Always the Last to Know

Chapter 8

According to the Centre for Disease Control’s fast stats, the leading cause of death in the United States is heart disease. I’m no medical expert, but I was going to assume that includes spontaneous heart failure brought on by undue stress. I’d been sitting in this conference room for a little over ten minutes and my heart had been racing the entire time. A couple of times, when I’d heard voices directly outside the door, it had skipped a beat as my brain assumed it was Ranger, about to enter and call me on all the shit I was trying to pull.

Now, as I watched the seconds tick by on the screen of the iPhone Tank had provided me with, it was as if my heart was gearing up for one last hurrah. Any second now, Ranger would open that door and my heart would burst right through my rib cage, ending my life and this torment simultaneously.

How the FBI managed to live through situations like this every day, I had no idea. Probably, they had specialist training that made them immune to stress. I wonder how good that must feel.

Thankfully, Rangeman was always, and still is, perfectly climate controlled, so that where I would normally be sweating bullets, the most my body could manage was moist palms. Better get that under control before I had to shake anyone’s hand.

Finally, eighteen minutes after Cal had shown me to the room, offering tea, coffee and water, the door opened and I was automatically on my feet. Somehow, my heart managed to stay in my chest. I suspect it was due to the fact that the man framed in the doorway was definitely not Ranger.

“Can I help you?” I asked nervously, wiping my hands on my dress as I stared into the green eyes of one Lester Santos. Is it possible that Ranger called from his emergency and is getting Lester to do the interview instead?

“Ranger is ready for you now,” Lester said, stepping to the side of the door and gesturing for me to leave. There was no emotion in his face or voice, no recognition in his eyes. Was my disguise really that good? When I looked in the mirror I still saw me. Was that because I was looking harder than everyone else? Or maybe because I had the advantage of knowing that it was still me underneath all this fakery. Either way, two Rangemen had failed to realise who I really was. Would Ranger be as easily fooled?

As I gathered my things and made my way around the table toward Lester, I found myself asking, “What happened to the other man?” I paused, scratching my neck as I pretended to try remember his name. “The one with the, uh...” I glanced up at him through my lashes, pointing to my tattoo free forehead. “You know?”

“Cal’s shift ended five minutes ago,” Lester informed me efficiently, indicating that I should lead the way from the room. “I’m his replacement.”

“His shift ended at quarter past eight in the morning?” I couldn’t help it, I’d never heard of such a thing, even back in my pre- Mexico days.

“We keep odd hours here, ma’am,” he said as he pulled the door closed behind us. “You won’t have to worry about that, though.”

Brows furrowing in a mixture of indignation and confusion, I demanded, “What do you mean by that?”

“I don’t expect we’ll be needing you too work the odd hours,” Lester explained mildly, without explaining anything at all. I’d never seen him like this. Where was my happy-go-lucky, inappropriate Lester? The one who joked all the time and hit on every girl he met? What had the last six years done to this man? I’d have to be sure to ask Tank some more insistent questions later.

“Why wouldn’t I get the odd hours?” I questioned, refusing to move from my spot until I got to the bottom of this. “Because I’m applying for the community liaison position? Because let me tell you, helping the community isn’t just a nine to five job. People need assistance every minute of the day. I’m willing to work grave yard shift if it means keeping people fed and clothed and off the streets.”

“Someone will definitely be manning the centre after hours when we eventually get it up and running,” Lester agreed. “But I wouldn’t count on it being you.”

“Because I’m a woman?” I asked, anger seeping into my tone. I know Lester had been known to make the odd sexist comment, but never like this. It was like he’d undergone a complete personality transplant in my absence. I don’t think I like this new Lester I was currently faced with.

“That’s exactly it,” Lester confirmed, blank face firmly in place.

“That’s sexist!” I exclaimed, though the shock that hit me fair in the chest had my voice barely above a whisper.

“It’s the odds,” Lester countered. “They’re stacked against you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“We don’t hire women.”

I’m pretty sure my chin hit the well kept, industrial carpet at that statement. My efforts to maintain an air of decorum had flown out the window when this conversation started. “Then why even give me an opportunity for an interview?” I asked, feeling rather shell shocked by this new side of Lester. “Why not put on the ad, “women need not apply?”

Lester met my fake grey eyes with his genuine green ones. They seemed to glow with the hint of an emotion I couldn’t pin down. “We’re an equal opportunity company,” he said more gently than he had previously spoken. “We just don’t hire women.”

I shook my head, red curls hitting me in the face. “That makes no sense.”

“I never said it did.”

“You’re digging yourself a hole here,” I informed him.

“Look, we just never end up hiring women, okay?”

“Never?” I asked, knowing for a fact that it wasn’t true.

“Not usually,” he amended, more of that emotion shining through. Had I hurt the men more than I realised when I left?

