What I Did For Love - Chapter 16

Chapter 16: To Know Him Is To Love Him!
 
True love cannot be found where it truly does not exist,
 
Nor can it be hidden where it truly does.
 
Anonymous
 
I woke up too early, stiff, stuffy, and still exhausted. Sleeping on the floor hadn't been fun since I was six and had camped out under the dining room table at Grandma and Grandpa Mazur's house while Val went off to summer camp. I was heartbroken at being left behind but Grandma always knew how to make things better. She turned the dining room chairs backwards and put the sofa cushions under the table for us to sleep on. Then she draped the whole thing with sheets, making a perfect tent for me.
 
She wouldn't let Grandpa Mazur turn on any lights so he went over to my house to watch TV with my dad. Grandma and I used a camping lantern and had flashlights to find our way around the house, ate hot dogs for dinner and toasted marshmallows over the gas burners on her kitchen stove. We sat outside on the back steps after dark and counted fire flies and Grandma pointed out planets and constellations. It was one of my favorite childhood memories.
 
Ironically, it turned out I despised summer camp when I was finally old enough to go … it was the camping part that did me in. Oh, I did swell on the swimming and canoeing and sitting around the campfire part. The actual camping part of summer camp though, nope, not for me. I mean camping and hiking? Oh please! It's not that I was a girly girl. I mean I could climb a tree or ride a bike or jump a fence with the best of 'em. But I came out of the womb a full fledged Jersey Girl. We like our creature comforts. We don't sleep on the ground and we don't walk … anywhere! It's just part of the Jersey Girl Code of Conduct.
 
Anyway, I yawned and stretched, and tried to work out some of the kinks before I crawled out of the sleeping bag. I did consider rolling over and conking out again but not without a real bed, and curtains. I just sat there, glaring at the brilliant, cheerful sunshine streaming through the curtain-less windows. That's what woke me up so early, dammit! I decided right then that there was gonna be an air mattress and sun blocking window shades in my immediate future.
 
I finally worked up the energy to haul my *** up off the floor and rooted around for my bathroom stuff. I needed to brush my teeth and wash my face before I made a much needed Dunkin' Donuts run. I know, I know. Addiction is a terrible thing, but there was no way I was starting this day without my coffee.
 
After last night's crying jag, I really needed a caffeine fix to perk me up. No pun intended.
 
It wasn't until I'd rinsed my face and reached blindly for a towel that it dawned on me I didn't have any towels. Crap! I realized way too late that when I loaded up and moved out of Joe's house yesterday, I only took 'my' stuff. I had grabbed all the things that I had brought with me when I moved in, all that I could carry, that is, and left behind everything that had been 'ours'.
 
I admit it. That was a pretty lamebrained move on my part. I mean, I paid for half of that stuff and now that turd Anthony would be using it. That just chapped my ***! To say that yesterday hadn't exactly been one of my better days was a gross understatement, and in my defense, I could say that I had been working on sheer emotion, but mostly, I was just numb. I'd lost my boyfriend, my home, and just about every dime I had to my name, all in one fell swoop.
 
Needless to say, if I had thought about what I was doing more carefully, I'd have done it differently. I would've just wrung Anthony's stupid neck, put everything in the house in a huge yard sale to raise some cash, and then burned the place down to the ground. But I wasn't bitter, oh no, not me!
 
For crying out loud, all I wanted was a gallon of coffee and a long hot shower. Was I being unreasonable? Was that too much to ask for? I didn't think so! But I must have pissed off the gods or karma or the universe because I had a coffee maker, but no electricity, and I had a shower, but no soap or towels. The story of my friggin' life! I hoped to hell somebody was laughing, 'cause I sure as hell didn't see the humor.
 
So, I was snarky, fuming, and cursing a blue streak when I stomped into the kitchen, pissed off beyond words that I had to dry my face with paper towels and ****-head Anthony was probably using all my beautiful fluffy cotton towels for toilet paper. But still, I spotted the Dunkin' Donuts bag on the counter right away. Well ****! My eyes just kinda rolled themselves and I let out a huge groan. I mean, didn't I just have this dream a little while ago? What the hell was this, déjà vu all over again?
 
I stuck my head out of the kitchen, took a look at my front door and heaved a sigh. I knew it! The dead bolt was still locked and the safety chain was still on. There was only one person who could walk through locked doors and we all knew who that was, didn't we? "Son of a *****!" I yelled at the ceiling. "What part of 'leave me alone' does that man not get?" I really wanted to throw something, only there wasn't anything to throw, except maybe Rex, and he was safe.
 
