TRIGGER HAPPY TWENTY-THREE: A STEPHANIE PLUM-INSPIRED NOVEL
The next morning the alarm went off at five thirty. Ranger set it early, wanting to have a work out before the day got started. I barely woke up, just registering that he had left the bed before I fell back to sleep. Two hours later, freshly showered and with coffee in hand, Ranger woke me up for the day. "Get up, sleepyhead. It's time for breakfast." I growled. Ranger pulled me into a sitting position and pressed the coffee cup into my hands.
"Bless you", I mumbled. I pried my eyes open.
"I take it you slept well last night?"
"I think I'm still sleeping."
"Well, wake up because the day has started." Ranger took my hand and tugged me out of bed, pulling me towards the kitchen. "Ella made Denver scrambled eggs this morning for breakfast. They are one of my favourites. They have ham, cheese, peppers and onions mixed into the eggs. You'll like them."
We sat down at the breakfast bar, and I helped myself to some toast from the bread basket. As I buttered the toast, the coffee started the neurons firing and I slowly woke up. "What do you have to do today?" I asked Ranger.
"I have two accounts that I am currently reviewing. We have had them for a while, and I need to go over the accounts to make sure they are still as secure as they were the first day we put the systems in place. There have been changes to the way crime is being committed. There is a lot more computer crime than when I first put the systems in, so I want to make sure the systems still meet the security needed by the companies. Then, we have the shooting range booked at two o'clock instead of three o'clock today. At three o'clock we will meet Tank in the gym for some sparring. We will then quit for the day a little earlier so you have time for a massage before dinner. I felt bad pushing you through dinner last night. You really stiffened up. How do you feel today?"
"Stiff, but nothing I can't handle."
"Take some ibuprofen. It's still on the kitchen counter from the other day."
"I'm worried about sparring with Tank. He's so big. And what happens if I get lucky and actually hurt him?"
"That will be his problem. Tank doesn't get hurt easily. If he gets hurt it will be because he wasn't fast enough and that would be good learning for Tank as well."
I ate my eggs. They were really good.
"I won't be able to wait for you to have your shower this morning before I go downstairs. Don't forget to wear your gun when you get dressed."
"Would I forget?" I asked, smiling.
"Only every day so far", Ranger said, shaking his head. He got up and finished up in the bathroom before giving me a kiss and leaving for the day. I poured myself a second cup of coffee and finished my eggs and toast. I piled the dirty dishes into the dishwasher, and went into the bathroom for my shower and to get ready for the day. Getting dressed, I decided to wear my Rangeman fatigues with the belt holster in addition to my Rangeman t-shirt and hoody. I took my phones and keys with me, locking up after myself, and went down to the research desk to start my work for the day.
As I went into the control room, saying hi to Hal and Eduardo, Eduardo nodded to me and Hal gave me a big smile and said "hi".
"Have you received any more messages from that guy?" he asked.
"Daily, at least once. Yesterday's message again was that he would kill everyone and rape me. He keeps saying the same sort of things over and over again. At least he has developed some consistency. At first the messages were all over the place. He has become a lot more focussed over the last few days."
"I guess that is a good thing", Hal said. "At least you know what he wants to do and you can prepare for that. Ranger can give you some pointers on what to do if this guy is able to get you into a rape position, for example."
"We were working on that yesterday. Today I will spar with Tank and Ranger will watch and give pointers."
"I know you are probably covered with Ranger and Tank, but if you ever want anyone else to spar with I would be happy to help."
I thanked Hal and went back to the research desk. There were four new files on my desk. I looked – all of them were from Sales. Since I had finished all of Ranger's files the day before, I moved on to Tank's requests. His requests weren't for new accounts but rather on individual employees in existing accounts. In most cases these were new employees the existing company was thinking about hiring. Tank had three requests. I was able to complete all of Tank's requests within an hour. I picked up the files and walked them back to Tank's office, grabbing a cup of coffee on the way.
"I heard that I'm going to spar with you this afternoon", he said when I popped in his office.
"I'm worried I might actually connect for once and hurt you."
"If you hurt me, I will deserve it for not jumping out of the way fast enough."
I smiled. "That's what Ranger said. But I still worry anyway."
