As always, I am merely borrowing the characters below from JE. I created nothing here.
Jenny (JenRar) I can't thank you enough for encouraging me to write this when I worried that it was too much of a deviation from my usual stories. Your contribution to this journey has gone well beyond just being the beta.
Chapter 1 – Woody - 1000 Hours – The Clock is Ticking
I hated working monitor duty with Hal. He's the quietest person here, which is fine for shorter assignments, but because we're down a few staff members right now from people called up for duty, our mind numbing shifts staring at black and white security feeds were now four hours, instead of just two. After sitting here for two hundred and ten minutes in near silence, I was about ready to start climbing the walls.
When the phone rang, I jumped from the unexpected break in the silence. Despite the handset being closer to Hal, I leaned over and answered it, desperate for any distraction I could get.
"RangeMan, how can I help you?" I answered in the prescribed manner, glad to be following a script of sorts, so I didn't have to figure out the right words.
A male voice with a slight accent that I didn't recognize, but instantly disliked, said, "And which Merry Man am I talking to?"
What in the hell did that mean? Did this joker think he was calling Robin Hood? Because I could guarantee that I was no freaking Merry Man. Hell, the idea of tights made me shudder, causing Hal to look over like I'd lost my mind. Damn prank caller.
"Who is this?" I decided to go on the offensive, instead of giving in to what this delusional person was after. After all, every phone call to the control room required a log entry to be typed up, so I needed something to document other than "a crazy man called at 1000 hours."
"No, no," he corrected in a smooth voice. "You don't get to ask anything of me, because I hold all the cards in this game."
I may have been desperate for something to break of the monotony of a boring shift, but this was too strange to be entertaining. "Mister, I don't know who you are, but I'm not playing any games."
I was about to hang up, but he quickly said, "Oh, but you are. Here, let me give you a little of the soundtrack, so you understand the kind of party game I'm referring to."
With that, I heard a snapping sound that reminded me of Indiana Jones when he would use a whip to beat back the bad guys. I always loved that sound, but immediately following the leather snap was a bloodcurdling scream that could only have been made by one person.
I hit the record button to begin capturing the call, and then I began the tracing software designed to get a lock onto the caller's location. Finally, I quickly wrote a note to Hal, telling him to alert the core team to conference in on this call. I knew Ranger was in the wind stateside and I thought Bobby was asleep downstairs after a late night injury call, but Les and Tank should both be around.
Hal looked at me strangely, but picked up the internal phone and began hitting extensions, trying to locate the guys like I'd said. I might not like the silence that working with Hal dictated, but he was damn dependable at following orders, so I was able to relax in the knowledge that he'd get them on the line.
"I'm listening. You don't need to do anymore," I quickly said to the stranger on the phone. I had no way to prove that scream belonged to Stephanie, but my heart said it was her, so I needed to do anything I could to protect her from more pain because of my inability to pick up on what the mad man wanted.
"Very good," he said, surrounded by silence once more. "Obviously, you do not know who I am, and I realize this puts you at a bit of a disadvantage, but I have to assume if Manoso hired you that you are capable of following directions, so you will need to listen carefully."
"I will," I assured him, hoping he would continue talking. As long as he was talking, I didn't hear any screams, which meant that Stephanie wasn't being hurt. I'd gladly listen to his crazy rambling all day long if it spared her any suffering.
"Excellent." He was nuts... The fact that he thought he'd get away with hurting Stephanie was a major piece of evidence, but clearly, the fact that he thought I wanted his praise was another reason, too.
"Now, I have something that belongs to Mr. Manoso. I acquired her last night and found her quite pretty, but definitely not stunning. Honestly, I was a bit confused about why she seemed to have infatuated the famous Ranger. But after working with her through the night, I began to understand. She isn't trained or very strong, but she refuses to break, which is astounding, considering what I've put her through. She insists that she doesn't know where Mr. Manoso is, nor how to get in touch with him, and just in case she's telling the truth, I've decided to go about this a different way."
Fuck! Nothing about what he'd said gave me a good feeling. What in the hell had Stephanie endured to protect Ranger? And why wouldn't she give him up? He was technically on a mission, but he was stateside. We all knew we could call him at any time on his cell phone and he'd take the call.
