I left the crime scene, making a beeline for my truck before anyone could drag me into anymore theory casting circles for another three hours. All I wanted to do was go home and collapse, preferably with a beer in hand. As I passed through the outer barrier, however, my cell began chirping from my hip. This better hadn’t be another murder that needs my attention, I thought, clenching my teeth as I unclipped the infernal device from my belt. I glanced at the display, briefly noting the lack of number, known or unknown, before sighing and putting it to my ear with wary, no nonsense greeting.
“Joe!” came a surprised female voice – had she not been expecting to reach me? I said nothing, waiting for her to identify herself so I could know what I was up against. If this was another of my mother’s plots to get me to settle down... “It’s, uh, Steph... um... Stephanie Plum.”
I didn’t know what to say. Years had passed without a word, a trace, a clue that she was even still alive. Was it really her? Could it be that after all this time she was finally reaching out? What had happened to her? Was it her choice to leave? I had no idea. So many questions raced through my head in those few brief moments after she spoke.
“Uh.. Joe?” she said, letting me know that I’d probably stayed quiet a little too long. Good. The more she spoke the more chance I had to figure out if she was who she claimed to be. “Um. I said it’s Stephanie.”
“Pardon?” I finally said.
“Stephanie Plum?” she repeated, and I could hear the nervousness in her voice increasing. What was going through her mind right now? “You know... Stephanie... Steph... Cup...” My heart skipped a beat in the moment’s hesitation before she finished the pet name I’d given her in our teens. “-Cake.”
I still could not confirm that she was who she was who she said she was, but I couldn’t very well stay silent. She’d think I’d hung up, and with no number to call back I might never get another opportunity to speak to her. “Steph...”Play it cool, I warned myself. Don’t make a big deal out of it and scare her off. I cast around for something casual to say. “It’s... been a while.”
“Uh, yeah,” she said slowly. I’d confused her, I was sure. The old me would have started in with the yelling and accusations almost immediately, but what was the point? “I guess it has,” she added. “How are you?”
Pleasantries. How novel in this situation. I decided to allow the semblance of normalcy continue a few moments longer before getting down to the nitty gritty. “Tired,” I said bluntly. “I just came off an 18 hour shift. Why are you calling?” What I meant was, “Why are you calling now after so long?” but I had a feeling if I said exactly what was on my mind she might disappear into thin air again, and I’d never be able to offer he parents closure. It had eaten at me for so long after she left – I had to believe, given the evidence, that there was no foul play involved and she left of her own free will – that I couldn’t help Mr. and Mrs. Plum find their youngest daughter. They’d looked to me as their lifeline and I’d failed them. Maybe now I could finally set things right.
“I... need your help,” Steph – or at least the person claiming to be Steph – informed me.
Why was I not surprised by that?
“What did you do?” I asked. There were so many ways I wished she would take that question. What did you do years ago that caused you to leave? What did you do recently to make you call me? What did you do in all the years you were gone? What did you do to manage such a clean break? Her reply was seriously lacking though.
“That’s just it,” she said, sounding lost and apprehensive. “I don’t remember. I was kinda hoping you could tell me?”
Of course, I thought sarcastically as I reached my truck and slid in behind the wheel, I know exactly what you’ve done for every second of your life... I really needed sleep, before I did something terrible. “I’m going to need some context,” I managed to say, pushing the scolding thoughts aside.
A crackle met my ear, like she’d let out a deep breath right into the receiver. She was definitely nervous. Whatever she wanted to know must be important. “Six years ago,” she began slowly, obviously choosing her words carefully. “There was a night, where I was... drinking... At O’Flannery’s? The Irish Pub?”
“I recall,” I assured her. And I did. That was the night I’d seen a side of Stephanie I’d never seen before. Sure, she’d broken down a time or two in my presence. And God knows I’ve seen her drunk. But never had I imagined what she’d be like when the two combined. She was a mess. “What about it?”
