What I Did For Love - Chapter 8

Chapter 8: You Only Hurt The One You Love!
 
Love is always open arms. If you close your arms about love you will find that you are left holding only yourself.
-Leo Buscaglia
 
I marched out of RangeMan Miami with my shoulders squared and my head held high. Just in case Ranger was watching, I wasn't about to let him know how shook up I was. Oh, HELL no! I wasn't going to give him that satisfaction!
 
One of the RangeMen hailed a cab for me and I smiled and thanked him. I stepped into the taxi, gave the Merry Man a little wave, and took off for the airport. Of course, the second I turned the corner and was out of sight of the building, I slumped down in the seat and buried my face in my hands.
 
I thumped my head against the back of the seat. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! I added a couple of mental head slaps to the name calling and thumping. I must have been out of my flipping mind to think that going to Miami to see Ranger would be a good idea! Jeez! I set myself up for that whole, humiliating scene. What made me think that he'd be willing to do me a favor? It turned out to probably be the dumbest thing I ever did in my whole life, and we all know how many dumb things I've got to my credit.
 
I was more mad at myself then anybody else. I mean, how did I let Joe talk me into facing Ranger? Yeesh! Where was my brain? What the hell was I thinking? Well, see? That was the problem right there! Obviously, I wasn't thinking at all … maybe I was still feeling guilty that Joe was in trouble instead of me, or because of me. Maybe I was just willing to do anything to make it better? Maybe I was a dumbass? No wonder the whole thing turned out to be such a huge disaster.
 
My return flight wasn't scheduled to leave for hours, so I called Joe, but he didn't answer. I left messages on his cell and the house phone, but he never called back. I was pretty sure he had an appointment with his lawyers that afternoon … probably he was there. Hopefully they'd come up with a plan of action to prove Joe's innocence and he wouldn't be arrested or even charged at all. Then I wouldn't have to figure out exactly how I was gonna ride to the rescue, and we'd all be off the hook, permanently. Between that and trying to find an earlier flight home, and being scared that Joe had already been arrested and that's why he didn't answer the phone, I worried away the afternoon.
 
By the time my plane landed at Newark Airport, I was exhausted from beating myself up, and all those mental head slaps just gave me a pounding headache. I seemed to be having a lot of those lately. It sure didn't help any that I had been awake for two whole days and couldn't even remember the last time I ate anything. I was so tired I was dizzy, and my stomach was trying to digest itself. About a dozen different emotions were running through me, all at the same time, and none of them were any good. I was frustrated, tired, hungry, humiliated, pissed off, worried, scared, and way beyond fed up! Give me a minute and I'll come up with the rest of them.
 
I must have been operating on auto pilot because I couldn't even remember the drive home from the airport at all. I just sort of came to when I pulled into the driveway, and practically had to force my body to crawl out of the car and drag itself to the front door. I focused on standing in the shower, finding something to eat, and falling into bed for about a week.
 
The relief of being home was almost overwhelming. All I could think about was being wrapped in Joe's arms and sobbing out the whole humiliating story to him, and having him tell me that everything would be okay. I was close to tears when I finally stumbled through the front door into the living room … and stopped dead. What the hell?
 
There was a hockey game on the TV, every surface in the room was covered in Pino's bags and pizza boxes and empty beer and soda cans. There were dirty plates and napkins and half eaten food all over the place. I was pretty sure that it was Bob barf I was seeing on the floor … at least I hoped it was. The cigar smoke was so thick, you could barely see through it. It looked like we really had been vandalized this time.
 
Stunned, I sort of wandered into the dining room where Joe and half the cops from the station were crammed around the table that was loaded with poker chips and cards, overflowing ash trays … okay, cereal bowls they were using as ashtrays, bottles and cans and glasses and bags of chips. Every step I took, my shoes crunched on the chips and popcorn that littered the floor. I could swear that the girls and I had cleaned up this place the other night.
 
I must have stood there a full two minutes before anybody noticed me. Carl looked up and saluted me with his beer, "Hiya Steph! Ya want we should deal ya in?"
 
