Seven Up

Part 2 – Memories


Three
A/N: The beginning of this chapter contains adult situations and a graphic description of things that happen to Stephanie. It should not be read by those of you who know you shouldn't be reading it. This group includes the squeamish and the underage. If you tab down about three to four screens, you should come to the end of that part and the beginning of the rest of the story.Thanks, and happy reading. aly

When I woke up again, I wasn't sure where I was or for how long I'd been out. I tried to look around, but I couldn't see anything. I tried to listen for sounds, but I couldn't hear anything. I tried to move, but my arms and legs wouldn't cooperate. I started to panic, not understanding what was happening to me. Then I felt something hard and cold touch my leg. My bare leg.

If I'd thought I was panicked before, it was nothing compared to what I felt then. I thought I was going to pass out I was so afraid. Then I got a grip. I ordered myself to calm down. I couldn't do anything to help myself if I was out cold or to frenzied to think straight. I made myself take calm, even breaths and think about my situation. I opened and shut my eyes a few times and there was still nothing but darkness, but I felt my eyelashes brushing against something. So probably I had a blindfold on, which meant I wasn't blind. That was good. I didn't want to be blind. But it meant somebody had put the blindfold on me. That was bad.

I continued to take stock of my situation. The quiet, the absolute silence, was odd. Trenton doesn't have many areas with that caliber of silence. There are usually sounds of traffic, or people, or even bugs. So it meant this guy had either taken me out of Trenton or had done something to prevent the sounds from being heard. I wasn't sure which one to hope for, as one meant I'd be in unfamiliar territory and the other meant that the soundproofing could work both ways.

My head was throbbing, and I thought that it might be a side effect of whatever had been given to me to put me to sleep. The front of my head felt like it was slowly being sawed away from the rest of my face. When I thought that, I almost panicked again, worrying that that was what they were doing to me. Then I reasoned that the pain level for sawing my head open would actually probably be a lot worse than the pain I had.

Then there was that brush against my leg again. This time, it was higher, on the inside of my thigh. I tried my arms again, and twisted my wrist. Then I felt the rope. It was coarse and scratchy, and tied tightly around my wrists and ankles.

The throbbing in my head had slightly subsided, and I noticed my ears felt clogged. No, I realized. They weren't clogged. They were plugged. I had earplugs in.

Oh, god, I thought. I was blind and deaf and unable to move at all. And there was somebody in there with me. I didn't know what to do, what I could do.

Then a hand touched me, this time brushing my cheek. I couldn't help it; I started to struggle against the ropes and toss my head in an attempt to get out of the blindfold. Nothing, then a quick tug and off came the blindfold. Again and off came the earplugs. It was bright, and I winced away from the light. Then I saw who it was. Blackwell. Jason Blackwell. My skip. All of the information from the file came back; all of his prior arrest record dancing in front of my eyes. Rape. Attempted rape. Murder. Attempted murder. Assault. Assault with a deadly weapon. Manslaughter. Vehicular manslaughter. The list went on and on and on.

"Hello, Stephanie," he said in this voice of his that was sickeningly sweet. "I have plans for you."

Oh, god. I saw the scissors and watched in horror as he rubbed the flat of the blade against my leg. I realized that the scissors were what I'd felt earlier. I'd felt the bottom of them brush my leg when he must have been cutting off my pants.

"I was starting to worry, Stephanie, because you slept for so long. I'll have to punish you for that," he said.

I'm not sure how much later it was, I'm not sure how long he had me. He'd put the earplugs back in and replaced the blindfold. And then he'd gagged me so that I couldn't even scream. Then my clothes were finally gone. All that I had left covering me were my bra and panties. And he took care of those soon after. I was so scared, I was shaking. There was nothing covering me. Nothing to shield me from this psycho. Not even a thin layer to protect me.

Time seemed to stop, slow down so that it crawled. I couldn't do anything about him or what he was doing to me. I was blind, deaf, and defenseless. It left me completely vulnerable to anything he wanted to do to me. And it made my sense of touch that much more sensitive. It was not a plus for me. He raped me as I was lying there helpless. At some point, I must have passed out, because he slapped me back into consciousness and split my lip. I felt the skin break against my teeth, and then I felt the sting from his finger in the open wound. Then he lay back on top of my, putting his face to my ear.

"Stephanie, Stephanie," he said to me. "You shouldn't hurt yourself like that. But oh, does it taste good. I can't wait until I can play with more." I didn't even want to guess what he meant by that, didn't even want to have heard it. But that didn't matter. He showed me.

