The next morning I decided, as I
slurped up the dregs of milk from my cereal bowl, that I was going to begin
setting things right today. My life had spiralled wildly out of control since I’d
arrived back, and it was time to start reeling it back in. It must have been
the shock of being back in my home town where I’d always allowed things to get
beyond me in the past that allowed my brain to step back from the reigns and
let others take over for the last four weeks, because I’d had no problem
keeping steady control of my life events in the six years I was in Mexico
In just 26 days I’d allowed Tank to coerce me deeper and deeper into this false identity he’d given me – which I had only minimally protested in the beginning. I’d let Lester treat me like a worthless sack of crap, almost literally kicking me around the floor. Ranger had been awarded a big heaping helping of control over my life, even if he didn’t realise it, and then there was whatever was going on with Hal...
There was no mistaking that his problems were a direct result of finding out about me being me. I mean, he’d been concerned for my welfare where Lester was concerned before he found out, but something tells me that he wouldn’t have beat the shit out of man for just any old woman. So I really needed to clear the air with him ASAP. Problem was, I didn’t know what to tell him. I didn’t particularly want to open the mixed bag of emotions that was my miscarriage, because, from past experience, I grew unstable when forced to speak on the topic; hence why I avoided it at all costs. I didn’t like not being in control of my life, and the miscarriage was probably the lowest point I’d had on that front. Lower even, than discovering Dickie on the dining room table with Joyce, and that was saying something.
I sat at the kitchen island for a full ten minutes after finishing my breakfast, devising a plan of attack that would hopefully lead to me claiming back my life and my identity. After making a quick call to my father intending to arrange a time to finish catching up, but being subjected to his answering machine, I was on my way to Rangeman to begin my mission.
First port of call, like any other morning, was my mandatory gun session with Cal in the range, followed by a venture into an area of the building I’d never been before: Hector’s domain.
His head snapped up from whatever gadget he was working on the moment I walked through the door and his face immediately split into a wide grin.
“Hola, Estephania,” he greeted warmly. “Take a seat.”
I accepted his offer, glad to know there was no love lost between us, not that we were close to begin with. “Qué pasa?” I asked, hitching myself up onto the stool on the opposite side of his work bench.
“You’re anxious for the results of my search,” he informed me in his usual Spanish, and I got the feeling that he was testing me, trying to see if my Spanish really was as good as he probably heard from the other men. “I thought you would wait for Lester to come to you.”
“I need them sooner rather than later,” I informed him apologetically, also in Spanish. “If you have them.”
For a long moment he simply stared at me, his pale eyes piercing, delving deep into my soul. It was the type of analysing look Ranger used to give me when he was trying to decide how important it was for me to tell him the truth. Usually it ended with a shake of the head, an almost smile, and a light, “Babe.” With Hector, though, it ended with him abruptly standing and heading for the door. When I asked where he was going, he simply gestured for me to follow.
He led me to what I thought for sure was going to be a dungeon, judging by how far down we had to go and how complicated the security system attached to the door appeared to be. It wasn’t though. Instead, I found myself stood in open mouthed shock as I took in what appeared to be some kind of media room. Walls covered in screens, a rotating sofa in the centre... add some hydraulics and he could turn this thing into a simulation roller coaster, and I would be all for testing it out.
Hector chuckled, drawing my attention from the sofa where he’d settled. “Good idea” he agreed. “But perhaps not here. No one would ever get any work done.”
“True.” I didn’t even bothing wondering if I’d spoken my thoughts aloud, there was just no point. “What is this place?” I asked, plopping down beside him on the sofa as the screens came alive.
“My secret project,” he explained, dragging a keyboard toward him. “I started it just after you disappeared, but never got to use it for its intended purpose.”
“Which was?” He had me curious now.
“Finding you, of course.”
Silence stole away my questions for a minute or so as I stared at him, idly tapping at the keys. “Why didn’t you get to use it?” I asked, so quietly that I could barely hear my own voice.
“Direct order from the boss man to stop looking,” he replied with a shrug, and hit one final button with a flourish. In the next instant, all the screens around the room froze, except one. It seemed to be showing a bar scene. Hector tapped a few more buttons and the scene in front of us narrowed until we were looking at grainy footage of the old me slouched at a bar, drink in hand.
“Is this the night I...” I didn’t know how to finish that sentence. Is this the night I got blotto drunk and ruined my life?
Hector nodded slightly. “This is the night. O’Flannery’s Irish Pub,” he explained.
“Irish pub?” I questioned. I didn’t even know there was an Irish pub in Trenton...
“They know how to drink.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Deciding, instead, to keep my mouth shut as the footage sped up. Hours passed on the time stamp and I watched in horror as I lost count of the number of glasses I emptied. Eventually, I pushed back my bar stool and walked away out of that camera view, but luckily, Hector was on the case. The screen we had been been watching froze and the one below it came alive. It didn’t take long to find my curly headed self on the writhing dance floor.
I watched myself drunkenly dance with three men I didn’t recognise before Hector started another screen up beside it and I was distracted by the sight of Morelli walking through the door. Hector tracked his progress through the bar across a series of camera angles until he ended up on the dance floor in the same frame as me.
Some kind of argument ensured – not that I’m surprised, considering who it was, our track record, the amount I’d drunk and what had happened earlier in the evening – and eventually Morelli wrapped a firm arm around my shoulders and lead me out, through another series of camera changes, the parking lot where he corralled me into the passenger seat of his truck before climbing in behind the wheel.
