TRIGGER HAPPY TWENTY-THREE: A STEPHANIE PLUM-INSPIRED NOVEL
Ranger deposited Rex's cage on the breakfast bar in between the kitchen and the dining room and went to get the first aid kit. I put my bag on the floor of the hall. I didn't know where I would be sleeping. In the past I have periodically had the need to use Ranger's place as a safe house. Each time I have determined I would sleep on the couch, but partway through the night I have found myself in Ranger's bed. Sometimes this is because Ranger has moved me over in my sleep, at other times it is because I have been drawn by the soft sheets and the quilt that is just the right warmth and weight. Ranger has a pretty fantastic bed. It is king sized, so we could technically both sleep in it without bothering the other person. However, I know from experience that, no matter how much I try to stay on my side of the bed, I always wake up intertwined with Ranger. And I know from experience that I like it. It would be an orgasmic situation if I didn't already have an understanding with Morelli. However, since I did it, it was just guilt-inducing.
Ranger looked at my bag on the floor and smiled to himself. Ranger doesn't smile a lot. He more thinks about smiling, and sometimes you can see the corners of his mouth twitching and his eyes crinkling. To get a full-on smile is always a surprise. This was a mouth-twitching smile.
He got a clean cloth and wet it with warm water before washing the blood off my arms. He inspected the cuts for glass, and applied antiseptic. When he was finished he put the kit away, then walked through to the kitchen and opened up the refrigerator. Inside were a selection of sandwiches, cut vegetables and pieces of fruit. He removed an assortment of food and put it on the breakfast bar. He opened a bottle of red wine and poured a couple of glasses, then got out some plates and some dressing for the vegetables. We sat down to our feast.
"You are doing the right thing by staying here, you know", Ranger said. "As much as you don't want to think it, you are in danger, Babe. And I am happy you are in a place where no one can get to you."
"But if I hid here every time someone threatened me, I would be living here permanently."
"That would be good, too. At least I would know you are safe."
"You would let me live here permanently?" I asked, shocked.
"Yeah, I can definitely see sharing closet space. But I know you like to keep your own place. And I know you and Morelli have an understanding of some sort. Whenever you want, though, and especially when you are in danger, you are always welcome to stay here. Even if I am not here, you are welcome to stay. I just ask that you let Tank know first."
"What are you saying? I thought you didn't want promises and fidelity. Doesn't my staying here smack of commitment?"
"It doesn't seem to matter what I want. What I need is to know you are safe. And if having you here at my place means I know you are safe, then it means you should stay with me." He stood up and cleaned up our dinner, signalling the end of the conversation. Ranger had as much of a commitment phobia as I did.
Once the dishes were in the dishwasher and the leftover food was put back into the refrigerator, Ranger went into the hall and picked up my bag. He carried it into his bedroom and put it on the floor in his closet. He then went into the office and sat on the couch, turning on the TV. I went and sat down at the other end of the couch. I couldn't get comfortable. I tried stretching out my legs. I tried curling up in a ball. Ranger stretched his arm along the back of the couch. I fidgeted some more. He watched me for a few minutes, then reached over and grabbed me. He dragged me over until my back was nestled into his side with my head leaning on his shoulder. His arm came around me in a hug with his hand resting on my abdomen and he flipped through the channels until he found a baseball game. Finally comfortable, we settled down to watch the Yankees play the Blue Jays.
Midway through the game my cell phone rang. I tensed up before I remembered that the stalker didn't have my cell phone number. I answered the phone to hear Morelli's voice. "I went by Brodie's house, but he wasn't home. I will try again tomorrow. Is everything alright there?"
"Yup. Just sitting on the couch watching a ballgame. It's quiet here. Are you going home now?"
"Yeah. My mom saved me dinner. I think Grandma Bella made tongue casserole."
I shuddered. To me, tongue is one of those cuts of meat that should be made into dog food. I don't think it is something that is suitable for human consumption. But tongue casserole is one of Grandma Bella's specialities, and Morelli loved it.
When I got off the phone, Ranger said "everything okay there, Babe? I think I felt a full body shudder." I explained about the tongue. "There is only one thing that I want to do with a tongue", Ranger said, "and it's not a cow tongue I am thinking of." Oh boy.
