Spoilers: To be safe, I'll say all.
Disclaimer: If you recognize the characters then they belong to Janet Evanovich. I'm just having some fun and meaning no harm.
Author's Note: A couple of things…
First, I want to thank everyone who has asked, begged, poked, or prodded me for another chapter and I want to apologize for taking so long to update. I realize that I didn't always get a chance to respond to reviews of my previous chapters – something I normally try really hard to do, and for that I apologize as well. So if you left me a review or a note, whether I responded or not, thank you truly from the bottom of my heart.
I've had a busy year, highlighted with the birth of my son last June, and all of my free time has been focused on him and my 3y/o daughter. Over the past year, I've had the yearning to sit down and write on more than one occasion, only to discover that sleepless nights and dirty diapers just aren't as creatively inspiring as one would think, lol. Hopefully you'll enjoy the new chapter and not think I've fallen too far off the wagon – it has been a long time. Please let me know what you think and I promise I'll respond.
Secondly, before reading this chapter, PLEASE read my reworked Chapter 27. I realized, while working on this one, there were things I needed to say that fit in better with the previous chapter. Most of Chapter 27 is the same - some wording was slightly reworked - but I did add 3 pages of new material that will help things make more sense going forward. So, please, take the time to read the reworked Chapter 27 before going on to Chapter 28 below.
Thanks and, again, I hope you enjoy!
I did a quick inventory of the situation and instantly wished I hadn't. My gun, stun gun, cuffs, can of mace and anything else that might possibly be useful were across the apartment on the kitchen counter in my purse.
This was so not good.
"This isn't a good idea," I tried to reason, as I pushed against the door to keep Junkman and Cooper from entering my apartment. "I have a friend who'll be here any minute. He's a cop."
"No worries," Junkman sneered, reaching through the gap in the door and grabbing me tightly around the arm. Forcing the door open further, he yanked me into the hallway. "We ain't staying."
I tried fighting against him, but I was no match for his strength. My screams were silenced when he pushed the barrel of a gun to the small of my back.
"Shut the fuck up, bitch. One more sound and it's bye-bye pretty bounty hunter, you understand?"
When I didn't answer, his fingers tightened painfully around my arm and he gave me a violent shake. "I said, do you understand, bitch?"
I shook my head yes. Junkman was nuts, that much I knew, and I didn't doubt for a second that he'd pull the trigger if he felt like it.
Joe, where are you? I thought to myself, praying that he would, in fact, show up earlier than expected. How could I have been so stupid to answer the door without making sure I knew who it was? Right after Bobby lectured me about being careful. And I don't even want to think about how many times Lester drilled into me about checking the peephole before I opened the door.
"Man, Santos is gonna be real pissed," Cooper said as Junkman prodded me down the hall and into the stairwell. Yeah, for more reasons than one, I thought. "He ain't gonna like us messing with Manoso's bitch."
I fought back the urge to scream, I'm not Manoso's bitch, I'm Santos's bitch! Or something like that…at least I hoped I still was…I mean, if I lived and all…
"Santos ain't in charge here," Junkman sneered. "I'm sick and fucking tired of goddamn Santos calling all the shots. As soon as this shit is over I'm gonna personally take him out." Junkman momentarily held the gun out in front of him, pointing into the distance. He pretended to pull the trigger and then raised the barrel to his mouth, blowing on the top like an old Western gunslinger. "Don't worry about Santos. Rivera and Espinosa will be so impressed when we come through for them on this deal, they'll forget everything that happened before and we'll be made men."
"You really think so?" Cooper asked, practically wagging his tongue like a puppy dog.
"I know so. We just have to get this bitch to the old man before they hand over the 50 large. I wouldn't be surprised if they were so grateful, they gave us the money instead."
"Oooh, this is gonna be good," Cooper said rubbing his hands together in anticipation.
As Junkman led me down the stairs, I tried to assess my options. Considering I had a gun pointed at me, that assessment wasn't very encouraging. But I was going to assume that they had to deliver me to Scully alive and unmaimed…or at least I hoped. Knowing that bought me a little bit of time and also a little bit of courage. Not much, but some. I figured I just had to stall them long enough to give Morelli a chance to show up.
Junkman pushed me through the glass doors into the parking lot, the gun pressed forcefully into the middle of my back. He nodded to an old beat up four-door, that looked like it used to be painted silver, but was now more of a rusty brown. Cooper unlocked the trunk and held it open.
I raised my eyebrow at him. "I don't think so."
"Get in, bitch," Junkman sneered, nudging me not-so-gently with the barrel of the gun.
"I'm not riding in the trunk," I said matter-of-factly. I thought if I could drag things out here, the chances that Morelli would show up before they took me somewhere else were significantly improved. Oprah taught me that you should never let your attacker take you to a secondary location. It's a known fact that the odds they'll have to dig up your body from a shallow grave greatly increase if you let them take you somewhere else. My eyes flicked to the main road leading to my building, silently imploring them to see Joe's police-issued beater speeding towards us. But it wasn't yet 6:00, and the road remained empty. Please, Morelli, get here soon.