Really though, I was still so pissed at Ranger that it actually crossed my mind to open the bedroom window and pitch the bag out into the parking lot. Now, that's mad! But being the calm, rational, level-headed adult that I am, I weighed my anger with Ranger against my need for the coffee I knew was in that bag. No surprise, the coffee won, hands down. Throwing it out would've been stupid, and let's face it, I'm pretty sure that I'd already filled my stupid quota for the rest of my life.
 
I gave in and approached the bag with the same reverence as I would the Holy Grail. I'm pretty sure I actually moaned when I looked inside and found two still steaming jumbo coffees, an orange juice, an egg, bacon, and cheese breakfast sandwich, and a couple of Boston Crèmes.
 
I pulled on jeans and a t-shirt, then climbed out the window and sat on the fire escape to have my breakfast al fresco. The fact that I only had the floor to sit on inside might have had something to do with it too. I savored my coffee, scarfed down the sandwich and juice, and was just licking the chocolate donut icing off my fingers when I heard the unmistakable whine of a high performance engine. Company!
 
The shiny black Porsche Turbo did a slow drive by of my parking lot, idling in front of the fire escape. I had to wonder where the devil truck was. Probably at Al's, getting a new windshield and I smiled for the first time in a couple of days. I just leaned back against the steps and sipped my coffee. I did look over as the Turbo idled in the street and raised my cup in silent salute. Oh come on! Just because I was pissed at him and pretty much hated his guts didn't mean that I couldn't thank him for saving me a trip to Dunkin' Donuts.
 
I didn't have to see Ranger's face to know that his lips tipped into his almost smile before he roared away. Smug bastard! He knew damn good and well that food equaled love in my life. Probably he thought that he was buttering me up so he could move in for the kill later on. Ha! Not happening, buster. It was gonna take a lot more than coffee and donuts to soften me up!
 
Coffee and food made me feel almost human, so I shoved my hair up under a ball cap, loaded my hair stuff and a change of clothes into my duffle, and headed to my parents' house for a quick shower. I had a lot of running to do today. I needed to go to the cell phone store and replace the one I'd lobbed at Ranger. I had to hit the bank to open a new checking account. I could forget the savings account, pretty much all my money was in Joe's, and since there was no hope of getting my hands on that, I was broke again. So, I needed to bring in a couple of skips so I could pay rent. I had to get my electricity turned on and then I'd stop at Wal-Mart and max out my credit card on necessities. You know, peanut butter, white bread, olives, Cheese Doodles, Ben & Jerry's … the basic essentials of life as I knew it.
 
I was climbing into my car when I noticed the white envelope stuck under my windshield wiper. I had to keep myself from laughing when I opened it and found the SIM card from the phone I'd smashed against Ranger's windshield. I wondered where he'd found it. Probably it was embedded in the glass. Never let it be said that Stephanie Plum doesn't leave an impression.
 
The Burg radar was working fine because both Mom and Grandma Mazur were standing at the door when I pulled up in front of the house. Of course, every neighbor on the street was watching too. I must have looked like a Miss America wanna-be, waving and smiling to all of them as I hopped out of my car. I was pretty sure the rumor mill had vultures circling my rotting corpse as it swung from the tree where I'd hung myself because I was so despondent over my break-up with Joe. I wanted to make sure that word got back to Angie Morelli that despite all her efforts, I was alive and well after all.
 
Grandma started peppering me with questions even before I hit the steps. "Is it true that the cops had to carry you out of the house because you refused to leave? Naomi Guzzamano said that you threatened to put a contract out on Grandma Bella! Did you really take a couple of pot shots at Anthony with your gun? Is it true that Joe kicked you to the curb because you and that hot bounty hunter were having sex in Joe's bed?"
 
"Mother!" my mom gasped and rolled her eyes.
 
Grandma trailed me into the house, hot on my heels, hungry for all the gory details. "Grandma!" I turned to look at her. "No cops! Believe me; I couldn't wait to get out of that house. I can't afford to put a hit on Bella because I'm broke, and anyway, I wouldn't do Angie that kind of favor. I probably should have shot Grab-*** Anthony instead of just punching him in the nose. And no, I would never cheat. Okay?"
 
"Okay," she said, deflated. "Just checking." I almost felt bad disappointing her like that.
 
I escaped upstairs to the shower. Thirty minutes later I was scrunching Mr. Alexander's miracle anti-frizz serum through my hair and trying to convince myself that my life didn't completely suck after all, when my mom tapped on the door and stuck her head in. "Eddie Gazzara is downstairs. He needs to talk to you right away. You aren't in any kind of trouble, are you?"
 
