Six Years Ago
I made my way across the main floor of the Trenton building toward my office like every other day, my thought already on what angles we hadn’t explored in the case of Stephanie’s disappearance. As I approached the door, though, a tingling sensation on the back of his neck gave me pause. I’d only ever gotten that feeling when Steph was near. I wasn’t going to allow myself to get my hopes up, though. One of the men would have noticed Stephanie’s presence in the building and alerted me to the fact immediately, rather than allowing me to go through my morning routine as usual, uninterrupted. No way would her sudden appearance go unrecognised.
Unwittingly, I took a deep breath before easing open the office door. Someone was waiting inside, I knew. The question was, who?
“Carlos!” the woman greeted me merrily. “Fancy meeting you here.”
She was slouched in my leather office chair with her purple converse sneakers propped on the desk, and her hands tucked casually behind her head. Like it was no big deal for her to turn up randomly in my office.
“It’s my office,” I pointed out, emotionless. I couldn’t let her see how much this ambush affected me. “What are you doing here?”
“Can’t a girl visit her favourite cousin?”
Rather than answer, I stepped into the room and closed the door behind myself, closing the distance between me and my young cousin. “What’s happened?” I demanded. The only reasons I could think of that she would be waiting for me in my office instead of insisting I meet her at a restaurant or cafe were related to violence, devastation and death. None of which boded well for the family.
“Nothing’s happened,” Serafina informed me easily, dropping her feet to the floor and leaning her elbows on the desk instead. “Unless you count the emails I got from Papá.”
I stiffened, instantly on high alert. Uncle Frío had been on an undercover mission in Mexico for the last year and a half. If he was contacting his daughter there had to be a pressing matter. And if my cousin was coming to me with the matter it had to be dangerous and/or requiring a level of secrecy and security that only I could provide. Which begged the question: Why didn’t Uncle Frío contact me directly like all the other times? Perhaps he was being watched and couldn’t risk his enemies figuring out his connection to the US government?
I’d sworn on his life that I would protect Sera from any harm that may come her way while her father was under the radar. At twenty-one she was old enough to not require a constant babysitter, but I had agreed to keep an eye on her well being anyway. She was required to check in by phone or in person – never text – at least once a week and had been urged on multiple occasions to call me if she needed assistance of any kind. Perhaps that’s what this email was about.
With an ever so slight shake of the head, I snapped myself out of my thoughts and refocused on the girl now tapping away at my computer like she owned it. I felt my fists clench of their own accord, simultaneously wanting to reef Sera away from my desk and the private and confidential files she currently had within reach, and wanting to rub the back of my neck to get rid of the insistent – and unfounded – tingling feeling that still lingered there. I didn’t understand why it was there at all. Stephanie was a thousand miles away wearing a burka and working as a fish monger for all I knew.
“What’s happened?” I repeated, unable to think of a single other things to say. I needed details and I needed them now. And so help me, if Sera didn’t start spilling soon I would be forced to drag her to the interrogation chambers and torture the information out of her, cousin or not. It was a pity they didn’t have a water board set up, because I suspected she would confess easily when faced with water dripping directly onto her forehead.
“I got an email from Papa,” she repeated easily, still tapping away at the computer, causing me to wonder if she had actually managed to bypass all my security codes and get to the desktop or if she was just faking it to annoy me and put me on edge. “Well, several emails, actually,” she amended. She removed her hands from the keyboard briefly to scoop her hair over one shoulder and grin at me.
“Is he in trouble?” I tried a different line of questioning.
“Of course not,” Serafina replied with a laugh. “He contacted me, remember? Why would he do that if he was in trouble? I’m no use to him in such situations.”
I ground my teeth together, trying very hard not to let loose the anger I felt bubbling just under the surface of my cool, calm and collected exterior. “Just tell me why you’re here.”
“The emails, duh,” she said, pulling a goofy, haven’t-you-been-listening face as she stood from the chair only to hop up onto the desk and sit cross legged on the blotter next to the computer monitor. “Apparently Papa has heard of your missing woman,” she explained as she settled herself further onto the desk.
I had to work fast to keep my blank face in place, my thoughts instantly jolting back to Stephanie. “What missing woman?” I asked cautiously. I hadn’t told anyone that Stephanie was missing, least of all my family.
“Your Stephanie,” she said innocently.
“She’s not my anything,” I said mildly, though with the mix of anger and frustration coursing through my veins, a regular man would have been gritting their teeth. We’d been in a relationship, of sorts, for years and had finally gotten together, but there were problems. Four months ago she’d disappeared without a trace. I took that to mean she didn’t want to be with me anymore.
“But you want her to be,” she grinned knowingly. “That’s what the family says.”
