Hal shut down the instant message program, closed his PDA and clipped it to his belt. He tossed his garbage in the can. Grabbing a fresh bottle of water from the refrigerator, he returned to the control room. Ram was at the command desk.
"What's the status?" Hal asked as he sat down and plugged in his headset.
"Tank's at the cemetary watching for Grabowicz. Grabowicz's girlfriend said he'd probably show up for the Barroni funeral. Woody and Junior are answering a panic call from a client. Looked like a false alarm, but they should call in a few minutes to confirm. If they need backup, Bobby and Lester are on call." Ram unplugged, rolled back his chair and stood up. "I'm going to Fennick's for lunch. Want anything?"
Hal eyed the other men intent at their workstations. "Bring me one of those big cookies."
Ram grinned. "Just because Ranger's not here to see you eat it doesn't mean it won't make you fat."
Hal flushed and flipped a finger at Ram, who chuckled. After Ram left, Hal settled down to verify the status of the on-duty teams. He made his way down the list, checking GPS locations and reviewing them against the work assignments. If any team encountered an emergency the command center had to be ready to send backup at a moment's notice.
Noting that Stephanie was not yet back at her desk, Hal called up the GPS signal from her motorcycle. The Ducati was stationary at Stiva's funeral home. Stephanie had probably decided to attend the Barroni funeral. Rangeman's interest in the Barroni case had ended once Benny Gorman's body was found, but Stephanie had close ties to the Burg families involved.
Hal wished he could check his brother's location as easily as he could monitor Stephanie's. But military GPS units were heavily encoded, and for good reason. At least Hal and his brother could touch base frequently. Not like their father's war when letters took weeks to travel home from the front.
Woody called in. The client was embarrassed. His elderly mother had pushed the panic button, claiming the Green Goblin was looking in her bathroom window. Woody and Junior had searched the grounds and verified there were no intruders present. Hal could tell that Woody suspected the old lady had sounded the alarm just to stir up some excitement. Hal logged the report.
The phone lit up again, Tank's number displaying on the caller ID.
"Command desk," Hal answered.
Tank's deep voice sounded in his ear. "No joy at this party. Grabowicz never showed."
"Think his girlfriend lied about him being there?"
"I think Grabowicz changed his plans after his girlfriend tipped him off. Switch me to Stephanie's phone. She knows these people. Maybe she can give me a better idea on Grabowicz's location."
"Isn't Stephanie there?"
"At the cemetary? No. Why should she be?"
"Her Ducati is parked at Stiva's. At least, it was half an hour ago"" Hal's shoulders twitched as he punched in Stephanie's GPS identifier. "It's still there. I thought she decided to attend the funeral."
"I didn't see her at the memorial service, and she definitely wasn't at graveside."
"Maybe she got a ride with someone else."
"What time does Ranger's plane touch down?" Tank asked.
"Fourteen twenty-three, Philly airport."
"Maybe you want to verify Stephanie's location before Ranger calls in."
Hal swallowed. "Yeah."
"Tank out." The line disconnected.
Hal called Stephanie's number. The call bounced to voicemail. He found the GPS code for her new phone and pulled it up on screen. The Bombshell would be pissed if she found out Rangeman was tracking her cell, but Hal figured it was better to have Stephanie pissed at him than Ranger.
Hal's phone chimed with an incoming text message. He flipped the cover open.
TEXT MESSAGE FROM MEDIC_365@GO_ARMY.NET:
GOTTA MISS OUR EVENING CHAT. CALLED OUT FOR RESCUE DOWNED HELO W/ INJURIES. MIGHT BE GONE ALL NIGHT. WILL PING YOU ON RETURN TO BASE.
He jumped as a plastic-wrapped object fell into his lap.
"Personal calls at the command desk? Better not let Tank catch you." Ram seated himself in the chair next to Hal, fitting his headset on as he spoke. "I brought your cookie."
Absently Hal set the cookie on the desk and closed his phone. "It's a message from my brother." He turned his attention to the GPS screen. "Stephanie's not back yet and Tank says she wasn't at the funeral home. Her bike and her cell are both there, though." He pointed out the two locations. Allowing for a margin of error, both were on or near Stiva's property.
