What I Did For Love - Chapter 20

Chapter 20: A Spark of Love!
 
When you fish for love, bait with your heart, not your brain.
Mark Twain
 
I'm not gonna whinge and whine about it, but the whole D'Wayne drama was pretty disgusting and I didn't handle it real well. I tried to get up off the floor, to get away from the awful mass of meat and gore, but I kept slipping in the blood and brain matter. I was up on all fours, trying to crawl away when one of the Merry Men, I'm not really sure who 'cause I only saw his boots, got me out of there. He wrapped an arm around my waist, hoisted me up like a sack and carted me right out the door, plunking me down around the side of the building with me still shrieking like a banshee.
 
I really don't know what made me stop screaming. Probably it was because you can't scream and barf your guts out at the same time. But RangeMan was like the Boy Scouts on steroids, they were always prepared ... for everything. Bottles of water and alcohol wipes and paper towels magically appeared to clean up my hands and rinse my mouth. Somebody even handed me a breath mint. I felt rocky, but at least I was standing on my own two feet. And I wasn't screaming my head off. Anymore.
 
Ranger came out to check on me and tried to talk me into letting Zero take me home. Oh man, was that ever tempting. But I knew I needed to stick it out right there with all the guys. I had a tough time convincing myself that this was a coincidence, and my brain was running a mile a minute. Who unlocked the gate and door to let us in? Who killed D'Wayne and his crew? They were slaughtered just before we showed up. Was it an inside job? Did somebody know we were coming? Were we supposed to be targets, too? Was the shooter waiting for us? A million questions ran through my head.
 
A couple of the guys had taken off after the gunman and a couple stayed to search the building in case there was somebody hiding inside. All the guys, me included, were wearing the high tech mics and earpieces we used on distractions and Ranger called for a rendezvous. In less than two minutes, everybody assembled around us.
 
"Did you find him? Did you get the shooter?" I knew the answer just by looking at the grim faces of the Merry Men.
 
"No. He went down an alley and just disappeared. Looks like he had an escape route planned out ahead of time," Hector informed us.
 
I tipped my head toward the building. "They're all dead, aren't they?" I know … dumb question.
 
Bobby nodded. "D'Wayne, four of his guys and one of the dogs. All taken out with a shotgun." We'd all heard it ratchet before D'Wayne's office door exploded and I shuddered at the thought. "Sawed-off from the looks of the scatter pattern," he added.
 
"What about the rest of the dogs? Any sign of them?" I asked the group.
 
"No," Cal answered me. "Their crates are all in the basement, all empty. No sign of their handler, either."
 
"You think he was the shooter?" Hal asked.
 
"Doubt it. Can't see him shooting his own dog," Cal said thoughtfully. "He was the one who was so worried about them last time we were here." Cal was right; that guy had been way too concerned about his animals to shoot one down like that. I was pretty sure the guy's name was Antoine, and said so.
 
"Look, we don't know if we interrupted the shooter, or if he knew we were coming and was waiting for us, or even if there was more than one man," Ranger said to the guys, "so watch your backs. I don't think anybody around here called the cops, but you hear sirens, we're gone." Everybody nodded in agreement.
 
"We run one sweep through of the whole place, top to bottom. Take anything that even looks like it can provide info, phones, discs, computers … you know the drill," Ranger instructed. "Hector, look for a safe or some kind of hidey-hole where D'Wayne could have stashed records or tapes. I'm thinking he hedged his bets and had a little dirt on everybody he did business with."
 
I looked around at the guys. "Isn't that like … evidence tampering or something?" That brought a round of chuckles at my naiveté.
 
Hal clamped a heavy paw on my shoulder. "The cops aren't going to be doing a whole lot of investigation on this one, Steph. Even if they wanted to, they wouldn't get any cooperation from the locals. Nobody is going to risk their own skin for a sick piece of **** like D'Wayne." He realized he'd cursed in front of me. "S'cuse me," he mumbled and even in the dark I could see his face turn red.
 