Stephanie had been talking to him a couple of days ago for advice on how to pick up a skip he'd helped her with in the past. I'd walked by when she'd called him Henry Higgins and stuck around after her call just so she'd explain the reference. I'd had no idea that was what started their…well, whatever they have. They both seem to be under the delusion that they aren't in a relationship, but even a blind man could see they were completely committed to each other. And the fact that she'd just spent the night enduring some kind of torturous hell in order to protect him only drove the point home about what he meant to her. No one would have blamed her for cracking and telling this fool how to reach Ranger, but nobody would be surprised that she'd refused to do it, either.
"Several years ago, Mr. Manoso was charged with capturing my brother and his wife because of a little business venture they were engaged in to provide young girls from our country to businessmen in America to use for profit. He seemed to think it was his place to step in and interrupt the family business. In order to get my brother, he first captured his wife and used her as bait to bring in the target he was really after. I'm telling you this because Mr. Manoso will need that piece of history to save Miss Plum."
"Mr. Manoso isn't here now. Is there any chance you'll give me more information about the history?" I knew I was pushing, but I had no clue what he was talking about, and I knew we'd be on full alert as soon as I got off the phone, so the more details we had to work with, the quicker we could kill this son of a bitch and bring our girl home.
There was laughter in my earpiece, reminding me of a mad scientist, before he said, "No, I'm afraid only Mr. Manoso can understand."
"I can try to get a message to him, but I have no idea how long it will take to hear back." I needed to bargain, to prepare him for it to take days in the hope that he'd slow down working on Stephanie so that she could survive until we could locate where she was being held.
"That isn't going to work," he corrected me. "I am calling you as a courtesy. You have exactly four hours to have Mr. Manoso produce himself, or Miss Plum will be dead. She's in an empty warehouse near the waterfront, and I'm sure you have some way of locating her with that piece of information. I will not interfere with any activity to rescue her, but you need to be aware of three things."
"What things?" I asked, pulling a tablet near me to write them down as he spoke. I was always a visual person, and seeing what someone was saying made it stick with me better.
"First, she is completely secure, and you will not be able to extract her. I have rigged the entire warehouse so that any attempt to simply walk in and grab her will result in your deaths. On top of that, should you actually find a way to get to her, which I highly doubt you will, you should not try to simply pick her up and run, or it will result in her death. But before you deem me to be unreasonable, you have my word that if Mr. Manoso arrives in time, he will know what to do to save her, and I will not interfere with the work to free Miss Plum. She is a rare woman to have endured with her pride intact as she has, and I believe it would be a shame to lose her in the world."
He might be a dead man as far as I was concerned, but it seemed as though he had at least a little sanity left if he recognized that the world needed Stephanie.
"Secondly, you only have four hours to produce Mr. Manoso. I have started the clock running, and Miss Plum's life will end automatically in two hundred and forty minutes. Unless Mr. Manoso arrives to stop the clock, there is nothing that can be done to save her."
So he'd booby trapped the building to keep us away from her. He'd booby trapped Stephanie to keep her from being removed from the building, and he'd given us a short window to save her before it won't matter, because she'll be dead. This was the worst nightmare of every man in this building.
"And finally, because I am a fair man and recognize it is unfair to make Miss Plum suffer for the sins of Mr. Manoso, I have given her a trigger that she can use at any time to end her time as a pawn in the game. If she gives up hope and pushes the button, her life will end immediately."
Could this get any worse? Depending on her frame of mind, Stephanie might decide to take her life, just to keep us from getting hurt while trying to rescue her.
"And when you speak to Mr. Manoso, be sure to tell him that if he decides to save the woman the streets say belong to him, I will not interfere with her rescue, but the moment she is free, I will end his life. I will allow her to live, but only if his life is forfeited in her place. In four hours, someone will be dead, Mr. Manoso has the power to select who it will be, but that is all he can control."
I saw the trace light had engaged, saying we had a location on the caller. "When does the time begin?" I asked, wanting to keep him talking anyway.
There was a tisking sound. "My boy, you need to listen better. I told you two hundred and seventy seconds ago that you had four hours. The time you've been given is already down to three hours and fifty-five and a half minutes."
"You won't get away with this," I knew it was foolish, but I couldn't stop myself from saying it.
