just about to answer Bobby’s politely concerned and completely normal question
when Cal abruptly stood from his chair, his body radiating waves of tension.
He’d been watchful and prying all morning, studying each subtle move I made, as
well as every syllable that left my mouth like he was waiting for some cue.
Now, it appeared, his cue had been given.
“Bobby,” he said urgently, his eyes wide and scary looking. His gaze moved restlessly between Bobby and myself, even glancing past me to Mal at least once. “I need you to cover us for a bit,” he announced, and the next thing I knew he had me by the elbow – what was with the guys and grabbing me by the arm today? – and was dragging me across the almost empty floor. It was a good thing there was practically no one here, otherwise I would, yet again, be the subject of a rumour mill. The Rangeman guys weren’t quite as ruthless as the burg grapevine, especially since it didn’t end in my mother calling to reprimand me, but they definitely had speed on their side. I mean, look at how quickly everyone knew my name.
It wasn’t until Cal had pushed me into the bathroom and was closing and locking the door behind us that I found my voice. “What the hell!?” I demanded, hitting him as hard as I could in the shoulder, which of course only served to jar my injured wrist. I lowered my arm to my side, clenching and unclenching my fist in an effort to ease the renewed pain radiating up my arm. “You can’t just drag a girl into the toilet with you!” I informed him rather loudly, working up a full head of steam. “It’s practically sexual harassment! What are the guys out there going to th-.”
“You’re not Kit Danger,” he quietly interrupted, still facing the door.
I gulped, fear paralysing me as he slowly turned to face me. My mouth hung open for a long moment as we just stared into each other’s eyes. Finally, I swallowed hard and managed to stutter, “What... what makes you say that?”
“You’re Stephanie Plum,” he stated firmly, maintain steady eye contact, as if he was challenging me to say otherwise.
“Uhhh....” I uhhhed, allowing my mouth to make a noise of uncertainty while my brain tried to catch up. Had he really just said what I thought he said?
“Don’t deny it, Bomber,” he said. “I know it’s you.” When I continued to stare blankly at him, trying to adjust to having been called Bomber again after so long, he added, “Isn’t it?”
It wasn’t the question, but the way his eyes softened briefly, revealing just a sliver of the vulnerability he usually kept deep inside that caused me to snap out of my stupor and nod affirmatively.
“Good,” he said briskly, giving a sharp nod of his own. “I think...” He stared down at the tiled floor for a moment, his brows seeming to furrow in what could have been confusion. “It’s good that you’re alive, is what I mean,” he said, a strange quality tinting his words.
“Were you worried I was...” I couldn’t finish the sentence; wasn’t able to utter the words we were probably both thinking.
“Why else would Ranger have ordered us to quit searching all those years ago?” he questioned, raising his gaze to me once more. The hurt and sadness that I found there tugged at my heartstrings. “We figured he’d found you, but you were... ya know... Most of us resigned ourselves to the fact that you wouldn’t – couldn’t – return.”
“You just accepted Ranger’s order without solid proof? Without that closure of knowing exactly what happened?” I asked, a lump forming in my throat as I thought of them all grieving me. A wave of self-hatred washed over me as I once again realised how selfish I’d been in leaving. I should have done as Tank suggested down in Mexico and come to the Rangemen for help, but the pain and sorrow I’d been suffering back then, coupled with the agony that came with the effort of hiding it all inside and putting on a brave face, clouded my judgement and I’d acted impulsively. “I’m so, so sorry,” I whispered, the words coming out gluggy as I tried to hold back the emotion I was feeling. If we weren’t careful, I was going to start crying.
“Hey,” Cal said, lifting my face with a single finger under my chin so that I was forced to meet his gaze once more. “What matters is that you’re back now,” he informed me in a tone that was way more understanding than I could have imagined.
I was so confused between the almost simmering anger he’d displayed right before pulling me in here and the sincerity he was now showing me that I almost laughed. I didn’t though, because if I started, I’d probably never stop and he’d be forced to take me to the funny farm and have me committed.
“So, Kit Danger, huh?” he asked, a small smile tugging his lips, obviously mocking my alias.
I let out a relieved sigh, grateful for the mood shift. “That one’s on Marie,” I informed him. “She chose it, not me.”