"Okay then." No cops … that changed everything. "Is there any way we can find out who let us in?" I told you my mind was racing. "Is there an internal security system? One with monitors, like RangeMan?" I looked back and forth between the guys.
 
Ranger's lips tipped up a little at the corners. "Good thought, Steph, but the discs are gone. I'm thinking the shooter grabbed them. We probably interrupted his clean up."
 
"Too bad we don't have time to fingerprint the place," Hal said and looked toward the front door a little wistfully. Who would have thought that great big, lumbering, Halosaurus would turn out to have the gentle touch of a world-class fingerprint expert? He heaved a sigh and trudged back into the building.
 
"How about out here?" I pointed to the security cameras at the gate and on the fence. "Is this one of those security systems that has tapes from the video cameras, like convenience stores have?" I asked.
 
Bobby nodded his head. "This system goes straight to DVD." He patted one of the pockets in his flack vest and grinned at me. "The shooter missed these."
 
"How about D'Wayne's cell phone and lap top? We could check the calls and have Lester dump the LUDs." Ranger cocked an eyebrow at me.
 
"Have you been studying up on investigative technique in your spare time?" Ranger tugged a lock of my hair. "I'm impressed."
 
"Don't be," I said with a sigh. "It just means that I've spent too many nights sitting in front of the TV." Ranger thought about smiling and slung his arm around my neck. "You okay with going back inside?"
 
"Just peachy!" I said brightly, trying to sound brave and determined when all I really wanted to do was run like hell in the opposite direction. Good thing my stomach was already empty.
 
"That's my girl!" He pressed a kiss into my hair and we walked back into the House of Horrors.
 
It turned out that the stuff that we collected from D'Wayne's really paid off for us. There were a couple of text messages on his phone from Antoine about the dogs; they were at the vet's. Antoine was in jail on some minor charge, waiting to be bonded out. Probably that saved his life. Lester dumped the LUDs on D'Wayne's phone and came up with a bunch of calls to and from a phone in the State Building, but hadn't found out whose phone it was, or what office it was in.
 
According to Ranger, D'Wayne's lap top held a real treasure trove of all kinds of stuff from searches to maps and emails, along with a huge number of music and **** downloads. I'm pretty sure Ranger was being sarcastic about the treasure trove part. Apparently D'Wayne had never met the 'delete' key on his computer, so there was a ton of crap to wade through. Ranger volunteered himself to take care of that particular chore, and since he was super-duper computer literate while I was … well, not, I had no problem letting him handle that job.
 
Ranger and I decided that if somebody from the State Building had been calling D'Wayne on a regular basis, we needed to find out who that somebody was, and if they were connected to our investigation at all. Chances were it wouldn't lead to anything, but it just might give us a clue to who killed D'Wayne, or why. So it was worth the effort to find out whose phone it was.
 
Granted, people in D'Wayne's line of work generally didn't last very long, and not just in the business, I meant in life. We really needed to find out if his death, just minutes before he was going to tell us who had bought the gun that killed Abruzzi, was a coincidence … or not. If not, we really, really needed to know how the hit man found out D'Wayne was going to give up the name of the buyer to us.
 
I decided that tracking down that telephone in the State Building was right up my alley. After all, all I had to do was call the number and ask whoever answered who they were and what department they were in. Right? Piece of cake! Okay, so I should have known it wouldn't be that easy.
 
The first couple of times I called, the phone just rang and rang. Finally, somebody picked up and told me I was calling a pay phone. Naturally, they hung up before I could ask where the phone was located and when I called back, again nobody answered. Figured, didn't it?
 
I was sure that Lester would have known a real simple way to pin point where that pay phone was, probably by sweet talking some female employee at the phone company. But he was out on a job and there was no telling when he'd be back, and we all knew I wasn't really good at waiting around for anything.
 