"Ah, Merry Man, I already have," he replied coolly.
"Why are you calling me Merry Man?" I couldn't help but ask.
That earned me a laugh. "I cannot answer that; you will have to ask Miss Plum, if she survives. I took her phone from her, looking for a number for Mr. Manoso to deliver this message myself, and could not locate a listing for him."
I was surprised to hear that, assuming she'd have Ranger in her phone as a contact. Then again, Ranger had given her that phone a few months ago, so I figured he had his number hard wired in, and unless you knew what to dial, you wouldn't be able to access it.
Oblivious to my inner thoughts, he continued. "However, there was a listing with this phone number under the name Merry Men, which is what I dialed to reach you. I have to say, you don't really match the name. You don't sound very merry to me," he taunted, before the unmistakable click of him hanging up sounded.
Before I could set the receiver down, I heard a horrible crash on the main floor, where our cubicles were located. Then there was the distinctive sound of a wall being punched. It was followed by the cracking of plaster, meaning whoever had turned their wall into a punching bag had gone through it completely. I took that to mean that Tank and Lester had both picked up the phone in time to catch the gist of the call.
"Woodrow!" Tank yelled after banging his door open.
I hated hearing my full name belted out like that, but knew this wasn't the time to complain about it.
"Sir," I responded from my seat, finally setting the phone back down in its cradle.
"Get in here," he commanded. His voice carried so much authority on a good day that adding the fury he was emanating at the moment, there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that I wouldn't obey.
As soon as I walked into his office, I asked, "Sir, should I send someone into the control room?" It was a subtle reminder to him about RangeMan policy demanding two bodies be in there at all time.
"Screw the control room," Tank replied. "This whole building can burn to the ground, for all I care. Some fucker has our girl, and the clients can all go to hell until we get her back."
Well, that cleared up where the focus should be. In Ranger's absence, Tank's word was law. I guess there wasn't any doubt what we were going to do.
Santos came in as Tank began barking out orders. "I'm calling Ranger to get his ass on a plane. He can be here in an hour at the latest, but it may take some time to reach him and to figure out who the asshole is that is hurting Stephanie, so we're going to have to work this from both ends, and not just wait on the boss to clear up the mystery."
I nodded that I understood. "You,"—he pointed in my direction—"will move to the large conference room and have Vince assist you in setting up a full scale control center to run this operation. All communication regarding this situation will run through you in order to record, document, and coordinate."
I had experience running a data center for the FBI, so I knew exactly what he needed. As much as I wanted to be out there helping in the search and rescue, I knew we needed someone here that was capable of handling the flow of information, and no one else was as qualified as I was.
"Yes, sir," I told him, accepting the order and letting him know I'd see it done.
Then Tank looked at Santos behind me and said, "You, grab a team and head down to the waterfront and find Stephanie. You've got the address from the trace on the call, so start there, and then branch out if you have to, but you don't stop knocking doors down until you find her, understood?"
"Yes, sir," he replied with a face I'd never seen on Santos.
We'd worked together for three years now, and I knew when a situation called for it, he could be as serious as a heart attack, but this was way beyond anything I'd ever thought he was capable of. There were rumors that when he was still in the Army and running missions along with Tank and Ranger, he was the one they used for psychological warfare, and if that didn't work, they just turned him loose. He'd studied psychology, which enabled him to get in people's heads in weird ways. But according to the guys, he'd studied it because he had to, in order to bring himself back from the brink. Apparently, he'd seem some pretty intense shit in his lifetime and in order to keep control on the animal inside him that wanted to seek retribution for the horrors he'd seen, he had to understand how his mind worked first. I wasn't sure if any of it was true or not, but at the moment, I'd lay money on the fact that there was a beast inside the man behind me and it was capable of doing whatever was necessary to free Stephanie.
I followed Santos out and went to Vince's desk first. He was the best computer geek we had on staff in Trenton, so I understood why Tank had tapped him to serve as my right hand. I stopped by his chair and said, "Let's go, man. We have to set up a situation room in conference room B."
"What's doing?" he asked, standing up to follow me. He wasn't refusing to help, but to set up the right space, he needed to know what was going on.
As we moved to the storage room to take the equipment we'd need, I said, "Somebody's taken Stephanie, and we have four hours to find her."
