What I Did For Love - Chapter 14

Chapter 14: Love and Other Bruises!
 
"Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don't know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of withering, of tarnishing."
-          Anais Nin
 
I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that the God-awful ammonia capsule that the prison medic used to bring me around from my dead faint turned out to be the high spot of my whole day. As soon as I was steady enough to walk, Eddie helped me out to his cruiser and we took off through the rain, lights flashing and siren screaming. Flying through the streets and skidding around corners was surreal, like something out of a movie. In this case, my own personal horror movie.
 
It felt like Mercer County Medical Center was at least a hundred miles away, and despite the speed, it seemed to take forever to get there. This was a replay of another frantic trip that I had taken to a hospital, and the fears were all the same. All I could think about was what we were going to find when we finally got there. How badly was he hurt? Would he be all right? Was he even alive? How could I live without him? The only difference was that this time it was Joe that I was so scared for. It wasn't until Eddie handed me his handkerchief that I even realized I was crying.
 
I sat forward in my seat, straining against the seatbelt, as if I could make the car go faster. I knew Eddie was worried about me. I don't usually keel over like that and I'm pretty sure I gave him a good scare. He kept asking me if I was okay, and shooting me sidelong glances as we sped along, blowing through red lights and whipping in and out of traffic. Finally, he reached over to take hold of my hand, to stop me from wringing them, I guess. Or maybe he was trying to keep me from twisting my fingers off.
 
"Stop blaming yourself, Steph," Eddie said softly. "This wasn't your fault."
 
How the hell did he know what I was thinking? "Oh, Eddie … If I had only …"
 
He squeezed my hand, hard. "Stop it! He'll be fine." Eddie cut me off, nodding as he said it. "Don't you worry. He'll be fine." I really had to wonder which one of us he was trying to convince.
 
We squealed into a reserved parking spot right in front of the ER entrance and I had my seatbelt off, the door open, and was halfway out of the car before we came to a full stop. Eddie reached over and snagged the back of my jacket, hauling me back into the car. "Whoa there, speedy. We gotta talk first."
 
"Jesus Christ, Eddie! Let go! I have to get in there! I have to find out …" Was he nuts? This was no time to sit and chat. I tried to pull out of his grip.
 
"Okay, Steph, okay," Eddie said softly, trying to calm me down, "we'll walk and talk." I hopped out of the car and was almost at the ER door when he caught up with me and took my arm. I dragged him along with me as I flew over to the bank of elevators and started pushing all the call buttons.
 
"Steph," Eddie pulled me back a step to keep me from mashing the buttons another dozen times. "Look Sweetheart, Joe's family was notified right away. They're probably all here in the waiting room already. You know that Angie's got 'em all fired up, and they're looking for somebody to blame. That somebody would be you."
 
"Yeah, yeah. What else is new?" I said offhandedly. I was too busy watching for an elevator to open to pay much attention to what he was saying.
 
He lowered his voice, "So you're not like … pregnant or anything, are you?"
 
Okay, that caught my attention and I spun around to look at him. "What? No. NO! Why would you think that?"
 
He looked instantly relieved and more than a little embarrassed. "Well, Shirley fainted at the drop of a hat when she was pregnant, and you passed out before and … well, I just didn't want you playing target for the Morellis if you were … you know … delicate."
 
I snorted at the 'delicate' and threw my arms around him, hugging him hard. "Thanks for worrying about me. I love ya, man!" Damn! There were those tears again.
 
Just like he had promised when Joe was arrested, Eddie was looking out for me. Along with everybody else in Trenton, I guess he'd heard all of those nasty things that Angie Morelli had been saying about me, all the vicious gossip and rumors she'd been spreading all over the place, telling anyone who'd listen how I was somehow responsible for Joe being charged with murder.
 
Hell! There wasn't anybody who hadn't heard. Even Joe knew that it was 'all my fault', and he wasn't exactly in the Burg gossip loop these days. At least Joe knew that it wasn't true. Eddie, too.
 
Eddie took me by the shoulders. "Okay then. Just remember that no matter what you do, Angie'll probably try to use it against you. If you do go in there she'll say that you don't care that you're upsetting the family. If you don't go, she'll say it's proof that you feel guilty about getting Joe into this mess. It's a no win situation Steph, and you don't have to go face them. But if you do, just keep your chin up and don't let 'em beat you down."
 
