I had a long, hot shower at Ranger's, taking off my dirty underwear and putting my yoga pants back on commando style, and borrowing another one of Ranger's t-shirts and hoodies. I left my dirty laundry in Ranger's hamper. I knew Ella would not mind throwing my clothes in the wash with Ranger's when she did the laundry.
I live in a utilitarian apartment building on the outskirts of the Burg, the community in which I grew up. I have a one-bedroom on the second floor and, while the appliances are ancient and the supply of hot water is limited, I like it. It has an elevator, plenty of parking, a fire escape off my bedroom that I can pretend is a balcony, and forgiving residents who do not hold my frequent police visits against me. In fact, I think my numerous break-ins and murdered bodies found in my apartment – not all done by me – liven up many of the seniors' lives.
I said "hi" to Mr. Wolenski as I walked through the lobby to the stairs. He was sitting on his walker, watching the world go by.
"You just missed your young man, chicky", he said.
"Which young man is that, Mr. Wolenski?"
"I don't know this one. I never saw him before. He was up at your apartment for the longest time though. He said he was waiting for you, but he couldn't wait any longer. I'm glad you have many men in your life. You are only young once. You need to have fun while you still can."
"What time did this guy come and when did he leave?" I asked, my heart starting to pound.
"Let's see. He got here shortly after I came down, and I came down shortly after the morning news program ended. Then he was here until about twenty minutes ago."
"Thanks, Mr. Wolenski. If he comes back and you see him, could you please call me?" I gave him my card and showed him my cell number.
My mouth going dry with fear, I took the stairs up to the second floor and creeped down to my apartment. The door was ajar and a terrible smell was coming from inside. Taking my gun out of my purse, I took the safety off and entered my apartment. With gun ready, I quickly but thoroughly walked through my apartment, checking behind the curtains, under the bed, in the closets, and in the shower. There was no one there. By the time I finished I was gagging and my eyes were watering. My heart rate starting to slow to a normal rate, I closed and locked the front door and went to open the windows.
As I passed through the dining room I noticed an envelope on the table. I got some gloves from my purse and carefully opened it, touching the paper as little as possible. I pulled out a paper and read the message "Retract your report to Jay Technologies, or I will hurt you so bad you will wish you never took the job at Rangeman." Not exactly the most original threat message I had ever received, but with my recent experience it was effective nonetheless. Shaking, I put the paper down on the table and went to check on Rex. He was hiding in his soup can. Telling him I was back and there was no reason for him to be scared, I took a jar of peanuts out of the cupboard and put one in his dish. Rex scampered out of his tin and shoved it in his mouth before scurrying back into his can again. Apparently Rex is a stress eater as well.
Knowing Ranger was off site at a meeting, I phoned Tank and told him what had happened. "I'll be there in about ten minutes", he said. While I waited, I went to the bedroom to put on some clean underwear. I sniffed. The noxious smell seemed to be stronger in the bedroom. I sniffed my clothes. Whatever it was that Lundel used, he had doused my clothes with it. I went back into the living room and smelled my couch. He had done the same thing there. All the soft furnishings and clothing had been doused with nasty smelling liquid. Eyes watering, I picked up Rex and my keys, locked my door behind me, and moved Rex into my car. There is no point in making him sick by exposing him to the smell. I waited in the parking lot for Tank, enjoying breathing in the fresh air.
A few minutes later, Tank arrived in a Rangeman vehicle. As we passed Mr. Wolenski in the lobby, I could hear him call out to me "That's the way to do it, chicky! Two men in one day! If you ever want a third, let me know! What I lose in years I gain in experience."
I smiled. "I'll keep that in mind, Mr. Wolenski. If I need another man, you will be the first to know."
Tank and I climbed the stairs to the second floor. "As I already told you, I have already cleared the apartment, opened the windows and opened the envelope that had been left on the table. I wore gloves opening the envelope, however, so I don't think I disturbed any evidence unduly." I unlocked the door. Tank motioned me aside and walked into the apartment, stopping in the entry to take the pulse of the place. After a minute he continued inside, rechecking all the closets, under the bed, and behind the shower curtain.
"Let's see this note", he said, taking gloves out of a pouch on his utility belt. He read the note. His face took on that same inscrutable look that Ranger's takes on when he is unhappy about something.
"We need to call the police on this. Your building super will want to have the police involved as well in case the smell does not leave and professional cleaners are needed."
"Damn. I was hoping to avoid the police." When Tank looked at me questioningly, I explained, "I don't want to see Morelli." That was all I needed to say. Tank witnessed the vicious argument between Morelli and me after I caught Brodie the first time. I thought longingly of the remaining brownies and whipped cream in the fridge.