A flicker of recognition passed over his features. “Marie?” he asked. “Tank’s sister?” I nodded confirmation, choosing to stay silent for once in my life. “So Tank knows.” It wasn’t a question this time, but a statement of fact, because apparently I had no way of knowing Marie if not through her overly large and intimidating brother. “Which mean Ranger does too, right?” he added.
You’d think so, I thought to myself, gnawing my bottom lip and avoiding his gaze as I started absently plucking at the edge of my bandage again.
“Shut up,” he said incredulously, sounding very much like a fourteen year old girl. “But you had your interview with him! He knows everything, how could he not realise it was you?”
“You only just noticed,” I pointed out defensively, feeling increasingly comfortable with Cal knowing, since he didn’t appear to be holding a grudge against me.
Cal gave me an almost deadpan expression. “But Ranger never misses a thing,” he said. “A guy can’t pass wind in the company without Ranger knowing it. How can he not know it’s you?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “But he doesn’t.”
“Wow...” Cal breathed. “Am I the first?”
“Second,” I replied. “Bobby figured it out two days ago.”
“But Bobby was at a conference and only got back two days ago,” Cal said, his expression dropping.
I shrugged again. “You win some, you lose some.”
He shook his head, looking amazed. “Lester’s gonna go ape shit when he realised that you’re you,” he informed me.
“What’s with Lester these days, anyway?” I enquired, seizing on the opportunity to ask after the guy who used to put the ‘merry’ in Merry Men.
“That is a lengthy and rather sordid tale that should probably not be told in the bathroom while people are out there wondering what on earth we’re up to,” Cal responded, glancing around as if he’d only just realised where we were. “And I assume the story of why and how you became Kit Danger is also too long for a bathroom telling.”
“Indeed,” I agreed.
“Are you free tonight?” he asked, his hand on the slide lock, ready to open the door. “We could grab a pizza and swap stories?”
“I’m actually having dinner with Bobby tonight,” I explained. “But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you tagged along.”
“Dinner with Bobby?” he questioned, waggling his eyebrows. “Does his wife know?”
My mouth hung open as he unlocked the door but did not open it yet. “Wife?” I gasped.
“You didn’t know?” He let out a small chuckled, finally opening the door, but before I could grill him for details he was gone, leaving me standing in the middle of the empty bathroom, all alone.
I took a moment to compose myself before also exiting and making my way back over to the monitor station. Cal had returned to the seat on the end that he’d occupied before his sudden realisation and Bobby was two seats down, apparently having forced Mal to moved down one so that the spare chair was between Bobby and Cal. It seemed obvious that they wanted me to sit between them, and with no other options, I obliged, sliding as elegantly as I could into the seat (I had to keep up my Kit Danger persona, after all) before reeling back my left hand and punching Bobby in the arm. It hurt, but not as much as hitting Cal with the right had.
“What as that for?” he complained.
“You didn’t tell me you had a wife,” I accused.
He frowned slightly when he replied, “I didn’t think it mattered to you.”
“Woah, woah, woah,” Male interrupted, hands splayed toward us in a ‘hold on a minute’ gesture. “Kit is a classy lady, she doesn’t do affairs with married men, bro.”
“Mal’s right,” Cal agreed, a hint of a smile in his voice. “I’ve been working with her daily in the gun range and she doesn’t strike me as the kind to meddle with other people’s property.”
“I’m not other people’s property,” Bobby protested.
“Does Ashley feel the same way?” Cal asked, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back in his chair in order to watch Bobby squirm. “Seems to me that that ring you wear on your finger when you’re not at work means that you’re hers. That says property to me.”
“Okay, fine, I belong to Ash. What does that have to do with anything?” Bobby questioned.
“Dude, isn’t it obvious?” Mal said, leaning forward. “You’re sweet on our girl here, which is leading you to be unfaithful to the woman you already have and seduce Kit. That’s not cool, man.”
Bobby shook his head, casting a glare at the three of us. He, Cal and I knew that the seduction view that Mal had taken up was grossly off base, but that didn’t make it any less funny. Mind you, I was still reeling from the fact that he had a wife. How long had he been with her? What was she like? It was like hearing about Hal all over again. I almost gasped aloud at that thought. Did Bobby have kids too? I needed to start making a list of questions I needed to ask the guys that already knew the real me, and I needed to sit them down and ask them all one after another until I had all the answers to satisfy my curiosity.