Ram cut his eyes to Hal. "You getting that sparky feeling?"
Hal clenched his jaw. The other men would never let him live down the time he'd let Stephanie stun him and escape the Rangeman building. He made a decision. "I'm going to look for her."
Ram raised an eyebrow. "You sure you want to leave your post?"
"You"re here. I think I'll err on the side of caution this time. I'm going to Stiva's." Hal gathered his things and unplugged his headset. "She's probably just busy talking to someone."
"Call in when you find her. I'll hold down the fort."
"Thanks, man." Hal made it halfway to the door, then backtracked to grab the cookie, in case he needed some emergency chocolate.
During the drive to Stiva's Hal vacillated between concern about Stephanie and worry about his brother. Maybe it had been easier, after all, when families back home had no idea what their servicemen were going through until long after the fact. Better to focus on finding Stephanie.
He parked on the street even though the small parking lot was nearly empty. He could see Stephanie's Ducati on the strip of grass that separated the lot from the driveway. Hal took the steps two at a time and entered the funeral home. Inside, the smell of carnations filled the wide lobby. The place seemed deserted. The office was open but empty.
"Hello?" Hal called. This was stupid. The guys would laugh at him again when Stephanie turned up at the office. Maybe her cell battery had run down. Maybe she'd been involved in another food fight and had gone to her parents" house to clean up. There were a lot of good reasons she might not be answering her phone. Hal's stomach didn't believe any of them.
He dialed Stephanie's cell again, hoping she would pick up. Voice mail. He opened the door to each of the viewing rooms in turn, checked the kitchen, glanced inside the small chapel.
Hal was heading for the locked doors that led to the back rooms when they opened from the inside. A man in a coverall struggled through. He was carrying a wire frame with a wreath of flowers on it. The name stitched over his pocket was Louie Moon.
"Can I help you?"
"I'm looking for Stephanie Plum."
"Haven't seen her, but I"ve been in back getting Mary Aleski ready for her viewing. You should ask Con. He's around somewhere. Maybe out back in the garage." The man's pale blue eyes stared placidly at Hal.
"Thanks, I'll do that," Hal pivoted on his heel and exited the main door, only to halt at the top of the stairs. Tank was standing on the sidewalk, his hands on his hips.
"I can explain," Hal started.
Tank's face broke into a grin. He shook his head. "I like a man who takes his responsibilities seriously. I take it you haven't found Stephanie?"
Hal let his breath out. "Not yet."
"What have you checked so far?"
"Her bike is here," Hal nodded at the Ducati, "and GPS shows her cell is somewhere nearby, but she doesn't pick up. I didn't find her in the building."
"How does your gut feel?"
Tank nodded. He hit speed dial. "Ram, I'm initiating a Bombshell alert. Start notifying on-duty personnel. Standard bonus applies for the first sighting." He disconnected. "Circle the grounds," he said to Hal. I'll meet you on the other side."
Hal walked around the left of the white building looking for anything out of place: a lost shoe, a shoulder bag. Halfway around he met Tank, equally empty-handed. Hal was wondering where to look next when he heard metal wheels clattering on the driveway.
Constantine Stiva was rolling a gurney across the drive. On top was a cheap-looking coffin.
"Mr. Stiva," Tank called. He jogged down the driveway toward the undertaker. Hal trailed behind.
Con paused in the act of opening the hearse. "I saw you at Michael Barroni's funeral," he said. "I'm glad there was no disturbance to upset the family." Con's voice was stern as if reproaching a teenager for cutting up in church.
"Now, you know I wouldn't upset the bereaved," Tank smiled down at Con. "If I had found my man there, he would have been gone before anyone noticed."
"What can I do for you?" Con leaned one elbow on the casket.
"Have you seen Stephanie Plum today?"
"Her mother and grandmother were here," Con answered. "They left, fortunately without incident."
"If you see Stephanie, I'd appreciate it if you'd ask her to call the office."
Con smiled. "Of course."
Hal and Tank returned to the street as Con slid the casket inside, then shut the hearse doors.
Hal's phone rang. He checked the caller ID and grimaced. He raised the phone gingerly to his ear.
"Report," Ranger said.
