Disclaimer: Janet Evanovich owns the rights to the following characters. The only original character is Diego. Warning: Graphic Content.
The Skeletons in My Closet
Ranger knelt next to Stephanie's hospital bed, clutching her small hand in his; clinging to her with open desperation. His eyes roaming her beautiful face. Memorizing every wayward curl, the delicate curve of her lips, the porcelain texture of her skin.
"Forgive me… Please forgive me," He chanted over and over like a mantra. His voice thick with raw emotion. He knew that his pleas were in vain. After all, she now knew the truth. He wasn't Batman, her hero, her savior. He was a monster. A living, breathing, soulless monster. And he knew in his heart, that when she opened her eyes, he would see the monster reflected back at him. He didn't know if he could bear to see the look in her eyes as that realization set in.
"A monster," Ranger scolded himself in his tortured mind. He knew he was unworthy of her love. Hell, he was unworthy of her presence. And yet he was drawn to her. Like a moth to a flame. Her goodness radiated from every pore. With every stolen moment, every stolen kiss, he could bask in her light. Foolishly he thought that if he could protect her, someone so pure and good, he could atone for some of the blood on his hands.
But he knew that his secrets, so long hidden in the dark recesses of his mind, were unforgivable. A cancer that ate away at his very core. He would never deserve her. His heart clenched painfully in his chest at the thought.
But he loved her, God he loved her. With every fiber of his being. Before her he was an empty shell. She had breathed the life back into him. She held his heart, she was his soul.
The events of the last 24 hours flooded back into his mind. His worst nightmare had taken the form of a man. That man, Diego Escobar, now his enemy, once his 'brother'. They had fought and bled together for over a decade. The missions they had faced had been gruesome and taxing. Together they had walked through the darkest pits of hell.
Ranger had watched helplessly as Diego's mind began to splinter. His psyche damaged beyond repair. He became a danger to himself and to others. Finally breaking, Diego held a fellow comrade at gun point, ranting wildly, claiming he was in coercion with the enemy. After diffusing the situation, Ranger had no choice but to inform his superior officers of Diego's condition. He would never forget the haunted look in Diego's eyes as he received his discharge papers. The sting of betrayal and hatred clearly displayed on his face.
In the years to follow, Ranger tried repeatedly to reach out to his friend. He wanted to be certain that Diego was receiving the psychiatric treatment that he so desperately needed. His letters returned unopened, his phone calls unanswered. No contact had been reciprocated.
Stephanie had been missing for twelve hours.
Ranger paced the conference room floor like a caged tiger. His eyes black with barely contained rage. The room was swarming with Rangeman and Trenton police officers, searching desperately for any unseen clue.
The shrill ring of Ranger's cell phone stopped him dead in his tracks. He held his hand in the air as silence descended upon the room.
"Manoso." He answered firmly. The muscle in his jaw ticking. He placed the call on speaker and waited with baited breath.
"Ahhh, Captain Manoso. I would say it's a pleasure to speak with you, but you and I both know that would be a lie." The caller's voice was flat, emotionless.
Recognition sparked in Ranger's eyes. Anger radiating off of him in waves.
"Diego," Ranger spat his name as if it were a curse.
"Your Stephanie truly is an…. enticing woman." Diego's voice had dropped to a husky growl.
"If you hurt her Diego, you will beg for death before I have mercy on you!" Ranger spoke menacingly. "Where is she? What have you done to her?"
Diego laughed humorlessly. "Impatient are we? Stephanie is right beside me… or should I call her Babe? Don't worry Ranger, I don't plan to KILL her, I'm just going to, shall we say, EDUCATE her. That's not to say that I won't take any special liberties along the way…"
Ranger's body tensed. "Diego, what do you want? Is this about money? I would have given you…"
"Money?!" Diego's voice bordered on hysteria. "I don't want your fucking money!" You destroyed my life! I was left with nothing but the stigma of lunacy! You betrayed me! I was born to be a soldier; it was my life, my passion! You sold me out, and now I will return the favor.
Oh, and Ranger… enjoy the show."
The line disconnected. The silence in the room was deafening.
Ranger stood shaking with fury. His men knew that he was close to losing his control. His hands clenched tightly, blanched white with the effort. His arm shot out from his side slamming into the wall in front of him. Sheet rock exploding around his fist. Again and again he delivered punishing blows, his own blood dripping from his knuckles.
Tank, Ranger's right hand man, slowly approached him. Tank knew how lethal Ranger could be. At any given moment Ranger was a force to be reckoned with. Right now he was unstoppable. No one in their right mind would want to be on the receiving end of his wrath.
"We'll find her." Tank spoke softly. He stayed more than arms length away. He knew to keep his distance.