"Cupcake!" Joe gave me a loopy grin from the far side of the table. Oh, he was feeling no pain! "I didn't know when you were coming home so my buds came to keep me company." He held his arms out to me, "Comere and gimme a kiss!"
 
I just stared at him for a couple of seconds, then turned on my heel and went upstairs and sat on the edge of the bed. I guess I was waiting for him to follow me, to ask me what happened, to tell me what his lawyers said. I waited, but no Joe. I could hear his voice from downstairs, laughing, joking, upping the ante.
 
I sat there just long enough for all my exhaustion and hunger and worry to be replaced by anger. He sends me off to beard the lion in his den while he has a party? He never even returned my phone calls! What the hell was that all about? Okay, seriously pissed off here!
 
I needed to get out of there. Not only was there no way I could sleep with all that racket downstairs, there was no way I could sleep there at all. So, I went to my nice, neat, organized closet and pulled out a carry-all. I loaded up a nightshirt, extra clothes, my RangeMan uniform and equipment, my hair stuff, makeup … you know, the bare essentials, and took off for my parents' house. If I wasn't gonna sleep, at least I wasn't gonna sleep in peace and quiet. Oh, and before you ask, no … nobody noticed that I left.
 
When I got there, the lights were on in the kitchen, so I was pretty sure my mom was still awake. I pulled up the driveway and parked under the kitchen windows so she'd hear the noise and I wouldn't scare her when I came in the house. I had just gotten out of the car when the back porch light came on and she stuck her head out the back door.
 
"Stephanie," she whispered. "What are you doing here at this hour? What's the matter? Are you all right?"
 
"Yeah, Mom. Everything's fine. It's poker night and Joe's playing host. I couldn't take the noise and the smoke, so here I am. Is it okay for me to spend the night?"
 
"Well of course it is!" Mom ushered me through the door. "Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat?"
 
"I'm starving, but don't bother. I'll just raid the fridge."
 
Once we were inside in the brightly lit kitchen, she took a good look at me. "Sit down; you look like you're going to fall over."
 
I dropped my duffle by the door and plopped down at the table while my Mom got busy at the stove. We hadn't talked a lot about Joe being suspended or being a murder suspect. I figured after the shock and humiliation of having a daughter playing the role of prime suspect, my parents had had enough excitement.
 
"Where did you go today that you're all dressed up like that? You look very nice for a change."
 
Only my mother could compliment you and insult you in the same sentence. It was a gift, I guess. "I had to fly to Miami to go to the RangeMan office there. I took care of business and turned around and flew back. It's been a long day." Oh, come on! Don't roll your eyes at me! I told her the truth! Most of it.
 
Mom came over and put a mug of hot chocolate in front of me. "Whipped cream or marshmallows?" That was a pretty tough choice when I was a kid. "Or both?" She gave me a small smile. One thing my mother understood was comfort food.
 
"Just whipped cream, I'm watching my weight." I swear she almost chuckled and loaded the top of my cup with a mountain of Reddi-Whip. She even left the can on the table.
 
"I heard that the girls helped you clean up the house after that awful police search," she said from the stove. "You have good friends, dear, bringing all that food and staying so late." She turned to face me, hand on hip. "But where was Joseph while the women were doing all the work?"
 
The Burg grapevine didn't miss a trick. "He was pretty upset, Mom. He drove down the Shore and walked on the beach until he calmed down. It really was better that he wasn't there to see the mess. He woulda flipped out."
 
She harrumphed. "Well," my mother said with a small, satisfied twitch of her lips, "at least Angie Morelli won't be riding her high horse again any time soon!"
 
"What do you mean?" I eyed her suspiciously as I licked off my whipped cream moustache. Of all the things my mother wasn't, snide was one of them.
 
Like any good Burg Girl, my mother rolled her eyes and sighed. "Oh, a few weeks ago, Angie and Bella had an awful lot to say about what a saint Joseph was for having a murder suspect living with him. And," she added as she came back over to the table, "they said it all over town." I had to snort. I could only imagine what else they had been saying about me.
 
Mom put a bowl of cream of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich in front of me. Didn't I tell you she understood comfort food? She got herself a cup of tea and the box of oyster crackers for my soup, and sat down across from me.
 
