What I Did For Love - Chapter 15

Chapter 15: All Out Of Love!
 
Don't let someone become your everything, because when they're gone, you have nothing!
 
Anonymous
 
For the longest time after I'd first met him, I was convinced that Ranger had some kind of super-duper ESP. It was downright spooky how he always seemed to know exactly what I was thinking or feeling. It took me a while, but I finally realized that he wasn't reading my mind, he was reading my face; everything I thought or felt was pretty much written all over it.
 
Standing out there in the alley that day, I made sure he had no problem reading every one of my emotions, especially since they were all directed at him. Wave after wave of shock, confusion, disbelief, suspicion, and absolute fury broke over me, and I didn't even try to camouflage any of it.
 
The pain in my chest was so bad that it hurt to breathe and when I finally could take a breath, I lashed out at him. "I don't believe it." I spat the words at him, so mad I was shaking. "You're a liar!"
 
"Stephanie," Ranger said, taking a step toward me, "I've never lied to you and I wouldn't start now. I've always told you the truth."
 
I barked a laugh. "You mean the truth according to Carlos Manoso," I sneered, the sarcasm practically dripping off my words. "Do you really think I don't know that you've never told me the whole truth about anything?" My voice raised an octave. "You think I don't realize that you spoon feed me select little bits and pieces of **** that I'm supposed to swallow and say 'Thank you'?" And it went up another notch.
 
"You think you've got me trained! You throw me little bones to pacify me, just enough so that I'll be a good little girl and not ask questions." I picked up my bag, shoved the files into it and slung it over my shoulder, closer to tears than I wanted him to see. "You've done that to me since we met, and I let you get away with it. I guess I thought that anything was better than nothing at all. So, my bad. But no more!" I turned and stalked toward the mouth of the alley.
 
"Stephanie," he followed me, all controlled and rational which pissed me off even more. "Let's go someplace where we can sit down and talk …"
 
"Talk?" I almost screamed as I spun around to face him. "Did you not hear what I just said? Maybe I wasn't clear enough. Let me rephrase that for ya … I don't want to talk to you!" I raged. "There isn't anything you can say that I want to hear … or believe! Got it now?" I turned on my heel and stormed out of the alley.
 
As I turned around, I saw Lula and Connie peek around the corner of the building. Lucy and Ethel were spying on Ranger and me in the alley. I guess the thought that something juicy was going on right outside their door was too much temptation for them to bear. They couldn't wait to get hold of me and grill me about what was going on, so they decided to take matters into their own hands and find out for themselves. They took one look at me though, and I saw their expressions go from a giddy, 'Oh Boy!' to a stunned, 'Oh ****!' in two seconds flat.
 
By the time I stalked out of the alley, the girls had ducked back around to the front of the building, and were waiting for me. They linked their arms through mine and hustled me toward the office door.
 
"You yelled at Ranger?" Connie squeaked and looked behind us, I guess to see if Ranger was in hot pursuit. "Are you nuts?" She threw the office door open and tried to push me in, but I wouldn't go. I wasn't about to give Ranger another opportunity to trap me, so I needed to stay out in the open … where I had a better chance of escaping.
 
"Yeah, Con. Something like that." At that point, I was pretty sure I had gone nuts! I couldn't believe my own ears, wouldn't believe what Ranger had said. My head was spinning with it all.
 
I turned to Lula. "Look, can we go after your skip tomorrow? Maybe after I go see Joe, okay?" I rubbed my temple and twitching eye.
 
"Yeah, sure, no problem." She narrowed her eyes and squinted at me. "Damn, Girl! You don't look so good. Maybe you should come in and sit down … and tell us what's goin' on between you and Batman!" Connie shot Lula a death glare. Lula just shrugged and rolled her eyes.
 
Connie put a hand on my arm. "Yeah, you are pretty pale. Are you okay?" her curiosity replaced by concern.
 
"No. Yeah. No. I … I don't know what I am," I sighed and shook my head, only making myself dizzier.
 
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ranger step out of the alley. My stomach flip-flopped and panic started to set in. I looked around to see where his vehicle was, but he didn't have it parked out on the street. I figured it must have been in the small lot behind the bonds office and the proverbial light bulb went on over my head. "Con, I need a favor," I said under my breath and slid my eyes toward Ranger.
 
"Name it." She caught on right away and squeezed my hand.
 