Trouble? Ranger brought me breakfast, so I didn't think he pressed charges over the windshield. That only left one other possibility, more Morelli Misery. "Of course not, Mom!" I said and smiled innocently.
 
I found Eddie at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and huge piece of coffee cake, happy in the knowledge that we wouldn't rat him out to Shirley for falling off his diet. I poured myself a cup and plunked down across from him, adding cream and sugar as he wolfed down his cake.
 
"So what's up, Eddie?" I asked as he chewed.
 
"Couple of things," he looked around to see if my mom and Grandma Mazur were within earshot. Even though they weren't around, he still lowered his voice. "You're not the only one Joe took off his visitor's list."
 
That little bit of news surprised me. "Really? Who else?"
 
"Me, Big Dog, Carl, Robin … everybody at the station, even the brass." Eddie looked worried. "It's not going down real well. We all went out on a limb for him, backing him publicly the way we did. Everybody's pretty pissed."
 
"I'll bet!" I leaned my elbows on the table and propped my chin in my hands. "At least it's not just me that he dumped, not that it makes me feel any better." I sighed. "I really thought we were good, Eddie, and then he pulls all this **** on me without a word." I looked down into my coffee and blinked away the tears. "I just don't get it."
 
"Me neither. Something's going on with him." He sounded less unhappy and more pissed.
 
I watched Eddie for a minute and I was pretty sure he had an idea of what was up. "What do you think it is?"
 
He caught me staring at him and immediately lightened up. He shook his head and shrugged. "Ah! I don't know… some guys go a little nuts when they get inside, maybe he thinks we bailed on him, maybe his mother got to him. Who knows?" Eddie was back peddling, he wasn't going to share his suspicions.
 
He got up, went to the counter, poured himself another cup of coffee and eyed the coffee cake on the table. I cut him another hunk and put it on his plate, then cut a piece for myself … just so he wouldn't have to eat alone, you know.
 
"Anyhow, Toots," he said, changing the subject, "I thought you'd want to know that Angie Morelli flew into the station on her broom first thing this morning." His eyes twinkled as he grinned at me.
 
"Oh swell," I snarked. "Spreading doom and gloom wherever she goes, I'm sure. I'm almost afraid to ask what she wanted."
 
"Oh you'll love this," Eddie said around a bite of cake. "She wanted to press charges against you for assault and battery," he said with a grin.
 
"What?" I squeaked, jumping up and knocking over my chair. "Assault and Battery?"
 
"Yeah," Eddie was still smiling as he got up and righted my chair. "Seems that poor little Anthony has a broken nose."
 
"I should have broken his neck instead," I snarled as Eddie pushed me down in my seat. "He put his hands on me!" I shuddered. "I shoulda squashed him like the cockroach he is!"
 
"I figured as much." He patted my shoulder and brought the coffee pot over to the table, filling my cup. "Eat your cake, Steph."
 
I stabbed the cake with my fork so hard I almost broke the plate. "So are you here to arrest me?"
 
"You kidding me?" he said with a snort. "I'd never get out of here alive with your Mom and Grandma in the living room. I told Angie that I'd be happy to arrest you right after Anthony pressed charges."
 
I glared at him. "Oh jeez! What a pal!"
 
"Not to worry about Anthony. It get's out he touched you, his wife won't take him back. He won't risk having the first divorce in Morelli family history. His mother'd disown him."
 
"Oh great! One more thing for her to blame on me!" I had this mental image of Angie, done up like the Wicked Witch of the West, green face and all, rubbing her hands together and cackling, 'I'll get you, my pretty, and your little hamster, too!' And to think, this woman could have been my mother-in-law. That whole family was psycho!
 
Eddie finished his cake and coffee, kissed me on the top of my head, told me to call if I needed anything and took off. My mother stood in the kitchen doorway, arms folded, watching me. "Is there anything I can do?" she asked softly.
 
I just shook my head and gave her a rueful smile. There really wasn't anything anybody could do, except maybe explain to me how my life had gone south so fast. I told her about getting my apartment back and all the stuff I had to get done and how it pissed me off to have to start from scratch all over again. Turns out that my mom's a really great listener. Who knew?
 
