|Primary Characters:||Joe Morelli, Ranger, Stephanie Plum
|Spoilers:||Well, sort of – minor ones.|
|Warning:||m/m, non-con, language|
|Description:||Joe Morelli and Ranger end up in a cell in a Mexican jail. The inevitable happens. When they return, Stephanie tries to find out what’s going on and by accident stumbles across a way of getting back at Morelli for the infamous train and tunnel incident.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, Joe Morelli had all that time on his hands. So when Stephanie – Plum – his off-and-on girlfriend – told him she and Ranger, her part time partner in the bounty hunting business, were going down south – not to Florida – which was the first place down south that occurred to anyone in Jersey – but to Mexico, he’d decided to intervene. Who would want that guy Ranger around his girlfriend? Especially when Morelli found out that Stephanie’s regular partner, former prostitute and drug addict, Lula, wasn’t coming along, it seemed like basic self defence.
When he put the suggestion to Ranger – not Stephanie – something which Morelli knew would earn him a shouting match with her later on – the huge ebony black guy raised his eyebrows at him and appeared to consider. At least he didn’t seem to take offense. Not that Morelli was exactly scared of Ranger – oh, what was he thinking – of course he was. He’d be a fool not to. Something about the tall Cuban suggested that he regularly killed other people – not for fun – at least Morelli was reasonably sure of that – but in the line of business – and the exact nature of that business was anyone’s guess. Anyone would be a fool not to watch their step around Ranger.
After what seemed like several minutes, Ranger shrugged. The look on his face seemed to hint at indifference, mixed with – possibly – slight amusement.
“Why not? Since you’re offering. But what about Stephanie?”
“I’ll talk to her. She’ll -”
But Ranger already seemed to have stopped listening. If he was as attracted to Stephanie as Morelli feared, he was in total control of his facial muscles. Of course, he might simply be good at taking what was on offer, whether there was an actual attraction or not, but in any case, Morelli liked Stephanie as far away as possible from Ranger, that was all there was to it. He was hoping Ranger wouldn’t have picked up on that, but if he had, at least it hadn’t offended him.
Breaking the news to Stephanie wasn’t quite as easy. The expected shouting match proved to be of a magnitude beyond Morelli’s estimates. He’d made the mistake of informing Stephanie at her parents’ house, in the presence, not only of her parents, but also her grandmother, her sister and brother-in-law and – unexpectedly – Lula. In retrospect, that wasn’t the cleverest of moves, he freely admitted as much to himself, in the safety of his own home. His dog agreed with him, perhaps because his trip down south would involve moving back with Stephanie or her parents – in either case to a place where he’d be well fed and pampered.
Stephanie’s reaction, Morelli had foreseen, but what he’d failed to take into consideration, stupidly, was the fact that other people would get involved, commenting and speculating on his reasons for the change in plans.
Lula nodded decisively.
“Your guy there is jealous of Ranger. I told you so, many times, didn’t I, Stephanie? And so he should. I wouldn’t mind a bit of -”
Grandma piped in a second or two later.
“But I was going to come along and buy myself one of them sombreros and listen to some of that mariachi music. Didn’t you say that you’d consider letting me come along, darling?”
Stephanie’s mother’s face was an unreadable mask and her husband was only visible for a moment before he retreated behind his paper, but Morelli thought he’d read a reaction there. Of course. Mr Plum was still hoping for a little peace and quiet in his own home, and that would seem to exclude the presence of his mother-in-law.
To Morelli’s chagrin, Stephanie’s sister decided to put her in two cents’ worth as well.
“You’d be crazy to let them go off without you. This time of year, I’d kill for a little sun. I wonder if me and -”
Her chubby husband smiled beatifically in agreement.
Stephanie rolled her eyes, but facing away from her sister and the fat boy. Not that Morelli blamed her. There was no way they could apprehend their bail jumper if half of Stephanie’s family tagged along. The operation would turn into a three ring circus.
“Excuse me, everyone. I need to talk to Joe out back.”
Stephanie’s tone didn’t encourage any evasion and Morelli knew he’d have no choice but to obey, at least if he ever wanted to get into her pants again.