"See if you can block him into the parking lot? I really don't want to have to deal with him anymore." I pleaded with her.
 
Connie's eyes widened and she swallowed hard. "Ohhhhhh My God! He'll kill me!" she groaned and slapped a hand on her cheek. "But if he doesn't," she poked me with a long, blood red fingernail, "tomorrow I get the whole story, all the details! And I do mean ALL!" She blew out a deep breath and went back into the office. I watched while she grabbed her keys off her desk, crossed herself, and hot footed it toward the back door.
 
"Look, I gotta go," I said to Lula. "I'll see you tomorrow, okay?" I needed to get the hell away from Ranger as fast as I could.
 
"You want me to walk you to your car? We could sashay right past that man and I could distract him. I do look especially fine today, don't ya think? And he ain't never seen me as a blonde." She fluffed her hair and struck a sexy pose. I had to smile. No doubt about it, with her blonde hair and neon orange spandex, Lula was one hell of a distraction!
 
Damn, I had wonderful girlfriends. "No, but thanks. No sense in all three of us being on his **** list." I shrugged and turned to head down the block.
 
Lula snorted. "Honey, you're on his list all right, but it sure ain't his **** list! I saw him plastered up against you in the alley," and she waggled her eyebrows at me. "You need anything, call! Day or night, you hear?" I could only nod. "Hey," she yelled after me as I walked away. "We don't have to go after Damien at all, ya know. I'm all for lettin' sleeping vampires lie!"
 
I didn't turn around, just waved over my shoulder at her.
 
Ranger lounged against the side of the building, half way between me and my car, looking all relaxed and sexy. He twirled those damned mirrored sunglasses of his in his hand and I could feel his eyes boring into me. He was a man used to getting his way, but not today. If I could only get past him, and my little parking lot plan worked, maybe I could get away clean. I'd had just about all I could take of Mr. Manoso for one day.
 
I was determined to show Ranger that I could be as calm and reasonable as he was, so I pretended that he wasn't even there, just squared my shoulders, held my head up high, and thought about how good I'd feel if I just had the guts to pull out my gun and shoot him in the foot. Can you imagine how shocked he'd be? That actually almost brought a smile to my face … almost.
 
But the man just couldn't take no for an answer, damn him, and as I passed by, he reached out to take my arm. I sidestepped neatly and managed to avoid him, but he growled my name and all my composure pretty much evaporated into thin air. I practically ran to the car, hopped in, and took off, instinctively swerving to miss him when he stepped off the curb right in front of me.
 
The cocky son of a ***** must have forgotten the little 'kiss' I'd given Joe with my Dad's Buick when he'd pissed me off all those years ago. Good thing for Ranger I didn't have time to think about it, or I might have considered 'kissing' him the same way!
 
I squealed away from the curb and hauled *** down Hamilton, ignoring the blaring horns and curses of the drivers I'd cut off. I looked in the mirror and caught a glimpse of Ranger standing in the street, hands on hips, watching me go, clearly not happy. He had no idea how lucky he was. I didn't shoot him and I didn't run him over. I missed two golden opportunities, dammit, and he's pissed off? Yeesh!
 
Now, if you're thinking that I was worried or upset because Ranger was angry, you're wrong. I was the one who was mad and I had every right to be! What did he think was going to happen when he told me that Joe had called him? That I'd be happy about it? That I'd take his word for it? That I'd rip my clothes off and throw myself into his arms panting, 'Take me, take me'? Oh, please!
 
And I told him that I didn't want to talk to him. Did he listen? Oh hell, no! So it's all his fault and he could be as mad as he wanted, as long as he went away and left me alone. I mean, probably he wanted to talk to me about The Deal, right? But I didn't even know if there really was a Deal yet, so how could he expect me to deal with it?
 
Joe and I had talked about it a couple of times, and he had sworn, up, down, and sideways that he'd never trade my freedom for his own. That's what it would have been, too. Joe would be able to walk away and I'd be the one serving the sentence, probably as Ranger's sex slave or something. At least that's what Joe thought. Men!
 
Now, just between us girls, being a sex slave to Ranger wouldn't exactly be a hardship. But wanting to be one, and having to be one, were two totally different things, ya know? I'd like to think that I had free will, but one flash of that killer smile of Ranger's and bye-bye panties. Crap! I didn't want to even think about this stuff until after I'd talked to Joe, but here I was, getting myself all worked up over it. And not in a good way, either!
 