By the time Hal got off the phone with Ranger he was sweating and the tension in his shoulders had spread up his neck. Ranger had deplaned with his FTA in Philadelphia and immediately called the command desk. Probably he had already known something was wrong. Ranger knew everything.
Hal had passed his phone to Tank when Ranger was done with him. Tank was nodding. "We can cover the regular clients with a skeleton crew of twelve. The rest of our headcount is available to search." He paused and listened. "All the contract employees? Yes sir. Should I coordinate with Morelli?" Tank waited as a silence stretched out, then responded to the curt answer. "You sure? Morelli's got resources." He listened again. "Whatever you say."
Tank flipped Hal's phone shut and handed it back while he dialed Ram with his own. He barked into the phone. "Call out the troops. I want a physical check of all of Stephanie's regular locations. Check the Plum house, the Stankovic house, the bond office and the mall. Send a man to Pino's and have someone drive by Morelli's home. Discreetly. Ranger doesn't want it known that Stephanie's missing yet. You coordinate, Ram. Keep a list and have the men call in as they check each location. Tank out."
"You"re with me," he continued to Hal. Tank beeped the locks of his SUV open with his remote. "We"re going to check every skip's house, psycho's house ""
Hal mumbled, ""dog house, hen house and out house."
Tank glared at him. Hal shut up and got into the SUV.
Hours later, the streetlights were on and Hal was wondering if there was an inch of Trenton they hadn't covered. His stomach rumbled. Tank hadn't stopped for supper. Hal was embarrassed to ask him to. He checked his PDA to make sure it was still on. Not only had there been no sign of Stephanie, but Hal's brother hadn't called yet.
"You expecting a call?" Tank turned onto Broad.
"My brother. He's in country with the 185th. We usually IM every night. Just to check in, you know."
"Getting to be morning in that part of the world."
"Yeah. He told me this afternoon, he had to go out on a rescue. He's a medic. Sometimes it takes awhile to stabilize injuries, before they can transport them." And if his brother were injured, Hal thought, how long would it take before the family was notified?
Tank cut his eyes to Hal. "You"re worried about him." He stopped to wait for a traffic light.
Hal nodded. "His unit, they were supposed to be issued new kevlar vests three weeks ago. There's a shortage of the new ones, with the ceramic plates? The shipment came in today, but the boxes had all been opened and the vests were gone. They"re still using the old kind."
Tank cursed under his breath. "It's not easy when someone you care about's in harm's way and they don't have what they need for protection." He sounded like he knew the feeling well.
Having come full circle, they pulled to a stop outside the funeral home. Hal recognized Ranger's Explorer on the other side of the street. His boss was standing on the strip beside the parking lot with his back to Hal. One hand rested on the Ducati. Ranger's head was down, his jacket stretched across his shoulders. For a moment Hal wondered if Ranger would pick up Stephanie's trail like a bloodhound and follow her scent across the grass.
Ranger acknowledged Hal and Tank with a tight nod. He strode toward the funeral home, which was brightly lit. Both men followed Ranger inside. The lobby was even more chaotic than usual.
An old man with more liver spots than hair leaned on his walker beside kitchen door. "Where's the cookies? Where's the tea?" he asked the world in general. "What's the world coming to when there's no cookies or tea at a viewing?"
Constantine Stiva emerged from the kitchen wheeling a cart with a tea urn and cups on it. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Schultz," he murmured reassuringly. "We"re running a little behind tonight, but don't worry. Here's some tea." Con glanced up, caught sight of Ranger, and smiled. "Are you here for the Aleski viewing?" he asked. "I can't imagine any desperadoes would pay their respects to poor Mary."
Ranger gave Stiva a long look, then turned without a word and stalked out the door. Hal and Tank caught up with him on the driveway between the funeral home and Stiva's darkened house.
As he had been doing every half hour or so, Hal dialed Stephanie's cell phone, hoping she would pick up and everything would be all right. He heard the familiar three burrs before the call switched over to voice mail. But in a momentary lull from the noise on the street, he heard another sound. A tinny electronic tune came from somewhere near his feet. It was the Hallelujah chorus.
The ringtone was coming from the basement window well of Constantine Stiva's house.
