None of the characters are mine, they all belong to JE. I'm just getting my kicks making them do what I want for a change.
Chapter 1 – Begging for Favors
"You've got mail!" popped up on my screen. It used to be such a thrilling message to know I'd received a note during the monotony of running searches on the three days I worked at RangeMan each week. Lately however, I noticed the guys had taken to asking for my help via e-mail instead of coming to me personally.
This way they could lay out their whole case and know I would listen to their plea instead of cutting them off to say no right away. I've always been a sucker for a sad story and the guys knew I'd agree to anything if they made their reasoning compelling enough.
I stared at the message prompt for a good five minutes while I finished off a chocolate TastyKake. Then I decided to pull up my big girl pants and see what was waiting for me. The message was from Lester and read:
"Hey Beautiful! Sorry for the short notice, but I was to work a surveillance shift from 6 to 10 tonight with Hal. I can't make it because the girl I've been seeing asked me to go to her niece's ballet recital. I really don't want to go to a girly thing like that but she said it would mean so much to her and I really like her so I think if I go it would show her how much I like her. That would show her how much I like her, right? Anyway, please would you be able to work that shift for me? I'd be so grateful. Love your favorite Range Man, Les."
I hit reply before typing, "Of course I'll do it, you did say please. BTW, if you want some extra points with the girl carry a single pink rose to give to her niece when it is over. Steph."
Great. So much for giving myself a pedicure and trying out the Roadster Red color I just picked up while eating a pint of Ben and Jerry's latest creation. I loved my time with the guys and I liked the steady paycheck that working here provided me, but sometimes it was nice to be alone and do something for myself.
They guys always told me thank you, or that they were grateful, but they were each careful to stop short of saying they owed me a favor for the help.
It wouldn't be that bad. Les said that Hal would be my partner for the evening and he was a nice guy. Over the last month I'd filled in for the guys more and more often and ended up working with Hal at least a half dozen times. I think he has finally gotten over the stun gun incident from when we first met and relaxed around me.
The last time he brought me a Hershey Bar and gave it to me half way through the shift. I told him the only thing better than a surprise of chocolate was having some peanut butter to dip it in. He looked at me like I was crazy and asked why I didn't just get a peanut butter cup if I wanted the two together. I tried explaining how the creaminess of fresh peanut butter complimented the soft melting chocolate but I don't think he understood a word I was saying. These guys may be great to look at, but they just don't understand food.
Since I was going to be working late tonight, I decided to take off early. I had laundry that needed to be done and figured if I had an excuse of having to be at work by 6:00 then my mother couldn't force me to stay for dinner.
I pulled up to my parent's house and noticed my Grandmother standing in the door way wearing a yellow tube top and black yoga pants. The fact that it was the middle of February obviously meant nothing to her. I got my basket of clothes from the back of my current mode of transportation (which was a rust color Ford Escape) and went in.
"Stephanie," My mother called from the kitchen.
"Yes, Mom," I yelled back walking toward her voice still carrying my clothes.
She came around the corner quickly, slamming the door to the panty as though the queen's jewels were hidden in there and she did not want them discovered. Grandma Mazur came up behind me, "If there are jewels in there they belong to Jim Beam, not the queen."
"Mother," my mom screeched. "Stephanie, just put your laundry by the washer, I'll take care of it for you tonight. Are you staying for dinner?" She asked while turning around to get a plate down and filling it with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.
She would never say the words, but her actions were telling me she was glad I stopped by.
While pouring milk she asked, "Did you hear about Carolyn Lipouski's daughter?"
I shook my head that I had not. "She got engaged last night to a real estate developer from Newark. Her mother called me this morning to tell me the good news and ask when you and Joseph were getting married."
I nearly choked on my cookie.
"Stephanie, it's a perfectly reasonable question. You aren't getting any younger, and Joe is the only person who would accept your crazy job. I know you two aren't seeing as much of each other right now, but I think you need to begin putting some real thought into what is going to happen in five years when you aren't as fit and pretty and you can't keep up this foolishness. Who will want you then?" She asked.
Finally getting the cookie out of my wind pipe I replied, "Wait, I am not marrying Joe. I'm not even dating Joe, he is dating a teacher named Julie and I think they are very happy."
At those words my mother's hand involuntarily went to the pantry door, but she stopped herself before pulling anything out and took one of my cookies instead. "I know you say that now, but you two have known each other for years. If you gave him a little attention I'm sure he would forget all about this school teacher and ask you to marry him."
