Chapter 1

Stephanie's POV

I stood looking out the window as the last of my furniture was removed from the apartment. Luckily, a local shelter agreed to hall it out for me, and I didn't see any Rangeman vehicle in site, so I was pretty sure I was able to go about this final task undetected.

I signed the donation form and closed the door. My apartment was completely empty. I had packed the car last night in the cover of darkness. My mind has been made up for about two weeks now, but I had to let all the pieces fall into place. The only thing left in the apartment was Rex's cage and two letters on the counter. One addressed to Joe, one to Ranger. I would call my parents, Mary Lou and Lula when I got settled. But what I had to say to the men in my life, well I knew I couldn't do it over the phone. I needed distance. Life had been rough on me. But now I was ready to go. To start over.

Joe, I know wanted me to change, but not in a way I could live with. I knew that being with Joe would kill the part of me that felt truly alive. As the years went on I would start to hate him for that, and I loved him enough not to go down that road. I wanted him to find happiness. But I knew as long as I was here, he wouldn't move on to find that with someone else.

Ranger on the other hand, didn't want me to change; but there was still the question of if he really wanted me at all. Being around him had risked the lives of him and his men, cost him many vehicles and countless amounts of money, but the worst thing I've done to him was make him change his life. I can't help but feel like that call that Connie made to him about me two years ago was the worst thing that could have happened to him. I wanted him to go back to a simple life. One in which I wasn't mucking up his Zen. But truth be known, I loved him. I was in love with him. He occupied my thoughts, had a starring role in my dreams and kept my heart beating. How I would go one without him? I had no idea, but I had to try.

I made one final check through my bedroom, stopped for a moment in the kitchen before quickly grabbing Rex and practically running for my car. I had already done a sweep of my belonging and car for any tracers and I had placed all ten I could find under the dumpster in the parking lot. I put Rex in the passenger seat and fastened the seatbelt around him. I looked at the clock on my dashboard and it read 8:45 am. After one final look up to the fire escape and my windows, I put the car in gear and quickly made my way out of the parking lot. I took as many side streets as possible, trying to avoid detection on my way to Route 1. Once on Route 1 I was going to head south on the 95 all the way to Jacksonville. Then take the 10 west to New Orleans. Diesel had mentioned in passing last time he came for a "visit" that I could do skip tracing there pretty easily; that there was a lot of money to be made. I had already gotten false IDs. My car, which I bought yesterday in New York, was registered to Stephanie Walsh. I probably should have changed my first name too, but when you've been called something for over thirty years you kind of get used to it.

So now we drove. I shed a tear as the last of the familiarity of Trenton, blurred past my windows. I looked at Rex, who only had his butt visible hanging out of the soup can. "It will be fine. We will be fine." As I said the words my heart was protesting. Would I be fine without him? I think what hurt me more, was I knew he would be fine without me.

As we past the "Thank you for Visiting Trenton" sign, I could no longer hold back the tears. And while I've missed umpteenth Sunday services, that doesn't mean I'm not a praying woman. "God, watch over him. Please. I love him. Help me do what is best for all of us. Help me to be strong. Keep him safe." I let out a hard sob and tried to maintain control of the car. Through tearing vision, I saw the turn off for the 95 and as I took it I whispered, "I love you Ranger."

Ranger's POV

I've had a weird feeling all morning; something just wasn't right. I kept checking to make sure I had my wallet, keys, that I wasn't missing an appointment, but everything seemed in order. I had been in my office doing paperwork since about 8:00. I looked at the clock on the wall. 8:50. Time just seemed to be dragging too. I couldn't remember if Steph was coming in this morning or not. I hoped so. I hadn't seen her in about three days and the last time I did, she seemed kind of distant. She was probably just having problems with the Cop again.

I walked out to the monitor bay where Lester and Bobby were making visual rounds of all the accounts. I stepped over to the black monitor to Lester's left. I didn't want the guys to know I was missing Steph. Show no weakness. Truth be told I really only had four weaknesses in my life; Julie, my daughter, my family, my men and Stephanie Plum. The problem was Steph was now at the top of that list. When I wasn't with her, something felt off.

I pulled up Steph's tracers and all showed up at her apartment. I chuckled to myself. Well if she was coming in today, she was going to be late. Lester looked over at me from the corner of his eye.

"Trouble with Bomber?" Lester had a nervousness in his voice. All my men thought of Steph as a sister. They would have thought of her as more than that if they weren't scared shitless of me. It was unspoken, to me at least, but they knew what she meant to me. And they knew what I would do for her; they had all seen it firsthand.

"No. I just couldn't remember if she was coming in today or not." I flipped open my cell phone and hit Steph's number on my speed dial.

You have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. I ended the call and checked the number. I knew that she had been doing well money wise. She had been working overtime here. And if she needed money, I would like to think she would ask for help.

I dialed her cell phone. The number you have dialed is no longer in service. I shut my phone and looked at it. Bobby and Lester had both turned to look at me now, concern and curiosity covering their faces.

"Did Stephanie change her contact numbers?" I watched as Bobby brought up her personnel record.

"No. They are the same in the computer. What's going on?" Bobby looked up at me and then started to type more into the computer. "We still have those two lipstick cameras in place at her apartment. Do you want me to access them?"

She would be beyond pissed I invaded her privacy that way again. She had made that known to me, but if I could see she was home, then I would go over and find out what was going on. "Go ahead."

The first camera gave a view of her living room. When it came on the screen, there was nothing. All her furniture was gone, it was empty. Bobby quickly punched in the second camera which gave a view of her kitchen. Again, empty, except there was something on the counter.

"Zoom in to counter." I barked at Bobby. When I saw the Cop and my names on each of the envelopes, I finally figured out what I had been missing. As I ran to the elevator, followed by Lester and Bobby, I realized what I had lost today. What was missing? Babe was gone.