The Spider's web

The network spread by a spider.

Tangles of the silken threads of a spiderweb usually covered with accumulated dirt.

Something that entangles, obscures, or confuses.

Chapter 1


I'm sure as you read this, the title will become evident. I found myself tangled in a web that I couldn't escape from so decided that maybe I needed to destroy it. What I didn't realize at the time was how far those threads were woven into the fabric of the society around us. Maybe I should start at the beginning to give you some context as to how I became involved.

The name, I will use for simplicity, is Wasp, a predator of spiders, because that is what I have become. Over a year ago, I was an ordinary man, living an ordinary life. I had a job that I enjoyed doing, with areas that I felt were boring. I rented an apartment and kept it tidy and made sure that my bills were always paid. I had a network of friends, some from work others that had survived from high school and the area where I grew up in, and of course girlfriends. I wasn't a womanizer but could never quite make a long term relationship work, but I was okay with that. In fact, I was okay with how my life was panning out.

You might ask what happened if I was such an ordinary man. Well, it was as I was walking from work to where I'd parked my car that I recognized a woman walking toward me. A woman that I hadn't seen or heard from in years. She'd been a beautiful woman, vivacious and smart, and full of life. The woman that I saw in front of me was none of those. Her hair was in a tangled mess and the clothes that she was wearing looked cheap and trashy. Her skin looked pale and her once bright eyes were dull. I'd smiled as I recognized her and stopped in front of her, though from the way her eyes darted around her I wasn't sure that she recognized me. In fact, if I remember correctly, she hardly spoke a word. She seemed nervous and it was then that I saw a small child pulled close to her back.

That child, he looked so frightened as he peered around his mother at me. His appearance was similar to hers, dirty clothes with a mop of brown hair and pale skin. It was his eyes that captivated me as he stared ahead of him, not really looking at me. I'm sure that my heart missed a beat, and I knew that I needed to move away from them because what I was seeing shocked me. I was seeing myself in a photo with my mother. I'd apologized and was quick to walk away, suddenly feeling a panic settle inside of me.

It was when I was back inside the safety of my apartment with a tumbler in my hand that my brain engaged as I thought through the encounter. I'd been with that woman nearly eight years ago only for a few months, but during that time, yes, we'd slept together. The relationship was intense, and I honestly thought that she was the one for me. Her breaking up with me came as a shock, her reasoning vague. Apparently, I wasn't exciting enough, and she'd moved on to a different social scene. Okay, I was young and naïve, fearless and arrogant so at the time the idea of her becoming pregnant seemed an alien concept to me. But the more that I'd looked at the photograph of when I was eight years old the more the guilt grew. I was pretty certain that the little boy that I'd seen was mine.

At first, I tried to push any thoughts of them to the back of my mind, but every night all I could see was the image of them on the street. Was I responsible for how she looked, had I ruined her life? Then I would tell myself that she hadn't told me that she was pregnant, and she could have got an abortion if she hadn't wanted to keep a baby.

Finally, I couldn't help myself, I needed to know more about the woman and her child, so I started to frequent the street where I'd seen her hoping to catch a glimpse of her and the boy again. I took to sitting in my car keeping watch or hanging out in the diner down the street. It was three weeks later when I finally saw her again. I was lucky that I spied her because it was getting dark, and she seemed to be in a hurry and was on her own.

I'd followed and watched from a distance, surprised when she met up with two young men. They were the type of men that I avoided, dressed in torn jeans and bandanas around their necks, long hair with tattoos showing on their forearms. She wasn't with them that long, words were said and then the men passed her something. It was the way that they were scanning around them that had the hair on the back of my neck standing up and it was then that I had a thought come into my mind, that maybe she was buying drugs. It was the only explanation that felt right, considering how she looked and behaved.

I made sure to keep well hidden, a skill that I've had to improve upon since. I followed her as she returned down the street at last discovering where she lived. It was then that I wondered if she had a man living with her, someone who was looking after the boy. That was when I regretted having stalked her and was again telling myself that they didn't matter, that they meant nothing to me.