I just needed to get away from Ranger. Much as I hated to admit it, even to myself, Ranger's presence anywhere within a ten mile radius always seemed to impair my ability to think rationally ... God knows I proved that every time I let him drag me into the alley. And there he was today, dragging me into that alley … all black cashmere and leather and hard body and hot mouth. It was like his personal force field short circuited my brain functions and made all those little synapses misfire into sensual overload. The man just scrambled my brains!
 
Anyway, I decided to go home and grab Bob. I thought maybe a good brisk walk around the park would work off my mad and do us both some good. Plus, Ranger would never think to look for me there. Stephanie exercising? Nah! When my phone rang I rooted around in my purse and pulled it out.
 
"Sorry, Steph. I was only able to hold him up for a minute or two," Connie said apologetically.
 
"Thanks, Con. I think I have a good enough head start that I can avoid him." I checked my mirrors again to make sure he hadn't snuck up behind me. "I'm in the clear, so far."
 
"Well good. But maybe you should keep an eye out for him. He's looking for you and he's not happy."
 
"You know what? Tough *******! I'm not happy either!" He had one hell of a nerve being angry with me!
 
"Just so you know, he's driving that big sexy devil truck of his." I heard the other line ring. "Gotta go! Good luck!"
 
Connie meant his black on black Dodge Ram stealth truck with the tinted glass, and the lift, and oversized tires, and every other option known to mankind. I swear he could push a button and engage an invisibility shield on it. Or not. I looked in the rear view mirror and there he was, almost a block behind me. ****!
 
My phone rang again and I grabbed it. Guess who? "Stephanie, we hav…" I snapped my phone shut. Take that, Ranger!
 
The next time it rang, I just let it go to voice mail. I did the same thing when it rang the third and fourth time too. Probably I should have just turned it off, but why should I have to do that? Who the hell was Ranger that everybody had to jump and do what he wanted when he wanted it, huh? By the fifth time the phone rang I was ready to scream, so I answered it and did. Scream, that is.
 
"What?" I shrieked and hoped I ruptured his eardrum.
 
"Pull over," he ordered.
 
"Go to hell!" and I hung up on him again. He's not the boss of me!
 
Ranger was three cars behind me and got caught at the red light when I sailed through the yellow. I should have just taken off for Mary Lou's or the mall, but when my phone rang again, it pushed me right over the edge. I hacked a U-ie in the intersection and swung back toward his truck, so mad I was practically frothing at the mouth, and stopped right in the middle of Hamilton Avenue. He just sat and watched me when I got out of the car, blocking all the traffic behind me.
 
"You wanna talk?" I yelled at him. "Talk to yourself!" and fired my still ringing cell phone at his smug face.
 
Of course, he was still sitting in his truck. To his credit, he didn't even flinch as the phone hit the windshield with a sharp crack and practically disintegrated. We both watched from either side of the glass as long cracks radiated out from the great big ding the phone made in the windshield. Holy ****! I dinged the devil truck! He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. Son of a *****! I didn't know whether to laugh or cry so I just stomped back to the car and blew him a snotty kiss as I drove past him.
 
Okay, so now that I'd really pissed Ranger off, maybe being alone in the park wasn't such a hot idea. What I needed was to be surrounded by people who'd protect me from Ranger. Who better to protect and serve than cops? Pino's here I come! I hadn't even gotten two blocks and when I looked in the rear view, and there he was, about an inch off my back bumper. I was tempted to jam on the brakes but I was afraid he'd roll right over me so I shot him the finger instead. He wanted to follow me? Fine! We could play Follow the Leader!
 
And follow me he did as I took a nice, leisurely drive around the Burg, up one street and down the next, cruised through some of the alleys, took a tour of St. Francis Hospital's parking lot, went to the Dunkin' Donuts drive thru, and circled the park … twice. When it got to the point where I had to pee so badly my eyeballs were floating, I pulled into Pino's and sprinted inside to the ladies' room.
 
When I came out of the bathroom, I made a bee-line for the table where Carl, Big Dog, and Eddie were shoveling in calzones and stromboli.
 
"Hi guys!" I chirped, pulling up a chair and plunking down next to Eddie just as Carl and Big Dog got up to leave. "Was it something I said?"
 
