Wednesday afternoon, Kit Danger stood on the opposite end of the blue matted area in the gym, eyeing me off with suspicion and caution. I knew the expression, I’d seen it on millions of skips over the years. Usually they were trying to work out if they could run away fast enough to not be caught, and how hard their ass would be beaten if they tried and failed. I suspected Kit was trying to decide the best way to approach our renewed self defence lessons.
Two weeks ago, she’d been injured during our very first session. Bobby seemed to think it was my fault; that I’d been treating her too harshly. I guess he was right. I’d been treating her the same way I treated Darren when he first joined the company. He’d had no training other than the things he’d learned on the street, so I’d forced him into hold after hold until he knew the proper method of escaping. No injuries had occurred from those sessions, but then, Darren was a well built guy who’d lived rough on the streets, he could handle a little manhandling. Kit, on the other hand, was far from sturdy. Her delicate figure alone could be snapped in half by a single hand of any of the men working in the building, let alone the low life’s we deal with on a regular basis. She may not be here for the standard skip tracing, security detail job that ninety-eight percent of the personnel were employed or, but that didn’t make her exempt from the threats regularly posed against the company.
Until such a time as she was adequately trained in self defence she was the weakest link. Any enemy with half a brain would target her in order to get any kind of leverage on Rangeman. We knew all too well that one woman could be the downfall of the entire company. We’d experienced it before.
Six years ago the only woman we’d ever trusted enough to let into our lives – both work and social –had disappeared without a trace. Years we’d spent protecting her from everything under the sun, and then one day she was gone. Apartment packed up with boxes clearly labelled, bank account cleared out, Rex left with enough food in his bowl to keep him going for a week if he didn’t turn into a garbage guts and eat it all on the first day. It was clearly a planned disappearance, but none of us could figure out why she would do such a thing.
Four months of searching and interviewing revealed nothing out of the ordinary in the weeks leading up to when she left. She was a little testier toward Lula’s insistence of going in guns a blazing, but according to Lula, that was nothing new; she would periodically go through phases when she was less tolerant of the use of fire arms in her work. Her family reported that, if anything, she was more involved with them, diligently turning up to family dinners and even offering to babysit her nieces a few times. Her actions made no sense, but they certainly didn’t indicate a woman on the verge of leaving all she’d ever known behind.
We’d followed up every flimsy, questionable lead that surfaced for sixty long, gruelling days, paying next to no attention to our paying accounts. The whole team was devastated; even guys who’d never worked with her. We all knew that she was the lifeline that kept us going when the going got tough. She was the one comforting us when we had bad days and our past was creeping in on us. Most women would have run screaming from a bunch of men who were so badly messed in the head, but she made a point of talking with us and treating us in such a way that made us realise that she may not have experienced all that we had, but she definitely understood our feelings and emotions and was willing to try anything to make us see that everything would be all right.
When she left it was easy to see that we all relied on her to keep us mentally stable. Everything went to hell in a hand basket for days; men acting irrationally going off on their own in a desperate attempt to find her. If Ranger hadn’t laid down the direct order to stop searching I think the whole building would have crumbled to the ground. We’d started turning on each other, playing the blame game.
Junior suspected that someone must have helped her disappear; that she couldn’t possibly have gotten away so cleanly on her own, but I’d worked with Steph on more occasions than I could count, in situations varied enough to cover the entire basic military training curriculum. If Steph didn’t want to be found, she could do a bang up job of hiding herself. Between her natural instinct, and the time she’d spent with us all, I would bet that she could walk into a black only club and not be noticed. And that was saying something, considering how fair her skin was.
“What’s your problem?” Kit asked from the opposite end of the mat, snapping out of my thoughts.
It took me a moment to relax my face into the blank stare I’d perfected over a decade ago, so I guess I was probably scowling at her... again. I don’t know what it was about Ms. Danger, but she inspired every ounce of bitterness I held inside me to leap to the surface. The myriad emotions I’d bottled up after Stephanie had disappeared, mixed with those sour feelings I still harboured toward Suzan, bubbled up and spilled over, all directed at the woman standing fifteen feet away. Probably, it was because I secretly felt that allowing another woman into our midst was akin to shitting all over Steph’s memory.
I wasn’t about to tell Kit that though.
“What do you mean?” I asked, attempting a casual tone as I toed off the runner I’d been wearing for our session on the treadmill and stepped onto the mats.
She didn’t move to join me, instead choosing to back up to the bench that ran along the wall behind her, where she sat down and began undoing the laces of beat up jogging shoes she’d been wearing. I was actually impressed by the wear and tear of her shoes, figuring that she would have opted to wear the pair Ella had no doubt provided her with when she first joined us two and a half weeks ago. It took a dedicated woman to continue wearing the old, comfortable, ugly pair when there was a pristine, new pair there just waiting to be broken in. I’d heard my female cousins mention during more than a few fashion discussions over the years that comfort was for sissies and unattractive people. Well, Kit Danger certainly wasn’t unattractive, but her level of sissiness remained to be determined.