I couldn't let go of what I'd seen and my anger for how that child was living grew. So once again I decided that I had to find out more. I made out to be a delivery guy to gain access to the building where she lived. A building that reeked, not just with smells, but of poverty. A building where the stairwell was littered in rubbish, where lights didn't work, where the sound of shouting and kids screaming could be heard above the voices from the TVs. It was an old man sat in his doorway who told me where she lived, so with a box in my hands, I knocked on her door. I felt like turning and running away, arguing with myself that this was a stupid thing to do. In the end I just stood there waiting in case she opened the door.


A noise had me turning away from the paper in my hand and looking over to the small boy fast asleep behind me. I had the awful feeling that this boy was the one from the book that I was reading. He was curled up on some cushions underneath what was a low shelf, with a blue banket wrapped tightly around him, as he moved again, I realized that he was fast asleep, possibly dreaming.

I had no idea how long we had been in this small room and to be honest it was only me having to try and console the boy and then reading this book that I hadn't panicked. Looking around me I couldn't understand why we were here or what was going on. I thought back on my day so far, wondering how something that should have been so simple had ended up so FUBAR.

My name is Stephanie Plum and I'm an apprehension officer, or bounty hunter. I'm 33 years old and live on my own with family and friends that I see regularly. That is the limit to any similarities between Wasp and me. My job is rarely boring, and I have two men that I have some sort of relationship with.

Thinking about them I was really hoping that they were looking for me because I was getting a bit worried as to how I was going to get out of this room, though the young boy didn't seem concerned. I had no bag with me so no phone and definitely no trackers which might make finding me more difficult.

Trackers you might ask. Yeah. One of the men that I knew really well would always ensure that I had trackers in my bag and on my car. At first it annoyed me that he'd do that but over time I began to appreciate them, especially with the trouble I could get myself into.

The man in question was called Ricardo Carlos Manoso, aka Ranger, owner of a security business. To say I had a relationship with him was probably just wishful thinking on my part. The second man was Joseph Morelli, a detective with the Trenton Police Department, well I suppose he was smart and could be funny, and I suppose he cared for me. The relationship with him had been like a roller coaster. The highs when we were getting on really well and the lows when we argued and fell out.

Thinking about them wasn't helping my situation and had totally diverted my mind from what it was supposed to be focused on, that was how I had ended up here.

My day had started as every other day. After showering and dressing in my usual jeans and sweater I'd found some cereal to eat for breakfast and downed a mug of coffee. I made sure that Rex, my hamster, had food and water before heading down to where my car was parked. I live in a dingy apartment in a building where the majority of residents are a lot older than me. Consequently, I often had to park my car at the back of the parking lot next to the dumpster.

The weather was feeling gracious that morning as I'd opened the door to my car de jour. Yeah, I had an awful habit of losing cars far too often to explosions or breakdowns, so the fact that the current one, an old fiesta, had lasted a couple of months was actually making me nervous.

I'd then driven to the bonds office where I worked to find that only Connie was there. Connie was slightly older than me and basically ran the business for our boss, Vincent Plum. Unfortunately, Vinnie was a relative on my father's side, not something that I was proud of, seeing as he had an extremely perverted life style. That said he had given me this job, even if I did have to blackmail him into doing it.

As I entered the office, I was pleased that Vinnie wasn't there yet and was soon stood in front of the main desk waiting to get Connie's attention. She had a curvy figure with large breasts and an attitude that I admired. Maybe that was from her being part of a family who were generally known to be part of the mob that ran their business in Trenton.

Looking toward the couch I was hoping that Lula would be there as she'd promised me that she'd be with me today. To say that Lula was unreliable was an understatement, an ex ho who dressed in colorful stretched spandex that barely held together. More often than not Lula would come with me to bring in FTAs and she knew that I only had one FTA to bring in. After spending several days chasing up leads I was sure that I knew where he was.