"Come on, Steph. We don't have to wait in the fumes for the police. I'm not even sure it is healthy for us to wait here. We can wait in the hall." Maybe that is why my stomach felt all squishy. I thought it was because someone had broken into my apartment – again. I wasn't sure if I was feeling victimized or angry. Maybe both. Either way I did not feel good.
Tank put his arm around my shoulders and guided me out to the hall. The fumes were much better there. He called the vandalism and breaking and entering in to dispatch while I prepared a text for Ranger. It took me a few drafts to get it right, but after writing and deleting many times, I settled on "You win. You have Rex and me as houseguests for a few days. Lundel, the Jay Technologies reject, vandalized my apartment, spreading a noxious smell throughout the place. We cannot safely live here until the smell is cleaned up. Sorry for the inconvenience."
About a minute after I sent the text I received the following response, "my place is your place. Are you okay?"
"Yes. Tank is with me", I responded.
"Good. See you at lunch."
I excused myself from Tank and descended into the bowels of the building to find Dillon, my building superintendent. I hate the basement. Although the dryers in the laundry room emit a comforting smell of fabric softener, the lack of windows or fresh air feels claustrophobic to me. I try to avoid the basement at all costs, only going down to ask Dillon to clean up my apartment after someone vandalized, shot someone, or otherwise harmed the place. Unfortunately, this means I come down to the basement quite a lot.
"Stephanie! Nice to see you! I am sorry I have not yet been able to get out the blood stains from your carpet. I have tried three different rug shampoos, but the stain is still there. I plan on picking up a different kind of shampoo later this afternoon and will try again tomorrow."
"That's great, thanks, Dillon. I have another problem now, though."
"Someone has released a stink bomb in my place. It now reeks. I don't know how to clean it up and, in fact, it may need professional cleaners to do the job."
"Let's go upstairs to see if I can clean it up." He slipped on his shoes, grabbed his keys, and locked his apartment door. He followed me over to the elevator, saying "hi" to Mrs. Kimmel as she passed us on the way to the laundry room with her arms full of laundry basket and soap. She is a more daring person than me. I usually take my dirty laundry home and use my mother's washer and dryer. And if I time it right, either my mother or grandmother will do it for me.
Walking down the hall to see Tank standing guard at parade rest, I asked him how long dispatch said they would be in sending out a squad car. "They didn't say. They just said they would get someone here as soon as possible." I left Tank standing guard and let Dillon into my apartment. He whistled as soon as the door was opened and the smell wafted out.
"Rather smells like rotten eggs, doesn't it?" commented Dillon.
"Yeah, with a mixture of week-old garbage that has been left in the sun and a hint of stinky cheese", I said. "Also, he seems to have spread the stink over every piece of fabric in the place, including my soft furnishings. I will have to take down everything and wash it – curtains, bedding, clothes, everything. I don't know if he also spread the stink on the carpets as well."
"You may want to try a few bottles of Febreze on your couch and mattress to see if that lifts the smell at all. Either way, I think I will try to deodorize the carpets myself and, if that doesn't work, I will get the building to replace the carpets. I have some good carpet deodorizer from when Mrs. Murray lived her. Her dog had so many accidents on the carpets the apartment smelled strongly of pee when she moved into the nursing home. At least, I think it was because of the dog."
I went to the fridge and looked inside. I had a six pack of beer left. I took it out and handed it to Dillon. "Thanks for being so understanding once again. I think this is a twelve pack job. I will get you another six pack when I next see you. I will be staying with a friend for a few days. Call me on my cell when the apartment is deodorized?" Dillon said he would and then, happily, walked back down the stairs to his apartment with his beer tucked under his arm.
I went back to the fridge and looked longingly at the brownies and whipped cream. However, I could not stomach eating it in the smell and was too embarrassed to eat the brownies in the hall in front of Tank. I walked back out into the hall, brownie-free, to see Morelli barreling down on me with a hard, show-no-emotion cop look on his face.
"What happened this time?" he said, anger lacing his voice. His face turned red as he realized I was wearing Ranger's clothes. As he continued to look at me, his face grew even redder. Apparently he had noticed my lack of underwear. Tank moved to stand directly behind and to the side of me, hand on his gun. Full protection detail.