An hour later, I was just hunkering down for the long haul when Cal glanced at his watch, then across me to Bobby and Mal. Bobby glanced at his watch as well and stood abruptly, tapping me on the shoulder and hiking a thumb in the direction of the break room. The message was clear; he wanted me to come with him. Cal gave me a little shove and a look I couldn’t even begin to interpret and I was on my way. There was no denying that they were up to something, but I wasn’t likely to figure out what it was by just sitting there. It appeared they wanted to include me in it and after the tenuous grounds I’d started on, I wasn’t going to stuff up the rapport I had going by refusing their invitation.
We were in the break room no longer than thirty seconds Bobby pulled a laptop from one of the cupboards in the kitchenette and set it on the table farthest from the doorway so that we were out of sight.
“What’s going on?” I asked, able to hold my curiosity in any longer.
“You’ll see,” Cal assured me, sliding into the seat on Bobby’s other side. I could tell he was excited about something, which probably had to do with why we were leaving one guy on monitors when I was pretty sure protocol was a minimum of two people on at all times. Cal leaned over Bobby’s shoulder, peering at whatever he was doing on the screen. “Do you have the cords to set it up on the big screen?” he asked, nodding toward the flat screen television attached to the wall. “I really think we need a better view of this.”
“I’ll text Hank and get him to bring them in,” Bobby replied, tapping at the keys a bit more before whipping out his phone. “There’s no way he’d wanna miss this, anyway.”
“Seriously, you guys,” I said shifting my chair so that I could see the laptop screen as well. “You’ve gotta fill me in on whatever is going on.”
Cal looked over at me, a grin that I wouldn’t have thought possible this morning spreading across his face, bringing a brilliant twinkle to his eyes that I hadn’t seen since I’d been back. “The zombie apocalypse is coming,” he whispered conspiratorially, running a hand through his hair to get it off his face.
“I thought we weren’t allowed to mention zombies in the building?” I pointed out, recalling Tanks words on my first day and also Cal’s warning earlier today. It seemed to me like he should remember something like that. Especially since it happened just before he realised that I was really me.
“Mal’s not allowed,” Bobby said by way of explanation, still tapping away at keys, bringing up numerous security feeds. I noted that one in particular was from the comm. floor, displaying the monitor station where Mal sat all alone, his feet once more propped on the desk. “For the rest of us it’s just frowned upon, because it encourages Mal’s behaviour.”
“Right,” I said slowly, still not following what was going on. “But what exactly is going to happen?”
Cal pushed his chair back and moved to the coffee machine on the bench, pulling down three cups and starting to fill them. “Ever heard of a zombie walk?” I shook my head, no. “Neither had we until Junior explained it to us. Apparently every year a massive group of people dress up like zombies and walk through town, not that I’ve ever seen it happen. They must be ninja zombies or something. Anyway, when we heard about it, it gave us an idea of how to haze Mal properly.”
“Yeah,” Bobby said, pausing in his work. “You know, pranks you pull on the new guy? We tried a bunch of stuff on Mal but it didn’t work. He was too far left of centre for our usual repertoire.”
“Exactly,” Cal agreed, returning to the table with three cups of coffee. “But now we’ve got him.”
I shook my head, still lost. “I don’t understand.”
“There was no emergency this morning,” Cal explained. “Tank and everyone else who left have spent the last hour and a half getting zombified so that we can play the ultimate prank on Mal.”
“And Ranger was okay with the plan?” I asked, confusion coursing through me. Ranger had never seemed like the prankster sort, and given that taking all the men off the floor was possibly putting his company at risk I would think that he would be against the hazing plan. “How did you manage to get him involved?”
“What do you mean, ‘get him involved’?” Bobby asked.
“He was leading men down the stairwell,” I said, recalling the tingles I’d felt. “He’s involved isn’t he?”
“Not that I’m aware,” Cal said, scraping his hand through his hair again. It was odd to watch. In my head, Cal was still the bald guy with the tattoo that intimidated all no matter what, so every time I saw him I was shocked by the sudden appearance of hair on his head.
Hank entered the room at that point, and, having heard the last part of the conversation, decided to answer my question. “Tank convinced him to leave the building to make it look like a true emergency, other than that, the boss has no part in this.”
“Oh,” I uttered, unsure if I was disappointed in his lack of involvement, or relieved that my assumptions of him were still true. This really was the most confusing situation I had ever been in, and I’d delved straight into a foreign country that spoke a language I’d never even attempted to learn, deciding to teach English to the kids who lived there.