlds away.
He's of Cuban heritage and has family in Newark and Miami. He's
dark-skinned, dark-eyed, and his hair is dark brown and currently
cut too short for a ponytail but long enough to fall across his
forehead when he's sleeping or otherwise occupied in bed. He's got
a lot of muscle in all the right places and a killer smile that is
rarely seen. His street name is Ranger, a leftover from his time in
When I started working for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds, Ranger was
doing mostly bounty hunter work and was my mentor. He's now
co-owner of a security company with branches in Boston, Atlanta,
and Miami. He wears only black, he smells like Bulgari Green shower
gel, he's extremely private, and he eats healthy food. I'd be
tempted to say he isn't a lot of fun, but he has his moments. And
on those rare occasions when we've been intimate . . .
Rangeman Security is on a side street in center city Trenton. It's
housed in an inconspicuous seven-story brick building, the name
visible only on a small plaque above the door buzzer. The seventh
floor is Ranger's private apartment. Two more floors are dedicated
to housing Rangeman employees, one floor is occupied by the
property manager and his wife, Ella, the fifth floor is control
central, and the remaining two floors are conference rooms,
first-floor reception, and private offices. There are two levels
below ground and I've never gotten the personal tour, but I imagine
dungeons and armories and Ranger's personal tailor toiling
I key-fobbed my way into the underground garage and parked next to
Ranger's black Porsche Turbo. I took the elevator to the fifth
floor, waved hello to the guys at the monitoring stations, and
walked across the room to Ranger's office. The door was open, and
Ranger was at his desk, talking on a headset. His eyes went to me,
he wrapped up his conversation and removed the headset.
"Babe," he said.
Babe covered a lot of ground with Ranger. It could be good, bad,
amused, or filled with desire. Today it was hello. I sat in the
chair across from his desk. "What's up?"
"I need a date," Ranger said.
"Is date synonymous with sex?"
"No. It's synonymous with business, but I could throw some sex in
as a bonus if you're interested."
This got a smile from me. I wasn't interested for a bunch of
complicated reasons, not the least of which was Joe Morelli. Still,
it was nice to know the offer was on the table. "What's the
"I've been asked to provide security for Brenda."
"The Brenda? The singer?"
"Yes. She'll be in town for three days doing a concert, some media,
and a charity fund-raiser. I'm supposed to keep her dry and
drug-free and out of harm's way. If I assign one of my men to her,
she'll eat him alive and spit him out in front of the press. So I'm
taking the watch, and I need someone riding shotgun."
"What about Tank?"
Tank is Ranger's next in command, and he's the guy Ranger trusts to
watch his back. Tank's called Tank because that's what he is. He's
seven feet of muscle packed into a six-foot, four-inch, no-neck
body. Tank is also Lula's current boyfriend.
"Brenda's management team has requested security be invisible at
public functions, and it's hard to hide Tank," Ranger said. "Tank
and Hal will work shifts standing guard at Brenda's hotel. When
she's at large, we'll take over. She can pass us off as traveling
companions, and you can go into the ladies' room with her and make
sure she doesn't test-drive mushrooms."
"Doesn't she have her own bodyguard?"
"He slipped and broke his ankle getting off the plane last night.
They've shipped him back to California."
"I'm surprised you're taking this on."
"I'm doing it as a favor for Lew Pepper, the concert promoter."
Ranger passed a sheet of paper to me. "This is Brenda's public
appearance schedule. We need to be at her hotel a half hour ahead.
And we're on call. If she leaves her room, we're there."
I looked at the schedule and chewed on my lower lip. Morelli wasn't
going to be happy to have me spending this much time with Ranger.
And Brenda was a car crash. Like Cher and Madonna, she didn't use a
last name. Just Brenda. She was sixty-one years old. She'd been
married eight times. She could crack walnuts with her ass muscles.
And she was rumored to be mean as a snake. I couldn't remember her
last album, but I knew she had a cabaret act going. Baby-sitting
Brenda had "nightmare" written all over it.
"Babe," Ranger said, reading my thoughts. "I don't ask a lot of
I blew out a sigh, folded the paper, and put it in my jeans pocket.
