Always the Last to Know

Chapter 7

I couldn’t believe I was back here, standing in front of this building. Not a lot had changed as far as I could tell from the outside, but that didn’t mean I was about to step into familiar territory. In fact, despite the familiarity of the location, I had a feeling everything else I encountered would be strange to me. For all the years I was gone, whenever I thought of Rangeman I’d envisioned it just the way I’d left it. No new guys; the existing guys never aging or changing. I expected them to greet me with the openness awarded to those merely coming in to work for another day in a long line of days. When I eventually revealed myself, that is. No way would they react like that to a stranger. The point was, I’d imagined the entire town as some kind of living time capsule.

In reality, I knew that nothing would be as I left it. Things change every day. People age. They get sick, injured. They change careers. They move away. They learn. They grow. Life didn’t just sit on the shelf gathering dust until you get back to it. It carried on.

What really drove this point home was every time I thought about my family, in particular my nieces. They were two, nine and eleven when we sat in my apartment watching Shrek the night I made my fateful realisation. Now, as I stared at the little plaque on the door of Rangeman lobby, I couldn’t help but think that Angie would be seventeen, which is far too close to eighteen for my liking. She’d be off to college soon, but all I pictured when I thought of her was the way her eyes lit up every time she entered my her grandparents living room to find her grandfather in his chair. She loved to talk to him, and even though I’m pretty sure he was never truly listening, he grunted and made noises in the appropriate places so it kept her happy for hours. It reminded me of my own childhood.

But I wasn’t a child anymore. And even more shocking to me, neither was Angie. Probably, she knew that things can’t stay the same and that sometimes in order to move forward you had to bite the bullet and do things you never thought you could ever do.

Like deceiving the people who used to be their friends.

No. That was not a necessary act. What I was about to do was purely for my own selfishness. My own stupid convictions that I need to earn what is given to me. I couldn’t deal with being indebted to others, so I was masquerading as a red haired, community outreach worker with a ridiculous name. Worse yet, I was actually going through with it. I had no choice, because just as I’d worked up the courage to step away from the door, intending to return to my rental car, it opened and an unfamiliar man dressed in standard Rangeman black stepped out.

“Ms. Danger?” he asked.

“That’s me,” I confirmed, while inwardly cringing.

“Ranger is waiting.”

“Of course,” I said, though I’m not sure why. “I was just-.”

“Psyching yourself out?” the man suggested.

“Something like that,” I sighed, pinching the bridge of my nose to stave off the headache I could feel building.

“He’s not as hard and calloused as the media portrays him,” he informed me in a useless gesture, because everyone knew that he was, in fact, more hard and calloused than the media portrayed. He used to have a soft spot for Stephanie Plum, but for all I know he’d vowed never to hire another woman when she left out of the blue. (Listen to me! I’m thinking in third person now! This deception farce was already doing my head in!).

“Are you coming?” the man asked, still holding the door open for me.

Fluffing my hair one last time, I nodded shortly, and followed him into the lobby. This was it. The end of my life as I knew it. Stephanie Plum was gone. In her place stood Kit Danger. And I had a feeling if Kit Danger had to exist very long she’d have mental difficulties.

Pushing those thoughts aside as the unknown Merry Man paused at the elevator (note to self, stop referring to them as the Merry Men, even in your head, you have a tendency to spill thoughts from your mouth, remember?), I squared my shoulders and plastered a serene smile on my face. It felt foreign to my facial muscles, and I doubts that I could keep it there very long at this point in time, but I’d made the decision on the drive over here that if I was going to do this, I was going all the way. Every decision I made would be considered in a “What would Kit Danger do?” context. Which, when it came down to it, was more of a “What would Stephanie Plum do?” and then do the opposite.

Usually, Stephanie Plum would be biting her lip and wringing her hands right now, so Kit Danger was playing cool, calm and collected. If only I could tell that to my armpits.

The elevator arrived and I stepped in, expecting my escort to do the same, but instead, he leaned in and pressed the button for level five and stood back. At my obviously confused look, he explained, “Someone will be waiting to escort you to Ranger’s office.” And I was alone once more.

