Takedown Twenty_ A Stephanie Plum Novel - Janet Evanovich Page 0,1

years old. He had a MasterCard and seven dollars.

The EMS truck slid in without a lot of fanfare. Two guys got out and looked at Ralph, who was still on his stomach with the dart stuck in him.

“That’s not something you see every day,” the taller of the two guys said.

“The dart might have been meant for the giraffe,” Lula told them. “Or maybe he’s one of them shape-shifters, and he used to be the giraffe.”

The two men went silent for a beat, probably trying to decide if they should get the butterfly net out for Lula.

“It’s a full moon,” the shorter one finally said.

The other guy nodded, and they loaded Ralph into the truck and drove off.

“Now what?” Lula asked me. “We going to look some more for Uncle Sunny, or we going to have a different activity, like getting a pizza at Pino’s?”

“I’m done. I’m going home. We’ll pick up Sunny’s trail tomorrow.”

Truth is, I was going home to a bottle of champagne I had chilling in my fridge. It had been left on my kitchen counter a couple days before as partial payment for a job I’d done for my friend and sometime employer Ranger. The champagne had come with a note suggesting that Ranger needed a date. Okay, so Ranger is hot, and luscious, and magic in bed, but that didn’t totally compensate for the fact that the last time I’d been Ranger’s date I’d been poisoned. I’d been saving the champagne for a special occasion, and it seemed like seeing a giraffe running down the street qualified.

Lula drove me back to the bonds office, I picked up my car, and twenty minutes later I was in my apartment, leaning against the kitchen counter, guzzling champagne. I was watching my hamster, Rex, run on his wheel when Ranger walked in.

Ranger doesn’t bother with trivial matters like knocking, and he isn’t slowed down by a locked door. He owns an elite security firm that operates out of a seven-story stealth office building located in the center of Trenton. His body is perfect, his moral code is unique, his thoughts aren’t usually shared. He’s in his early thirties, like me, but his life experience adds up to way beyond his years. He’s of Latino heritage. He’s former Special Forces. He’s sexy, smart, sometimes scary, and frequently overprotective of me. He was currently armed and wearing black fatigues with the Rangeman logo on his sleeve. That meant he was on patrol duty, most likely filling in for one of his men.

“Working tonight?” I asked him.

“Taking the night shift for Hal.” He looked at my glass. “Are you drinking champagne out of a beer mug?”

“I don’t have any champagne glasses.”

“Babe.”

“Babe” covers a lot of ground for Ranger. It can be the prelude to getting naked. It can be total exasperation. It can be a simple greeting. Or, as in this case, it can just mean I’ve amused him.

Ranger smiled ever so slightly and took a step closer to me.

“Stop,” I said. “Don’t come any closer. The answer is no.”

His brown eyes locked onto me. “I didn’t ask a question.”

“You were going to.”

“True.”

“Well, don’t even think about it, because I’m not going to do it.”

“I could change your mind,” he said.

“I don’t think so.”

Okay, truth is Ranger could change my mind. Ranger can be very persuasive.

Ranger’s cellphone buzzed, he checked the text message and moved to the door. “I have to go. Give me a call if you change your mind.”

“About what?”

“About anything.”

“Okay, wait a minute. I want to know the question.”

“No time to explain it,” Ranger said. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow at seven o’clock. A little black dress would be good. Something moderately sexy.”

And he was gone.

TWO

I DRAGGED MYSELF out of bed as the morning sun poured through the opening in my bedroom curtains. I showered, blasted my shoulder-length curly brown hair with the blow dryer, and pulled the whole mess back into a ponytail. I brushed my teeth, swiped some mascara onto my lashes, and went with cherry lip gloss.

Hunting down felons for my cousin Vinnie isn’t a great-paying job, but I make my own hours and I wear what’s comfy. A girly T-shirt, jeans, sneakers, handcuffs, and pepper spray, and I’m good to go.

I gave Rex fresh water and a Ritz cracker, grabbed the messenger bag I use as a purse, and took off for the office. I live in a second-floor one-bedroom, one-bath, no-frills apartment on the outskirts of Trenton. It’s not a slum, but it’s