"Looks like the fund-raiser is tonight. Meet and greet at
five-thirty. I'll meet you in her hotel lobby at five."
Zook was in the land of Minionfire when I rolled into the bonds
office. Connie was working on the computer at her desk, and Lula
was packing up, getting ready to leave.
"I gotta get home and beautify," Lula said. "Tank's coming over
tonight. This here's the third time this week I'll see him. I think
this is getting serious. I wouldn't be surprised if he was gonna
pop the question."
"What question are you thinking about?" Connie asked.
"The big question. The M question. He probably would already have
asked the M question, except he's so shy. I been thinking I might
help him along with it. Make it easy on him. Maybe I need to get
him liquored up first, so he's nice and relaxed. And maybe I'll
stop at the jewelry district on the way home and get an engagement
ring, so he don't have to do a lot of shopping. You know how men
"How're we doing with Loretta's bond?" I asked Connie.
Connie slid a glance at Zook, bent over his laptop, and then looked
back at me. The silent communication was no luck so far. Hard to
get someone to post a couple thousand dollars in bond when the last
person to post bond for Loretta ended up forfeiting their
Lula had her bag on her shoulder and her car keys in her hand.
"What'd Ranger want with you?"
"He's running security for Brenda for the next three days, and he
wants me to ride shotgun."
Morelli lived halfway between my apartment at the edge of Trenton
proper and my parents' house in the Burg. It was a modest two-story
row house on a quiet street in a stable blue-collar neighborhood.
Living room, dining room, kitchen, and powder room on the first
floor. Three small bedrooms and bath upstairs. So far as I know,
he'd never eaten in the dining room. Morelli ate breakfast at the
small table in the kitchen, lunch at the sink, and dinner in front
of the television in the living room. There was a single-car garage
at the back of the property, accessible by a rutted alley, but
Morelli almost always parked his SUV at the curb in front of the
house. The backyard was narrow and strictly utilitarian, only used
by Morelli's dog, Bob.
I parked and looked over at Zook. "You know Joe Morelli,
"That's what I hear." Zook studied the house. "I thought it would
be bigger. It's all my uncle talks about since he got out of
prison. He said it was supposed to go to him, but Morelli swindled
him out of it."
"Hard to believe of Morelli," I said.
"I thought he was supposed to be the big, bad, tough cop and
lady-killer. What's he want with this dorkopolis?"
In the beginning, I struggled with that one, too. I saw Morelli in
a cool condo with a big-screen television and a kick-ass sound
system and maybe a pinball machine in his living room. Turns out
Morelli was tired of sailing that ship. Morelli went into Rose's
house with an open mind, and the house and Morelli took stock of
each other and adapted. The house gave up some of its stuffiness,
and Morelli dialed down his wild side.
I pulled the key from the ignition, got out of the car, and walked
to the front door with Zook trailing after me.
"This is so lame," Zook said, dragging his feet. "I can't believe
my mother tried to rob a stupid booze shack." I didn't know what to
say to him. I didn't want to make out like armed robbery was okay,
but at the same time, I didn't want to be gloom and doom.
"Sometimes good people do dumb things," I said. "If you hang in
there with your mom, it'll all work out . . . eventually. Step back
when I open the door, or Morelli's dog will knock you over."
I unlocked the door, and there was a woof and the sound of dog feet
galloping toward us from the kitchen. Bob appeared, ears flapping,
tongue out, slobber flying in all directions. He hurtled past us,
leaped off the small porch, went straight to the nearest tree, and
lifted his leg.
Zook went wide-eyed. "What kind of dog is he?"
"We're not sure, but we think he's mostly Golden Retriever. His
name is Bob."
Bob peed for what seemed like half an hour and trotted back into
the house. I closed the door after him and checked the time. Four
o'clock. Morelli's shift ended at four. It would take him thirty
minutes to drive home. I had to be dressed and at the hotel by
five. The hotel was thirty minutes from my apartment at this time
of night. It wasn't going to work.
Zook looked around Morelli's living room. "Can I go wireless
"I don't know. Morelli's computer is upstairs in his office, but
I've seen him work down here as well."
Zook pulled his laptop out of his backpack. "I'll figure it
"That's great, because I have to go. Morelli should be home any
minute now. I'm going to trust you to stay here and wait for him
and not get into trouble."