"No, he wouldn't Mom. Joe and I spent a lot of time working out that we are not meant to be married to each other. We would kill each other in the first six months. We are just friends, we have lunch or catch up over beer and a game occasionally, but that is all we will ever be." I looked down at my watch and saw it was 5:30.
"I have to go; I have a shift at work." I tossed out as an excuse to leave during this train wreck of a conversation.
"Wait," She called out after me. "Here, take these and I'll have your clothes ready in the morning." She offered me cookies and clean laundry as an apology. I'm not so proud that I couldn't accept them.
"Thanks, Mom," I said over my shoulder after grabbing the bag of fresh baked heaven.
There was an unusual amount of traffic slowing me down so that by the time I got to Haywood, Hal was leaning against an Explorer with his arms and ankles crossed.
Perhaps it was the lighting but something about Hal seemed different tonight. For the first time, he looked really built. I'd never noticed before but the face that I found so innocent in the office, could also be rugged and handsome. He had a sculpted jaw that led to a clef chin. His brown hair was kept short and I'm sure it would feel velvety soft if I ran my fingers through it. His round hazel eyes were looking out of the garage at nothing in particular giving him the air of a man lost deep in thought. I always knew Hal fit the RangeMan mold of tall, handsome and muscular, but tonight he seemed - dangerous.
Parking next to him, I took a deep breath, grabbed my now half empty bag of cookies and got out.
"Ready to go, Hal?" I asked.
My voice seemed to snap him from his stupor and he nodded before opening the driver's side door and getting in.
We parked across the street from Grant Lee's home. Lee was a high dollar skip RangeMan sought to capture wanted for abuse and embezzlement. Apparently he stole nearly a million dollars over five years from the car dealership where he was the finance manager. He dated some of the office staff who would mysteriously resign after going out with him and then resurface in town sporting bruised faces and broken bones. This was not a nice guy.
"Do you think we'll see him tonight?" I asked, praying the answer would be no.
"I doubt it," Hal said to my great relief. "He usually goes out in the evenings so I would think it would be well after our shift before he stumbled back home."
I opened my bag and offered a cookie to Hal expecting him to say no since he was a Merry Man and they were not allowed to indulge in such sugary goodness. Honestly, I hoped he would say no because there were only three left and I deserved them since I had to put up with yet another Joe lecture.
He did the signature RangeMan move of raising an eyebrow at me before saying, "What kind are they?"
I was surprised by the question and forgot to turn off my sarcasm when I opened my mouth to respond, "Chocolate Chip made with a dash of guilt."
Hal softly laughed at my answer and reached in the bag to take one of my cookies. I was going to be upset about it until he did something I never expected. Hal bit into the cookie and as he began to chew a small low moan rumbled in this throat. I thought it was a delicious sound and hoped I would hear him do it again.
"I don't know if guilt is the secret ingredient or not, but those are great." Hal said licking the melted chocolate off of his thumb. I was suddenly hit with a secret urge to be his thumb. Despite it being cold outside I had to crack the window. Hal looked at me, but said nothing.
"What's with the guilt?" He finally asked realizing for once in my life I wasn't being chatty.
"My mom had to endure a call from a neighbor whose daughter just got engaged. Of course that means I had to endure the lecture where she points out my age and tries to convince me that Joe is my last chance at happiness, therefore I should quit my job and throw myself at him." What was with my inability to keep my thoughts in my head tonight? Hal is not the guy I expected to spill my guts to.
"Do you want to throw yourself at him?" He asked seriously.
"God no!" I exclaimed showing how truly repulsive the idea was to me. I felt the need to back pedal a little, "It's not that Joe isn't a good friend, and we have quite a history, but we realized at Halloween we don't want the same thing in life and by trying to stay together we were destroying any hope we had of remaining friends. So we called it quits and were able to salvage what was good about us by taking the possibility of a future away."
"And she doesn't accept that." Hal concluded.
"No, she thinks I'll ruin my chance at happiness by continuing to do a job that mortifies her and in the next five years I'll lose my looks and every chance I ever had to settle down." I explained. "Of course once she got her words out, I think she felt bad about being so direct, thus the bag of cookies."
"Too bad you had to sit through that. Does it make the cookies taste bad?" He asked with a slight smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
"Absolutely not. My mother may not understand what makes me tick, but when it comes to meeting my need for dessert no one tops her." Having said that I quickly took the last cookie out of the bag and balled up the trash.