Tank smiled. "Look, when I was in Special Forces I was captured and tortured. If I can survive that, I can survive you beating me up."
"But you don't understand. My signature move is to kick a guy in his nuts."
"Thanks for warning me. I will make sure to keep you in a nuts-free zone and I'll wear a jock. Trust me, I've been kicked before and I will be kicked again at some point. It's very uncomfortable, but it will not kill me."
"Okay, tough guy. I will try my best to hurt you. Here are your files." I started to walk out the door.
"Steph? It will be worth getting kicked to have someone working the research desk again. Thanks for the files."
I was able to finish the research requests made by Operations by lunchtime. Most of those requests were short requests, much like Tank's requests had been. I distributed the files to the requesting parties before heading to the break room and grabbing a tuna salad sandwich, a small container of baby carrots and dip, and a cranberry juice. I sat in the break room to eat my lunch. Miguel came in to select his lunch, and brought it over to my table to eat with me. "How is the research desk going?" he asked.
"It's okay. I miss being out and about though, but seeing how I am currently sequestered in the building it is keeping me from going insane."
"I missed being out and about, too. There is no natural light in the research area. Even the overhead lights are dim for the guys in the control room. And it is as quiet as a tomb in there. It gets to you after a while. At least, it got to me. I am so glad you came to join the company. I can't tell you how much I hope you stay."
"Thanks. I'm still not sure if I will stay. I don't want to make any decisions while my life is in upheaval like this. I guess I will stay at least on a part-time basis for a couple of weeks after I go home. I can't be full time as I have a number of outstanding skips I have to catch for Vinnie. I don't know. I'm not really thinking beyond the here and now."
"I don't blame you. Look, I heard you will be sparring with Tank today. If you ever need a sparring partner, let me know. I would be happy to help."
"Thanks, I will keep that in mind."
I went back to my desk with the rest of my cranberry juice and started on the files for Sales. These files were largely corporations. Research primarily centres on the details of the corporation so that Sales can make a more focussed and accurate pitch to potential clients. I finished doing the first search by one thirty.
Instead of starting a new file, I got out my phone and listened to my messages. There were three messages since I last accessed my voice mail yesterday afternoon. The first message was "Steph-an-nie. I am getting tired of waiting for you. You will not like it if I have to come after you. Remember that it is your fault when your friends die." The second message was a message trying to get me to subscribe to a new credit card company. The third message was a very angry-sounding "Steph-an-nie. I want you to come out to play. Perhaps if your grandmother or mother were here would you come out? I could show them what I want to do with you. Do you think they would like it? See you soon." I snatched up my phone and went running into Ranger's office.
"Ranger?" I said, shaking so hard I could barely get the words out.
"Babe?" he asked, looking up from his computer. He took one glance at my face and got up to guide me into a seat. He took the phone out of my shaking hand and placed it on the desk. Getting down on his haunches, he took hold of both my hands in his and looked me in the eyes. "What is the message this time?" he asked quietly.
"He is th-th-threatening my mother and gr-gr-grandmother. He says that he is g-g-going to show them what he w-w-wants to do to me." I took a couple of big gulps of air as I tried to keep the panic at bay.
Ranger continued to hold my hands, his thumbs rubbing soothing circles on the back of them, giving me a few minutes to get myself under control. After a few minutes of quiet he asked whether he could listen to the message. I accessed my voicemail and hit play. The messages didn't sound any less sinister the second time around than they did the first.
"I think we need to call Morelli right away about this. At the very least there needs to be greater police presence in your parents' neighbourhood." Ranger called Morelli's cell phone and while he was waiting for Morelli to pick up the phone, he turned Brodie's message into a sound file to email to Morelli. We got Morelli's voicemail. Ranger left a message saying that I had another message on the phone, and that Morelli was to call right away.
We next tried my parents' house. My mom picked up the phone.
"Hi, Mom, is Grandma there with you?"
"No, she's at the beauty parlour. There is a viewing tonight that she would like to go to, and she wanted to have her hair done for it. Do you want me to get her to call you?"
"No, I want you to pick her up from the beauty parlour and bring her home. And I want her to not go to the viewing tonight."
"Are you okay? What are you involved in?"
"I am just chasing a skip right now and he doesn't want to come in. He just threatened to hurt either you or Grandma and I don't want to take the chance that he does."