So off I went to the State Building, a twelve story monstrosity located in the heart of downtown. I was on a mission to find that phone. I mean, how hard could it be to locate a pay phone? I put on comfy shoes, grabbed a bottle of water, and prepared to hoof it through the halls.
 
I parked my car in the underground garage and worked my way up. I had a plan of attack all worked out. I'd get off the elevator and stand at the end of the hallway, dial the number, and listen. Sounded like a great idea, right? By the time I hit the third floor the halls were getting crowded and noisy. I wound up walking the whole long length of the corridor, dialing the number and listening for a ringing phone. By the sixth floor I was already pooped and muttering curses under my breath, but on seven I finally hit pay dirt. I practically sprinted down the hall to the phone. Yup, I had found it! Hurray for me!
 
I was busy congratulating myself when my spidey-sence started to tingle. Not that the place really looked different or anything, because every hall on every floor looked exactly the same, but I had the strange feeling I'd been there before. I couldn't explain it, but the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up and this weird fight or flight sensation came over me, really creeping me out. I immediately glanced around, looking for whatever threat it was that set me off.
 
Then I noticed the lettering on the door directly across the hall from the phone and I found it ... the threat, that is. I was standing in front of the division of the Attorney General's office where Rinaldi and Malfitano had their office. Ugh! They were the last people I ever wanted to see again, well, Malfitano, at least. If I was truthful about it, it was more than just disliking him. The man scared the hell out of me. I made a quick note of the other offices on the floor and beat feet back to the elevator as fast as I could.
 
I paced in front of the bank of elevators and hopped on the first one that opened, instantly feeling better, safer. Of course, the damn thing went all the way up to the top floor and my stomach did that funny jolt that happens when you go the opposite way from what you expected. On the trip back down, elevator stopped on seven again and the doors slid open. I had a clear view of somebody talking on that pay phone. It only took a second for me to recognize that that somebody was my buddy, Detective Malfitano. And the wheels in my head started to turn.
 
I'm sure that Ranger would have told me that he smelled something burning. Those wheels weren't just turning, they were in overdrive … never a good thing. It was like my brain was going so fast that I couldn't seem to latch onto the thoughts as they whizzed through my head.
 
Malfitano was using that phone, he was in charge of the evidence collected at Joe's house, he had access to the evidence locker. Could he have planted the gun in Joe's basement? Could he be the one who bought the gun from D'Wayne? Could he have killed D'Wayne and his men? Did he know that I had been there? Would he come after me next? I could feel the hysteria bubbling up in my chest.
 
As if he read my mind, Malfitano turned and looked directly at me, recognition registering in his eyes. He slammed down the phone and headed for the elevator. I watched him run down the hall toward me and I shrank back into the corner, ducking behind the other people in the car as if I could get away from him. The doors closed right before he reached them and I heard him hit the wall with his fist and let loose a string of curses.
 
Could Malfitano have known from the expression on my face, just put two and two together? Could he somehow know that I figured out what he'd done? Oh my God! It could have been him all along! What if he killed Abruzzi and then set Joe up to take the fall? What if he slaughtered D'Wayne and his men because they could link him to the gun? If he knew that I knew, then my life wasn't worth diddly squat. I had to get the hell out of there as fast as I could.
 
Adrenaline pumping, I flew out of the elevator on the garage level like I'd been shot out of a cannon, and raced to my car. I beeped the locks open when I was still an aisle away, so focused on escaping from Malfitano that I never even noticed the guy who was lurking behind one of the support columns until it was almost too late.
 
The guy wore a hoodie, pulled so far down that his face was covered and he held his hands up to stop me. I swerved around him and kept on going. The last thing I needed right now was a mugger.
 
Over the thudding of my own heart I heard him whisper, "Hey, lady … lady…" and he caught up with me and grabbed my arm.
 
