Disclaimer still applies.
One Week After Ranger Returned
We hit Macy's first. I found a few shirts and a skirt, as well as a new pair of FMPs. After Macy's, we hit Claire's for some new earrings. By that time, we were both starving. Lula said she wanted to stop at Pleasure Treasures on the way to Shorty's, so I drove us over.
"I'll stay out in the car and look over my folders for later," I told her.
She nodded and left the car.
Several minutes later, the front doors of the car jerked open, and the next thing I felt was a fist hitting my face and a sting in my arm before my world went dark.
The phone rang and I picked it up from my seat in the control room.
"Lester, is that you?"
"Yeah. Lula? Where's Steph? What happened?"
I felt my stomach roll. I started punching in the info to bring up the tracker for the Cayenne and then put the phone on speaker so Junior could listen in.
"She's gone, Lester. I was inside, and when I came out, the car was here. Her purse, the files, it's all here. Her gun and stun gun were tossed to the floor, but she's gone." Her voice had gotten very high and she was becoming hysterical.
Junior looked at me and I nodded. He ran out of the room.
"Okay, Lula, calm down. You're at Pleasure Treasures on Maple? Stay there. We'll be right there."
Tank, Hal, and Bobby came running back into the room.
"What's going on?" Tank barked.
"Lula and Steph stopped at Pleasure Treasures on their way to lunch. Lula went in and Steph stayed in the car. Lula came out a few minutes later and Steph was gone. Her stuff is still there, including her gun and stun gun."
"Let's move," Tank commanded. "I'll call Cal and Hector on the way there and have them take over here."
We ran to our trucks and screamed out of the parking lot, headed to the store on Maple. Racing into the parking lot at Pleasure Treasures, we saw Lula standing on the sidewalk in front of the car.
I jumped out and immediately went to the driver's door of the Cayenne while Tank headed to Lula. I saw Steph's gun, stun gun, and her purse, which contained the tracker pen she'd gotten from Ranger a few months before the last mission...and then my heart stopped.
"Tank! Get over here."
The guys and Lula came running.
I pointed to the small splatter of blood on the driver's side window and the note that had been tossed to the floor with Steph's gun.
Bobby looked at the blood. "Looks like Steph took a punch to the face and they bloodied her nose or split her lip. Not a lot of blood. Nothing to worry about by itself." Then he picked something up from under the car. "This, on the other hand, means business." He held up an empty syringe.
Hal pulled on a pair of gloves and picked up the folded note.
To Ms. Plum's family and friends,
Stephanie Plum ruined my brother's life by sending him back to jail.
I couldn't help my brother then, but I can help him now.
Don't bother looking for her.
You won't find her.
A 'fan' of Stephanie's
"Hal, Bobby, you guys stay here and process the car. Lester and I'll drop Lula off at the bonds office and head back home. I know he's out of it, but Ranger needs to know. We'll meet you back there when you finish." Tank's voice was low and full of worry for Steph, but his face was blank.
We dropped Lula off and raced back to RangeMan. Once inside, we put our hands up to stop the questions coming from the guys and raced up the stairs to the seventh floor.
Tank used his key fob to get us inside, and we slowly made our way back to the bedroom. Ranger was lying on his back, his eyes open and staring at the ceiling.
"Ranger, you awake?" Tank asked. When he got no response except a flicker of the eyes, he went on. "Manoso, this is important. You need to sit up and listen to me now."
His commanding voice made Ranger look over at us. "What?" he asked harshly.
I moved over toward the bed and sat down on the edge. "Lula and Stephanie went to the mall this morning. They stopped at Pleasure Treasures on the way to lunch so Lula could go in and get something. Steph stayed out in the car. When Lula got back out, Steph was gone."
I went on to describe the scene and tell him everything we knew. By the time I'd finished, Ranger was up on his feet, swaying and trying to keep his balance.
Tank moved over to him and led him to the shower. "Get a fast shower, man. Wake yourself up. Stephanie needs you. You be okay here, or need me to stay?"
"I'm fine. Give me five minutes and I'll meet you in the conference room."
I stood and headed out. Before I got to the door, I turned around and said in a strong voice, "Steph is good, Ranger. She's been training hard since you had to go away. She's strong, and you more than anyone know how tough she is. She'll get through this. We'll find her. But she needs you to be strong for her now. Don't fuck it up."
Tank and I turned and headed out of the bedroom and out the door of the apartment to the conference room downstairs.
