What I Did For Love - Chapter 19

Chapter 19: The Game of Love!
 
The wounds of love can only be healed by the one who made them.
 
Publilius Syrus
 
Roman author, 1st century B.C.
 
I stomped off the elevator on the fifth floor, not an easy thing to do in 3 inch heels, and headed straight for the break room. It had been one royal **** of a day so far, and I needed comfort food …caffeine, sugar, fat. Unfortunately, because of the food Nazi who owned this place, the only thing in stock was coffee and even then I wasn't so sure that he hadn't snuck in decaf. I mentally kicked myself for not stopping at Starbuck's or Dunkin Donuts … anyplace I could get a fix.
 
I poured myself a cup, bitching that they didn't even have real sugar, and added five packets of Splenda to it, stirring with a vengeance. The choice of fat free CoffeeMate or skim milk did absolutely nothing to improve my mood. I took a big gulp, gagged, and dumped the whole thing in the sink.
 
A wolf whistle came from behind me and I spun around, prepared to beat the offender to a bloody pulp. I was in NO mood! Lester lounged against the door jamb, arms folded over his muscular chest. "Looking gooooood, Bombshell. I like that skirt!" He waggled his eyebrows and leered at me.
 
"Shove it, Santos! Don't start with me!" I stomped over and jabbed him in the chest with my finger.
 
"Jeez! Who the hell pissed in your Cheerios?" Think he noticed I wasn't my usual sunny self?
 
"Oh, that would be Special Prosecutor Claudia Montenegro," I said sarcastically and made a pissy face as I said her name.
 
"Awwww, Guess she's not gonna be your new best friend, huh?" He grinned, the ***. "Seriously, though, Steph. She's got a nasty rep as a real shark, out to get her name in the papers."
 
"In the Obituaries, I hope," I snapped and plopped down at one of the tables.
 
"So what happened?" I watched Lester get himself a cup of coffee and then start rummaging around on the top shelf of one of the cabinets.
 
"The ***** subpoenaed me! She said I had to come in for a witness statement. All part of the discovery process or something." I waved my hand. "Les, she's gonna call me as a witness for the prosecution!"
 
"Ouch!" He grimaced, and slid a package of Butterscotch Krimpets, obviously from a super secret hidden stash, across the table to me. "Here, it's too early to start drinking."
 
I pounced on it like the sugar addict I am. "Lester Santos, you are a god!"
 
"Yeah, I know," he said modestly. "Look, you aren't really surprised are you, Steph? The State is gonna use you to prove that Joe had a motive to kill Abruzzi. Sorry, but all they have to do is put you on the stand and it's a slam dunk." He shook his head sympathetically.
 
"I know!" I growled around the Krimpet stuffed in my mouth. "And there's not a damned thing I can do about it either! Hell Les, she and her little rat-faced assistant questioned me to death about my run-ins with Abruzzi … they knew all about the snakes, the spiders, the car bomb, the threats, the kidnapping, the torture, everything! They'll be able to give the jury a great motive for Joe to go blow Abruzzi's brains out." I leaned my elbows on the table and massaged my aching temples.
 
"Yeah, all she has to do is make him look like a rogue cop and that's the end of it," Les said over the rim of his coffee cup.
 
"I'm telling ya, if Montenegro describes Abruzzi as a fine, upstanding citizen, I'm gonna barf all over that courtroom." Just the thought made me queasy.
 
"Nah, she's not stupid. She knows that nobody in Trenton'd buy that crap. She'll probably go with the old 'It doesn't matter if the victim was a monster or a saint, murder is still murder' route, and throw in 'A cop is supposed to uphold the law, not take it into his own hands,' just to be on the safe side."
 
I groaned long and loud. I knew he was right and it just pissed me off that they were going to use me to make their case against Joe.
 
"Joe's lawyer said that if they bring up the fact that I tried to confess to the murder, it would just about slam the cell door shut on him. He said that they could convince the jury that my confession was proof positive that I knew that Joe killed Abruzzi for threatening me, and I was just trying to muddy the waters." I blew out a deep breath. "And here I thought I was helping." I sounded as deflated as I felt.
 
Lester shrugged, "You could always lie." He rinsed his cup and put it in the dishwasher.
 
"Oh that's brilliant! Then I could go to jail too," I snarked. "And what good would lying do anyway? They'd just call a dozen witnesses who'd swear that I was scared stiff of Abruzzi and his thugs. Hell, they could even call my mother and Val and Grandma Mazur to testify that he terrorized us."
 