"Why me? Why do I have a daughter who chases people who want to hurt us? Betty Grilenski doesn't have a daughter who endangers her family. Anna Torres doesn't have a daughter who endangers her family. Why do I have a daughter who always endangers her family? They are hiring at the personal products plant, you know. Why can't you get a job there? At least then you wouldn't be in any danger." My eyes filled with tears at the thought that I was responsible for endangering my family.
"We are looking after this, Mom. Morelli is working on this, Ranger is working on this, and I'm working on this. We will solve the problem. But in the meantime you need to reduce your exposure. Pick up Grandma from the beauty salon. Don't let her walk home. Don't stand at the door. Don't answer the door. Keep the door locked. Morelli will probably come by. I will tell him to call first. Look out the window before you open the door up to him. Okay? Can you do that? Because this is really important. And don't let Grandma go to the viewing tonight. If you have problems convincing her, call Morelli and let him talk her out of the viewing. Or call me. Whatever. As long as she doesn't leave the house. Have you noticed anything suspicious around there?"
"No, nothing suspicious."
"Well, stay aware. And stay safe."
I got off the phone before the tears really started to fall. I was terrified. Bone cold terrified. I was trying to control the tears but it seemed that the harder I tried for control the more I cried. Ranger picked me up and put me on his lap, pulling me into his arms as he rubbed my back and let the tears fall.
"This is a nightmare", I sobbed. "I don't really care what he does with me, but he keeps finding people I care about and threatening them. My mother and grandmother are defenceless. I can't protect them when I can barely protect myself. I don't know what to do." Ranger wiped the tears from my face and handed me a box of tissues. "My mother is right. I am a bad daughter. I keep endangering my family. Maybe I should get a job at the personal products plant like my mother keeps suggesting." I wiped my face and blew my nose, then settled down on Ranger's lap again.
"You aren't a bad daughter. It's just you work in an area of society that has a lot of bad people. Most of the time it is controllable. This time it isn't. But you have friends who are willing to help you with it and you will get through it. Besides, you would go completely insane if you had to work on the boxing line. There would be no 'happy food' runs to the Tasty Pastry any time you feel like it."
Ranger was right. That would be a definite negative.
I sat and listened to Ranger's heartbeat, slow and steady, for a few minutes. Feeling calmer, I took another tissue and blew my nose again. "I'm sorry. I interrupted something when I came in", I said.
"No, that's okay. I was just finishing up and was going to come and get you to head down to the shooting range. I have sent the email on to Morelli – we are just waiting for him to call us back. Do you feel up to shooting at the range while we wait?"
"Sure. Do you have some more Brodie faces to put on the targets?"
"Absolutely." Ranger picked up his Brodie face copies and headed into the storeroom to get a box of bullets. I followed him down to the basement. Once in the shooting range, Ranger said we were going to work a bit on drawing the weapon first, since I was wearing a different style of holster. Then, when I was able to draw the weapon smoothly and rapidly, Ranger affixed a Brodie face to a target and sent it down to the far end of the range. "Pretend that it actually is Brodie there. What would you like to do to him?"
"Shoot him", I said.
"Then go ahead. Shoot him. See how many you can get in his chest." I fired a whole clip into the target. We brought the target back up, and saw that about eighty percent of the shots made it into the chest area. "Load up your gun. I will prepare another target. Try again." I fired another clip into the new target. When we got it back up, I saw that most of my shots had made it into the chest area, and that some had even hit the bulls-eye. Ranger retrieved the bullet casing from my first bulls-eye, giving the casing to me for a memento. "One more time", said Ranger, and he handed me the box of bullets so that I could reload. He sent a new target down to the end of the range. I emptied another clip. This time I got all of my shots in the chest area, and I had more in the centre of the bulls-eye. Ranger and I took off our ear and eye protection and looked at the targets. "Pretty good", he said. "I would love to see how you improve on another round, but Tank is waiting for us upstairs."
"You know, I had two or three people offer to help me with my sparring today. I wasn't sure if it was them being nice or whether they just wanted to spar with the only female staff member", I said with a smile.
"I suspect it was a little of both. Were they bothering you?"