Ranger pulled his gun from the small of his back. He and Tank flattened themselves against the wall on either side of the window well. Inside, the music fell silent.
Ranger motioned for Tank to stay near the window, then signalled Hal to follow him. Hal looked around nervously as Ranger made short work of the lock, but no one challenged them. Noise from a parking dispute in the lot covered the sound from the opening door.
Inside, Ranger and Hal did a quick check of the ground floor rooms before locating the stairs to the basement. Hal followed Ranger down, trying to be as silent as his boss. He felt like an elephant shadowing a ghost.
Ranger hit a button on his phone without unclipping it from his belt. This time the sound was louder, the notes of the Batman theme echoing off the cold cement walls. Ranger switched on a penlight. The beam flashed off a silver cell phone lying abandoned on the floor.
Hal took a deep breath as he watched Ranger stoop to pick up the phone. That they hadn't found the Bombshell was bad; that they hadn't found her body was good.
"Get Tank. Search the rest of the house," Ranger said quietly.
"What are you going to do?" Hal flinched when Ranger rounded on him, but the man only stared at Hal.
"Find the undertaker."
Constantine Stiva was nowhere to be found. The cookie table was out of napkins. The man with the liver spots had no sweetener for his tea. Everyone was sure Stiva was nearby, but no one knew exactly where. Hal and Tank had searched every room of the funeral director's house. They had found the messy apartment in the basement where someone had been living in secret.
"She thought Spiro Stiva was stalking her," Ranger told Tank when they all met to compare notes.
"Maybe Stephanie was right."
"If he grabbed her, where would he take her?"
Tank speculated, "Spiro's been out of town for three years. He must have skipped the night Kenny Mancuso was caught. His condo has been sold. He doesn't have a workplace besides the funeral home. His friend Moogey Bues is dead, and Mancuso's behind bars."
Hal spoke up. "Maybe Spiro owns property somewhere in town." Both Tank and Ranger blinked at him as if they'd forgotten he was there.
Hal hit speed dial. "Ram, run a search for property in the Trenton area owned by anyone named Stiva." He frowned, listening to Ram's answer. To Ranger and Tank, Hal repeated, "Our search programs can pull up owner information by address, but to get all the properties owned by one person you have to go through the title office. They don't open until nine a.m." It was after ten at night.
Tank shook his head. Ranger continued to stare at Hal. Not good enough.
"Ram," Hal continued. "Pull up the website for the Trenton title office. Who's the manager?" He tucked his phone against his shoulder as his thumbs worked, typing a name into his PDA. "Can you get her home address? Thanks." More typing and he disconnected.
"Agnes Washington, six-thirty-two Cole Street."
Tank groaned. Ranger raised an eyebrow.
"I know Agnes Washington. She's a friend of my grandmama's."
"Then you can introduce us." Ranger strode toward his truck, not looking back to see if Hal and Tank were behind him.
A/N: we later learned that Tank's real first name was Pierre, but I'm leaving the name I invented for him in this story. ~RJ
The porch at 632 Cole Street was surrounded by trellises heavy with ivy. Large baskets hung from the porch roof, the scent of roses reaching to the street. No light shone from the windows.
"Miss Agnes is probably in bed. She's an early riser," said Tank.
Hal asked, "Do you know her from the title office?"
Tank winced. "I know her from Sunday school. She taught the junior boys' class at my grandmama's church for thirty years. She'll probably ask me to recite the twenty-third Psalm."
Hal bit back a grin. Now wasn't the time for jokes. The image of a young Tank reciting in his Sunday suit was something he'd have to enjoy later.
Ranger strode up the sidewalk. "We're wasting time."
Tank reached for the doorbell, but Ranger knocked his hand away and pulled out his lockpick.
"Ranger, you can't break into this house," Tank hissed. "There's no fugitive here. Agnes Washington won't be any help to us if we scare her to death."
"She'll help." Ranger turned the knob. He opened the door and stepped into the quiet house.
The three men paused to get their bearings. Hal, last through the door, closed it silently behind him. The house smelled of pot roast and furniture polish.