"I'm not going to tell you again. Get the fuck in the trunk." Junkman was seething.
I swallowed hard, trying to buy myself some more time and extra courage. "And I'm not going to tell you again. I'm not riding in the trunk."
I saw his gun hand come up and at me and, in that split-second, I thought to myself, maybe I've taken this courage thing a little too fa-…
After making sure my .45 was loaded, I slipped it into the pocket of my baggy, 4 sizes too big jeans and pulled on an oversized black hooded sweatshirt. I didn't like the idea of my gun banging around in my pocket. I wanted it at the small of my back where I could feel the cool metal and know it was there if I needed it. But these stupid gang-banger jeans were so damn big, if I were to put it in the waistband like normal, it would fall out the pants leg with my first step. Between the oversized clothes and the teardrop on my cheek, I looked like a fucking idiot…but I'd pass as a Slayer any day of the week.
I'd spent the day doing the final preparations for tonight's takedown, and everything was squared away. A few more hours, I thought to myself. A few more hours and all this shit will be over. Scully, Rivera, Espinosa, and the rest of the idiot Slayers will be in custody and I can kiss my life as a thug goodbye once and for all. The takedown tonight couldn't get here soon enough.
I closed my apartment door behind me and made my way back to Ranger's office where he, Tank and Bobby were making their own last-minute preparations.
"Whad'up, gangster?" Bobby called out as I entered the room.
"Lookin' good, man," Tank added. "Like a right fool."
I flashed them one of the Slayer's signs and took a seat on the couch, just as Ranger's desk phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID and pressed the speaker button. "Morelli."
"Please tell me Steph is with you guys."
Ranger's eyes met mine and instantly a feeling of sheer terror coursed through me. I was on my feet in an instant.
"She's at her apartment, waiting for you," Ranger answered.
"I'm at her apartment and she's not here. There's no sign of forced entry, but she's gone. Her purse and phone and everything are on the counter."
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
"Fuck," I growled, as I moved within range of the speakerphone. "There's no way she would have left on her own without that stuff."
"I made sure she set her security last night, and no breaches have come across the monitor," Bobby said. "No one could've gotten in. Unless…"
"Unless…," Ranger added. We were all thinking the same thing. This is Stephanie we're talking about.
"Looks like the alarm was deactivated from the inside," Morelli confirmed.
"Damnit, Stephanie," I cursed, running my fingers through my overgrown hair.
"I'm calling for backup," Morelli said. "I'll have the uniforms canvass the area and talk to her neighbors. See if they saw anything."
"Can you tell how long she's been gone? Is the stove still warm or anything?" Tank asked.
"She doesn't cook," Morelli and I said at the same time.
"Check her bathroom," I suggested, my voice strained in an effort to hide the emotional whirlwind that was going on inside of me. "Are the shower walls wet? Is her towel still damp? It'll be on the floor in her bedroom. She never hangs it up."
"Let me see what I can find. I'll call you back in a few."
Ranger disconnected and his office immediately filled with the sounds of four men focused on a mission. Ranger pulled out his cell and began barking orders. Tank and Bobby started calling Stephanie's friends and family to see if they knew anything, and I pulled out my own cell phone and stepped into the hall to dial Antonio Rivera. I needed to find out what, if anything, the Slayers knew about Stephanie's disappearance.
My mind reeled as I waited for him to pick up. I had to believe Stephanie wouldn't have left on her own, not knowing what was at stake. And even if she had been that reckless, she would've taken her purse with her. No, she left that apartment against her own free will. That much I was sure of. I was also sure that her disappearance was related to the exchange tonight. The timing was too coincidental to be anything else. I had to find out what the Slayers knew. Because if they were involved, if Rivera and the Slayers went behind my back and renegotiated with Scully to offer her up, then I would have failed in everything I've spent the past several weeks working towards. Shit, everything I've spent the past several months since the school bus incident working towards. Everything I did, I did to keep her safe. And now she's missing, possibly in the hands of either the same Slayers who want payback for the school bus incident or Scully, the deranged lunatic who wants to do God knows what to her. Either option was chilling.
"Santos," Rivera said when he picked up. "What's up, bro?"
I had to play it cool. If I let on that I know anything, it could blow my cover. If I still had one, that is. "Yo, Riv. Just making sure we're still good to go tonight. You got the money?"
"I got the money, bro. Fifty large. Had to hide it under a floor board so the bitch didn't steal it and go on a shopping spree," he said, laughing at his own joke.
"Any change on Scully's side? He still cool?"
"Yeah, man. He just wants to get his hands clean. He's gonna take the money and disappear, just like we talked. We'll get the stash and once we do, we're gonna run this town again."
"And Manoso's woman?" I asked, cringing inside as I used those words to describe Stephanie.
"What about her?"
"She's out of the picture, right?"
