What I Did For Love - Chapter 6

Chapter 6: Oh For The Love Of Mud!
 
The courses of true love never did run smooth
William Shakespeare
 
Joe morphed from boyfriend into cop in a split second. He stepped in front of me, shielding me from the gunmen and dragged me down with him as he dropped into a crouch, making us smaller targets. Pulling his gun from the back of his waistband, he scanned the shrubbery in the tiny front yard and along the street, announcing that he was a police officer and demanding to know what the men wanted. The two guys must have retreated into the deep shadows, because I couldn't see either one of them from where we were hunkered down. Bob kept growling, though, his head lowered, hackles raised, teeth bared, so they must have still been there.
 
"Get inside," Joe whispered to me. "Call 911 and don't turn on any lights."
 
Reaching up and turning the key in the lock, I shoved the front door open far enough to scramble into the living room on my hands and knees, and pulled out my cell phone. I gave the 911 operator all the necessary information and raced up the stairs, through the dark house to the bedroom where I had dumped my stuff earlier in the evening.
 
I grabbed my Sig and, just to be on the safe side, took a small can of mace from my utility belt shoving it into the pocket of my shorts before I cautiously peeked out the front windows. There was enough light that from up here I could see Joe on the front steps, the yard, the sidewalk, the driveway, and the two men. One of them was crouched in the bushes, hidden in the shadows right in front of Joe. The other was on the far side of Joe's SUV, moving slowly up the driveway toward the porch, probably trying to get the drop on Joe.
 
No way was I letting that happen! I flew down to the kitchen and slipped quietly out the back door. Holding my breath, I plastered my back against the side of the house and crept down the driveway toward the street. The guy crouched behind the SUV was so focused on Joe that he never even realized I had come right up behind him.
 
I needed to disable him right away, and unfortunately, shooting him wasn't an option. "Pssstt!" I hissed at him and he jumped up, spinning around toward me. I caught him right in the face with a full blast of mace, and right away he dropped his gun and started bellowing as the chemicals burned his eyes and nose.
 
All hell broke loose as the guy in the bushes jumped up and a snarling Bob lunged off the porch at him. I couldn't see what was happening, but I guess Bob connected because the guy screamed like a little girl. Joe yelled, "Stop! Police!" and a second later, I heard a single gunshot. Bob yelped, I screamed, Joe called my name and vaulted the small wrought iron porch rail, landing next to me in the driveway.
 
"Are you hurt?" he demanded as he looked me over quickly before pulling me back into the shadows.
 
"No, I'm fine." I pointed at the guy I'd maced. "He's not doing so hot though."
 
We both raised our guns as the second guy burst out of the hedges at a full run. He shot past us and grabbed his buddy, who was stumbling around blindly, and hauled him across the neighbors' front lawns toward the corner. I took off after them but before I even got two steps, Joe reached out and snagged my collar, hauling me back next to him.
 
He turned me around and pushed me back toward the house. "Stephanie, stay put! I mean it!" and he was off, pounding after them.
 
"Like hell!" I muttered to myself since Joe was already gone. I started after him, but when the sound of the approaching sirens filtered through my adrenaline induced high, I gave up the chase. Picking up the bad guy's gun, I jogged down the driveway to meet the boys in blue, who were riding to the rescue, my eyes on Joe the whole time.
 
The two men just about made it to the middle of the street when half a dozen blue and whites, lights flashing, sirens screaming, wheeled up from both directions and squealed to a stop in front of the house, jumping curbs and blocking the street, pretty much surrounding the men. I stood on the sidewalk and watched as cops jumped out of their cars and none too gently, took the men down. In seconds, the two were face down on the concrete, hands cuffed behind their backs.
 
The neighbors peeked through their curtains, stood on their front stoops, and spilled out of their houses. I turned over the maced guy's gun and the cops bagged and tagged the weapons under the watchful eyes of the entire neighborhood. It was like watching a live episode of Law and Order!
 
Eddie strolled over and slung his arm around my shoulder. "Well Slick, you've sure had a busy evening." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at bad guy #2 who was bent over in the street, still coughing and snorting and gasping for breath. "You got him real good!"
 
I couldn't help but grin. "Well it serves him right, jumping out of the shadows with a gun like that. Got any idea who they are or what they wanted?"
 
Eddie shook his head, "Sorry Steph, they aren't talking. We'll take 'em back to the station and run 'em both. I'll let you know what we find out." He patted my shoulder and gave me a kiss on the cheek. "Don't worry. We'll figure out what's going on."
 