Eddie gave one hell of a pep talk. "There's no choice, Eddie. Joe's upstairs, so that's where I need to be. I'm not afraid of Angie Morelli." Much. I got on the elevator and hit the button for the surgical floor, acting a whole lot braver than I actually felt.
 
I cut my eyes to Eddie, "You're gonna stay with me, right?" I tried not to sound pathetic, even if I was.
 
Eddie grinned at me, "Cross my heart and hope to die." He patted the gun on his hip. "I'm even willing to shoot 'em for ya. I just don't have any silver bullets for Grandma Bella." He made a face and gave an exaggerated shudder. I couldn't help but smile.

 
Anyway, Eddie was right, every Morelli in the tri-state area had already gathered at the hospital and Angie Morelli was playing Queen Bee, holding court in the waiting room. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, you name it, the place was packed with chattering family members, all hovering around Angie and all waiting for news about Joe.
 
The coward part of me wanted to slink away before anyone saw me, but the Wonder Woman part of me wanted to march in there and give Angie a hug and a kiss, tell her that Joe and I were planning a jailhouse wedding, and call her Mama. Oh come on! You know you wish I had the balls to do it!
 
And I admit it. I was pissed off! I mean, I thought these people were my friends and maybe even my future family. I'd sat next to them at Christmas dinners and at weddings and family christenings and birthday parties. Joe and I had gone to their kids' games, and to the movies, played cards and had gone to the beach with them. It galled me that since Angie had started blaming me for what was happening to her baby boy, not one of them would even speak to me.
 
Absolute silence fell over the whole bunch when Eddie and I walked into the waiting room, and everybody turned to stare at me like I had stabbed Joe myself. I could feel their anger rolling over me, and if Eddie hadn't had his arm around my waist, I would have turned and run for my life. So much for bravery.
 
Angie's eyes were like laser beams and I swear I could feel that red laser dot hit me right between my eyes. If looks could kill she would have been one happy woman. I sure was glad Eddie was with me, willing to buffer me from that crowd, but I really would have felt a whole lot better with Sally Sweet, and his Uzi, watching my back. I hadn't been this scared when I'd faced down the Slayers.
 
After that first glare, Angie totally ignored me, acting as if I didn't exist. Actually, that was just fine by me! The whole rest of the family looked uncomfortable, but not one of them would even make eye contact with me and they all steered clear of my little corner of the waiting room. It may have looked like family solidarity, but personally, I think they were all terrified of Angie. She collected dirt on everybody and would use it to make their lives hell if they crossed her. Everybody knew she ruled that family with an iron fist.
 
Bella, on the other hand, sat there staring holes into me. She didn't even blink, just fingered her rosary beads, lips moving. To anyone who didn't know her, she looked like some sweet little old lady, praying for her beloved grandson. But I knew better than to think she was saying Hail Marys.
 
Probably she was putting a curse on me that I'd have a never ending period or that my toenails would fall off and I'd never be able to wear sandals again. The whole family may have thought she was nuts, but I noticed that nobody took the chance of walking between us. Just in case she really was giving me the evil eye, I guess.
 
When the surgeon finally came in, the family mobbed the poor guy, but discretion being the better part of valor, I stayed right where I was. No way was I going to put myself in harm's way and actually get within arm's length of any of them. Nobody would hurt Eddie, though, they liked him. Plus, he had a gun. So he battled his way through the crowd to get the update, turning back to give me a thumbs up.
 
The doctor reported that Joe was out of surgery and would make a full recovery. Thank God! He'd be in Recovery for a while, and then would be brought down to the Prison Ward. The doctor couldn't tell us if we'd be allowed to see him, though. So we'd have to submit a request to whoever was in charge and wait for an answer. Eddie said he'd take care of that.
 
Angie and company trooped off to the Chapel to say the rosary, leaving Anthony behind in case there was more news about Joe's condition. Eddie went to check on the Prison Ward visitors' policy, telling me that he'd be back as fast as he could. Anthony watched him go, and as soon as Eddie was down the hall, he turned toward me.
 
"Hey, Cupcake," he sneered from the other side of the room, "when you movin' outta Joey's house, huh?"
 
I wasn't scared of him. A good swift kick in the nuts and I could take him. "Not gonna happen, Anthony. I live there."
 
"Ma wants me ta move in an' take carea the place for Joey while he's locked up. I get his SUV too." He gave me a smug smile.
 