The man I was looking for was Charlie Watson, aged 35, who'd been charged with possession of drugs with the intent of selling. I had to say that I was surprised with the outcome of a search that I'd ran on him. He worked as a real estate agent for a small company out at Hamilton Township and from the information on him the idea of him doing drugs just didn't sit well with me.

Lula though had other ideas. She reckoned that maybe he was selling the drugs to other like minded people, almost like designer drugs at a party or night club. That was why we'd agreed to go together to the address that I'd managed to find. And let me tell you given the number of properties that he had access to it took some finding.

Seeing as I only had one day to find him and bring him in, I'd decided to do it on my own. At least then I wouldn't get into an argument with Lula, and she wouldn't say or do something to upset Charlie. I had a good feeling about the address that I'd come across and was pretty sure that that was where he would be hiding out.

The property in question was an old town house in need of modernizing and was one of the properties that Charlie was managing where he worked. It also appealed to me seeing as it was empty. When I'd phoned the real estate to enquire about a viewing the secretary had told me that the file and keys were missing, but she'd get back to me when they were found. That bit of information was all that I had needed to be pretty sure that was where Charlie was hiding out.

Parking my car across and down the street, I'd watched the house for a while but there was nothing going on. The houses on the street differed so much in how well they were looked after. Some looked to have been modernized with new windows and paint and even had potted plants decorating the front yards. Others were obviously being worked on with scaffolding against their walls and piles of building materials neatly stacked ready to be used.

The house that I was interested in didn't look like any of those. The front yard was knee deep in weeds and the masonry on the outer wall looked cracked. The roof must have definitely let water in because some of the roof tiles were missing. As I continued to watch the house all was quiet with no evidence of anyone being there. Undeterred, with my bag containing the essentials, handcuffs and a stun gun, oh and makeup along with the other essentials things that a Jersey girl would need, I'd walked around the back, down a back lane until I identified which house I was interested in and then proceeded to walk through a littered yard to the back door.

Imagine my surprise when the door opened before I'd even reached it with Charlie Watson stood there, as though he was expecting me. There'd been a moment when we'd both just looked at each other before he opened the door further.

"You'd better come in"

Not something that happened very often in my line of work, but I'd walked through the door and followed him into a kitchen. The room actually looked clean and tidy and then we continued to walk through a small hallway and into the lounge that was at the front of the house.

"Charlie Watson?"

I knew from the photo that I'd seen in the file who I was with but needed to make sure. The photo had him in a shirt and tie while the man in front of me was wearing jeans and a T-shirt underneath a V necked sweater. His hair had looked a hell of lot shorter than it was now.

"Yeah, that's me"

"I represent your bail bond company"

It sounded to me like I was almost apologizing to him and that wasn't how I wanted to sound. I placed my bag on the arm of the couch with the intention of getting my cuffs out as Charlie continued to talk.

"I guessed. I can't go in. They'll kill me"

I raised my eyebrows at that, seeing that what he'd said was probably the first time I'd heard that excuse.

"I'm sure the police will make sure that you're safe"

Assuming that maybe he was hiding from his supplier.

"It's not what you think. I was set up because I know too much"

Okay, now he was really confusing me, unless of course he was high on something. I took a good look at him and to be honest he didn't look to being affected by drugs. His eyes were clear and focused and his skin color looked okay. In fact, as he stood there, he looked like a normal person should. His straight brown hair was clean, maybe in need of a cut as it touched the collar of his shirt, and his white skin seemed clear though with shadows under his eyes. He was a lot taller than me and to be honest looked as though he could do to gain some weight.

"I know this sounds lame, but I was expecting it to be you. It's dangerous, but I'd really appreciate . . ."

I really hadn't been too sure what he was talking about. Of course, it would be me who would come after him? Is that what he meant? But why was he saying that it was dangerous, was he threatening me? His sentence was left unfinished as both of us suddenly turned at the sound of banging coming from what I assumed was the front door, with me looking to Charlie waiting for an explanation.