Hal's eyes got bigger and I realized he was staring at the final cookie. I moved it slowly up watching his eyes follow the arc toward my face. Three inches from my mouth my conscience got the better of me and I stopped, broke the soft cookie in half and held out a piece to him.
The smile he gave me in return was worth it.
Two hours into our shift I had used up my ability to sit still and was now getting antsy and in need of entertainment.
Either he understood this, or he was desperate enough to try anything to keep me occupied so that I would sit still.
Hal stated, "You've been filling in for a lot of the guys lately. I know they really appreciate it."
"I guess so. I think they ask because they know I'll say yes." I explained.
"You don't want to do it?" He asked.
"Not always, but I have a hard time saying no. I think the guys have learned my weak spot is when they say please so they pull out the big gun and can rely on the fact I'll do it." I offered.
"Why do have a hard time saying no?" He followed up.
"I guess I feel like I owe them. They've done so much for me: body guard, transporting my skips, trips to the ER, checking on and watching over me and I feel like taking an occasional shift here and there is a small thing that I can do to repay that." It sounded pitiful when I said it aloud but it was true.
"Ah, more guilt," Hal summed up.
"Not exactly. I guess it is more friendship. I like the guys, I genuinely want to help them and these types of things I can do so I feel like I should do them. You all have done so much to show me that you care for me, and this is a small thing I can do to return the favor." I thought that explanation sounded better.
"So you consider us your friends?" He asked.
"I consider you all my closest friends, which is strange because I know so little about you, but I guess my gut tells me what you don't." I offered.
"What does it tell you?" He seemed really interested now.
"Well, it tells me that you are men of honor, you have served our country and now you are serving our community by keeping it safe. That you are protectors, I know from the number of times you have taken care of me or arrived at just the right moment to prevent something truly horrible from happening. That you are caring, I know from the sea of black that greets me every time I leave the ER." As I began my list I realized just how wonderful these guys really were. I guess I always knew it, but speaking it made it seem even truer.
"But most of all, none of you tell me what I can't do. I'm sure it would make your lives easier if I would quit my work for Vinnie, but you have never told me I should. That type of support means a lot to me. I'm not used to it from my family or even from Joe, so it tells me you guys are friends in the truest sense of the word." I finished.
Hal was silent which gave me a few minutes to think over what I'd just admitted. My doubts began to creep up and I couldn't help but ask, "Do you guys think I should stop working for Vinnie? Would it make your lives easier?"
Hal took his eyes off the skip's house to look at me when he answered. "Stephanie, to be honest it would be easier if you quit, but not better. If we never had to check on you, or pull up a tracker to hunt you down we would have more time. If we never had to search for a stalker or take body guard shifts then working the rotations would be simpler. But don't confuse that fact with the thought it is something we would want."
"I don't understand. If it gave you more free time, isn't that something you want?" I asked afraid to hear the answer.
"No." He gave me a patented one word answer. I waited hoping he would continue on his own, but he seemed to have shut down.
"Hal, don't leave it there," I pleaded before brining out the big gun myself, "Please."
He took a deep breathe before saying, "Do you realize over the last six months there hasn't been a scheduled Bomber shift on the calendar?"
That didn't seem right. I knew I'd had two stalkers in that time and spent nearly a month with a tail from RangeMan if not a guy in the car with me.
Apparently my confusion showed on my face because he started talking again. "All the times you've had one of us with you it was because we volunteered. We want to be with you, hell there have been times that we have fought for the privilege. So, even though it might make our lives simpler, if you gave up something you love to do, our lives would lose something too. We like seeing you when get your guy. We like watching you show your emotions so freely because most of us can't. We see you living your life; really living it, and we get something from knowing we are helping with that."
He stopped talking to look at me. "I don't think I'm saying this very well. This is why I usually don't talk."
"No. It's just a lot to take in. The thought that you guys do all that you have done because you want to, not because you are forced to is - humbling." I explained.
"Why?" Hal wondered.
"Because it means I was right, you guys really are my friends. Now I'm glad I don't say no when I'm asked for favors." I said trying to lighten the mood in the car.
"I'm not saying that they don't take advantage of your kindness from time to time. I think most of the guys know the power of the word please with you." Hal added.
"What about you?" I questioned.
"What about me?" He countered.
"I don't think you have ever asked me for a favor." I stated trying to wrack my brain quickly to verify that as fact.
"Well…" Hal began stumbling to find the next word in his sentence. Even in the dark I could see he was blushing.
