Author: Lex

Title: The Indispensable Tank

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

Notes: Tank investigates Ranger's murder. This story was written mid-2002 and contains 15 chapters and an epilogue.

The Indispensable Tank

Prologue and Chapter 1

Prologue:

I stood watching the crane raise the sign while the workmen on the roof risked their lives to catch it and bolt it the front of the building. Stephanie Plum Bail Bonds. It had a nice ring to it. Less than a week ago I could never have imagined that this would happen and then Ranger had decided to "collect" on the night that I owed him for helping me with DeCooch. Everything had happened so quickly after that. I'm not sure that I would ever find a way to thank Ranger for this.

The sign swung toward the men and they reached out. I closed my eyes and felt strong arms encircle my waist from behind. A forehead rested on my hair.

"You're smushing my hair," I said tipping my head back. The chocolate eyes that smiled back were very familiar to me.

"Geez, Cupcake, you're the boss…who's gonna say anything about your hair?" He stared up at the sign. "I like the lipstick tube dotting the "i." Very sexy." Joe Morelli. My on again off again boyfriend and sometime fiancé. He thought that everything was sexy. I have to admit, that's one of the things that I love about him. "Just got one problem."

"What's that?" I asked suspiciously.

"Shouldn't it say Stephanie Morelli Bail Bonds?"

"We talked about this," I sighed.

"You talked," he grumbled. I patted his cheek.

"Some other time okay? I don't want anything to ruin today. I fully expect Joyce to come in and I want to be ready to kick her ass. Like the suit? I'm trying to look ruthlessly professional."

"It's pretty ruthless, all right," Joe confirmed tossing me a wolf grin. He curled a tendril that had pulled loose from the French twist that I'd constructed earlier in the day. "I like your hair like that too. Very…professional." I noticed for the first time that something about Joe's tone was off. I looked up into his eyes and saw sadness.

"What is it, Joe?"

"Can we go inside?" he asked looking around cautiously. I stood back not sure of what was going on. Were we breaking up again already? It seemed that we'd just gotten back together.

"Sure," I said apprehensively. He opened the door for me and we walked past Connie and Lula. They stared after us obviously picking up on the negative vibe. I walked into my office and slid into the chair behind my desk. Joe closed the door and walked over perching himself in front of me on the edge of the desk. He stared at me for a few minutes and then sighed deeply. I was too frightened of what he had to say to rush him. Finally he took a deep breath.

"Stephanie," he began. I stiffened. He always called me "Cupcake" this was serious. He coughed slightly. I braced myself.

"Stephanie, Ranger Manoso is dead." I laughed. One look at Joe's eyes told me that he was not joking. I started to cry and he hugged me until I could cry no more.

Chapter One:

Khari "Tank" Kaplan knew that his best friend had not been well loved. Few people had known Ranger Manoso as well or as long but Khari was forced to admit that he hadn't known Ranger all that well. Even with all the holes in his knowledge of Ranger he could not accept the ruling of the inquest. Khari slammed his fist into the courthouse wall. People stared at him and rushed to wherever they had been headed. Only one of them seemed brave enough to approach the obviously enraged, 6'6", black man.

"Tough call," said the tall and lean Italian man. "You knew him well?" Khari stared down at the man blankly. "Saw you in the inquest hearing. You worked for Ranger? Joe Morelli, Trenton P.D." He extended his hand.

"He was my best friend," Khari said dully ignoring the outstretched hand. "Known him most of my life."

"I'm sorry for your loss." Khari stared at him narrowly.

"You didn't testify. Morbid curiosity?" Morelli seemed unfazed by Khari's attempt to lash out.

"Ranger was sort of a mentor to my fiancé," he explained. "She testified."

"Stephanie Plum?" Morelli nodded. "Nice kid. I worked with her a couple times. Careless though." He rubbed his chest at the memory of the last time he'd worked with Stephanie. It hadn't turned out well for either of them but had been worse for him. Morelli chuckled.