"Thanks Ed," I said with a tired sigh and watched while he loaded the creep into his cruiser. I started toward the house and almost tripped over Bob's twenty foot long leash. It was snaked across the front walk and wrapped in and around the scrubby bushes in front of the house.
 
"Aha! So this is where you are! All tangled up, huh? Come on Bob, my turn to rescue you!" I said with a laugh and was answered by a small whine. "Oh, poor baby! You were so brave, growling at those bad men! Hang on; I'll get you out of there. You can come out and sniff crotches and have some fun. After all, you're my hero and..." I pulled back some of the branches and saw Bob sprawled on the ground, panting, blood covering his neck and shoulder.
 
Oh My God! I'd heard the gun fire, but I never thought for a minute that it had been aimed at Bob! I screamed for Joe and dove into the bushes, clawing at the branches, trying to get to my dog. When I touched his face, Bob's eyes flickered open for a second and his tail thumped the ground once. That did it, my heart broke and I started to sob
 
Joe and Eddie and a couple of the other cops came running over. Joe took one look and literally pulled the shrubs out of the ground so they could reach Bob. Somebody brought a blanket and a first aid kit and I got kind of pushed aside while they clustered around Bob, trying to see how badly he was hurt.
 
I heard Eddie say 'bullet wound' and while one of the cops opened up the back of Joe's SUV, Eddie and Joe gently picked up the whimpering dog and deposited him in the vehicle.
 
I looked around and spotted the bastard who had hurt Bob. Bad guy #1 was leaning up against a cop car, bitching that he needed a doctor. His pant leg was torn and bloody where Bob had obviously bitten him. Good dog, I thought, you think you're hurt now? Wait 'til I get done with you.
 
I tore across the yard and threw myself at him. "You shot Bob! You hurt my dog, you lousy son of a *****!" I shrieked at him, and kicked him in his bloody leg, making his knee buckle under him. "You could have killed him, you bastard!" He hit the ground hard and I kicked at him a couple more times while he rolled around, trying to get away from me.
 
With one final kick to his ***, I stomped back up the sidewalk, headed back to Bob. The asshat finally struggled up to his knees and yelled after me, "That mutt bit me! Too bad I didn't kill him." That did it. I totally lost it. I turned around and grabbed him by the front of his shirt, hauling him back up to his feet. Balling up my fist, I reared back and punched him square in the nose.
 
Blood spurted all over the place and he started screaming at the top of his lungs, "Somebody help! Get this crazy ***** off me!" He tried to get away, but I was on him, scratching and slapping and punching, cursing, screaming like a banshee! I'd teach him to hurt my dog!
 
The cops and neighbors gathered around for the show, but nobody tried to stop me. Well, Carl did try to pull me off the guy, but he didn't have a prayer. "Back off, Carl!" I growled, and he let me go. Carl is a lot smarter than he looks.
 
I was a mad woman, literally! I got in a couple more good shots before Big Dog came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist, lifting me up off the ground with my arms and legs still swinging. "Okay Killer, round's over, you won. Neutral corners! You're gonna hurt yourself."
 
But I wasn't quite done yet and I lashed out with both my feet, catching the guy right in the balls. His eyes bulged and rolled back in his head. He went down like a sack of rocks, curling into a fetal position, hands still cuffed behind him.
 
The cops all hissed in a collective breath and shuddered but didn't move to help the jerk up or anything. Joe honked the horn as he backed out of the driveway, yelling to me to hurry up. Big Dog carted me over to the SUV and deposited me in the front seat. "You take care of Bob, Steph. We'll take care of those two."
 
Joe pulled into the street and I climbed over the seats to get back to Bob, petting him and crooning to him. Joe stuck his Kojak light on the roof of the car and we sped off to the Emergency Animal Clinic.
 
Three hours later, when we finally dragged ourselves in the front door, Bob had come through the surgery to remove the bullet and was resting comfortably at the vet's office. My fear and fury had been replaced by total exhaustion. I stood at the foot of the stairs and looked up. Those stairs might as well have been Mount Everest. I stumbled over and curled up on the couch, pulling an afghan over my head.
 
Eddie had been right. This had been one hell of a day. I was a 'Person of Interest' in a murder investigation, we'd been jumped by guys with guns, my dog had been shot … what the hell else could happen. Wait! Don't answer that. I really didn't want to know.
 