"So what, exactly, did they say about me?" I really wanted to know what had gotten Mom's back up like that.
 
She waved her hand, "That's not important. But she belittled you, Stephanie, in an effort to make Joseph look better. If she really thought that he was so perfect, she wouldn't need to do that, now would she?" My mother calmly sipped her tea.
 
Was my mother actually standing up for me? I couldn't really be sure, but it sounded like it. Nah, this was my mother we were talking about. "Well, that's just Angie for you," I said kind of lamely and swallowed a spoonful of soup.
 
Mom took another sip of her tea and carefully put the cup back on the saucer, primly folding her hands in her lap. "Stephanie," she started, then stopped, like she was trying to choose her words. I just munched my grilled cheese and waited.
 
Mom cleared her throat and started again. "Stephanie, I know we've never been a family that discusses personal matters," she hesitated, her eyes flicking toward me, and then back down at her hands. "But your father and I were talking, and we're worried about you." She shifted uncomfortably in her chair.
 
Holy ****! The last time my mother and I talked about personal stuff was when I got my first period. That was a while ago! I looked around for an escape route, but I was too late. "Your father and I think that you should break off your relationship with Joseph," the words came out in a rush. "It isn't like you're engaged or planning a wedding or anything, so it wouldn't be a big deal." With a big sigh of relief, she sat back in her chair and calmly picked up her tea cup again.
 
I, on the other hand, decided to choke myself to death and inhaled half a grilled cheese sandwich. Who was this woman and what had she done with my mother? I shot a quick glance toward the pantry and wondered if I went in there, would I find a body snatcher pod.
 
"Wait!" I managed to wheeze out after I stopped coughing and could finally breathe again. "I thought you thought that Morelli was my last chance at the perfect Burg marriage?" I gaped at her, wide eyed. "I thought you wanted me to settle down with him and be the perfect Burg housewife and have kids and wash windows … and … and … stuff!" My vision went blurry and I had a sharp pain in my head. I was sure I was having a stroke.
 
"Well, yes, Stephanie. I did. But I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm not perfect. He was obviously the wrong choice." She leaned across the table toward me. "Stephanie, he's a murder suspect... again! Even if he's cleared, there will always be that cloud over his head. What would the neighbors say?"
 
Oh, thank God! There was the mom I knew and loved. I got worried there for a minute. My mother picked up her napkin and reached across the table to wipe whipped cream off my face.
 
"How many times have you told me that Morelli was my last hope? When we got back together again, Dad practically had to physically restrain you from booking the Polish/American Hall. I'll bet you're still working on the guest list." My mother flushed a bright pink but didn't look at me. "And now you're telling me that you're gonna be happy having an unmarried daughter?"
 
My mother gave a derisive little snort. "Don't be silly, Stephanie. We'll just have to find you someone else. How about that nice Cuban boy, Carlos?"
 
Okay, no stroke. I was hallucinating. I was having an LSD flashback. Oh wait. I never tried LSD. I was going insane, that's what it was … insanity. I had totally lost it and little men in white jackets were going to come and cart me off to a rubber room someplace.
 
I shook my head to clear it. Owwww! Big mistake. "But you said he looked like a thug!" I squeaked.
 
"Stephanie Plum! You know very well that looks can be deceiving. Don't be so judgmental!" She tsk-ed at me and went to refill her tea cup.
 
My mouth hung open as I watched this woman, who looked like my mother, move around the kitchen. She wanted to marry me off to Ranger? If the whole idea hadn't been so bizarre, it would have been hysterical and I fought the maniacal laugh that was bubbling up in my chest. I was obviously having a breakdown or an aneurysm or a psychotic episode or something.
 
I put a finger to my twitching eye and tried some yoga breathing to calm myself down. Well, that didn't work, so I got up and went straight to the pantry and peeked in. Nope, no pod and no Jack Daniels either. All I could find was a bottle of peppermint schnapps left over from last Christmas. That'd have to do. I used it to top off my hot chocolate and all but chugged it down. Mom added a healthy dollop to her tea, and we both felt better.
 
