I asked Ranger to drive me to my apartment. He drove me to his instead. "Your car is there, Babe. It makes more sense." I could not argue with that logic.
Getting up to Ranger's luxurious seventh-floor penthouse apartment, I entered into his peaceful oasis. Ella had been through, and the quiet stillness of his flat smelled of a mix of Ranger's Bulgari Green bath products, the lemon scent of cleanser, and the fresh flowers on the hall table at the front door. It was a pleasing aroma. I walked back to Ranger's bedroom suite. Ranger has the best master suite I could ever imagine, taking up a full half of the apartment. He has a large five-piece bathroom, an enormous walk-in closet, a king-sized bedroom, and a large office/den area. I have stayed in Ranger's apartment enough to know that I have a shelf of my clothes in his closet and a drawer of my toiletries in his bathroom. I also have a shelf with my favourite foods in his kitchen. This is necessary as I don't always like Ranger's healthy food choices. Sometimes a girl just has to have peanut butter and olive sandwiches on worthless white bread.
I walked back to Ranger's closet, dogged two steps behind by Ranger. "I'm okay, Ranger. You don't need to worry about me."
"I know. But I want to inspect all your cuts to see if there is any glass left in them."
I sighed. I had been ready to capture my third skip of the day, not get inspected for cuts. Of course, getting inspected for cuts by Ranger might not be so bad. I brightened up, thinking just where I could direct Ranger to look.
"Oh, no. I know that look. You obviously haven't looked at yourself in the mirror. This will be an actual inspection for glass, not a mutually naked inspection of our bits." He took the hem of my top in his hands and stripped it off me. There were cuts all down the inside of my top. "How on earth did you get cuts here?" he asked.
"The glass fell down my top when the building exploded. I thought I got it all out, but the seatbelt pushed some of the glass shards into my skin when we were driving. I was able to knock the rest of the shards out when we were at the precinct."
He had me hold me arms out at my sides, then inspected me from all angles. "I don't think there is any remaining glass in the cuts", he said. He then gently felt my head and inspected the area hit by the brick. "You have a noticeable lump, and it will be sore for a few days. Do you have a headache?"
"Yes. But I don't want to go to the hospital." Going to the hospital would result in gossip spreading like wildfire through the Burg, the neighbourhood in which I grew up. This, in turn, would result in my mother believing I was on my deathbed. I tried to reserve hospital visits for when I really needed them. "I don't have a concussion, so I don't think there is a need."
Dressed in my Rangeman uniform pants and one of Ranger's loose t-shirts gathered at the bottom with a hair elastic, I walked out of the closet to join Ranger in his office. "I don't know why I bother outfitting you in a Rangeman uniform, Babe. You seem to always wear my t-shirts instead."
"Your shirts are comfortable, because they are so oversized. Besides, they are reassuring to wear when something has gone wrong." I didn't need to say it, but something went wrong an awful lot. "Do you mind?"
"No, I like it when you are wearing my clothing. It looks good on you. Will you be ready for training this afternoon? I have some time available at four o'clock."
"If I have to", I responded grumpily.
"I noticed that you were fully dressed for the takedown today. That was wise. You never know what to expect when picking up skips and you need to be prepared for anything."
"Yeah, I tried to threaten the carjackers with death if I found them stealing my car, but all that seemed to do was give them a sense of urgency. They were able to steal my car before I had finished climbing to the second floor. Lula says that I wear my niceness on my sleeve and that is why no one pays attention to me when I am being stern and commanding."
"That may be."
"I was especially glad that I was fully dressed when my car was stolen. It would have been a bad thing for my gun to have been in the car."
Ranger looked at me, dumbfounded, his mouth hanging open. "You don't actually leave your gun in the car when you do a takedown, do you?"
"No, what do you think I am, stupid? Jeez. I carry the gun in my purse along with my stun gun. I carry my pepper spray in my pocket, and the Maglite in the car. I let Lula carry her gun, and that is one too many guns out in the open for my liking." I didn't tell him that there might have been a time or two when I have forgotten my purse in the car. I figure what he doesn't know can't hurt him.
"I brought up lunch from the break room while you were in the shower", Ranger said. He got up from his desk and walked with me to the breakfast bar in the kitchen. Ranger has a fantastic kitchen. Dark cherry wood cabinets, black granite counters and stainless steel appliances – everything is top of the line. If I was a cook, I would be salivating over his kitchen. Unfortunately, however, I can barely heat up a frozen lasagne.