I threw myself into the shower, taking two minutes to scrub and wake myself up before jumping out and throwing on clothes. I tied my hair back, grabbed my keys, and then ran out the door.
When I got to the conference room, Tank and Lester were there.
"Report!" I barked.
"Bobby and Hal are on their way in. They gathered up what evidence they could and called Morelli at the station to give him a heads up. Morelli will have the car brought here," Tank said.
"Boss, I called Connie and got a list of all the male skips that Steph's had a hand in picking up the last six months. I've started Cal running searches on them to see who's where. With the information gathered from the note left behind, hopefully that'll give us enough information to go on to find her." Lester dropped his voice. "Hal and Bobby said it didn't look like they'd left any evidence behind in the car itself or around it."
"Someone get me the results Cal has finished so far. Now!" I shouted.
I put my head down on my desk, sick to my stomach. There was a rap on the door frame and Bobby and Hal walked in with a box of stuff. I sat up and looked at them, waiting for their report.
"No prints on the car that we could find. No prints on the note or Steph's stuff. No prints on the syringe. Morelli was going to run it to the lab personally and sit on their asses until he got the results back for whatever was in there. He'll call with the results when he gets them," Hal said.
Bobby sighed. "It does look like it's Steph's blood type, so we have to assume it's hers. From what I could tell, I'm guessing Steph was surprised by someone who immediately punched her in the face to stun her, and then they dosed her up with whatever was in the syringe. That's the only way they could have gotten to her. She was carrying and is so much more trained now..." His voice trailed off.
I felt a surge of adrenaline. "Bobby, you stay on Morelli about the drug in the syringe. Send the blood sample to the lab to verify it's Stephanie's. Hal, you ride Cal's ass and help him out with the searches. When you have a small stack done, bring them in here and Lester can start going over them to try to find anything of interest. Tank and I are going to go canvas the area and talk to some sources. Call if you find out anything," I stressed.
Two Weeks After Ranger Returned / One Week After Stephanie Went Missing
After checking in on the boss to find him nearly catatonic on his couch, I headed to Tank's office.
"Tank, man, we gotta do something. I haven't seen him this bad—ever. He's strong, but this is beating him."
I knew the mission Ranger had just returned from had been worse than hellish. I'd told the guys and Steph that it could be months before he was back and near whole. His love for Steph and hers for him was what kept him from shattering completely. She'd just begun to get through to him, getting him to eat, drink, and reach out for comfort, when she'd been kidnapped.
Tank nodded quietly, raising his brow for me to continue.
"With his body and mind in such a weakened and depressed state, the powerless-ness he feels right now, not being able to find and rescue her, is pushing him over the edge. He's feeling extremely vulnerable, which is leaving him absolutely raw and unarmored. Unmilitary, even. If he'd been whole when this happened, he'd have been raring to go all day and night to find her. As it is now, even the strongest of men can only last so long. I'm going to give him an ultimatum. Either he eats and tries to sleep, or I'll drug him. When the time comes to get her—" I sighed "—or let her go...he'll need some strength."
Tank nodded and we headed to Ranger's office to face the lion.
I sat on the couch in my office, trying to throw up but getting nothing but dry heaves. I hadn't eaten anything or slept in a week and could barely hold down water.
"Ranger, if you don't eat something and try to get some sleep, I'll force you," Bobby said menacingly. "You're doing her no good by destroying yourself."
"What does it matter?" I said quietly. "She's gone and we have absolutely no leads."
"We'll find her, Ranger, but until we do, you're in no shape to help."
"I'm fine," I grumbled.
Bobby sighed and left my office. I sat there for a long time until Tank came up and put his hand on my shoulder.
"Carlos, don't do this, man. Take care of yourself so you can help take care of Bomber."
I glared at him and looked away, staring down at my lap. Suddenly, I felt a prick in my arm and shouted, "What the fuck?"
I tried to stand, but my legs suddenly felt like lead. The last thing I remembered was Tank's voice saying, "I've got you, man. Rest now."
Shit, Ranger is so going to kill me, I thought to myself as I watched him collapse into my arms.
Bobby, Hal, and Lester came in, and we each grabbed a hold of Ranger and headed to the elevator. We took him up to the seventh floor and deposited him on the bed. We didn't try to get him comfortable, other than removing his shoes. Hal agreed to stay up there with him, so the rest of us headed back downstairs.