Most of the time, Stephanie kept her voice down, in accordance with her mother’s wishes, in order not to disturb the neighbors, but what she had to say, reached Morelli loud and clear. He knew it would be weeks, if not months, until he would share Stephanie’s bed or he could get her into his. For the first time, he was beginning to question the wisdom of traipsing off to another country, leaving his girl behind. If he was out of luck, he could return to find himself dumped and forgotten and Stephanie with a new man. At least it wouldn’t be Ranger, but that was slight consolation.
He decided to do a little damage control, but he wasn’t hopeful about his prospects. Still, there was no harm in trying.
“Sweetie. I only wanted to save you the trouble. If we get the guy, the money is yours, after I’ve paid for my trip.”
“Save me the trouble? Why don’t you just admit it? You’re jealous of Ranger.”
For about two seconds, Morelli contemplated owning up to her charge, but abandoned the idea as soon as it occurred to him. Stephanie would be sure to point out that he didn’t own her and this and that, at length, until not even watching her chest rise and fall would be able to keep him entertained enough to put up with the screeching. For the same reason, throwing the question back at her was also out of the question. If he asked if he had need for jealousy, there was really only one possible reply, regardless of what the truth was.
So he did the only thing he could think of and dropped to his knees in front of her. They were, after all, sheltered from the sight of snooping neighbors by the laundry Stephanie’s mother had chosen to hang outdoors despite the chill in the air. Though come to think of it, his mother liked to dry the laundry outdoors at virtually any time of the year.
Despite Stephanie’s obviously chilly attitude, she didn’t actually step away or get violent, and encouraged by that, Morelli began to kiss her legs, up to her knees, then after a brief pause to gage her reaction, further up. He thought she was beginning to relent, but unfortunately, at the crucial moment, the door opened behind them and Lula’s voice echoed loudly in the silence.
“Nice move. I really have to get myself a man. Oh, Stephanie – your mom says dinner’s ready and to come quickly, because she thinks your grandmother and your dad’s going to get into a fight. And your sister and her guy are – Don’t you glare like that at me, Joe Morelli. Who in their right mind would – Fine. I was just saying.”
Lula retreated back into the house exuding offended virtue.
Morelli relaxed a little, despite the condition of his kneecaps.
He anxiously scanned Stephanie’s face, but for once he couldn’t read it.
She brushed past him and left him to get to his feet on his own.
Three days later, he and Ranger flew to Tijuana. From then on matters deteriorated rapidly.
When the door slammed shut behind the Mexican jailer, Morelli would have sworn loudly at his own stupidity, but for one thing. If he berated himself for getting into this stupid mess, he’d also blame Ranger, and judging by the Cuban’s expression, that wouldn’t be a wise move. So Morelli ground his teeth and gingerly sat down at the narrow bed.
Morelli wasn’t picky and over the years he’d stayed in tacky motel rooms and at the beginning of his career, in dingy one-room apartments, but this place was so filthy he winced. He was fairly sure that if he touched the threadbare blanket, all manner of unpleasant bugs would swarm out of it, if not rats.
Sighing silently, he prepared himself for a long wait. He knew that sooner or later, there’d have to be a trial and then, he told himself, he’d be let out of this place. Not just for the duration of the trial, but upon closer inspection the case the Mexicans seemed to think they had against them, would go away. He clung to that hope, until nearly three weeks later, the trial came and went, with no improvement of their situation in sight.
After sinking into despair like never before, Morelli eventually roused himself and decided to risk asking Ranger. After all, the guy was Cuban. He’d understand the lingo.
“What did they say? Why are we back here?”
At first he didn’t think Ranger would bother to reply, but after such a long pause, Morelli had all but given up, Ranger pursed his mouth slightly and gave the tiniest shrug.
“We’re in for it. Three months for breaking and entering.”
“What? No, that can’t be -”
Ranger glared at him, making Morelli shrink back against the slimy wall.
“I believe I told you that we should have waited until the holiday. People would have been too busy partying to pay any attention -”
Morelli almost interrupted. Sure, it had been his idea to pick the same night for their breaking and entering, but Ranger had been the one so eager to move on with the case. And he sure hadn’t put a stop to the attempt when the suggestion was made.