By the time my mother and I had finished cleaning up the kitchen, the bottle of schnapps was empty and I couldn't seem to remember how to get up the stairs. I don't think my mother was in much better shape and we giggled as we stumbled around. I pretty much dropped my clothes and crawled into bed, and whether it was the exhaustion, or the schnapps, or the security of being in my old bed, I slept better than I had in weeks.
 
It was close to noon when I finally hauled my *** out of bed. At least I had slept off the worst of the schnapps hangover. I did a lot of thinking while I showered and dressed, and decided that it was time to go have a real heart to heart with Joe. I couldn't escape my mother's clutches, though, and since food equaled love in this house, she made me a traditional, heart attack on a plate, New Jersey brunch … a pork roll and egg sandwich with all the fixin's. At least the orange juice was healthy. Mom kissed me on the cheek as I left; I guess that was because I didn't have room for the coffee cake, so the PDA evened it out. Still, I was gonna have to check the basement for that body snatcher pod.
 
When I got to Joe's, the windows were all open, to air out the cigar smoke, I guess, and I could hear Bob barking at the vacuum cleaner. I went in the kitchen door and stifled a grin. There were a couple of bags of garbage, all neatly tied up, the dishwasher was running, and there was a fresh pot of coffee. I poured myself a cup and went through to the living room just in time to watch Joe finish vacuuming under the sofa cushions. Any other time, that would have been a huge turn on and I would have SO jumped his bones. I mean, come on! A man doing housework? How sexy is that? Unfortunately, we had some serious stuff to take care of first.
 
"Looks pretty good in here," I said by way of greeting when he turned off the vacuum.
 
"Yeah, well, I figured I couldn't leave you with another mess to clean up," he said with a sheepish grin as he wrapped the cord around the machine and stowed it in the hall closet.
 
"Smart man," I replied with a snort.
 
We went back into the kitchen and he poured himself a cup of coffee, holding up the pot to see if I wanted more. I just shook my head 'no' and sat at the table. "You stay at your Mom's last night?" he asked without looking at me.
 
"Yeah." I didn't figure he needed an explanation of why.
 
"Sorry about that," he said softly. I just nodded, putting an end to that whole touchy subject. This was no time to have a fight.
 
Joe cleared his throat. "So, how did it go with Manoso yesterday?" He leaned against the kitchen counter and sipped his coffee, his cop face on.
 
I flopped back in my chair and blew out a deep breath of frustration. "Ohhhh, not so good. The whole thing just kinda backfired on me. He thought I was there to blackmail him, that I was threatening to go to the cops unless he agreed to turn himself in or something. I don't think I was able to convince him that I wasn't, but I don't think it matters much anyway." I shrugged. "He told me he'd 'consider' helping. I pretty much took that as a 'no'."
 
I really didn't see any need to tell Joe about Ranger's 'price' thing. It would only make the situation worse. And since I was pretty sure that Ranger wasn't gonna volunteer to fall on his own sword just to get Joe off the hook, it really didn't matter anyway. "I'm sorry it didn't work out."
 
"Don't beat yourself up. It was worth a try, Steph." He turned and rinsed his cup, putting it in the dish rack.
 
"So what did your lawyers have to say? They come up with anything?" Guess I was hoping for some good news for a change.
 
Joe heaved a sigh and leaned against the kitchen counter. "For starters, they're pretty sure that the DA is trying to build a case around 'my motive' for killing Abruzzi … you." I could hear the exasperation in his voice. "You know, that I was trying to protect you, or impress you, or win you back… that I did it for love." He put both hands over his heart dramatically, then snorted in disgust.
 
"Oh that's just swell!" I said sarcastically. "So what are we supposed to do about that? Do they have a plan?"
 
He ran his hands through his hair, and started to pace the kitchen. That's what he always did when he knew I wasn't going to like what he had to say. I braced myself and waited. "The lawyers think that you and I should split up. They want me to dump you. It should look like just one more episode in our pattern of on again-off again. Kinda like business as usual for us." He hesitated a few seconds. "They think I need to 'distance' myself from you." He made little air quotes.
 
"Wait! What?" I all but yelled. I'm sure my eyebrows flew up to my hairline. I really wasn't expecting that! I did the goldfish routine for a minute, then asked, "Distance yourself? Why?"
 