“But not never,” I pushed, receiving a single raised eyebrow for my comment. Puffing myself up with the false confidence I’d been relying on all morning, I challenged, “Twenty bucks says I’m hired today.”

“You can leave your money with the receptionist in the lobby,” Lester said, sounding more like his old self. “Now come on, Ranger doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

“But it’s okay for him to do the same to me,” I muttered under my breath, following Lester down the hall toward Ranger’s domain.

He stopped abruptly, three feet from our destination, turning to face me with a very familiar gleam in his eye. Now this was the Lester I knew and loved. “Make sure you let the guy on reception know that the money is for Lester Santos,” he said, before rapping swiftly on the door and pushing it open. “Feel free to leave your number along with it.” Leaning only slightly closer to the door, he called, “Kit Danger is here,” and sauntered off down the hall.

I barely had time to draw a breath before I was face to face with the one and only Ricardo Carlos Manoso, ex-merc, Cuban sex god and owner of Rangeman Security. Dear God, he hadn’t aged a day! His face was unlined and just as tan as it was six years ago. His hair was shorter, but still on the long side, brushing the tops of his ears. He was dressed as what could only be described as Corporate Ranger in black slacks, a crisp white business shirt, left open at the neck, sans tie and rolled up his forearms, and shiny black shoes. I’d have swooned if it weren’t for the fact that my brain was yelling at me to pull my eyes back to his face and say something.

“Kit Danger,” I blurted, thrusting my hand in his direction as I snapped my head up. Gee, so eloquent, Steph. No. Kit. My name is Kit. Kit, Kit, Kit, Kit, Kit. Kiiiiiiit. And now I sound insane, good thing I’ve master the art of not saying what I’m thinking. “You must be Mr. Ranger.”

“Nice to meet you Ms. Danger.”

“That rhymes,” I further blurted. “Maybe you should just call me Kit.”

“And you should call me Ranger,” he replied smoothly.

“Of course,” I agreed.

What else could I do? It was clear he didn’t recognise me. There was no spark in his eyes, no hint of any kind of expression or emotion. His posture seemed relaxed, but I could still sense the ever present tension in his bones from across the small space between us. Like a tightly coiled spring ready to be loosed at a moment’s notice.

“Come in and take a seat,” he requested in that way he had of making it feel that you had a choice in the matter, but at the same time he would force you into it if you didn’t do as he said. Can’t say I missed that one. He stepped to the side and used the same gesture Lester had used to usher me through. “Min is the over sized, incredibly comfy and intimidating looking one behind the desk,” he pointed out as I scooted past him. “But feel free to take any of the others.”

Ranger humour. Was that a sign? Had I missed something in his body language? I glanced over my shoulder, trying to gauge his reactions now that we were behind closed doors, but there was nothing to be gauged as he silently crossed the office and settled behind the desk. I quickly followed suit, folding myself as elegantly as I possibly could without practicing, into one of the two visitor’s chair across from him.

With the massive desk and a few extra inches of empty space between us it felt like he was miles away. Like perhaps we would be conducting the interview from opposite ends of the football field.

To be honest, the distance helped.

Six years ago, Ranger would constantly be inside my personal space bubble when he was around, making it had more me to have coherent, independent thoughts, but with the six feet of desk and dead air separating us, I was able to maintain some semblance of the self I had become down in Mexico.

It says here you are fluent in Spanish,” Ranger began, glancing down at the file laid out on his desk. I hadn’t noticed it sitting there before he drew my attention apart from noting the great expanse of room between us, I hadn’t bothered to take in the room at all. My every fibre was dedicated to analysing each little move he made, looking for signs that he was merely playing with me by pretending he didn’t recognise me.

And that’s how I failed to notice that he’d asked the question in Spanish until I was already halfway thought replying, also in Spanish. “I wouldn’t say fluent exactly. But I do okay.”

“You were teach English to under privileged kids down in Mexico?” Ranger asked, switching back to English. “That must have been rewarding.”

“It was,” I agreed enthusiastically, crossing one leg over the other and tugging my dress down yet again so as not to give him a show. “Watching and helping young minds grasp a new language that can help them better the outlook of their villages in the long run is very fulfilling,” I explained. “But it wasn’t just children. We worked with entire communities, teaching them fundamental skills not only in the English language, but in whatever else we could think og that would help them. And also providing much needed resources and care.”

“How long were you volunteering in Mexico?” he asked, his eyes glued to the print out of my resume. I wasn’t sure if it was my version with a different name, or if it was a fake one that Tank put together for me, but I was pretty sure he already knew the answer to his question.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to say it out loud, because what if my answer made him realise who I was and he ordered me to get out? I don’t think I could live with his rejection, even if I did deserve it for ditching out. But I had my reasons. If I had to it all again, I’d probably make the same decisions.

“Kit?” he prompted.

I had to suppress a cringe, hearing my false name on his lips. Despite all the emotions bottled up inside, I really wanted him to just look at me, see me for who I was and then just be relieved that I was back. Not ask questions or be hurt. Just be grateful and pull me into his big, strong arms.

