What I Did For Love - Chapter 5

Chapter 5: To Know Me Is To Love Me!
 
Love creates an "us" without destroying a "me."
-Unknown
 
I'm telling ya, it was like magic! The minute Ranger left for Miami, sanity returned to RangeMan. All the guys had been holding their breaths, just waiting for the next Ranger explosion and I swear the whole building breathed a collective sigh of relief the minute that man got on the plane.
 
I mean, everybody knew that Ranger didn't run his company by instilling fear into his employees. He didn't have to. He set high standards and expected his employees to meet them. But he'd always led by example and never asked anybody to do anything he wasn't ready to do himself. He made the company a success by treating everybody fairly, making sure that his employees were well trained and well paid, and all that inspired loyalty. So maybe he did run a tight ship, big deal! The thing was, Ranger was always even tempered and calm. That's why the new, UN-improved, moody Ranger was a real difficult pill for us all to swallow.
 
Before he left, all the Merry Men had been jumpy, looking over their shoulders all the time, like they expected Ranger to be lurking around every corner, ready to pounce. Just about every guy got ordered to meet Ranger down on the mat in the gym for one stupid infraction or another, like having Big Mac breath or 5 o'clock shadow on their shaved heads. And it seemed that every day somebody was sporting a new bruise or a bandage or a limp, Ranger included.
 
For weeks, nobody was able to do anything right and I gotta tell ya, watching all those great big ex-military type RangeMen tip-toe around so they wouldn't accidentally incur 'The Wrath of Ranger,' as we started calling it, actually was pretty funny. For me, of course. Not so much for any of them. But then, Ranger wasn't calling me down on the mat.
 
The news of Ranger's bizarre change in temperament spread around town at supersonic speed. The skips that he hauled in didn't fare much better than the Merry Men had, and a lot of them even made fun little side trips to St. Francis' ER before the criminal element in Trenton wised up and started turning themselves in, in record numbers. They were so eager to avoid Ranger that they practically ran into the police station all by themselves.
 
Vinnie, the cockroach, kept his office door locked all the time, just so that Ranger couldn't walk in and surprise him. Ranger in a good mood used to make Vinnie wet his pants, now he could probably make Vinnie stroke out. Not necessarily a bad thing. More than once the big chicken **** snuck out the back door leaving Connie to deal with Ranger. Of course Connie feared nobody and no thing, so she held her own just fine, thankyouverymuch!
 
The weirdest thing, though, was that Ranger wouldn't let me out of my RangeMan contract. If he thought that would **** me off, it did … royally. But he was the one who got the worst of that deal. I decided right away that if he was gonna play some stupid game, making up all those idiotic rules, then hell, I could beat him at that game. Ranger may have been in the military, Special Forces, a trained killer and all that, but I had a lot more experience with good old fashioned revenge than he did. After all, I was a Jersey Girl and we learn about the importance of revenge in the womb. Nobody screws with a Jersey Girl and gets away with it… it's a matter of honor!
 
Ranger thought he could banish me to that no man's land of a janitor's closet, did he? HA! I made absolutely sure he saw me every single time he got off the elevator or stepped out of his office. I was constantly in his face. I always smiled and acted like everything was just hunky-dory while I broke each and every one of his dopey rules! No makeup or perfume? Yeah, right! The whole fifth floor smelled like Dolce Vita. No food outside the break room? Sure thing! That wasn't gum I was chewing. Nobody was allowed to call him 'Boss'? 'Boss' became my new favorite four letter word!
 
The best part was that I got away with it all! Now he couldn't let me out of my contract without losing the 'game,' and he really couldn't fire me either because that would have given me what I wanted …an out. So, he was stuck with me, and it was all his own doing. Snort! It was the perfect revenge, making the most self-controlled man in the universe lose his cool. Let's face it, he acted like a jerk and he deserved everything he got! And I'm not ashamed to admit that I had a great time driving Ranger nuts. I just hadn't expected to drive him all the way to Miami!
 