I snorted. "What, your wife kick you out again?" Anthony just shrugged. "Look, Anthony, I don't care what Ma wants. She doesn't have anything to say about it. I'm not going anyplace unless Joey tells me to."
 
"****! You just got him *****-whipped," Anthony yawned. "Wait'll Ma goes to work on him. She'll change his mind all right, and you'll be out on your ***." Anthony belched, scratched, and stretched out on the couch. By the time Eddie got back, he'd already started to snore. So much for brotherly love.
 
Eddie took the opportunity to drag me off to the hospital cafeteria to feed me. Everybody knows that hospital food is nasty, but did you ever notice that the food they sell in the cafeteria isn't any better than the stuff they serve the patients?
 
"Steph. Steph! STEPH!" I was so engrossed in putting more mayo, catsup, salt, pepper, mustard, relish and everything short of Splenda on my burger, trying to give it some flavor, that I never even heard Eddie talking to me.
 
"What? Oh, sorry Eddie. I'm a little distracted here." I took a bite of burger and all the condiments squished out all over my hands and splattered onto my lovely plastic tray.
 
Eddie shook his head and handed me about a dozen napkins. "You're worse than my kids!" he said with a snort.
 
I grinned back at him, "Well now, that's just insulting!" Everybody knew that Eddie's kids were the devil's spawn and had the manners of a pack of hyenas. I pretended I was going to wipe my hands on him.
 
"Uncle! Uncle!" he chuckled and held his hands up in front of him to ward me off. "I said that I got called in to work an extra shift and that I was gonna have to leave soon."
 
He laughed when he saw the sheer panic that was written all over my face. "Eddie, you can't leave me here with them …"
 
"Don't worry, kid, I already called in reinforcements for you. They'll be here soon." He reached over to pat my hand, but stopped when he couldn't find a clean spot.
 
"Who's coming?" I asked, looking at the clock. It was already after 5pm and the Burg would be putting dinner on the table soon. Looked like I wouldn't be making it to my parents' house by six o'clock … again. I'd have to call my mother later on and explain.
 
"You'll see," he waggled his eyebrows and shoveled about half of his second piece of chocolate cream pie into his mouth.
 
The Morellis prayed faster than Eddie and I ate, and by the time we got back to the waiting room, Angie and Bella were back in their seats. The rest of the family must have left already because it was just the two of them and the still snoring Anthony, who obviously didn't have anyplace else to go. Eddie went over to say good-bye to them, but when he turned his back, they both gave me looks that said they were gonna eat me alive as soon as he was gone. I shivered involuntarily and grabbed onto the front of Eddie's shirt when he bent to kiss my cheek.
 
"Take me with you," I begged frantically. "You don't know what these women are capable of!"
 
Eddie patted my shoulder. "Now Steph, take it easy. I warned them to behave, that you might be a member of the family before too long."
 
I know my eyes bugged out of my head. "Are you nuts? Bella's gonna put a curse on me and my eyebrows will probably fall out!"
 
Eddie snickered. "If it's any consolation, when Angie said, 'Over my dead body!' I told her that you could probably arrange that." Eddie grinned. He was having way too much fun with this whole thing.
 
"You are trying to get me cursed, aren't you?" I wailed. "You told her that I threatened her?" I dropped my head into my hands and groaned. Oh God! All the stuff Angie had said about me had just been mild entertainment for her. She was going to come after me with a vengeance now! Nobody stood up to Angie Morelli and lived to tell about it.
 
Angie was more than Joe's mother … she was a Burg icon. She'd been put on a pedestal and hailed as a paragon of Burg virtues, a shining example of Burg womanhood, the perfect Burg housewife and mother. She was the Burg! She was a cross between Hints From Heloise, Miss Manners and Martha Stewart. Saint Angie of the Perfect Pot Roast could do no wrong. Even those little statues of the Virgin Mary that people in the Burg had in their yards bore a striking resemblance to Angie these days.
 
But **** her off and, oh boy, Angie would morph into The Terminator, a nickname she came by honestly. She could smile like an angel while she used the Burg gossip mill to annihilate anybody who crossed her. She'd take down you, your reputation, your family, your career, your marriage, your dog, even ... no one was safe from her venom. She was proud of the fact that she'd forced more than one family to pack up and move out of the Burg. Everybody tip-toed around her, including my own mother and grandmother.
 
"Aha!" Eddie glanced at the doorway. "Your backup's here," he whispered. "This is gonna be good! Wish I could stick around and watch."
 
