Always the Last to Know

Chapter 9

“So that’s pretty much it in the main building,” Aaron wrapped up as we stepped onto the elevator once more. He’d spent the last hour or so showing me around Rangeman, pointing out all the important bits that I should know about and introducing me to the men in charge of those particular sections of the company – most of which I already knew, but had to pretend to not know for the sake of my cover.

Not a lot had changed in the six years I’d been gone. Different men were manning different areas, but that was to be expected. From what I understood, Rangeman had a six month rotational management of all the general aspects of the building, such as the gun range, the gym and the main office. This was so that anyone could step in and take over if there was a need. For example, if someone was injured and put on desk duty. You can’t be expected to lug equipment around if you’re on crutches.

“I’d take you over to show you the relief centre across the street, but they’re in the middle of some big structural changes at the moment, so it will have to wait until it’s more safe,” Aaron explained, pressing the button for the fifth floor. “Besides, there’s a meeting we’re expected to be at in ten minutes.”

It had been interesting discussing the company with Aaron. He seemed to know what was going on in every sector, like he was a cover-all guy, used to subbing in for others, so he’d taken it upon himself to keep up to date on all things Rangeman, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Clearly, he wasn’t all that new to the company, but in my view, he would definitely be classed in the newbie section simply because he hadn’t been here six years ago... at least not to my knowledge. I had never really been given the official tour before, nor had I been introduced to all the men. Mostly I just knew the ones that Ranger sent to rescue me.

“How long have you been working here?” I asked, curiously. I may be personifying Kit Danger, but there was still the Stephanie Plum need to fill silences in my blood.

“About six years,” he replied efficiently. Like always, everything these men was efficient. They didn’t waste breath on beating around the bush and being unsure. “Why do you ask?”

I shrugged and adjusted my temporary name badge. I’d been trying to think of a way to ask him about the effects of my – Stephanie Plum – leaving since I’d arrived and this was the best I could come up with. “I was just wondering about something someone said this morning,” I mentioned. When he stayed quiet I took that as my cue to continue. It was just like old times with the Merry Men. “Lester Sa... Sandos? San...”

“Santos,” Aaron provided, needlessly. I knew who I was talking about, and I knew his last name. But Kit didn’t. I had to make sure I didn’t appear to remember everyone’s names right off the bat, unless I could come up with a reason I was so good at name memory. “But it doesn’t matter. There’s only one Lester here,” he added.

“Brilliant,” I enthused. “So, Lester was saying this morning that you don’t hire women.” I paused, thinking of how best to ask the question that had been on my mind. “I was just wondering how true that was, and why.”

Aaron actually looked like he was thinking about it for a moment as we stepped off the elevator and headed down the hall to the conference rooms. “I don’t think we’ve ever employed a woman apart from Ella,” he said, a frown creasing his brow. “At least not while I’ve been here.”

“So I’d be the first?”

“To my knowledge, yes,” Aaron confirmed.

“Lester made it seem like maybe there had been other women but it didn’t end well.”

“You’ll have to ask one of the more senior guys about that,” he said with a shrug as we reached the same conference room I’d been tortured to death with impatience this morning. “I can only tell you what I know.”

I gave him a calculating look. “I thought you were aware of everything that went on around here.” I entered the conference room ahead of him and plonked myself down in one of the chairs around the table.

He retrieved a file folder from an end table at the edge of the room and sat across from me, flipping it open and resting his elbows on the table before spearing me. “I know most of what goes on around here. Now and in the last six years. I can only pry into the past so much before the other guys begin suspecting me of espionage.”

“Right,” I agreed. I could see how that kind of thing would happen. The men always vigilant and if someone started asking more questions than usual, they would definitely be keeping a closer eye on that person, just to be on the safe side. “So who do you suggest I ask? I don’t exactly know who’s senior and who’s not.”

At that moment, I felt a presence behind me. I wanted Aaron to answer my question and give me free range to interrogate someone else, but he’d already transferred his attention to the man in the doorway. Just as I began turning in my chair to find out who was behind me, four men entered and promptly chose seats. They all swivelled in their chairs so that they had a clear view of the door. It was a familiar action, I realised. They used to do it all the time. I just never took that much notice of it. Not surprising, since I was constantly being told to be more aware of my surroundings.

Speaking of being aware of my surroundings.

“Hal, you look like shit,” Aaron announced, catching me off guard.

I spun my chair so I could see the men who’d just sat down more clearly and realised there were two familiar faces. Hank and Hal. Hank looked pretty much the same as when I’d last seen him, but Hal, really did look terrible. I was glad Aaron drew attention to it so I didn’t have to sit here wondering what had happened in his life to make him look so worn. It was helpful to know that he didn’t always look like that.

“Richie has the flu,” Hal yawned, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I was up with him all night.”

Who’s Richie? I wanted to ask, but feared butting. After all, it was my first day.

“Eww,” Aaron uttered, pushing his chair back from the table in an apparent effort to create as much distance between himself and the haggard looking man next to me as possible. “Stay away.”

“Har, har,” Hal said sarcastically beginning to situate his things on the table in front of him. “My son is sick. Not me.” Well, that solved that question.

“You could be a carrier,” Aaron pointed out. He had pulled the neck of his black t-shirt up to cover his nose and mouth, like boys did in middle school when someone farted in class.