On the breakfast bar was an assortment of sandwiches, cut vegetables, cut fruit, and yogurts. Ranger had also brought up a couple of milks. I selected a roast beef and swiss on a Kaiser and put it in the microwave until the cheese turned melty. Then, I took one of the containers of milk and poured it in a glass. Going to my cupboard, I took out a bottle of chocolate syrup and dumped in twice as much as was recommended, stirred it up until the entire glass of milk resembled mud, and took a sip and said "ahh". "Would you like some?" I asked Ranger innocently.
Ranger has a whole theory. Food is there for caloric intake and to provide enough energy and nutrients to help keep your body healthy. He is well able to withstand the draw of the doughnut case. I, on the other hand, believe that food is there to comfort and pleasure you. I cannot withstand the draw of the doughnut case and frequently give in to eating all things unhealthy but good-tasting. It is a system that works for me.
Ranger shuddered. "No, I will leave the chocolate milk up to you, Babe", he said. He took another sip of his very plain milk and had a bite of his baby carrot, without the dressing. And that is what I am talking about. Who eats vegetables without the dip?
"What do you have up for this afternoon?" Ranger asked.
I dunked a red pepper in dip and put it in my mouth. "Whatever files that are on my desk. I also want to research the three new files from Vinnie that I am going to ask Lula to send the particulars on. What about you? Did you want to skip training now that you have lost so much of the day looking after me?"
"No, you will not get out of training that easily. If I have a very productive afternoon I will be able to catch up, and I was planning on doing some work after dinner anyway. Are you staying for dinner?"
"I had been planning on mooching dinner from my parents, but with these cuts I figure I had better wait until they have healed a bit before I see my mother. So yes, if you don't mind, I will mooch dinner here. I don't have any food at my place."
Miguel popped his head in my office. "Hey, chica, your car is in the underground again. We washed it for you."
"Thank you, but why did you need to wash it?" I asked, not sure I wanted to hear the answer.
"You don't want to know."
"I am sure it can't be as bad as what I am currently thinking", I said.
"Let's just say the gang learned a very serious lesson, and at least one member will not be interested in stealing cars in the near future."
"Think of it as us providing a public service", said Manuel as he also poked his head around the corner of my office door. "We are teaching kids not to steal."
"I was wrong. It was as bad as I was actually thinking."
"Yeah, well…" Manuel said as he lifted his hands and shrugged his shoulders in an age-old "what can you do?" sign.
"Were there any fatalities?" I asked.
"Besides through the tracing of the licence plate, can this incident be linked back to Rangeman or myself in any way?"
"No. What do you take us for? We are professionals."
"Just trying to determine whether I need to get a story straight before I meet with the police", I said with a smile.
Lula texted me with the names of the new files. In addition to the reproductive saboteur, there was a woman who was arrested for pranking the police department. I remembered when this happened. The woman, Ava Madison, put talcum powder in a letter and mailed it to a particular police officer, an officer who had arrested her cousin for dealing drugs. Then, she phoned the department and reported "knowledge" of an impending terrorist attack. It was a big deal at the time. She might have gotten away with it if she had not put her return address on the envelope. I searched the files for information on Ava, coming up with her street address, her work history, her cell numbers for the last five years, her height and weight and kindergarten grades. The search engines that Rangeman uses are remarkably invasive. They can find things about yourself that even you don't know.
After creating a dossier on Ava, I turned to the reproductive saboteur, the STI donator, Samuel Heskell. It did not take me long to identify his lack of job and other income. Looking at his school marks, it appeared that his school career was less than stellar. That is saying something coming from me. I was the person who went to college and graduated in the top ninety-eight percentile of my class.
He lived in his girlfriend's apartment on Stark. The not-so-bad end of Stark, thankfully. I prayed my car wouldn't get stolen again.
The last file was for a husband and wife team. They had been caught on human trafficking charges. They had been importing girls from South America to the New Jersey area to work as cleaners. Some of these girls had signed up to be transported to the USA, thinking that they were signing up for a better life. Others were kidnapped off the streets of South America. The girls, knowing little English and believing they had a huge debt to pay back to the importers, worked for almost peanuts trying to save enough money to bring more of their family over into the States. The system was set up so that the importers would never get paid back, and the cleaners would always be considered illegal residents, forced to work for next to nothing for the rest of their lives. The women were basically slaves, helpless, robbed of their dignity and dropped into a life of forced servitude. I would be happy and proud to bring the traffickers back into the system.
Finishing researching the files for Vinnie, I turned to the Rangeman files. At four o'clock, Ranger knocked on my door with a box of bullets in his hand. "Come on", he said. "let's shoot some targets."