I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but God bless my mother. She offered to do my Wal-Mart run for me and to have the power turned on in my apartment. She said she'd round up some extra towels and bedding and household stuff and bring it over. My Dad would get an air mattress and set it up for me so I wouldn't have to sleep on the floor and he'd bring over the extra TV so I wouldn't miss The Housewives of New Jersey, my latest guilty pleasure. Mary Lou and I watch it at home and then talk about it on the phone the next morning. We decided that Dina's lips are real but Danielle doesn't have an original body part. I gave Mom a key to my apartment, hugged her good-bye and took off to run the rest of my errands.
 
As soon as I had my new phone and checking account, I grabbed a bucket of chicken and some Cokes, and hot footed it over to the bonds office. Over lunch, I filled Connie and Lula in on all the goings on. Well, almost all. I left out the part about Ranger and his Deal. I didn't want to have to give either one of them CPR, plus the only people who knew about it were Ranger, Joe, me and Eddie, and I wanted to keep it that way. Let's face it, Connie and Lula couldn't keep a secret if their lives depended on it and if I didn't want every single person on the East Coast to know about The Deal, Connie and Lula couldn't know either.
 
"So why was Ranger tailing you?" Lula asked around the chicken leg stuck in her mouth.
 
"Does anybody know why that man does anything?" I countered, hoping they'd drop it.
 
"Well then, why are you so mad at him? The whole town's talking about the show you put on in the middle of Hamilton Avenue yesterday." Connie rooted around in the bucket for an identifiable piece of chicken.
 
"I'm just sick and tired of him expecting me to jump when he snaps his fingers, that's all." I tried to act nonchalant.
 
"Uh-huh," Connie eyed me suspiciously. "And just where is he expecting you to jump … into bed?"
 
"What? No!" Okay so I had my fingers crossed on that one. "He's not stupid! He knows that'll never happen again," I snarked, then clapped my hand over my mouth when I realized what I had said.
 
The office was dead silent for ten whole seconds before all hell broke loose.
 
"YOU DID IT WITH BATMAN?" Lula screamed and practically climbed over Connie's desk to get to me.
 
"I knew it! I just knew it! You could cut the sexual tension between you two with a knife!" Connie jumped to her feet.
 
"When? When did it happen?" Lula demanded, grabbing me by the front of my shirt and shaking me. "Details! We want details!"
 
I just sat there with my face in my hands. ****! ****! ****!
 
"Oh, oh, I know," Connie poked Lula with her fingernail. "Remember that weekend before Ranger went in the wind for all those months?"
 
"Yeah! Before Steph got back with Morelli." The Snoop Sisters were figuring it all out. They didn't need me so I got up to leave but Connie shoved me back into my chair and kept a hand on my shoulder. I wasn't going anywhere.
 
"Yep! Remember she didn't answer her phones and we couldn't figure out where she was?"
 
"Riiiiight!" Lula agreed. "I forgot all about that. And she was so snarky for a couple of weeks afterwards. I bet that was it!"
 
"I can't believe she never told us!"
 
"Yeah. What was that all about? I thought we was friends!" Lula demanded.
 
Hands on hips, they turned to glare at me. "Well?"
 
Maybe if I hit my head hard enough on the edge of Connie's desk I could knock myself cold. "Well what?" I said lamely looking back and forth between them.
 
"Well why didn't you tell us?" they demanded.
 
I blew out a deep breath. "Because of all this," I said, flapping my hands. "I knew you'd get all excited and want all the details, and all I wanted to do was forget it ever happened."
 
"Forget? Why would you want to forget?" Connie looked stunned. "Oh God! Please don't tell me the sex was awful. I've been fantasizing about that man for years."
 
"No. The sex was phenomenal," I sighed, resigned to giving them all the details. All thirty-six hours of it!
 
"Then why?" They both looked at me like I had lost my mind.
 
"Because it didn't mean anything to him," I shrugged, way beyond being hurt by the fact. "It was just a roll in the sheets. The next day he took off without a word, no note, no phone call, no message, no nothing. Just, 'Poof!' vanished."
 
"Oh, Girl," Lula sank down in her chair, sympathy written all over her face. She knew what I was talking about.
 
"Oh don't worry, I'm over it. But I'd like to think I learned from my mistakes and that's one I'm not making ever again."
 
"And you was with Morelli when he got back, right?"
 
"Yup. But Ranger thought we were going to pick up right where we left off. It was a great big shocker for him when I said no."
 
"So Vinnie was right, sorta. Ranger went to Miami because you wouldn't give him sex. And not just kinky sex … any sex!"
 
I had to laugh. "Well, as much as I'd like to think I was that great in bed, Ranger probably had other reasons for moving to Miami. Don't know, don't care."
 
"Hey!" Lula sat up straight. "Is he back here hittin' on you because Morelli's in jail? 'Cause if he is, me and Connie can take care of him for ya!"
 