Unfortunately, I found out 'what else' too damn soon. Eddie called to tell us that our armed assailants were actually investigators hired by Trans-Global Insurance, the carriers for Eddie Abruzzi's life insurance policies. They claimed that they came to Joe's house to talk to me, and that they only pulled their weapons to defend themselves against a vicious dog and its demented, Mace wielding owner. I guess that would be me.
 
Anyway, they swore the whole episode was just a huge misunderstanding. And just in case I didn't agree with them, they wanted me charged with Simple Assault, Assault & Battery, Assault with a Deadly Weapon, and a few other crimes and misdemeanors. Just friggin' swell! I'm a one woman crime wave!
 
I barely remember Joe slinging me over his shoulder and carrying me up to bed. I know we slept in our clothes, on top of the covers, because that's how we woke up when the alarm went off … waaaaay too early. Two pots of coffee later, we both stumbled off to work.
 
I dragged my tired *** into RangeMan that morning and had to take all kinds of heat from the Merry Men. Seems that word of my 'little temper tantrum', as Lester called it, had spread like wildfire. They joked that since my new sideline was supplying the Trenton Men's Choir with sopranos, along with the usual bullet proof vests, RangeMan would be issuing Bombshell proof titanium athletic cups as standard safety equipment. Merry Man humor. Har-dee-har-har.
 
I made it through the morning on auto-pilot, fueled by enough coffee to eat a hole in my stomach lining. I was so tired I wasn't even hungry. Jeez! That was a first! I used my lunch break to go visit Bob who'd be recuperating at the Vet's for a couple more days. When I got back to my cubby, the message light on my desk phone was flashing. Just great! I stared at that damn little light for a whole minute trying to decide if I really wanted to listen to the messages.
 
Considering all the really swell stuff that had happened to me lately, I was pretty sure that Brad Pitt wasn't calling to say he ditched Angie and the kids for me, and if you don't sign up, you can't win the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes. Nope, I decided that it was in my best interests to ignore that flashing message light and just pretend that nothing at all had happened last night. Denial is my friend … Denial is my friend … Denial is my friend … my new mantra.
 
I mean, probably it was my mother, right? I know that every single one of Joe's neighbors was chomping at the bit to be the first one to call her and let her know about all the commotion. In the Burg, it's considered bad manners to call anyone after the nightly news came on. Half of Joe's neighbors probably sat up all night waiting for 7am, the earliest allowable time to phone a Burg resident. The only consolation was that Joe's mother was probably getting all those same calls too, and she'd be calling Joe. The neighbors got a great 'two for one' deal with this little fiasco.
 
Anyway, I didn't have to talk to my mother; I could hear her voice in my head just fine, thankyouverymuch … 'Stephanie! Nice people don't have armed men show up at their homes. What will the neighbors think? Marjorie Hruska's daughter has seven dogs and none of them get shot. Why can't you be more like her?' sigh I mean, was it any wonder that I ignored that blinking light?
 
I was pretty proud of myself. I didn't even SEE that stupid flashing light all afternoon. It was real easy to do after I covered it with a piece of duct tape. I put my cell phone on vibrate and unless it was Joe, I let it go straight to voice mail. When I got home, the answering machine in the kitchen was blinking so fast it looked like it was having a seizure. I couldn't delete those messages, though, because I sure wouldn't want Joe to miss his mother's calls, so I stuck the whole machine in a kitchen cabinet. Hey! Remember my mantra!
 
Joe called to tell me he caught a double homicide down on Stark Street and I shouldn't wait up for him. Believe me, I didn't argue! I nuked some of Angie Morelli's stuffed shells for dinner and I was tucked into bed, sound asleep by seven o'clock. I didn't even remember Joe climbing into bed next to me.
 
It's amazing what twelve hours of sleep can do for a person. I felt like a new woman. I didn't wake Joe, just taped a note to the bathroom mirror and slipped out of the house early. I stopped by the Tasty Pastry for coffee and a box of donuts, then sailed into the bonds office to surprise Connie and Lula.
 
"Girlfriend! Where you been?" Lula started, totally ignoring the donuts and coffee. "Don't you ever answer your phone no more? I been trying to call you!"
 
Connie jumped up and came around her desk. "Steph, what the hell is going on? Why are all these people asking questions about you?"
 
"What people? What are you talking about? Who's asking questions?" It suddenly hit me that both Connie and Lula were totally ignoring the food. Uh-oh! This could not be good!
 