"It isn't much", I said, bristling a bit at his inference that stuff always happens to me. After all, it had been three whole weeks since I had needed police assistance. "We just needed a police report in case Dillon cannot clean the apartment himself and needs to replace the carpets. They smell bad. It is a stink bomb of proportions that even Connie would be proud." When Connie went to school, she was the master at making stink bombs. Even though I went through school a couple of years after her, she was still well known for both the intensity of smell as well as the length of hang time. Connie was known as the go-to person if you wanted to get out of a test.
"I thought I could detect an odour as I walked down the hall."
"You can smell it? I must be going nose blind. My poor neighbours."
"That is all right. Most of your neighbours are seniors and their noses don't work as well as they used to. Do you have any idea who vandalized the place?"
"Yes. When he entered the apartment he left a note. I left the note on the table so you could see it."
Morelli took out latex gloves, pulled up the neckline of his t-shirt so that it covered his nose and entered the apartment. He walked out gagging, eyes watering, a few minutes later with the note. "Who is Jay Technologies?"
"They are a company Steph was researching for me", said Tank. "They are an existing client we have done a lot of work for in the past. They were looking to hire four people and wanted background checks done. Steph researched all four and gave the green light to all except one. This person seems to have targeted Steph in retaliation. We had a phone call into the office yesterday, and now this message. Mr. Wolenski in the lobby apparently talked to the man."
"This is just another example of your job putting you in danger, Cupcake. Pack your bags. You can move into my place while your apartment is cleaned."
"Thanks, but I have already arranged to stay with Ranger."
Morelli's face turned red and steam spewed out from his ears again. "Why did I have to fall in love with an accident-prone, danger magnet? Why could I not have fallen in love with a nice, safe librarian or something?" he muttered to himself.
"Because a nice, safe librarian would not put up with your dangerous, time-sucking 24/7 job. She wouldn't put up with the missed dinners, the cancelled dates, or the postponed vacations, and she sure as hell wouldn't put up with your attitude", I responded in an increasingly loud voice. My heart started to pound, my face went red and I started to shake.
Tank put his hand on my shoulder and broke into the argument. "Are you finished with the apartment? Can we gather all the clothing, curtains and linens now so they can be washed?"
"Yes. I just have a report for Steph to sign, I want to talk with Mr. Wolenski in the lobby, and then I am otherwise done here." I signed the incident report, then Tank and I went into the apartment. We took down all the curtains, gathered up all the towels, and threw all my clothes into garbage bags. Locking up after ourselves, we took the bags down to my car.
"Shit!" I said. I put the bags on the ground beside the car and walked around it surveying the damage. All four of my tires had been slashed. Tank scanned the area while I got out my phone and hit speed dial.
"Joe, remember how you said to call you if anything else happened? Well, I am. My tires were slashed."
Morelli sighed. "I was hoping you were calling to tell me you had a change of heart and wanted to talk rather than letting all my calls go to voice mail."
"I am not ready to have that conversation with you. How do you want to handle the tire slashing?"
He sighed again. "I am turning around now and am on my way back to your place." We hung up.
"I am sorry, Tank. I know you had other things you wanted to get done today rather than just babysitting me. I do appreciate your help, however."
"Don't worry about it, Steph. You are part of the Rangeman team and we take care of our own." He took pictures of the tires. "Why don't you text Ranger while I arrange for a tow truck to come and pick up your car? Then, when we have dealt with your car, you can drop me off at Rangeman and you can use the fleet car until your car is fixed. I can take Rex into my office if you just want to get over to the laundromat."
"That sounds like a plan, thanks."
I did not want to worry Ranger needlessly in my text to him. After all, I was essentially fine, so I wrote "Morelli came and took a statement for the apartment damage. Tank and I gathered up all the clothing etc. to take to the laundromat. Came out to find my tires slashed. Morelli is now coming back. Tank has arranged for a tow truck to pick up the car."
I got an immediate response. "How are you? Do you need me to come?"
"I'm dealing with it. Tank has been great. I have to cancel lunch. I will be at the laundromat."
"Ok. Which laundromat? I will bring you a sandwich from the break room."
I told him what laundromat, then sent a text to Lula. "Have to cancel skip chasing plans today. Had a vandal attack my apartment with a stink bomb. It's all over my clothes, bed linens, curtains, everything. Will be spending the afternoon at the laundromat."
I got an immediate text back. "You have the worst luck. Maybe tomorrow?"
Morelli parked beside me as Tank and I were putting the bags of dirty laundry into the Rangeman Explorer. I pulled out Rex from the backseat of my car and stood, holding him, looking at Morelli's serious cop face. I turned and put Rex in the back seat of the Explorer. Tank powered down the windows and came around the car to join us, again standing protectively behind and to the side of me.