All thought stopped when I felt the blade against my skin. Not the edge, the flat. He was running it over my stomach. Back, and forth. Back, and forth, until the skin under it was tingling. Then he cut me. At first my skin was still tingling so much that I couldn't really feel it. Then there was that deep quiver that comes when a sharp knife cuts deep through skin. The one that's not quite pain. Not yet, anyway.

Then the cuts started to hurt, and I screamed through the gag. It hurt so much I couldn't tell where he'd cut and where he hadn't. My panic levels were reaching new heights. I felt the blood pooling on my stomach, running down my sides. So much blood the bed was sticky with it. I thought I was going to die. I knew I was going to die.

And then he stopped, and I thought he might be done. Wishful thinking. I felt a hand splayed over my stomach, pressing and rubbing. I screamed from the sting his hands were causing. Later, much later, I realized that he'd done the exact same thing earlier. When he'd seen my lip bleeding and he'd put his finger to it. It was almost ironic, sort of a gentle preview of what was to come.

He enjoyed raping me. He liked that I was screaming in pain and terror and that my blood was seeping out of me, staining him as it was killing me.

And then his hands were off of me. This time, I didn't even hope he'd be finished. I knew he'd be back. I felt something being poured on me and thought it might be water. Until I realized it wasn't. I screamed until my vocal chords gave out. And then I passed out.

I couldn't remember anything else before waking up to someone untying me. They'd taken off the blindfold and the earplugs. I blinked my eyes open, afraid I'd see it was Blackwell. I turned my head so I wouldn't see him getting ready for another round. Instead, I saw him passed out and tied up on the floor by my wall. Which meant someone else was untying me.

I wanted to scream, kick out at this new threat, hit him, anything, but I was afraid that he would stop untying me, and I wanted to be untied more than anything in the world. So, I did nothing. I just lay there, still as I could, and waited for the man to finish whatever he was going to do. Because after all, I didn't think it could be worse that what Blackwell had done. And, if by some cruel whim of fate, it was worse, then I wouldn't live through it and it wouldn't matter very much, would it. It probably didn't matter anyway. I wasn't sure I was going to live through what had already been done.

All desire to protect myself died at that point. It just slowly drained out of me, until I no longer wanted to kick this man. I didn't want to scream for help. I didn't want anything, didn't care about anything, didn't need anything. Come what may, it didn't matter. Nothing mattered anymore, especially not me. I was going to die, and it didn't matter. Secure in this new found knowledge, I drifted off to sleep.

I found out later that I spent the next twenty-four hours drifting in and out of consciousness. I could remember bright lights, people bustling around, and people in unrelieved white coming and going from my room. When I finally woke up and was coherent enough to string two thoughts together, I reasoned that I must have been taken to some sort of medical facility, though it didn't resemble any hospital I'd ever been to. For one, it was quiet. I couldn't hear anything outside my door. A hospital is always busy, always has a million things going on in a million different directions. And that creates at least some noise. Another thing? The walls weren't white or some neutral beige. They were a pretty lavender color which no hospital in my experience has ever used. And then there was the crystal vase with the daisies. Who would bring a crystal vase to a hospital?

Then my musings were interrupted when a woman wearing the white lab coat came in. She had the air of a doctor around her – quietly self-confidant with a voice of authority, brooking no nonsense. Though really, for all I knew, she could have been a mad scientist and I could have wound up as Mary Shelly's next creation. I certainly had the stitches for it.

It took a while longer before I decided that I was clear-headed enough that I could talk to my supposed doctor. When I did, I'm afraid that I wasn't all that polite.

"Where am I?"

She looked at me funny for a minute before telling me that she'd send somebody in to me in a few minutes. Before she could leave, I asked her another question. After all, the more questions you ask, the more likely you were to find out something, no matter if it was from an answer or the lack thereof. Something I'd learned over years of talking to Ranger.

"You're a doctor, right?"

"Yes." She looked at me as though she wanted to run some tests to see if I'd sustained any brain damage during the course of my injuries. I was not amused.

"I'm just making sure before I ask you my other questions. Now how long have I been here?" I demanded.