"Sure," Zook said.
I called Morelli on his cell. "Where are you?"
"I just turned onto Hamilton."
"We're at your house. Unfortunately, I have a job at five, and I
have to go home first to change, so I'm going to leave Zook here
alone for a few minutes."
"You'll see. And just a suggestion, but you might want to put the
Kojak light on the top of your car and step on the gas."
I live in a one-bedroom, one-bath unit on the second floor of a
no-frills, three-story, red brick apartment building. There's a
small lobby with a small unreliable elevator. The front entrance
looks out on a busy street filled with small businesses. The rear
exit backs up to a tenant parking lot. My bedroom and living room
windows look out at the parking lot. Lucky me, because this is the
quiet side, except at five a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, when the
Dumpster gets emptied. I share my apartment with a hamster named
I rocked to a stop in the lot, bolted from the car, bypassed the
elevator, and took the stairs two at a time. I ran down the hall
and rammed my key into my front door. I yelled hello to Rex on my
way to the bedroom. No time for extended pleasantries.
Ten minutes later, I was out the door in black heels and my little
black suit with a white tank top under the jacket. I'd spruced up
my makeup and fluffed out my hair, and I'd dropped my Smith &
Wesson into my purse. The gun wasn't loaded, and I didn't have time
to hunt for bullets, but if I had to whack someone in the head with
my purse, it was nicely weighted.
I took a call from Morelli while I unlocked my car.
"I just walked into my house, and the kid is wearing a black satin
cape, he only answers to the name Zook, and he seems obsessed with
someone named Moondog."
"Order a pizza and go with it," I told him.
I was five minutes late when I pulled into hotel parking. This
wouldn't be an issue if I was meeting anyone other than Ranger.
Ranger has many good qualities. Patience isn't one of them.
I ran through the parking garage, slid to a stop when I got to the
hotel lobby, adjusted my skirt, and crossed to where Ranger was
standing. He was wearing black slacks, black blazer, and a black
dress shirt with a black tie. The black tie had a black stripe. If
GQ ran an issue on contract killers, he'd make the cover.
"Nice," I said to him.
"Playing the role," Ranger said.
I followed him to the third floor and the only suite in the hotel.
Tank was in front of the suite door, arms crossed, feet at parade
rest. He was dressed in the usual Rangeman black T-shirt and cargo
pants, with a gun at his hip.
"Any problems?" Ranger asked.
"No," Tank replied. "She's been inside since I came on duty."
"We'll take it from here," Ranger said.
I watched Tank walk to the elevator and thought about Lula out
shopping for an engagement ring. I could sort of see Tank and Lula
engaged, but the mental image of them settling into married life
went right to the top of the bizarrometer.
Ranger rapped on Brenda's door and waited. He rapped a second
"Maybe she's in the bathroom," I said.
Ranger took a pass card from his pocket, inserted it in the lock,
and opened the door. "See if you can find her."
I tiptoed into the entrance foyer and looked into the living room
area. "Hello," I called.
A young woman popped out of the bedroom. She was slim, and her face
was pinched and had the hungry, haunted look of someone who'd
recently quit smoking. Her short dark hair was pushed behind her
ears in a nonstyle. She was wearing a skirt and a cardigan and flat
She didn't look happy. "Yes?" she asked.
"Security," I told her. "We're here to escort Brenda."
"She's getting dressed."
"Honestly," Brenda yelled from the bedroom. "I don't know
why I have to do these things."
Brenda was Kentucky born and raised. Her voice was country, and her
style was ballsy. From what I read in the tabloids, at sixty-one
she was on a slippery slope as an aging star. And she wasn't going
"It's a charity event," the young woman said. "It's a goodwill
gesture. We're trying to erase the image of you running over that
cameraman last month."
"It was an accident."
"You ran over his foot, and then you put your car in reverse and
knocked him down!"
"I got confused. For crissake, get off my case. Who do you work for
anyway? I want a glass of wine. Where's my wine? I specifically
requested that the cooler be stocked with New Zealand sauvignon
blanc. I must have my blanc!"
I looked at my watch. "Are you responsible for getting her there on
time?" I asked Ranger.
