I’d been up since four in the morning for a gym session with Bobby, followed by a full day at work, chasing bad guys and the like. After my shift, which felt longer than usual, given the extra late night I’d had with Steph and Tank, I made my way down to the second floor – Hector’s domain – to see what he could help me dig up on the night Steph ended up drunk three months before she left. I knew it would probably be easier to just bite the bullet for her and ask Morelli exactly what happened, but being the cop he is, he would at least be curious as to why I was interested in the events of that night after six years had passed without so much as a word from Stephanie. If he started to get curious, odds are he would start watching the actions Rangeman employees take more carefully, which could potentially lead to disaster.
Rangeman had a very strict policy both on flying under the radar, and on searching for Stephanie Plum. If word got out that I was asking questions again after all this time, it would be back to Ranger in a split second. The moment he stepped into the bonds office to collect this week’s skips Lula and Connie would be blurting questions about what he knew about all this Stephanie business – of which there was currently none, but I’m sure if I so much as mentioned her name outside of my apartment the press would have a field day – and then Ranger would know that someone had started looking again and commence an immediate office wide search to find the culprit.
Which was me.
I wasn’t eager to step into the ring with him again. I’d learned my lesson ten years ago. And then again six years ago. Don’t cross my cousin and I won’t end up in traction.
So my only option was to enlist Hector for help. As far as flying under the radar went, he was the best of the best. He could hack into six government computers at once and not alert the authorities. He was the only person that would be capable of keeping this endeavour out of the eyes of those who best not see it.
The only problem was, just like Morelli, he was going to want to know the whys of the situation. He would be wary of going behind Ranger’s back, since Ranger is the one who saved him from a doomed life on the streets in the first place. And there was a possibility that once he found out that I was investigating on behalf of Steph, who was back in town and pretending to be new to the company in the form of Kit Danger that he wouldn’t want any part of it anyway. I would be left to trawl through the security archives alone with my fingers crossed that Ranger didn’t find out what I was up to.
As it so happens, though, I had nothing to worry about. After explaining that I needed to know Stephanie’s actions on a night I didn’t know the date of approximately three months before she disappeared, when she ended up at a bar I didn’t know the name of, he’d smiled knowingly and said, “Ahh, the chica is opening up.” Confused by his statement, I’d asked what he meant, receiving another curious smile and a short, “Kit Danger, of course.”
“What do you know of Kit Danger?” I demanded, officially on guard. I was under the impression that only Tank, Bobby, Cal, Hank and I knew about her true identity.
“Kit Danger is Stephanie Plum,” he said casually, waving around the screw driver he’d been working on a small device with. “I thought everyone knew this and we were just supposed to ignore.”
Stunned into silence, I’d had to lean back against the wall behind me and cross my arms over my chest, glancing to all the cameras stationed around the room. Anyone in the building could access their feeds at any time and hear what he was so open to announcing. Such a discovery could be the end of all of our days. I can only imagine how Ranger was going to react when he eventually found out what we’re hiding from him. He’d been furious when we threw him a surprise thirty fifth birthday party. This was just a little bigger than that...
“Relax,” Hector said, sliding open a drawer in his work bench and placing the small device he held inside. “I disabled the audio on those things months ago. Now anyone who wants to know what is discussed in my inner sanctum has to be able to read lips, or be game enough to ask me.”
I’d have asked him why he did such a thing, but I was pretty sure I neither needed, nor wanted to know, so I cut back to the reason I’d come down. “Can you help?” I asked.
Without a word, he’d nodded and led me into the hall, down the stairwell and into the basement where he used his fob and another device I’d never seen before, to open a mysterious door. Inside, every wall was covered in screens showing scenes from the building and various locations around Trenton. The wall on the left side of the room appeared to be showing places that weren’t even in New Jersey. In the centre of the room was a love seat and small table containing a keyboard and a remote all set on a slightly raised, circular platform.
Hector strode to the sofa and took a seat, pulling the keyboard into and using the remote to wave me over and shut off the feeds simultaneously. As I moved slowly to join him, inspecting every inch of the room and wondering how I didn’t know it existed, he began typing, a series of green characters I didn’t recognise appearing on one of the screens directly in front of him.