"You were brought in yesterday morning with severe trauma to your abdominal area and minor to serious abrasions to your extremities as well as critical blood loss. A rape kit was taken and came back positive. We stitched and taped the cuts on your arms and legs, depending on their severity, but your abdomen…" she paused and came back over to the bed. "Stephanie, there wasn't much undamaged skin that we could put the stitches in. We couldn't do much but clean it and put you on antibiotics to prevent infection." I took a deep breath, trying to take all of it in.

"But I'm not going to die?" I finally asked.

"No, Stephanie," she said. "You're not going to die." I didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed. I'd come to grips with dying. Now I had to come to grips with living. It wasn't nearly as easy. I just looked around, focused on the familiar squeaking sound of Rex's wheel.

"Giving the doc problems, Slugger?"

"Shannon?" To say I was surprised would have been the understatement of the year. While I was still recovering from the shock of Shannon of all people visiting me, the doctor took herself from the room. Smart woman.

"Sup?" he asked.

"You came to visit me?"

He looked at me a little oddly.

"Of course," he said. "How much do you remember?"

More than I wanted to, but obviously not everything.

"Was it you?" I finally asked. He nodded.

"How did you know?" I questioned. "How did you know to come by then?"

"Honestly I didn't, Steph," he confessed. "I stopped by to let you know I got bail again, and to see if you wanted to grab lunch somewhere. Then I found you. And him."

We both paused, digesting, I guess, before he asked the question. I was dreading that question.

"What happened, Steph? Who is he?"

I didn't want to talk about it. Not then, not ever.

"Is he dead?" I asked. I needed to know if he was dead.

"No," he replied calmly. "Do you want him to be?"

Yes. I wanted him dead. But before he died, I wanted him to suffer the hell I was going through.

"Where is he?"

"Locked room."

"Keep him there for now. I don't know what I want to do with him yet," I told him. "So where am I?"

"Small place I have. Set up for surgery and recovery. There are occasions, in my line of work, where you need a doctor and don't necessarily want a record of it."

I nodded sagely.

"So what happened back there? Who was that punk?" Shannon asked again. I wanted to scream that the bastard had raped me. He'd violated me, and cut me, and hurt me, and made me helpless. I tried to get it out. Anything out. Nothing. No words would work. My voice was strangled and my throat choked up. I finally spit something out.

"It was… It was… bad. It… you saw."

It was his turn to nod. He gave me a few minutes before asking again who he was.

"A skip," I managed. "I'd never seen him before, in, you know, in person. Just the picture in the file. I don't know why he, why he…"

"He's just a sick mo-fo, Steph. Them psychos don't always need a reason."

We both paused, unsure of what to say or do. Unsure of where to go from there, how to move on.

"Do you wanna talk? Not to me, I mean, I could get someone in here. You know, who deals with this stuff," he offered. "Or you could talk to me. I didn't mean that I wouldn't listen or nothing, but, shit." He rubbed one of his big hands over his face. It was sweet, but I didn't want to talk. I wanted someone to come in and tell me that it had never happened. I wanted it to never have happened in the first place. I wanted Ranger. But I knew I wasn't going to get what I wanted.

"I just want to forget," I told him. It was the next best thing, forgetting.

Shannon visited me more than a few times that day, trying to get me to talk about it. Apparently, he didn't have anything better to do.

I didn't want to discuss what had happened. So I finally told him what I wanted to do with Blackwell. It had taken me a lot of thought and time to make that decision. I'd gone circle round circle in my head, justifying everything, justifying nothing.

So did I want him dead? Yes. Did I want to kill him? No doubt. Did I want to inflict countless tortures on him? Absolutely.

Was I going to? No.

I was, however, going to send him back to jail and make sure that he stayed there for the rest of his unnatural life.

I'd insisted on bringing Blackwell in myself, though the doctor was not happy about that. I had to wear some heavy makeup on my face to hide the pink cuts and the bruising around my throat from where he'd tried to strangle me. Shannon went with me to the station and waited patiently while I took care of business. I'd made an appointment with the assistant district's attorney in charge of prosecuting Blackwell. So after I got Blackwell checked back into the system, I went and spoke with him for a good, long while. He thought that he could talk the judge into letting me make a closed statement – just the two lawyers, the judge, and me. Then they'd take care of giving it to the jury.

After that ordeal, I'd collapsed back into bed. But it wasn't a hospital bed. It was Shannon's bed. The doctor didn't need me under constant observation. So, he'd taken me to his house, and let me rest in his bed while he took the couch.

I called my mother that evening to let her know I was still alive. I knew she'd be angry. I hadn't spoken to her for a few days, and I hadn't talked to her at all about the situation with Joe. I had no idea just how angry she'd be.