Hector allowed us to watch the truck drive out of the lot before hitting me with a series of traffic came shots of my drunk face all over the inside of the cab, mostly with my eyes half lidded and my mouth hanging open at odd angles – what Mary-Lou always called talky-face when it turned up in photos, because that’s what was going on when it happened.
I glanced to my companion, the man who’d probably analysed every second of the footage he was now showing me, wondering what his thoughts were on all of this. It couldn’t be painting a pleasant picture of me.
Eventually, with all those lovely faces staring back at me, Hector brought up the security feed from the parking lot of my apartment building. Joe’s truck entered and parked by the rear entrance to the building – lucky bastard – and he shepherded me out of the car and inside to the elevator on the next camera switch. By the end of the thirty second ride up, I was leaning on my ex-boyfriend rather heavily, practically hanging off him, and appeared to giggling..
Dear God, I’m not sure how much more of this I could take...
With no cameras inside my apartment, I was forced to wait the agonising sixty seconds for Hector to speed through half an hour of static footage. Finally, my apartment door opened and Morelli stepped out, tucking his shirt back into his jeans. My chest tightened, throat constricted. Did he look more dishevelled now that he did going in? Had I slept with him? Surely there was another explanation for why he would need to be re-tucking his shirt... like maybe he was secretly diabetic and after I’d passed out he’d taken a moment to give himself an insulin shot in his stomach. That’s plausible... Then again, half an hour was certainly long enough for a quickie, but I didn’t remember any tell tale signs of having done the deed with anyone the next morning. I had been severely hungover, though. This was killing me.
While I continued to stare at the paused image of Joe in my hall, working myself into an intense state of panic, Hector was watching me carefully, probably analysing my reactions and coming to a conclusion so near to the truth that there was no point in hiding. Lester had said he’d told Hector only the pertinent details, but Hector had a brilliant mind; I wouldn’t put it past him to figure out exactly what was going on with only the details he’d been provided with up until this point.
“What’s wrong?” he asked quietly in Spanish, setting the keyboard aside on the small table in front of him.
I took a deep steadying breath, wondering if I really could get the necessary words out to voice the question I needed to ask. “Doeshelooklikehe’sjusthadsex?” I finally breathed, everything running together in one really long word.
He said nothing for the longest time, staring at my face like it was a complex math puzzle he was trying to solve, then abruptly returned his attention to the screen, mumbling under his breath in rapid Spanish. I caught only a word here and there, nothing to clue me in on his thinking. Eventually, he slumped back in his seat and informed be in plain English, “It is possible.”
“Shit,” I uttered, forlorn. “Shit, shit, shit.”
Hector, placed one of his large hands over my fists where they were balled in my lap.
“I need a definitive answer,” I told him, earnestly. “I need to know what happened inside that apartment just then.”
“You should ask him if you had sex that night,” Hector suggested, like it was obvious. And it probably was if you were thinking logically, which I’m pretty sure I never really had. Any sane woman would have found out exactly what happened that night six years ago and removed any seeds of doubt that may have sprouted then and there.
No one had ever accused me of being sane.
Hector was right, though. I needed to find out the truth right from the horse’s mouth. There were just a few problems with that idea that I could see, such as the fact that I was supposed to be Kit Danger. If I met with him in any capacity it would be all over the Burg in a matter of hours and my cover would be blown. I’d have to answer to everyone and their dog. Especially my mother. I could just imagine the phone ringing off the hook as everyone informed her that I was playing pretend, I was an undercover spy, I was on the run from the authorities... and whatever else the gossip mill would churn up. All in all, I’d like to keep as far away from that scenario as possible, and also hopefully clear my conscience a little before I announced my presence to the town.
“Call him,” Hector suggested, like he’d been listening in on my thoughts – which was always a possibility with the Merry Men. “Talk to him on the phone.” But, of course, that option had its drawbacks too, like Morelli getting my number and possibly tracing it, and realising I was, indeed, back in town. “Use my phone,” he offered, gesturing to the phone on the little table in front of him that I hadn’t noticed before. “It’s untraceable.”
The corners of my lips tugged up into an involuntary, but very grateful smile. The Merry Men had always known exactly what I needed and endeavoured to provide it. Whether by Ranger’s order or their own volition, I was never quite sure, but it certainly came in handy.
“Thanks,” I said.
“De nada,” he assured me, and stood to leave. “I’ll give you privacy.”
I watched him part of the way to the door before picking up the phone and realising there was one vital piece of information I was missing. “Hector wait,” I said, quickly spinning around to face him. “I don’t -.”
“Press F10,” he said before I managed to get my question out, proving once again that the Merry Men would always take care of me when he added, “All his information is in the system.”
I pressed the appropriate button just as the door clicked behind him, and the screen in the corner switched to one of the search programmes we regularly used for background checks. I quickly typed in Joe’s full name and waited the two seconds for his basic information to pop up on the screen beside it. It took only a moment to scan the details and get to his cell phone number. I keyed it the phone before I could lose my nerve and waited through more rings than I could stand. Fortunately for the mission I was frozen, unable to move, so I was still hanging on when the ringing was replaced by a voice.
“Morelli,” he greeted, sounding tired.
“Joe!” I said, louder and in a more surprised voice than I’d intended. “It’s, uh, it’s Steph... um... Stephanie Plum...”