I was burying the Tastykake wrapper in the trash can when a horrible thought hit me. "Oh My God! What if they found out that Mom ran over the rabbit and killed him? They could charge her with manslaughter, or vehicular homicide, or murder, even." I started to hyperventilate. My mom killing one of Abruzzi's thugs was an open secret at RangeMan and none of the Merry Men were surprised or shocked that she had protected one of her own.
 
"Hey, hey, hey! Calm down Steph. Nothing like that's gonna happen." Lester put his arm around my waist. "Come on, I'm off the clock. Let's go work on those searches of yours."
 
Lester really was a good guy. I leaned my head against his shoulder and we walked toward the conference room that Ranger and I were using as our base of operations. "Thanks Les, I really do love you," I sighed and slung my arm around his waist too, "but if you don't take your hand off my ***, you're gonna lose it."
 
"You're a hard hearted woman, Stephanie Plum," he said with a sigh and I had to giggle.
 
Three hours later, Lester and I were still slumped in front of our respective computers in the conference room, watching the searches print out. We had played 'Twenty Questions', 'I Spy', and 'Hang Man' … until I called it quits when Lester's word was '***********'. We tried small talk instead.
 
"You like being an 'investigator', Bombshell?"
 
"You know, I don't know what the hell I thought Ranger and I were gonna be doing," I told him. "Chasing suspects down dark alleys, maybe, tapping phones, following bad guys with our guns drawn, dumping LUDs … Okay, so I don't have any idea what that is, but they do it on Law & Order all the time." I grumped. "I just never saw myself sitting here staring at the computer until my eyes crossed and my *** got numb."
 
Yeah, yeah! I told myself. I should have known better … all my fault … queen of denial … blah-blah-blah. But I wasn't telling Santos that.
 
Lester roared with laughter at my complaining. The more I bitched, the louder he laughed. I was entertaining him. I kept forgetting that my sole purpose in life is to amuse RangeMan LLC.
 
Lester sat with his feet up on the desk, his ankles crossed, hands folded over his six-pack abs. "LUD stands for Local Usage Details," he said, still chuckling. "It's a record of phone calls made to and from a particular number. Cops need a court order to dump them. It's right up there with wire tapping. But," he held up a finger, "for an enterprising young man such as myself," he shot me his perfect white smile, "there is always a way to get around that."
 
"You really need to work on that lack of self-confidence," I said dryly.
 
He gave me a wink. "As for that numb *** of yours, Dr. Santos has just the cure for that." He raised his hands and flexed his fingers like he was squeezing my butt. "I give a great massage."
 
"I'll pass, thanks," I pointed to the computer. "Gotta finish my 'sleuthing'."
 
"Ah, you have no idea what you're missing." He stood up and stretched, slowly working out all the kinks. Between you and me, I think he was really just showing off his great body. He collected the searches he'd run, and dropped them on my desk. "Gotta run, Bombshell. Big date tonight."
 
"Who's the lucky lady, Les?" I tipped my head way back so I could look at him standing behind me.
 
"Coulda been you, Steph." He put his hand over his heart and sighed dramatically. "Coulda been you!" He dropped a kiss on the top of my head and headed out.
 
"Thanks for your help. See you tomorrow," I called after him.
 
He stuck his head back in the doorway. "Only if I don't score," he said with a grin and an eyebrow waggle.
 
"Like that's gonna happen." This time I had to laugh.
 
I was almost finished invading the privacy of the hordes of folks who had been thrilled to death, no pun intended, that Eddie Abruzzi had gone to meet his maker. I swear to God that there were so many happy people that if they ever decided to all get together, they'd have had to rent out the Trenton Convention Center for the party.
 
It had taken ten long days to run the searches on the endless list of potential suspects that it had taken Ranger a couple of weeks to compile. RangeMan's top notch search engines let me dig as deeply into their personal lives as the FBI, the CIA, or Interpol could get. But running those reports was the easy part. It was reading them that really screwed with my head.
 
Let me tell ya, by the time I finished all those searches, I was a walking encyclopedia of useless information about Abruzzi's gophers, henchmen, business associates, family and victims. The man had no friends, no big surprise there, so we could skip that category. I knew more about each and every one of those people than they knew about themselves; every thrilling little detail of their boring little lives was there for my perusal. By the way, just in case you didn't catch it, that was sarcasm.
 
I could tell you who still had their tonsils, who owed what to the IRS, and whether the men 'dressed' their guys to the left side or to the right. I could tell you how much ex-wife #1 racked up at Neiman Marcus last month, the name of the hotel where ex-wife #2 had had her rendezvous with the pool boy in 2002, and the number of phone calls ex-wife #3 made to her cosmetic surgeon about her butt lift. No joke, she gave a whole new meaning to the term 'booty call'!
 