"Hi Mom."

"Don't you 'hi Mom' me, young lady. Just what do you think you're doing? You haven't called here in days and I had to find out from Mrs. Fiorelli at the butcher's shop that Joe had proposed. And, that you walked out on him! How dare you walk out on such a good man, and right after he'd proposed to you!"

"Mom…" I knew she'd be upset with me, but not this upset.

"Here was this nice young man from the burg, that's grown up and gotten a good, respectable job, and was finally ready to settle down, with you, no less, a so called woman who has a joke of a job and gets into more jams than the taster at Smuckers, and what do you do? You walk out on him! How many more offers do you think you're going to get?"

My God. I never knew that my mother disapproved of my life so much.

"Mom…"

"Stephanie Michelle Plum, you need to grow up! You need to learn that you can't always have everything just how you want it. You need to learn that sometimes the best you can have is to settle for things the way they are, and making them what you want."

So I should want that Blackwell cut me up? I think not. But she didn't know about any of that. And she never would.

"But Mom…"

"I can't believe you did something as stupid as you just did. I keep praying that you'll grow out of this 'bounty hunter' stage, just like you did with your stupid Wonder Woman stage."

Guess the joke was on her, then, because I still wanted to be Wonder Woman.

"Stephanie, you need to grow up! If I were you, I would be crawling back to Joe on my hands and knees, right this minute, begging him to forgive me and let me have a chance to make it up to him. I'd be begging him to take me back."

I was glad she wasn't me. I don't crawl.

"But Mom…"

"Stephanie, I'm just so ashamed to call you my daughter right now."

She was ashamed of me. In the past, she'd be angry, frustrated, embarrassed, any range of emotions about me, but never ashamed.

"He didn't mean it, Mom." I told her weakly.

"What are you talking about, 'he didn't mean it'?"

"His proposal. It wasn't real. He didn't really propose to me."

She was silent for a minute, trying to digest that. Maybe once she did she wouldn't be so mad at me.

"He most certainly did," she exclaimed. Alright, or maybe she would still be mad.

"He said that he was going to marry you as soon as he could. He said it right to his mother and grandmother. He wouldn't lie to them." So the implication, then, was that I would lie to my mother and grandmother.

"No, Mom. He didn't mean it. He just said it so…"

"Stop lying!" I was going to say 'so he could get laid,' but I guess it's a good thing my mother interrupted me. I don't think she would have been any happier to hear that.

"Lying isn't going to get you out of trouble, young lady. And I hope you're not expecting to be coming home for any sort of meal any time soon," she said. "Because the way I'm feeling right now, I think I'd leave you standing at the door step."

Leave me standing at the door step? That was so completely against Burg etiquette rules that it took me a minute to comprehend my mother actually doing it. Ever been practically disowned by your mother? No? Well, let me fill you in on a little secret. It feels like you heart is being ripped out through your chest and shredded into little strips. Add that to a feeling of helplessness and rage and the whole bevy of emotions that come when something like Blackwell happens to you, and it's not a good feeling. Try to avoid this at all costs. Even if it means getting a job at the button factory.

"Can I talk to Daddy?" I finally asked.

"No. He's out with the cab." I heard some muttering about him probably being at the lodge, but I didn't press her to repeat it.

"Can I talk to Grandma?"

"No. She's at Clara's."

"Oh." Well, that was nice. "Well, tell them that I love them?"

"Fine."

I really didn't know what else to say.

"Ok, well, bye, then, Mom. Love you."

"Good bye."

She slammed the phone down so hard that it made my ears ring. Wonderful. I looked down at the bandages around my stomach and noticed that there were pink spots peeking through. Great. I laid my head back against the pillow and put a hand over my eyes, trying to keep my tears at bay. When that didn't work, I just lay there weeping.

The next morning I asked if Shannon would drive me over to Vinnie's. After all, I needed to check in and make sure I wasn't fired. When I mentioned this to Shannon, he told me not to worry. Vinnie wouldn't fire me. He'd make sure of it. When we got there, the girls of course had a million questions. I just ignored them and went back to Vinnie's office. I shut the door and slumped in one of his chairs.

"Where the hell have you been, Steph?" he wanted to know.

"I," I started. "There have been…I was…" I couldn't get anything out. None of my carefully prepared words were willing to be spoken.