Anyway, once Ranger left, Tank was back in charge again. I went into work that Monday and found that my cubby had magically reappeared in the control room and there was a Starbuck's el grande mochachino and two Boston Crème donuts sitting on my desk. I was scheduled to go out and pick up skips with Junior, and cover the monitors for the guys who took early lunch, and was back on the list for all the memos and meetings. The bean sprouts and fava beans and non-fat yogurt in the break room fridge disappeared, replaced by roast beef on rye and potato chips and Ella's brownies. RangeMan had returned from The Twilight Zone.
 
Needless to say, I never talked to Joe about my problems with Ranger. I really didn't have to. All the cops talked about the change in Ranger's normally cool and calm demeanor, but they blamed it on leftover stress from the mission he had been on, like post traumatic stress or something. Nobody realized that it was more like post traumatic Stephanie stress that sent him over the edge. When Joe asked me about it, I didn't outright lie; I just didn't tell him the whole truth. I told him all about the 'Ranger, the Psycho Boss' thing and just kinda forgot to mention the 'Ranger and I had sheet shredding, wild animal sex for an entire weekend and he wanted more' thing.
 
I mean, what good would it have done to get Joe all upset? We had gone our separate ways a long time before Ranger and I ever got together and I knew that Joe wasn't celibate all that time. I sure as hell didn't want to know anything at all about whoever he had slept with. And really, what difference did it make now? Ranger was in Miami and I was in Joe's bed, nothing else really mattered. Right?
 
So life at RangeMan and at home sort of drifted into a nice, easy routine for me. I went to work every day to a job I loved, and I came home every night to a man I loved. It doesn't get any better than that. On the weekends Joe and I worked on the house, turning it from Aunt Rose's house and/or Joe's bachelor pad, into our home. We painted the kitchen and hung new curtains and my brown bear cookie jar had a place of honor on the counter. We invested in a new washer and dryer for the basement, and a cleaning lady who came in every two weeks to make sure the windows were kept up to Burg standards. Our families were ecstatic and I was beginning to think that maybe this marriage thing wasn't such a bad idea after all. Guess I shoulda known it was too good to last, huh?
 
You know that old saying, ignorance is bliss? Well, we didn't know it at the time, but while Joe and I were arguing over whether we should paint the living room Buttered Toast or Mushroom Soufflé, The State of New Jersey was busy planning to burst our happy bubble!
 
It never failed that I always ran late when we had something to do, and that night it was dinner with Joe's mother. Joe wasn't home yet when I flew in the door from work, so I snapped Bob's leash onto his collar and dragged him around the block as fast as I could. Normally I would just go to his Mom's in my RangeMan uniform, but Tank had sent me along on a takedown today and I wound up all hot and sweaty from rolling around on the floor with a female skip. Silly me, I thought those days were over. I was in desperate need of a long, hot bath, but all I had time for was a quick shower.
 
I left a trail of dirty clothes on my way to the bathroom and I had just finished lathering up my hair when I heard Joe open the door. "I'll be out in a minute and then the bathroom's all yours," I told him. If he got in the tub with me, we wouldn't have just been late for dinner; probably we wouldn't have made it out of the house at all. Try explaining that to his mother!
 
"Take your time, there's no rush, Steph. I canceled dinner at my Mom's." His voice sounded tired and strained.
 
"Wait! You what? You never cancel!" I pulled back the shower curtain and stuck my soapy head out. "What's the matter?"
 
Joe was leaning against the doorway, his hands jammed into his pockets, looking as tired and stressed as he sounded. "I need to talk to you. Take your time and finish up. I'll wait for you down in the kitchen." I stood there dripping soap suds on the floor while he turned and walked back down the hall.
 
My first thought was that Joe had caught a really bad case, or worse, was being sent off on assignment again. My heart dropped down into my stomach and I scrambled to rinse off, dry off, and drag on shorts and a t-shirt. Granted, Joe and I had done a lot of talking lately, but the expression on his face told me that this wasn't the kind of talk that was gonna wind up with us hot and sweaty and tangled in the sheets.
 
My hair was still wrapped in a towel when I skidded into the kitchen and found Joe leaning against the counter, studying the beer in his hand. He pulled a couple more out of the fridge and handed me one before he turned and sat at the kitchen table. He looked so serious I had a gut feeling that I was gonna need a lot more than one beer to get through this talk.
 