I followed Eddie's glance and caught myself before I could yelp. Oh Jeez! Standing in the doorway, smiling sweetly, were my mother and Grandma Mazur. Eddie kissed them both, threw me a wink, and walked out, softly whistling the 'Doodle-oodle-ewwww, doo-dooo-doooo!' theme to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. God help us all if this was Eddie's idea of back up!
 
I don't know what Eddie thought was gonna happen; Mom and Grandma were just fresh meat, lambs to the slaughter, more targets for Angie to take pot shots at. Angie and Bella stood up and waited for my mother and grandmother to stop and speak to them, to sympathize, and offer prayers. Instead, all they got was a curt nod as Mom and Grandma sailed past and came over to sit on either side of me. Mom held one of my hands, Grandma the other. There was no mistaking the support they were showing me, or the insult to Angie and Bella.
 
I looked from Mom to Grandma and back again, trying to figure out what was going on. They just smiled and Grandma patted my knee. It was clear that the Morelli women were shocked, no one ever dared to treat them that way. Bella's lips were moving again and Angie just looked stunned, but my mother just kept right on smiling. I had to wonder if she'd been tippling again.
 
Other than Anthony's snores and my own hammering heart, we sat in silence. The minutes dragging by while we waited to find out if we'd be allowed to see Joe. I glanced at the clock again, it was quarter to six. Then the time finally sank in and I turned to my Mom. "Where's Daddy? Is he eating at the Lodge tonight?" I whispered.
 
"No, Dear. He's home," she said calmly.
 
"Oh my God! What's Dad gonna do for dinner?" I had visions of my father sitting at the head of the table with his napkin tucked under his chin, and his knife and fork in his hands, waiting for the food to appear. I had to wonder if he'd even realize that there was nobody else home.
 
"Don't worry, Dear," she patted my hand. "He'll just have to fend for himself for a change."
 
I'm sure my eyes bugged out of my head as I stared at this person sitting next to me. She wasn't panic stricken at not getting dinner on the table at 6pm sharp! Who was this woman and what had she done with my mother? I was sure that tomorrow's newspaper would be reporting that Hell had frozen over and pigs, worldwide, were flying.
 
Silence descended again, and we all just sat there, waiting.
 
"Why don't you just leave now, Stephanie," Angie said out of nowhere, her voice flat and cold. "Take pity on your poor mother and get out of here."
 
I jumped at the sound of her voice. "Excuse me?" I could feel my hackles rise. "Pity?"
 
My mother patted my hand, "Let me handle this, dear," she said softly. Turning to Angie, Mom still wore that sweet smile. "Is there a problem, Angie?"
 
"Oh Ellen, dear!" Angie said earnestly. "I was just trying to save you the embarrassment of sitting here in public with … her. After all, everyone knows what a trial she is for you." The milk of human kindness just flowed through that woman's veins, didn't it?
 
"That is so thoughtful of you," my mother replied, her voice dripping with gratitude. "You know, you're such an inspiration." We watched Angie preen. "You've had so much more experience at being humiliated by your children than I have. But really, if you can sit here in public with your embarrassments," my mother looked pointedly at Anthony, snoring and drooling on the couch, "I'm sure I can find the strength to do the same." Mom just fluttered her eyelashes and looked innocent.
 
Go Mom! Angie narrowed her eyes and studied my mother, looking for some indication that Mom was mocking her. I guess she decided that no one would dare do such a thing, and just looked miffed that her barb had missed the target. She took aim again.
 
"Well," Angie spread her hands and shrugged, "you must know what everyone thinks about her. She's irresponsible and headstrong! Instead of becoming a wife and mother she goes off and becomes a bounty hunter, associating with the dregs of society, rolling in garbage!" She tsk-tsked. "She just flaunted her family tradition like it wasn't good enough for her." Angie shook her head sadly. "That must be such a stab to your heart, Ellen."
 
I turned to look at my mother who still had a smile plastered on her face; only now it looked kinda like those wax lips you get at the novelty store. "You know, I never thought of it that way, Angie, but you're absolutely right," my mother said mildly. "She's just like Joseph. He ignored all of your family traditions, too," Mom's voice was getting sharp. "He finished school, went into the Navy, graduated from the Police Academy, has a successful career. He's not a cheater, an abuser, or an alcoholic." Oh, there was a definite edge there. "What a disappointment he must be for you." Mom finished with a bang, all pretense of friendship and goodwill gone.
 