Carl grinned and kissed my cheek, and Big Dog tugged on my pony tail, promising that they'd bring the beer and pizza when they came over to watch the game that night. My little set to with Ranger had made me forget all about our game plans. I reminded myself to stop and load up on lots of snacks. Those guys were like a Biblical plague of locusts when it came to food and could eat their way through an entire kitchen in nothing flat.
 
"What's up kiddo?" Eddie said around a mouthful of calzone. "I saw Ranger pull in right behind you." He took a big slurp of Coke and raised his eyebrows at me.
 
I propped my head in my hand and snagged a chunk of his calzone. "I'm the Pied Piper and he's the big fat rat that's following me!"
 
"Hmmm," Eddie nodded his head very solemnly as he chewed. "Personally, I always thought that he was more the Pepe Le Pew type and you were the poor innocent little kitty cat he was pursuing."
 
We looked at each other, and burst out laughing. God! I loved Eddie! We laughed until Eddie choked and I was in tears.
 
"Okay," he said, after I finished pounding on his back. "What's going on?"
 
It was time for a rational adult to know the whole story, so I took a deep breath and started to tell him. Before I could get a word out of my mouth, though, Ranger came out of nowhere and sat down on the other side of the table.
 
"Stephanie, Eddie," he gave a formal nod. "I hope you don't mind me joining you?"
 
"As a matter of fact …" I started, but the SOB raised a finger to silence me. I know my eyes bugged out and I'm pretty sure my head must have spun around a couple of times too.
 
"Eddie, I know that you and Stephanie are friends and family, and I know you've been looking out for her since Morelli was arrested. I know she trusts you, and so do I. Right now it looks like we need a mediator and I wonder if you'd be willing to do that for us?"
 
I don't know what I expected Ranger to say, but it wasn't that. I narrowed my eyes as I studied him, trying to figure out what his ulterior motive was, because I was sure he had one.
 
Eddie looked at me and cleared his throat. "I don't know about that Ranger. A mediator's supposed to be neutral. No matter what it was, I think I'd be prejudiced in Steph's favor." He took my hand in his, giving it a firm squeeze.
 
"Good," Ranger nodded. "She needs somebody to look out for her best interests. I know you'll do that and so does she."
 
Eddie shrugged. "If it's okay with you," he looked at me, "it's okay with me." He checked his watch. "I have forty minutes until I'm back on duty, so whatever it is, you better make it snappy."
 
I turned to Ranger. "Who's gonna tell it?" He held his hand out, palm up, to me, than folded his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair.
 
Eddie already knew all about the Attorney General's investigation and my attempt to confess to Abruzzi's murder and all the cop stuff. I only had to fill him in on all the personal stuff. I gave him a run down on everything from the agreement I made in Miami to pay Ranger for his help in clearing Joe, to The Deal that Ranger offered Joe to prove him innocent in exchange for me, to Joe's word to me that he wouldn't accept The Deal, to the grand finale, today's surprise news that, Yes indeed, Joe had accepted The Deal after all. "… and I'm pissed off and Ranger thinks that we need to sit down and talk about it and I don't want to until I find out from Joe what's really going on!" I finished in a rush.
 
Eddie sat tipped back in his chair, arms folded, mirroring Ranger's position and I could practically see the steam coming out of his ears. "Excuse us, Steph," Eddie said, never taking his eyes off Ranger, "Ranger and I need to have a little chat … outside, now!"
 
Chat my ***! I started to get up, I wasn't about to let them kill each other. Eddie put a hand on my shoulder, holding me in my seat. "Just guy talk, kiddo. Nothing to worry about, right Manoso?" Ranger gave a single nod, his blank face firmly in place. Every cop in the place picked up on the vibes and they all watched the two men walk out the door.
 
Eddie didn't get angry a lot, but when he did, look out! I held my breath as they crossed the parking lot to Ranger's truck, and even though I couldn't hear what they were saying, their body language was screaming! Eddie's face was red as he leaned in toward Ranger, his hands actually curled into fists. He got right up in Ranger's face and kept jabbing him in the shoulder, obviously reading him the riot act, and Ranger just stood there and took it. Finally Eddie held up his hands and stepped away from Ranger, obviously trying to calm himself. He ran his hands through his hair, and when he turned back, he seemed a lot more in control.
 
Ranger on the other hand, always looked cool, calm, and collected, but I knew that he was on alert, body coiled, ready for anything. He hadn't argued with Eddie, just let him rant. Now it looked like it was Ranger's turn to have his say and Eddie leaned an arm against the truck and listened calmly. Finally Eddie smiled and shook his head at whatever Ranger said, then slapped him on the shoulder and shook his hand. Oh swell! Now they were best buds! So much for Eddie being in my corner.
 