Joe raised his beer and took a long pull before he set the bottle down and folded his arms on the table. "Look Steph, I know how you feel about secrets and you're probably gonna be mad that I didn't tell you this sooner. So I guess I should apologize for that. My only excuse is that I wanted to make absolutely sure my information was correct before I said anything at all," he said matter-of-factly.
 
Now I was sure he was going on assignment someplace and had waited until the last minute to say anything to me. Probably Las Vegas with some hoochie mama undercover female cop! I gotta tell ya, I hate surprises with a passion. When I was a kid, I'd scour the house, hunting down every Christmas and birthday present and my parents had to get really creative to hide stuff from me. The thought that somebody had a secret just about drove me nuts and I would nag and beg and wheedle until they finally broke down and told me whatever it was, just so I'd shut up and leave them alone.
 
Hearing Joe confess that he'd been purposely keeping something hidden from me, when he knew how I felt about secrets, made me want to reach across the table and grab him by the throat and strangle him. The only problem with that was it'd delay him telling me what the hell was happening!
 
I slugged down half my beer and took a deep, steadying breath. I mean, I could act like a grown up, right? "Okay then, I guess it's about time you tell me what's going on, huh?" I was trying to be mature and calm here, but even I could hear the snotty tone in my own voice.
 
When he finally looked at me, I could see exactly how worried he was and all my irritation faded away. I guess that was when I realized just how serious this was. More serious, I was afraid, than I was equipped to handle and that made my heart stutter in my chest. I reached my hand across the table to him, but for whose comfort, his or mine, I wasn't sure. He wrapped his hand around my fingers and ran his thumb soothingly over my knuckles.
 
He hesitated, like he was choosing his words very carefully. "Remember when I told you that the Abruzzi case might be reopened?" he asked softly.
 
Of all the things I expected him to say, this sure wasn't one of 'em. "Yeah, but that was months ago and you never said anything else about it. I thought it was dropped." My heart went from my stomach to my throat. I couldn't believe that this had come back to haunt us… again!
 
Joe just shook his head 'no' and blew out a deep breath. He held my hand tighter. "Word got out on the street that Abruzzi's widow was gonna hire some fancy medical examiner to come in from California to perform a new autopsy. I can't remember the guy's name, but you know who I mean. He's the one who made a fortune testifying at all those high profile celebrity trials."
 
"Okay." I knew there was more to it. "And …" I choked out and looked at Joe expectantly.
 
"And it's common knowledge that his findings are generally slanted toward whichever side is paying him to testify. The Abruzzi family has ten million dollars worth of life insurance on the line, so it's a pretty sure bet what kind of new findings there will be."
 
He sat and watched me digest the information and I'm sure he could see the wheels turning in my head. I gulped down the rest of my beer and waited for him to go on. If Joe was this worried, there had to be a lot more to the story. "Ten million! Wow, that'd buy a lot of testimony!"
 
"No ****!" He tossed his empty bottle in the trash can. "Anyway, the bad news is that the Attorney General's office got wind of all this. Some big wig there decided that the State Medical Examiner should perform a new autopsy to confirm the original findings, before the Abruzzis' ME even got into town. That way, if the state's guy found anything hinkey, the AG's office could launch a full scale investigation and say that it was their idea all along."
 
I barked a laugh. "The most important rule politicians have! Cover your own *** first." I jumped up and dragged the towel off my hair, running my fingers through the tangles. I got a couple more beers out of the fridge.
 
Joe snorted. "It's an election year. What do you expect?"
 
I plunked the bottles down on the table but didn't sit. My nerves were jumping and I needed to keep moving so I paced the kitchen instead. "Why didn't they just have the Trenton ME do another autopsy? Why go over his head?"
 
"Oh, come on, Steph." Joe leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair. "They need a scapegoat, somebody to blame a screw up on, and he's the obvious choice. The state will soft pedal it … say they know how overworked and underpaid the entire criminal justice system in Trenton is. They'll say that the department is short staffed, things were overlooked because the manner of death appeared to be so straight forward, blame it on budget cuts, use it as an excuse to raise taxes…"
 
I cut him off. "So when is all this **** supposed to hit the fan anyway? When are they digging up the son of a *****?" I demanded.
 