Angie sucked in a breath, blood in her eye. "That disgrace of a daughter of yours is responsible for my Joseph being arrested on that ridiculous murder charge. She's ruined his life! He never was in any trouble at all until he met her!" Angie crossed her arms over her chest and sat back in her chair. Bella nodded like one of those dashboard bobble-head dolls.
 
"His troubles started early then, didn't they?" My mother turned to me. "Joseph was what … eight … when he lured you into his garage? And he already had a reputation." I didn't answer, just sort of gulped. We were entering dangerous territory here.
 
Angie flushed and decided to change her target. "You must be so ashamed of how you've failed her, Ellen. You've allowed her to run wild and do what she wants with no thought to appearances. Just look at the results. No wonder you drink!"
 
Uh-oh, low blow! This was going to get down and dirty now. I turned to look at Grandma Mazur for help, but she was riveted on Bella.
 
My mother's eyes narrowed to slits and her smile tightened. "Yes, it just breaks my heart when I think of how intelligent and courageous and loyal and independent my daughter is." I looked around to see who my mother was talking about. Me? Mom meant ME? Awwwwwwww. "Obviously I've failed her completely. Unlike you who's children are so … well … not."
 
Angie shot up out of her seat. "My children are my pride and joy!"
 
"And how sad is that?" My mother said, her turn to be sympathetic. I heard Grandma snort and I think I swallowed my tongue.
 
Luckily for all of us, a nurse came in at that point. "Miss Plum?" she asked, looking around at our happy little group.
 
I hopped up and almost ran over to her. "Miss Plum, your request to see prisoner Morelli has been denied. However, I can tell you that he's out of recovery and is in the prison ward. His condition has been upgraded to 'good'. He'll be here for several days and then returned to the Correctional Center. You can call here for his medical status or MCC for further information on his return to the prison." She'd spoken loud enough that Angie and Bella had heard so I didn't have to relay the information to them.

 
I thanked her and went back over to Mom and Grandma and grabbed my stuff. It was time to get the hell out of Dodge before the claws really came out and blood was drawn. This had been a long, scary day and I was more than ready to go home and crawl into bed, pull the covers over my head, and sleep for a week.
 
On the other side of the room, Angie and Bella were getting ready to leave too. "This isn't over, Ellen," Angie announced.
 
I recognized the look on my mother's face; I had put it there often enough. Angie had gotten on Mom's very last nerve. My mother blew out a breath and spun to face her. "Yes," Mom declared, "it is over. Two can play at this game, you know. If you say one more malicious word about my daughter, if I hear of you spreading those vile rumors around town again, I swear to God that I will knock you off your high horse. I'll make sure that the tables are turned and you become 'Poor Angie', the object of ridicule and pity. We'll see how you like it!" The threat in Mom's voice came across loud and clear.
 
I stared at my mother in amazement. When had she grown a spine? Where had she locked up this part of her personality? Could my shy, quiet, 'what will the neighbors think' mom have a little Wonder Woman in her too?
 
"And just what do you think you could possibly say about MY family?" Angie demanded imperiously.
 
My mother stalked over to Angie and looked her square in the eye, lowered her voice and whispered something. Whatever that something was, Angie went pale and stumbled back a step or two. "You … you wouldn't!" She clutched at her heart as she stared at my mother in shock.
 
"Try me!" were my mother's last words to her. Heads held high, Mom, Grandma Mazur, and I strolled out of the waiting room, leaving Angie and Bella behind us. We had just cleared the doorway when Grandma pulled something out of her purse and spun around to face them. Bella let out a shriek and collapsed into a chair, Angie at her side. Grandma grabbed our arms and hustled us into the elevator.
 
"What was that all about?" I wanted to know.
 
Grandma looked at me smugly. "Your mother made me promise that I wouldn't say nothin' to those two, but I knew that ugly old bat would try to pull something sneaky, so I came prepared," Grandma patted the side of her purse. "I know her tricks! Bella tried to put a curse on you when we was leaving," Grandma reached into her bag and pulled out an old fashioned hand mirror. "So I held up the mirror and shot it right back at her," Grandma said proudly. "Worked too, you heard her scream!" Grandma kissed the mirror and shoved it back in her purse.
 
Mom and I both looked at Grandma's purse. "Mother," I could hear the strained calmness in my mom's voice, "since you came prepared, what else do you have in your handbag?"
 