"Whatever it is, after this conversation I can tell you I'll do it. What do you need?" I asked, trying to make it easy on him.
"Be careful about volunteering for something until you know what it is." He cautioned.
"I'll file that tidbit away for future use. Now what do you want to ask me?" I pressed.
He laid his head back on the headrest continuing to stare straight ahead. "Did you know I'm in the Navy?"
"I think I knew you served there, weren't you a SEAL?" I asked.
"Yes, I still am. It's not something you give up even if you retire." He offered as answer to my question before beginning. "I served full-time for ten years, then I moved to a group of SEALs who were activated only for specific operations which I have continued to do on an as needed basis for the last five years. My contract is ending and I've decided not to renew, but before I can leave I have a final commitment to fulfill." He explained.
"Is that where you are when you disappear for long stretches?" I asked.
He nodded. "This time I will be gone for nine months, give or take a little. I will be working with a new group of SEALs to further their training to perform the types of missions I have run for the last five years. There may also be three or four weekend engagements I will fulfill during this period."
"When do you leave?" I interrupted.
"Five days." There was a silence after that answer as I adjusted to the fact that in five short days I wouldn't see Hal again until December. He was one of the more special Merry Men to me. After taking advantage of his trusting nature when I first met him, he remained quiet but devoted to me. I realized I didn't like the idea of him going away.
"Are you looking forward to it?" I wondered.
"Part of it. I like the work, the action, the pushing of limits to see what you can do and what the guy next to you can do. But, the last time I went away for an extended period my return was hard. The guys at RangeMan had shared all kinds of cases and experiences and it took months before I felt like I was a part of them again. Being gone this time for even longer will make it harder." He explained.
"How can I help you?" I had no idea what I could do to prevent the disconnect, but I was willing to do anything he asked of me.
He risked a quick glance at me, I assume to see if I was sincere before continuing. "I'm going to be stationed in California for most of my time using a base there as my launch point for any operations. I'll have daily access to a computer and the internet and wondered…" He paused. His head was lower now and the tough guy I saw in the garage was gone replaced by a shy man who was embarrassed by what he was saying. Finding the words, or the courage, he continued, "I wondered if you would be willing to send me an occasional e-mail to let me know what the guys are up to and what is going on so that when I come back I will know what everybody is talking about." He blurted out.
I let out a deep breath. He was anxious to ask me about such a simple thing. "Of course I'll do that! I'd love to." I answered honestly.
He turned back to look at me and his entire face was lit up with a grin. I realized the dangerous side of Hal was back. I decided to try and get some of his background from the guys after he left. There must be a lot more to him than I thought if he was being asked to train SEALs. I assumed that meant he was one of the best.
I was brought out of my musings by flashing lights behind us. Our back up had arrived and we promptly left for the office.
The next few days ran like normal and all too soon Hal's last day in the office was upon us. I wanted to do something for him but couldn't come up with a single gift that would tell him that he would be missed. Finally, as I was debating whether I needed to get out of bed that exact moment or if a few more hours of sleep might improve my day, I had an inspiration.
Dashing out of bed to grab my phone I dialed my mother.
"Stephanie, what's wrong?" She asked in a panic.
"Nothing's wrong Mom, I just need a favor." I explained.
"What's happened?" She asked, clearly not understanding the concept of a favor.
"Nothing's happened," I growled in a frustrated tone.
"Then why are you calling me at 7:00 in the morning. You never wake up this early unless something is wrong." She explained.
I wanted to tell her that wasn't true and play the role of the offended daughter, but she had a point. I decided to just blurt out what I needed. "Mom I need a big bag of your homemade chocolate chip cookies as soon as possible."
"Why?" She asked suspiciously.
"One of my good friends is leaving for a tour of duty in the Navy this afternoon. I shared some of your cookies with him the last time you made some and he thought they were delicious. I figured it would make a nice going away present for him to have a little piece of home with him on the trip out to his base." I told her hoping she would help me and not make a big deal out of it.
"Of course I'll help you. I made a full batch last night because Valerie was going to drop off the girls this afternoon. How about I box these up for you and I'll make some new ones for the girls later." She offered.
Who was this woman who was being helpful and considerate?
"Are you sure?" I asked hesitantly.
"Stephanie, don't act so surprised. I have a heart you know. Besides, your father was in the army early in our marriage and I remember a care package I sent to him that included some baked goodies. He wrote me a letter I still have to this day telling me how much it meant to him and all the guys serving with him. I can't believe you would think I wouldn't understand this." She stated offended.