Oh, that was a picture I'd like to see. "Well thanks, but not necessary. Ranger's back because Joe hired him as an independent investigator to try and prove his innocence."
 
Connie let out a long, low whistle. "Wow! Ranger doesn't come cheap. Can you imagine what he's charging Joe?"
 
Oh, I didn't have to imagine. I knew exactly what Ranger's price was. Only I sure as hell wasn't telling Connie and Lula. I'd spilled enough of my guts for one day, thankyouverymuch.
 
I finally escaped the office with the promise that Lula and I would pick up Damien DeVil first thing in the morning. Lula wasn't too happy about that, but I told her to go load up on garlic and crosses and wooden stakes. I mean, come on. What was the worst that could happen?
 
I decided that if I wasn't going to let myself get depressed over all the crap that had happened the last couple of days, I needed to keep busy. I shuffled through the new stack of skips that Connie gave me, decided I'd go pick up one or two.
 
Little Joey Castro had been a bagman for a small time local hood, but with the economy in the toilet, the hood had moved on to the greener pastures of Atlantic City and Little Joey had been reduced to rigging the Wednesday night Bingo games at Holy Trinity Community Center. Defrauding little blue haired old ladies didn't hold him in high esteem with the mob or the Parish, and when those little old ladies caught on to what he was doing, they ganged up on him and beat six shades of **** out of him with their canes and purses and walkers. The cops probably saved his life when they hauled him off.
 
As a little reminder, I took two members of that blue-haired old lady squad, Grandma Mazur and her friend, Greta Gruber, with me on the pick up. Little Joey took one look at them and practically put the cuffs on himself. Easy-peasy! By way of thanks, I told Grandma and Greta that I'd take them out for a martini some night. Yeah, I know. What was I thinking?
 
Gloria Hudak was next on my list. She had a habit of writing bad paper for useless stuff like gas and electricity and food and rent. She had four kids, two jobs, and a no good, piece of ****, deadbeat dad of a husband who was so far behind on his child support that if he ever paid up in full, Gloria and the kids could live in the Taj Mahal with money to spare. She had honestly forgotten her court date. The kids were still all in school when I picked her up and Connie met us at the station to re-bail her out and I drove her home, all in under an hour.
 
Added to what I had in my brand new checking account, I could afford to pay my rent and buy some groceries. Normally, I would have taken myself home and laid down for a little nap before dinner to celebrate. The thought of stretching out on the floor did nothing for me though, so I snagged a Coke and a bag of chips from the 7-11 and went to the park instead. I found a nice bench in the shade and pulled the evidence file that I had copped from Joe's lawyer out of my bag, and started to give it a read. With everything that had happened, I hadn't had a chance to even look at it. But if I was gonna prove Joe's innocence before Ranger did, I'd better get my *** in gear.
 
Of course I'd been wondering how Ranger was going to go about finding evidence to prove Joe didn't kill Abruzzi. Joe and I both knew that Ranger had done the deed himself. How he was going to clear Joe without turning himself in was beyond me. I was pretty sure he wouldn't try to pin it on another innocent person, and incriminating himself was out of the question. He had to have something up his sleeve, right? But what? I'd been over it a hundred times and still came up with diddly squat.
 
I sat cross legged on the bench and opened the file. There were lists and lists of items taken from the house under the search warrant, a lot of them I didn't even realize they took. Most of them returned already, like my laptop and tennis shoes. The whole thing was written in 'legalize', blah-blah-blah. At the back of the file though, was the list of items that would be called into evidence against Joe at trial. That was the important stuff.
 
The first thing I came across was the medical report from the ER the night I was treated for the burn on my arm, the night Abruzzi died. Unfortunately it wasn't the original report. This was the one that Tank had cooked up to keep Rinaldi and Malfitano from believing me when I tried to confess to killing Abruzzi.
 
This one said, 'Detective Morelli requested that Ms. Plum be given a shot for pain as well as a follow up prescription for additional pain meds.' If I was passed out from pain meds, I couldn't have killed Abruzzi, which worked out great for me. But I was Joe's alibi, and if a jury thought I was passed out from pain meds, they wouldn't believe me when I swore he hadn't left the house that night. I knew I hadn't had that shot; now all I had to do was prove it.
 
Okay, this was good. I found some place to start. I could go to the hospital and see if they had the original report. I could check the bill that had been submitted to my insurance company. They itemized everything used during an ER visit right down to the band aids and rubber gloves and they would have charged me for the shot. I made notes on a little pad I brought with me.
 
