I woke up when Ranger's watch alarm went off. I snuggled into his body, murmuring a complaint as he moved out of reach. "Go back to sleep, Babe."
"Did I fall asleep again here?"
"Sometime when I was massaging your lower back." He finished extricating himself from the bed and tucked the blankets back in around me. "I didn't want to wake you."
He finished in the bathroom, then came out and said "I'm going to do a workout. I'll see you in a while." With a last kiss, he left the apartment.
I could not go back to sleep. I tossed and turned for a few minutes before giving up. I got up and had a quick shower, dried my hair, got dressed in one of my uniforms and applied my makeup for the day, then went on Ranger's computer and found a picture of the trafficker. I printed off a close-up view of his face. Putting on my gun, I took the elevator down to the storeroom on the fifth floor. Grabbing a box of bullets, I went down to the gun range. I attached the picture of Avery, then sent the body target back to the far wall. Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and thought about the unfairness of what Avery was doing. I thought about the poor women who were trapped, basically as slaves, having nowhere to turn for help. And I thought about how Avery was stealing, not of objects but of livelihoods and of basic humanity. Then I took another deep breath and, opening my eyes, I shot a clip into the far end. I refilled the clip and again shot another seventeen bullets into the far end. I repeated it three more times before I brought the target up. At least half of the shots made it into the inner rings of the chest and some had made it into the bulls-eyes. I had avoided shooting at the head.
I put up a clean target, attached Avery's face again, and sent the target down to the end. Taking another deep breath, I tried for head shots. I shot four more clips into the target before Ranger came into the range. I put down my gun and refilled my clip while he brought up the target.
"You did well, Babe." He looked at the target. I looked over his arm and saw that half of my shots made it somewhere into the black centre, while the majority of other shots made it somewhere into the rest of the rings. "Do you want to keep that one?"
"No. I just needed the practice."
I put my gun in my holster and we put away our protective gear. We walked out of the range, Ranger's arm draped around my shoulders. "You scared me, Babe. I didn't know where you were."
"Sorry. I couldn't sleep. Every time I closed my eyes I kept seeing the one cleaner who fell getting out of the back of the truck. Avery kicked and hit her for falling. It made me angry at the time, and it still makes me angry to think of it. And then I started wondering whether I would be able to shoot him if I was in a position in which I had to. I worried that I would not be able to, that I would hesitate. That could be bad. The more I lay there, the more I worried. So I just got up and got ready for the day. I didn't mean to scare you. I should have left a note on the kitchen counter, I guess."
"It's okay. I didn't get concerned until I went down to your office and you weren't there."
"How did you find me?" I asked as we walked onto the elevator. Ranger pressed the number for the seventh floor.
"I tracked your watch and found out you were still in the building. Then I checked the feed until I found you."
"What are you doing today?" asked Ranger after we finished eating our breakfast. I think Ranger was still feeling insecure after not being able to find me, because he had pulled me onto his lap while he drank his coffee.
I gave him a kiss. "Similar day to what I had yesterday, although I hope that I will have more luck in finding Aphrodite and the Averys. My goal is to capture them today. And there is the pizza party at lunch today. What about you?"
"I have a telephone meeting with a potential client first thing, then I am at my desk for the rest of the day. I am available for some time in the gym at four if you are up to it."
"It's a date", and giving Ranger a light kiss, I got off his lap and went to finish up in the bathroom for the day.
"Ranger is driving me nuts", I said to Lula as we were on our way to Hamilton Township to check out Aphrodite's home.
"What is he doing?"
"Every time I leave his sight he gets antsy. The last time, when Berginni kidnapped me, seemed to make an impression on him. I went down to the gun range this morning while he was having a workout and, when he got back and could not find me, he started checking all the security feeds to find out where I was. I don't know what he was worried about happening to me. I was in the Batcave, and there is no risk to me there. But he told me that I scared him."
"Maybe he was afraid that you had left without saying goodbye."
"I don't know. And then, every morning, he wants me to tell him what I am going to be doing during the day."
"Maybe he is just interested."