"Careless but lucky." Khari shrugged. Couldn't argue with that.

"Do you buy this accidental death thing?" Morelli asked referring to the ruling of the inquest.

Khari stared at the ground. He hadn't bought it. Whatever Ranger had been he had never been careless and he'd been religious with his diet. To say that Ranger had died from a stroke caused by steroid abuse was incomprehensible to Khari. When they were kids in Brooklyn Ranger had expressed an aversion to drugs. People changed but Khari couldn't imagine that he had changed so much. Everyone experimented but Ranger had never been a user, Khari was sure of that. It bothered Khari that the medical examiner and coroner had been so eager to wrap the case up that he had accepted a man of Ranger's size giving himself a steroid injection in the back of his upper arm. There had only been one mark and the medical examiner had not found any signs of further "track marks." He finally looked back up at an expectant Morelli.

"Maybe I didn't know Ranger as well as I thought I did," he said finally. Stephanie was exiting the building and Morelli waved her over. She seemed to recognize Khari and smiled sadly at him. Morelli wrapped his arm around her shoulder and squeezed. She took a deep breath.

"What a joke," she said finally. The anger in her voice took Khari by surprise. "Ranger would never do drugs. Someone killed him."

"I agree," he said calmly. Stephanie looked up the surprise evident.

"You say that you were his friend. How can you stand there knowing that someone killed him and let those bastards say that he was a drug user?"

"I see no way to stop them. Maybe I didn't know Ranger as well as I'd thought. People change a lot at our age. Maybe he was starting to feel the burn of growing older and felt that he needed a boost." Khari was trying to convince himself as much as Stephanie. He would be the first to admit that Ranger Manoso had not been an angel…. but a drug user?

"If you were any kind of friend you'd be looking for the asshole who did this. The medical examiner said himself that Ranger didn't have any other marks to indicate that he'd used steroids more than once. How can they say that and then still rule that the steroids killed him?" Stephanie started to cry and Morelli pulled her to his chest. Khari shrugged helplessly.

"It only takes one time. He could have been taking them in pill form and thought he'd try the faster acting hit to the vein." Stephanie ignored the comment.

"I need to find out who did this," she sobbed. "Ranger was a good friend to me. He was like my brother. I could always count on him to help." She looked up at Khari, blue eyes shining. "Help me, please." She begged "Help me find out who did this to him." Khari noted a look of anger and resentment in Morelli's eyes. Odd, he thought. He wrote it off as concern for how hard Stephanie was taking Ranger's death. He pulled a business card from his pocket and wrote his mobile phone number on the back.

"You go home and get some sleep and then give me a call when you've thought things through. Don't go out on your own. If someone did kill him and you go sniffing around you could get yourself into a lot of trouble."

"Okay," Stephanie said tiredly. Morelli stared at Khari gratefully. "But I will be calling." Khari sighed.

"Fine, but don't go out on your own. You know, Stephanie, chances are that we're gonna find that we just didn't know him all that well."

"I'll take that chance," she said eyes flashing.

"We should be going," Morelli said. "How about if you take today off, Cupcake, forget about it for a day and we can go to the shore?" Stephanie sniffed and shook her head.

"I have work to do, Joe."

"Don't bounty hunters pretty much write their own hours? You look like you could use a day off," Khari urged hesitantly. He knew better than to interfere but Stephanie really did look like she could use a day off.

"I own the business now so I have a lot more to do. I kind of need to be there." She wiped her eyes with a handkerchief that she was carrying.

"Whatever you want, Cupcake," Morelli said soothingly.

"You own Vincent Plum Bail Bonds?" Khari asked confused.

"It's called Stephanie Plum Bail Bonds now," Stephanie said brightening slightly.

Khari watched Morelli and Stephanie as they made their way down the steps.

"Funny, I thought that Ranger owned Vincent Plum Bail Bonds," he mumbled to himself.

He sighed again heavily and then headed back to Rangeman headquarters to start inquiries. There would be no rest for little boys who were dumb enough to talk to strangers.