"Steph, there were state cops in here." Connie took my arm and pulled me over to the couch. "They asked all kinds of questions about you and wanted a list of all the skips you ever brought in. I told 'em to come back with a warrant. What's going on?"
 
"Yeah," Lula added. "They thought they were real slick, asking questions all chatty like. We didn't tell them nothin', but they spent a long time locked in there," she jerked her thumb toward Vinnie's office, "with the weasel. I swear they came out picking duck feathers off their clothes."
 
Just great! My head started pounding and my eye began to twitch. I knew that Connie and Lula would stand up for me, but Vinnie would sell me down the river in a heartbeat. God only knew what he told those cops!
 
"Yeah! And then the other two guys, slimy looking creeps. They wouldn't say who they were, but they were both carrying." Connie and Lula both looked at each other and then at me and nodded. You know, most women looked at a man's eyes or his smile or his butt. The first thing Connie noticed about a guy was whether or not he was packing heat. Tells you something, huh? The two guys were probably the insurance investigators.
 
"They were full of questions, too. But they weren't cops, you know I have stomach issues when there's cops around, and my stomach didn't bother me at all." Lula nodded sagely. "So you better spill, Girl, and don't leave nothin' out!"
 
With the donut box on Lula's lap, the three of us sat on the couch and I told them everything about the investigation, assuring Lula that I wouldn't mention her name. By the time I finished, I had lost my appetite and was already late for work. Connie and Lula promised to call me if anybody else showed up asking questions, and I promised to answer my phone, turning it back on right then and there as a show of good faith.
 
I pulled into the garage on Haywood and hustled to the elevator, passing Junior as he stepped off. "Hey Steph," he said with a smile, "Lester's looking for you." I nodded and gave him a little finger wave as the doors closed, wondering what Lester wanted. When the doors pinged open on five, I got off the elevator as Bobby got on. "Morning Steph. Lester needs to see you in his office, ASAP." I thanked Bobby and went straight to the break room for coffee, this was gonna be another one of those days, I could tell already and I was gonna need all the caffeine I could get. As I was pouring the coffee, Hal strolled in. "Hi Steph! Lester wants to talk to you?" The man must have sent out a company-wide memo because by the time I got to my cubby, Woody, Ram, and even Ella had delivered Lester's message. And just in case I managed to miss everybody, there was a great big piece of paper taped over my monitor, 'See Lester Immediately! Urgent!' Gee, ya think Lester wants to talk to me?
 
I dumped my purse and carried my coffee down to his office. I never even got to knock. The door flew open and Lester grabbed my arm and hauled me inside, my coffee sloshing onto my hand. "What the hell, Lester?" I started, but he shushed me with a finger to his lips as he looked up and down the hall and then closed the door.
 
"What's going on?" I shook my wet hand, sending drops of coffee all over the place and looked around for something to clean up with.
 
Lester pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and started mopping coffee off me. "Tank has two state cops in his office. They said they were trying to get in touch with you, left messages all over the place but you didn't answer any of them. They think you're trying to dodge them. Are you? Do we need to get you outta here, Bomber?"
 
"Oh ****!" Betcha I could tell you who all those phone messages were from. I whipped out my cell and went through the voice mails … three were from a Detective Rinaldi.
 
"Les, I'm sorry. It's my fault that they're here. I never even listened to my messages yesterday."
 
"Is this about Abruzzi?" he asked and I nodded 'yes'.
 
Lester thought a minute and then waggled his eyebrows and gave me a wicked grin. "They don't know you're here. Call them back now. Act all innocent and tell 'em how sorry you are you didn't pick up their messages. Then maybe you should go have a chat with Tank." He gave me a big wink.
 
I snorted and hit dialed Rinaldi's number. My mother would have been proud of the very polite and slightly apologetic message I left on Detective Rinaldi's voice mail. Lester wrapped his arm around my waist and gave me a squeeze when we got to Tank's office.
 
Cal was standing guard outside the closed door, his arms crossed over his chest and a scowl on his face. I guess he was the official escort. He nodded toward the door, "Company. State cops, asking questions." Cal's lip curled in distaste. I mouthed 'Thanks,' and took a deep breath before I knocked on the door.
 
A few seconds later Tank opened the door and tipped his head almost imperceptibly and cut his eyes back over his shoulder. I winked in response. "Hey Tank!" I chirped. "I'm sorry I'm late, but you know how bad the last couple of days have been f…" He stepped back and opened the door wide allowing me to see the two men seated in the guest chairs in front of the desk. Even if I didn't know who they were, I would have made those two for cops right away. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt," and started to back away.
 