“Lester,” I growled under his breath. It had to have been him. He was the only one with a link to the family, because he was the family. Lester’s great aunt was my grandmother, thereby making us second cousins. If the family knew anything about Stephanie Plum, it was Lester’s loose lips that dripped the information.
Rather than verbally confirm or deny Lester’s part in the crime, Sera gestured to the desk chair she had vacated, indicating that I should take a seat.
I did so and promptly turned my attention to the computer screen where Sera’s email account was displayed, wondering how she had managed such a feat. Before I’d gotten too far into contemplating her options though, she clicked on one of the most recent items in her inbox and got me to read the content.
You remember that photo of Stephanie Plum Lester forwarded to you a couple of years ago? I need you to send it to me.
I felt a vein pop in my neck as my fists clenched, and tried to contain my ever growing anger. What the hell was Lester doing forwarding photos of Stephanie Plum to the family? I’d fired men for less. At the very least my second cousin was going to get a pounding on the mats. Perhaps I wouldn’t pull my punches this time, send him away in traction. God knows I’d been tempted to do it a time or two before. Like when Lester had first mentioned Stephanie to the family at Christmas dinner that year. He’d spun out a tale lightly laced with the truth and painted a picture for my mother and sisters and aunts and cousins that showed me hopelessly in love with the woman. The love part was true, of course, but I was anything but hopeless. At least I had been until she’d disappeared four months ago.
Before I could delve any further into the past or resurface into what I intended to do to Lester when I eventually left this office, Sera clicked a button and the next email came up on the screen.
Why do you need Stephanie’s photo?
Please find attached the evidence of my need for the photo. You should probably show this to Carlos. I’ll wait for his instructions before making my next move.
I didn’t wait for Sera assume I was finished reading, but instead seized control of the mouse and clicked on the attached files to start them downloading. My heart was beating a rapid tattoo in my chest and I felt sure that if he were to lift my hand from the mouse my fingers would be shaking, but I showed no outward signs of the apprehension that had suddenly gripped me upon reading my uncle’s words.
It took only a moment for the photos to load and suddenly I was gazing upon the unmistakable view of Stephanie Plum through the zoom lens of a camera. She was dressed in olive green shorts, a white singlet and a sheer, button up blouse that hung loose from her shoulder. Her feet were covered in the same sneakers I’d charged Ella with buying after the unfortunate demise of her previous pair. The toes were worn and fraying, and there was an orange splotch staining the white canvas of the left shoe where a child had thrown their popsicle at her. The mass of wild curls that had entranced me from the moment I’d clapped eyes on her was pulled into a large messy bun on top of her head and she seemed to be using a wide brim hat as a fan.
I couldn’t believe it. There was no mistaking that this was the woman I’d been searching for for four long months.
“She’s in Mexico,” Sera informed me unnecessarily. I’d already deduced as much from the evidence I’d been presented with. “Papa thought you should know. He has also offered his assistance in bringing her back to you if you so need it.” I knew that already too. Did she think I skipped the content of the email and jumped straight to the attachments?
“I won’t,” I announced firmly, flicking through the rest of the photos. All were of Stephanie Plum. All taken from a distance.
Sera leaned forward to place her hand on my forearm, stilling my clicking action. She said nothing for a moment, apparently waiting for me to turn my full attention to her, but I couldn’t make myself tear my eyes away from the woman on the screen. “His offer is there if you change your mind,” she said softly.
I nodded that I’d heard her, but kept my mouth shut, my eyes still glued to the screen.
“You are going to bring her back, aren’t you?” she asked.
“I’ll see you at family dinner next month,” I said, rather than answer her. Truth was, I wasn’t sure what to do. Stephanie Plum was the only woman who had ever been able to pull something like this on me, and if she’d gone to the effort of doing so there must have been a reason. It would be best, I decided, to simply monitor the situation from a distance.
When Sera made no move to leave, I glanced at her pointedly then jerked my head in the direction of the door.
“I need to disconnect,” she said, pointing to where her laptop sat on the corner of the desk behind the computer monitor. I had failed to notice it until now and breathed a sigh of relief causing Sera to let out a little chuckle. “You were worried I’d figured out how to get past all your firewalls, weren’t you?” she questioned, pulling cords from the laptop. “I’m tech savvy, but I’m not suicidal, cousin. I merely used your monitor and keyboard.”
“To irritate me,” I added.
“It’s what I do,” she confirmed.
“Celia taught you well,” I said.
With a grin, Sera slipped off the desk and leaned in to place a quick, affectionate peck on my cheek before scooping up her laptop and heading for the door.
“One thing,” I called, just as Sera reached for the handle. She paused and looked over her shoulder. “You breathe a word of this to the family and you’ll wish you’d never been born.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Don’t worry, Carlos. I have no desire to be sent to a third world country. My lips are sealed.”