"Well, let's see." Grandma fished around in her bag. "Got Betsey," she pulled out her long barrel Colt .45 revolver and waved it around. I was relieved we were the only ones on the elevator. I snagged Betsey and shoved it into my purse. At least I was licensed to carry concealed.
 
But Grandma was on a roll, "And I got me some cuffs," she held up a pair covered in purple fur just as the elevator doors opened in the crowded hospital lobby. "And I have a little bottle of this K-Y stuff and a thingy of Mace and these great flavored condoms!" She turned to me, shoving them into my hands, "you really gotta try these, they ain't bad. Taste kinda like Jello."
 
Grandma was starting to collect an audience, standing right in front of the elevator doors like that. Mom grabbed one elbow and I grabbed the other and we hustled Grandma out into the parking lot. "Oh, and that nice salesgirl at Pleasure Treasures gave me a free sample of this here male enhancement stuff when I bought these." Grandma held up a package of edible crotchless panties. "And I got a couple of them little bottles of booze like you get on planes and …"
 
Grandma droned on and Mom eyed the little booze bottles wistfully. Actually, I did too. We looked at the bottles, looked at each other and both of us grabbed one, twisted off the little cap, raised them in salute, and downed the contents. Just what the doctor ordered!
 
Oh, and what did Mom threaten Angie with? Since appearances were so important to Angie, Mom pointed out that it appeared that Carol Rizzo's son, Zook, was a carbon copy of Joe at the same age. Considering Joe's reputation with women fifteen or so years ago, Mom thought that would be a fun topic for the gossip mill. Angie? Not so much. So we all steered clear of each other. Angie stopped talking, and Mom didn't start. It wasn't quite peaceful co-existence, more like armed neutrality, but whatever, it worked.
 
Over the next few weeks, life returned to normal… well, as normal as it ever got for me. Joe recovered pretty quickly and I got to see him every Tuesday morning. The Warden at the MCC had decided, after the stabbing, that it was too dangerous for Joe to mix with the general prison population anymore, so he was being held in a restricted area for his own protection. Joe was beyond pissed and I had to listen to him complain long and loud about being in solitary. I just nodded and made sympathetic noises. He didn't need to know how relieved I was now that he was so much safer.
 
Ranger was still in Miami, I guessed; didn't know, didn't care. Just so I didn't have to worry about running into him all over the place. Funny thing though, whenever we had bumped into one another at the bonds office, I'd always looked like something Bob had hoarked up, covered with slime and stinky old food and God only knew what else. Now that Ranger wasn't around to see me, I never rolled in garbage or got hosed down or hurt anymore. I was almost always neat and clean, hair looking good, makeup in place.
 
Anyway, my capture rate had always been pretty good; just now, thanks to all the training I'd gotten working for RangeMan, it was pretty speedy too, meaning that Vinnie was one happy camper. Happy Vinnie was just plain creepy, but it was better than having to listen to him ***** and moan about all the money he was losing because I ran Ranger off.
 
Vinnie figured Ranger had left town because he wanted kinky sex and I wouldn't put out for him. I guess that was kinda true, the 'not putting out for him' part, not the kinky part. For weeks, Vinnie, the pervert, had badgered me over what kind of kinky sex Ranger had wanted. It wasn't until I told him that if he didn't cut it out, I'd be accepting a job offer from Les Sebring, Vinnie's major bail bonds competitor. Vinnie snapped his trap shut so fast he probably cracked his teeth. He's been quiet ever since. Hey, whatever works.
 
Joe's mounting legal bills were another great motivator for me to bring in as many skips as I could. They were humongous! Probably at some point Joe'd have to sell his house to pay off his legal fees, but that would only be if all else failed, at least if I had anything to say about it. I was working my *** off bringing in skips, some that probably should have gone to RangeMan. But they were high bond and I needed that money. Plus, I'd been pretty careful and hadn't taken on any of the real nut jobs. I'd been able to keep up with the lawyer's payment schedule, pay all the regular bills, and there was still a little money left in the bank. I was pretty proud of myself.
 
Anyhow, bright and early one Monday morning I strolled into the bonds office, coffees and a box of donuts in hand. Lula and Connie were glued to a file lying on the desk, so engrossed in whatever they were reading that they never even heard the little bell on the door ring. I walked all the way over to Connie's desk, put the donuts and coffee down, and stood there. And they still didn't notice me.
 