Hal followed Ranger and Tank to the back hallway. The space beneath the bedroom door was dark. Ranger opened the door, no longer trying to be quiet. He reached around the doorframe, found a light switch, and flipped it on.
An elderly black woman in a flowered nightgown squinted in the sudden brightness.
"Who's that?" she asked sharply. She struggled up on one elbow, fumbling for her glasses on the nightstand.
"Ms. Washington, my name is Carlos Manoso," Ranger said. "I need some information from the title office, and I need it right now. You're going to get that information for me."
"I'm calling the police is what I'm doing," the woman declared. She reached for the phone at her bedside. Ranger took it out of her hand and pulled the wire from the wall. The plastic clip in the wall socket snapped and went skittering under the bed.
Agnes Washington sucked in air. She looked around for help, taking in the two men behind Ranger. Her eyes narrowed.
"David Foster, is that you?"
Tank grimaced. "Yes, Miss Agnes."
"Your grandmother would be ashamed of you, breaking into an old lady's house. Don't you have anything better to do than to run around with hooligans in the middle of the night?"
"Miss Agnes, we really do need your help," Tank urged. "A woman has been kidnapped. We believe she's being held by Spiro Stiva, and we need to know if there are any properties in Trenton owned by the Stiva family."
Agnes Washington sniffed. "You always did come up with the most colorful excuses for your behavior, David. You take your friends and get out of this house right now."
Ranger pulled his gun from the back of his waistband and held it pointing down beside his leg. "I don't have time to argue," he said, his voice flat. "Let's go."
"Don't think you can intimidate me, young man," Agnes retorted.
"Miss Agnes, please," Tank urged.
Ranger bent his elbow so his gun pointed at the ceiling. He cocked the hammer. The click sounded impossibly loud in the maidenly bedroom.
"Miss Agnes," Hal broke in. All heads turned to him. He felt his cheeks flush. He focused on the woman in the bed. Little white wisps of hair had escaped from a knot at her neck. Her hand clutched the front of her nightgown.
"Miss Agnes, the woman we're looking for is named Stephanie Plum. You've probably seen her in the newspaper before. She's been missing since one this afternoon. We found her cell phone in the basement of Mr. Stiva's house.
"We're worried about Stephanie, Miss Agnes. She's very important to us. All of us." Hal carefully did not look at Ranger standing at his side.
Agnes looked at Hal, considering. Her gaze went to Tank, and then to Ranger. Her face softened a little as understanding spread across it.
"I guess I could go to the office," she allowed. She folded the covers back and swung her legs over the side of the bed, her feet groping for her slippers.
"Tank," Ranger snapped.
"Excuse me, Miss Agnes," Tank apologized. He scooped the old woman up. Hal held the doors for him as Tank strode out of the house, Agnes Washington riding in his arms like a queen.
Forty minutes later, Woody had been dispatched to drive Miss Agnes home from the title office. Ranger, Tank and Hal had the address of a single-family house in the south part of Trenton. The house was tied up in probate, still listed under Spiro Stiva's name.
Hal wasn't sure Ranger was even breathing. With every delay Ranger had become quieter. He seemed to run on automatic, guiding the truck through the dark streets. Hal wanted to ask what the plan would be once they reached Spiro's house, but he was afraid to draw Ranger's attention. Something was wound tight inside his boss, and when it sprang loose someone was going to get hurt.
They drove past the house, a run-down looking ranch. Ranger parked halfway down the block. Hal followed his boss through a neighbor's yard to approach the house from the rear, leaving Tank to watch the front. They cut through a tree-shadowed patch behind Stiva's house. Hal tripped on a garden hose but caught himself before he fell.
Tank came around the garage to join them at the back door. He shook his head at Ranger: no sign of anyone at the front or sides of the house. Ranger tested the back door, ready to pick the lock. It opened easily.
Hal felt sweat trickling at his hairline and swiped at it with his sleeve. An unlocked house suggested there was nothing inside to protect. Did that mean Stephanie had never been there, or did it mean she was beyond their help?
The three men fanned out from the back entry. The house was small; no upstairs or basement to search. Light from the street lamps showed blank spaces on the wallpaper where pictures used to hang. Hal glanced into the bathroom. There wasn't even a shower curtain to check behind.