I yelped and spun around to face him. Backing up toward my car, I fisted my key ring in my hand, the keys stuck out between my fingers like Wolverine's claws. They made a good weapon and I was ready to use them. For once I really wished I had my gun; I sure wouldn't have had any problem pulling it.
 
"Shut up, lady, I ain't gunna hurt cha!" He flattened his back against the big support column, not trying to get any closer to me.
 
He pushed back the hoodie and when I looked at him more closely, my eyes almost popped out of my head. It was Antoine. I didn't exactly relax, but from the expression on his face, I could tell he was more scared than I was.
 
"I seen you at D'Wayne's. You that Rangeman's woman," he stage whispered to me and peeked around the column like he was afraid he was being followed. I knew the feeling.
 
I wasn't about to argue the finer points of my relationship with Ranger, at least not with Antoine, so I just nodded. "What are you doing here?" Was he following me too?
 
"Been up to Public Defenders." I knew it was on the same floor as Rinaldi and Malfitano's office. "Seen you get on the elevator. That cop chasing ya?"
 
"I don't know," I said cautiously. "Maybe." I eyed him, praying that he wouldn't make a move. "What do you want?"
 
"It what I don' want," he was constantly scanning the garage. "I don' wanna be dead," he hissed, finally looking at me. "I know wha' happen ta D'Wayne."
 
"Yeah, so?" Okay so I'm trying to be cool but I needed to hurry this along. I didn't exactly have time to chat and I edged toward my car, still worried that Malfitano would appear at any second.
 
"I got in-fo-ma-tion dat yo' want," he said slyly.
 
"About?"
 
"You was askin' D'Wayne who bought dat gun, right?"
 
"Right." Okay, so I was channeling Ranger.
 
"I be willin' ta tell you." He waited a beat. "Fo' a price."
 
What was it with men and prices? "And that price would be …?" The elevator door dinged open. I forgot to be afraid of Antoine and hugged the column with him. I didn't know who Antoine was worried about, but I was relieved when a clutch of people got off, none of them Malfitano.
 
Antoine blew out a breath. "You get yo' man to help me an' my dogs get outta Trenton an' get home, an' I tell you wha' yo' wanna know."
 
"How do I know you're not bull ******** me?"
 
"Cause I don't tell you da truth, yo' man kill me," he said impatiently. "It don' mattah who pull da triggah, I still wind up dead."
 
"Where's home?"
 
"Baltimore. Shoulda never left."
 
"I'll talk to him. How do I get in touch with you?"
 
"You don't. I call you."
 
I dug around in my purse and pulled out my bounty hunter business card. It had my cell phone number on it and I handed it to him.
 
Antoine looked at it and gave me a cocky grin. "I knew I knew you. You dat bombshell *****, aintcha?"
 
I looked at him with as much bravado as I could muster. "And don't you forget it!"
 
The sound of the elevator opening made all my bravery disappear and we both plastered ourselves against the support column again. I did a quick head bop peek around the side of it and immediately slid down to the floor. ****! Malfitano and Rinaldi had gotten off the elevator and were looking around the garage. Probably Malfitano wouldn't hurt me in front of Rinaldi, but I couldn't take that chance. I tried to figure out how to get to my car without them seeing me.
 
Antoine stared at me, then looked around the column to see what had freaked me out so much. He went rigid, then followed me right down to the floor. "******' ****, oh ****, oh **** …" He rocked back and forth a little, clearly panicked. "I'm a dead man!" he muttered. Oh ****! Antoine must be afraid of Malfitano too!
 
We huddled together at the base of the column, listening to their footsteps echoing across the garage, coming right toward us. Antoine actually went pale, his eyes darting around looking for an escape route. I wanted to ask him why he was so scared, but we needed to be quiet so we didn't give ourselves away.
 
A big passenger van pulled into the garage, cruising up and down the aisles looking for a parking spot. As it passed by us, Antoine seized the moment. He snatched the car keys out of my hand and leaped behind the van, using it as cover. He made it over to my car and in nothing flat he hopped in, started it up, and squealed up the nearest exit ramp, leaving me there like a sitting duck. Gone in sixty seconds! Less, actually.
 