“I need to know what happened that night.”
“What do you remember?” There was no point telling her things she already knew.
A long pause met my question. “I remember leaving my apartment, and then waking up – naked – in my bed the next morning with a text on my phone from you,” she said in a strangled voice. I guess I could understand why, too. The evidence looked pretty bad from her point of view, especially considering what I’m pretty sure that text said – It was nice to see you let your hair down last night, but we probably shouldn’t see each other again. Yeah, that wasn’t good.
“I don’t know how you ended up in that bar,” I warned her.
“Then tell me what you do know,” she pleaded.
I looked around at my surroundings, still sitting in my truck at the curb by the crime scene. Not exactly the place to have a long discussion about what happened six years ago. “Give me your number, I’ll call you back when I get home,” I said.
“I can’t give you my number,” she said flatly. “How long will it take? I’ll call you back.”
Part of me knew that hanging up for any reason in this situation was a stupid idea. What if she decided that the information wasn’t worth it and didn’t call back? What if this was my one and only opportunity to talk to her and convince her to come home, for her family’s sake? I hadn’t spoken to Mrs. Plum in a long time, but I knew the fact that her daughter was still missing had to be weighing heavy on her heart.
And then there was Ranger...
I don’t know why, but I felt like the guy deserved to have his woman – for that’s what she was – back under his protection. Unless, of course, this whole disappearance thing had been his doing. The whole situation did reek of military precision. No, I mentally admonished, remembering fervour with which he had tried to track down leads six years ago. A man known for his blank face and lack of emotions in all things save Stephanie Plum would not have stooped to letting that much vulnerability show just to keep up worried-boyfriend appearances.
“Joe?” Steph prompted. “Is ten minutes enough?”
I must have zoned out. “Give me twenty,” I said on a sigh. I had to trust that she would call again. If I granted her this, maybe she would let me talk her into coming back.
“Okay,” she said, sounding determined. “Twenty minutes.”
The moment the line went dead, I plugged in the hands free attachment and hooked the earpiece over the shell of my ear, scrolling through my contacts until I found the number I was looking for. I hadn’t used it in years, so there was a chance that it wouldn’t work anymore, but I hit call anyway, biting my lip as I started up the truck and pulled away from the curb, the phone ringing in my ear. Indecision plagued me for the course of three rings. I couldn’t decide if I wanted him to pick up or not. But then he did and I had no choice but to forge ahead. If I didn’t, he’d just beat it out of me anyway.
“Yo,” Ranger said, his usual lack of phone etiquette shining through. And if I wasn’t mistaken, I couldn’t have sworn he sounded just a teensy bit stressed. Had I caught the dark knight at a bad time?
“Ranger, it’s Morelli,” I said, cutting straight to the chase. He’d appreciate that, I was sure. “Have you heard from Stephanie lately?”
Barely a beat of silence passed before he replied. “No.” That was it. Just no. No hint of curiosity at all. A normal man would have asked questions. Why would the woman’s ex-boyfriend be calling him after over five years with absolutely no interaction to ask about said woman? But then, no one ever said Ranger was normal.
“Don’t you want to know why I’d ask such a question out of the blue after all this time?” I asked, frustration magnified by my lack of sleep. “Aren’t you the least bit interested?”
“Are you reopening the case?” he asked in a droll tone. I got the feeling he’d done so just to appease me.
“Not unless you can give me a reason to,” I replied. Nothing. Not that I’d expected him to say anything. The man lived on a limited word budget. “She just called me.”
“What did she say?” Was that a spark of curiosity in his tone?
“She asked about a night six years ago.”
“And what did you tell her?” Now we’re talking.
“Nothing yet. She’s calling me back when I get home. I just thought you might be interested in knowing that she’d made contact.” He didn’t reply. Did that mean he was interested and figured if he said nothing I would just keep talking? Did he know something I didn’t about why Steph left, why she was now reaching out? The man was impossible. “So yeah,” I said, trying to prompt him.