I rolled my eyes. This guy was less mature than Lester. Apparently, though, Hal was used to dealing with him, because he simply raised an eyebrow at him. It was the kind of look I imagined he’d give his son when he suspected him of lying or stretching the truth. Oh my God, it just hit me! Hal’s a Daddy! It was a real struggle to keep the grin off my face as I pictured Hal playing soccer with a smaller version of himself in a typical ‘Burg backyard. And sitting up with him when he’s sick! Staying in character as Kit was going to be a lot harder than I’d thought, I realised, squashing the sudden urge to hug the man beside me.

“Seriously,” Aaron said, drawing my attention back reality. “I don’t have time for the flu. Get down the other end.”

“You’ll be fine,” Hal assured him, abruptly turning his attention to the iPad he had in his hands. It seemed like the end of the discussion, so I was expecting someone to just start talking about whatever the hell we were supposed to be talking about.

Boy was I wrong.

“You heard the man,” Tank’s booming voice came from the doorway as he entered. “Nobody has time for the flu. You’re banished to the far end of the table.”

“Oh, come on,” I said, breaking my silence for the first time since the men had entered. I just couldn’t stand the thought of this man who’d helped me out of so many binds in the past, being punished simply because his son – still feels weird to think about it! – was sick and he’d been loving enough to take care of him. “Is that really necessary?”

Tank speared me with meaningful look. “It’s your first day,” he said. “Do you really want to go to the boss asking for time off when you’ve barely started?”

I thought about it for a moment, picturing Ranger’s reaction to the weak woman needing time to deal with being sick. Probably, I wanted to avoid that. “Good point,” I agreed, sliding my chair slightly away from Hal. “I’m Kit, by the way. I’d offer you a hand shake, but I don’t want to come in contact with the germs clinging to you.”

Hal cast me a stony expression, before glancing across the table to Aaron, then to the head of the table where Tank was settling himself. “Everyone’s a comedian,” he muttered, scooping up his things and trudging past Hank and two empty seats to the spot at the foot of the table.

Once Hal was settled, leaning lethargically on his hand with his elbow propped on the surface, Hank leaned across the empty chair now separating us and whispered, “I think you’ll fit in fine here.”

Somehow, that one assurance prompted the men on the other side of the table into a discussion of something that I didn’t quite catch. They were talking so fast that their lips were nothing more than a blur and he words coming out of their mouths – if you could call them words – sounded like a constant buzz, occasionally interrupted by the noise you made when you waggled your finger between your lips and just vocalise. I’d learned to keep up with some fast talkers down in Mexico, both in English and Spanish, but this put those speedy tongues to shame. I almost wished they were speaking Spanish. I was much better at keeping up with fast Spanish than fast English.

All I could do was look on in awe.

“Is that even English?” I asked Hank with a nod to the three men who appeared to be laughing at something they may or may not have said.

“Somewhat,” Hank confirmed. “Aaron and Darren invented their own kind of shorthand language. They say it’s more efficient when they’re in the field. Recently they’ve begun teaching Mal.”

“Right,” Tank said, gaining control of the room with that one word. “I know it sounds very middle school, but since Kit is new, we’re going to go around the room and introduce ourselves. Name. Background. Specialisation. Important details. I’m sure you’ve all been there before. I’ll start.” He paused to make sure we were all listening, which was ridiculous, because no one would dare not pay attention while Tank is talking. “The name is Tank. Only Tank,” he added, with an eye dagger in Aaron’s direction. “I was a Ranger in the army. My specialties are intimidation, hand to hand combat and tactical warfare. I’m second in command at Rangeman.”

“And he likes cats,” Hal added, from his germ bubble a million miles down the table.

“Don’t make me call Bobby and get you put in quarantine,” Tank threatened.

“Who’s Bobby?” I asked.

“Company medic,” Hank explained. “But he’s not important. I’m Hank. I have a masters in engineering. Ten years in the military. I do a lot of tech support when I’m in the building, which is a lot more often since I’ve been put on this project.”

I nodded, sensing he was done, and turned my gaze to Hal at the other end of the table.

“Hal,” he said simply. “But you knew that already. Happily married with two kids. Richie is five and Julian is two. I have a navy background. My specialties are-“

“Snot wiping and vomit bucket disinfecting,” the next guy around the table interrupted. “Nobody’s interested, old man. I’m Mal. Military background, blah blah blah. Specialise in supernatural, but I also have a thing for fire.”

Aaaand that was enough for me from Mal. I abruptly turned my attention to the man I deduced must be Darren. “Darren, what about you?” I asked, hoping he had something to wipe Mal from my mind. “Let me guess, you were in the military?”

“Actually no,” Darren said, leaning back in his chair. “Ranger caught me breaking and entering and converted me to the light side. Apparently he’d been keeping tabs on me for a while and thought I would be an asset to his company. Who would have thought that I’d be an upstanding member of the community? Anyway, I’m on this team ‘cos I spent half my childhood in homeless shelters and relief centres. Tank thinks I can give some much needed insight into what people need and stuff.”

“And you’ve already heard Aaron’s life story,” Tank ended the meet and greet section of our meeting. “What about you, Kit?”

I know I should have been prepared for the tables to turn, but in my head I found myself repeating their names over and over. There was something about the combination that struck me as odd. “You all have rhyming names,” I blurted, forgetting my Kit-Danger-doesn’t-blurt-things-out-randomly policy. “Tank and Hank. Hal and Mal. Aaron and Darren.” I looked to Tank. “Was that planned? Cos if it was, I demand to have a rhyming buddy.”

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