"I'm a virtual Peeping Tom!" I'd whined to Tank a couple of days earlier when I schlumped into his office and threw myself into a guest chair. I'd been doing a lot of whining these days.
 
Granted, Ranger was reading the same reports I was, but it didn't seem to bother him. I, on the other hand, felt like I was peeking into windows, or snooping through underwear drawers, or reading diaries. I'd also found out a lot of creepy and disgusting stuff about some of Abruzzi's confederates that absolutely made my skin crawl.
 
"Bombshell," Tank said kindly, "you're doing exactly what any good cop or detective has to do." He kicked back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. "They have to get into a suspect's head and see how they live their lives, figure out how they think. It's what profilers do. You have the added advantage of a great sixth sense when it comes to people, Steph. You were made for this kind of investigation."
 
"But some of this stuff is just nauseating." I couldn't help but shudder.
 
"Abruzzi was a sociopath," he said matter-of-factly. "He had no sense of right or wrong, no conscience. Everything revolved around what he wanted, didn't matter how he got it. And he surrounded himself with people who were just as sick and warped as he was."
 
"Sometimes when I read those files, I feel like I'm wading through sewage. I'm gonna need brain bleach." I blew out a deep breath.
 
"Join the club, Steph," Tank said ruefully. "Some time or other, every one of us has felt the same way. It's the nature of the job." He sat up and leaned his elbows on his desk. "Your problem is that you're taking this stuff personally. You have to toughen up some, not let it eat at you."
 
I think that was supposed to make me feel better, but it didn't work. So I just nodded.
 
"I keep hoping that in all of the stuff I've dug up I'll find a photo of somebody holding a big sign that said, 'I Killed Abruzzi'!" I slumped in my chair.
 
Tank snorted. "Praying for a miracle?"
 
"I wish!" I whined … again. "I mean, I knew this wasn't going to be easy, but paring down the list of suspects is gonna be a nightmare. There are dozens of them!"
 
"Yeah! Did the guy who had no chance of paying back the hundred grand he owed Abruzzi have more of a reason to bump him off than the ex-wife who had her alimony cut off but was still the beneficiary of his life insurance policy? Did the crony who wanted to take over Abruzzi's territory want Eddie dead more than the widow of a guy Abruzzi had fitted with 'cement shoes' and sent to 'swim with the fishes'?" He gave his head in a 'better you than me' shake. "How do you pick?"
 
I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands. "Everybody on that list had some nifty reason for wanting to get rid of Eddie Abruzzi, fear, revenge, hate, greed, you name it. And now it's up to Ranger and me to figure out which one them really did. No sweat!"
 
"Don't envy you your job, Bombshell. I think I'll just stick with paperwork." That was Tank's most hated job.
 
I nodded in agreement. "Yeah, well, the elimination process is gonna have to rely heavily on proven scientific method." Tank arched an eyebrow at me. "My spidey-sense and Ranger's gut … can't get any more scientific than that. Har-har!" I said with a snort. "When it comes right down to it, all we really can do is keep on slogging through our list of suspects and hope we'd find somebody who had a bigger and better motive to kill the guy than Joe did."
 
"Don't sell yourself short, Steph. My money is on your guys to figure it out." Tank made a great cheerleader.
 
Okay, so I really hoped Tank wasn't actually betting any money on me. He'd lose his shirt for sure. I know I should have been studying the reports, looking for suspects, stuff like that. But instead, I was sitting in the conference room, chin in hand, busy studying something of a more personal nature. Like who had the better butt, Bobby or Ram. They were moving furniture around, making room for the filing cabinets I needed to keep all the background searches in, and they were putting on quite a show. I was too busy watching their buff bodies and bulging muscles, daydreaming about the possibilities of being the filling in a Merry Man sandwich, to think about anything else. Talk about pent-up frustrations!
 
"Steph," Ram was looking at me funny. "You okay? You look a little glassy-eyed."
 
"What? Oh! Yeah, I'm just peachy." I snapped out of my day dream and gave him a dopey, too bright smile.
 
Watching the Merry Men had gotten me into plenty of trouble the last time I worked here, and those same pent-up frustrations made me invite Ranger back into my bed. Big mistake. HUGE mistake! Now I was back here again and I was painfully aware of exactly what was missing from my life. Sex! I could practically smell all the testosterone in the air and it had my hormones hopping.
 
Now, I'll be the first to admit that sex is my second most favorite thing in the whole wide world, birthday cake being the first. See the connection here? Sugar … sex? Remember a couple of years ago, when I swore off sugar? I almost wore out Joe's legendary galloping sex drive, to say nothing of a couple of his body parts that he held near and dear. Well, this was like the reverse, like I had sworn off sex. Not willingly, of course, but once Joe went to jail, I might as well have become a nun. I mean, I felt like I had taken a vow of chastity.
 