Honestly, we weren't sure where to go next. We were still running down the list of Steph's skips, but as each day dragged on, it got less and less likely we would find something that could lead us to her. We weren't giving up, though. Stephanie wouldn't give up on us, so there's no way we could treat her any differently.
Fifteen Days After Ranger Returned / Eight Days After Stephanie Went Missing
My head was killing me. My body felt more bruised and broken than it had in a damn long time. I'd been stripped, although I was still in my bra and panties. It didn't seem like the man who'd taken me was interested in using me for anything other than a punching bag. I supposed that was a definite blessing.
I heard him moving around upstairs and knew he was leaving for the morning. I'd been keeping track of time in my head, using the shadows from under the door and light from the tiny window at the top of the wall. I'd been gone eight days.
In the first five of those eight days, I'd been working on keeping my wits about me and learning how not to pass out for a huge length of time after he beat me. The last two days, I'd been trying to find something to unlock the cuffs with. I didn't think he'd found the panic button in the pocket of my jeans yet, so if I could get the cuffs off, I could hit that and the knights would come rescue me.
Finally, the night before, I was able to pick a piece of the wooden chair that I thought would work to pick the handcuffs. Now it was all a matter of waiting for him to leave.
I heard him slam the door and then I heard an engine from far away take off. I waited for about thirty minutes before stretching my hand up and starting to work the lock on the cuffs. It took me thirty minutes to get them unlocked and another fifteen to get my leg cuffs off.
I ran over to my clothes as quickly as my sore body would allow and put them on, throwing my hand in the pocket and pushing the panic button. Then I slowly climbed the stairs, listening closely. I heard nothing, so I cracked the door and walked out of the basement, into a hallway off the living room of the house I'd been brought to.
I saw a phone over on the wall and ran to it, dialing RangeMan immediately.
Tank's voice boomed out over the phone. "Bomber?"
"Oh, God! Tank! Please, help me!"
"Where are you, Stephanie?" he asked. "Your panic button was just activated."
"It was in my jeans, and I was handcuffed to the chair. I don't know where I am. The fucker just left for the morning. I was able to pick my way out of the handcuffs and leave the basement I was in."
"Okay, Steph, put the phone down, run out and see if you can see a street and a house number, and then come right back here."
I quickly put the phone down on the counter and raced to the front door. When I opened it, it was bright outside, and I saw that I was in a run-down neighborhood. I found the street sign and looked at the numbers on the house as I ran back in.
After telling Tank the address, I quickly said, "I've got to get out of here before he comes back. I'll head east until I find someplace safe to hide. Come get me, please!"
I hung up the phone and ran back out the front door and around to the alley, running as fast as my sore muscles and cracked ribs would allow. After four blocks, I couldn't run any more. I found a big shrub in front of one of the houses and crawled behind it. I could see all the way down the street, but I was hidden.
Fifteen minutes later, I saw three big black SUVs pulling up down the street. I left my hiding place and began walking in their direction. They must have seen me because I noticed one truck peel off toward me. Within a minute, the truck jerked to a stop beside me and Tank, Lester, and Bobby jumped out.
I started to see black spots behind my eyelids, so I said as quickly as I could manage, "Broken ribs, sprained ankle, head hurts..."
The last thing I remembered was Lester wrapping his arms around me and pulling me to his chest.
I grabbed Steph just as she was about to hit the ground.
Tank said, "Let's go. Santos, you drive. Drop me off back there at the house with the others. You guys take Steph back to RangeMan and see what she needs. When this is done, I'll get a ride back with the others."
Bobby and I nodded as Tank climbed into the passenger seat and Bobby got in the back. I laid Steph across the back seat with her head in his lap and then climbed in the driver's seat. When we got back to the other vehicles, Tank jumped out and immediately headed toward the rest of the men. Within two minutes of finding Steph, we were headed back to RangeMan.
"I don't think there's anything too wrong with her. She looks beaten up pretty bad, but it didn't sound like the broken ribs have damaged anything yet. She was lucid and was acting pretty damn smart, so she may have a concussion, but I doubt it. I think she's just severely dehydrated and malnourished. She should be okay soon," Bobby said, glancing at my worried expression in the rear view mirror.
I nodded and got out my phone to call Junior, who had volunteered to stay back with Ranger; he was still asleep due to the drugs Bobby had given him and the natural exhaustion his body was feeling. I updated Junior and told him to let the guys downstairs know we'd be there in less than fifteen.