Vince stopped walking. "Holy shit. What happens in four hours and one minute?"
I turned to look at him, not appreciating him slowing down the progress and definitely not approving of him entertaining the question of what happened if we didn't succeed in our mission. "Move while you talk!" I practically yelled at him. "We don't talk about what happens then, because the only thing we could do at that point is call her parents and help transport the body. Since that isn't an acceptable alternative, it is our job to make sure the clock doesn't get that far." Then I looked him in the eye and asked, "Can you handle this, or are your emotions going to get in the way? We don't have time for you to pull yourself together."
"I'm good," he said, squaring his jaw and standing a little taller.
I started shoving chairs out into the hall. This room wasn't for sitting, and we'd need the space for the equipment. I left a seat for Vince only, and then started running cables to string together three laptops, a projector, and the emergency communication phone system. Any calls to or from this system would automatically be logged by the computer and recorded to the hard drive.
We'd practiced drills like this, and the training had paid off, because in less than six minutes, Vince announced, "We're live."
I grabbed a dry erase marker to begin logging activity on the white board on the wall. Some people might think computers were the only tool for a situation like this, but there was something about writing some of the players and the movement as clues lead into each other that I found helped me to better run the operation, so I started by marking that Tank was reaching out to Ranger, and then making a separate space for Santos – drawing lines under his name to record his team once I knew who they were.
Everything that was said, every order that came in or went out would be logged by Vince and would appear on the other wall from the projector, giving me Vince's activity log from the laptop.
I took the wireless headset Vince handed me and clipped the control piece to my belt. "Get me Hal," I said, running in my head all the bases that we needed to cover. Tank had said we were going to work this from every angle to find Steph, and since we had zilch to go with at the moment, it was my job to start gathering some clues.
Hal appeared in the doorway, red in the face. I knew it wasn't from running down the hall. He'd heard that phone call after telling Tank and Lester to join in, so he knew exactly what was going on.
I held up a finger to tell him to wait, and then turned back to Vince. "Send out the emergency text to all RangeMan employees for this situation." After this, not only would every man in Trenton know what was happening, but the staff in Miami, Boston, and Atlanta would, as well.
He nodded and began typing to bring up the prewritten text that we'd set up in case Stephanie was ever kidnapped. All the shit we'd done a year and a half ago that seemed so maudlin at the time had left us prepared to spring into action. I'd never complain again about emergency preparedness training when it came up again in the fall.
The cell phone on my hip vibrated, and I looked down to see the text from Vince. "Emergency protocol Beta" was the header. If anything had happened to Ranger, it would have said Alpha, as he was the man in charge of the organization, but Lester had suggested we use Beta for Stephanie, since a lot of the guys called her Bomber, and in our minds at least, she was the second most important asset in the company. The rest was just a list of short reminders of the protocol regarding the fact that every available staff person was now considered on duty, and they were to report to their work station to await further orders.
"Send a copy of the phone call I took in the control room fifteen minutes ago to every computer in the building and to the directors of the other cities. It will get the guys up to speed and avoid the need for a briefing to slow everybody down," I barked out to Vince, hearing him begin the process of retrieving the recorded conversation.
Then I turned back to face Hal and said, "Get your kit and head over to Stephanie's apartment. He said he took her last night, so I'm guessing that meant he abducted her from her apartment during the night. Go over that place with a fine toothed comb and get me every possible piece of evidence to figure out who took Stephanie."
"Got it," he replied without question. Hal was our resident crime scene tech. He was a chemistry major in college and had worked on an investigation team for the Navy like that show on television – "CSI" – pretended to emulate. I assumed he was so quiet because the man never missed a single detail when he assessed a situation, and being that detail oriented had to keep your mind rolling at a speed too fast to have room for conversation, too.
"Hey, Hal," I called out before he left. "You find anything – big or small – and you call in with it. Time ain't on our side here, and we need to get this rolling quickly."
He nodded, and then asked, "Can I take Bones with me? He's got some experience as a tech assistant."
"Good idea," I agreed, hoping that between the two of them, they'd get some answers twice as fast. "Head out," I barked, sounding more like Tank with every tick of the second hand.