Next, there were copies of the sign in sheets from the evidence locker at the cop shop. Every case had a container with all the evidence collected during the investigation, ME's reports, autopsy, ballistics, pictures, fingerprints, all the stuff you see on CSI, and it was locked up, under guard, at the station. According to the log, Joe had signed out the box from the Abruzzi case twice. That looked bad because Joe wasn't one of the detectives assigned to the case and had no professional reason to take the evidence. Joe's signature and badge number were on the sign out sheet, but without expert handwriting analysis, there was no way to prove if it was really Joe's or not, dammit!
 
The inventory list from the evidence was hi-lited in red and my heart dropped into my stomach. Evidence was missing. The bullet that the Medical Examiner had dug out of Abruzzi's head was gone, and when the cops had collected the murder weapon from Abruzzi's car, they had logged in the serial numbers on the gun. The weapon that was in the box now had a different serial number. Somebody had switched it out. Since the only person digging around in the evidence box was Joe, all fingers pointed at him. This was bad … really bad. Somebody was doing a really great job of setting him up.
 
I kept reading and almost fell off the bench, my stomach rolled, my vision got blurry and the words swam across the paper. The original gun, the murder weapon, had been located ... in Joe's basement. It had been wrapped in an old towel and stuffed behind some water pipes. That was the piece of evidence that was gonna hang him. I sat back and scrubbed my hands over my face. Talk about finding the smoking gun!
 
Whoever was doing this went to a hell of a lot of trouble to frame Joe for Abruzzi's murder. Much as I wanted to beat Joe bloody and kick his *** around the block a couple of times, I still didn't want him to spend the rest of his life in jail for a crime he didn't commit. Hell, as pissed as I was at Ranger, I didn't want him facing life in prison for a crime he DID commit. Proving Joe innocent wasn't going to be as easy as I thought it was.
 
The Attorney General's office had done its homework. The original owner of the murder weapon and the one used to replace it, was a Pennsylvania superior court judge who had reported his entire gun collection stolen a couple of years ago. From time to time, other guns from the heist had turned up, used in robberies or homicides, and the same name was always connected to them, D'Wayne Porter. I knew D.
 
D'Wayne, or D. to his friends, was one of Trenton's more enterprising citizens. When asked, he liked to tell people that he made a name for himself in 'acquisitions'. D'Wayne's idea of humor. He was a thief and had a gift for delivering things that folks wanted. You name it, and D. could get it for you. That is, if you could pay the freight and didn't mind that whatever it was you wanted had been 'previously owned'.
 
He and his gang ran their diversified operation out of a small abandoned building right off Stark Street, not exactly the best part of town. Home to chop shops, gang bangers, drugs dealers, pimps and fences, hookers outnumbered housewives on the streets and most of the residents didn't show their faces in the light of day.
 
Inhabitants had a live and let live policy, unless of course, you were talking about gangs. Gang colors were prominent and gang graffiti decorated abandoned buildings and burned out cars, marking turf. Turf wars were the norm and a day without a killing was the exception. More innocent bystanders were taken out in drive-bys and shoot outs than actual gang members. Not that anybody who lived on Stark Street was all that innocent anyway. It was a safe bet that anybody who went to Stark Street, day or night, was looking for trouble and usually found it.
 
D'Wayne Porter fit right in with the rest of the Stark Street denizens. He had a reputation for being a savvy businessman and for being mean as a junk yard dog. Anybody who crossed him disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. Rumor had it that they got chopped up and fed to the pack of pit bulls that guarded his building. Nice doggie!
 
But like I said, I knew D. and we got along just fine. Of course, I was just on a ride along with Ranger when he went to pick up D. and one of his soldiers. I pretty much just sat in the SUV and gave him a little finger wave. D. made kissing sounds and waggled his tongue at me, earning himself a smack in the back of the head from Ranger. But I'm pretty sure there were no hard feelings and I really needed to talk to this guy about those guns.
 
I looked at my watch. It was no use going to Stark Street too early, nobody rolled out until late afternoon and it wasn't exactly a good spot to hang around, if you know what I mean. I did try to be smart about it though, and I checked to make sure that my gun was loaded and my cell phone charged before I took off. I also left Connie a message, telling her where I was headed, just in case I turned out to be one of those people who wound up as dog food.
 
The sun was dipping behind the buildings when I parked on Stark Street a couple of doors down from D.'s. His place was easy to identify. It was surrounded by a ten foot high chain link fence with razor wire on the top. Inside the fence half a dozen pit bulls roamed, barking and growling at anything that moved. The gate had security cameras posted every few feet, and enough high power lighting to be seen from the space shuttle.
 