"Not at all. I thought it was rather sweet, actually. I suspect their interest might have gone down if they had heard about my signature move, though."
"Your move being sacking them?"
"That's the one", I said cheerfully.
When we got up to the gym Tank was already there. I asked Ranger to try Morelli again. He did, but there was still no answer. Ranger quietly explained to Tank about the last message that I had received, while I stripped down to my sports bra and pants. Tank's eyes grew a little big when he saw me without my shirt on, but I figured it would just give me an advantage. And against Tank I could use all the advantages I could get.
Ranger scrambled the feed on the security cameras again, and then Tank and I went over to the mats and set to work. When we first started I was finding it relatively easy to get out of the holds. Finally I stopped and looked at Tank. "I really appreciate that you are trying not to hurt me. But I will never learn if you make it easy for me to escape. Brodie certainly won't make it easy for me. You told me earlier today it would be okay with you if I hurt you by mistake. Well, I am saying the same thing to you. I'm okay with it if you hurt me by mistake. Because I know you wouldn't do it on purpose."
Tank looked at me for a few moments, then nodded his head. "Okay", he said. He started doing holds again, in earnest this time, with me trying to get free. Sometimes I was successful based on what I had already learned. Other times Ranger interrupted me, and moved my body to show me what I was supposed to be doing, and still others he stopped and demonstrated on Tank himself. We worked out for two hours. By the end I was sweaty, frustrated, and my body hurt, but both Ranger and Tank said that they had noticed an improvement. They were happy. I was too tired to be happy.
I thanked Tank, and then Ranger and I went up to his apartment.
"I'm worried about Morelli. Why isn't he answering his phone?" Putting my worst fears into words, I said "I'm worried Brodie got to him."
"I'm sure he is fine. There are a whole myriad of reasons why he might not be answering his phone. We just have to be patient." He put his hands on my shoulders and started to massage away some of the tension.
"I'm sweaty", I said, and pulled away from him.
"Yeah, and it kind of turns me on."
"Eeuww." Ranger just laughed.
I headed for the shower while Ranger tried Morelli again. Just as I was turning on the water I could hear Ranger connect to Morelli, and start to talk. Feeling appeased, I washed my hair and body using Ranger's signature Bulgari Green scent. I started to relax in the hot water, and my mind started to wander. I was wondering if the Bulgari Green scent stayed on my skin the way that it stayed on Ranger's, when Ranger came into the bathroom. "Morelli was in a meeting all afternoon and wasn't able to take our calls. He has now listened to the sound file and has said he will take Bob over to your parents' house to sleep there tonight. He has already talked to your mom and grandmother, and they know he is coming. He said he will also be there for dinner and that you owe him one."
I turned off the water and grabbed a towel, drying myself as I got out of the shower. Ranger was standing right there watching, a half smile on his face. "Do you mind?" I asked.
"Not at all. Are you getting shy?"
"Why?" he asked, grabbing another towel and turning me around to dry off my back.
"Because I'm not pulled together. I look like a drowned rat." I tied my towel above my breasts and turned around again.
"Do you think I really care about you looking like a drowned rat?" he said. "You're beautiful, even when you are soaking wet or sweaty. Now are you ready for that massage?" He grabbed the bottle of body lotion off the counter and walked towards the bedroom.
"I'll be out in a couple of minutes", I said. A couple of minutes later, my wet hair combed and my underwear on, I walked into the bedroom and lay down, face first, on the bed, moving my wet hair to the side of my neck to give Ranger greater access. Ranger squirted some body lotion into his hands and rubbed his hands together to warm the lotion before he started to massage my neck. "What area of your body is the most sore?" he asked as he started to knead the muscles.
"Ohmygod – that feels good. I don't know – probably my neck, shoulders and back. But I think my neck and shoulders are sore from the tension from the phone calls rather than the grappling with Tank. But in sparring with you and Tank I was using my back a lot, whether I was twisting it or pulling it. So I guess my back is stiff from the work outs."
"How do you feel about the threats now?" I could feel my muscles start to tense up again in reaction to that question. Ranger just massaged deeper to work out the kinks.