Lula had pegged my problem right away and had dragged me off for an emergency run to Pleasure Treasures but flesh colored vinyl, even with D batteries, just didn't do it for me. And naming my shower massagers didn't help either. I gave running a shot, but only embarrassed myself when I almost followed a great *** into the men's room. I tried yoga but downward dog was just a turn on. I even tested out the reverse of my jelly donut theory. If sex could replace sugar, maybe sugar could replace sex. Let me tell you, it doesn't work! All that did was boost Tastykake and Ben & Jerry's sales in the Trenton area, and add two inches to my ***.
 
To make matters worse, Ranger was starring in most of my fantasies, and if he ever made a move on me, I don't know that I could have remained virtuous. Okay, even I couldn't say that with a straight face, but you know what I mean. Truth is, it wasn't Ranger moving on me that I was worried about. It was me moving on Ranger, literally. I wanted to ride that man like a circus pony … forwards, backwards, bareback, one foot behind my head … you name it! And of course, Ranger knew exactly what my problem was. Humanitarian that he was, he graciously offered to help me out.
 
Too bad I couldn't take him up on it. Been there, done that, and nope, sex with Ranger would not end well. At least not once the Doomsday ****** wore off. I mean, I'd just be setting myself up for another disaster. I already gave that man two chances and both times he turned his back on me and walked away. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. No way in hell was I giving him a third shot at breaking my heart!
 
Plus, I was still planning on using every dirty trick I could come up with to win our little competition just so I could have the thrill of telling both Ranger and Joe that they could kiss my lily white *** in Macy's front window! Okay, so maybe I wouldn't say exactly that. Ranger, for one, would probably take me up on it. But I was done with them! I'd just give both of them the old heave ho, tell 'em to go jump in the lake, go fly a kite, good-bye, farewell, don't let the door hit you in the *** on your way out of my life. I felt powerful just thinking about it.
 
Anyway, the guys finished with the furniture and left and I went back to reading files. It was getting harder and harder to keep my eyes open and I yawned … again. Leaning back in my big leather desk chair, I considered making another pot of coffee, but that would take too much energy. Maybe I'd just shut my eyes for a minute.
 
Just as soon as I got nice and comfy, I heard the door open and I swiveled my chair around. I guess Ranger had been in meetings all day because he was in full Armani-clad corporate mode, charcoal grey suit, pale blue silk dress shirt, grey, blue and black striped tie. Power, affluence, and just the right touch of danger practically dripped off of him. Corporate Ranger was my second most favorite of his many looks. Naked Ranger being first, natch!
 
He didn't look at me when he came in, giving his full attention to whoever he was talking to on his cell. I watched him as he tossed a leather portfolio onto his desk and slid off his suit jacket, laying it over the back of his desk chair. He leaned his fantastic butt against his desk and tucked his phone between his shoulder and his cheek so he could loosen his tie, pop open a couple of buttons on his shirt, and roll up his sleeves while he continued his conversation. I checked my chin for drool. Did I mention that I was horny?
 
Finally, he snapped the phone shut and his lips tipped up into a slow, sexy smile. I started to ask him how his day had gone, but then he turned toward me. Uh-oh, I knew that look and I was in big trouble here. His eyes were black, hot and hooded, and the words just died in my throat. He sat there, studying me, his gaze so intense that everywhere his eyes touched, my hair, my mouth, my throat, my breasts, my legs, it felt like his hands were skimming over my body.
 
I was barefoot, slouched in my chair, sitting with one leg curled under me and his eyes lingered on my legs. A little too late I realized that my already short skirt had ridden way up on my thighs and I was probably giving him quite a view of my little pink panties. Holy crap! I hustled to sit up, straighten my legs, and pull down the hem of my skirt.
 
Without taking his eyes off of me, Ranger pushed off the desk and reached over to flip the deadbolt on the conference room door. The click of the lock turning sounded like a gunshot in the silence of the room and my heartbeat ratcheted up a notch at the feral gleam in his eyes. His smile slipped away and he focused on me with such heat that I forgot how to breathe.
 
As quiet and lethal as some jungle cat, he stalked me across the whole length of the big conference room, beautiful and terrifying at the same time. I would have tried to scramble away if I hadn't been paralyzed, hypnotized by those black eyes of his. I couldn't seem to tear my eyes away from his. My mouth went dry as I watched him move and every nerve in my body hummed like and over-taut wire.
 