No sooner had that thought crossed my mind then the man himself showed up in the doorway and looked around at the set up, before nodding his agreement that we had it under control. I used the marker in my hand to point to his name next to Ranger's on the board.
"Any news?" I prompted.
"He's rolling and pissed as hell. It will take him an hour to reach Trenton, but Hawk will chopper him straight to the roof here, and he'll check in with you to see what we know. In the meantime, any pieces of info can be sent to his phone," Tank reported to my great relief.
I made a note that Ranger's ETA was 1120 hours, which would still give us two and half hours to find and save Stephanie once he was here to direct us.
"Any new directions?" I asked as he stood there, staring toward the window.
My words shook him out of his temporary stupor, and he shook his head. Tank was a man of few words on a good day, but when he was pissed, he had two levels: pissed off and loud, or deathly still and quiet. I wasn't sure which was better, but it was easy to see where he was settling at the moment.
The comm room line rang, and I patched it through to the central table speaker in the middle of the room. "Report," I said, keeping it short and hoping like hell it was somebody with good news.
Lester's voice came through. "I think we've found her."
"You think?" I asked, confused about why there wasn't more certainty.
"The address we got from the phone trace was a huge warehouse at the waterfront. There is nothing else nearby, so it's most likely here," he began explaining.
"Why haven't you gone in?" Tank bellowed from the doorway, slipping into the other side of his personality. I wasn't sure it was an improvement.
"There are explosives on the doors, a gas line trigger set to combust if we approach too close to the perimeter, and two dogs inside the gate before you get to the warehouse door itself. From the looks of the building, there's nothing there to need that kind of protection, so I have to assume she's there," he reported, making the logical conclusion.
"Who do you want to send?" I asked Tank, ready to pull up the guys who were at their desks, waiting on orders.
Tank knew the men as well as Ranger. He was well versed in every specialty and hobby interest in this building. It didn't take him five seconds to say, "Cal for the dogs, Ram for the explosives, and Hector can shut off the gas feed and assess for any other surprises."
I glanced at Vince, and he nodded his head that he had the orders and was typing them in to call up the guys Tank had suggested.
"You need anybody else?" I asked into the phone.
"Hell if I know," Lester replied, his frustration evident in his tone.
"I'm heading down, too," Tank announced. "I'll set up a comm area there in a RangeMan van and patch into you. We can respond a lot faster if we've got a central presence on the ground, as well."
I nodded, knowing it was the right call and would increase our response time if Tank was there to command and I was here to coordinate.
He started to walk out, and then turned, like he'd remembered something. "The whole damn company is at your disposal. If you even think it might help in some way, you make it happen. I don't give a shit about the clients, and the rest of the city can kiss my ass right now. Getting her back here safe is all that matters. You understand?"
It went without saying, but he was basically giving me blanket permission to do anything I even thought might help. I would have done it anyway, but it was nice to have it on record.
Tank walked out when I nodded that I knew what he was saying, and I took a deep breath, before looking back at the dry erase board. Something about the white surface helped me to focus, and I said, "I need two contract workers."
I heard him typing and knew he was pulling up some names. He handed me a sheet of paper hot off the printer, and I read the four names he'd gotten and yelled, "Binkie!"
I heard his feet immediately and saw his face quickly thereafter. "Yeah?"
He stepped in, and the look on his face was one I knew I'd see until this situation was resolved. He was desperate for something – anything – to do.
I handed him the paper from Vince and instructed, "Get me two of the guys from this list ten minutes ago and stick them in the control room. I want every client monitored until this is resolved and every phone call on the main line is to be answered."
"Got it," he said, taking the paper and rushing back out to pull in the guys like I'd said.
I let myself slip back into the role I'd played for my tenure with the FBI. I was good at this, seeing the big picture and moving the pieces to where they needed to be, but damn it, I'd never wanted to use my skills for this reason. I'd been in hundreds of life of death situations, running a communications room, but this was the first one that made me feel like pulling the air into my lungs was a chore.
I drew a line horizontally across the board and wrote 1040 on it as a marker for what progress had occurred at this point. We were forty minutes into our timeline and had a CSI team, a technical team, a search team, and special operatives on the ground. Typically, I'd be celebrating the amazing response time, but this time, I found myself praying that it was enough.