TRIGGER HAPPY TWENTY-THREE: A STEPHANIE PLUM-INSPIRED NOVEL
In the middle of the night I woke up, lying on my back, with a nightmare. My head was whipping back and forth on the pillow, I was moaning "no" and tears were streaming down my face. My own cries woke me up. "Shhh", Ranger said, "it's okay", he repeated over and over. He wiped the tears off my face and gathered me up in a hug, nose buried in his chest. He rubbed my back until I started to relax. "Want to tell me about it?"
"Everybody died", I replied.
"It's just a bad dream. You are safe. You are going to be okay."
"I'm not worried about me. I'm worried about everyone else. I don't want anyone hurt. I don't think I could take it if someone got hurt because of me", I said brokenly, starting to get upset again as we spoke.
"No one will get hurt, Babe."
"How can you know that?"
"I just honestly believe it. There is no reason to not believe it. We have threats, yes, but we have eradicated the danger by having you stay here. We will catch Brodie. That's a given. We have to be patient. It will just take a bit of time." He paused, then said "I love you, Babe. I won't let anything happen to you or to anyone you care about."
"You love me?"
"Of course I do. In a non-wedding sort of way." I couldn't say it to Ranger either, but I loved him, too. In an equally uncommitted sort of way. And there was Morelli to think about. He was closer to wanting the whole commitment-white wedding thing, but although I loved him too, I wasn't ready for commitment with him, either. I really did need to figure out my love life soon.
Ranger continued rubbing my back until I was totally relaxed, had given my final sniffle and was sleepy again. Then he gave me a kiss and pulled me tighter to his body. I fell asleep surrounded by the comforting scent of Bulgari Green.
The next morning neither Ranger nor I mentioned the nightmare from the night before. Over breakfast he made arrangements for me to meet him at my desk at three o'clock for another training session in the shooting range and the gym. As we went to leave the apartment Ranger looked at me and said "what did you forget, Babe?"
I looked at him questioningly. I went through the checklist in my head. I was dressed – check, I had both my phones – check, I had brushed my teeth – check. "I give up", I said.
"Your gun, Babe. Remember? If you work for me you have to be wearing one at all times, even on the floor. You never know when you will need one, and I want you comfortable and used to wearing one. It needs to feel like part of your body, so much so that you notice it when it is gone rather than when it is there." Like that will ever happen.
I went to get the gun, getting more comfortable putting on the holster. I joined Ranger in front of the door. "Better?" I asked. Ranger gave a little smile. We left the apartment together to go to work.
Hal and Eduardo were on the floor again at the monitoring stations. Ranger had told me the night before that his expansion plans included adding two new monitoring stations to the control room, to double up the monitoring of client sites as well as the monitoring of Rangeman properties and GPS signals. He said his business was getting big enough that it was difficult for the monitoring staff to look after all the different feeds at the same time. He also said he was planning on selling the Atlanta and Boston offices to his partner, and to buy out his partner in the Trenton and Miami offices. He wanted to keep Trenton because that is where his heart is, and is near his parents' house in Newark. He wants to keep his Miami office because that is where his ex-wife and daughter live. Like me, he was married for about ten minutes in a previous life. Unlike me, he got a daughter out of that union. Although he isn't close to his daughter and is happy that she is close to her mother and stepfather, he feels it is only right that he continues to have some sort of relationship with her. Having an office and crash pad in the Miami area only makes sense.
Hal greeted me as I walked to my desk. "Did you receive any further messages from that sicko?" he asked.
"Yes", I replied. "One. He reiterated that he would kill you and that, once everyone was dead, he would kill me. He added in this time that he would rape me before he killed me."
"We will not let that happen", he replied.
"That's what Ranger says. But I'm not worried about me. I am worried about all of you. That's what I'm having nightmares about."
"You worry about you, and we'll worry about us. We are a team. We'll get through this together", he said. Eduardo nodded his head in agreement. Apparently the entire Rangeman staff knew of my troubles.
I sat down at the research desk, plugged in my earphones, cued up Songza and selected '80's music suited for the workday, and pulled up the company search I started the day before. I continued the investigation into the company and the employees, highlighting that the accountant had been suspected of money laundering in the past. All the other employees looked clean. Finishing the file, I started a company search on a third company for Ranger before getting myself a coffee. When I was in the break room I ran into Tank. "I heard we will be doing some sparring", he said. I looked at him, intimidated, trying to imagine how I would ever be able to take down Tank.
"Yeah", I said. "Although I think that will be a long way away. I'm not very good at protecting myself."
"I've seen you in action", he said. "Remember when you attacked that terrorist in the parking garage? You are pretty good when you are riled up. It's just that you could be better. You need to know how to fight when you aren't riled up and when you are frozen with fear. It needs to become second nature with you. Don't worry. You'll get there. By the sounds of it, it won't be long before we are sparring together."
Wow. Two big speeches from Tank two days in a row.
"Did you tell the staff to be on high alert?" I asked.