Son of a *****! If I ever laid my hands on that chicken ****, he wouldn't have to worry about whoever got to D'Wayne … I was gonna kill him … dead! I couldn't yell or run after him, I couldn't even breathe hard without attracting attention to myself. I just gritted my teeth and hunkered down behind the nearest car so I could peek through the windows to keep track of where the Malfitano and Rinaldi were headed.
 
The van pulled into the parking spot vacated by my newly stolen car and about a dozen laughing, chattering women poured out of it. Nobody seemed to notice when I attached myself to the happy group and positioned myself as far away as I could from the two men I was trying to avoid. We all strolled companionably toward the elevator. I ducked my head so that if the detectives looked in my direction, they wouldn't see my face and it wasn't until my chest started to ache that I realized I was holding my breath.

 
When we got to the elevator I slowly eased away from the group and slipped through the door to the stairway. Charging up the steps two at a time, I burst out onto the big open first floor and dove into the nearest ladies' room, locking myself in a stall. With shaking hands I pulled out my cell phone but, as my luck would have it, the damn thing was dead. I guess I'd run down the battery by calling that pay phone a million times. I resisted the urge to flush the useless POS!
 
Trying not to look obvious, I took a deep, calming breath and slunk out of the bathroom. Edging my way over to the Information Booth, I asked the uniformed police officer who manned the desk for the nearest pay phone. He looked at me funny as he pointed it out. I guess I really couldn't blame him. I must have looked a little wild-eyed and twitchy from waiting for Malfitano to leap out at me. The cop probably thought I was a junkie.
 
Ranger answered before the phone finished its first ring. "Jesus Christ, Stephanie, are you all right? Where are you?" I was surprised at how rough his voice was, how tense he sounded. If I hadn't known him better I would have said he was worried about me.
 
"Yeah, just a little freaked, is all. I'm at the State Building," I whispered. I didn't tell him I was plastered to the wall, trying to be invisible. "I have a little problem and I need somebody to come pick me up, quick!"
 
"We're already on our way, ETA is 4 minutes. How come your phone goes directly to voice mail?" he asked. "You had us all worried."
 
So he was worried. But how did he know I was in trouble? "I'm sorry, my phone's dead," I said with a sigh. "Why'd you call? What's going on?"
 
"The tracker in your pen gives us the State Building as your location, but the GPS device attached to your car went off the grid when it went into the river under the Route 1 Bridge. I was a little concerned that you were in it when it went for a swim," he said dryly.
 
I had to wonder if Antoine was the one swimming. "No, I'm fine. But … um … my car got stolen! Well, sorta."
 
There was a long pause. "How does a car get 'sort of' stolen?"
 
Ranger sounded different, clearer somehow. I heaved a sigh. "Long story. I was …" and a hand reached around me, took the phone away from me, and hung it up. I spun around, my hand balled into a fist, fully prepared to fight Malfitano who I just knew was standing behind me. Instead I found myself ready to take on Ranger and Binkie and Manny. My breath whooshed out of me and my knees almost buckled in relief.
 
If Ranger hadn't wrapped his arms around me and hugged me to his chest, I probably would have landed on the floor. "I can feel your heart pounding, Babe," he said, his cheek pressed into my hair. "What are you so scared of?"
 
I dragged in a ragged breath and didn't bother to wait for my heart rate to drop out of the stratosphere. I just pulled Ranger by the arm and tried to haul him toward the main entrance. "First off, we really need to get out of here! Fast!" I urged, looking around to see if I could spot Malfitano and trying not to sound hysterical. "Boy! Do I have a lot to tell you!"
 
