Always the Last to Know

Chapter 34

“Soul of the company?” I asked, surprised by how tight my voice sounded. Some I just knew that whatever he said next was going to hit me right in the chest and knock me for six. If that happened, I knew for sure that the gig would be up and Tank would be disappointed that his game had ended. Probably, I’d have to take a few days off to hide from the unbridled wrath Ranger was likely to blast in my direction. Maybe I should buy a one way ticket to a third world country to save him the trouble when he did eventually realise it was me.

Attempting to shut down the Stephanie Plum part of my heart and brain – which was nearly impossible to do, since my entire being was Stephanie Plum, and Kit Danger was just a tanned, efficient, unadventurous version of myself – I asked, “How can a company have a soul? It’s not alive.”

“You say that only because you weren’t here to see the abrupt change in dynamics when the soul was lost.”

“A company can’t have a soul,” I protested adamantly, rather than acknowledge the pang of regret I experienced when Ranger spoke. “Only living things have souls.”

He nodded in concession, glancing briefly across the room before stating, “The company may not have had a soul, but the woman who brought it to life did.”

My eyes cut to him sharply, surprised despite the fact that I knew instinctively that he had been speaking of Steph-me. To cover my reaction, I asked, “Woman?” Forcing my expression to soften a little, I answered myself with, “Oh, this is about that Plum woman half the men are obsessed with. You hired me to replace her?” I grunted, hoping I sounded disgusted or disgruntled or something like that. “I’m so sick of being compared to her.”

Ranger’s expression changed marginally, then. “Afraid you don’t live up to her standard?” he asked.

“I know I don’t live up to her standard,” I informed him knowledgably. “I’m reminded constantly. How can someone compare to the greatest woman to ever live?”

“It’s funny you should think so little of yourself,” he said mildly. “Because some of the men have become just as protective of you as they were of Ms. Plum. In fact, that is exactly why I called you in here.” I stayed silent, willing him to continue quickly and put an end to the battery of curiosity pounding in my head. “Last night Hal attacked Lester because he believed Lester had been harassing you in the work place.”

I was gobsmacked, and hopefully it was an appropriate state for Kit- me to be in, because for all my attempts at shutting down my Steph reactions, there was no way I could wipe the jaw dropped look from my face. All at once, I was thinking of Hal, and his insistence that I report Lester’s ‘harrassment’ or he’d have to take care of it himself. At the time he’d made the ultimatum, I’d assumed he meant he would report it himself, not attack Lester for it. I’d never seen Hal as the violent type. I knew he must have it in him, since he was in the military, but he was always so placid. Like a lamb in the body of a dinosaur. Or Lambert the sheepish lion.

“He what?” I exclaimed, suddenly outraged. Not at Hal for his actions – he was trying to defend and protect Kit-me, after all – but at the very fact that anyone would be violent toward Lester on my behalf after we’d made such a turnaround over the weekend. I wanted to move, to pace, and rant, and let my Italian blood boil up until my hands were flying all over the place. Instead, I clasped the seat edge tighter and clenched my teeth.

“How have things been between you and Lester?” Ranger asked, ignoring my oblivious anger. “Any inappropriate touching? Sexist or lewd comments? Physical abuse?”

I bit my lip, trying to get my emotions and thoughts under control. Anger was never a useful emotion when dealing with Ranger. Heated, Italian-style arguments didn’t work, since the energy needed to go both ways and Ranger was the silent, calm type, especially when angry.

“I’ve got the situation under control,” I said through still gritted teeth, rather than answer the question.

“That’s not what I asked,” Ranger said, his voice low with a hint of a threat peaking through.

“No,” I agreed. “But it’s all the answer you need.” Somehow, I’d managed to regain my calm in a short amount of time, which allowed me to bite the bullet and attempt to put Ranger in place. “I had a conversation with Lester and we now understand each other. He will no longer be a problem.”

“So there was a problem.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement. The kind I wasn’t surprised to hear come out of his mouth. This was the kind of think I’d always imagined he was saying in his head when all he would utter was, ‘Babe.’

“There was, but there isn’t anymore,” I said firmly, trying in vain to make him see things my way. “I’ve taken care of it.”