That night, I sat alone in my apartment and stared at the pictures I’d printed from the disc my cousin had left for me. Pictures of the woman I was sure I loved, if the constant pain in my chest and gut since her disappearance was anything to go by. But then, that could be attributed to any number of the injuries I’d attained in the field returning to wreak more havoc on my body as latent complications. To ease my tense muscles, I poured myself a glass of wine and moved to the sofa, spreading the photos out on the coffee table before me so I could view them all simultaneously.
I had to consider my options carefully. There had to be a reason Stephanie left, if I could figure that out, maybe I could work out a way to convince her to come back.
Convince her? Part of my brain protested. Since when do you go around convincing people to do what you want? Just go down there and drag her back!
To quiet that rogue part of my brain that insisted that I tackle Steph’s absence as I would any skip or criminal, I poured myself another glass of wine. Nothing like impairing cognitive skills to keep you from doing something you might regret, I thought. I knew better than to allow myself to do anything drastic with alcohol coursing through my veins. Had trained myself so that no matter how intoxicated I was, I would not give into my impulsive side. In fact, with substance in my system I felt more in control than normal, because I knew I had to be extra vigilant.
Rushing down to Mexico and dragging Stephanie back – most likely kicking and screaming – was not the way to go about re-establishing our relationship, such as it was. I had had a lot of time to think about Stephanie and what she meant to me over the last four months and had come to the conclusion that despite all my actions that made it clear that I loved her, she still seemed unconvinced and skittish when it came to committing. I just didn’t know whether what I was offering was the kind of relationship she wanted or needed. I hadn’t thought too deeply about how different she was to regular girls. How she needed something other than doting and affection to convince her of my feelings.
Thinking that that might have been the kind of thing that could have driven her away, I pulled a legal pad from a nearby end table and wrote the heading, “Possible Reasons for Steph’s Disappearance.” On the first line I scrawled, needs a relationship she’s not getting. I stared at the words for a moment, really thinking about them. Steph was the kind of woman to take leaps of faith. If she wanted something from me that I wasn’t giving, wouldn’t I have known about it? Would I have had notice to do something about it? The thought that she would be harbouring these feelings without my knowledge was so utterly ridiculous that I immediately crossed it out and threw down the writing pad, watching as it slid under the armchair positioned at the other end of the sofa.
I didn’t care.
Stephanie was in Mexico and I was going to find out why if it was the last thing I did. If it was something she needed to do, then I would let her do it. And I would make sure my men let her do it as well. First thing in the morning I would send a memo to all Rangeman employees stating that company resources were to no longer be used in the attempt to locate Miss Plum.
Not even ten minutes had passed since I’d sent the memo and I had the entire core team pounding on my office door. I should have anticipated this. No way would my best men give up the fight that easily. They’d want answers. Squaring my shoulders and sitting a little straighter in my chair, I called for them to enter. If they wanted answers, they’d get enough to satisfy their curiosity, but not enough to reveal what I’d discovered yesterday. Not until I’d decided what to do about the situation.
“What the hell is the meaning of this?” Tank demanded as he stormed into the room and slammed a printout of the memo I’d just sent onto the desk in front of me. It landed in the exact same place my cousin had perched herself yesterday, I noted in the back of my mind.
“Close the door Cal,” I said calmly.
The door clicked softly as it was closed and then five hulking men were crowded around the other side of my desk. Their arms were crossed over their chests, making their biceps bulge in a gesture that was probably intimidating to the mere mortals on the streets, but I’d known these men for years and had broken each of them individually and in groups, bending them to my will slowly over time. They may think they were tough, but I held all the control in this building, a fact that I was sure they were aware of after all this time.
I leaned back in my chair in a relaxed pose to show that I was not at all affected by their tactics. They could gang up on my all they wanted; I wasn’t going to break.
“Why are we no longer actively searching for Stephanie?” Bobby asked after a long stretch of silence, during which I had the pleasure of staring down each of my most trusted employees.
“Not just actively,” I stated coolly. “We’re not searching for her at all.”
“Why?” Lester demanded.
“It’s a waste of time and resources.”
Hal’s eyes were slightly widened despite his obvious effort to keep the stern expression on his face as he pointed out, “But this is Stephanie.”
“I’m well aware of that, Hal,” I assured him as I leaned forward to rest my forearms on the blotter, hands clasped together over the memo printout. “But the fact is, we’ve spent four months searching for her and come up empty. Her family doesn’t seem all that concerned about her absence, despite them giving up no useful leads. We’re just wasting our time here. Stephanie will show up when she’s ready and not a second before.”
Tank, I noticed when I turned to eye each of my men individually, was staring intently at my face, probably attempting to get inside my head and work out exactly what was going on. He seemed to think that he was able to read me, but I had perfected my blank mask years before meeting Tank. I let Tank see past my walls from time to time in an effort to keep the trust flowing. There was no way Tank could possibly crack it now.