“I mean,” she said, dropping the first shoe to the floor and avoiding eye contact while she worked on the other. “Every time you look at me this unpleasant expression comes over your face and I get the feeling you hate me.” She paused a moment, dropping her other shoe. “And then there’s what happened last time we were on those mats together.”
“You struggle too much in a hold and you’ll get hurt,” I informed her. “It’s an important lesson for you to learn.”
“Know what an even more important lesson is?” Kit asked, a sarcastic tone tinging her words. “How to get out of the hold. Obviously, struggling won’t work, but I don’t know what to do. That’s where you come in.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “So now you’re eager to get these defence moves down?” I questioned, wondering over her change in attitude. During our first session she’d been hesitant to try anything because she’d never done it before, now she was practically demanding that I teach her. Like the switch had been flicked. “Come over here and prove to me that the Kitten we hired has claws.”
Suddenly, I was reminded of our first meeting, when I was escorting her to Ranger’s office for her interview. She’d called me on all the sexist warnings I was trying to give her, abruptly changing from defensive to laying down a bet based on the outcome of her own life events. It reminded me so much of Stephanie that I’d been useless to stop the smile that crept onto my face as I accepted her bargain. Of course, at the time I was confident that there was no way Ranger would hire her, no matter how much moxie she had. The Steph shaped hole that still lay gaping in the company simply could not be filled by a woman who bore a slight resemblance to her in both appearance and attitude.
And I was wrong.
Already, I’d watched three guys fall hopelessly into the trap of allowing Ms. Danger in. The section of their hearts they’d closed off six years ago when Steph disappeared, were opening once more, just begging to be broken again. Bobby, who’d been spending the majority of his time down in his medical suite in recent years, was suddenly venturing onto the main floor for reasons other than his monitor shifts and to write up take down reports, and every single time he stepped onto the fifth floor he ended up chatting with Kit. At first I figured he was just checking on her wrist, but he’d pronounced her recovered two days ago and still continued to seek her out of a semi regular basis.
Cal, too, seemed to be making excuses to spend time with her outside of the gun range, and had even trimmed the floppy mop of hair he’d been sporting for years back to a respectable inch long shock that revealed his flaming skull tattoo once more. And Hank... Well, Hank just seemed to turn into an uncoordinated puppy whenever she was around, with is stupid grin and the way his eyes danced when he spoke to her.
Of the three of them, I knew for certain that Hank was using Kit as a Steph replacement. I’d caught him on numerous occasions almost calling her the wrong name. I told myself I felt sorry for him, that he was so easily taken in by a woman, but if I was honest, I’d allowed the same thing to happen to me with Suzan. I’d tried to talk Hank out of his friendship with Kit, hoping to put an end to it before he got in too deep and it all ended in a bitter divorce, but he assured me that nothing like that was going to happen. Little did he know that that was what I’d been telling myself when I allowed myself to get involved with Suzan in the first place. I thought I’d found my paradise, but it turns out we’d just hit the Amish town in Pennsylvania, where it was great for a visit to experience a different way of life, but at the end of the day, you wanted your TV back.
I snapped myself out of my thoughts this time, determined to stop thinking of all the ways Steph had affected our lives by leaving and how, when she was set her shoulders and stared me down with that determined glint in her eye, I could almost see why Bobby, Cal and Hank had taken a liking to this Kit woman. She wasn’t Steph and I wasn’t going to start letting her in, no matter once. I’d been burned twice already. No way would I let it happen again.
“Tell me what fuels your fire, Kitten,” I requested, beckoning her over.
“I’m sick of the guys comparing me to that Stephanie Plum woman,” Kit shrugged. I had to grit my teeth to stop myself from shoving her up against the wall conveniently located behind her at that comment. She should feel honoured to be compared to such a great woman! “They’re always singing her praises, and telling me no one could ever live up to the standard she’d set. According to what I’ve heard, she unfit and had no defence training. If this is what it takes for them to start viewing me as my own person, this is what I’ll do.” With that, she stepped onto the mat and walked straight toward me.
When she was within arm’s reach, I clarified, “You want to stop the men from comparing you to a woman you’ve never met by training in things that she’d never trained in?” She nodded, staring me straight in the eye. “Stephanie Plum didn’t have training because she was a natural,” I sneered, unable to help myself. “She didn’t need self defence training because when it came down to the line, she could get herself out of almost any sticky situation she found herself in.”
“Almost?” Kit questioned, picking up on my wording the same way she had the first time we met.
“There were some rare occasions when she would find herself deeper than she could manage, but she had an entire cavalry of men ready to come to her rescue.”
Her eyebrows twitched above the frames of her glasses, the same way Steph’s used to when she was trying to raise a single eyebrow at someone. No! Stop comparing her to Steph! “And I don’t?” she asked.