Joe stood up and came around the table to put his hands on my shoulders. "Abruzzi's body was exhumed and taken to the State ME ten days ago. The autopsy was given a high priority status and all the results are back already."
 
"What? Why the hell didn't you tell me?" I practically screeched at him while I tried to push him away.
 
"Because it was only a rumor. It was just gossip floating around the station … nobody really knew anything for sure. And I didn't want you all upset over something that I didn't know was true. I couldn't get anything confirmed. The state cops are running the show, not the local guys. The AG's investigators never share anything if they don't have to, and they always play their cards real close to the vest. I swear, we didn't know a thing until this morning."
 
I glared at Joe. "So what happened today that all of a sudden you decided to tell me?"
 
Joe tightened his grip on my shoulders before he continued. "The State ME issued a new cause of death." He took a deep breath. "He's calling it murder."
 
I was looking at Joe and little black dots danced across his face. Bells clanged in my head and the kitchen floor started to tilt. He sat me down in a chair and pushed my head down between my knees. "Deep breaths, Steph, take deep breaths." He kept his hand on my back, rubbing soothing circles, massaging my neck gently. I worked really hard to concentrate on his voice and to keep myself from pitching forward onto the floor.
 
Eventually the dots danced away, the noise in my head faded, and the floor stopped moving. I was able to sit up and look at Joe who was squatted down in front of me. "So how soon does the investigation start?" My head was aching and suddenly I was so tired. I just wanted it all to go away.
 
Joe stood and pulled me to my feet, wrapping his arms around me. I settled my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes. He planted a kiss on my still damp hair. "Let's not worry about this crap anymore tonight, Cupcake. You go get dressed and we'll go out to dinner or the movies or someplace where we don't have to think about any of this stuff."
 
I knew he was trying to take my mind off this mess, to distract me, and I leaned back and looked at him. "Please Joe, just tell me what you know and get it over with. I don't want to have to wonder about what's going to happen next." I drew an unsteady breath. "I honestly don't think I can take any more surprises."
 
He blew out another deep breath, "Okay, okay. You know Karen, right? She works in records?" I nodded at him. I went to high school with Karen. "She told me that the state investigators came in with a warrant and took all the records the department had on Abruzzi. That was a couple of days ago." He ran his hands up and down my arms. "This morning they came back looking for anything with your name on it. Apparently they're investigating your connection with Abruzzi, Steph, and they'll probably be calling you in for questioning."
 
"Me?" I was staggered. "Oh My God! I'm a suspect? They think I killed him?"
 
Suddenly the room had no air in it and I couldn't breathe. I pulled away from Joe and blindly threw open the kitchen door, stumbling outside and sank down on the back steps. My brain was racing a mile a minute. I remembered the fear and pain of what Val and I went through because of Abruzzi. I automatically rubbed the scar on my arm, where he had burned me. I thought about Hector and Ranger and what had been done to keep me safe. I remembered the relief I felt back then, when I heard that Abruzzi was dead, no remorse, just relief.
 
I had been drowning in guilt at the thought of the trouble this investigation could cause for all the people I cared about. I never once thought that I could be in trouble. It wasn't even a matter of denial; it just never occurred to me that I would be involved. And I didn't know how to handle it now that I was!
 
Joe came out on the steps and sat behind me so that I was between his legs. He leaned forward and kissed the top of my head while he wrapped his arms around my shoulders and pulled me back against him. "Steph," he said with a chuckle, "I sincerely doubt that you're a suspect. You know how an investigation runs. You know that they're going to look at everybody who ever had any contact at all with Abruzzi, from his mother all the way down to the kid who delivers his newspaper and everybody in between."
 
Well sure, I watched television … all the 'CSIs' and 'Law and Orders' and 'Cold Case' and 'Psychic Detectives'; I knew how the cops ran a homicide investigation. That didn't mean my stomach wasn't rolling at the idea that somebody thought I could hold a gun to a man's head and pull the trigger… even if that man was the Devil Incarnate. Even if he was beyond crazy, and was hunting down a mother and child like animals, and had threatened to rip my beating heart right out of my chest.
 