A wave of lust lurched through me, settling low in my belly and I licked my lips in anticipation. I was the prey, caught in the eye of the tiger, and I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to escape.
 
He stopped in front of me, straddling my outstretched legs, and bent down to wrap his hands around the armrests, trapping me in the chair. I tipped my head back to look up at him, let my eyes drift shut, and held my breath, waiting with a mix of fear and anticipation. Pictures of us together in my bed flashed on the inside of my eyelids and I could feel his hands lifting my hips, his mouth on my breasts, his hot, thick length impaling me over and over. The memories made me shiver and I heard somebody moan. Me, I guess.
 
I felt, rather than saw, Ranger bend close to me; his hot breath touched my hair and skimmed my face. I knew his mouth hovered over mine, and he hesitated a second before barely touching my lips with his.
 
"Open your eyes, Stephanie," he whispered against my mouth. "It's time to pay up."
 
I pressed my mouth against his a little harder and parted my lips, making a little, 'umm' sound. Then his words filtered into my lust-soaked brain. Talk about ruining the moment. My eyes popped open and I sat bolt upright. Who the hell did the son of a ***** think he was? Time to pay up? I don't think so, sport! I hit a new land speed record and went from zero to ***** in .02 seconds flat. I am woman, hear me roar!
 
Oh boy! Was he gonna get it! I catapulted myself up and out of the chair and started to lace into him. Unfortunately, I shoved the chair back so hard that it bounced off the desk and slammed into the back of my legs, sending me flying into Ranger. Gotta give him credit, he did try to catch me, but we wound up on the floor in a tangle of arms and legs and chair … Ranger on top, naturally. So much for my righteous indignation.
 
My skirt was hiked up to my *** and my legs were spread, Ranger fitting nicely between my thighs. He supported his weight on his forearms and looked down at me. For a second or two I fought the urge to wrap my legs around his waist and grind myself against him. From the smirk on his face I'd say he knew exactly what I was thinking, the rat, and I felt my cheeks start to burn.
 
The conference room door flew open and Hal burst in. "I heard a crash. Is everything all ri … Ooops!" His eyes got wide and his face turned as red as mine when he saw us lying there. "Sorry!" he snorted, trying to hide his smile. "Want me to lock this?" he asked helpfully. Ranger growled and Hal disappeared, slamming the door behind him. We could hear him chuckling all the way down the hall.
 
Wait a minute! Wasn't that door locked, I thought vaguely. I shoved at his shoulder. "Oh, just flippin' great! He's gonna go tell everybody that the boss got lucky!" I groused and pushed at him again.
 
He grinned down at me and made no attempt to get up. "Not if he wants to live, he won't. You okay?" He brushed my hair out of my face and settled his hips a little, making me gasp.
 
"I would be if I could breathe! Get off!" I snapped, pushing at him ineffectually.
 
"Get off?" he chuckled. "I'd love to, Babe. Is that an invitation?" He bent and nuzzled the side of my face.
 
"No, dammit! You think you and your double entendres are so cute! Well, I got news for ya! You're not!" I tried to wiggle out from under him, but that only made matters worse.
 
Ranger's hands tightened on me, to hold me still, I think. He closed his eyes and groaned deep in his chest. "God Almighty, Stephanie. Stop moving! You're killing me!"
 
Except for his cargos and my pink panties, Mr. Happy was right where I wanted him, standing at attention. Oh boy! "Just returning the favor," I said breathlessly. "So, you move! You're the one on top of me!"
 
He gave me his wolf grin and rolled his hips against mine. "Your wish is my command!" I know I moaned. My eyes rolled back and my body automatically arched against his. I think I had a mimini ****** and I dug my fingernails into the tops of his arms. I'm pretty sure I drew blood. "We've been in this position before, Babe," he said, his voice deep and sexy. He leaned down to brush his lips over mine again. "You know that when we're together we make magic."
 
"Yeah, it's magic, all right," I practically panted. "You wave your magic wand and then disappear in a puff of smoke." Okay, so that came out a little bitchier than I intended. "I'm just the magician's assistant. The one who gets cut in half. That gets old after a while."
 
"Maybe we should work out a new routine? I'll let you play with my magic wand." He nipped my ear lobe and I broke out in goose bumps.
 
"No way."
 
"Afraid?"
 
"Cautious."
 
"That's no fun," Ranger said.
 
"I didn't know you were interested in fun."
 
There was a very slight curve to the corners of his mouth. "I have my moments."
 
"Cute Ranger, but enough already. You're breaking the ground rules!" I smacked his shoulder. "And don't think I don't know what you're doing here! You forget that you taught me all about exerting pressure. I paid attention in that class, so knock it off!"