My next call was to Morelli. I told him we'd found Steph and updated him as to her condition. I said he was welcome to come to RangeMan, to which he replied he'd be there in an hour.
When we pulled into and parked in the RangeMan garage, I carefully pulled Steph from the vehicle. We hurried into the elevator and up to the fourth floor to Bobby's office.
By the time Morelli got there, Steph had been x-rayed and her ribs taped up. There was a bandage on her left ankle and an IV in her arm. Bobby had also given her a mild sedative to help her rest for a while.
I walked into the room where they had Steph and my heart broke. She had two black eyes, bruises all over her chest, arms, and legs, and a bandage around her ankle. They said she'ld be okay, that there'd been no permanent damage, but to see her like that nearly killed me.
"Cupcake," I whispered, bending down and giving her a soft kiss on the forehead.
I turned back and motioned to Lester that I wanted to speak to him out in the hall.
"Have you found the guy?"
"Not yet," he said, "but we will."
"Good. I don't want to know about it, but I don't want to see him in the station or I'll have to kill him myself."
Lester nodded, understanding what I meant.
"Call me when she's conscious, please. I want to make sure she's okay."
He nodded again.
Lester frowned. "About what you'd expect. His mission ended badly. He was just beginning to heal when Stephanie was taken. Bobby drugged him last night because he was so dehydrated and exhausted and he wouldn't eat or sleep. It should wear off tomorrow. Knowing Bomber's safe will help him a lot."
I sighed. "Thanks for finding her. We're just friends now, as you know, but I'll always love her."
He nodded. "Steph did the work. She got herself out of it and told us where to find her. She's an amazing woman."
I agreed and said goodbye, walking off toward the elevator to head out.
Sixteen Days After Ranger Returned / One Day After Stephanie Was Found
I slowly came out of the blurry fog I'd been in, and when I tried to sit up, it hurt and I cried out.
"Easy, Steph," Bobby said. "You have one broken and three cracked ribs. Other than that, you're okay. You're safe."
I lay back down and groaned. "How's Ranger?"
Bobby chuckled. "Out like a baby. I had to drug him because he was so frantic about you that he wasn't taking good care of himself. He should be about ready to wake up. Would you like to go upstairs so you can be there when he does?"
I nodded, not trusting my voice.
Bobby called Lester, and three minutes later, Lester walked in with a big smile on his face. "Hey, Beautiful! Lookin' much better!"
"Thanks, Les," I said. "Can you take me up to Ranger? Bobby said I can go up and be there when he wakes up."
Lester nodded and carefully picked me up. We made the trip to the elevator quietly. "Hey, Steph, don't worry. We'll get the guy."
"Thanks, Les. Hey, how long has it been since I called?" I put my head on his chest and waited for us to get to the apartment.
"About six hours, Beautiful. Bobby gave you a light sedative to sleep so he could give you x-rays and bandage your ribs without you being awake for it."
I nodded. "I'm tired. When we get upstairs, please just put me in bed beside him and let me rest there."
Four Hours Later
I was lying on my side facing Ranger when I felt him start to stir. I reached over with one hand and lightly began brushing my hand across his cheek. Ranger jerked awake but didn't open his eyes.
I wanted to ease him into reality, so I quietly said, "Carlos, listen to my voice. You're okay. You're home. You're safe."
I felt him stir and continued talking quietly. "Carlos, it's me, Stephanie. I'm okay. I'm home. I'm safe. I love you. Please, wake up and look at me."
Suddenly, I heard, "Babe?" in a scratchy voice.
"Yes, Carlos, I'm here."
"I love you, too." He opened his eyes and smiled softly.
Two Hours Later
I picked up the phone and dialed a number.
"Hello?" a tired voice answered.
"Hey, Morelli. Just wanted to give you a heads up. Steph and Ranger are both awake. Steph's going to be okay, and..." I paused before continuing. "She's safe. She doesn't have to worry about the guy anymore."
"Thanks, Lester. Tell her I said I'll come by and visit as soon as she's up for a visitor, and tell Ranger I'm glad for her sake that he made it home in one piece."
"I will, man."
I hung up and went to pick up some Pino's for the lovebirds upstairs. If anything would make Bossman and Beautiful heal faster, it was a big salad for him and a big meatball sub and dessert for her. I was laughing for the first time in a while as I stepped out the door into the sunshine because I knew that everything would be all right.