I mean, I knew all about circumstantial evidence. Once they found out about Mabel Markowitz, and the snakes and spiders, and Soder's body on my couch, my blown up car, Val and me being kidnapped and me being tortured … of course, I'd be the logical suspect.
 
"Do you think I need a lawyer?" I asked Joe, my voice shaking.
 
He hugged me tighter. "I doubt it, but you want me to call Dickie for you, just in case?" I could hear the smile in his voice and I reached up and smacked his hand.
 
Bob flew past us down the steps and into the tiny back yard, sniffing out the perfect location to do his business. "Go get your shoes on, Cupcake. Let's take Bob for a walk."
 
Joe snapped the leash on Bob and we took off around the block, past the houses where Burg life went on as usual. The fact that I had absolutely no appetite at all should tell you how bad off I was. We walked slowly in the gathering dusk, holding hands, each lost in our own thoughts, waiting for Bob to do his own investigation of each and every other dog who had taken this route before him, checking his pee-mail. And we waited while he marked his territory in return.
 
We were just coming out of the park when a blue and white rolled to a stop in front of us and my stomach did a back flip. I felt pretty silly but still breathed a sigh of relief when Eddie rolled down the window and leaned out to chat. "Hey guys, how you doin'?" he said with an exaggerated Jersey accent.
 
"Doin' okay, Eddie. What's up?" I leaned down to give him a kiss on the cheek.
 
"Just checking on you, kiddo," he said as he patted my hand. "I wanted to make sure my favorite cousin by marriage was alright."
 
Joe came up and draped his arm around my shoulders. "Gazarra. You trying to make time with my woman?" he asked in mock anger, narrowing his eyes at Eddie. I couldn't help but laugh.
 
Eddie winked at me. "Nah! Just wanted her to know that we all love her and if she ever needs character references, she can call on anybody at the station. We're all more than willing to testify that she's one hell of a character!"
 
"Eddie, do you know who's running the investigation? Anything you can tell me about them?" I figured that these state cops knew everything about me. It wouldn't hurt for me to know something about them.
 
"Yeah, Rinaldi and Malfitano. Both of them have been on the job a long time; know their ****, real straight arrows. Neither one of them has a sense of humor, but they're both good guys." Eddie's radio crackled to life, and with a wave, he took off on a call.
 
As we strolled back home, Joe leaned down and whispered a long list of things he wanted to do to me to keep my mind off the situation. I have to admit, he managed to distract me and even made me giggle and blush a time or two. It was close to ten o'clock by the time we got back to the house and Joe stopped me on the front walk to give me a kiss that curled my toes, an appetizer for what else he had in store for me.
 
He was about to put his key into the lock when Bob let out a low, menacing growl. Joe shoved me behind him and went for his gun as two men stepped out of the shadows, weapons in hand.
StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
3 Responses May 16, 2012

This is so easy to follow and exciting read. Real Life!

I have recently been added as a friend, but I'm much MUCH more of a FAN! I am so very intrigued by your story, that I literally haven't been able to peel myself away from my cell phone Internet. I love to read; more so non fiction than fiction, but I am so involved in this story that at this point I have no preference.... Your story is both to me. You have eloquent writing and put us "the reader", right along with you thru this storyline. Thank you, I always comment on the Author's page/site when I LOVE their work. I'm hoping to see this on book shelves sometime soon as I will most definitely buy a copy or TWO! Please do not stop writing,<br />
All my love <br />
Katie Rose

thank you so much. i hope you enjyo the rest of the story. sedn me a note on my whiteboard if you would :) and if you haven't read the introduction or prologue, do so, it'll help :)

This Chapter sure took things up a notch as it is beginning to get complicated. The plot is thickening and just as the opening quote said about how love makes an us without destroying the me. Which way will our darling go? She is really trapped now! I have a hunch that when push gets to shove she will go a certain way but I have to see it first.<br />
If you are reading this story along with me, please leave a comment for Stephanie to see as it would mean the world to her to see you cared to comment.

:)) lovely thjank you