The look on Ranger’s face almost seemed to dare Morelli to contradict him, but in the end, he shrugged again and sat back against the wall, apparently intent on meditating or whatever it was the huge guy did when he couldn’t be out doing something.
Morelli knew they were in trouble, even that first night. Three whole months. It wasn’t just the indescribable filth or the inedible goo that served as food, though both were bad enough. In fact, it wasn’t even the facilities, if such a word could be applied to the bathrooms, which were beyond description.
In three whole months, there was no way they wouldn’t – Morelli shied away from the thought. He’d have to manage, because Stephanie was miles away and he liked it that way. At least he thought he did. Now that he faced the prospect of spending three nightmarish months in the same tiny cell as Ranger, he only wished there had been some female here.
For the next couple of weeks he kept watching Ranger uneasily out of the corner of his eye. Ranger seemed reasonably even-tempered, especially considering the circumstances, but Morelli didn’t let that lull him into a false sense of security. If Ranger was still holding a grudge against him for that botched breaking and entering job, or if he somehow managed to anger the guy – hell, if anyone got him angry – whose neck would be on the line?
But he knew that wasn’t what worried him the most. It was the fear of what would happen once Ranger had reached the end of his tether. In three months, there was no way a guy like Ranger wouldn’t be driven mad by his need for sex. All Morelli could hope for was that Ranger, as a Cuban, or even as a black guy, would consider himself above satisfying himself with another guy.
Morelli considered himself one hundred percent straight, but the few times he and his cousin had experimented hovered uncomfortably in his mind. If Ranger had known about that – wasn’t it possible that he’d take that as encouragement? Morelli had a feeling that Cubans and other Latinos considered Americans – North Americans – gringos – weak and effeminate. Maybe he’d take that as an excuse.
And whatever Ranger was feeling, Morelli knew that he was getting increasingly sex crazy, as the long, slow balmy days went by. Their tiny cell was an oven for most of the day and well into the evening. Then in the slow hours of the night, it ended up getting chilly towards dawn. One threadbare worn blanket wasn’t much protection against the night cold, let alone Ranger.
It got so Morelli couldn’t wait for Ranger to fall asleep so he could deal with his physical need. Most likely Ranger felt the same way and the last thing Morelli wanted was to set Ranger’s mind working in that direction.
Morelli began to lose count of the days. He thought they’d been in their cell for about six weeks, but he couldn’t be sure. There were no clocks or calendars here, and he didn’t even understand the language.
Humiliatingly enough he found himself dependent on Ranger for his safety. At first he didn’t even think the tall Cuban would do anything to protect him. The implications of fighting for another guy in here, might be too embarrassing for a guy like Ranger. But when some of the other inmates began to pay attention to Morelli, to his surprise, Ranger rattled off something Morelli couldn’t decipher. One of the natives made the mistake of standing up to Ranger, but when he fell over, clutching his midriff, releasing what had to be a string of curses from his mouth, the others backed off. Occasionally, Morelli would hear them laugh behind his back, but he couldn’t even be sure if that was directed at him.
And inevitably, the time came when Ranger couldn’t fight off his physical needs any longer. As usual, Morelli had been lying on his bed, listening to the sounds of Ranger’s breathing, hoping that at last the other guy would fall asleep,, when he heard the other bed creak and soft footsteps padding across the floor. Even if Ranger’s moves were familiar to Morelli now, it was still uncanny how silently the huge man walked. Morelli had a feeling that if Ranger wanted to kill him, he’d never hear him coming until it was too late.
He held on to the feeble hope that Ranger was merely heading for the stinking bucket in the corner of the cell – they’d both succumbed to the runs from eating the prison food. Again, Morelli wasn’t picky but the inedible slop they were served was something he’d be ashamed to give to his dog and he knew the big golden dog could digest just about anything.
A fleeting memory of Stephanie flickered in his mind, but was cut off abruptly, when he felt Ranger’s body pinning him down. In his panic, he stupidly tried to fight back, only to have his airflow cut off by a hand that seemed to be made of steel, rather than flesh and bone.