"Actually Steph, these two men are here to see you," Tank said formally. The detectives did the polite thing and stood up, whether it was for my benefit or Tank's was a jump shot. They smiled and held out their business cards and introduced themselves as Detectives Tony Rinaldi and Jim Malfitano from the State Attorney General's office. Rinaldi was short and round while Malfitano was tall and slim. They looked like the Bert and Ernie of the cop world.
 
Rinaldi did the talking. "Ms. Plum, you're a difficult lady to get in touch with. Glad to finally catch up with you," he said with a huge smile and stuck out his hand to pump mine.
 
"Yeah," said Malfitano sourly. "You're not avoiding us, are you?" He said it with a tight smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Is there some reason you don't want to talk to us?"
 
Crap! They were already playing 'good cop-bad cop.' "Avoid you?" I smiled back at him, playing dumb. "I didn't even know you guys wanted to talk to me until a little while ago." I mean, that was the truth, right? Plus, I was not about to let this dipstick think he was intimidating me. "So, what's this about?"
 
"We'd like to talk with you about Eddie Abruzzi." Rinaldi smiled.
 
Malfitano smiled too. "Just an informal chat," he added.
 
Informal, my ***! If they thought they could fool me just because they because they were smiling, they had another thing coming!
 
"I can free up one of the conference rooms for you, if you like," Tank offered.
 
Malfitano and Rinaldi looked at each other. "We'd prefer that Ms. Plum come downtown with us, now," Malfitano snapped.
 
"If you don't mind," Rinaldi added hastily. The two men smiled at Tank, then smiled at me. There was an awful lot of smiling going on here.
 
Tank looked over at me. "Steph?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.
 
"Um … Okay, I guess," I said to them. "But I'm on the clock." I turned to Tank. "Is it okay with you?"
 
Malfitano jumped right in. "I'm sure your boss wouldn't object to you helping us with a police investigation." He looked at Tank … smiling again. "Would you?" Do sharks smile?
 
I turned to the two cops. "In that case, okay. No problem!" I said brightly and smiled some more. My face was starting to hurt from all this phony smiling.
 
We all walked out of Tank's office together, with Cal on the cops' heels. He escorted them to the elevator while Tank and I stopped by my cubby to get my purse and keys. They tried to follow, but Cal blocked their way. It was really hard not to smirk, even two armed cops weren't gonna argue with Cal.
 
Tank grabbed hold of my hand. "I'm gonna go with you. I don't like the idea of you being all by yourself with those two. I think they're gonna try to put the squeeze on you and maybe you could use a little muscle. Something's up with those two and I don't trust them as far as I could throw them." Considering Tank's size and the size of the two cops, Tank could throw 'em about a mile. Still, I knew what he meant … I got the feeling that all that smiling and those polite manners were just a front, but for what, I wasn't sure I wanted to know.
 
I slid my arms around the big guy's waist and gave him a hug. "Thanks, Tank." I leaned my forehead against his chest. "They're really looking to pin this on me, aren't they?" I knew I was right; Tank did too, he couldn't even look me in the eyes. "I hate to admit it, even to myself… but I'm scared," I whispered, like if I said it out loud, it would be true.
 
Tank heaved a sigh, "I'm gonna call Ranger and tell him what's going on."
 
"No!" I pushed away from Tank, panic rising in my throat. "Don't you dare involve him. What he di… what happened to Abruzzi is on my head. It was because of me. If somebody has to pay a price for it, it's my price to pay."
 
Tank studied my face for a long minute, then finally nodded. "Okay, Steph, okay. But don't you do or say anything to involve yourself until there's no other option. Agreed?" It was my turn to nod. "I got your back. Let's do it!" he said and slung an arm around my shoulders as we walked out into the control room.
 
News traveled fast at RangeMan. Hal hustled over. "Remember Steph, you don't have to answer any questions you don't want to."
 
"And you can leave any time you want," Lester stage whispered from the other side of the room.
 
"Yeah," added Woody, keeping his eyes on the monitor, "Be sure they say, on the record, that you came in voluntarily."
 
"And if they read you your Miranda Rights, don't answer ANY questions, not even your name. Ask for a lawyer right away and then zip it!" Zero nodded wisely. I got the feeling that he had a lot of experience with this kind of stuff.
 