I followed him down the steps to the basement. Walking down the hall, I heard someone in one of the holding cells loudly cussing up a storm. "That is a skip waiting transportation to Georgia", said Ranger. "Someone is coming to pick him up."
"I don't think I have ever heard that many swear words attached together in a single sentence before, and I have met some pretty vulgar people during my stint as a bounty hunter."
"He is rather eloquent, isn't he?" said Ranger. He held the door open to the observation area of the range for me.
Putting on protective gear, we walked into the shooting area of the range. Ranger set up the target for me, going straight for the body targets. I gave him a dirty look.
"Instead of shooting at the chest, this time I want you to aim for the head", said Ranger.
I swallowed hard. "Can't I just aim for the leg? That would slow down the skip."
"There aren't any legs on the targets and, besides, that wouldn't stop the skip from shooting you. The head is a hard target to shoot for. It is small and keeps on moving. If you can hit the head squarely, you can hit the chest squarely as well. And if you are so much in danger that you need to shoot someone, you will continue to be in danger until you incapacitate them. The best way to do that is with a kill shot."
"Just for the record, I hate this."
"Just for the record, I know", he shot back. "You don't have to like it, but you do have to know how to do it."
I took out my gun and lined up the sights. I aimed at the head, hitting the forehead and face with some shots. The rest of my shots went into the shoulders and chest, or out into space.
Ranger cued up a clean target while I refilled my clip. "Again", he said.
I aimed for the target again and shot in another clip. Once again, only some of the bullets went where I was aiming. Ranger cued up a clean target while I refilled my clip, then gave me some reminders on how to aim more accurately. By the end of my third clip I was starting to improve. By the end of my fourth I was hitting a significantly higher percentage of head shots. By the end of the fifth I was hitting most of my shots in the body somewhere.
"For this last clip, aim for kill shots on the chest." He cued up a fresh target. With having a wider area to shoot, I was able to get all my shots in the chest area. I was pleased. As much as I hated shooting guns, it was nice to see the improvement in my accuracy.
"With focusing on a smaller target like the head shot, you will get better at shooting at larger areas like the chest", said Ranger. He handed me the used targets. "Do you want all of them, or just the first one you shot?"
"I'm confused. Why do I want any of them?" I asked.
"It is a good idea to keep your first one so that, in a couple of weeks when you have improved, you can look back on this target and see the difference. When you are learning it is a good idea to keep one a month, or even one every couple of weeks. It gives you added incentive to keep on practicing when you see the practice is making a difference."
We put away our safety gear and walked down the hall towards the elevators. "The skip is quiet."
"Yeah, when you are in the holding cells, practicing in the range sounds like bombs going off. I imagine we scared the skip into silence."
We headed up to the gym. There was a sign on the door saying that the gym would be closed for an hour. I looked at Ranger and raised my eyebrows. "I am tired of the guys staring at you when you are working out. After Adam and his harassment of you, I am particularly attuned to the attention." Adam was a guy from Sales who decided that we loved each other and, no matter what I said, he persisted in his belief. Ranger fired him when he found out about the harassment. The harassment continued after he was fired and he was eventually charged and had a restraining order placed against him.
"I feel bad though. The guys shouldn't have to miss their workouts just because I am coming into the gym."
"They aren't missing them. The gym is open twenty-four hours a day. You are in here for only one hour. This means that the guys have the remaining twenty-three hours to work out. If they have a problem with that, there is a gym over on Hamilton they can go to."
I kept on Ranger's shirt today. I was wearing a padded push-up t-shirt bra. After my shower I had not changed into my sports bra as I felt the tight fabric would irritate the cuts.
We spent the first fifteen minutes of the workout stretching. Then Ranger led me through a variety of moves in slow motion. "In another few days we will be back to doing regular workouts, but in the meantime this will get your body used to the movements again." We finished with another fifteen minutes of stretching. By the time we left there were three guys waiting outside to use the gym.
"I really don't have a problem with working out when the guys are there. The team is respectful. I only had a problem with Adam because he did not respect my wishes when I told him that I did not want to go out with him. Even Sven is respectful."
"Sven? From Sales? Were you having a problem with him?"
"Not really. He asked me out, I said no, he begged, Tank overheard, Tank told him off and threatened to fire him, and that was the last I heard from Sven." Tank is second in command at Rangeman and is the Head of Operations. Built like a tank, he has had Ranger's back since Rangeman started up as a company.
"So I don't need to get involved?"