"So the DA can't use the 'I did it for love' motive against me." He heaved out a huge breath. "And it gets worse. The DA is gonna present the case to the Grand Jury some time next week. That means they have to have some kind of evidence. Steph, if they get an indictment … I'm going to jail."
 
"No, no, no!" I refused to hear what he was saying. "What kind of evidence could they possibly have against you? Motive isn't enough, even opportunity isn't … there are no fingerprints, no DNA, no smoking gun, no nothing! If they were going to suspect everybody who had a bone to pick with Abruzzi, the list would look like the Manhattan phone book." I was babbling and I knew it, but I just couldn't seem to stop myself.
 
"Stephanie," Joe said quietly from across the room, but I just kept on going.
 
"They can't convict you on circumstantial evidence, can they? What could there be to connect you to the crime? I mean, you're a good cop. Look at your record, it's clean. I'm gonna call Vinnie and make sure he's on board for the bail, just in case. He knows you're good for it with this house and all, and…"
 
"Stephanie, STOP!" he said loudly enough for me to shut up and look up at him. "There's only one thing left for us to do," he said quietly.
 
Joe came over and pulled out a chair, sitting down across from me. Reaching across the table, he took my hands in both of his, running small circles on the back of my hands with his thumbs. He didn't look at me, just lifted my hands one at a time and kissed the palms, not something he did very often.
 
I had no idea what he was going to say, but the way he was acting was really scaring me, "Joe, please. Just tell me what it is!"
 
He ran his hands through his hair again, then blew out a deep breath and inhaled another one, like he was steeling himself against what he was going to say. "I think," his eyes flicked to mine, "I think you have to go to Malfitano and Rinaldi and tell them that Manoso's killed Abruzzi. He didn't leave us any other choice."
 
I froze for a second, then wrenched my hands out of his and pulled back from him. My stomach lurched and bile burned my throat. I jumped up so fast I knocked my chair over as I bolted out the back door and down the steps into the yard. Standing there, bent over, leaning against the back of the house while my stomach churned, I tried to concentrate on not being sick, not on what Morelli wanted me to do.
 
Joe followed me out of the house and put his hand on my back. "Steph, what else can we do?"
 
I shrugged off his hand and backed away from him, wrapping my arms around myself. Suddenly I was so cold I was shivering. "You can't ask me to do that, Joe." I just kept shaking my head 'no' at him.
 
Joe put his hands on my shoulders, holding me in place. "Stephanie, you don't understand. There isn't any other way out. There aren't any other options."
 
I twisted away from him. "No, YOU don't understand. This really is all my fault. Ranger kil … he … he risked everything to protect me! Is this how I thank him? By turning him in to the police? Abruzzi's dead because of me, this is on MY head." I was pretty close to hysterical now, sobbing so hard I could barely get the words out.
 
"So what are you saying? That I'm supposed to keep my mouth shut and go up on a murder one rap because you have some kind of loyalty to Manoso?" His voice was getting tighter, anger creeping into it.
 
I held up my hands. "Stop it! Just stop it! There has to be some other way! If the roles were reversed …" I was practically begging now.
 
"That's just it, Stephanie," sarcasm dripped from each word. "The roles could never be reversed because I don't solve my problems by pulling a gun!"
 
He turned and walked away from me, then stopped, like he had thought of something. He turned around slowly and looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time.
 
"Is there something going on between the two of you? Are you still hung up on him?"
 
His words hit me like a slap. "What?" I looked at him in shock. "How could you say that?"
 
"Jesus, Stephanie! You're willing to throw me to the sharks to save him. You can't make a choice. What am I supposed to think?"
 
He took a couple of steps toward me and I just backed away from him until I hit the fence. I fumbled with the latch on the gate, stumbled through and ran down the driveway. I was crying so hard that I could barely see, and my hands shook so badly I couldn't get the keys into the ignition. Joe followed me to the sidewalk and tried to open the passenger door. I hit the locks and the gas at the same time, and roared away from the curb, almost clipping a car parked in front of me. I left Joe in the street, yelling for me to come back.
 