The guys had to hustle to keep up with me as I practically ran out the front door, down the steps and out to the street. I swear I didn't breathe until I climbed into the RangeMan SUV that sat idling at the curb … in the no standing zone of course. Even the cop walking the block ticketing vehicles parked or standing in the tow-away zone acted as if the great big, shiny black SUV was invisible.
 
Ranger got behind the wheel and immediately slipped into his driving zone, listening while I babbled away, filling him and the Merry Men in on my afternoon's fun and games. Ranger and I had a strategy for situations like this one, where I was all worked up like that. He let me spew, get it all out of my system, spill everything I knew, and when I finally ran out of steam, he'd ask questions.
 
This time though, when I told him about Antoine stealing my car, Ranger held up one finger. It was like hitting my 'Pause' button. He pulled out his phone and put in a call to Hector, telling him to get over to my apartment and change the locks, just in case Antoine hadn't taken that swan dive into the river with my car.
 
Leave it to a security expert to zero in on the fact that Antoine had all my keys and could invite himself into my apartment anytime he pleased. That thought had never even crossed my mind. In the broad scheme of things that I had to worry about, that one never even got added to my list.
 
By the time I finished telling him everything, we were parked under the Route 1 Bridge, and I'd gotten strict orders to hunker down and stay put in the vehicle. I watched while Ranger and the guys joined Bobby, Zero, and Woody, and a bunch of cops who were all scanning the river, trying to spot my car, I guess. Ranger must have told the Merry Men that I was safe because all three suddenly seemed to relax a little. Bobby looked over and gave me a wink, and Woody made a kissy face in my direction when nobody was looking. Zero just rolled his eyes at Woody.
 
I heard sirens approaching and a rescue unit pulled up close to the water. A couple of guys got out and started suiting up in diving gear, getting ready to go into the river to search for the car and its driver. I sure didn't want anybody thinking that that driver was me; after all, if anyone went into the drink with the car, it was Antoine. On the way back to Haywood I used Ranger's cell phone to call 911 and report that my car had been stolen.
 
Ranger dropped me and the guys off at the office, telling me that he had some things to take care of and he'd be back in a little while. I immediately started running a background check on Malfitano. Rinaldi, the Special Prosecutor *****, the judge, the DA … and anybody else I could think of, would get searches done on them, too. I had done a bang up job of digging out every little insignificant detail of every aspect of the lives of all the bad guys involved in our investigation. But I was kicking myself that it never dawned on me that I should be investigating the people who were supposed to be the good guys, too, the ones who were supposed to be on the side of law and order. I was determined to correct that mistake ASAP.
 
"Steph …"
 
"Hmmm?" I was pouring over the initial background search on Malfitano.
 
Ranger reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. "Steph …"
 
I almost jumped out of my skin when he touched me. "Oh, you're back. That was fast." Then I realized that it was dark outside and I'd been sitting here for hours. "Guess I was pretty caught up in this." I held up the report I was reading.
 
Ranger pulled up a chair so that we were practically sitting knee to knee and took both my hands in his. Uh-oh! This wasn't gonna be good. He hesitated a minute, like he was gathering his thoughts and choosing his words carefully. "I want you to know that you don't have to be afraid of Malfitano anymore," he said softly, rubbing his thumbs over the backs of my hands. "He's not a threat. He's not going to hurt you. You're never going to see him again."
 
My eyes widened as his words sank in and I swear my heart stopped beating. "Oh my God!" I breathed. "You killed him!" It was a statement, not a question.
 
Now let me tell you, it's not easy to surprise Ranger, but I had just managed to shock the **** out of him. Ranger's head snapped up and his eyes locked on mine. "What? No!" He looked at me like I was demented. "Why would you think I killed him?"
 
Okay, stupid, Stephanie! I blushed furiously and stumbled over my words. "Well … I … you … you said … in Belmar … and I thought … N-Never mind." I swear that jumping to conclusions is the only exercise I get, that's why I'm so good at it. I flapped my hands. "Just forget I said that … please? I'm sorry…" I covered my bright red face with my hands.
 