After that, Morelli didn’t remember anything for a while. He came to and realized he could breathe again, but Ranger wasn’t done yet. He was moving on top of him, and Morelli bit his lower lip to prevent the wail that was building inside him from breaking free. Calling attention to himself wouldn’t have helped, even if he’d been prepared to lose all the dignity he had left, which wasn’t much.
Whimpering softly, he ground his teeth, waiting for the violation to end. Suddenly, he became aware of something even more unnerving. The pain didn’t pass, but somehow, he found that he was becoming aroused. He felt his eyes fill up with tears, wishing, for the first time in his life that he was dead and beyond humiliation. Lying the way he was, pressed against him, there was no way Ranger could miss the change.
Ranger climaxed and moved off Morelli without making any more noise than his slightly increased rate of breathing. After a while, Morelli’s arousal gave way to despair and he wondered if there was anything in the cell he could use to kill himself. How could he face Stephanie again, after this? Or for that matter, anyone? He could imagine Lula snickering, if she ever learned the truth about what had happened tonight. Stephanie’s grandma would have something utterly humiliating to say and his own family –
The t-shirt – if he tore it, maybe he could braid it into a sort of makeshift rope. He didn’t know if that would be enough, but he had a feeling the blanket wouldn’t hold, so it would have to be something less worn. When the dizziness and nausea had passed, he got up on wobbly legs and set grimly to work. The fabric of the t-shirt tore easily enough and clumsily, he began to braid it.
The resulting rope was so short he wasn’t sure he’d be able to make a noose, but he ignored his doubts and pressed on. He got up on top of the bed and stood there, pivoting back and forth for a while, until he could steady himself. The one bare lightbulb that would light the cell for a few hours each day, seemed to be so far away. He lost his footing and stepped onto the floor, clumsily. Maybe he was going about this the wrong way, but the cable the lightbulb was hanging from was the only thing he could think of that might be used to fasten the noose.
He almost cried out, when he felt Ranger’s hands grab him. Ranger found the rope and took it away. Again, Morelli had to bite his lip not to cry. After some time had passed – he didn’t know exactly how long – five, ten, fifteen minutes, he lay down on the bed. He didn’t think he got any sleep, but he wasn’t sure. By the time breakfast was served, he’d lost track of time.
To his relief, Ranger didn’t leave his bed the following night, other than to relieve himself.
It was a while, until Morelli began to pay attention to his surroundings, but when he did, he noticed the guards eyeing him unnervingly. They would laugh and gesture and talk rapidly in Spanish, but something told Morelli they were discussing him. One of the guards seemed especially content. Three of the others handed over banknotes to him and he received them with a smug grin on his face.
Morelli noticed Ranger casting a steely gaze on the guy with the money. As he was herding them back to their cell Ranger fell behind. Morelli morosely continued on into the cell without a backward glance. One day, this would be over, but right now, it felt as if he’d entered purgatory, or even hell. If there was a world outside this dusty, moldy Mexican prison, he’d forgotten what it looked like. A noise from behind made him look up, but it was only Ranger returning.
The next time Morelli saw the guard with all the money, he had a black eye and something seemed to be wrong with his right hand. He held it gingerly before him and awkwardly tried to work the keys with his left hand. If Morelli had been in better shape, he might have wondered at the incident, but as it was, he only dully surmised that for some reason Ranger had attacked the guard and that the latter hadn’t dared to sound the alarm.
A few nights later, Ranger was back. This time, Morelli noted to his distress, that it hurt less and his own body betrayed him once again. It was beyond humiliating, but the next time, he found himself awaiting Ranger’s visit with mixed feelings. Part of Morelli still wanted to die, but now it wasn’t as much due to the pain and shock, but more to do with his own reaction. He wasn’t gay. It was impossible that he should be able to derive any pleasure from being violated by another man.