"Okay, thanks guys, I'll remember." I mean, I know the guys were just trying to help, but now I had butterflies the size of bats flapping around in my stomach. I gave them a weak smile and a wave and started for the elevator. We'd only gone about six feet when I notice that they were all following us … my Merry Man escort.
 
The cops scowled when they saw the group, but when the doors pinged open, they played gentleman and stood back to let me on first, or so I thought. They followed me into the car and practically pinned me against the back wall, standing right in front of me with their backs turned, staring down the Merry Men. I guess it was so I couldn't bolt or to show everybody who was in charge.
 
Tank realized what they were doing and jerked his head to the guys in the hall as the doors started to close. Somebody stuck their hand between the doors and they slid open again. Hal, Ram, and Cal strolled aboard, glaring at the cops. Bobby and Lester squeezed in after them and suddenly the whole arrangement was shuffled. Rinaldi and Malfitano were jammed against the back of the car by a wall of muscle and I was standing up right up front. I was smiling from ear to ear when I stepped off that elevator. RangeMen ROCK!
 
We finally got downtown and settled in an interview room. It was Malfitano, and Rinaldi, and me, and a great big mirror that I knew hid a video camera and probably the rest of the AG's team, including an Assistant District Attorney. Of course, they made Tank wait outside. Rinaldi pulled a small recorder out of his pocket and put it on the conference table. "You don't mind if we tape this, do you?" he asked.
 
"Nope. I know the routine."
 
"Yeah, that's right," Malfitano said, "You live with a cop, don't you?" Like he didn't know!
 
Rinaldi started the recorder and identified himself and Malfitano. I was asked for my name, address, phone number, date of birth, driver's license number, and everything short of the results of my last PAP test.
 
Rinaldi started off with, "We have a few questions about your relationship with Eddie Abruzzi."
 
There was that word again … relationship. I rolled my eyes. "I'd hardly call it a relationship."
 
"Okay then, how long did you know Mr. Abruzzi?" Rinaldi pulled out a pen and pad; I guess the recorder wasn't enough.
 
"A couple of weeks." I knew the rules of interrogation. Answer the questions, don't volunteer any additional information.
 
Rinaldi arched an eyebrow at me. "Really?" He sounded skeptical. "And how did you two meet?"
 
"I was at one of his rental properties to see a tenant and Abruzzi and one of his men came by." I left Lula and Albert out of the story. And the part about the broken window. There was no use getting anybody else in trouble.
 
"And …" Rinaldi prompted.
 
"And nothing. The tenant wasn't home and Abruzzi told me to leave. And I did."
 
Rinaldi and Malfitano looked at each other, then at me. "Okay," Malfitano blew out an irritated sigh and dropped all pretense of politeness. "Let's cut to the chase here, sweetheart. Those Trenton cop friends of yours have big mouths. We already know that Abruzzi gave you all kinds of presents. Don't try and tell us you were strangers," he snarked.
 
"He went to a lot of trouble and expense to find just the right gifts for you," Rinaldi, the 'good cop', added more gently. "It's obvious he thought a lot of you."
 
I swear I heard the thud when my jaw hit the floor. Presents? From Abruzzi? Were these guys nuts? I just couldn't help myself and I barked out a laugh. "You're kidding, right? The only thing Eddie Abruzzi ever gave me was a couple of heart attacks. Where did you get the idea that he was giving me gifts?" My hand automatically covered the scar on my arm. Abruzzi had left me with a constant reminder of what a sick bastard he was, but I'd hardly call it a gift.
 
Malfitano leaned back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest. The 'bad cop' was trying to look tough. "We have it on good authority that Abruzzi sent a couple of his goons into New York City to pick up two special order gifts for you. They cost a bundle! Now whatdaya have to say?"
 
It finally dawned on me what they were talking about and I rolled my eyes! "Do you guys have a clue what those 'gifts' were?" When neither one of them answered, I went on. "The first one was a bag with four great big black snakes that I found hanging on my front door."
 
Malfitano arched an eyebrow at me. Obviously they didn't believe me. I heaved a sigh. "There should be an incident report at the TPD. When the cops saw the snakes they called Animal Control and those guys rounded up three of 'em, so they'll have a record, too." I folded my arms over my chest and glared back at Malfitano. I could play the same game!
 
"I thought you said there were four snakes," Malfitano said with a sneer. "What happened to the fourth one? Keep it as a pet?"
 
"No," I said dryly. "I shot the son of a *****!" I probably shouldn't have said that, huh?
 