“What is this place?” I asked, feeling like I’d just stepped into Narnia or something. I’d stepped into a scene out of movie, I was sure. Perhaps Hector had simply transported a movie set here and was using it to intimidate me with his supposed technological genius. “Does Ranger know this exists?”
Another knowing smile crossed Hector’s face as he continued tapping at the keys. “Ranger believes this room is storage for my expensive equipment,” he explained as Steph’s old Rangeman ID photo appeared on a screen. “He does not have access, only I do. So no. Ranger does not know.”
“What do you use all these screens for?” I asked, finally joining him on the seat. I craned my neck to see all the screens I was surrounded by, worried I’d miss something, when suddenly a whirring noise reached my ears and the platform began to rotate. Hector only allowed a quarter turn, before he righted our position again.
“If you are going to ask probing questions, I will have your memory of this place wiped and I will carry out the search on my own, providing you only with a concise report with all the details you require,” Hector said mildly, never pausing in his typing as our file photo of Joseph Morelli appeared on a separate screen. Some more tapping and a photo of Ranger appeared on yet another screen, forming a column of faces.
“First we search the vehicles they were driving,” he explained, giving a few practice combination taps on the keyboard. Within seconds, the column next to the faces was filled with pictures and license plates of the cars the three subjects were apparently driving around the time Steph got blind drunk and possibly slept with the cop. “We set the parameters: Trenton.” He turned to look glance at me. “You say evening?”
“I’d assume somewhere between 1700 and 0500 hours,” I agreed.
He nodded, and tapped a few more times and then suddenly every screen in the room was alive zooming through scenes from all over Trenton. “The search will take time,” he informed me, sitting back a little. “Without an exact date I started with the date of the day we discovered her missing and we’ll work backwards.”
“So, what exactly are all these screens doing?” I asked, curious despite myself.
“Facial and licence plate recognition. I’ll get an alert on my phone when the system finds Stephanie and the cop or their cars in the same vicinity. It will save the footage so I can review it later. Hopefully we will have your answers in a few of days.”
“A few of days?” I groaned. I really wanted answers now. The longer this was drawn out, the longer Steph wouldn’t want to reveal herself to Ranger. Which meant the Kit Danger charade would drag on. I feared that if it continued too long she would eventually decide that she could never face Ranger as herself and just make her alter ego official. I’m not sure any of us who were in the know would cope very well with that development. We’d just gotten our Bomber back and the threat that she would disappear again if she didn’t move past her issues soon played on all our minds constantly.
“Do you know how many security cameras there are in Trenton?” Hector asked. “How many traffic cameras? A few days is fast. It would take months, maybe years, for a human to review all that footage and ascertain any facial or number plate matches. You should be thankful.”
“I am,” I assured him. “I’m just... If you’ve had this technology, you could have found Steph...”
“But I did not,” he said firmly. “I put together the system after she disappeared with the express purpose of finding her, but only managed to finish it after Ranger gave orders to stop looking.”
“So you never used it for what you intended to?”
“It was a direct order,” Hector pointed out.
He had a point. I was Ranger’s second cousin and therefore had familial immunity to most threats he made, but even I had obeyed that one. I loved Steph, and I didn’t want to assume she was dead like Ranger was implying with his commands, but I valued my life and my job.
We sat in silence for a while, watching the flashing screens, until I finally believed that there was no way I would get the necessary answers tonight and made my way back up to my apartment.
I’d only been asleep for an hour when a pounding on my door woke me. I shot out of bed before I even opened my eyes, and wasted no time flinging the door open to gaze out at Hal. He looked tired, with bags under his eyes and wrinkled clothing. Like the rest of the core team, I was aware that he’d been away all weekend and would have assumed that he’d be catching up with his wife right now, rather than beating down my door and staring angrily at me.
“Mats. Now,” he demanded, promptly turning on his heels and retreating to the stairwell.
Confused, I ran a hand through my hair and glanced down the hall to where everyone else on the floor was peering out of their apartments. “Better call Bobby and have him on standby,” I suggested, turning around to grab my gym shorts before heading down after Hal.
