The meeting lasted little more
than twenty minutes once we got the introductions out of the way. Really, all
that happened was an overview of what had been done to the building so far to
make it fit for its new purpose, what would be happening in the coming days and
weeks, and where we were on organising everything else to do with the centre,
which wasn’t much. The official side of thins was covered, permits attained,
proposals lodged, correspondence with council members and other community
respite centres around Trenton begun in order to raise awareness of the coming
addition. As for equipment and other important things like the type and amount
of care we would be providing, things were very much up in the air.
As the men were winding down the meeting, debating the merits of meeting again in the morning or leaving it until Wednesday, or possibly next week. I snagged a sheet of paper from the yellow legal pad Hank had resting beside his iPad, and started a list. I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of facilities Tank and Ranger had in mind, but I had some ideas for what we could include. I was so absorbed by listing possibilities that I didn’t even notice that the men had left until Tank was clicking his fingers in front of my face.
“Hmm?” I hmmed, looking up from my page.
“How was that?” Tank asked, peering down at me and my barely legible list. “Handle it okay?”
“Fine,” I assured him. “I’m just a bit concerned about Aaron, Darren and Mal. Mal in particular. Are they always like that?”
“Pretty much,” he nodded. “They’re misfits around the office, but give them an order and you bet your bottom dollar they’ll carry it out to the letter. Darren is especially conscientious, being one of the few employees without military training. It took him a while to fall into line, but we’ve disciplined him, and despite never having been formally trained, he has some very useful skills.”
I nodded my understanding, laying down my pen. “And Mal,” I started. “Is he really...”
“That kid is a wild card. To be honest he’s on probation. Ranger gave him an opportunity because he’s Junior’s cousin’s step nephew. Junior had to beg for this one last chance for the guy last week. If Mal puts so much as a tow out of line, he’s gone.”
“So is he the prankster sort? Or the doesn’t-recognise-when-the-limit-has-been-reached sort?”
“Put it this way,” Tank said, running a hand over his bald head. “Don’t mention the possibility of a zombie apocalypse anywhere in the building or around the guys, especially within earshot of Mal.”
“He tried to instigate an action plan, didn’t he?” I questioned, the task of organising the relief centre all but driven from my mind. “How long has he managed to stay here?”
“Two months,” he said gravely, “We’re hoping that by putting him on this community centre project he’ll realise that some people have more immediate problems than the possibility of zombies taking over earth and eating everyone’s brains.”
“I can understand why,” I said, glancing down at my list. “So what do I do now? I assume I need to jump through some more hoops before I’m officially on board the Rangeman train. This is just a trial shift, after all.”
“That’s really just a formality. Ranger wouldn’t give anyone a trial shift unless he was certain they were the right man for the job.”
“Or woman,” I corrected. I’d already had to deal with sexism from one Merry Man today, and he hadn’t gotten away with it, I wasn’t about to let things slide now.
Tank nodded, and there was a twinkle in his eye, but he said nothing. Moments like these made me wish I had ESP so I could know what was going on inside his head. I wasn’t about to ask about it now, in case someone walked in on us and my cover was blown, but it was a very mischievous glint that I was unused to seeing there. I made a mental note to ask about it later tonight when we weren’t surrounded by cameras and men with the hearing of a dog.
“I should show you to your cubicle so you can get started on that proposal,” he finally said, gesturing to my list as he stood and tucked his iPad mini into his cargo pocket. I wonder what else he kept in there?
“Proposal?” I asked, confused. “It’s just a list of ideas.”
“Yes,” Tank agreed. “and they’re very good ideas. Exactly what we need. So you’re going to write up a proposal and submit it to me, following all the official channels and protocols like you remember from business school,” he spelled it out for me. “I’m sure you can knock it over in an hour. If not you can get back to it after you’re meeting with Ella. I expect it in my inbox by the time I sit down at my desk tomorrow morning so I can go over it before my meeting with Ranger at nine.”
I was sat on Tank’s sofa in my pyjamas, browsing dismal housing options online with Geraldine curled against my thigh when I heard a key in the lock, followed by a couple of clomping footsteps, a pair of boots being kicked off and shoved under the side table and socked feet continuing down the hall. It was almost eight o’clock, so I’d been home for about two and a half hours at this point. My host, however, had been called to a break in as I was leaving work and was just now getting in.