The look that came to his face showed that he definitely wasn't expecting anyone, in fact I'd have said that his skin turned even paler. Was there someone here who Charlie assumed were dangerous?

"You have to go"

Was all he said as he suddenly started to push me toward the wall. Only it wasn't a wall, well not made of brick as I'd expected. The wall seemed to rotate and before I knew it, I was pushed through the opening toward a set of steps. The only thing in his favor was that the steps were lit up with a single bulb. As I'd stopped and turned wanting an explanation his hand was still resting on my back, encouraging me to step down on to the stairs below me. I wasn't happy about what was happening but thought that maybe Charlie was right as the banging on the door started to get louder.

"Go to the bottom of the stairs and through the door. Please, these people will kill you if they think that you've spoken to me"

As I put a foot on the first step Charlie thrust something into my hand before gently pushing me down the stairs. I'd stopped part way down at the sound of a grinding noise behind me and looked back up the steps to see that the entrance was now covered. I was confused to say the least and was chastising myself for allowing Charlie to get rid of me so easily. If Charlie expected me to do as he expected, then he had no idea who I was.

I was part annoyed with him, especially if this was his way of avoiding me taking him in and part worried that I might not be able to get out. Instead of going down the steps, I'd turned around and gone back up to the top, surprised that there was something covering the way out and that it was made of stone. Placing my ear against it I could just about make out voices, but they were too muffled to make out what they were saying and forget trying to decide if they were men or women.

It was the sound of a gun firing that had made me jump, making me almost lose my footing on the steps. A sound that I was all too familiar with and a sound that to be honest, scared the crap out of me. The sound of a second shot had the scared part of me taking over, so I decided to do what Charlie had suggested.

At the bottom of the steps was a small door that opened as I pushed it. Ducking down I crept quietly forward surprised to find myself in a short tunnel. I'd expected this to be a cellar with maybe areas for storage or even where a heating boiler would be. Even more surprising was the sight of a young child, holding a lantern in his hand. I'd expected some sort of reaction from him, but he shocked me by walking past me and closing the door, pulling several large bolts across to lock it. I couldn't understand what was going on and why there was a young boy down here. Had Charlie made him hide down here? But where the hell was here?

"Where are we?"

Was my immediate concern, but the boy had already turned and was walking down the tunnel away from me. Looking back at the door I had a choice to make and had to make it quickly. Did I go back through the door toward the house or follow him? I didn't like the idea of following him but the notion of returning to the house seemed a bad idea, especially as there was someone with a gun.

Seeing as the light from the lantern was fading leaving me in the dark, I quickly followed where the boy had gone. I have to say that I was surprised at how clean the tunnel was, the floor and walls were smooth with only a few areas that seemed to be wet. That it seemed to be rounded had me wondering if we were inside an old abandoned sewage system. It did have that musky smell to it though, reminding me that we were probably quite deep underground.

"Who are you?"

Seemed a reasonable question to ask as I caught up to the boy, expecting him to give me some sort of answer. It was as though he hadn't heard me, so I caught hold of his shoulder to turn him around to face me. He immediately flinched from my touch and stepped back out of my reach, staring at me as though he was seeing me for the first time.

The light from the lantern wasn't that bright but from what I could see of his face I couldn't see any reaction from him. It was blank, as though lacking any emotion. No fear or worry marred his angelic face. He simply turned and continued to walk with me resigned to follow behind him.

I lost all sense of direction as he took us into offshoots from the tunnel. It was like a maze with so many possible routes to take that I knew I would never be able to return the way that we'd come.

Panic was starting to form a knot inside my gut, and I knew that I was breathing faster. I hated the idea of being trapped inside such an enclosed space but felt that maybe my only way out was to follow the boy. What did amaze me was how confident the boy was in which direction to go. I was pretty certain though that we were going deeper underground and couldn't believe it when a large circular grate appeared in front of us.