“Let me know how it goes,” he requested, with a distinct lack of emotion compared to the curiosity of a moment ago. And just like that he’d hung up. I wasn’t surprised. From what I’d been told, that was his style.
Shaking my head, I ripped the earpiece off and tossed it on the passenger seat, thinking back to the night Steph had asked me about...
Six Years Ago: Three Months prior to Mexico
I had a rare night off, so was sitting at home, watching the game and relaxing with Bob on the couch. It had been weeks since I’d spoken to Steph, but that was okay, because she seemed happy enough. Happier than I’d ever seen her, in fact. Being with Ranger was really treating her well. Don’t get me wrong, I kept up to date on the events in her life, and was still called out every time something related to her went wrong, like a car explosion, but I didn’t approach. I felt like if I approached I’d be toeing some line in the sand that Ranger had drawn. I had no idea what he would do if he thought I was encroaching on his relationship, but from what I understood he had a fondness for shipping people to third world countries. I liked my creature comforts too much to risk that. But when my brother called to inform me that the Stephanie Plum was drinking like a fish in an Irish Pub with no sign of any Rangeman presence, I knew it I had to step in. I knew something had to be wrong. Call it a hunch.
I threw on the first pants I laid hands on and shoved my feet into my trainers as I made my way out the door heading for my truck. It took me ten minutes to get across town to O’Flannery’s and by that time she had moved from drinking to dancing. I let out a groan. I’d always found Stephanie irresistible when she danced. Something about the sway of her hips swayed, the way her hair fell, her arms snaked out. My pants started to become uncomfortable even as I reminded myself she wasn’t mine. Forcing myself to take my eyes of the woman, now dancing with three tattooed men I was sure I’d seen in mug shots at some stage, I took survey of the rest of the pub, searching for any sign of Rangeman.
No one, just as my brother had said.
Wasting no time, I crossed the dance floor to where she was bumping and grinding shamelessly with the men who I had no doubt were strangers to her. She wouldn’t be associating with them if she knew them, unless, of course, she was on one of Ranger’s wretched ‘distractions’, in which case she still wouldn’t be getting that close to them. And definitely wouldn’t be drinking.
I tapped her on the shoulder, and she spun around so abruptly that she almost fell over. Lucky she wasn’t in heels, or she’d be on her ass by now.
“I think it’s time for you to call it a night,” I informed her when she finally focused her gaze on my face after slowly travelling it up my body. Her sexy grin dropped when she realised who I was.
“No, I don’t think so,” she slurred.
“Yeah,” one of the goons behind her agreed. “She’s having a real good time with us.”
With a roll of my eyes, I grabbed my badge out of my back pocket and flashed it at the pair of them. “Ms. Plum is coming with me,” I said firmly, holding out my hand for her to take. Not surprisingly, she crossed her arms over her chest and scowled.
“I’m not going with you, Joe,” she told me, swaying slightly. “I have a boyfriend now, and it’s not you.”
“Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” I asked.
She shrugged, loosing her arms to hang by her sides. “Probably. He knows everything. He’s like Santa Claus. He knows stuff about me before I do.”
“Is that a problem?”
Stephanie scoffed, running a hand through her hair so that it stuck up at all angles. “A problem? It’s the problem. He knows what I need before I know I need it and gives it to me.”
“Sounds like a caring boyfriend,” I said gently, even though the words tasted like ash in my mouth. “I don’t see a problem with that.”
“The problem is, I don’t know what he needs. Ever!” She threw up her hands, clearly frustrated. “Relationships are supposed to be a two way street. Mine isn’t. I can’t give back to Ranger. The man has everything he needs already. And what he doesn’t need, he acquires without a problem, because he’s stinking rich. I don’t have anything to offer in this relationship, but he doesn’t seem to care.”
“Have you spoken to Ranger about it?”I asked. I was offering relationship advice now?
“Why do you think I’m here?” she asked, spreading her arms out to take in the pub.