"Maybe. But I think it is a little more than that. I think I honestly scared him and he is not used to being scared. He is used to treating fear as an unproductive emotion and ignoring it, not giving into it. I am not sure why he is giving into it now."
"Maybe you just matter to him more than anyone else."
"Maybe." That was something to think about.
We arrived at Aphrodite's house and parked a couple of houses down the street. I phoned her home phone number listed on the bond agreement. The number was out of service. I phoned the cell number listed on her business card that she had given to me, but was unable to make contact. I didn't leave a message.
Noticing that we were near her work address, I phoned her work. She worked for a wedding planner as a sales consultant. The office said she would be out of the office until Monday, but it sounded like they were being coached on the other end. I gave my contact number and explained why I was calling, and told them I would drop by with my business card.
The call felt a bit off to me. Not trusting the receptionist's word, Lula and I went to the wedding planner's offices. I again asked for Aphrodite. The receptionist said "just a minute" and walked away. She walked back a few minutes later and said that Aphrodite was unavailable. "Does that mean she is out?" asked Lula as she sat down on the couch and opened up a magazine. "Because I can wait all day here. I haven't read this here magazine yet, and I read verr-y slow-ly. I often sound out the words using my outside voice."
"It means that she is out and will not be back until Monday."
"Re-al-ly", Lula said, carefully pronouncing each syllable. She opened up the magazine and, reading slowly out loud, her finger marking her place on the page as she read, she proceeded to pretend to read an article on a scam pulled off by one particular wedding planning company.
Trying not to laugh, I pulled Lula to her feet. "Come on", I said. "That is enough reading practice for today. We will wait for these good people to call when Aphrodite shows up, as they know they will be harbouring a fugitive if they do not. And although Aphrodite's charge is minor and will likely just result in community hours, the courts are not always so lenient for those who harbour criminals. I asked them to call me when they heard from Aphrodite. They promised they would." As we left I glanced back to see the receptionist frantically searching through the magazine for the article that Lula had just "read".
"We struck out, but I still think they know something and I suspect that Aphrodite was actually there. I just don't have enough evidence of that to perform an office-wide search", I said to Lula. "Want to go after the traffickers?"
When Lula agreed, we did a drive through of a doughnut shop to pick up our standard surveillance fare – a dozen assorted doughnuts and a couple of small coffees.
I drove to the traffickers' house, parking a couple of houses down and across the street and set up our surveillance food. There was no activity at the house. I used my binoculars to look at the windows. I saw a curtain twitch, but could not see any further activity. I phoned the home phone listed on the bond agreement, but no one answered the phone.
Lula and I watched the house for two hours before our bums started to go numb. Just as we were about to leave, a Trenton Police squad car showed up behind us. Thomas Nilchinni and Andrea Antone were in the car. Lula started to get antsy beside me.
"Hey, Steph", said Andrea, walking up to my car. "You are getting all the neighbours excited. One of them has phoned in a complaint about you being here. Who are you staking out?"
"Hey, Andrea." Andrea and I go way back, well into childhood days. A few years older than Andrea, I used to babysit both her and her sister periodically. "Do you two want a doughnut?" I handed out the box to them. There were four doughnuts left.
"You still have doughnuts left? You mustn't have been here long."
"A couple of hours. I'm trying to cut back on my doughnut intake. I am stopping at three now." Andrea and Thomas each took a doughnut and handed the box back to me. "I have a couple of skips that are outstanding. That is their house there. I won't be doing the takedown myself. I am just doing the legwork and Rangeman will be doing the takedown. I have to find them, however. I found one of them the day before yesterday and I think the other one is currently in the house. But I don't want to go in until I know for sure. I already tipped them off the day before yesterday when I was chasing them. I don't want to tip them off again today."
"What are they up for?"
"Human trafficking and, from what I could see the day before yesterday, they are still taking advantage of those poor women that they brought into the States illegally." I showed Andrea my Right to Apprehend papers.
"There is more than one?"
"Yes. It is a husband and wife team. I feel like Sylvester the Cat when I say this, but they really are despicable."
"Okay, I will talk to the neighbour."
"Tell them that I will likely be back, but I may drive one of Rangeman's fleet cars. I might have been made. I think there is someone in the house, but they are pretending they aren't there."