“Around six years, I think,” I admitted, staring at his hands resting loosely on the desk. I knew he was looking at me, cataloguing my every move, but I couldn’t meet his gaze right now. If our eyes caught he would see through my act for sure, and I’d promised Tank I would give it my best shot.

And wasn’t that my main problem right there? I’d skipped town six years ago to regain control of my life, helped people in need nearly every day I was gone, and now, before I’d even touched down on American soil, I’d handed over the reigns once more. I had allowed Tank to manipulate me into this farce and now I was paying for it with anxiety, sweaty palms and paranoia. And who knew how long I would have to keep this up?

“What made you decide to come back?”

I didn’t even need to think about my answer to that one. It was obvious in my mind. “An old friend convinced me it was time,” I replied honestly.

“Tell me what qualities you have that make you the perfect person for Rangeman’s new community outreach centre,” Ranger requested, not even acknowledging my reply to his previous question. This was getting unnerving.

“Uh...” I uttered, before remembering that Kit Danger had better verbal skills than that. “I’m generally very self sufficient,” I began. “Able to work alone or in a group situation. I can handle myself reasonably well in high stress and conflict situations.”

“Would you be willing to train with and carry a gun?” he questioned, interrupting my list of qualities.

“It’s a little counter-productive to have a community worker wielding a gun, don’t you think?” I pointed out, rather than voice my lack of love for fire arms.

“My company has a reputation that precedes it in the Trenton area, as I’m sure you’re already aware. We’re known for being ruthless and sometimes brutal in our protection and apprehensions. I can’t risk our enemies – for want of a better word – targeting you purely because you work for the company and you not being prepared. It is mandatory that all employees carry and can shoot a gun. Self defence training is also a must, unless you can provide details of any prior training you’ve had in the field.”

Deep down, I knew that this was just Ranger being Ranger and covering his and the company’s ass while also asserting what he felt was best for the situation, but I couldn’t help but think it was over doing it a little. Sure, some people who walked in off the streets were bound to be rough around the edges, but would I really need a gun?

“If that is company policy then I guess I’ll have to agree to it, but I think you’ll find that having a gun carrying community relief worker is just asking for trouble.”

“Better safe than sorry, Ms. Danger.”

“Of course.”

“At this stage the building where the relief centre will be located is under renovation, upgrading plumbing and wiring, et cetera. In the meant time you job would be organising furnishings and other equipment required for the day to day running of the shelter as well as working with a team of men to plan out the logistics and convene with other community programs in the city. Does that sound like something you could see yourself doing?”

“Absolutely,” I confirmed, sitting up a little straighter and meeting his gaze more fully. “I’d be happy to assist in whatever way you see fit.”

“Well then, Kit,” he stated, rising from his oversized, comfy and intimidating looking chair and coming around to stand in front of me. “I’d like to offer you a trial shift this afternoon, just to see how you fit in with the men. Come in around two this afternoon. I’ll have Aaron show you around and then you can meet the team you’ll potentially be working with.”

Extending his hand for another shake, he flashed me his two hundred watt grin and I almost let out a little sob as my heart lurched in my chest. This morning had been so topsy turvey between Cal’s hair. Lester’s attitude and Ranger’s inability to recognise me that this small, familiar, friendly gesture almost broke me.

“Th-thank you so much for this opportunity,” I enthused, still struggling with the extra activity in my chest.

“I’ll have Tank show you out and give you the forms you need to fill in,” Ranger explained as I gathered my things and followed him back to the door. Without glancing back or saying another word, he opened the door and stepped out, crossing the hall with his efficient clip and knocked sharply on the door thee. A moment later, Tank stepped out and with a brief, silent exchange between the two men, I was smoothly handed over to the large man’s care.

“Tank,” Tank introduced himself, extending a hand as Ranger returned to his lair. “You must be -.”

“How does everyone here know my name?” I interrupted, a furrow creasing my brow as I shook yet another hand.

“It’s not every day we consider female candidates, Ms. Danger,” Tank explained, taking my elbow to guide me down the hall. I didn’t have to fake my hesitance when he first made contact. He may be a friend, but we rarely made physical contact. Part of me assumed that he tried to avoid it because of his sheer size. On twitch of his wrist and he could probably break the arm he currently held so gently.

He led me past the main control centre, grabbed a packet of forms from a file cabinet I never would have noticed, and headed for the elevator.

As we stepped inside the small box that was magically waiting for us when arrived I murmured, “Thanks,” hoping that he understood that I wasn’t referring to the paperwork. As much as I’d dreaded coming back I could see now that it was the best choice. If I stayed away much longer I probably would have never gotten the courage to come back on my own and be among my friends again. And even though they didn’t know it was me, I was grateful to be able to see them for myself. Hopefully this afternoon I’d get to see even more of them.

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