Probably their whole talk only lasted a couple of minutes, but it felt like hours before they made peace and shook hands. Eddie waited until Ranger got in his truck and drove off, then waved for me to come outside.
 
I flew out the door and met Eddie by his cruiser. "Okay Steph, here's the deal." He cringed and held up his hands. "Sorry, poor choice of words. Ranger will leave you alone, and when you're ready to talk, you'll call him. Okay?"
 
"No problem," I agreed. Sure I'd call him. Sometime in the next century. "What do you think about the rest of it, this Deal thing and all?"
 
"I don't know whose *** I want to kick more, Manoso's or Morelli's. I'd like to know what the hell Manoso was thinking when he cooked up this damn scheme. I told him he was lucky your gun was never loaded. And as for Morelli taking him up on it? Don't even get me started there. I want to beat them both to a pulp!"
 
"I know the feeling," I grumbled.
 
"Tomorrow you go visit Joe and see what he has to say about it all. Maybe he's got a good reason that we don't know about yet." I don't think that Eddie believed that any more than I did. He gave me a quick hug and got into his car. "You have fun with the guys tonight and I'll stop by tomorrow after my shift and we'll talk, okay?"
 
I gave him a quick wave and drove to the Stop and Shop to stock up on Tastykakes and Cheese Doodles and chips and dip for tonight's game, and B&J's Pistachio Pistachio for me … blissfully alone.
 
I didn't get a whole lot of sleep that night; despite the food and beer and company, all I could think about was talking to Joe. I wasn't at all sure that Ranger had been telling me the truth, but he had never out and out lied to me before either.
 
Fed up with tossing and turning, I got up early and took my time getting ready to go to the prison. I even put some extra effort into my hair and makeup. Instead of my usual jeans and t-shirt and runners, I wore black stovepipe pants, a pale pink wrap shirt that showed just a tiny little bit of my lacy Wonder bra, and heels. Hell, I even did my nails and put on jewelry. If he really had agreed to Ranger's Deal, I was gonna make damned sure that Joe Morelli regretted giving me up!
 
On the drive over to the MCCC I rehearsed what I was going to say. He had promised me that he wouldn't take The Deal, and I didn't want him to think that I doubted his word. I wouldn't hurt him that way. But Ranger had said that Joe had called him, so I really needed to find out what the hell was going on.
 
At eight sharp the doors opened and we filed silently through the door and the metal detectors. Our photo IDs were checked, we were wanded with the hand held metal detector, there were random pat downs, the drug dogs sniffed us, we went to a desk where the guard checked us off the Visitors List, and last but not least, we'd be assigned a window where we'd wait for the prisoner we were visiting.
 
The routine never varied. Except for today. I got as far as the Visitors' List guy who didn't even look at me. "Morelli, Joseph Anthony," I said.
 
The guard tapped the name into his computer. "Denied. Step out of line," he said.
 
"Denied?" That woke me up. "What do you mean denied? I've been here every week for months." That earned me a bored look.
 
The guard rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh, then looked from my Driver's License to the computer screen like he was doing me some huge favor. "There is no Stephanie Plum on the Visitors' List. The prisoner must have removed you." He handed me my license and made a shooing motion with his hands. "Next!"
 
I was too stunned to move. "But why?" I asked him.
 
"How the hell should I know? What do I look like, the Prison Social Secretary?" he snarked. "Ask him yourself! NEXT!" I'd obviously worn out my welcome.
 
"How can I ask him if I can't see him?" I wailed as another guard took me by the arm and ushered me out the door.
 
I stood out in the parking lot in a state of shock, trying to process what had just happened, but I couldn't seem to wrap my head around it. This came so out of left field that I just didn't know what to do with it. What the hell was going on? Why would Joe pull something like this and not even give me a heads up? Somehow I got to my car and just sat there until a guard tapped on my window and told me to move it.
 
I'm not quite sure how, but I found myself sitting in the driveway at home. I mean, I know how I got there, I just didn't remember the trip. By then I decided this had all been some kind of a huge mistake, or a computer glitch, or something. And now I was worried about Joe, too. I was sure he was wondering why I hadn't shown up this morning. Probably he was worried about me; probably he thought that something bad happened to me, or worse, that I'd given up on him. Poor Joe. Hey! They don't call me the Queen of Denial for nothing, ya know!
 