“There’s a meatball sub in the kitchen if you want it,” I called out. I’d had a hankering for a Pino’s sub by the time I’d finished my proposal, so I’d called in a to go order and picked them up on my way home.
Appearing in public as Kit Danger for the first time had made me almost as nervous as my interview with Ranger. My palms were slippery on the wheel as I steered deftly through the streets I’d learned to drive on until I reached the parking lot of the Burg’s best pizza place. I parked in the darkest corner of the lot and gave myself a nice little pep talk as I made my way to the entrance. I’d finally managed to convince myself that no one would be paying any attention to me, so it should be a piece of cake to just walk in, pay for my food and leave when I spotted a group of off-duty cops I knew through the window. Amongst them were Eddie, Carl, Big Dog and none other than Joseph Morelli.
He looked okay. Healthy, at least. His hair was too long, just like always, and there looked to be about three days of beard shadowing his jaw. That was all I noticed in the brief inspection I allowed myself as I passed by three tables away on my way to the counter. If I stared too long or hard he was bound to notice. And any close inspection could lead to my discovery. If the Trenton Police Department knew it was me, it would only be a matter of minutes before it was all over the Burg. And once the Burg knew, everyone knew.
The aim of the game was to fly under the radar, so I kept my gaze on the counter until I’d reached it and received my food, then I did an about face and focused on the door.
In the car on the way to Tank’s place I’d congratulated myself on a job well done while trying not to hyperventilate. This Kit Danger act was already doing my head in and it was still only day one.
“You did good today,” Tank informed me, taking a large bit of the sub I’d left for him as he plonked down beside me. “Only blurted a few things in your nervous state. The guys will just chalk that up to getting used to all the testosterone in the air. And as you settle into your role things will get easier.”
I nodded my understanding, but remained silent, allowing him to finish his dinner before I bombarded him with all the questions spinning through my head. In the meantime, I fiddled with Geraldine’s ears and stared blankly at the screen of my laptop.
Finally, Tank scrunched up his sub wrapper and tossed it onto the coffee table, wiping his hands on his cargoes to remove left over grease from his fingers. The entire combination was something I’d never witnessed him, or any of the Merry Men do before. On the slob scale, this was way off the charts in terms of Rangeman employee standards. They never seemed to get dirty or dishevelled unless there was a mishap while they were coming to my aid.
While I was distracted, reconciling another new side to Tank, he scooped the fluffy cat off the cushion between us and settled her in his lap instead.
“Go ahead and ask your question,” he prompted, stroking Geraldine in long, languid motions that made me think that having her around was about more than simply liking cats. Caring for her required a certain amount of gentleness that few would think Tank capable of. And watching the day’s tension slowly leave his body with each stroke, I thought that maybe the repetitive action, coupled with the purring it invoked in the cat, was soothing. Clearly the two had loving relationship; something I’d never achieved with Rex.
Don’t think about Rex, I told myself, firmly. That will only bring unwelcome thoughts of other aspects of your past life. I couldn’t afford to get emotional right now. I was being given a free ticket to the answers I’d been wondering about all day.
But where to start?
I thought back over my encounters with various men and before I knew it, I’d blurted a bunch of words that in no way resembled a question. “Hal’s a daddy!” I exclaimed, bouncing myself into a cross legged position on the sofa cushion. I was now facing Tank, but he was facing the coffee table, still petting his cat. “That’s so exciting! Richie and Julian. They must be great kids.”
“They are,” Tank assured me, a slight smile on his lips. “But that wasn’t a question.”
I gave him a wicked grin when he turned his head toward me. “Oh, don’t worry,” I said. “I have plenty of questions.”
He raised an eyebrow, which I thought was Tanke-ese for, “Bring it on.”
“Who’s the mother? What’s she like? How did they meet? How long? What are the chances of me meeting her and the kids?”
A chuckle slid smoothly from his chest before he managed to answer each of my questions in the order I asked them, and with enough detail to satisfy even my curiosity.