But not quite.

In the back of my mind I was aware that there were two security cameras in this little box and they were both trained on me. With someone watching from the control room. I couldn’t let them know that I knew, though, so I looked around curiously, noting that it was exactly the same as when I’d last been in here – probably because I was the only one that ever used the elevator and no one had even thought about updating it – before digging through my hold all bag for my the lipstick Tank’s sister had provided. I used the reflective surface of the doors to apply a fresh coat of matches-my-hair red lip stain and silently mused how different it felt to be fixing my appearance in this small space, instead of death glaring the cameras while trying to ignore the garbage juice trickling down my back.

Just as I was tucking the lipstick away, the elevator stopped and I had to fight back a moment of panic, wondering who would be waiting to escort me. Something told me I would be perfecting a version of the blank face these men loved so much if I had to keep at this Kit thing. Not that I would, because Ranger was sure to recognise me the moment I stepped into his office. If not before. Maybe he’s been watching the camera feed and has already recognised me. Would I be relieved? It depends on his reaction.

This morning couldn’t be over soon enough. I just needed to present myself and deal with his reactions, whatever they may be, and then go home and quite probably cry the afternoon away. I wonder if Tank had any chocolate in his fridge.

No! Stop it! Kit Danger is a fierce, competent woman who doesn’t care what people think. Especially not ex-military men who own first class security companies that she’s never met.

The doors opened as I was reasserting my serene smile. I felt like I was in a beauty pageant and this was my “I’m so happy to be here” face. I decided right then and there, that that was how I would conduct myself. With the serene poise of successful beauty pageant contestant. Straight back, slow gestures, pretty smiles. It would take a lot of concentration, but if you work at something long enough it becomes second nature. After all, they say it only takes twenty one days to form a habit. Hopefully I would have to be Kit Danger that long, but I could do with some new habits.

“You must be Ms. Danger,” a pleasant voice interrupted my thoughts. It was male, as I’d expected, given my current location, and I blinked up at the face that accompanied it, finding myself staring with a slackened jaw. Cal. I almost didn’t recognise him, with the dark brown hair flopping over his forehead and obscuring half the flames coming from the skull tattooed there. Probably, I was lucky he looked different, otherwise I’d have been caught not staring at his tattoo, which would put the security specialist in him on edge, because really, who wouldn’t stare at such an obvious mark when first meeting this guy?

“Uh, yeah,” I finally managed to utter. So much for beauty pageant contestant. Pretty sure they have better verbal skills than that when faced with a surprise. “Please, call me Kit,” I forced out, mentally breathing a sigh of relief when the words didn’t tremble like they wanted to.

“Cal,” he reciprocated, extending a hand for me to shake. “Unfortunately, Ranger has just been called away to deal with an emergency. It shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes. We hope you have the time to wait. If not, we can reschedule for this afternoon.”

His verbal eloquence surprised me. I never really thought of Cal as a talker. Had that changed in the last six years? Or had I never spent enough time around the man to realise how normal he was despite his job and his outer appearance? “Oh,” I found myself saying. “The man downstairs said Mr. Ranger was waiting for me.”

“Just Ranger, ma’am,” Cal corrected. “And he was waiting, however, just as you entered the elevator an emergency call came through requiring his attention. We’re sorry for the inconvenience. Would you be happy to wait?”

“Of course,” I confirmed, still astounded by the vocabulary on this man.

“If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to a conference room,” Cal responded easily, stepping out of my line of vision and allowing me my first view of the control room. At once both familiar and strange to me, I could see the small changes that had been made over the years. The monitors were more modern. Men walked from one cubicle to another carrying iPads. The walls had been painted. The make shift cubicle walls replaced with sturdier versions of their past selves.

I felt sure, if I walked along the first row of cubicles I’d find Lester, Bobby, Hal and a few of the other men I knew from before I left slaving away at their background searches and take down records. Would they recognise me? Cal didn’t seem to know who I was. I didn’t know if I was happy or sad about that, but I apparently had twenty minutes to mull it over before the big boss returned and everything was blown wide open.

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