I drove around Trenton pretty aimlessly while I tried to calm down. My brain was going a mile a minute and I needed to find a little peace and quiet so I could sort out all the things going through my head. Finally, I just pulled over and parked on a side street, not even paying any attention to where I was. I sat there for hours, going over and over all the things that Joe had said. How was I supposed to make a choice?
 
Even though Ranger and I weren't even friends anymore, a part of me still loved him and I owed him more than I could ever repay. From the day we met he'd supported and encouraged me. When everybody else was telling me how to live my life and giving me grief, he stood behind me and my decisions. He bailed my *** out of trouble more times than I could count. He lent me cars and Merry Men, and bled money to protect me. He gave me jobs when I couldn't pay my bills, and never asked for anything in return. I could still hear his voice, telling me that there was no price on what we gave each other. He had killed to keep me safe. How was I supposed to make him pay for that?
 
And then there was Joe. He was one of the few constants in my life, even if it was almost always on again/off again. We shared so much more than just a bed. He'd been part of my past, he was my present, and quite possibly he would share my future. No matter what happened between us, he'd always be a part of my life, too. I loved him. There was no way I could let his life be stolen away while he sat in jail either.
 
I knew what I had to do. Really, I had known all along and was just too chicken **** to actually do it. But Joe was right. There were no other options now and it was time for me to woman up. I actually felt a weight lift off me after I made the decision. I had some homework to do before I went to see Rinaldi and Malfitano, and a lot of things to put in order before I went to jail for killing Abruzzi.
 
It was dark now and I decided to go to my parents' house for the night again. I reached for the key to turn on the car just as somebody rapped on my passenger side window, making me shriek in surprise. I dark shape walked around the front of the car and bent down while I fumbled for the gun in my purse. "Are you okay, Bombshell?" Tank demanded.
 
I rolled down my window. "Jesus Christ, Tank. What the hell are you doing here? You scared the crap outta me."
 
"What do you mean, what am I doing here? I work here. We've been watching you for hours, waiting for you to come in. What's going on?"
 
I finally looked around and realized with a jolt that I was parked in front of the RangeMan building. I wondered what Freud would have said about this slip. I always ran to Ranger when I was in trouble. Here I was again.
 
Tank was looking at me funny, and I don't mean ha-ha funny either. "Come on Steph, I think you ought to come inside."
 
"No thanks, I'll be fine. Honest." I tried to give him a bright smile, but didn't think I did so good.
 
He reached in the window, popped the lock, and pulled the door open. "Shove over, I'm going to dinner and you know how much I hate to eat alone."
 
I knew no such thing about Tank. That man could eat anywhere, anytime, anyplace, with or without company. But I slid over to the passenger seat anyway. Ten minutes later, we were at Shorty's, the scene of all of our heart to hearts. I headed straight for the ladies' room, pretty sure I looked like hell after my crying jag. There was nothing much I could do about my red swollen eyes, but the rest of me cleaned up pretty good.
 
By the time I made it to the booth, there was a pitcher of beer and a frosty mug with my name on it, filled and waiting for me. I was probably dehydrated from all that crying, so I sucked it down. "So," Tank said as he refilled my mug, "you gonna tell me what's going on?"
 
"Just an all around bad day, Tank." I gave him a rueful smile. I was sure he already knew all about my little chat with Ranger.
 
"You and the cop have a fight?" he asked over the rim of his mug.
 
"Among other things," I said with a shrug. "Made a lot of decisions today, too."
 
"You gonna tell me?" He arched an eyebrow at me.
 
I had to admit that it would feel wonderful to pour out all my problems to Tank. I mean, the man did have a serious streak of teddy bear running through him. The trouble was that first and foremost he was Ranger's friend. He'd spill all my secrets to Ranger the first chance he got. "Well, one of 'em." I took another big gulp of liquid courage. "I won't be coming back to RangeMan."
 
Tank just eyed me and hmmm-ed, which from him, sounded like a bear growling. "You sure?" he rumbled.
 
Yeah, I was pretty sure that the New Jersey Penal System wasn't gonna let me keep that job anyway. "Look, after that meeting with Ranger, I know I can't stay here, Tank."
 