Morelli looked at the tires. "I don't know how you do it, Cupcake. You are consistently able to find trouble where trouble should not exist. Assuming the slasher is the same person as the stink bomb guy, I am not happy he was around while you were in the apartment building. Do you have any idea what this guy looks like?"
"No", said Tank. "Before this we just had a phone call and did not look into it any further. I will be pulling his photo to add to the file Steph already compiled on the man. I will email you a copy of the file this afternoon."
"Thank you." He went back to his car and got a blank police report. He started filling it out, pausing to say "that smell really is noxious. You will have to be careful it doesn't transfer to the inside of your car, Tank."
"This will be Steph's car until her tires are replaced." Tank's phone pinged and he looked down to read the text. "Ranger says the tires should be charged to Rangeman. I will take care of ordering them this afternoon."
I was grateful. I didn't have money for new tires and would have had to go into debt to pay for them. It was not something I wanted to do. If I had to go into debt, I wanted it to be for something much more interesting, like a new pair of shoes or a sexy new dress.
Morelli finished filling out the report and had me sign it. He left when the tow truck came, saying "try to be careful. I know it isn't in your nature, but I still haven't cut down on my Rolaid consumption since you shot Brodie. I can't take much more of this." He turned to Tank and said "take care of her", then turned around and left.
And see, that is part of the problem with Morelli. He thinks I always get into trouble, and I can never take care of myself. And that isn't exactly true. Okay, it is partly true, but not completely. But it is unfair for him not to recognize that I get out of a lot of these situations by myself. It is unfair of him to always blame it on me. And it is definitely unfair to always relate these situations to how he is feeling rather than acknowledging how I feel.
Tank and I drove to Rangeman with our heads hanging out the windows. With my hair loose I felt like a basset hound with its ears flapping in the breeze. I dropped off Tank and Rex and drove to the laundromat. I was lucky. There was no one using any of the eight machines. Carting in all the clothing, sheets, towels, curtains and pillows, I put one-and-a-half times the recommended amount of liquid laundry detergent in each of the eight machines and started running water while I sorted my clothes into eight piles – towels, curtains, sheets, delicates, one whites, two darks and one colours. I went to the machine on the wall and, putting in two twenty dollar bills, had enough quarters to run the washers.
I settled down to wait, opening up an old magazine left on one of the folding tables. I turned to the horoscopes first. Everybody knows you read the horoscopes first. Having said that, I am not sure if I actually believe in horoscopes. After all, if there were one-twelfth of the population all lucky in finances at the same time, for example, then our national economy would be doing much better than it is. I guess it also depends upon how literally you interpret the prediction. If the horoscope said I would come into unexpected money, would finding a penny on the sidewalk count?
In this case, the magazine was dated a month ago. My horoscope read "your month will be a real blast, but not necessarily in a good way. To stay safe you must stay aware. Be careful and watch your back." Hunh. Maybe there is something to this after all. Lula certainly seems to believe in it. Of course, what she does it get at least six different horoscopes, read them all, then pick the one she likes best. She then will talk about the horoscope as if it was gospel, until she has absorbed the predictions and made them reality in her own head. Then she will use them to guide her day. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I, on the other hand, like to check my horoscope after the day is over to see if it has come true. I think that is much more fun.
I was halfway through an article on how to tell if your man is cheating on you when Ranger walked into the laundromat with a plastic grocery bag in his hands. He grabbed a plastic chair, carried it over to sit down beside me and leaned over to give me a friendly kiss. "That stink liquid is pretty nasty", he said.
"Do I smell of it?" I asked, sniffing my arm. "I am nose blind. I can't smell it anymore."
"This whole laundromat smells of it, but from what Tank said this is nothing compared with how your apartment smells."
"Yeah, it's pretty nasty." I rested my head upon his shoulder as he put his arm around me. He kissed me on the top of my head.
"How are you doing?" he asked.
"Off-balanced, but otherwise okay. I think I would have been able to take it in stride if I hadn't shot Brodie. This harassment feels a little like déjà vu. And I'm not happy with how it ended the first time."
"Yes, but this time, so far, it is a low-level threat. Again, it could be someone just blowing off steam. It will be important for you to stay aware of what is going on around you, but it is also important to keep it in perspective. At this point, we don't know he is another Brodie."
I listened carefully to what he had to say, but was still panicking. I did not want to have to shoot anyone else.
"Are you hungry? I brought lunch." He opened the bag and took out a diet coke for me, two bottles of water, a couple of different types of sandwiches, two containers of fruit salad, containers of baby carrots and dip and finally, with Ranger watching my face, he pulled out a chocolate bar. I could feel my spirits rising just looking at the candy and I grinned. Ranger smiled at me, a full-on, 100 watt smile. "You'll earn it working out later this afternoon. But I thought you could use a lift before then."