I got out of the car thinking that maybe this wasn't such a hot idea after all, but since I was here, I might as well take a shot. Of course, there was a real possibility that I could get shot. I guess I should've thought of that before I got here. Oh well! I stuck my gun in the back of my waistband and pulled my shirt down over it. Taking a deep breath for courage, I strolled over to the gate and pushed the intercom, hoping to hell that I looked like I knew what I was doing. The dogs lined up on the other side of the fence. They looked hungry. Oh boy!
 
"What you want?" a gravelly voice demanded, making me jump.
 
"My name is Stephanie Plum and I'd like to speak with D'Wayne, please." What? It doesn't hurt to be polite.
 
"About?"
 
"I'm looking for information."
 
I heard the snort before the intercom clicked off. I really wasn't even sure he'd be willing to talk to me, and I was a little surprised when the front door opened and two armed guys came out. One of them called off the dogs. They sat in a row, eyes trained on me, muscles quivering, ready to pounce. The other guy came over to the gate, looking me up and down.
 
"You dressed?" he looked me in the eye.
 
"Yep," I nodded. "Be stupid to come down here naked." I pointed to where I'd put my gun.
 
He nodded at me and swung the gate open. Goon Number 1 kept me covered with a semi-automatic while Goon Number 2 did a very professional pat down, taking my gun and slipping it into his own pocket. All business, they escorted me inside. So far, so good.
 
As far as I could see, D. had 'merchandise' out the wazoo, stacked in every inch of the building. All kinds of TVs, big ticket electronics, guns, bigger guns, and something that looked like a cannon lined the walls. I was walked through the building and into what looked like a big man cave. Leather sofas, the largest flat screen TV I'd ever seen, a huge sound system, stacks of video game systems, CDs and every electronic toy and gadget on the planet were strewn all over the place. D. treated himself real well.
 
"Wait here," the goon ordered and walked out, closing the door behind him.
 
After a few minutes, D'Wayne sauntered into the room with his goons right behind him. Wearing a backwards ball cap, oversized jersey, pants hanging off his ***, untied shoes, and enough bling to put Tiffany's to shame, he looked more like a TV version of a street thug/rapper than the Donald Trump of Stark Street that he claimed to be.
 
"What kinda info-mation you lookin' fo', sweet thang?" he asked, as he walked a circle around me, chewing on what looked like a solid gold toothpick.
 
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. Just because he looked ridiculous didn't mean he wasn't as dangerous as everybody said he was. "I'm trying to find out who bought a couple of guns that you sold." Judge Judy says that if you tell the truth you don't need a good memory to remember the lies. We'd see if it was good advice.
 
"How you know I sold 'em?" he eyed me suspiciously.
 
"The guns were part of a collection, and the cops know you sold some of the other pieces. You got picked up a couple of times for it too."
 
He grinned at me, showing off a small fortune in gold and diamond dental work. "You tryin' to steal my clients?"
 
"No, I'm not in …uh, sales." I shook my head.
 
"Well, a man in mah biz-nis gotta keep his customers con-fi-dential." He looked me over again. "You not a cop. Wha' you wanna know fo'?" I guess I'd peaked his curiosity.
 
"I was just trying to help out a friend, that's all." I tried to look harmless.
 
"Wouldn't want nobody thinkin' I was rattin' them out, ya know? Wouldn't be any good fo' mah health." He ran a finger down my arm. "You look healthy."
 
And I wanted to stay that way, too. I was starting to get a little nervous here. "You're right. I didn't think of that. My mistake."
 
"Well now, you hold on, Sweet Cheeks. Maybe we can deal? That kinda info-mation gotta be worth somethin' to ya." He leered at me.
 
Okay, time to hit the road. "I'm just gonna get going now … sorry I bothered you … thanks for your time … nice meeting you all …" and I tried to back towards the door.
 
"Maybe we should see what she got to trade," D. said and grinned again. Before I could react, he hooked a finger into the neckline of my shirt and looked down. "Nice."
 
I automatically slapped his hand. "Hey! Cut it out!" I took a step back and bumped smack into one of the goons who was standing right behind me. He clamped his hands on my shoulders, letting me know I wasn't going anywhere. This was so not good.
 
D. had just reached out to grab me when we heard a commotion outside and everybody looked toward the door. It sounded like an invasion. There was the squeal of brakes, the dogs started barking up a storm, then a couple of yelps, people yelling, a crash and then the door to the room was kicked in, knocking the guy who was standing behind it halfway across the room. Ranger strode in followed by Hal, Cal, and Ram, all armed to the teeth.
 