"Why do you think that?"
"Every now and then I see the curtain twitch. But I do not see anybody, and nobody is picking up the phone."
"Did you try knocking on the door?"
"No. I promised Ranger that Lula and I would not make contact until we had the Rangeman team behind us. And I am not sure enough that the Averys are in there to call in the team. It could be anybody in the house."
"Okay. We will talk to the neighbour and let them know we have talked to you and that you are here on court business. I know you are calling in the Rangeman team, but if you need more backup let us know. We are in the area. Actually, instead, would you like to come with us to talk to the neighbour? You could give them your card and ask them to call you when they notice your skips have come home."
"Thank you." I got out of the car and walked with Andrea and Thomas up to the neighbour's house. I left Lula in the car. There is no point in upsetting her unduly and I thought she might appreciate the breather by being away from the cops for a few minutes.
There was an old woman standing at the door when we got there. "Ma'am, I am Officer Antone, this is Officer Nilchinni, and this is Stephanie Plum. Stephanie is a fugitive apprehension agent and she is interested in your neighbours across the street. Steph?" she said, handing the conversation over to me.
"Your neighbours were supposed to appear in court on human trafficking charges. They failed to show up. As a representative of their bonds office, I have been asked to find them and return them to the courts before they can import any more slaves. I have been staking out their house in an effort to find them. Do you keep track of their movements? Do you know a good time that I would be able to find the two of them at home?"
"They often are out driving their staff around, at all times throughout the day and night. Most of their staff – if not all of their employees – live with them. I always thought it was really nice of them to offer their home up to their staff that way."
"They do that so they can justify not paying their staff and to keep their staff segregated from anyone who could help them. Slavery was abolished in the US almost one hundred and fifty years ago, but those women who work for them are amongst the most disadvantaged in our society, basically just slaves."
"They always seemed like such nice people."
"I have heard the same said about many serial killers. I will give you my business card. Would you mind calling me when you see the two of them at home? I would like to catch them sooner rather than later, before they prey on more innocents."
"Society thanks you. Also, just so that you know, I will be staking out their house off and on until they are caught. I will not always be driving the car I am driving now, so don't worry if you see another car waiting at the side of the road."
"Thank you for letting me know. I will call if I think they are going to be there for a period of time."
Andrea, Thomas and I turned around and went back to my car. "Are you staying here for a while, or will you take off now that you have a snitch?" asked Andrea.
"I think I will take off. Lula and I have another skip to try for before lunch, and then I have some work at Rangeman to do this afternoon." I said goodbye to Andrea and Thomas, and got in the car. "We have a snitch", I said to Lula. "She is going to call my cell when she sees her neighbours and thinks they will be staying at home for a little bit. Let's hit a bathroom, then go off to see if Aphrodite is at home yet."
We drove to the nearest coffee shop, using the facilities and each buying small coffees. We then headed to Aphrodite's. When we got there, we phoned Aphrodite's cell phone. It again went to voice mail. There were no cars outside her house and there were no garages to store her car in. We did not believe that she was there, but walked up to her front door and rang the doorbell anyway. There was no sound of pets barking, no curtains twitching, no footsteps across the floor, no indication whatsoever that there was anyone in the house.
"That's it", I said. "I have work at Rangeman to do and at this point I do not think it makes sense to stake out the house. The bond is too low a value for us to do so yet, especially since we know that she is due back at work at the beginning of next week. Today is Friday, so that is only three days away. Why don't I drop you off at the office and I go to Rangeman, and we can pick up surveillance on the traffickers again tomorrow? I have a pizza party to attend."
"Pizza? I like pizza." Lula sounded hopeful. I am not sure if it was the thought of free pizza, or the thought that she might actually get to see inside the Rangeman facility. That was something I would not do, however. Letting Lula loose in the Rangeman facility would be like letting a cat loose in a flock of pigeons. The men's feathers would be all ruffled and they would likely never be the same again.
"I'm sorry, but this is a solo party. It is a long story, but I am the guest of honour and it is to celebrate the fact that Ranger has hired a female, and to show them that I can belch and fart with the best of them."