“Yes,” he agreed, shocking me. “And apparently so has Hal.” I stayed quiet, worried that if I protested too much I’d give myself away. Of course, Ranger was the master of silence, so we ended up just staring at each other for a long moment until he finally broke contact to move back behind his desk. He sat down and gathered a few sheets of paper, stacking them together and sliding them across the table toward me. “I’d like to you fill these out so that we have a record of the incident.”

I gulped, eyeing the papers. “Lester won’t be punished, will he?”

“What both men did was against company policy, and their actions require certain ramifications,” Ranger said. “However, I believe the broken nose Lester received will serve as a reminder and is punishment enough.”

I nodded, taking the pages in hand, but not daring to move any more in case I was not yet dismissed. In the next moment, though, Ranger had turned his attention back to the file on his desk, waving a hand toward the door. I guess that meant he was done talking. Folding the pages I held in half, I scurried from the office and closed the door as quietly as possible before pressing my back to the wall beside it and breathing a relieved sigh. I’d survived. And as far as I could tell, Ranger hadn’t caught on yet.

I had mixed feelings about that. While I’d stressed the entire time I was in his presence that it would just suddenly click and he’d realise who I was and have a worse reaction than Lester and Hal put together, now that I was alone and faced with the arduous task of keeping up Kit appearances once again, I just felt tired. Playing a role was okay in the short term, but weeks and weeks on end was exhausting. I don’t know how cops can go undercover for years without any indication of when they would be allowed to be themselves again. I was constantly having to analyse and calculate my actions and reactions to make sure my true colours weren’t shining through. I felt like the only person keeping me from just being me was Ranger, but at the same time, I didn’t feel ready for the conversations that followed when he did eventually make the same realisation so many of the Merry Men were making.

“You survived,” came a nasally voice from right beside me, startling me from my thoughts.

I glanced around, finding a very battered Lester standing a couple of feet away. There was a bandaid across his nose, both his eyes were blackened and swollen, a cut on his bottom lip had scabbed over and a bruise on his left cheek was already greening around the edges.

“Oh my God,” I gasped, my hands automatically flying up to caress the injuries he’d sustained because of me. I caught myself at the last second, though, letting them flutter uselessly around his face as I realised that touching his injuries would probably cause pain. “I’m so sorry!”

Lester gave me a confused look. “Why?”

“It’s my fault,” I pointed out. “Hal beat you up because I wouldn’t report what he viewed as you harassing me.”

To my surprise, Lester attempted to crack a smile, but ultimately ended up grimacing as the movement caused pain to radiate through his face. “It’s not your fault, Kitten,” he assured me, gesturing with a bandaged hand for me to walk with him.

“I wish you wouldn’t call me Kitten,” I said, easily keeping pace with his slow movements this morning. Probably, there were a whole lot more bruises under his black uniform that he was too proud to even mention. “The name is Kit.”

“I give nicknames to girls I like,” Lester informed me, and probably would have waggled his eyebrows at me if he could guarantee it wouldn’t hurt.

“Should I write this down in my harassment report?” I asked jokingly, holding up the folded papers I’d received from our oblivious boss who was once my boyfriend and lover.

“Kit, if we’re putting that kind of thing in harassment reports there should be an entire file cabinet devoted to things I said to Stephanie Plum over the years.”

I sighed, trying to keep up the pretence of being sick of hearing about some woman I’d never met who was probably dead by now for all I knew. “Did she like it?” I asked. It was bizarre, pretending the real me was someone else entirely and asking questions about myself that I already knew the answer to. Finding out what the men thought of me was always interesting though. I’d asked a few of the men that hadn’t recognised me questions about ‘that Plum woman’ and come away feeling that I’d under estimated my worth to this company.

“If she didn’t like it, she hid it well,” Lester explained as we reached my cubicle. She wasn’t the type to get all up in arms about a few too many enthusiastic compliments.”

“She didn’t think you were sexist?” I teased as we reached the control room proper.