Morelli’s only option was to deny everything. He tried his best to ignore the nights and pretend nothing out of the ordinary was going on. To his own considerable surprise, he found himself talking to Ranger, quite normally, during the days. Ranger seemed his usual unperturbed self. There didn’t seem to be anything that could make that guy lose his cool. Part of Morelli couldn’t help admiring that. Ranger was everything a guy could aspire to be. In comparison, Morelli felt short, fat, out of shape and mediocre.
Then one day, out of the blue, the guards didn’t herd them to the cafeteria, but to the warden’s office, and from there, to a waiting prison transport, along with three other men. Morelli had heard the warden saying something to Ranger, but it wasn’t until they were locked into the back of the transport that he dared to ask.
“Where are they taking us?”
“Back to the town. We’ve been released.”
Morelli felt weak with relief. It was over. Finally, it was over. They didn’t have any money, so they were forced to visit the American consul. Compared to the months he’d spent in jail, Morelli didn’t mind too much about facing the the consul, like a teenager who’d gone on a drinking binge on the other side of the border.
Some customs officials gave them a lift across the border, leaving them stranded in a dusty little town in the middle of nowhere. That didn’t seem to bother Ranger. Somehow, without Morelli noticing, he’d managed to make a phone call at the consulate. After waiting about forty minutes in the relentless sunlight, they saw a shifty looking individual approach them.
The guy spoke rapidly in Spanish with Ranger, left the plastic bag he’d been carrying when he arrived, then vanished again, around the corner of the bus station. Ranger got up and Morelli followed. Ten minutes later they were checking into a fleabag motel. Again, they ended up in the same room, but Morelli found that he didn’t mind as much as he used to. Besides, if he let Ranger ouf of his sight, Morelli was afraid he’d be left behind. There had to be some way for him to get back, even if he had to hitchhike, but right now, all he wanted was to get home, without delay.
Whatever was in that plastic bag, apparently it was enough to pay for a room at the motel, a change of clothes and a couple of meals, because as soon as they’d inspected the room, Ranger headed out again, and he didn’t seem to mind that Morelli tagged along. After buying two new sets of cheap leisurewear, they ended up in a dingy little diner, where Morelli stuffed himself with burgers and fries and had a relatively cool beer. Ranger, incredibly, settled for a rye sandwich with salad and a glass of mineral water.
There was no hot water in the bathroom, but Morelli stood under the shower for what felt like almost twenty minutes anyway. Too late he realized that again he’d left Ranger alone, but the tall Cuban didn’t seem to have been up to anything while he was out of the room. Ranger was finished after less than ten minutes, and still managed to look as cool as ever.
There wasn’t much to do in the motel room, besides watching tv and when Ranger didn’t turn the set on, Morelli decided not to bother either. Ranger began to work out. To Morelli’s surprise the other guy flexed his muscles and proceeded to do pushups and situps, then went through a complex set of movements that Morelli thought were part of some kind of unarmed combat technique. Not until he appeared satisfied with his own progress, did Ranger stretch out on his bed and turned out the light.
It only took Morelli about five minutes to realize that he actually missed Ranger’s visits. He felt hot all over with shame, but that didn’t alter the fact that he was lying there, missing Ranger. Humiliating or not, it had been among the best sex he’d ever had and now, presumably, he’d never get to enjoy it again.
After a couple of more minutes, he found himself, against his own better judgment, getting up and walking over to Ranger’s bed. Morelli didn’t make any attempt to muffle his approach. If he startled Ranger, he could well end up dead, but he was hoping that merely by standing over the guy, he’d convey his – oh, what was he thinking – maybe he should just hope that Ranger would kill him right away, to save him the undignity of this pathetic craving.
To Morelli’s shock and dismay Ranger shot him an amused glance. So much for discretion. But something wouldn’t let Morelli withdraw. He remained standing there until Ranger shrugged. Now that Morelli had achieved his goal, he had no idea how to begin.
“Oh, just kill me and get it over with.”
This time there was no mistaking the grin on Ranger’s face. The black guy was lying there having a laugh at Morelli’s expense. Trying his best to ignore his bruised ego, Morelli stretched out on the bed beside Ranger and after a moment’s hesitation, he began to rub at the other guy’s crotch. Ranger smoothly pulled down his pants and lay back, still smiling infuriatingly.