"Shit, Steph, you look like hell," he said. "What the hell happened to you?" He came around his desk and sat on the edge, looking at me and actually sounding concerned. That was when I broke. I started crying, and then I couldn't stop.

"Shit, Steph, come on," Vinnie was saying. Poor man sounded panicked. He shoved some tissues in my hand and gave my back a few pats. It just struck me as so funny, I chuckled once and stopped crying. It was the last time I allowed myself tears over the whole thing.

"It's ok, Vinnie," I said as I made use of the tissues. "Just a little pent up emotion." He looked so pathetically relieved I couldn't help but to laugh.

"I ran into a few problems while bringing," I stumbled over the name. "While bringing Blackwell in. I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't mention it to anybody."

"You brought him in? How?" he wanted to know.

"It wasn't…it isn't something I want to talk about, Vinnie. But it's over. He's in jail," I said. He looked at me for a minute, and then nodded.

"Alright. The other skips?"

"All but Joyce are in," I told him.

"Good. Don't worry about Joyce. Take some time off, ok?"

Vinnie was telling me not to worry about a skip. I had to have looked pretty pathetic.

"No," I said. "I'll get Joyce."

"Are you sure?" he asked. I nodded. "Then maybe you should take some time off after that, huh?"

"No, Vinnie. Thanks, don't worry," I told him. "I'm fine. I'll take the skips now, if you don't mind."

"Are you sure you want to do this, Steph?" he wanted to know. "You can take some time before you come back, if you want."

"Thanks, Vinnie," I said. Then I took a deep breath and continued. "I need something to do. I need money." I didn't know if Shannon wanted any money for the medical bills, but even if he didn't, I was in debt up to my armpits.

"If you're sure," he said and he shrugged. Then he handed them over. "Call if you need anything."

"Thank you." He nodded.

"Now get outta here. I gotta play my Animal Sounds cd. Today's gonna be pigs, I think. I wouldn't wanna disappoint the girls." I was still laughing as I left the office and Connie and Lula looked at me like I was nuts. I grabbed the files and left, Shannon trailing in my wake.

"What was that all about?" Shannon asked as we got in his car.

"It was just one of those things that you had to be there," I told him. "Wanna grab lunch?"

He shrugged.

"Could eat."

"Big Jim's?" I asked. He shrugged his agreement. I was glad. At Big Jim's, it was easy to get lost in the crowd that's always there. You could always count on Big Jim's to exceed maximum capacity by about twenty customers.

When we walked in I cringed. There was Tank, sitting in the corner, with a bunch of guys that looked like they worked with him. Perfect. I didn't think they'd spotted me yet, but I knew they would. Those types notice everything, and I tend to attract attention.

Sure enough, just as we'd finished ordering Tank came over with a few of the guys at his back. Could my day have been worse? I should have known better than to ask that question. I really, really should have.

"Stephanie." Tank said to me. "Cannon, I believe that the lady wants to be left alone."

I sighed. What else could I do?

"Bombshell? Whatchu want? You want me gone? Or is it a'ight a eat?"

"Of course we're going to eat, Shannon," I told him. "Just give me a minute to take care of this."

"Take care of… What? Girl, whattsa matter witchu? Don't you know who he is?" Tank said with much emphasis. I just sighed and led the boys back to their table.

"Come," I'd told them. "Sit." None of the gentlemen at the table had very kind looks on their faces.

"I don't know what Ranger might have told you," I started. "Or what you may have heard or assumed. But I'm not incompetent. I'm not stupid. I know who Shannon is and what he does. And he's not any more dangerous to me than Ranger ever was. Now you're going to sit here and finish your lunch. And I'm going to go over there and have my lunch. With Cannon. And we're all going to be very polite and civilized. Do I make myself clear?"

"Lady, you're nuts," said the one next to Tank. He'd been with us when I'd done that job for Ranger. Santos, I thought. Lester Santos.

"Probably," I agreed. "Have a good lunch, Lester."

I turned and went back to my table, and we ate with nothing more incidental than the occasional angry glance from their table.

I thought that I'd had about as much excitement as I could take for the moment, so Shannon took me home.

That evening I felt up to attempting to bring Joyce in. Shannon drove me, but gave me the option of going in by myself, and I decided that I should try. He gave a pat on the back and wished me luck before he settled in to wait for me.