 
Ranger blew out a breath and looked at me, suddenly serious. "Someday, Stephanie …" He left the rest unsaid.
 
"I've heard that before," I sighed. "And someday you're gonna have to finish that sentence.
 
"Maybe I will," he murmured. "Someday."
 
He levered himself up on his hands and toes, doing a perfect push up, then rolled to his feet and held out a hand to pull me up off the floor. I quickly pulled down my skirt and searched around for my shoes. When I glanced at him, I saw something in his eyes that I couldn't quite identify. It was gone so quickly that I decided that probably I had imagined it.
 
"So what did you say to me before? I mean, I don't think I was asleep, but …" I tried to sound nonchalant, but I wasn't gonna let this go. "You said something about, 'It's time to …' What?" I tried to make it sound conversational. I took a stack folders and arranged them in one of the file cabinets.
 
"Babe, you weren't just asleep, you were comatose. You never heard me come in and you didn't even move when I turned on the lights. You were all curled up in your chair here in the dark. You must have been having some dream, though, the way you were moaning in your sleep." His eyes twinkled while he described me. "I told you it was time to wake up. But I guess I scared you, considering the way you bolted out of that chair."
 
O-kay. 'Wake up', not 'pay up' … Oooops! "Yeah, guess you did. Dreaming, huh? Guess it wasn't much of a dream if I can't remember it." Oh crap! I hope he didn't know I was dreaming about him! I tried to blow it off, but I didn't think he bought it.
 
"I woke you because I'm going to do a little information gathering this evening. If you want to come along, you'll need to grab something to eat, and change your clothes, before we leave." He looked at me over the report that he was scanning. "What did you think I said, anyway?"
 
"Oh, doesn't matter." I waved my hand like it was unimportant. That's when it hit me that Ranger wasn't wearing Armani, he was dressed in his RangeMan uniform. Phooey. I really must have been asleep. Hopefully I dreamed the part about flashing my panties at him. I told you that he'd been center stage in my fantasies … dreams, too, I guess. "Where are we going, anyway?"
 
"I thought we'd pay a social call on your old pal D'Wayne." He picked up his blue hi-liter and marked something in the report.
 
My eyes must have bugged out. I'd been talking myself blue for weeks, trying to get Ranger to pump D'Wayne for information. Granted, he never said no, but he never did anything about it either. "Really? What made you decide to do it now?"
 
"Gotta make it worth his while to give us the information. I finally have something to trade that's as valuable to him as what we want to know," he said with a shrug.
 
"Whatcha got?" It had to be something pretty big if it'd make D'Wayne rat out one of his clients.
 
Ranger closed the folder and tossed it on his desk, giving me his full attention. "D'Wayne is on the FBI's short list of suspects for a big drug heist over in Pennsylvania. I'm gonna tell him he needs to move the stuff before the Feebs zero in on him."
 
I looked at him in surprise. "So, let me get this straight. You're gonna give him insider information to help him avoid being caught by the FBI? Isn't that going a little deep into the legally grey area?"
 
"Isn't it worth it if we get the information that sets an innocent man free?" He looked me in the eye, testing me, I guess.
 
"Well … yeah, I guess. But maybe not, because it lets a guilty guy stay free, but …" Oh, this was a tough one.
 
He gave me a half smile. "Don't worry, it's not what it seems. I'll tell D'Wayne about the FBI, but what I won't tell him is that there's a joint task force. The DEA has an eye on him too. They're the ones making the case against him and his crew. The FBI is the distraction, making all the noise. They're hoping that D'Wayne will be so busy trying to avoid the Feebs, he'll fall right into the DEA's lap."
 
"You didn't tell me that they asked you for your help." I was relieved that this was going to be above board.
 
He shrugged. "Well, technically they didn't."
 
I narrowed my eyes at him. "Do they know that you're planning on helping them out?" I asked suspiciously.
 
"They're probably better off not knowing. Wouldn't want them to feel obligated to return the favor." He arched an eyebrow at me. Ranger humor, again.
 
I rolled my eyes. "Ah-hanh." Oh goody! We were muscling in on a federal investigation.
 
He slung an arm over my shoulders. "Come on, let's go upstairs and have dinner, then you can go home and change. We'll leave here around 11pm." I dug my heels in and shot him a look. "Just dinner, I promise." He made a little cross over his heart. I rolled my eyes… again.
 
"Okay, but why do I have to change my clothes? What's the matter with what I'm wearing?" I glanced down at my skirt and heels.
 
"Nothing, but if you sit down and D'Wayne sees those little pink panties of yours, I'm going to have to kill him!" Ranger gave me his full 200 watt smile and laughed as my shriek echoed down the hall. He was still chuckling as he steered me into the elevator.
 