Curious to see what had them so mesmerized, I edged over behind them and craned my neck to take a peek. "What are you guys looking at?" I asked and put my hands on their shoulders.
 
Connie and Lula both shrieked and jumped up, almost knocking me over. "You scared the **** outta me," Connie hollered breathlessly, her hands pressed over her heart… okay, her boobs. Lula went pale, slid down the wall, and crumpled into a heap on the floor.
 
"What the hell were you two reading? You guys almost jumped outta your skins!" I helped Connie haul Lula up off the floor and over to the couch. The fact that she hadn't said anything and was breathing kind of funny didn't strike me as a good thing. Connie fanned Lula with one of the files from the desk and I got her a chocolate covered donut with sprinkles. I don't know which one brought her around faster.
 
"So who's gonna tell me what that was all about?" I looked from one to the other of them.
 
"Ch … checking skips …" Lula stuttered.
 
"Research," Connie said at the same time.
 
"Um … Really, we were just checking out a skip, that's all," Connie said, pointing to a stack of files. "You know, looking at history and stuff, getting a head start." She flashed me a nervous smile, but her eyes were still wide and there were little beads of sweat on her forehead.
 
"Uh-huh." Now, I'm not naturally suspicious, but something was definitely up.
 
I leaned my butt against Connie's desk and folded my arms over my chest. "You guys are lousy liars, you know that? Are you gonna tell me what's really going on? Or do I take my coffee and donuts and leave?"
 
Lula and Connie exchanged a look. Connie picked up a pencil and used it to slide a file across the desk to me. "Just read that," she acted like the thing was going to burst into flame. Lula slunk down on the couch and crossed herself.
 
I rolled my eyes, flipped open the file and started to read the history. Ferdie Gooberman, twenty-two years old, brown hair, brown eyes, 6'4" tall, weight 156 pounds. Wow! Talk about a skin and bones. Ferdie's picture showed a geeky, round shouldered, mouth breather nerd with thick Coke bottle glasses, kinky carrot red hair, big ears, and buck teeth. Just looking at his picture you knew that he was the guy all the jocks picked on in school, the kid whose head got shoved in the toilet, who got pushed into lockers, and stuffed into trash cans. I really had to feel sorry for him.
 
I looked from Connie to Lula. "What, this little twerp freaked you out?"
 
"Keep reading," was all Connie said. Lula just nodded, licking chocolate icing off her fingers.
 
Okay, so Ferdie lived at home with his mother, and used to work at the One Hour Photo in the CVS Pharmacy, the perfect career choice for the guy who was President of the Audio/Visual Club in high school. He didn't have much of a rap sheet. The file said that last year, Vinnie had bailed him out on a couple of counts of Theft of Services lodged by a dentist, an ophthalmologist, and a plastic surgeon. The charges were dropped when mommy paid the freight, so he hadn't even been FTA.
 
I looked up at Connie and Lula who were watching me read. "Am I missing something here?"
 
"Keep going," Lula nodded.
 
I turned the page for Ferdie's current information and all but dropped the file when I got a load of Ferdie's latest picture. "Holy ****!"
 
"See? See?" Lula squealed, pointing at me. "It ain't just us! He creeps her out, too!"
 
"Ferdie went from geek to freak!" I muttered as I looked at the picture again. Ferdie's now shoulder length, pitch black hair came to perfect point on his forehead, his brown eyes were a milky blue and the pupils were vertical slits, kinda like those goats at the petting zoo. He wore white makeup and had black rimmed eyes, his lips were pulled back in a snarl over teeth that were sharpened to fangs, and I thought that the baby horns implanted in his forehead were especially attractive.
 
Even in a mug shot, Ferdie made me shiver. "What's he supposed to be? A devil? A vampire?"
 
"Yeah! Did you see what he legally changed his name to?" Connie came over to stand next to me and looked at the file. "Here it is," she pointed it out with a long red fingernail. "Damien De Vil. That's devil to us mortals."
 
"Oh Jeez. He must think every day is Halloween. What'd he do this time? Rob a blood bank?" I snickered at my own joke… at least until I noticed that Connie and Lula weren't laughing. "Oh gimme a break! You're kidding, right?" I looked back and forth at them. They were dead serious … no pun intended.
 
I rolled my eyes. "Let me guess," I said to Lula. "He's low bond. That would make him your FTA and you don't want to go pick him up, do you?"
 