I didn't know how to fix this mess so I called Mark Cutler, Joe's lawyer, for an appointment. After all the thousands of bucks I'd paid that man, it was the least he could do for me, right?
 
When I got there, I was shown right into Mr. Cutler's office and he stood up from his chair and came around his desk to shake my hand and seat me in an expensive leather guest chair. The secretary offered me refreshments and I had to wonder if everyone who came into the office got the same red carpet treatment, or if it was just because my name was on so many of the checks he'd cashed since he'd taken Joe's case. Whatever it was, we schmoozed for a few minutes and then he got down to business.
 
"Miss Plum," he wore his sincere face, "I understand that you went to the prison to visit Mr. Morelli this morning. I deeply regret any embarrassment you suffered when you were turned away by the guards."
 
Well, see that? He knew all about it. There must have been some kind of a mix up! I just shook my head and held up my hand in a 'don't worry about it' gesture.
 
He continued. "I want to give you my personal assurance that had I known in advance of Mr. Morelli's intent to remove you from his visitors list, I would have informed you immediately in order to avoid such a painful situation."
 
What? Wait … what did he just say? I blinked at him a couple of times as I absorbed what he'd said. "Are you telling me that Joe took me off his visitors list on purpose?"
 
"It would seem so. Yes."
 
I cleared my suddenly dry throat. "Do you know why?"
 
"I'm sorry, I have no idea." Cutler didn't seem real happy telling me all this.
 
"Oh," was all I could manage to get out. "I really need to talk to him. Would you ask him to get in touch with me … please? I know he can write letters or call." I stood up to leave, but he stopped me.
 
"Miss Plum, I am truly sorry, but there are several more issues that Mr. Morelli asked me to discuss with you."
 
I sank back into the chair and braced myself. Somehow I knew this wasn't gonna be good.
 
"First of all, against my advice, Mr. Morelli has revoked the Power of Attorney that he had assigned to you. It is now in his mother's name. I must ask you to turn over all legal documents concerning his property, finances and so forth that you have in your possession. I will provide you with a list of specific items. Mrs. Morelli will now be charged with payment of …" He droned on and I zoned out, my head spinning from trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
 
"Miss Plum …" He said my name twice before I snapped to attention.
 
"I'm sorry. I'm having a tough time taking all this in. I, ah, never saw this coming. Joe never let on that he wanted to make any changes."
 
"He did not see fit to consult me, either." The lawyer didn't sound too happy about that one.
 
All I could do was stare at him.
 
Cutler picked up a pencil and toyed with it. "I have to tell you that Mrs. Morelli has informed me that she has frozen the joint checking account. The bank is sending you a check for half the balance. The savings account is in Mr. Morelli's name and you have been removed as a signatory. And finally, the house …"
 
I cut him off. "So what you're telling me is that I'm going to be out on the street and flat broke." Okay, I'd started out being confused and hurt, now I was just furious!
 
Cutler sighed. "May I suggest that you get yourself a good lawyer? I may represent Mr. Morelli, but I am well aware that you have shouldered all the financial responsibilities. You need to recoup those monies, Miss Plum. Let me give you some referrals." He picked up his phone and buzzed his secretary for the information.
 
Two minutes later she came in with a list of names and a stack of files. "Here are those referrals you asked for, and these are the copies of the Morelli evidence files that you requested from the District Attorney's Office."
 
"Would you fax a copy of the file to Carlos Manoso at RangeMan, please," he said to the secretary. "He's been engaged by Mr. Morelli as an independent investigator." The secretary nodded and left.
 
My ears perked up at that. Joe had said the evidence against him was hinkey, but didn't say why, only but what it could still convict him. That light bulb over my head went on again. If I could find out what the evidence was, and I could prove that it wasn't legit, then maybe I could prove Joe innocent all by myself. Joe wouldn't need Ranger's Deal, and then Ranger wouldn't get the payoff, me, and I could kick both of those rat bastards to the curb. Oh man! I was really really liking that idea!
 
While I was picturing myself doing a Mission Impossible break in of his office, Fortune smiled and Cutler got called out for a minute. I dashed around his desk and flipped through the stack of folders, snagged a copy of the evidence file, slipped it into my bag, and slid back into my chair just as Cutler came back in the door. I thanked him for the referrals and his kindness, acted a little weepy, and got the hell out of there fast. I couldn't wait to sit down and start studying the file. The sooner I started, the sooner I'd be able to get rid of two major pains in my ***!
 