"I'm only a phone call away if you need something," he told me. "Hell, you could just yell and I'll come. Got it?" I nodded. I was glad to be back to my job, I realized. It was good to be back to my life, even if it was just a little. I knocked on the front door to Joyce's house and it swung open. Not a good sign. I took my gun from my utility belt and called out for her.

"Joyce?" I yelled. "Are you in here? I'm here about your bail." I carefully made my way through the house, checking each room. I strained my ears for sounds, and heard something from upstairs. Gun still drawn, I crept up the steps. It was crying, I realized. It was the sounds of muffled crying that I'd heard. I knocked on the door, calling to her again.

"Joyce, are you in there?" I asked through the door. All I heard was more crying. I opened the door and went in. There was an enormous bed in the middle of the room and Joyce definitely needed a few lessons in interior decoration, but neither observation was what struck me first. It was Joyce, sitting on the floor with her hands in her lap and her head against the wall, crying her eyes out. She had a bruised cheek, a swollen eye, and a split lip.

I put away the gun and went to kneel by her.

"Joyce, what's wrong?" I asked. "What's the matter?"

"Go away," she begged. "Just please go away."

"Joyce, what happened. Are you alright?"

She didn't answer me at all that time. I sat next to her along the wall and wrapped my arms around her while she cried. She stiffened at first, pulling away from me. I pat her back and murmured soothing sounds to her and she let it go and started to sob into my shoulder.

When she pulled away again, I let her. She'd cried herself out, and was probably embarrassed now. I could relate. I watched as she got up and went into the bathroom, splashing cold water on her face.

"Guess you'll have a good story to tell everybody now, huh," she said bitterly as she came back into her room and sank back down next to me. "Poor Joyce, knocked around a bit and losing it. You can all have a good laugh over it." She didn't look at me at all.

"No," I said. "I won't be telling anybody about this. And I don't think this is funny."

She looked up at me, startled.

"Why not?" she demanded. "You found me here, in a state. I'm surprised you didn't just stun me and drag me to the station like this."

"What happened, Joyce? Who did this to you?"

"Why do you care? Why are you being so nice to me? You hate me, you always have. Why are you doing this?" she cried.

"I don't hate you, Joyce," I told her. "For a while I thought I did, but that was years ago. Joyce, how did this happen?"

"Why do you want to know? So you can spread it around? Get the grapevine all stirred up again over my latest exploits? Probably you'll tell them all that I deserved it, what with me being such a slut and all."

"I won't tell anybody about any of this. God, you sound like me," I sighed. "I hate that rumor mill. I despise it."

We were silent for a few minutes, neither of us saying or doing anything but sitting there and thinking. Then Shannon came up. He must have gotten worried that I'd been gone for so long. I felt Joyce tense next to me when she heard what could only be a man's footsteps outside her door. And when it opened, she gripped my hand tightly in hers. My gun was in my other hand, by my side and out of Joyce's sight. When I saw it was Shannon I relaxed and put it away.

"I'll be down in a bit," I told him. "Do you mind waiting?" He nodded his ok and left. I assumed to go wait for me in the car again.

When he was gone, Joyce started speaking.

"It's this guy I've been seeing," she said quietly as she studied the carpet. I just sat next to her and held her hand.

"I didn't think we were exclusive or anything. We'd been dating for a while, but I hadn't seen him for maybe two weeks." She drew in a jagged breath and continued.

"So I went on that date. Then he came over a few nights ago. He'd heard about my being arrested and why and he went crazy. And I couldn't do anything. I couldn't do anything while he was hitting me and yelling at me. I couldn't do anything."

"I know," I said. "Sometimes, you can't." She started crying again. I felt for her. My heart hurt. Somebody should be doing something about this. Not just Joyce, but all the women who had to deal with anything like this.

"He's done this before," I said. She nodded, still crying.

"We have to reschedule you," I told her. "Why don't you go clean yourself up a bit, and I'll call Vinnie to come down and bond you out again. You have a lawyer?"

She nodded. I got the number from her and sent her to take a shower while I made a few calls. I went down to the kitchen and saw Shannon there, drinking coffee. I poured myself a cup and sat with him.

"You planning on saving her from herself?" he asked.

"She didn't do that to herself," I told him.

He just shook his head.

"I've seen a million women like that. Abusive relationship, but they don't get out of it," he said. Some don't, I agreed. But some couldn't. Some were afraid, and didn't have a safe place to go. From jokes I'd heard at the station, I knew domestic violence wasn't taken very seriously there. Somebody should make them take it seriously. Somebody should help these women.