“Let’s get something straight,” I suggested, leaning down to her level. “Stephanie Plum was like family to us. We’d have sacrificed ourselves to save her if necessary. You, on the other hand. You are just a co-worker. A woman hired for your experience in the volunteer, community support realm. Mark my word, as soon as we’ve learned all we need from your expertise, you’ll be out the door.”
“Funny,” she countered, seeming unfazed by my intimidation attempts. “I seem to remember you telling me with that same confidence that I would never be hired by Rangeman.” Here brows twitched again. “Speaking of which, where’s that twenty you owe me?”
“You always ask me when I don’t have my wallet,” I told her, patting around the tops of my thighs to show I didn’t have it on me. “Let’s get down to business.”
“To defeat the Hun,” Kit muttered under her breath. I chose to ignore the random comment the same way I had most of the half spoken things Steph used to, but there was no way I was going to allow myself to think that this woman was simply thinking aloud. I could handle only so many Steph comparisons in such a short length of time.
“How well can you see without your glasses?” I asked, taking a step back out of her personal space bubble.
Kit shrugged, glancing at the ground. “Not too bad, why?”
“I suggest you remove them so they don’t accidentally get damaged,” I instructed, knowing that this would be easier for me if I wasn’t worried about breaking her personal property. It was bad enough that I had to think about how much more delicate she was than those I usually trained. She stared at me for a full minute, during which I thought for sure she would refuse to do it. “If they break they could cause more serious injury than can be fixed with a bandage and a week of rest,” I added, and she sighed, bowing her head and slipping the offending item from her nose. She turned without lifting her head and made her way over to the bench where she’d removed her shoes, placing the glasses beside her socks before facing me once more on the mat. In that moment, when our eyes met, she was no longer Kit Danger.
It was like she’d removed a mask along with those frames. Standing before me, exactly where Kit had been, was Stephanie Michelle Plum. I blinked several times, unwilling to believe my eyes. It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be. I shook my head for good measure and returned my gaze to the woman standing six feet away, staring at me curiously. She was no illusion.
“What?” she asked, concern drawing two little lines between her brows.
“Steph?” I breathed. I was awestruck. She’d been under my nose for two and a half weeks and I’d been treating her like shit the entire time?
“Lester, not here,” she said urgently, realisation rushing over her. She glanced at the cameras, knowing exactly where they all were, even after all these years. “You can’t blow my cover.”
“Blow your cover?!” I asked, bewildered. “Why on earth would you need a cover here of all places?” It didn’t make sense. There was no reason I could think of that Steph would need to come back under the guise of a second rate volunteer from Mexico. “I thought you were dead!” I almost yelled at her. “I mourned you when we couldn’t find you. We searched everywhere for ages. I wanted to dredge the river. I can’t believe you would just sidle your way back in like that after all this time. You could have at least let us know you were alive! We would have left you alone if that’s what you wanted, but you didn’t have to just drop off the face of the earth.”
I had to stop talking – yelling – when I saw that first tear slide down her face. Everything in me just wanted to wrap her in my arms and assure her that everything was fine; to assure myself that she was real. But the hurt that I’d bottled up and let simmer for over half a decade, that I’d poisoned by allowing myself to let go with Suzan, was tensing my muscles so hard that I didn’t think I could move. How dare she.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice trembling as more tears pooled on her bottom lashes. She blinked hard, determined not to let anymore fall, but it was a futile attempt. My heart clenched with the simultaneous urges to comfort her, and rip her a new one for causing so much pain and devastation six years ago.
Finally, after several minutes of clenching my fists and breathing heavily, I couldn’t take it anymore. The sad expression on her face, like she was the one who’d been betrayed, made up my mind. I turned on my heels and marched straight into the locker room and then to the first showerhead on the wall. I didn’t even bother stripping, just turned the cold tap on full blast turned my face into the spray, the same way I had after my father died when I was twenty six. The same way I had when we’d discovered her missing. The same way I had after Suzan told me she wanted a divorce. I needed to cool my jets so I wouldn’t do anything I’d regret. I may be angry at Steph and the whole world right now, but that didn’t give me permission to do things that my had run through my mind the moment I realised all that she’d done.
Half an hour later, I shut off the water and stalked to my locker. Not bothering to grab a towel and dry off first, I reached for my phone and dialled Tank.
“Yo,” he said, picking up on the second ring.
“I can’t work with her,” I said tersely. “Find someone else.”
A disappointed sigh left his lips, carrying over the phone line. “You know it her, don’t you?” he asked. Rather than reply, I hung up, turning my phone of and quickly dressed in my regular uniform. Once my gun belt was strapped on, I was out the door and on my way to find the nastiest skip I could think of to take care of my physical urges. Beating the crims before we got them to the police station was generally frowned upon, but at this point, I didn’t give a shit. I needed to hurt someone to ease the ache in my chest, and I needed that someone to not be the woman I’d left crying in the gym. The one whom – even though I knew I could never have her the way we all wanted her – had stolen my heart ten years ago when she forced her way into our lives.