Apparently, Hal hooked up with a lovely girl named Eloise. She was the receptionist at a local medical centre where Hal frequently ended up after a shift with me. After I left and Hal pretty much stopped going to the clinic, they’d randomly bumped into each other on the street and Hal worked up the courage to ask her on a date. Clearly they hit it off, because they were married within three months and a family nine months after that. Ella would occasionally babysit the boys for them if they were absolutely desperate, but they were always contained to Ella and Louis’s apartment on the sixth floor so that they didn’t get in the way. If I was lucky enough, I might be able to catch them arriving or leaving.
“Next topic,” Tank said once he’d finished explaining and I was done rubbing my hands together gleefully.
“I’ll take Lester Santos for two- hundred, thanks, Alex,” I announced, pretending to be a contestant on Jeopardy.
Tank blinked at me, but I couldn’t tell if I’d confused him with my reference, or if he was simply waiting for my question. I’d just decided it would be best for both of us if I just moved on when he said, “That’s what she said.”
Now it was my turn to blink. “Did you just make a ‘That’s what she said’ joke?” I squeaked, unable to believe my ears.
“I was testing it out,” he admitted with a shrug.
“And how did it feel?”
“Honestly?” he asked, his hand going still, submerged in Geraldine’s thick fur. “I kind of want to go have a hot shower and scour the crawling feeling off my skin.”
“Best leave those comments to Lester then,” I suggestion. “And speaking of which, what’s with his attitude?”
His eyes twitched like he was stopping himself from blinking in confusion again, but he asked, “What attitude?”
“He was really quite sexist this morning,” I explained, slumping so that my elbows rested on my knees.
“That’s Lester,” Tank reminded me.
I shook my head thinking back to the Lester I knew before I left. Sure, he made the odd remark that could be taken the wrong way and perceived as sexist, but it had never been as blatant or as scathing as he was this morning. “This was a different kind of sexist,” I informed him. “He pretty much said I shouldn’t be there because Rangeman was a man’s company. No girls allowed.”
“Ranger hasn’t even considered a woman’s application to the company since you left, and he’d never hired one before you came along in the first place. That he gave Kit the job is a conundrum to us all. Lester was probably just trying to warn you not to get your hopes up.”
“I thought you said I was a shoe in,” I accused, crossing my arms over my chest. “You guaranteed I’d get the job.”
“Rule number one: always tell them what they want to hear, regardless of reality,” Tank recited. “If I told you there was a very large possibility that you would not only fail the interview but also bomb out playing a different person, would you have agreed to the plan?” he asked, allowing Geraldine to stretch up and rub her face against his stubble free jaw.
“No,” I said firmly, “I barely agreed to the plan as it was.”
“Exactly. I said what I had to in order to get you to come home willingly. If you’d said no, I would have gathered a team and carried out a routine extraction.”
The thought of Tank and his band of men extraction me forcibly from Mexico sent chills up my spine but they were quickly drowned out by a multitude of other feelings. First was a warmth spreading through my belly as I realised that I really was home. At least, I was in the town where I’d last felt like it was home. Currently it felt more like an alien planet, and the reason for this was the situation I’d allowed Tank to put me in. If I had just sucked it up and agreed to come back as myself and face the life and people I’d left behind, I wouldn’t be in this anxious and confused state right now.
I couldn’t even say why I’d agreed only after Tank had offered the secret identity option. Perhaps I subconsciously figured that Ranger and everyone would recognise me right off the bat anyway and the secret identity would allow a cushioned barrier between me and all the disappointment and hurt I’d caused in them. Now that it appeared I was unrecognisable as my own self, however, I could see that it was an idiotic plan from the get go.
Calling it all off was out of the question though. Between the fear of their disappointment that I’d left, and that of the manner in which I’d returned I was pretty much ready to leave Stephanie Plum on the side of the road and commit to being Kit Danger for the rest of my life just so I didn’t have to see the hurt in their eyes when they found out who I really was.
“This sucks hardcore,” I announced on a groan, leaning back over the sofa’s armrest to silently resent every decision I’d ever made that lead to me sitting here on the couch with Tank. Tears burned behind my eyes and I decided to retreat to my room before they decided to spill over. I still had questions about the guys and what had happed to cause the changes I’d noticed today, but I didn’t have the energy to ask them anymore and I refused to cry in front of show-no-emotion Tank.