"Can you help me wrap them too, so they will look like a present?" I pressed.
"Stop by when you're ready and I'll have them all done up for you." Mom told me.
I hung up and got dressed with a smile on my face. I knew my dad was in the military for a while after my folks were married but I never heard either of them speak of it. Maybe later I would talk to my dad and ask him for suggestions of things I could send to Hal to remind him of home while he was gone. If he could receive e-mail, surely he could also get a care package from time to time.
Feeling good about my plan I got dressed in a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt. I put on my Cat boots and realized I looked like I was channeling my inner Paul Bunyan. To soften the look I pulled my hair back down and let my wild curls go free running a little of Mr. Alexander's taming gel through them with my fingers. Great, now I looked like Paul Bunyan in need of a hair cut. I didn't have time to curl it so this would just have to do.
I stopped by my parent's house on my way into work and true to her word Mom had filled a cake box with cookies and wrapped it in red paper sticking a bow on top to complete the look. "I put tissue paper inside to keep the cookies from breaking. There are eight dozen in there so he can share." She explained as I thanked her for doing this.
My mother might not understand my job, but she understands cookies and a desire to feed people. Finally we had a language we could speak together.
I drove to Haywood as quickly as possible and walked in to see Hal cleaning off his desk. A few guys stopped by to pat him on the shoulder or offer a "see you around" as a parting greeting. This was a part of their way of life so it didn't seem to faze any of them.
I snuck up on him and put the box on his desk while his back was to me. "Surprise," I said causing him to spin around quickly in alarm.
It was fun to startle somebody. Now I understood why the guys insisted on sneaking up on me.
He looked at the box and up to me confused.
"It won't bite or explode. Open it." I instructed as I sat on the edge of his desk.
"Steph, you didn't need to do this." He said but the fact that he tore the paper off told me he was glad I did.
He lifted the box and his entire face lit up at the sight. Taking a deep breath over the box he exhaled with a soft moan similar to the one he made while we were working together. "Were these made with your mother's secret ingredient?" He asked.
"No guilt at all," I said stealing one while the lid was off. "It makes them taste twice as good," I warned taking a small bite of my plunder.
"That's not possible," He argued stealing the remaining cookie from my hand and putting the whole thing in his mouth at once." He closed his eyes briefly while he chewed. "I stand corrected. These are better."
I brushed a crumb off of his lip allowing my thumb to linger on his sun kissed skin briefly.
"Are you going to give me your e-mail address and your snail mail details too?" I asked trying to get a hold of my temporarily sidetracked brain.
He pulled a piece of paper out of a side drawer and handed it to me. "I really appreciate you doing this. I know you are busy so I don't expect to hear from you often, but any details about home will help me stay connected while I'm gone."
There was an awkward silence between us for a minute before I broke it by asking, "Do you need a lift to the airport?"
He shook his head no. "My transportation has been arranged by Uncle Sam. I'll be leaving from a smaller airstrip outside of town."
I was suddenly saddened by the idea of one of my guys leaving. I knew he had a few more things to do and sitting here watching him was a bad idea so I slid off the edge of his desk and leaned over to give him a hug.
I whispered in his ear, "You take care of yourself, Hal. And while you are gone I'll be sure you are up to speed about what's happening here." I pulled back a little and placed a soft kiss on his cheek before straightening up.
Hal's tan face had a rosy tint to it telling me my affection was making him blush. I thought it was cute but I didn't want to make him uncomfortable so I straightened up and walked away holding the paper he had given me tightly in my hands.
I had a mission. For the next nine months Hall was going to know he had friends in Trenton and that they remembered and missed him. I knew I would need some help, so I walked straight to the one person that always helped me when I needed it.
"Babe," he said as a question wondering why it looked like I was about to cry. "What's wrong?"
Shutting the door and pulling me into his arms Ranger rocked me back and forth slowly while I allowed a few tears to slide down my face. I couldn't explain why I was so upset about Hal leaving. I was not as close to him as I was Ranger or Tank or even Bobby or Lester. But I still thought of him as a part of my family and it hurt to lose your family.
"I know Babe," Ranger said. "But he'll be back and what you have agreed to do for him is a good thing. It will help when he gets homesick and it will make coming back easier to know he has a home here waiting for him."
"How did you…" I started to ask but stopped realizing this was Batman and he wouldn't tell me anyway.
"Babe," His response was all the explanation I was going to get.