The goon who had his hands on my shoulders moved to grab his gun but Ram raised his weapon and just said, "Don't!" The guy froze.
 
"Hey!" the other goon yelled, "Where my dogs?"
 
Cal gave him a slow, easy smile over the sight on his weapon. "Sleeping."
 
Ranger nodded at D., totally ignored his goons, and turned to me, giving me a cold smile. "There you are, my love. I've been looking for you."
 
D. looked back at me. "I thought I recognized you. You're Manoso's woman." I noticed that all the street lingo disappeared.
 
"N…" I never got the word out of my mouth. Ranger grabbed the top of my arm and hauled me in front of him, wrapping his other arm around my waist and holding me against his chest.
 
"What have I told you about running around Stark Street without taking one of the men with you, Sweetheart?" He squeezed my arm a little tighter. "You worried me."
 
I glared at him over my shoulder. "Sorry," I ground out.
 
"You'll just have to make it up to me later," he said and nuzzled my ear. I looked at the floor so D. wouldn't see how furious I was.
 
But D. was too busy trying to make nice. "Why didn't you tell me who you were? We wouldn't have joked around with you like that. Would we?" he said to his men. They all shook their heads so hard you could hear their brains rattle.
 
"Well," Ranger said conversationally while he slid his hand up from my waist to cup my breast possessively. "You'll recognize her if you ever see her again, won't you, D.?"
 
I tried to pull away, but his other hand tightened on my arm again and really, there wasn't any place to go. His thumb drifted back and forth over my nipple, sending little electric jolts straight to my doodah. The son of a ***** knew exactly what he was doing to me and I didn't know if I should be pissed off or turned on. Okay, so maybe my knees turned to water and I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from coming on the spot. But I wasn't going to let him know that!
 
"Absolutely," D. babbled. "And I will let it be known that your fine lady will be under my personal protection."
 
"I think that's a very wise decision," Ranger gave D. a knowing look. "We all know what happens to anyone who touches what belongs to me."
 
"Yeah, yeah," D. agreed. "We all have to protect what's ours."
 
Still holding my arm, Ranger nodded once to D. and dragged me out of the building and toward the SUVs that were at the curb.
 
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" I hissed at him.
 
"Saving your ***!" Ranger spat back.
 
I tried to pull away from him. "You're hurting me."
 
"Not as much as D'Wayne would have!" He gave me a shake.
 
I slapped at his hand. "Did you enjoy that little display in there?"
 
"Not as much as I'm going to enjoy this one," he snarled at me, his eyes dilated black.
 
He spun me around and shoved me back against the SUV, pinning me there with his weight. "They're watching," he murmured, and he bent his head to nip my shoulder a little harder than he should have. Linking his fingers with mine so that our hands were palm to palm, he stretched my arms above my head. I tried to turn my head, but still his lips fused with mine. His tongue forced its way into my mouth, stroking with the same rhythm as his hips moved against me. All my resolve disappeared and I fell into the kiss, letting myself sink into the sensations he was causing.
 
He hands left mine, slid down my body and found their way under my shirt to knead my breasts. My nipples strained against the lace of my bra, while his thumbs tortured me until I was breathless and my panties were ruined. His lips drifted down my throat to the sweet spot where my neck met my shoulder and he sucked the skin into his hot mouth, trying to make me lose control.
 
He was playing a game, I reminded myself. It was all a game and two could play. I slid my arms around him and grabbed his *** with both hands, pulling him to me and grinding my hips against him. I heard his sharp intake of breath and the almost painful groan deep in his chest. Breaking the kiss I nipped the corded tendon on the side of his neck, licking and sucking on it. A shudder went through him and I felt him stir and grow hard against me.
 
"You don't play fair," he said when he pulled away, as breathless as I was.
 
"I learned from the master," I said, catching my breath. "You're the one who taught me all about exerting pressure."
 
"So I did." He cupped my face with one hand and ran the pad of his thumb over my lips. "I should know better than to give information to the enemy," he whispered and touched his lips to mine. Where had I heard that before?
 
Ranger took my car keys and tossed them to Ram, then opened the door of the SUV so I could get in. I looked back at D'Wayne's building. "He wasn't really watching, was he?"
 
Ranger didn't say anything, just gave me his full 200 watt smile.
 
Son of a *****!
StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
1 Response May 16, 2012

What can I say.....( smiling) Ranger...