By the time I reached the gym, pulling a black sports tank over my head as I pushed through the doors, Hal had already changed and was on the mats waiting. He was pacing back and forth in the centre of the area and looked up abruptly when I approached. I’d never seen him like this. Not even after Steph left. Sure we’d all lost control a little when Ranger denied us the satisfaction of continuing to search for her, but even then, Hal had never looked so livid. I could only imagine what had happened on his trip to make him this way.
I’d barely stepped foot on the mats when he was rushing forward, which he knew was a stupid move, but given the fact that he played it, I was guessing he didn’t care right now. I saw his fist balling and raising a moment before he got within reach of me, and I could have stopped him, but something told me he needed to get this out of his system. So I let him punch me in the face. And then knee me in the gut while I was still really from the strength of the first blow.
Around here Hal was viewed as the huggable teddy compared to the completely hardened men such as Ranger and Tank. Even Bobby was a formidable opponent. But Hal, for all his soft front, had the same training hardwired into his brain, and the same power in his muscles. If he aimed to knock a person out, break his arm, or disable them in anyway, he could do it without even a second’s hesitation. That was the side of the company teddy bear I was seeing right now. The side that would stop at nothing to bring justice to his cause.
I allowed him to land a few more shots before I started fighting back, easily gaining the upper hand. In a matter of seconds, I had him pinned to the blue gym mats, a knee to his throat.
“What is this about?” I asked, swiping at a drop of blood as it seeped from my – probably broken – nose. “What happened on your trip?”
“Nothing,” he seethed, squirming beneath me to get free.
“Then what are you so worked up over?” I tried.
With a clean jerk, he was out from under me, returning the favour by punching me in the face once more. This time I heard as much as felt a distinct crack as blood spurted from my nose.
“Kit, fucking, Danger,” he spat in my face. “You know what you did to her.”
Did he know? I thought to myself. Had he just figured it out and was taking his anger out on me? “I admit I was a little less than accepting of a new woman in our ranks,” I said, waiting to see if he would correct me.
“A little?” he yelled. “You injured her on her second day! And God only knows what kind of psychological damage you’ve done.” His arm reeled back, readying for yet another punch, but I rolled out of the way, kicking both my legs out to catch him in the gut. “You were probably the worst possible option to train her up,” he gasped, doubled over as I regained my footing. “Everyone knew you were in love with Stephanie. Everyone knows that the only reason you got married was because you told yourself Steph would have wanted you to be happy.”
“I got married because I thought I’d found love,” I countered, running my forearm along my upper lip, smearing blood everywhere in the process. “I moved on because losing Stephanie made me realise that life was short and I couldn’t continue to mope over a woman I never would have had a chance with anyway.”
“You blame her for your divorce,” he pressed.
“My divorce was my own damned fault,” I informed him, working up a head of steam as he continued to attack the one subject he knew would put me on edge. “Sure, I was hung up on Stephanie – hell, I still am – but that doesn’t mean I blame her for my divorce. I knew what I was doing when I married Suzan. I knew what I was doing when I started sabotaging our relationship. Sure, my thoughts were on Steph and what our life could have been like together, but my actions were my own, and I know it.”
“But you still took your anger out on this poor, innocent woman, just because Ranger hired her,” Hal pointed out. “You injured her. You berated her. You harassed her.” He paused, grimacing. “I bet you didn’t even both to try and get to know her first.”
“No,” I said, “I didn’t. And now that I have, I regret everything I said and did to her in the first few weeks of her time with us.”
“You got to know her?” he asked, sounding surprised. He’d stopped advancing on me, gazing into my face, like he was looking for something. “You know who she is,” he stated.
And just like that, he was all over me again. He crashed tackled me to the mats with a wild, wordless yell, and was driving his fist into my gut over and over when suddenly, he was pulled off of me and flung away.
“What is the meaning of this?” my second cousin demanded, standing over me with all his menacing height.
How the hell were we going to explain this without making it explicit to Ranger that Kit Danger was not who he thought she was?