Lester simply shook his head and plopped down into the spared chair in my cubicle. I took my seat as well, curious as to why he was hanging out with me. It didn’t take long for me to find out though. As soon as I was settled he leaned in close, and in a voice barely above a whisper, told me, “Hal knows. That’s why he was so outraged by my treatment of you. He found out who you really are from his wife and went ballistic, raining down on my ass... well.... face, mostly.” He paused a moment, considering. “At least he didn’t physically abuse you.” The tone of his voice told me he was subtly referring to the fact that allowed his anger to get the better of him and ended up hurting me.

“Physically abusing you is no better,” I told him firmly. “Has anyone spoken to Hal about it all?”

“Cal spoke with him last night and Tank’s doing the same this morning. I’d have done it myself, but I was a little busy getting my face put back together.”

“I’m so sorry,” I repeated, swallowing a new pang of guilt. “This is all my fault. If I’d just grown a pair six years ago...”

“Kitten, relax,” he said, using the cringe-worthy nickname he’d assigned to me even before he knew it was me. “I’ve had a beating like that coming my way for a long time. I’m surprised it’s taken this long.”

“I should talk to Hal and explain.”

“You should give him some time to cool off first,” Lester said. “But I fully endorse a full explanation. The guys aren’t going to treat you any different and besides, telling me wasn’t that bad, was it?”

I shook my head, agreeing that he hadn’t gone off his tree or started pitying me because of what I’d shared with him, but without the certainty of whether I slept with Morelli of anyone else that night, I was reluctant to tell anyone else. I’d like to wait for the results of your investigation,” I said. “That way I can give all the facts and deal with the fall out knowing that whatever reaction I get is justified.”

“Hector said it could be a few days before we get anything,” Lester said, shocking me into open mouthed silence. He’d told Hector? I couldn’t believe it! After I’d been so adamant that he keep the details to himself at least for now. I’d opened my mouth to tell him in no uncertain terms how hurt and disappointed I was, but he held up his hand to keep me silent. “I told him only that I needed his help discerning whether you were in the company of the cop that night,” he explained. “Without exact dates it’s out of my comfort zone to carry out such a broad electronic search, and I didn’t want to raise suspicion by asking Morelli directly.

“Good point,” I agreed, my thoughts immediately on the fallout from the kinds of questions Lester would have had to ask Joe. A guy doesn’t suddenly start asking questions about a night that he had no connection to six years after one of the persons involved disappeared and not become the subject of suspicion and scrutiny himself. Especially when the person he was asking was a cop who, at one time, was fairly romantically involved with the person in question. I imagined that if Lester went to Morelli, Rangeman would have the police on their doorstep within the hour, launching a new investigation. And given what I’ve been told about the events after I left, there would be even more ramifications coming from the Rangeman side. In the long run, it was probably better that he’d told Hector.

“What did he say when you told him I was me?” I asked, hoping Hector’s reaction was a hell of a lot better than Hal’s had been. I didn’t think I could deal with anymore violence dealt out on my behalf. “Was he angry?” If there was one person I feared almost as much as Ranger, it was Hector. The teardrop tattoos on his cheek always set me on edge, and the language barrier that left me completely at a loss made me paranoid that whatever he was muttering under his breath while installing a new security system in my apartment was just a little on the sinister side. What I would give to be back in that situation right now with my new language skills.

Lester let out a small, soft laugh. “Apparently he’s know it was you from the moment he spotted you on the monitors, but assumed – since no one else was calling you on your act – that we were supposed to ignore it.”

“Did you correct him?” I asked curiously, wondering if Lester would admit to being so unobservant.

“Of course not,” he said firmly,” he said firmly. “Despite what you see all the time, I do actually have a reputation to uphold. Anyway, point is, Hector’s on the case and it’ll be a couple more days until we have results.”

“Right,” I nodded, starting up my computer. “Thanks.”

“Nothing to it,” he assured me, and I was sure he wanted to make some kind of physical, affectionate contact like he used to, but held back due to the accusations against him – and probably also that it would hurt him. “So in the mean time, Tank is taking over your self defence training,” he said, standing and backing quickly out of my cubicle. “Have fun with that.” And he was out of sight before I could get past the sputtering stage of my shock. I was not going to enjoy getting up close and personal with Tank...

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