It took Morelli a moment to realize that he wasn’t getting anything out of the encounter. He stopped what he was doing and pulled down his own pants, then turned his back on Ranger. Ranger got up and pushed Morelli over, then straddled him. The by now familiar burn soon gave way to an intense pleasure that left Morelli utterly indifferent to the loss of dignity.
After bumping about on a bus for four hours, they arrived at an airport, which was smaller than any Morelli had ever seen in commercial use. Again they found themselves waiting for hours, but in the end, they boarded the plane for home.
Stephanie knew right away that something was up, the second she saw Morelli again, after his long absence. His explanations only partly made sense and there were enough gaps in his story to make her wonder, but more than anything, it was his changed behavior. There was something a little shifty about him, she decided. As if there was something he wasn’t telling her. She determined that she’d find out, one way or another. Since things were slow at work, she decided to stalk her boyfriend for a couple of days or weeks, until she learned the truth about his transformation. She knew there was something going on and after all her experience tracking down bail jumpers, staking out Morelli would be a cinch.
All that remained was informing Lula.
“So what’s up? Are we going after that Petrovic guy?”
“Why don’t you handle that one on your own? I have some other business to take care of.”
“Uh uh. Why don’t you just level with me? ‘k?
“Get off my case. This is personal.”
“Yeah? I’m listening, girlfriend.”
Stephanie sighed. Who was she kidding? Lula was going to find out sooner or later. Telling her now would be a smart move and save time.”
“Whatever. Joe’s completely changed since his little vacation down south. He and Ranger were in jail for like three months and now – I don’t know. I just want to find out what’s going on, that’s all.”
“You think he found himself some senorita down there and cheated on you?”
Stephanie nodded pensively. If that was it, she’d –
“Could be. So I thought I’d stake his place out for a while and see what happens.”
“Right. We never stood a chance in hell of finding that Petrovic guy anyway. He’s dead, you mark my words. Chang’s people offed him when he squealed.”
“Yeah. I was afraid of that. Before we get to work on the next one, I’m going to do a little freelancing. Besides, Joe stiffed me on the bail money he would’ve made down there, so I figure I have a right to snoop.”
“Absolutely. We’re not going to tail Ranger, though?”
“Are you out of your mind? Besides, who knows if he’s behaving out of the ordinary?”
“Damned right. What’s ‘ordinary’ to that guy?”
“I’ll tell you what. I hand over the dog and you stay out of sight somewhere. Then I go off and after a while I join you again. How about that?”
Lula made a face.
“Yeah, alright. You’re not going to leave me sitting there for long, though, are you?”
“Of course not. I’ll bring burgers and shakes.”
Lula nearly licked her lips.
“You’re reading my mind.”
After two days, Stephanie and Lula were bored stiff and Stephanie was toying with the idea of just letting Morelli tell her in his own good time, when she spotted Morelli leaving his place. He’d just returned from a long grueling shift at work, so it made no sense for him to go out again. Unless he’d had a call from work – but Stephanie, like all self-respecting bounty hunters, monitored the cops’ frequency so she’d know if he was going out on a job. She’d heard nothing interesting in over an hour and Morelli hadn’t responded to any calls. This had to be personal.
Stephanie was glad she’d just let Lula off to go on a date. Whatever she learned tonight, she’d rather keep to herself. She kept well back and followed Morelli as he navigated the late night traffic. Something about the way seemed vaguely familiar, but she assumed it was because she’d been driving around this city for years. Anywhere would be vaguely familiar. They entered a residential area and Morelli parked his car and crossed the street to an insignificant looking house.
Stephanie slid down in her seat and stared across the street. The door opened for just a moment, to let Morelli inside, but she recognized the guy inside just fine. Ranger. What were those two up to now? A flare of anger sparked inside her and she waited a minute until she was sure the door wasn’t going to open again, then made her way around the back of the house. This was chancy at best. A guy like Ranger would be likely to spot her, no matter how stealthily she moved, but she was counting on him not hating her enough to eliminate her. She knew she could talk her way out of something like this. Besides, at the moment, worrying was the last thing on her mind.