It was 11pm sharp when our caravan left Haywood and headed toward Stark Street. Ranger was in his zone and I mulled over what D'Wayne's information could mean for Joe. The case that the State built against him depended on three key items that they'd use to prove that Joe had the motive, opportunity, and means to kill Abruzzi. They were gonna use me to prove motive, my hospital records to prove opportunity, and of course, they found the friggin' gun at Joe's house. It looked like an open and shut case.
 
I'd scooted past Tank's office on my way to the ladies' room to make a quick pit stop before we left for D'Wayne's and he waved me in.
 
"Hey Bombshell," Tank grinned at me, "Want some good news?"
 
"Hell, yeah! I could use a little happy right about now!" I parked my *** on the edge of his desk.
 
"I got a call from the insurance company."
 
"And …? Stop playing with me Tank or I'll have to hurt you!" That'd scare him!
 
"And … St. Francis faxed them your original records from the night Abruzzi died." Tank held out a copy to me and I jumped up and snatched it out of his hand.
 
According to Mark Cutler, Joe's lawyer, the DA planned to use my hospital records to show that Joe had had the opportunity to kill Abruzzi. Of course, they didn't have my real records, just the one that Tank had 'doctored' so that Rinaldi and Malfitano wouldn't buy my story that I killed Abruzzi. The phony records proved I was innocent, but made Joe look guilty.
 
According to the doctored records, I'd been knocked out cold from pain meds and those records supported the DA's case. Ms. Montenegro, the *****, wanted to prove to the jury that Joe had slipped out of the house while I was asleep, killed Abruzzi, and snuck back in again, all without me knowing it. The thing was, the Coroner had fixed Abruzzi's time of death, and I knew I had still been awake. I could testify that Joe had been with me.
 
So, all we had to do to prove it was get the original records back in the system. Right? No problemo! Ranger and I would just stroll into St. Francis, laugh and tell them a funny story about some well meaning Good Samaritan, who thought they were doing me a favor and hacked into the hospital's system to change all my records. I'm sure they'd see the humor and yuck it up right along with us. Right? Oh sure!
 
So, I did the next best thing. I went into the billing office, whining that my insurance company was giving me a hard time because there was a discrepancy in the records. No mention of hacking Good Samaritans. I kept my fingers crossed that they'd be willing and able to help me out. And sure enough, they did!
 
"Woo-Hoo!" I crowed as I read it. "This confirms that I didn't get any pain meds, only a local!" I ran around Tank's desk, threw my arms around him, and gave him a big wet smack on the cheek. "This is great! We just eliminated one major piece of the State's evidence!" Much to Tank's amusement, I did my happy dance around his office, sing-songing, "I'm gonna wi-in! I'm gonna wi-in!"
 
Tank narrowed his eyes and watched me dance around like a dork. "Am I missing something here?"
 
I stopped in mid butt wiggle and looked at him. "Huh?" Eloquent, I know.
 
"You're gonna win … what?" He eyed me suspiciously.
 
"Oh well, uh … um … Ranger and I have a little contest going over who'll prove Joe innocent first." I applied the KISS rule, keep it simple stupid. Everybody at RangeMan knew that Ranger and I were working together on this. Nobody at RangeMan knew the price Joe was paying, and I wanted to keep it that way.
 
"And the prize would be …?"
 
"No clue!" I said with a palms up, shrug thing. And that was the truth, too. Except for sex, I really didn't know what else Ranger wanted from me. I guess I was gonna have to sit down and ask him one of these days, huh? Probably I should know, so it didn't come as a big shock, just in case I lost. Probably I should come up with some dirty tricks to make sure I didn't. Lose that is. Probably I should get the hell out of there before Tank asked any more questions. So I hot footed it to the ladies' room.
 
The most damaging piece of evidence was the murder weapon, and the DA had the smoking gun … literally. That was our biggest problem. The gun had been collected from Abruzzi's car in the Farmers' Market parking lot when his body was found. The police had been able to trace it back to a private, out of state collection that had been stolen and word on the street had it that D'wayne had fenced the stolen goods for the thief. If we could get him to tell us who bought the gun, maybe, just maybe, that would lead us to the real killer. And if we got the real killer, Joe would be home free.
 
I came back to the here and now when our little caravan pulled to the curb a few doors from D'Wayne's place. Ranger's Mercedes was sandwiched between two RangeMan SUVs filled with Merry Men and weapons and God only knew what else. The street felt weird tonight, but I couldn't put my finger on why. The whole place was always dark and empty, except for the vehicles that belonged to D'Wayne and his crew. All the street lights had been shot out years ago and nobody could pay the power company employees enough to come into this combat zone to replace them.
 