The waitress brought the food Tank ordered… a whole Special pie for me and everything else on the menu for himself. The man could eat! I pulled out a slice, folded it in half, and took a bite, wrapping the stringing cheese around and around the slice. Probably this would be my last ever pizza. I might as well enjoy it.
 
"So, you gonna go back to Vinnie's?" Tank asked around a huge bite of veal parmigiana sub.
 
"I won't need a job now," the words just tumbled out of my mouth. ****! I shouldn't have said that. Tank was looking at me funny again, like he could read my mind.
 
"Well, I'm gonna spend some time with Joe," I babbled, trying to back peddle. "He's going up before the Grand Jury next week, and I thought it'd be like a show of support. You know, so he's not alone and stuff."
 
"Uh-hunh!" Tank was still studying me, his eyes narrowed, not buying a word of it. I couldn't look at him. I mean, he knew I was lying and I could feel the flush that rose in my cheeks. I just grabbed another slice of pizza and stuffed it in my mouth.
 
Tank reached across the table and snagged my wrist. "Stephanie, give me your word that you'll talk to me first, before you do anything … drastic."
 
He meant stupid, but was too smart to say it. "I don't know what you're talking about, Tank." I tried to look innocent, but we all knew what a lousy actress I was. Hell! I couldn't even look him in the eye.
 
"Stephanie!" I could hear the threat in his voice.
 
I sighed, trapped. "Fine! Yes! You got it! Just drop it now, okay." No way was I telling him anything, not now, not ever!
 
"As long as I have your word!" Damn! The man just wouldn't back down.
 
We finished eating and I took him back to RangeMan. He continued to fish, but I refused to bite. As he got out of the car and helped me into the driver's seat, he reminded me, "Remember Steph, you gave me your word." Like I could ever forget!
 
"Yes Dad, and I'll be home by midnight, too!" He called me a smartass and kissed me good-bye. I headed off to my parents' again. Both Morelli and I needed to cooling off.
 
I also needed to do some homework. After all, I couldn't just walk into Malfitano and Rinaldi's office and say, "I did it. I killed Abruzzi!" and expect them to believe me. I had to be able to give them details, details that I didn't have. I turned to Connie for help. She had relatives and connections all over town. I had to fork over five hundred bucks to Connie's fourth cousin Guido, but I got a copy of Abruzzi's whole file. Of course Con had no idea why I really wanted the information, she thought I was snooping around, trying to help Joe out. She just didn't know how!
 
Anyway, I figured I'd start memorizing the facts and I even worked up a pretty good story for how I had lured Abruzzi to the Farmer's Market parking lot. When I was a suspect, Rinaldi had said that if Abruzzi had threatened or attacked me and I killed him, then that would be self defense. I was gonna give that a try. It sounded a whole lot better than premeditated murder.
 
It took a few days, but Joe and I finally called a truce and I went back to his house. We agreed that I wouldn't go to Rinaldi and Malfitano to tell them that Ranger had killed Abruzzi until we found out whether or not the Grand Jury would issue an indictment against Joe. If they did, then I'd go to the cops. Joe didn't have any idea that I'd be turning myself in, not Ranger, and I was gonna make sure he didn't find out anything until I was behind bars.
 
A couple of days later, Joe asked me to run a few errands for him while he was stuck at home waiting for a call from his lawyers. I jumped on it because it gave me a chance to get out of the house and study that Abruzzi report in private. I didn't want to take any chances that Joe would find out what I was doing, so I'd been going to the donut shop every day to read it over and work out my plan. So off I went.
 
I got the new wiper blades put on his truck at Auto Zone, and was headed over to the cleaners on Hamilton to pick up his suit and dress shirts when I realized I had left the dry cleaner's ticket on the kitchen table. I was only a couple of blocks from the house, so I headed back there.
 
I turned the corner and slammed on the brakes. Parked in front of the house was a big, shiny, black Mercedes. Ranger? What the hell was Ranger doing here? And why the hell did Joe feel the need to get me out of the house? Well guess what? I wasn't staying out.
 