"No, there is no more problem. Tank took care of it. I don't mind people looking as long as it is respectful. I don't even mind people asking me out, again as long as they respect my wishes when I say 'no'. Adam was only a problem because he kept trying to foist himself on me and it didn't matter what I said, he just kept coming at me." I shuddered. "If you want me to be part of the team, to be treated like one of the guys, you need to treat me like one of the guys. This means working out together just as much as eating together."
"I hear what you are saying, but I will never treat you like one of the guys. For now I will keep the gym closed and the security feed scrambled." Ranger opened the door to his apartment. "What skips are you chasing for Vinnie?" he asked. Apparently the conversation about shutting down the gym was closed.
"I have four outstanding files. One is a person who wanted his girlfriend to get pregnant so he tampered with the condom by putting holes in it. Instead of giving her a baby, however, he gave her an STI. He is being charged with sexual assault. I'm not happy to be chasing that one. He lives on Stark Street. It doesn't matter what I do, I always seem to get in trouble when I am on Stark Street."
"The second felon is someone who was mad about her cousin being arrested for drug trafficking, and so she mailed a letter full of talcum powder to the investigating police officer, and called the officer with the information that the envelope was coming, that it contained ricin, and that it was the beginning of a terrorist attack. The police department was on high alert for days before they received the envelope and had the chance to analyze the powder. It sounds like the kind of crime that is so well thought out, that the person performing the prank was incredibly smart. And then you find out the person pulling the prank was especially stupid, as she put her return address on the package carrying the powder. She's being held on a high bond, so she will be an important one to capture.
"The last two files are a husband and wife team. They sicken me. They are human traffickers who are bringing girls from South America into the country illegally to use as cleaners. Some of these girls signed up with the traffickers, thinking they are coming to a better life. Others have been kidnapped off the streets in their home villages. They are preying on the girls' desperation and paying them little, if anything, to do the work, telling them that the money they earn goes to cover their room and board. They are stealing more than their money. They are stealing the girls' lives. I will be happy to get that couple. I always hate to hear of stories where people are taken advantage of."
"Good luck on them. If you need any help, let me know." Ranger picked up the phone and called down to Ella that we were ready for dinner.
"I have you on speed dial. If my capture on Stark goes anything like my last few on Stark have, I will need it. It was nice of Miguel and Manuel to retrieve my car today. Apparently they had to capture my car by performing a little hit and run. I got a clean car out of the deal."
"They said there weren't any." I took our dinner from Ella at the front door and brought the tray to the table. I put the casserole dish of fluffy white rice, and the sizzling dish of stir-fry on the table. Ranger brought over dishes and cutlery, while I poured cold water from the fridge dispenser for each of us. I brought the glasses over while Ranger put out napkins. "And when I asked them whether the hit and run could be traced to Rangeman, they said they were more professional than that. I think they were a little insulted I had asked."
Ranger laughed. "I imagine they were. They are trained to get the job done with as little notice given by others as possible. It's like if you are on a mission. You need to get the job done without people knowing that you are even there, let alone that you are completing a job. Often your life depends upon your ability to blend in and remain in the shadows."
"I never think of the Rangeman staff as having those high level of skills. The guys do, but I am used to thinking of everybody as just a bunch of good guys, guy-next-door kind of guys."
"That may be true, but at least half of the staff have military backgrounds, many of whom were SEALS or in the Special Forces. The other half are split between those who were hired for their potential to be good security personnel, with the rest hired for their more illegal skills. I have some of the best lock breakers, computer hackers, and cat-burglars in the business on payroll."
"And then there's me."
"Yes, and then there's you. You were hired because you are good at research. Your luck and stubbornness are benefits. You have good instincts and you listen to them when you suspect something is wrong, and then you spend the time and energy trying to prove or disprove what your gut is telling you. I can teach people how to use the search engines. That part is easy. I can't teach people how to identify whether there is something hinky in someone's profile. I can't teach people how to work on a file until the middle of the night just because something seemed off. And I can't teach people how to hang onto their convictions like a dog with a bone, and then try to prove themselves right or wrong. But that is what you do, regularly and consistently. I give you flex hours and part-time hours because I know skip chasing is important to you, and also because I know your work ethic will make sure the work will all get done, even if that means you have to work a lot of overtime to do so. Don't think I haven't noticed that you have been pulling forty to fifty hour work weeks here in addition to your skip chasing. You are incredibly good at what you do, and that is why you are part of the Rangeman team."
"You actually see stubbornness and all those traits as being good? Those are usually the same qualities that people list as some of my more negative attributes."