The door to the conference room was wrenched open. Hector, Lester and Bobby rushed in.
"We just received a video feed from an unknown sender. I don't know how they managed to breach the system." Hector quickly connected his lap top to the projector screen above.
No one was prepared for the scene that flashed before them.
Stephanie was lying on a metal platform, her feet inclined above her head. Her wild hair spilling out around her. Her hands and feet bound. Her chest and thighs secured to the platform with rope. A red cloth was wrapped around her head covering her nose and mouth. Her vivid blue eyes, wide with terror, frantically scanning the room around her.
Footsteps echoed in the background, a lone figure stepping into view.
Diego, dressed in full army fatigues approached the table where Stephanie lay helpless. He leaned in closely to her, whispering too softly for them to hear. The rise and fall of her chest sped rapidly with her growing fear.
Diego turned to face the camera, smiling sickly.
"Today is a day of redemption." Diego said, spreading his arms wide, as if addressing a great multitude of people.
"You see, for the last three years I have thought of nothing other than bringing the Mighty Manoso to his knees. Do you know how it feels to watch your purpose for living carry on without you? As if you never existed? For years I dedicated myself to the service of my country; only to be discarded, forgotten. It was my duty...my calling in life. And you stole it from me.
"Today I will show Stephanie who you really are, Ranger. I will show her what your hands are capable of. In fact she will experience firsthand some of your more… persuasive techniques. After I am through with her she will walk away from you, as if you never existed. The only emotion she will feel for you is fear. And you will have to carry on for the rest of your days lost; without your purpose for breathing. You will know how it feels to continue living when you are already dead inside. You will watch her from afar, carrying on without you. Then, and only then, will you feel the depth of your betrayal and the pain I have endured because of you."
You see, I have already begun Stephanie's education process. I have spent hours conveying to her, in great detail, the more candid moments of your military career. Oh yes, her "hero" has a rather tainted past. All of the skeletons you have hidden away have finally come back to haunt you. After all, it's only fair that she knows the truth behind mask. You exposed me and my weaknesses. Let's see how you fair under the same censure."
Diego turned and walked out of the cameras view. Only to return again carrying two large pails in his hands. He walked around the table and came to a stop behind Stephanie's head, placing a pail on either side of his legs.
"Would you like to go for a swim darling? The water feels fine." Diego asked, starring down at Stephanie quizzically.
Stephanie shook her head frantically, as much as her restraints allowed.
"Well, I will take your silence as consent then."
Diego pulled one of the pails up into his arms tilting it down towards her. Water poured onto her face soaking the cloth wrapped around her head. Stephanie's body thrashed wildly against her confines. Seconds ticked by before Diego placed the bucket back at his feet. Stephanie was gasping for air and crying in gurgled sobs. Letting her get just enough air to survive, Diego pulled the bucket back into his arms and repeated the process time after time.
"What's the matter love? Can't swim?" Diego asked mercilessly.
After emptying both buckets, Diego tore the cloth from Stephanie's face. She sucked in a frantic breath before wretching water onto the floor.
Diego stalked towards the camera, his face mere inches from the lens. His eyes were flat. Devoid of any emotion. The human element missing in his eyes.
"Ranger, I hope you enjoyed our little matinee. Please do not be disappointed that it is ending so quickly. I have much more in store for you. Until then…"
Diego stepped back into focus and saluted the camera.
The screen went black.
The noise that came from Ranger could only have been described as animalistic. Waves of rage, sorrow and fear washed over him.
He knew the agony of perceived drowning. He had seen the effects first hand. He had used this technique once in Columbia. The leader of a local drug cartel had hidden drugs at the area's day care center. The man wanted compensation for any 'goods' seized by the government. This was non negotiable. The doors had been barricaded with bombs, the children trapped inside. Time was running out and the man refused to talk. Ranger could not bear the death of those innocent children at the hands of that vile man. It was a means to an end. The children survived.
"Please God… please let me find her alive." Ranger pleaded silently.
"Ranger, Man, I think I've got something!" Hector spoke rapidly
"Report!" Ranger barked back at him.
"The paint pails he was using, they had the Wright Interior label on them. The building appears to be an abandoned warehouse. Wright Interior Designs went out of business six months ago. Their warehouse is just outside of Trenton!"
The men burst into action.
"I want every man we've got at that building now! Take whatever means necessary to retrieve Stephanie without harm!"
Ranger ran from the room at a dead sprint. Bobby, Lester and Tank followed closely behind. Already fully dressed in swat gear, they tore through the garage and piled into the waiting SUV's. The drive took only minutes.
"B team surround the perimeter, A team let's roll!"