Malfitano just stared at me. I guess he was trying to figure out if I was pulling his leg or not. Rinaldi cleared his throat, "And the second, uh … gift?" he asked.
 
"Spiders. Tarantulas. In my car. There's incident report on that, too."
 
Rinaldi ran a hand over his face. "And I suppose Animal Control came to collect them as well?"
 
"Oh yeah, and my insurance company knows all about it 'cause I side-swiped a car when one of those little 'gifts' popped out and surprised me." I wrapped my arms around myself and shuddered at the memory.
 
Rinaldi ran his hand over his face. "Okay, so I take it you don't like spiders and snakes." I rolled my eyes at him. Einstein!
 
"Look," Malfitano stood up and started pacing the little room. "Why don't you make it easy on all of us and tell us why Abruzzi went to all that trouble and expense to send you spiders and snakes. You say they weren't gifts, so what were they? Bribes? Threats? Warnings? What did he want from you, huh? Sex? Trying to force you into bed with him?"
 
"What? No! He never… Oh, that's just disgusting!" But I had to wonder if that was Abruzzi's idea of seduction. Another shudder.
 
"Ms. Plum, Stephanie … If he was threatening you, terrorizing you and you shot him because you thought your life was in danger, that's self defense." Rinaldi reached a hand across the table to me, sympathy and concern just dripping off him. "Just tell us the truth. Let us help you!"
 
I stared at them open mouthed. I was so stunned, I couldn't even talk! That was a new one for me. I shook my head to clear it. I had a couple of ways I could go here and I had to make a choice pretty quick. I could bullshit around and play games with them. Unfortunately, they probably weren't as dumb as they looked and would catch on to that pretty quick. They already thought I killed Abruzzi. Fooling around wouldn't help me any.
 
Another choice would be to get up and walk out. Of course, then they could call me a material witness and lock me up. I'd just be digging myself in deeper. Probably not a smart idea either.
 
The third choice, and the winner as far as I was concerned, was to give them the whole story. Well, a sanitized and carefully edited version, of course, but as close to the truth as I could get without implicating Ranger or anybody else for that matter. I'd look like I was cooperating and had nothing to hide.
 
"Okay, okay," I held up my hands in a stop gesture. "I don't know where you got these ideas, but this is what happened." I started with Mabel knocking on my parents' door, through finding Soder, dead on my couch, Val and me being kidnapped, and finished up with Joe telling me that Abruzzi had been found in the Farmers' Market parking lot.
 
I left out stuff like my mother running over the rabbit and killing him, and Ranger and Hector being at Pino's when Val and I got back there, and knowing that Evelyn and Annie had Abruzzi's medal. I played up the Jeanne Ellen thing, let them think that there was some kind of rivalry between us and I only stuck around so she wouldn't find Evelyn and Annie first.
 
Malfitano and Rinaldi didn't say anything during my whole recitation and I had to wonder if they knew about all the parts of the story I edited out. Their silence was making me really nervous here.
 
Rinaldi tapped his pencil on the table, "Just a couple more questions, Ms. Plum."
 
"Were you living with Detective Morelli during this time?" Rinaldi asked, scribbling on his note pad.
 
"No. We'd gone our separate ways months before any of this happened, but we stayed friends. I'd come and visit Bob when he got lonely."
 
"Bob?" Malfitano snorted. "He calls it BOB?" and started to snicker.
 
I caught on right away and narrowed my eyes at him. What was this guy's hang up with sex, for crying out loud. "Bob is the dog!" You idiot! But I didn't say that part out loud … I don't think.
 
Rinaldi shot his partner a side-ways warning glance. "So who were you seeing at that time?"
 
"Actually, nobody. I had sort of sworn off men." I didn't think that one night with Ranger qualified as 'seeing' somebody, especially since it was payment for The Deal. And I sure as hell wasn't telling 'em about that. The last thing I needed these guys to think was that I traded sex for favors.
 
"Women?" Malfitano shot.
 
"NO!" Yeesh, what a slimebag! I rolled my eyes again. Probably I should stop doing that, I was giving myself a headache.
 
"Can you account for your whereabouts during the hours of 12 midnight and 2am on the day in question?"
 
"Detective Morelli took me to St. Francis' ER to treat the burn on my arm. I don't know exactly what time it was, but they'll have a record. Then he took me to his house and I passed out and didn't wake up until the next morning."
 
Malfitano eyed me suspiciously. "I thought you said you two weren't together."
 