The first room she sneaked a look into was empty and so was the next, but in the third room she spotted something so out of the ordinary, she started violently and almost dropped her shoulder bag. Was Ranger frisking Morelli? Why? Could Morelli be wearing a wire? But almost instantly, Stephanie realized she’d been wrong in her assumption. Ranger wasn’t frisking Morelli at all. He was – Stephanie’s mind took a leap – surely she was mistaken? Had the long months without either Morelli or Ranger driven her stir-crazy missing the sex?
It sure looked like Ranger was – but there was no way that – that was just plain impossible. Those two, who were the most macho guys she knew, simply couldn’t – but after another breathless moment, as distressing as it was pleasurable – she was forced to conclude that her eyes weren’t deceiving her. Ranger was fucking Morelli.
Too bewildered to fully take in what she was seeing, Stephanie remained staring through the window at her boyfriend being ass-fucked by her one-time lover, Ranger. Apart from anything else, it was an incredibly hot scene to witness. She barely knew how she managed to sneak back to her car, then choose the least likely route back home, so she wouldn’t run into Morelli, who left Ranger’s temporary hangout moments after she’d slipped back into her car, too dazed to fully take in the implications of what she’d just seen.
Lula wasn’t taken in, when Stephanie airily told her they’d better get back to work and that she’d tackle Morelli later. Stephanie had found something out and it was clear she was holding out on her best buddy and partner. That wasn’t a nice thing to do, but since it concerned Stephanie’s boyfriend, Lula was inclined to forgive her. So she didn’t make a fuss about the change in plans and gratefully went back to bringing home the bacon – or in her case – mainly delicious pizzas and burgers.
Stephanie’s mind began to work overtime. She had to see Morelli, properly see him, at home. It was impossible that he’d gone off her just like this, after – though Stephanie had a horrible suspicion that she wouldn’t exactly compare favorably to a guy like Ranger. He was simply – rolling her eyes, she decided to put Ranger out of her mind for the time being. First things first. She’d deal with Morelli, then, if necessary, Ranger.
She invited herself over to Morelli’s place, bringing a bottle of wine and some ciabattas fresh from the all-night bakery.
To her relief, Morelli seemed almost as happy to see her as she’d hoped he would. After finishing the wine and some of the ciabattas – with cheese out of Morelli’s larder, they sat on the couch in front of the turned off tv.
Normally, it was the easiest thing in the world to get Morelli to move on into the bedroom, but tonight, Stephanie hesitated a little. For the first time in ages, she felt shy and self-concsious. They’d really dropped out of touch. In the end, she settled on leaning against Morelli, waiting for him to make the next move. To her relief, it didn’t take him long to pull her close and for the next five or ten minutes, Stephanie found herself thinking she’d fallen asleep on the stakeout and had the weirdest sex dream in her life. After bribing their dog off with what was left of the cheese and the ciabattas, they slammed the door to the bedroom shut and threw themselves onto the bed.
When she awoke the following morning, Stephanie had nothing to complain of, judging by her disjointed memories of the night before. Morelli, it turned out, hadn’t changed a bit. But she knew what she’d seen at Ranger’s place. Unless she’d accidentally ingested some drugs and hallucinated – again, she had to ask herself why something like what she’d seen would ever occur to her – there was no way she could have imagined what she saw.
Three weeks later, she was still puzzling over the scene she’d witnessed, but in the meantime, she definitely had nothing to complain about. Even so, she couldn’t spend every night at Morelli’s and she was haunted by an insistent suspicion that her boyfriend was still sneaking over to see Ranger on the side, as it were. This was all wrong. If anyone was going to have an affair on the side with Ranger, it was her, not Morelli.
Then one night, she saw a chance to at least observe the guys together. Morelli was spending the night at her place and Ranger showed up at her door, at half past ten, just as she and Morelli were toying with the idea of going to bed early. She invited Ranger in, before he had a chance to notice that Morelli was there. By then, he’d delivered his message and seemed about to leave again. Without thinking, Stephanie blurted out the first thing that occurred to her.
“Hey, Joe and I were going to play some poker. Wanna join us?”