After the game I asked Ranger for a spare pillow and blanket. "I can give you one", he said, "but I will just carry you into my bed once you are asleep. Are you sure you don't want to just start out in my bed? You'll be more comfortable. I promise to stay on my side and keep my hands to myself if you stay on yours." And see, that is the problem. Because once I am in Ranger's bed I find it very hard to stay on my side. And I find it very hard to keep my hands to myself.
I decided on a compromise. I asked for a spare pillow, and I put it down on the bed to divide the two sides. I then put my pyjamas on and finished up in the bathroom while Ranger put on a pair of boxer shorts. Ranger in clothes is gorgeous - all hard where muscles should be. Ranger out of clothes is even better. Trying not to whimper when I saw him, I climbed into the bed and lay stiff as a board, listening to him finishing up in the bathroom and trying not to think about how good he looked in his boxers. I pretended to be asleep when he came out. Without meaning to, I was getting aroused thinking about him and I was mad at myself for it.
Ranger got into bed. Over my fake snores I could hear the smile in his voice as he softly said "good night".
I woke up the next morning at the sound of Ranger's watch alarm. I was lying on Ranger's side of the bed. One of my hands was on his chest, the other down the front of his boxers, and I had a leg hooked around his knees. My nose was pressed into his shoulder and I think I licked his chest as I was waking up. I effectively had him in a Vulcan grip that he would not be able to get out of without my cooperation.
I could hear a rumble coming from Ranger's chest as he was trying not to laugh. He reached over and turned off the alarm. "I woke up a few minutes ago, but I couldn't figure out how to get out of this hold without waking you." I quickly moved back over to my side, checking to make sure that my pyjamas were on the right way. My face burned hot in embarrassment.
Ranger got up and went to the bathroom for his shower. A few minutes later he came out, freshly shaved and showered, a towel around his middle. I watched him as he crossed the room to his closet. "I just had a very cold shower, Babe. But if you keep looking at me like that, I'll have to take another one", he said. He emerged from the closet wearing his Rangeman uniform of a black long-sleeved t-shirt embroidered with the Rangeman logo and black fatigue pants, with his gun at his waist. He went to the phone and called down to Ella, his housekeeper, to let her know there would be two for breakfast.
I used the bathroom while I waited for Ella to bring up breakfast. When she came up she had a bouquet of flowers in her arms. "I knew Stephanie was here", she said. "There was this enormous bouquet of flowers waiting for her at Reception this morning. I brought them up for you and I brought up a vase so you could put them in water. It's always so nice to get flowers." Depositing the breakfast and the morning mail on the counter in the kitchen, she passed the flowers over to me before leaving the apartment.
Ranger came over to me and lifted the flowers, looking for a card. I found the card first and opened it. It said, "you can run, but you can't hide. Next time you are in my sights, you are dead." My face turned white and the card slipped down to the table through my fingertips. Ranger guided me onto a chair and pushed my head between my knees. "Push up against my hand with your head, Babe", he said, continuing to hold my head down. After a few moments I told him that I was alright, and that I could sit up again.
I looked at Ranger. He had white lines bracketing his mouth and the tension around his eyes and in the set of his shoulders showed how upset he was. Breakfast forgotten, he walked over to the phone and called Reception. After speaking to Ralph, the security guard on duty, he got off the phone and passed the information on to me. "Ralph said the flowers were left at the front door this morning. They were there on the ground when he came on duty. Ella had come down to pick up my mail and saw the flowers there. Figuring out you were here, she offered to bring them up."
Ranger then called the control room. He requested a copy of the tape from the security cameras in Reception for the past twelve hours. While we waited for the tape to be sent up to Ranger's computer, we ate a now-cold breakfast.
After breakfast, I went to have a quick shower while Ranger started going through the tape. I washed, towelled off, got dressed, pulled my wet hair back into a ponytail, brushed my teeth, and gunked up my lashes with mascara. I always find that the more mascara I have on, the greater my confidence level. I put three coats on today. I figured I would need all the bravado that I could get. I went out to join Ranger.
"Did you find anything?" I asked.
"Not much." Ranger sounded frustrated. "We have our guy coming up to the door around five this morning and, when he tries the door and finds that it is locked, he leaves the flowers on the ground. But we can't make out anything." He showed me the shots. "He was able to hide his face from the rear camera, but the front camera gets the face shot quite clearly. Unfortunately he is wearing a mask and a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. So all we can tell is that he is about six feet in height. Since he is also wearing gloves, we can't tell the race of the person and we can't test for fingerprints. And since he walks up to the door, we can't tell the kind of car this guy drives."