"Then they are fools. On the research desk, those characteristics are essential to doing a good job. Now that you have done the job for a while, what do you think of doing research?"
"It's kind of boring, but I like it when I find a particularly difficult piece of information that I know most people would have missed. And I like being able to analyze the information and point out things that I think are a little off. The new office is nice. I am able to close my door and play music at the same time as I do the work, which means that I am falling asleep a lot less. Of course, being located closer to the coffee maker may also have something to do with that. I like having the regular income as well. It has been a long time since I had an income I could rely on and it is nice getting ahead of the bills for a change, rather than playing Russian roulette with them at the end of the month."
"How are you finding it fatigue-wise? Between your two jobs you are working a lot of hours."
"So far, so good. I think it helps that I am not chained to a desk and can move around throughout the day. I am eating all my meals here, which means that I am not worrying about grocery shopping or making meals for myself quite the same, so there is some time saved there. It also helps that I have basically been living here since I started the job at Rangeman. Everything has been done for me. It is more than just meals and grocery shopping. Ella has also been doing all my laundry and cleaning. I may find it more challenging now I have moved back home again."
"If you ever get too tired to drive home, my bed is always open. Even if I am not here, my bed is open to you."
"Thanks." I put the last mouthful of chicken and cashews in my mouth and sighed with pleasure. "Ella can sure cook. Even if I learned to cook, I could never cook as well as Ella can."
"That is just because you haven't had to. Cooking is easy and fun. It is letting your creative side out without having to be artistic. It just takes a bit of time, especially when you are learning."
"Do you know how to cook?"
"My parents owned a restaurant, remember?" he said with a smile. "I learned to cook when I was quite young. It is not something I have time to do anymore, but it is a lot like riding a bike. I still know how. Your mother is a good cook. How did you not learn?"
"I was not interested in learning how. My sister wanted to learn how to cook and was quite good at it. I didn't wish to compete and, besides, I was terrible at it. Pretty soon I learned that the more I muffed up, the greater the chance I would be released from kitchen duty. I started to become incredibly inept in the kitchen. It wasn't long before my family teased me for my lack of ability, but would avoid asking me to help out. I didn't mind the teasing because I knew it was self-induced. And I was happy watching whatever sports game was on the TV with my dad. Now, however, my sister can turn out a perfect three-course dinner and I live on people's doggie bags. I guess it does pay to work hard."
"Knowing how to cook is not the be-all and end-all. You do other things well. Everybody has their strengths. Ella could not work the research desk." He finished his last bite of dinner, then pushed his plate aside. "There is a ball game on tonight. Do you want to stay?"
And here is the thing. I really wanted to stay. But I thought, for my own comfort level, I had better go home. Time spent with Ranger lately was feeling domesticated, normal. The problem is that there were no promises made between us. We are doing things backwards. Since I had basically been living with Ranger for the past two months, we had already done the comfortable, lived-in part of the relationship without doing the beginning. It's true that we had been friends for years, but Ranger has a lot of secrets and I am not sure if I can say that I truly know him. Sure, I know the important things – his integrity, his sense of honour, his generosity, his determination, his intelligence, his strength. That is the Christmas tree. But what I don't know are all the decorations. His family, his friends, his hopes, his dreams, they are all missing. I know him enough to know I could trust him with my life. I don't know him enough to be able to tell his story. Until I know Ranger's story I am leery of commitment with him. I don't know if he even wants commitment. I don't know what he thinks of me. There is so much I don't know.
"Thank you, but I think I had better go home. Rex is waiting for his dinner." I stood up and put the leftover food in the refrigerator. "Besides, you have to catch up on the work you weren't able to get done today when you came to help me."
Ranger looked steadily at me, then captured the excess fabric of my shirt in his hands and pulled me over to him. He gave me a deep kiss that had me forgetting about Rex's need to eat. Then, slowly breaking away from me, he said "keep my number on speed dial. If you need anything, I can be there in under ten minutes."
"Thank you. I'll remember that."
"Will you be in the office tomorrow?"
"I have those four skips to capture, so it will depend upon how the captures go. I anticipate that I will be in at some point, although I am not sure when. It may just be in the evening hours."
"I am around the office tomorrow. Come see me when you get in and we will see if we can squeeze in another training session."
"Fun, wow. You really know how to show a girl a good time", I said with a flirty smile.
"I don't know. Getting all hot and sweaty with you at any time is classed as a good time in my books."
I didn't know what to say to that. I wasn't even sure if we were still flirting, or whether we were talking seriously. I stretched up and gave Ranger another kiss, then picked up my bag and left.