"Looks like a dead end," Tank rumbled.
Hal stopped in the kitchen. He eyes wandered over the clock on the wall, the scarred counters, the dingy cupboards with their cracked handles. Ranger stood still beside him.
"Should we go?" Hal asked.
Ranger didn't answer. Hal looked at him: Ranger's eyes were squeezed shut, his jaw clenched. As Hal watched, Ranger took in a long, slow breath. His head came up; his face turned toward the cupboards. He reached out and flipped the nearest one open.
Inside was only a mouse trap, sprung. Ranger tugged on the cupboard beneath it. Nothing. He stepped to the next. This one had a child-proof lock tying the handles together. Hal thought it looked out of place in this house with no sign of children.
Ranger twisted the lock off. Pulled at the handle.
Out of the cupboard rolled a body, curled up with the arms cuffed behind it. Before Hal knew what was happening Ranger had caught the body in his arms. It was Stephanie, limp.
Tank grunted like he'd been punched in the gut. Ranger made no sound at all. Hal couldn't see Stephanie's face; it was hidden behind Ranger's shoulder. He took a step back, not wanting to see the lifeless eyes. Tensing for Ranger's reaction.
But Ranger's back was straightening. His shoulders went down, somehow lighter with his burden than they'd been without it. His arms curled protectively around Stephanie's body. Impossibly, Hal heard the man who hadn't uttered an unnecessary word all night say to the face beneath his own, "I saw you folded up in there, and I thought you were dead."
"I'm okay, just cramped," Stephanie responded. Hal started to breathe again.
Ranger let Stephanie's legs slide to the floor while keeping a grip on her arms to steady her. Hal knelt to release the shackles on her ankles while Tank unlocked the cuffs. Hal looked up at Stephanie from the floor. Her hair was askew, her wrists bloody. She was smiling at Ranger like there was no one else in the world.
"It's not Spiro," she said. "It's Con, and he's coming back to kill me. If we hang around we can catch him."
Hal's face swiveled to Ranger's. No way was Ranger going to let Stephanie anywhere near the man who had kidnapped her. No way was he going to miss capturing the kidnapper.
Ranger kissed the wrist that Tank had uncuffed. "I'm sorry to have to do this to you, but there's no we. I need to know you're safe." Before Tank could step away, Ranger clicked the empty cuff around Tank's wrist.
"What the..." Tank jerked back, but he was already tethered to Stephanie. Stephanie protested.
Then Ranger said something Hal had never heard from him before. From the look on Tank's face, he hadn't heard it either.
Ranger said, "Please."
Five minutes later Hal was driving the Explorer toward Morelli's house with Stephanie in the back. Tank was trying to keep to his side of the backseat without putting pressure on Stephanie's handcuff. Stephanie was in a state.
"Hal, I need a drink. I need to go shopping. Damn, it's the middle of the night. I need... I need some chocolate. Do you have any chocolate in this truck?"
Hal was about to apologize when he remembered the cookie from Fennick's. He fumbled in the console, keeping his eyes on the road. His fingers closed around the big plastic-wrapped bundle.
"Chocolate chip okay?" he asked, holding up the cookie.
"Gimme," Stephanie lunged, bringing Tank's arm with her. She tore into the wrapping, mumbling a "sorry" to the big man. She stuffed a big bite in her mouth and closed her eyes in pleasure.
Her eyes popped open. "This ish raisin," she said around the mouthful.
'What?' Hal's eyes met Stephanie's in the rear-view mirror. "I always get chocolate chip. It can't be raisin."
She gulped down the mouthful, grimacing like she'd rather spit it out. "Hal, I know chocolate and this isn't it. This is definitely raisin.'
'Ram,' Hal groaned. 'I'm sorry. I asked Ram to bring back a cookie for me but I didn't say what kind.'
'Hal, I need chocolate. Right now. I didn't scream the whole time I was in the cupboard, but I can feel one coming on''
Tank's eyes in the rear view mirror were looking desperate. Hal scanned the street, hoping for a 7-Eleven or an all-night drugstore. He smiled when he spotted the familiar orange and pink sign ahead.
'I've got just the thing,' he said over his shoulder.