Lula was still so pale that her skin tone almost matched today's honey blonde hair. "Yeah, well, see, here's the thing … I'm a … thinking of going back to filin' full time. I'm thinking that this bounty hunting stuff ain't for me. What with all that drivin' and the price of gas and goin' down to the police station all the time. You know cops give me the runs and everything. So … he's all yours now!" She smiled and held out her hands like she was giving me something.
 
"Nice try, Tallulah, he's your skip. If he is a real vampire, he'll be asleep during the daytime; we'll take him by surprise!" I smiled right back at her.
 
"Un-unh! There ain't no 'we' about it. I ain't going, no how, no way!" Lula announced around a mouthful of her third donut. "I bet he sleeps in a coffin. In his basement. On dirt from the old country." She was waving her arms around, strewing donut sprinkles all over the place.
 
"Lula," I held out the file, "he was born in Mercerville. This is the old country.
 
"Why even bother? He's just gonna turn into a bat or a puff of smoke and, poof, vanish! And then he'll just materialize in our bedrooms at night and suck our blood. Ain't you never seen any of those old movies?"
 
The last time somebody materialized in my bedroom, it wasn't my blood he wanted to suck. That memory made me shiver, but for an entirely different reason.
 
"Oh, come on, Lula. You know there are no such things as vampires or ghosts or werewolves."
 
"You left out mummies," Connie muttered from her desk. I shot her a look and she shut up.
 
"Maybe there isn't, but the devil is real! If you believe in God, you gotta believe in the devil!" Lula planted her fists on her hips and gave me a 'So there!' look.
 
Well, she had me there. My own personal devil was living in Miami. I blew out a sigh.
 
"Look, think about it. He still lives at home with his mother. What kind of mama's boy becomes a vampire? He's probably sitting at the kitchen table right now and she's feeding him pancakes. Let's at least go check it out." Stephanie Plum … voice of reason!
 
I looked at Lula, Lula looked at Connie, Connie looked at me. "Okay," Lula said slowly. "But if he's sleepin' in the basement, you're on your own! And you drive! I don't want no vampire cooties in my car!"
 
We walked out the door with Lula muttering about going to a church for a gallon of holy water and checking to see if Sunny's Gun Shop carried silver bullets. I snorted at the look she gave me when I offered to stop at the lumber yard for wooden stakes.
 
"Don't forget the garlic," Connie yelled after us.
 
We had to pass the alley on the way to the car. My instincts kicked in a split second to late to avoid the arm that shot out and wrapped around my waist, pulling me back into the shadows. My purse and files went flying as I swung my elbow back as hard as I could, trying to catch my assailant in the ribs. A sharp hiss told me I'd hit my target. Grabbing my wrists, he spun me around, pinning me to the wall with his weight. Guess who was back in town?
 
He turned to a shocked Lula. "You'll excuse us, won't you, Lula?" giving her his full on, 200 watt smile. Wide eyed, she smiled back and bobbled her head, then fled back into the office, to report to Connie, no doubt.
 
He still had my hands pinned over my head and I tugged at them, to no avail. "Let me go, Ranger," I said with as much calm as I could muster.
 
He gave me his wolf grin. "You act like I surprised you," and he pressed his lips against mine.
 
I twisted my head away from him. "How did you think I'd react, grabbing me like that and dragging me in here?" I hoped I sounded outraged.
 
He pulled back a little and studied my face in the dim light. I don't know what he was looking for, but he let me go and stepped away from me. "You didn't expect me at all, did you?"
 
I bent to pick up my bag and files that were spread all over the alley. "No! Why would I?" I snarked. Jeez! Did he think I spent all my time just waiting for him to come back to Trenton? Talk about ego!
 
"Stephanie, when was the last time you talked to Morelli?" There was something in his voice that made me straighten up and look at him.
 
"Last Tuesday. Why?"
 
The silence hung between us like a cloud and I just stared at him, waiting for him to answer me. For the longest time he stood there with his hands on his hips, his head down. When he raised his head, something a lot like anger flashed across his face, then disappeared. He blew out a deep breath and finally looked at me.
 
"Morelli called me. He accepted the deal."
StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
1 Response May 16, 2012

I have too save the next chapter for later, I am just too excited, he's back! He can help with the vampire.HaHa hehe.... Ranger.

I am called ZORRO and I love grandma!!!!!