"Yes, I told them yesterday. Ranger said you got another message last night."
"Yeah. It threatened Rangeman staff and Morelli again. I hate having him threaten all of you that way."
"Then I guess you know how we feel about him threatening you", he smiled. He came over and gave me a one-arm hug. It felt like I was being hugged by a tree. "You're part of our team, Steph. We don't let people mess with our team. We'll get through this." He let me go, picked up his coffee and selected an apple, and left the break room.
I finished running the company search and started running the employee searches. The company research showed this is the fifth company the owners had started. All five companies were the same type. The previous four went bankrupt, apparently due to poor location. The owners chose not to change the location, but rather to stay in the same spot, with each new company. I shook my head. If the company was not able to survive the first four times, how can they not realize that something needs to change in order to survive the fifth time? I noted it down on a sticky note and moved on to the employees. The owners were related to each other. Stepbrothers of some sort. One is an alcoholic. The other has domestic abuse charges against him. The rest of the employees were clean. I noted the oddities and closed the file.
I walked the two completed files down to Ranger and popped them onto his desk. He walked into his office just as I was leaving.
"Have you already had lunch?" he asked.
"Nope. I wanted to get the "Dollar Depot" done before I broke for lunch. I put the two companies that I completed this morning on your desk", I said.
"I haven't had lunch yet either. Do you want to grab some food and meet back here in a couple of minutes?"
"Okay." I went to the staff room and grabbed a turkey, stuffing and cranberry sandwich, a strawberry yogurt parfait and an apple juice. The parfait was the closest thing that I would get to happy food at the Rangeman offices. I was starting to go into dessert withdrawal.
I met Ranger back at his offices. Ranger had a bowl of chicken noodle soup, some crackers, and a pear.
I told Ranger about my impressions on the two companies, and the worrisome tidbits I had found. "See," he said, "this is exactly the sort of thing I want you to pick out of the research. If the person working the research desk is going over the files, and then the project manager goes over the files, the chances of potential problems getting missed are greatly reduced."
"I'm not sure how helpful I am being. You would have picked up these facts yourself."
"Only if I had time to fully read the file. I may have missed it if I only had time to skim it." I thought Ranger was humouring me, but what do I know? He looked pretty serious as he said it.
"Are we still on for three o'clock?" he asked.
"Yup. I live for shooting", I answered.
Ranger gave a little smile. "Liar", he said.
"How could you tell?" I asked, smiling. "I thought I hid my disdain so well."
"Are you getting used to wearing the gun?" Ranger asked.
"Yeah. I almost forget sometimes that it is there."
"That's what we want, Babe. The next step is to remember it enough that you will be able to use it when you need to, much like you would an arm or a leg. They are just a part of you and they aren't part of your consciousness, but when you need them you are able to use them without thinking."
"I don't think I will ever get to that point."
"Don't sell yourself short. You are a fast learner and you have a good survival instinct. You may not ever be as comfortable with a gun as I am, but I want you to be a better shot than Lula is." A few months ago Lula shot twice at a skip's truck but missed the truck and instead hit Ranger's car with one shot and grazed my arm with the other. Lula is a terrible shot, but quite comfortable with using a gun. In comparison, I don't like guns, recognize that I am a terrible shot, and usually hide mine in my cookie jar. "You don't have to like guns, but in this business you do need to comfortable carrying and using them. How do you like the baby Glock compared to the gun you have?"
"I like it better. It's easier to use and to load, and because it is lighter it wouldn't weigh down my purse as much."
"That will be your gun as long as you work for me, Babe. And you should be carrying it in a holster where you have easy access to it instead of in your bag. You get to keep the holster as long as you work for me as well."
"Aww, you know all the best presents to give a girl." Ranger gave a full-on smile. I looked at him and smiled back. Ranger not smiling is gorgeous and hot. Ranger smiling transcends words. He is a sight to savour.
"I'll get diamonds for you next time. I still hope you will continue to work for me after Brodie is caught. I can even offer you part-time work if you feel you need to continue skip chasing." He pulled me up into a kiss, one hand sliding down my back to rest on my butt, the other pulling the small of my back closer to him until there was little doubt as to what Ranger would like to do at that moment. As the warmth of his hands sunk in, he deepened his kiss. I instinctively leaned into him and my hands pulled his head down further, closer. After a few moments, Ranger pulled back. "As much as I hate to say this, I have to get some more work done before I meet up with you in a couple of hours." He gave me a quick kiss and slid his hand from my butt up to my waist, holding me loosely. He gave me another quick kiss and let me go, picking up his garbage and dishes and starting for the door. "Think about it, okay?" he said, picking up his previous conversation. In my dazed state, I took me a few minutes to figure out what he was talking about.
I left Ranger's office and, after getting rid of my garbage and dishes, walked back to the research desk. I plugged in my earphones and noticed I had another message. I decided I would listen to it with Ranger right before we went to the shooting range. I inputted the name of the last company from the pile Ranger gave me, and started to work again.