"I'm responsible for getting her there alive."
"I'm responsible for getting her there on time," the dark-haired
woman said. "I'm Nancy Kolen. I'm the press secretary assigned to
this trip. I work for Brenda's record company."
"I have nothing to wear," Brenda said. "What am I supposed
to wear? Honestly, why am I always surrounded by amateurs? Is it
too much to ask to have a stylist here? Where's my stylist? First
no blanc, and now no stylist. How am I supposed to work under these
Nancy Kolen disappeared into the bedroom, and ten minutes later,
Brenda swished out, followed by Nancy. Brenda was slim and toned
and spray-tanned to something resembling orange mud. She had big
boobs, lots of curly auburn hair tipped with blond, and her lips
looked like they'd been inflated with an air hose.
She was wearing a red knit strapless tube dress that could double
for skin, four-inch spike-heeled shoes, and a white sheared mink
jacket. She looked like Santa's senior offseason 'ho.
Ranger was standing pressed against my back, and I could feel him
smile when Brenda entered the room. I gave him an elbow to the
ribs, and he exhaled on a barely audible bark of laughter.
"Look at who we got here," Brenda said, eyeing Ranger. "I swear,
you are so hot, I could just eat you up. Sugar, I gotta get me some
Ranger's smile was still in place. Hard to tell if he was enjoying
himself or being polite.
"Stephanie and I are providing security," he said.
"Do you have a name?"
"Like the Long Ranger?" Brenda asked.
There was a moment's pause while I debated correcting Brenda, but
truth is, we all knew exactly what she was asking. Finally, Ranger
stepped forward and opened the suite door.
"Like an Army Ranger," he said.
Brenda slithered through the door, rubbing against Ranger in the
process. "I hear Army guys have big guns." Nancy and I did some
eye-rolling, and Ranger remained pleasantly impassive.
I was the last to leave the room. "I've seen your gun," I whispered
to Ranger."Would you like me to tell her about it?"
"Not necessary, but we could discuss it over a glass of wine
Nancy took the lead and punched the elevator button. The doors
opened, we stepped in, and Brenda moved close to Ranger. "So, Hot
Cakes, are you with me for the night?"
"Stephanie and I will be with you until you return to your hotel
room," Ranger said.
"Sometimes I need my bodyguards to spend the entire night with me,"
Brenda said to Ranger.
This produced more eye-rolling from Nancy and me and more passive
pleasantness from Ranger. The doors opened, and we moved into the
crush of people in the lobby. Nancy led the way, and I followed
Nancy, with Brenda sandwiched between Ranger and me. We cut a swath
through the crowd to the meet-and-greet room. Once we were inside
the room and the door was closed behind us, the atmosphere became
much more calm. These were patrons of the charity, and they'd paid
a huge amount of money to have a private audience with Brenda. She
accepted a champagne flute, drained it, and reached for a
"This isn't so bad," I said to Ranger. "It's not like someone is
shooting at her. And so far, she hasn't totally exposed herself.
You got groped in the elevator, but you're probably used to
"Yeah," Ranger said. "It happens a lot."
A forty-something woman approached Brenda. "What is this?" the
woman asked, pointing to Brenda's jacket.
"What kind of jacket?"
"What kind do you think it is?"
"I think it's mink."
"Bingo," Brenda said.
"You have a lot of nerve," the woman said. "Was this done as a
"Sweetheart," Brenda said, "when I insult someone they know they've
Nancy's eyes went to the size of goose eggs, and she frantically
thumbed through her event schedule. "Oh crap!" she said. "Oh
I looked over her shoulder and read down the clipboard. Thursday's
event will benefit the humane treatment of animals.
The woman narrowed her eyes at Brenda. "Take that offensive jacket
Bite me," Brenda said. "And what's your problem, anyway?"
"Do you have any idea how many little minks it took to make that
"Oh puhleeze," Brenda said. "Don't give me that treehugger crap.