But when I got back to Joe's house, I didn't think of it as 'home' anymore, Anthony's rattletrap car was parked out front and Anthony's *** was parked on the couch. He had his feet were propped up on Aunt Tootie's coffee table and the living room was trashed, strewn with empty beer bottles and pizza boxes. The freeloader had already polished off all the leftovers from last night.
 
I knocked his feet off the coffee table. "What are you doing here, Anthony?" You useless piece of ****. Okay, so I didn't say that outloud.
 
"I told ya, Ma wants me to live here and take care of the place for Joey." He folded his hands over his gut and grinned at me.
 
I snorted. "Yeah, and you're doing a damn fine job of it already." The sarcasm was lost on him.
 
I went into the kitchen and since all the olives, all the chips, and all the leftovers were gone, I made myself a peanut butter and apple sandwich. What? I can try new things. It tastes like one of those caramel apples you get at the Boardwalk. And Rex loves them.
 
Anthony leaned against the door jamb. "Ya know, now that this is my place, I can have whoever I want stay here. You wanna stick around?"
 
"Gee, let me think about that. NO! Why don't you disappear for a couple hours while I get my stuff together?"
 
"No can do, Cupcake. Gotta watch you don't steal nothin'." Look who's talking.
 
I shrugged. "Yeah well, all that new furniture? Joe and I went 50/50 on it. Why don't you go out and find a chain saw so I can take my half with me?" I popped the last bite of sandwich into my mouth and gave him a fake smile. I could tell by the expression on his stupid face that he wasn't sure if I was serious or not.
 
I pulled out duffle bags and laundry baskets and suitcases. Everything I owned was in this house and I needed to take as much as I could with me so that I'd never have to come back here again. I got Anthony to carry all my shoes down to my car, stacking the boxes in the back. I lugged a couple of duffle bags down and when I went back to the bedroom, Anthony had my underwear drawer open and was fingering my panties. He leered at me in the mirror, held a pair up to his nose and sniffed. Ewwwww!
 
I grabbed the panties and shoved him out of the way, pulled out the drawer and dumped everything in a laundry basket. Speed counted now, not neatness. Anthony stood close enough behind me that I could smell his beer breath. "You know, I'm supposed to take care of Joey's house. I could take real good care of his woman, too." He ran his hand over my *** and squeezed my butt cheek.
 
I didn't say a word, just spun around and sucker punched him right square in the nose. The satisfying crunch of cartilage breaking just warmed my heart. Maybe I couldn't sock Joe, but his brother made a great substitute punching bag. I stood with my fists held up like a prize fighter's, ready to nail him again.
 
His eyes bugged and he screamed like a little girl as blood spurted all over the place. "You're a ******* psycho!" he bellowed.
 
"Be afraid, Anthony!" I snarled. "Be very afraid! Put you grubby paws and me again and it won't be your nose I break!" and I pointedly looked at his crotch. He didn't need to know that I wouldn't touch his crotch even if I was wearing a HAZ-MAT suit!
 
He stumbled out of the room and down the stairs. I heard the front door slam and his car start. Probably he was on his way back to his mommy.
 
I jammed stuff into my car until I swear the doors bulged. I even wrestled a fifty pound bag of Bob's dog food into the back seat. I loaded up the coffee maker, toaster, and my brown bear cookie jar. Of course, the cardboard box under the bridge on Rt.1 that I'd be living in probably didn't have a whole lot of outlets for appliances, but still, I brought them with me when I'd moved in, I was taking them with me when I moved out!
 
Lastly, I loaded up Bob and Rex and, just to be bitchy, every single roll of toilet paper and paper towels, and every box of tissues in the house, silently praying that Anthony would be cursed with the world's worst case of diarrhea.
 
I had worked up a mental check list of things that I really needed to get done: Rex, Bob, my mother, a place to live, revenge, … well, you know, important stuff. Since Rex was first on the list, I headed over to Mary Lou's house and asked her to hamster sit for me. She'd already heard all my news via the Burg gossip mill, so I filled her in on the true story. I left out the part about Ranger's Deal, though; she was way too young to have a heart attack. Her kids still needed her.
 