For as dark as the rest of the street was, it looked like broad daylight at D'Wayne's. Every security light in the place was on. There were lights on the roof, on the top of the fence, over the doors, you name it. Music, loud enough to shatter windows, blared out of the building. The security gate was closed and the whole place looked locked up tight. My spidey sense was jangling off the hook but I couldn't tell what was wrong. All the Merry Men were on alert; everybody could tell that something was off.
 
We got out of our vehicles and the guys took up their positions while Ranger and I walked down the street to D'Wayne's. Junior and Zero drove the SUVs, so they stayed behind the wheels with the motors running. Cal and Hal, loaded down with automatic weapons, would come inside with us, and Binkie and Bobby, armed the same way, would take up positions outside. Hector got out of an SUV, winked at me, and disappeared into the dark.
 
"Steph," Ranger stopped before we got to the gate. "I don't like this; it feels hinkey. I want you to stay in the SUV with Zero."
 
I snorted. "No way in hell am I letting you talk to D'Wayne alone, Manoso. If you go in, I go in." And I turned on my heel and marched toward the security gate.
 
Ranger grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back. "I didn't think you'd go for it, but you can't blame me for trying. Look, don't put your hand on your gun unless you're ready to draw it, and don't draw it unless you're ready to pull the trigger. It sounds like party time in there and I don't trust those guys not to be using. They're all trigger happy anyway and I don't want us giving them any reason to start shooting. Somebody pulls a gun, you hit the floor, got it?" I could only nod.
 
Before we left my apartment, Ranger had clipped a holstered 9mm to my belt. It was bigger than my .38 but would pretty much be hidden by my jacket. I have to admit that I normally felt a little silly carrying a gun when I wasn't in a RangeMan uniform or out chasing a skip. But let me tell ya, right now, I was beyond tickled pink to feel the weight of it on my hip.
 
"No dogs," Ranger murmured to me, referring to the pit bulls that were D'Wayne's first line of defense inside the electrified, razor wire topped fence.
 
"Maybe he had them locked up because we were coming?" I said optimistically. Ranger just made a 'hmmm' sound.
 
I pressed the intercom on the gate and after a couple of seconds, the security cameras moved, scanning us, and the gate automatically clicked open. When I had come here by myself, two guys had come out to question me. I'd been patted down and my gun confiscated, a real show of power. Nothing like that happened this time, but I just chalked it up to professional courtesy. Of course, I really couldn't see Ranger allowing anybody, much less D'Wayne's clowns, to search him and take his weapons.
 
We stopped at the front door to get scanned again. The guys flicked the safeties off their weapons and dropped into firing position, one high, one low. Ranger nudged me aside a little so that I wasn't standing directly in the line of fire, and he positioned himself between me and the door. I wondered whether this was some sort of new urban etiquette.
 
The locks clicked and the door opened a couple of inches, but nobody showed up to usher us in. Ranger had his gun in one hand, the other flat on the door. He gave the guys a three count, then shoved it open. The music that was loud before, blasted out at us. Cal found the control panel right inside the door and turned it off, but I swear I could still hear it.
 
The hall was empty and without the music, the whole place was silent. Hal took point, followed by Ranger and Cal, and I brought up the rear. It looked like nobody was home, but somebody had to have unlocked the gate and the front door from the inside to let us in. The hair on the back of my neck was standing at attention and I drew my gun. Believe me, I was more than ready to use it!
 
We made our way down the dimly lit hall, past all the rooms filled with 'merchandise', to D'Wayne's man cave, the office where he kept all his toys. We arranged ourselves on either side of the doorway and Ranger reached over, pounded on the door, and called D'Wayne's name. Two seconds later we heard the unmistakable ratchet of a shotgun and the middle of the door splintered under the blast.
 
Hal shoved me into the nearest room and I hit the floor as ordered. There were more shotgun blasts, crashes and curses, running footsteps and the guys yelling, but thankfully no call of 'RangeMan down!' I started to push myself up off the floor and put my hand into something sticky. Ick! The room was pitch black, so I couldn't see what it was and I wiped my hand on my jeans.
 
A second later, the interior security lights came on and I squinched my eyes shut, the glare momentarily blinding me. When I finally opened my eyes, I found myself looking at a great huge lump of raw meat; the sticky stuff was the blood oozing out of it. My first thought was that it was food for the pit bulls.
 
Then I realized that the lump of raw meat had gold teeth and an eye.
 
I swear to God they heard me screaming in Philadelphia.

StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
May 16, 2012