I hacked a U turn and drove around the block, parking on the next street. I cut through the yards, sneaked in the unlocked kitchen door, and slid into the dining room. Ranger was sitting in the armchair, leaning back, legs crossed, relaxed. He was dressed in a charcoal grey suit with a blue shirt and a diagonal stripe tie. Corporate Ranger to the teeth. Joe stood in front of the TV, arms crossed over his chest, his body language telling me that every nerve ending was on alert.
 
Whatever was going on, I was pretty sure this wasn't just a pleasant chat. I moved closer to the doorway and plastered myself against the wall so I could hear what they were saying. I peeked around the doorway, hoping that they'd be so focused on each other, they wouldn't notice me. I wondered how much of the conversation I had missed … obviously, the pleasantries. I watched, fascinated, as they circled and sparred, testing each other.
 
"You're using Stephanie to do your dirty work," Ranger said, his voice tinged with disgust.
 
"What the hell are you talking about?" Joe snapped. He stood with his arms folded over his chest and his feet spread.
 
"Stephanie didn't want to go to Miami, did she? She didn't want to ask for my help, either. But she swallowed her pride and did both because you asked her to. You could have saved her that. All you had to do was pick up the phone and call me yourself. But you didn't." The accusation was clear in Ranger's voice.
 
"I'm not stupid, Manoso. I know how you feel about her. And yeah, I knew she'd have more influence with you than I would. It was a smart tactical move on my part. But I didn't do it to hurt her."
 
It hurt to hear Joe admit that he used me to get to Ranger. It honestly never occurred to me that he would do that. Still, if I was in the same position, who knows what I'd be willing to do?
 
"You used her, Morelli. You know she feels guilty and you're taking advantage of that," Ranger shot back.
 
Joe sneered. "I'll tell you what I know. I know that you killed Abruzzi in cold blood and staged it to look like a suicide. I don't care what your reasons were. I know that you're too much of a coward to stand up and take responsibility. And I know that I'm not taking the rap for you."
 
"So now what? Are you going to turn me in? Did you ask Stephanie to do that too?" Sarcasm dripping from every word. He was baiting Joe.
 
Joe gave Ranger a cold smile. "Well, that would be the logical next step."
 
Ranger looked at Joe and returned the smile. "Yes, except for one little thing. I was questioned weeks ago and provided an iron clad alibi that the cops have thoroughly investigated. I've officially been dismissed from the list of possible suspects." Ranger shrugged casually. "The Attorney General himself apologized for inconveniencing me."
 
Joe's surprise was obvious. "That doesn't mean you didn't do it," he spat, anger creeping into his voice.
 
Ranger countered. "No, but trying to blame me would just look like a pathetic attempt by a desperate man trying to get himself out of trouble." The two of them openly glared at each other, their mutual dislike and distrust plain.
 
But all I could do was thank God. Ranger had covered his ***. I should have known he would cover his tracks. Relief washed over me and made my knees so weak, I all but slid down the wall and landed on the floor.
 
"So what the hell are you here for anyway? You just come to gloat?" Joe demanded and sat on the couch, facing Ranger.
 
"I came to make you an offer," Ranger said coolly.
 
"What?" Joe eyed him suspiciously.
 
"I'm willing to prove that you're innocent." Ranger tossed out.
 
I couldn't believe my ears! Ranger was going to help after all. Part of me was so relieved that I was almost in tears. Ranger didn't make idle promises. If he promised something, he always delivered. I wiped away the tears that were leaking down my cheeks.
 
"Why?" Joe narrowed his eyes and studied Ranger.
 
"Why do you think?" Ranger said with a shrug.
 
"So just like that, you're gonna get me off the hook?" Joe was still skeptical.
 
"Not quite. I'll expect payment," Ranger stated matter-of-factly.
 
Morelli snorted. "I should have known. So, what's this gonna cost me, huh?"
 
I watched as Ranger stood up from the chair and buttoned his suit jacket. Morelli stood up, too, and Ranger moved over until they were almost toe to toe, eye to eye.
 
"Stephanie."
StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
1 Response May 16, 2012

I knew Joe was using Stepanie when she came home and he was having a party!<br />
So glad to see Ranger loves her. Well I'll read more tomorrow, my neck is stiff. Can't get enough. lol