"You're awfully concerned with that bitch. I'm starting to think she really does have you by the balls. You're not fallin' for her, are you, Santos?"
"I'm just trying to look out for the team, man. I've said from day one, we need to forget about her. She's got friends in high places. Anything happens to her, and we're asking for more trouble than we need."
"I hear you loud and clear, bro. No worries. She's forgotten."
"I have your word?"
"You always have my word. We're Slayers, bro. That's thicker than blood. You know that."
Whatever you say, bro, I thought as I disconnected and walked back into Ranger's office.
"Rivera doesn't know anything," I informed the guys. I still didn't have any answers, but I was convinced he was telling me the truth. He's not that good of a liar. Whatever's going on with Stephanie, the head of the Slayers doesn't know about it.
"She's not with Lula or Mary Lou," Bobby said.
"Or her parents," added Tank.
The takedown was drawing nearer and we needed answers, but none of us had any. I ran my fingers through my hair in frustration as a silence filled the room. I wanted to hit something, break something, do something. Anything. Anything would be better than sitting here on our asses. I was pissed that I wasn't out there looking for her. I was pissed that someone felt they could just walk in and take her. I was pissed that she wasn't safe inside her apartment where she should be. I was pissed that I wasn't there to protect her, and I was pissed that she and Ranger fucking had sex on her bed twenty-four fucking hours before she and I did.
"Goddamit," I yelled, cutting through the silence that was threatening to suffocate me.
"She's gonna be okay, Les," Tank said softly. I appreciated it, but he knows as well as I do, there's no guarantee of that.
I flopped down on the couch next to him. "I'm losing my fucking mind, man."
"She's gonna be okay," he repeated, mostly because I don't think he knew what else to say.
Just then Ranger's desk phone rang again and the four of us snapped back to attention. Ranger hit the speaker button again and Morelli's voice came across the line. "She hasn't been gone long. Her shower, towel, toothbrush, sink…all wet. Her hairdryer is still warm. There's makeup stuff spread out all over the counter. Looks like she was in the middle of getting ready for tonight."
"The wire," Bobby suddenly blurted out. All eyes turned to him. "Morelli, is there a wire and earpiece on the kitchen counter? Next to her purse."
"Hang on, let me check."
"Damnit, I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner. I gave her a wire and an earpiece last night," Bobby continued. "If they're not there, she might have them on."
"I don't see anything."
"I'm on it," Bobby said as he ran to the comm. room to see if he could connect to her.
"Keep looking for clues, Morelli. We'll be in touch," Ranger told him and disconnected.
The three of us followed Bobby to the communications hub of RangeMan. If, by some small chance, she was wearing the wire, we might be able to find out who had her and where she was at. Bobby sat down at the control panel and switched the dials to the correct channel. Tank, Ranger and I stood behind him and listened with bated breath, each of us grasping to the small glimmer of hope that we'd be able to communicate with her.
Bobby flipped one last switch and…
He shook his head. "Not even background noise. She doesn't have it on."
The hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach was back. "Come on, Stephanie," I muttered. "Turn on your damn mike."
We waited a few moments. Still nothing. I glanced at my watch. Fuck. If I didn't leave now, I'd be late. Stephanie's disappearance didn't change the fact that I had a job to do. Somehow I had to focus and not let on that I was about to lose it inside.
I checked my gun one last time and slipped on my jacket, ready to do my part to bring down Scully and get a whole bunch of lowlifes off the street all at once. And hopefully get some answers about Stephanie in the process. If anyone there did anything to her, they're gonna be leaving in a body bag.
The guys' focus was still on the silent radio as Bobby was switching between frequencies.
"Stephanie? Can you hear me?" Tank practically begged her to answer.
I paused, waited. Nothing. I turned to walk out of the room, and was half-way out the door, when I heard Ranger implore to the silence.
"Talk to me, Babe. Please."
Babe. It was a name I'd heard him call her a million times. But at that moment, after everything that had happened, hearing him use that name made my eyes blur with anger and I felt something inside of me snap. I turned and walked the three paces to where he was standing, his hands on his hips, his eyes focused on the unresponsive control panel. He turned his head to look at me and I punched him. A hard right to the jaw. The sound of fist meeting bone echoed throughout the room.
He wasn't expecting it and his head snapped back and for a split second, his eyes lost focus. Almost instantaneously, his body turned ridged in response, an unconscious reaction to his natural instinct to fight back. But he didn't fight back. He just straightened his shoulders and looked me in the eyes and gave the most imperceptible of nods.
His peace offering. The closest he would come to admitting that maybe, just maybe¸ he deserved it.
It was all I asked from him.
I returned the nod, then headed for the door with renewed focus on the task ahead. I walked past the stunned onlookers, who had no idea that an unspoken truce had just been made between Ranger and me.
Thanks to all of you again for reading, and special thanks to Lorie, another of "Santos's Bitches," for her unwavering support and enthusiastic *ahem* encouragement along the way. Girl, I don't know why you've put up with me for so long, but I'm glad you have! -Kendall