"We weren't, but he knew I was afraid that Abruzzi would come after me again. Joe knew I'd feel safer with him." It was the truth, after all.
 
"So Detective Morelli would be your alibi?"
 
"Yes."
 
"What kind of a gun do you carry?" Malfitano snapped.
 
"RangeMan issued 9 mil Sig Saur," I shot back.
 
"You carry a throw down piece?" Rinaldi eyed me.
 
"No." KISS … Keep it simple Stephanie.
 
"Do you own any other handguns?" Both cops were making notes.
 
"A .38 Police Special." They were tag teaming me, throwing questions so fast that I couldn't get one answered before they asked the next.
 
"Where is it right now?" They must practice this ****.
 
"At home." But I really wished I had it with me so I could throw it at them.
 
"Where?" Malfitano demanded.
 
Wait for it … "In my cookie jar."
 
They both stopped dead and looked at me and then at each other. Rinaldi bit back a smile. "Like Rockford?" he asked. I just shrugged my shoulder. "Cute." Was all he said.
 
"Tell me, Ms. Plum … would you be willing to submit to a lie detector test?" Malfitano was smiling again, the rat.
 
I swallowed hard and crossed my fingers. Everybody knows that it's not a lie if your fingers are crossed, right? "Sure," I told him, hoping that he couldn't hear my heart hammering in my chest. "Why not?"
 
They let me go after that, telling me not to leave town without informing them and to make myself available for further questioning. Round one was over. I knew that from here on in, it would get nasty. I really didn't know if I was prepared for what was ahead.
 
Tank took me to Pino's, plied me with comfort food, pizza and beer, and then sent me home early. I spent the afternoon with Val, trying to prepare her for a visit from the state cops, and then snagged Albert in his office to do the same thing. To be honest, I was more worried about what Albert would say to them. He had a tendency to embellish the facts, such a bizarre thing for a lawyer to do… not!
 
What I thought of as an experience best buried deep in denial, Albert thought of as brag-worthy exploits. I just hope his story telling wouldn't get me locked away for the rest of my life.
 
Thing seemed to calm down for a couple of days. I didn't hear any more from the Dynamic Duo, Rinaldi and Malfitano, and I actually started to relax a little. Bob celebrated his homecoming from the vet's by scarfing down two meatball subs and the whole extra large supreme pie that Joe left on the kitchen counter. I spent the rest of the night cleaning up Bob barf. Life was getting back to normal.
 
Friday night I hustled home so I could change my clothes and meet the guys at Shorty's for our regular pizza and pool night. I had gotten pretty good and had actually won a couple of the pots. Joe was supposed to go play poker at Big Dog's, so I wasn't surprised to see his SUV parked in front of the house when I turned the corner.
 
I didn't see the two black Suburbans in the driveway or the swarm of guys in black jackets emblazoned with State Police across the back tramping in and out of the house until I pulled up at the curb. Joe was out on the front walk holding Bob on a tight leash, both of them watching the action. I jumped out of the car and ran to him.
 
"Joe? What's going on?" I put my hand on his arm. "What the hell are they doing?"
 
"They have a search warrant." Joe's voice was cold and filled with controlled anger.
 
State cops were carrying brown paper evidence bags out of the house and putting them in the back of one of the Suburbans. I watched Joe's computer and my laptop follow the bags. I had no clue what they could have found that would be considered evidence.
 
Morelli turned to me, eyes black and hard, face pale, mouth grim. "Just exactly what did you tell those state cops, Stephanie?"
 
"Wh … what?" I stared at him, open mouthed, my heart dropping somewhere around my knees.
 
"They took my badge and gun, Stephanie." He ground out the words painfully. "I've been suspended pending a full investigation into my involvement in the death of Eddie Abruzzi. MY involvement! Isn't that a hoot? I'm their prime suspect! So what did you say to them, huh? Just how far did you go to protect Ranger?"
 
Before I could even open my mouth, he shoved Bob's leash into my hands and stalked away. I called after him, but he ignored me. Bob leaned against my leg and we watched Joe climb into his SUV and tear off down the street.
 
Oh God! Did I do this? Was this really all my fault? And if it was, how the hell do I fix it?
StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
2 Responses May 16, 2012

This is how the game is played, and the story goes on....... Ms.. Plum is very brave.

This story is getting deeper and deeper! It really shows our sweetheart to be a very, very gutsy woman!! (who is now in a terrible fix!)