"I'm not saving her, Shannon," I told him. I hadn't thought of it that way, but in a way, maybe I was. So maybe she wasn't perfect, so maybe she wasn't always even nice, but god knew I wasn't, either. And she didn't deserve to have somebody use her as a punching bag. I'd had somebody help give me a second chance when I needed it. Shouldn't everybody?

"But maybe," I said. "Maybe I can help her start over."

A few days later I was well enough both physically and mentally that Shannon and his doctor let me go home. He gave me a hug and told me not to be a stranger. He told me to come and visit him whenever I needed or wanted to. That I was free to crash at his place anytime. Then he opened the door to Big Blue for me, and watched me go.

I went by the office first, and turned in the body receipts I'd collected. There were quite a few of them. I'd brought in Shannon, the White brothers, Mr. Earling, and Joyce. And Blackwell. Blackwell alone had been worth 25K to me and Shannon had gotten me another 20K. In the end, Connie wound up writing me more than $60,000 in checks. My head spun a little when I thought about it. Connie gave me the checks and some new files and I hightailed it to the bank. The girls had wanted to know what I was going to do with my new found fortune, but I was noncommittal. I had an idea brewing in the back of my head, but I didn't want to talk about it yet.

I checked my mail, and saw an envelope from RangeMan. My heart started to beat a little faster. Maybe, I thought. Maybe Ranger hadn't said goodbye because he was sending me this. Maybe he was explaining it all in a letter. Maybe he did care. I ripped it open. There was no note. There was only a check. It was made out to me, from RangeMan. $10,000.00 for surveillance, assist in a take down, and compensation for injuries obtained as a direct result of employment. It was a check for the work I had done during the Ramos mess. I hadn't done it for the money. He'd been a friend, and he'd asked me to help. And instead of telling me goodbye, he'd written me off in a check. My heart cracked a little more.

When I got up to my apartment, Mooner and Dougie were asleep in the living room. Again. I nudged them awake. They were coming to, though not very quickly. I guess doing drugs isn't conducive to rapid awareness. I nudged harder.

"Dude."

"Uhngh."

A few minutes later, I had them sitting on the couch. A major feat, since they refused to open their eyes.

"Dude, what happened?" Mooner asked me, eyes still closed. They must have gotten into a serious stash to be this zoned out.

"I was hoping you could tell me." I wanted to know where they'd been when Blackwell had come for me. I didn't blame them for not being there, they weren't supposed to be there to guard my apartment from rapists. I wanted to make sure they didn't know anything they could tell anybody.

"Oh."

"Dude."

They sat, obviously deep in thought for a few minutes.

"Dude?" Mooner finally asked Dougie.

"No clue."

"Dude." Mooner was now answering Dougie. Really, it's a multipurpose word. Kinda like 'yo.'

"Come on, you guys. Let's get a cab and get you two home. I'm sure your house doesn't smell anymore."

And if it did, too bad. I had to get them out of there. I didn't want them staying in my apartment anymore. I just needed to be alone, I needed space. I got them outside and gave the cabdriver twenty bucks to take them wherever they wanted to go. Then I went back up to my apartment.

I couldn't stand the silence, the loneliness, the vulnerability. And I couldn't face going back inside. Sometimes, I really wonder about my ability to stay in my apartment after all the horrible things that have happened there. Someone, probably Shannon, had gotten my apartment cleaned and ready, but I just wasn't ready to stay there alone yet.

While I was just standing there in the doorway, peering into my apartment, I felt someone come up behind me. I turned around, my hand going behind me to feel the gun at the small of my back, but I relaxed a little when I realized that it was just one of Ranger's men. Tank, if I remembered correctly.

"What's wrong?" He asked me.

The question seemed so absurd that I almost got hysterical. I refrained.

"Nothing. I was just going to my parents' house for a while." Well, I'll be. Where did that come from?

He looked at me for a minute, speculating something, thinking it over in his head.

"Come on. You can stay with me for a while. My wife will love you."

I debated getting angry at him, but decided that it wasn't worth it. After all, I was getting a place to stay without having to resort to my family.

"That would be nice."

Before I left, I grabbed that list of instructors Vinnie had given me and shoved it in my pocket. Picking up the duffle bag Shannon had put together for me, I followed Tank out of my apartment to his Bronco.

This was not how my life was supposed to be, not how it was supposed to work out. But if god wanted to play it that way, maybe it was time for me to get up and do something about it.