Lou gave me coffee and ice cream and a shoulder to cry on, then offered me her basement rec room to stay in while I hunted for someplace permanent to live. Now don't get me wrong, I really appreciated the offer. I mean, Lenny and Lou were willing to disrupt their whole lives to make room for me. But the last time I slept over, I woke up when a snotty nosed three year old sneezed in my face and asked for a kiss. Not that I don't love Mary Lou's kids, but the snot dripping off the chin thing? Not so much. So the rec room would be a last resort option, right after the box under the bridge.
 
From Mary Lou's I went to Eddie and Shirley's house. Eddie wasn't home yet, so I figured I'd really have to beg Shirley to take in Bob for a while, and I had my sales pitch all worked out. Their evil spawn adored Bob and Bob loved them right back. He'd be able to play to his heart's content with the kids, and in exchange, those wild animals would be worn out. And no, I didn't call them evil spawn or animals, at least not to her face. It was a total win/win situation.
 
Shirley was so thrilled that she could put away her whip and chair for a while, that she threw her arms around me and I swear to God, I thought she was going to cry. Bob would be treated like a king and I could check one more thing off my to-do list.
 
I sucked it up and called my mother. She was so angry that I was afraid she was going to stroke out. Of course, it was probably because Angie had gotten around the threat Mom had issued at the hospital. Angie hadn't said a single word about me; just let nosy Burg residents do all the work for her. I was so beyond caring at that point that nothing that anyone could say about me would have mattered at all. I promised to come over for dinner on Friday and added another check to the list.
 
When I moved in with Joe, I'd left everything I didn't need in the storage room in the apartment building basement. Any of the residents who could use any of the stuff were welcome to it, but now I was going to need all that stuff again. I decided to see if there was anything left so I took a trip over to see Dillon, the apartment Super. I thought he might even have a line on an apartment. I even stopped and bought him a six pack.
 
"Hey Steph! Long time, no see! How the hell are ya?" He greeted me with a big smile and a matching bear hug and his eyes lit up when he saw the beer.
 
I told him why I was there and filled him in on the latest news as we made our way through the bowels of the building to look in the store room. Unfortunately, the only thing of mine that was left was a broken toaster oven. Just my luck.
 
Back in Dillon's apartment, we each cracked open a beer and clinked bottles. "Sorry things didn't work out for you and Morelli," Dillon sympathized. "What are you gonna do now?"
 
"I still work for Vinnie." Dillon cringed and I smacked his arm. "I'm a lot better at it these days, so my income's pretty good." He rolled his eyes like a Jersey Girl. "No, honest! I was paying Joe's legal fees."
 
Dillon looked impressed. "Wow! You did get better. I bet that was a lot of money!" Then he grinned. "Unless his lawyer is somebody like Albert Kloughn." I snorted beer through my nose.
 
"Oh that's just plain mean!" I finished off the beer and got up to leave. "Anyway, as soon as I find someplace to live, everything'll be fine."
 
"You know, I might be able to help you out," and he gave me a wink.
 
Oh God! Don't tell me that Dillon was going to make me an 'offer' like Anthony did! "Well, thanks Dillon, but …"
 
"No seriously! The old guy who rented your apartment went into a nursing home. His lease doesn't expire for three months and he still has to pay the rent on the place. I've been trying to rent it for him but nobody wants a three month rental. Would that work for ya?"
 
Damn skippy that'd work! "Oh my God! Dillon! That's perfect!"
 
With the promise of a twelve pack, Dillon helped me unload my car. Unfortunately, it was too late to have the electricity turned on, but Mary Lou fixed me right up when I went back to her house to pick up Rex. Two hours later I was at home in my apartment. Dillon and I had shared a pizza and the rest of the 6-pack for dinner. He was keeping the 12-pack for himself.
 
I had my clothes, my hamster, two sleeping bags, a camping lantern, 64 rolls of toilet paper, 6 boxes of tissues, and a case of paper towels. I have no idea what time it was when I ******** down and clambered into my sleeping bag. I'd put Rex's cage on the floor next to me so that neither one of us would be alone and I tapped gently on the glass.
 
"Looks like it's just the two of us again, Rex. All the other men in my life seem to come and go. You're the only one who sticks around." He twitched his whiskers in agreement.
 
I curled up into a little ball, pulled the sleeping bag over my head, and cried my way through half a box of tissues before I finally fell asleep.
StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
May 16, 2012