“Alright,” I said, starting to form a picture in my head of the events leading up to her arrival here. “So you argued with Ranger and decided to come here to cool off. Drinking isn’t the answer, Cupcake.”
“No, you’re wrong,” she slurred, waving her finger in my face. “We didn’t argue. He said he loves me.”
“And?” I would have thought that was a good thing, but then again, this was Steph. I never did understand her reasoning.
“And I said if he loved me so much why doesn’t he marry me.” She put her hands on her hips as her face contorted into a picture of defiance. “So he tried to propose.”
“Tried to...” I repeated.
“And I ran.”
“So this isn’t an engagement celebration then...” I mentioned unnecessarily.
“No. And I –“
Before she could spill more of her twisted love life, I wrapped my arm around her and started guiding her out of the pub and into my truck. Leaving Stephanie there was out of the question. If anything happened to her I would have had to answer to not just myself, but Mr. and Mrs. Plum as well as Ranger and his company, and anyone else you could think of who held Stephanie dear in their hearts.
The entire way home she rambled about how Ranger was both the perfect boyfriend and uniquely frustrating because of his perfection. I ended up tuning her out after two minutes, but I definitely got the gist of it. Stephanie was afraid to love Ranger because of her past experience with me – including me – and her mother’s influence.
When we arrived at her apartment building I practically dragged her into the elevator. Her legs seemed to have turned to jelly making solo walking impossible and solo standing practically an obstacle course if her comments in the elevator were to be believed. I set her on the couch when we managed to get into her apartment and headed for the kitchen intending to make her coffee to sober up some before she inevitably passed out. When I returned to the living room, however, she was gone, leaving only a trail of clothes as a clue to where she had gone. I found her in her bedroom struggling to get out of her panties. Otherwise naked.
Quickly averting my gaze to the ceiling, I sent up a prayer for strength. If Ranger found out that I was in the same room as his naked girlfriend I’d be dead meat. I had to rectify the situation. Without glancing at the bed – okay, I may have glanced a little - I turned to her dresser and started rummaging through the drawers until I found an oversized Rangers jersey and a pair of boxer shorts. Trying – and mostly failing – to keep my eyes on her face, I approached the bed, clothes held out in front of me for her to take and put on.
I breathed a sigh of relief when she took them from my grasp, but ended up tensing as she threw them across the bed to land on the floor there. The next thing I knew she was on her knees on the bed, reaching for me and, God, did I want to go to her. I tried to retrieve the clothes she’d discarded, and in doing so accidentally skirted a little too close. In the next second I found myself pulled onto the bed, her knees straddling my hips as she pulled at my shirt.
“I love it when you play hard to get, Carlos,” she murmured, nipping at my collar bone as she popped open the top button of my shirt.
That snapped me out of whatever stupor the possibility of sex had put me in, and I immediately pushed her back onto the bed, jumping out of reach before she could grab me again. Of course she didn’t want me. No one compared to the great Carlos Manoso. I stood in the doorway, breathing heavily for a moment as her eyelids drooped, exhaustion and alcohol finally taking over and pulling her into sleep, before quickly making my way out of the apartment. No way was I hanging around to be caught by the murderous men Stephanie kept company with these days.
“And that’s it?” Steph asked down the line after I’d finished explaining. She sounded a little shell shocked. What I wouldn’t give to know what was going through her mind right now; what had prompted her to call after so long. She could have asked these questions in the week following the event, but instead she’d walked around with whatever concerns had finally overtaken her enough to reach out running around in her head.
“That’s it,” I confirmed, neglecting to mention that I’d run into Ranger in the parking lot and received a very clear threat if I had done or did anything to her in the future.
“We didn’t sleep together?”
“Definitely not!” I said adamantly. “I’ve risked my life a fair few times, but I’m not suicidal.”
“Right,” she said. “Thanks...” And just like that, she was gone, her voice replaced by the dial tone sounding in my ear.