Look, if it's an issue for you, just think of it as Russian
The woman snatched a glass of red wine from a waiter, dumped it on
Brenda's jacket, and Brenda tossed her champagne in the woman's
face. Ranger reached for Brenda, but Brenda already had her hands
around the woman's throat. There was a lot of kicking and shrieking
of obscenities, and by the time Ranger got the women separated,
Brenda's boobs had popped out of her dress and the skirt had ridden
up to her waist. Ranger dispassionately yanked the dress up over
Brenda's breasts and pulled the skirt down over her ass, apologized
to the other woman, and dragged Brenda out of the room and into the
lobby. Nancy and I rushed after Ranger and Brenda, and we all
jumped into the elevator.
Nancy crossed meet and greet off her schedule. "One down," she
said. "We have ten minutes before the dinner." Ranger and I elected
not to sit at the head table with Brenda. We took a position on the
wall toward the front of the room, so we could better see if anyone
was rushing at Brenda with a glass of red wine.
Brenda had changed into a black satin bustier, tight jeans studded
with rhinestones, and she had an animalfriendly black cashmere wrap
draped over her shoulders. My cell phone vibrated, and I looked at
the screen. It was Morelli calling. "I need to take this," I said
to Ranger. "I'm going to step outside for a moment."
I found a quiet corridor and dialed Morelli.
"How's it going?" I asked Morelli.
"I don't know. He hasn't stopped playing since I got home. He can
play and eat at the same time. I think he took the computer into
the bathroom with him. It's kind of creepy. You're coming back here
"Um . . ."
"Let me rephrase that. What time are you coming back here?"
"Hard to say. I'm running security for Brenda."
"Yeah. I'm working with Ranger."
There was a full sixty seconds of silence where I suspected Morelli
was staring down at his shoe, getting a grip. Morelli thought
Ranger was a dangerous guy from multiple points of view. And
Morelli was right.
"Don't you want to hear about Brenda?" I asked him.
"No. I don't care about Brenda. I care about you. I don't like you
working with Ranger."
"It's just for a couple days."
"I'm out of the house at six tomorrow morning. You need to be here
to make sure Picasso doesn't spray paint the dog again."
"Zook painted Bob?"
"He did it before I got home. He said he had to protect Bob from
the griefer. He pulls anything like that again, and I'm going to
make the griefer look like the Tooth Fairy."
Ranger was leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his chest,
calmly watching the room when I returned. "Did I miss anything
fun?" I asked him.
He made a small side-to-side movement with his head.
"Brenda is waving her glass around."
"I told the wait staff not to give her a refill, and she's feeling
"Hey!" Brenda called to a passing waiter. "Hell-O!"
The waiter scurried away, and Brenda waved the glass at another
guy. Brenda lapped at the empty glass and waggled her tongue at the
waiter. A red scald rose from his collar to the roots of his hair,
and he ran for the kitchen.
A waiter carrying plates of food passed behind Brenda, and in the
blink of an eye, Brenda had the guy by his nuts. The waiter stopped
in mid-stride, tray aloft, mouth open. I couldn't hear Brenda from
where I stood, but I could read her lips.
"I need a drinky-poo," Brenda said to the waiter. "Nod your head if
The waiter nodded his head, and Brenda released him.
"I have to give her credit," I said to Ranger. "She knows how to
get a man's attention."
An hour later, we escorted Brenda to her room.
"I want to party," Brenda said in the elevator. "Isn't there a
Ranger stayed stoic, saying nothing, and I followed his lead. If
Brenda had been sober, she would have been hard to control. As it
was, her eyes were unfocused, and her attention span was short. The
elevator doors opened, Brenda lurched out, walked into a potted
plant, and got knocked on her ass.
"Whoops," Brenda said. "Where'd that come from?"
Ranger scooped her up and pointed her in the right direction. She
tried to grab him, and he jumped away.
"You need to take point on this," Ranger said to me. "If she grabs
me one more time, I'm going to have to shoot her."
I linked arms with Brenda and walked her down the hall to her
suite. I opened the door and maneuvered her inside. I herded her
into the bedroom, and she crawled into bed fully clothed.
I turned the light off in the bedroom and joined Ranger in the
living room. He locked the liquor cabinet, pocketed the key, and we
left the suite.
"Tank has the night off, and Hal doesn't come on until midnight,"
Ranger said. "I'll stand guard until then."
"I'll stand with you," I said. "Just in case Brenda comes out and
attacks you and you're tempted to shoot her."