She could tell that Ranger was going to say no, but she hastily tore out the greasy old pack of cards she kept on a shelf by the door and began to shuffle it. To her relief, Ranger shrugged and sat down. He held out his hand for the cards and began to shuffle them far more smoothly than she’d ever learned to do. It figured he looked about ten thousand times cooler than she did and at least ten times as cool as Morelli.
As she had time to calm down a little, Stephanie realized that she could hardly have picked a better excuse to keep Ranger there. In the past four or five months, she’d taken to practicing her poker playing skills almost every night. Lula played a mean game and so did grandma and though she had no idea of how well Ranger played, she knew that by now, she was a lot better than Morelli. In the past, Morelli and other guys had beaten her at strip poker humiliatingly often, and it had been part of her incentive to work on her skills.
For a second, she contemplated challenging these guys to a game a strip poker, but decided against it. Ranger would never play a losing game, at least not that kind. A pity, but there it was.
Half an hour later, not only Ranger, but Morelli too had realized his mistake. The pile of coins they used as stakes was growing in front of Stephanie. She was sure Ranger was up to some trick or other, to beat her but at least he was still here. There was still time to think of something. While they’d been playing, Stephanie had tried to keep an eye on the guys, but though Morelli seemed a bit ill at ease, Ranger as usual, betrayed nothing of his emotions, assuming he had any. In the end, Stephanie decided to use the element of surprise and simply confront the guys with her knowledge. It might serve as a distraction for the move she intended to make in the game.
“Oh. I give up. What happened in Mexico? How did you guys end up doing it?”
Her words had a startling effect on Morelli. He had been rocking the chair back and forth and at Stephanie’s revelation he lost his balance and fell backwards, startling the hamster and Stephanie too, but to her disappointment, Ranger didn’t move a muscle.
While Morelli was getting up again, slowly, Stephanie kept facing Ranger squarely.
She knew he wasn’t going to cave, so she turned and faced Morelli again. His face had turned oddly blotched in red and white. He looked as if he was going to have a fit. In the end, she decided to give him a little time. It was time for her final move anyway.
“Oh, by the way. Why don’t we play for higher stakes, this last round? If I win -”
She laughed as if that possibility was remote.
“If I win – you guys are mine. Both of you. How about it?”
For a second, no one said anything. Stephanie’s eyes darted between Morelli and Ranger and back again. To her surprise, Ranger’s impassive face broke into a wide grin.
“Sure thing, babe. If you win. If not – your ass is mine.”
“Like Joe’s, you mean?”
For a space of a heartbeat, Stephanie was afraid she’d gone too far, then Ranger shrugged as if in agreement.
The next five minutes or so, the game continued without any small talk. Stephanie made a few slips on purpose, to give the impression her nerves were playing up, then right at the end, she knew she had them. Normally, she had no poker face whatsoever, but tonight, the stakes were too high to give anything away. She frowned slightly, then forced her face into an impassive mask. At least that was the impression she was going for. Stephanie kept her eyes firmly fixed on Ranger’s face, as she spread her cards on the table. There was no way the other’s could beat her hand. She saw that Ranger knew it too. Again, she was wondering if she’d pushed him too far and what would happen next, but in the end, he smiled as if the whole thing appealed to his sense of humor.
“Well, it seems you got me, babe.”
“Yeah. And you too, Joe.”
Morelli was beginning to relax slightly and nodded, looking relieved.
“Ok. Let’s go to bed. But first – tell me what happened. Joe?”
Joe’s eyes moved across her, then Ranger. Ranger shrugged as if to say don’t look at me.
“Well, you see -”
She ushered both guys into her bedroom, trying desperately to keep from laughing out loud. This was simply too much. Beyond her wildest expectations. Again, she made an effort to curb the laughter that was bubbling up inside her. At last, she’d get to be the train and Morelli had to be the tunnel. Well, in a manner of speaking. He got to be the tunnel, not her, but at least she’d get to watch. She could hardly wait for them to get their clothes off. For once, she forgot to feed her hamster one last time before going to bed, but under the circumstances, she was sure he’d understand.