"You make me glad I didn't do what I wanted to do after my apartment was bombed."
"What was that?"
"Eat the remaining chocolate brownies and whipped cream."
"You didn't? Good for you."
"Yeah, well, I have to be honest. I might have if my apartment hadn't smelled so bad, or if Tank hadn't been there." I reached for the chocolate and smelled the bar. I closed my eyes in bliss at the sweet chocolaty smell. "Oh, yeah. My day is getting better already."
"Glad I could help." We divided out the food and opened our sandwiches. And see, there is another difference between Ranger and myself. When he eats a picnic lunch like that, he eats all of one thing, moves on to the next, then the next, until the meal is eaten completely, one food item at a time. He is focused about his eating. Me, I do it a little differently. I open it all up at once, and eat some of one thing, then another, then some more of the first thing again, then the third, and basically bounce around until all the food is gone. I simply get too bored to focus on just one thing at one time. But that is true about Ranger and me in general. He is so focused, and I am so not.
The washers finished and I sniffed the clothing. "I can't smell anything anymore. Is this better?" I asked.
Ranger came over and sniffed the clothing. "By the sounds of what Tank said and the smell of this laundromat, I would say the fabrics smell better but they do not smell clean yet. Before you put them on again, I will go to the grocery store across the street for you and purchase some scent boosters for the wash. Do you need anything else?"
"Maybe some more laundry detergent and fabric softener sheets with scent? And some clean garbage bags to put the clothes in after, in case the stink transferred to the bags I brought the clothes in. And some more quarters. Thanks for going for me."
"No problem." As he dropped the lunch garbage in the bin on his way out, he passed a couple of women on their way in to the laundromat with their clothes. He nodded his head to them as they took one step into the room, gagged, covered their noses, and ran back out again. I felt kind of bad, but it didn't matter anyway. All the machines were taken with my clothing.
I gathered up the black garbage bags and put them in the garbage. A man came in to the laundromat and walked over to the table where I had been sitting and sat down. I then turned and put a regular amount of laundry detergent in all the machines except the last two – I had run out of detergent and was glad Ranger was getting me more. "I am sorry for the stink. Someone vandalized my apartment today and spread a nasty liquid all over all the fabrics. I have to wash all my clothes, my curtains, everything."
"That must have been terrible. Do you have any idea who did it?" he asked.
I stood talking to him, taking a sip of my coke. "I am not exactly sure, but I have my suspicions." I drank some more of my coke and looked longingly at my chocolate bar. Deciding I would eat it later, when Ranger came back again, I finished off my coke and put the tin in the recycling container.
"Why would he do such a thing?"
"We don't know for sure it is a he. But I think it is because I made a recommendation to a company and the vandal didn't like my recommendation." I was starting to feel a bit dreamy, detached, like I had consumed too much alcohol. I must be more tired than I realized, I thought, and I hoped the caffeine in the coke would wake me up soon.
I tried to open the bottle of water but my hands seemed to not be working properly. The man leaned over and opened the bottle for me. "Fanks", I said, lifting the bottle of water to drink. I seemed to be uncoordinated, unable to get the bottle to my mouth. I hit my face twice before I was able to take a drink, giggling uncontrollably after each miss. A part of me was still lucid and could not understand what was happening to me. I do not drink alcohol to excess very often, but I have done so enough to know what being drunk feels like. I definitely felt drunk, yet I had not had anything alcoholic to drink.
I stood up, deciding it would be a good idea to go to the bathroom to splash some water on my face. I must had stood up too quickly. When I did so the room spun and I almost toppled over. "Whoopsy-daisy!" I sang out. I lurched my way back to the bathroom and fell through the door as I opened it. I splashed some water on my face, soaking my shirt. There were no towels, so I wiped my face off with the sleeve of my hoody and walked back to the man sitting at the table.
"S'what name?" I asked him.
"My name is Nigel".
"S'nice meetch ya." I sat down again at the table and laid my head down.
"You don't look too good. Can I take you home? You look like you need a nap."
I raised my head and looked at him. "S'all right. Need t'look laundry." I smiled at him in a wobbly way as my vision went blurry.
"I think you should go home."
"I cannot. My apart…apart…apartment schmells too dad", trying to speak slowly and carefully.
"Then I will take you to my home. You obviously aren't well and you need some sleep."
"No. Can schleep here." I closed my eyes and fell into blackness.