When he didn't say anything, I peeked at him through my fingers. He was shaking with silent laughter, a full 200 watt smile on his face. He pulled my hands away from my face and laughingly brushed his lips across mine. "You never disappoint, Babe." Just swell! I was amusing him again!
 
I tried to jump up but Ranger hauled me onto his lap and clamped his arms around me. "My fault," he chuckled. I guess I really tickled his funny bone. Not that I knew he had one. "I should have just told you that I went and had a little chat with Detective Malfitano."
 
"A chat is going to make him leave me alone? What exactly did you say to him?" I narrowed my eyes suspiciously.
 
"I told him that you, and your happiness and peace of mind, were very important to me. I explained to him that if anything happened to you, anything at all … if your car blew up, if you got unwanted visitors, if you broke a fingernail … I would come looking for him and it wouldn't be pretty when I found him."
 
I searched Ranger's face for any sign that he was making fun of me, but he was serious. "Wow!" was all I could think of to say. "Um … I'm sorry about that little … misunderstanding."
 
"You know," he said as he put his hand on my cheek and ran his thumb over my lips, "I always knew you weren't exactly a 'say it with flowers and candy' kind of girl."
 
I snorted. "But what? You just never realized you could say it with a dead body?"
 
"And this is why I love you," he said, kissing me hard and fast.
 
"So I'm important to you, huh?" I know, I know … I was fishing. I asked for it. "How come?"
 
He lifted me off his lap, handed me my purse, and pulled me toward the door. "Well for one thing, it's important to me that you're alive and kicking so that when I win our little bet, you can pay off!" and the *** grinned at me!
 
I swear my eyes bugged right out of my head and my jaw hit the floor! "Oh you big jerk!" I yelled at him, waving my arms. "You just had to go and ruin it, didn't you?" He really pissed me off and I saw red! I totally forgot all my training and swung a roundhouse punch at him. Of course I missed him completely and just spun myself in a circle, adding to my humiliation.
 
Ranger just smiled and shook his head. He bent down, wrapped his arms around the back of my thighs and lifted me up, tossing me over his shoulder. He lugged me to the elevator while I beat on his back with my fists.
 
"Come on Slugger, I'll give you a ride home and if you stop yelling, I'll even buy you dinner. Name your poison. What'll it be? Boneless, skinless boiled chicken and brown rice? Egg white omelet and plain, fat free yogurt? Bark and twigs?" More Ranger humor, what a side splitter. Except that he was probably serious.
 
But I had to give it to the man. Ranger certainly knew how to bribe me and I finally wound up forgiving him for being such an ***. And yes, I know I'm easy. But how could I not give in? We'd decided on the Route 1 Diner so we could both find something on the menu that we'd eat, and he ordered me a slice of chocolate cream pie and a piece of devil's food cake, with ice cream … and hot fudge! He may be a jerk, but at least he wasn't a stupid jerk.
 
I had polished off my bacon cheeseburger and onion rings and had just started on the cake when my cell phone rang. Antoine calling! Knowing that he had some valuable information that we wanted, had gone right to his brainless little head, and we all know that a little power is a dangerous thing. The only trouble was that Antoine had forgotten that he was the one in danger.
 
Antoine decided to up the ante and he tried to milk the deal for all it was worth. The cocky son of a ***** gave me a whole long list of additional demands that I relayed to Ranger, around mouthfuls of devil's food and hot fudge. Antoine wanted a safe house in Baltimore, a female bodyguard, a new car, a driver, new clothes, money, girls, drugs, you name it! He obviously had no idea who he was dealing with, but Ranger was about to educate him.
 
Ranger listened, chewing his naked salad thoughtfully, then took my phone, told Antoine that he could have whatever he wanted … as soon as he brought me back my car, and then Ranger hung up. He grinned at me, ticked off five seconds on his fingers, and my phone rang. Needless to say, it was Antoine, who fell all over himself telling me how very sorry he was for taking my car and leaving me in a lurch. He even thanked Ranger for his offer of transportation to Baltimore for him and his dogs. Talk about an attitude adjustment!
 