"I have taken the liberty of calling Morelli. We are meeting him in my office in fifteen minutes to go over the security footage", Ranger said.
Ranger and I met Morelli in the lobby, escorting him up to Ranger's office on the fifth floor. Morelli was furious and the tension felt by the men was palpable. We sat around Ranger's conference table while Ranger outlined the timeline of what happened and showed Morelli the card and the flowers.
"The card will have Stephanie's fingerprints on it, as she was the one that opened the envelope up. But no one else has touched the card, so you may be able to pull some prints off it." Ranger then showed Morelli the tape, pausing in the places that were the best camera angles for the man and printing the pictures off for Morelli to use. He then attached the video file to an email and addressed it to Morelli's work address.
Morelli turned to me. "How are you doing with this, Cupcake?"
"Better now that the shock has worn off. I thought the flowers were from you at first, and I couldn't understand why you were sending me funeral flowers." Morelli and Ranger both looked at the flowers. It hadn't occurred to them that the flowers were ones usually used in funeral arrangements. "I thought I was safe here. That's the problem. If I'm not safe here, where will I be safe? So I'm reeling a bit over that. I'm also struggling with shifting my thinking about this guy. Up to now, I have been more annoyed by him than scared. He has been a huge inconvenience for a whole lot of people, including all of us in this room. But I haven't been thinking of him as being particularly dangerous. And then WHAM! He sends a death threat, and he does it in a way that is so clever he can't be caught."
"You are safe in this building", Ranger stated. "It is just outside the building we can't protect you. But in these walls you are protected and you are safe. You have to remember the stalker wasn't able to get into the building."
"That's true", Morelli said. "I'm angry that he found you, too. But the facts are that Ranger can provide a level of protection I can't provide at my place, or your parents can provide at their place, or that you can even provide yourself at your own place. None of those other buildings are as secure. We made the right decision last night. This remains the safest place you can stay, Cupcake."
"I would like you to stay in the building today while we try to capture this guy", Ranger said. Morelli nodded his head in agreement.
"No way. I am behind on skip tracing as it is. Finding Paulo took so much time. I have about a half dozen outstanding cases to chase, some of which I haven't even seen yet. And I need money. I used up all my savings to buy that car and I need to replace the money. Brodie is a high bond."
"Babe," Ranger began, "you won't be chasing many skips if you are dead."
Morelli chimed in. "Through method of elimination we are fairly certain Brodie is the person stalking you. I don't want you near him." Morelli was adamant. "After I leave here I will be going over to his house to look for him myself."
"But you can't! I need that bond money. I was counting on it!" Panic set in. My eyes started to prickle and the back of my throat grew thick. I pressed the palms of my hands into my eyes and took a few deep breaths. There was a silence for a couple of beats.
"You aren't going to cry, Cupcake, are you?" asked Morelli. "Because I hate it when you cry...Look, maybe if Ranger can take you to pick up Brodie. Then you will be protected at the same time as you pick up your skip. What do you think about that? Ranger, does that work for you?"
Ranger sat looking at me for a moment, his fingers steepled as he leaned back, thinking, in his chair. "We can do that", Ranger finally answered. "It's not my first choice. Stephanie would be much better protected if she stayed within the building. But if you are comfortable with it I will take her out for a while today. We can look for Brodie and pick up the new files and her cheque for Paulo from the office. She can do her phone and computer work on the new files from here this afternoon while I meet with some clients, and then Stephanie and I can go out together and look for people tomorrow. Does that work for you?" he asked Morelli.
And that's the thing with the two men in my life. They are politely competitive and fiercely territorial, but given a common goal they work well together. Right now that common goal was keeping me safe.
Morelli agreed to the plan. They both turned to me and looked at me, eyebrows raised. I nodded my head. This was probably as good a deal as I would get.
I walked Morelli out. He yanked me over to the side of the lobby and gave me kiss that rocked me to the tips of my toes. He pulled away, then gave me a hard hug and whispered "stay safe" in my ear. He gave me another quick kiss and signed out of the building.