Stephanie wolfed a Boston Cr'me, then followed it up with a powdered doughnut. Hal kept her company with a chocolate-glazed. Tank declined. The girl at the counter tried to pretend she wasn't staring at the handcuffs.
Stephanie was brushing powdered sugar off her shirt when they pulled up at Morelli's place. Tank released the cuffs and turned Stephanie over to Morelli, then Hal drove them back to the street behind Spiro Stiva's house.
"Call Ranger's cell so he knows it's us coming in," Tank ordered Hal. Hal dialed his boss's number by touch, thinking he'd better program a speed code for it. They found Ranger watching the street through a slit in the curtains.
"Now what?" asked Hal. Ranger didn't respond.
"Now we wait," Tank answered.
Hal took a position in the hall where he could see both the front and back doors. Tank stalked through the house, a silent mountain in the dark, checking all the windows.
Hal worried about what Ranger would do when Constantive Stiva arrived. The tension was gone from Ranger's stance, but Hal's boss was still silent, giving nothing away. Stephanie was safe now. Did Ranger want revenge? Would he kill Stiva outright? Torture him? Leave him locked in the cupboard as Con had left Stephanie?
The chocolate doughnut sat like a lump in Hal's stomach. He'd thought everything would be all right if they could only find Stephanie alive. Hal looked at his watch and realized the call from his brother was long overdue. He checked his PDA and cell phone, hoping for a message. Each screen showed only the time, blinking.
"I owe you."
Hal looked up at the unexpected words from Ranger. Ranger hadn't moved from his position at the window. He cut his eyes to Hal, then resumed his watch.
"We wouldn't have found her without you. I owe you. Whatever you want."
Hal wrinkled his forehead, shook his head. "I would have found her for free."
Ranger's grin showed white in the sliver of light from the streetlamp.
Tank returned from his patrol. "Windows are secure," he reported. "We won't have any surprises." Ranger nodded.
Hal felt a buzzing at his hip. He unclipped his PDA from his belt. A familiar address showed on the screen. Eagerly Hal thumbed the keys, replying.
Tank spoke softly. "Was that the call you were waiting for, or does your girlfriend want to know what's keeping you out so late?" Hal could hear him smiling.
"It was my brother." Hal heaved a sigh and clipped the PDA back to his belt. An idea occurred to him. He tilted his head. Looked at Ranger, considering.
"Can I still have that favor?"
Ranger turned his head to Hal, listening.
"I'd like a kevlar vest. One of the new ones, with the ceramic plates."
Tank's voice was reproachful. "Have you lost the one you were issued?" Ranger waited silently for Hal's reply.
"It's not for me." Hal addressed his answer to Ranger. "It's for my brother. He's in country with the 185th. They were supposed to get new vests three weeks ago. They're still using the old kind, and they take fire all the time..."
Ranger was shaking his head. Hal's heart sank. Maybe "anything" didn't really mean anything. Ranger cursed under his breath.
"Carlos," Tank warned.
"How many men did we lose because we didn't have the equipment we were supposed to have?" Ranger asked the big man.
"Shit runs downhill. You know that. You can't change it."
"The hell I can't." Ranger unclipped his cell phone, hit speed dial. "Manny," he said when a voice answered. "I want a shipment sent to the 185th overseas." He looked up from his phone. "How many men in your brother's unit?" he asked.
"Twelve," Hal replied, confused.
"Twelve kevlar vests. The good ones. And Manny? Make sure they get there intact." Ranger listened. "I don't know. Label them bedpans. Be creative. Ranger out." He clipped the phone back on his belt.
Stunned, Hal let out a breath. "Thank you," he said. He couldn't think of anything else to say.
Ranger shrugged, his eyes still on the street. "All the skills and tools in the world don't matter if the people close to you aren't covered."
Hal swallowed. "I understand." Relief ran like a wave down his neck and shoulders to unravel the knots in his back. He leaned against the wall, then realized how tired he was. Better to stand. Now that Stephanie was safe and his brother back at base, it might be hard to stay awake.
Hal positioned himself beside Ranger, standing at parade rest. He felt more than saw Tank step to his other side. The dark house was still except for the quiet breathing of the three men, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the undertaker.