Ranger called the order over his shoulder, already running towards the building. Reaching the door he picked the lock in seconds. Silently slipping into the building and signaling for the others to follow.
He could hear noise in the distance. Gun at the ready he made his way towards the sound. He realized that the noise was someone humming loudly. He recognized the tune, The Military Taps.
Rounding a corner Ranger could see Diego standing with his back to him. His hands waving in the air, a gun in one hand, conducting an invisible symphony.
Stephanie was knelt before him, hands tied behind her back, blind folded. Her body trembling with fear.
He lowered his gun to Stephanie's head and pulled the trigger.
Stephanie's body jerked and wracked with sobs. Diego's deranged laughter echoed throughout the building.
"Any last words love? Don't be shy?'
Ranger had to swallow the bile rising in his throat. He knew well Diego's sick game. Mock execution was severe psychological torture. Your captive believing they are being brought again and again to the brink of death.
Stalking silently across the room Ranger reached Diego in three long strides. Pressing the barrel of his gun to the base of Diego's skull.
Diego's body froze. Startled by being caught unaware.
"Put the gun down, or I'll blow your fucking brains out!" Ranger's voice was low and deadly.
Regaining his composure Diego spun to meet his assailant. Ranger's fist connected with Diego's face. Blood spurting from his nose and mouth.
Diego stumbled back dazed, swaying slightly. He shook the fog from his head and stormed Ranger with a roar. Ranger caught Diego around the waste throwing him up and over his shoulders. Diego's head slammed into the concrete floor with a sickening crack.
Ranger pinned Diego to the ground. His muscular forearm pressed roughly into Diego's throat.
In that moment Ranger wanted nothing more than to wrap his hands around Diego's throat and watch the life leave his eyes.
Hands seem to come from every direction wrenching Ranger away from Diego. He fought wildly against them. His goal yet accomplished. A sound cleared the ringing from Ranger's ears. His name, spoken in a breathy whisper.
Ranger's body stilled his head turning towards her voice. Their eyes met briefly before hers rolled back into her head. Her body sagged limply, falling towards the floor. Ranger lunged for her, catching her before she hit the ground.
"She's going into shock! We need an ambulance!" Bobby's voice seemed so far away.
Ranger held her possessively as the room was swarmed with police and Rangeman. He barely registered Diego being escorted away or the paramedics pulling Stephanie from his arms. Ranger rode to the hospital in the back of the ambulance, his eyes never leaving her face, refusing to leave her side.
Ranger was pulled from his reverie by the increased beeping of Stephanie's heart monitor. He knew that his moments with her were numbered. The doctor came in to say that she would be waking soon. He gave a curt nod and sighed, kissing her forehead gently, knowing that this would be the last time he would ever touch her. Feeling the sting of tears in his eyes, he blinked furiously to keep them at bay.
Stephanie's eyes began to flutter and she moaned softly.
Ranger braced himself for the rejection to come, but he didn't have the strength to leave. "Let her send me away." He thought miserably. "I deserve nothing less."
Her blue eyes slowly opened, turning her head until they met his chocolate ones.
"Ranger." She breathed
He waited for her scream of terror at the sight of him but was met only with silence and her intense gaze. He tried to disentangle his hand from hers but she clamped down with an iron grip.
"No!" She said with steal in her voice.
Ranger froze, confused by her words. "Babe I'm so sorry, I…"
"No!" She said again firmly. "I know what you're thinking, Ranger, and it couldn't be further from the truth."
Ranger sat stunned in disbelief. He didn't dare to allow his heart to hope.
"You know what I am...what I've done. How can you possibly want me to stay?
"These last hours have been among the worst in my life". Ranger tensed at her words.
"I never knew the horrors you have had to endure. The cross you have had to bare. I finally understand why you are the way that you are. I'm glad that I finally know your past. Everything you have done has been for the greater good. You have sacrificed your own peace of mind for the safety and protection of others. War is ugly, and those who live it face indescribable evils; but because of people like you, people like me are free to live in peace."
"I love you, Completely. Nothing anyone could ever say or do can change that. When Diego… "she shuddered and closed her eyes.
Clearing her throat she continued on, "When I was being tortured the only thing going through my mind was how much I love you, and how I would never get the chance to tell you how I feel. I love you Carlos. I love the man you show to the world and the man hidden behind the mask."
Ranger's heart was beating frantically in his chest. His Babe loved him. All of him. The best parts and the broken pieces. The joy he felt in that moment was indescribable.
He leaned forward and gently claimed her lips. He held her with reverence, conveying the feelings of his heart. Their tears mingled together. Words of love and reassurance were whispered.
That day he gave her the battered and weary heart of a soldier. They healed each other through their love and together they flew.
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