"I'm still pretty worried about my family", I said. "Whether you are a relation by blood or a relation by being my friend, you are all in my family. Or, how I define family, anyway. And family is everything to me. I don't really care about the threat to rape me anymore. But I do care about the threat to rape my mother and grandmother. Just like I don't really care about the threat to kill me. But I do care about the threat to kill you and Morelli. He knows what buttons to push and he is having fun pushing them."
"Now that Morelli is staying with your family and protecting them, you should be able to relax a bit more here. Even before this last threat, I know you were worried about them."
"How did you know?" I asked.
"You talk in your sleep."
"That's worrisome." I paused. "Yeah, it didn't really take me by surprise that he threatened my mom and grandmother. I just thought he would do one of his blanket 'I will kill them' statements though, rather than threatening them with rape. And no matter how much I was expecting it, the terror still took me by surprise."
Ranger finished my neck, shoulders and arms and was working his way down my back. My muscles felt like they had liquefied under his touch and I was struggling to stay awake. He noticed. "Go to sleep", he said. "Dinner will be in an hour. I will wake you up then", and he continued massaging my back until I slipped into dreamland.
For dinner Ella made pork roast with a mushroom gravy and sweet potatoes and green beans. I set the table and put out the dishes while Ranger opened a bottle of chilled white wine and poured glasses. Dinner was delicious. And even better - Ella included dessert. It was a small fruit flan with a single birthday candle in it.
"Whose birthday is it?" I asked.
"It's your birthday? Happy birthday. Now I feel bad. I didn't get you anything."
"You don't have to get me anything. Just you being here makes it special."
"Yeah, but me being here has gotten in the way of you celebrating. What would you have been doing if I wasn't here?"
"Nothing special. Probably eating dinner alone. My parents will have a birthday celebration for me in a few weeks. The extended family usually gets together once around each change in season and has a group celebration. I talked to my family this morning, though. And Julie called while you were in the shower." Julie is Ranger's teenaged daughter. "My friends are all over the world, so I wouldn't be spending the evening with them. They all sent wishes by email. So you being here for dinner definitely makes it special."
"Well, I'm glad I could be here then." Privately I thought it was pretty sad that Ranger didn't have plans. He was such a special guy and he was so alone. I can see why Ella was worried about him. I decided I would give him a belated birthday present. I just had to come up with the perfect gift. I tried to think about what such a gift could be, but I couldn't come up with anything.
"Well. She seems to really be enjoying school and is quite involved in the extra-curricular activities the school offers. Her mother says she is doing well. I don't really know Julie that well, so I don't have much to talk to her about. Our conversations are usually pretty short."
I cleaned up our empty plates before getting a lighter and lighting the candle. Then I sang "Happy Birthday" to him and waited until he blew the candle out. I gave a serving knife and a couple of plates to him, and sat back down at the table. "Did you make a wish? Because you always have to make a wish" I said.
"Good. I won't even ask you what your wish is about, because that will stop it from coming true."
"It involves you."
"Oh, my. Is this something that will cause Morelli grief?"
"If he knew."
"Is this something I would like, too?" I asked.
After eating our dessert, I sent Ranger to the couch while I cleaned up the kitchen. I gave Rex the piece of green bean I had saved from dinner and topped up his water. He still had hamster crunchies left from yesterday. "It is Ranger's birthday", I told Rex. "I should do something nice for him. I know what I want to do, but that would upset Morelli. But it would be birthday sex, and does birthday sex even count as cheating? I don't know." Rex didn't seem to know either. "Good thing my period finished earlier today. Just in case."
I went to join Ranger on the couch, cuddling into his side. He put his arm around me and pulled me closer, brushing the hair off my temple to kiss me. His hand came up to cup my breast and his thumb started to rub back and forth across my nipple. Heat went shooting down to my belly and my toes curled. I arched into the caress. Ranger twisted so that we switched positions and I lay on the couch and he lay on top of me. He started to kiss me. I instinctively pulled him closer. When he added some tongue I was lost. By the time Ranger carried me to bed I had completely forgotten about Morelli.
The first time was fast. When we were finished I curled onto my side, ready to go to sleep. "Not done yet", Ranger said, and flipped me onto my stomach. "I've been wanting to do this ever since I started giving you massages." He started to follow the path that he had taken when he was massaging my muscles, but this time he travelled the path with his lips. He kissed his way down and …