Ranger quickly dispatched Tank and Ram to pick up Antoine and bring him to Haywood for safe keeping until arrangements could be made to get him to Baltimore safely. At least we wouldn't have to worry about Antoine disappearing.
 
Since I was car-less, again, Ranger drove me, and my piece of chocolate cream pie, home. He did his usual armed walk through of my apartment, looking for stalkers, psychos, dead bodies or any unpleasant surprises that might be waiting for me. He checked that my windows were locked, pulled the shades, then leaned against the living room wall, looking around the place.
 
"Looks good," he said. "Very different from when you were here before." It was the first time he'd really been here since I'd moved back in.
 
"Yeah, it does, doesn't it? Thanks to you, it looks like a grown up lives here!" He and some of the Merry Men had liberated my few pieces of furniture from Joe's house, and Ranger had been responsible for filling in all the blank spaces in between the dining room set and the coffee table. He hadn't gone shopping for the furniture himself, but he did have the store deliver all the same furnishings that were in the apartments on the fourth floor.
 
"My pleasure." He looked at me and arched an eyebrow. "I still remember your death cootie contaminated couch sitting out in the hall." He shook his head. "And that lumpy mattress." I felt my face turn red.
 
I remembered it too, and the night Ranger had collected on the de Chooch deal. It wasn't a topic I wanted to discuss, now or ever, so I changed the subject, not very gracefully though.
 
"You know how they say that you never really appreciate what you have until you don't have it anymore?" He nodded slowly. "Well, that works the other way around, too," I said softly. "You don't really know what you're missing until you finally have something, and then realize that you don't know how you ever lived without it."
 
He nodded again and took hold of my hand. "I learned that lesson a while ago," he said, sounding almost sad and I suddenly had the feeling that we weren't talking about furniture anymore. I watched his face as he lifted my hand and kissed the palm then curled my fingers over the kiss, but his face didn't give away his emotions like mine did.
 
We stood like that for a minute, then he shook his head like he was clearing it and he handed me my new keys. I had two shiny new dead bolts and a floor lock, a small metal rod that I could flip with my foot and it slid into a hole in the floor, preventing the door from opening even if the deadbolts were unlocked.
 
"Gee," I said brightly, looking at the floor lock, "I guess you're not going to be able to break in anymore, huh?" I was trying to lighten the mood.
 
Ranger gave me his wolf grin. "I wouldn't bet money on that if I were you."
 
He pushed off the wall and backed me into the foyer and against the door, his hands splayed on my ribs. Bending, he brushed a light kiss across my lips and whispered, "You should know by now that nothing stops me from getting what I want." He slid one arm around my back, the other around my waist, pulled me against his chest and kissed me senseless. His hand slid down to my *** and he pressed me flush against him, demonstrating exactly what it was that he wanted. God help me, I wanted it too.
 
When he finally let me go, I was so dizzy and breathless that I had to put a hand on the wall to steady myself. He was halfway out the door and he turned. "I think you and I should take Antoine to Baltimore ourselves. That's where Abruzzi's family lives; we can check them out while we're down there. Pack enough for a couple of days, we'll leave tomorrow night."
 
"Oh, okay," I mumbled a little dumbly, still not recovered from that kiss.
 
"We're going to use aliases, so be sure to leave all of your ID home. Bobby will have a whole new set for you tomorrow morning."
 
"So what are our names gonna be?"
 
"Marc and Samantha."
 
"I like Sam. What's my last name?"
 
"Same as mine."
 
"Huh?"
 
"Mr. and Mrs. Marc Pardo. We'll be on our honeymoon." He gave me a full 200 watt-er and was gone before I could move.
 
I was gonna kill him!
StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
May 16, 2012