I felt trapped and was really regretting my decision to follow that boy, but then again what else was I supposed to do? The grate was to one side of a large hole, which the boy disappeared down. Looking down to where he'd gone, I could see a metal ladder and hear his feet on the rungs as he climbed down. I certainly didn't want to be left in that tunnel on my own without any light, so I followed, becoming more concerned with where he was leading me to.

What if this was a trap and he left me down here? I let out a breath, relieved when I saw him actually waiting for me and then watched as he pulled on a chain which moved the grate into place above us, effectively blocking a retreat or even maybe someone following us. That had me worrying if those people would be following us which made me thankful that our journey so far had been so complicated.

Another tunnel and several turns later and we came to yet another door. I was really hoping that this would lead us to an exit to the outside world, but I was beginning to feel a bit despondent about that happening. I really needed to get in touch with someone for them to find me and help sort out what had happened.

I was also really worried about Charlie. Was he hurt or was he the one who had fired the gun? Why did he send me down here if he knew this boy was here, and why didn't he come with us? Would he follow us? So many questions ran through my head as this last door opened, so imagine my surprise and disappointment when we still seemed to be underground. The boy stopped as I walked through the door behind him, and I watched as he used bolts to lock it. Was he that worried about someone finding us, surely that would be the better option?

The light from the lantern didn't reach far but there was a large metal box on the wall by the door where the boy pulled down a large lever. Suddenly lights came on illuminating a room. Looking around it was maybe 12 feet wide and 15 feet long with another door at the end. I'd expected us to continue walking to that other door but as I started to look around me, I couldn't believe what I was seeing down here.

To say that I was surprised was an understatement. There were wide shelves hung down from the roof with rope that had blankets and pillows folded neatly on them. Another set of shelves held lots of cans containing food with large containers of water. The floor appeared to have rugs scattered over it with lots of cushions piled up in a corner. If I didn't know better, then I'd say that someone had equipped this place with the intention of spending a long time down here. That had the panic raising its ugly head at the thought of spending any time down here.

The boy had switched off the lantern and hung it from a hook on the wall which had me wondering what was behind the curtain next to it. It looked like a shower curtain to me and actually seemed brand new and unused with large yellow flowers covering it. I tentatively pulled the curtain to the side and found myself looking at the base of a toilet.

Okay it looked clean and there was toilet paper next to it, but I didn't want to even think about where it drained into. There was a large metal jug sat next to it, that I presumed was to flush the toilet with after use, no water pipes seemed evident. Oh hell, I really hoped that I wasn't going to be stuck in here for a long time.

My attention had been drawn to the boy, he was sat on the floor underneath the long shelves, his knees drawn up to him as he tried to curl up and hide. It was the sound that he was making that disturbed me, difficult to describe, but it reminded me of how a dog would whimper. It was the first sound that I'd heard from him and as I listened it made my heart break for him.

I don't have any mothering instincts, but I could tell that he was distressed and upset, so I went and sat next to him, trying to hold him against me and telling him that everything was going to be okay. Not easy to do when he was rocking back and forth but after what seemed like ages, I felt him relax against me. As he stilled it gave me a chance to observe him, a mass of brown hair covered his head though it did look as though it had been cut recently. He was wearing jeans and a thick blue hoodie, both looked fairly new to me. Only his trainers looked dirty but that was probably dirt from the floor as we'd walked here. Seeing that he was asleep I carefully laid him down on the cushions with a blanket over him. He looked so young as he slept, the tears down his face the only indication of how he'd felt.

That was when I decided to have a good look around, cataloguing what supplies we had and seeing if there was any way to communicate with the outside world. There was no phone or laptop, in fact nothing electronic at all which had me wondering if that was planned so that no one could trace them back to this place. The shelves holding the supply of food were made from solid wood and again held in place by ropes hanging down from the ceiling. There was a plastic bowl on what could have been an old kitchen worktop and a single electric hob that I suppose could be used for heating food or water. It was a basic set up, but I suppose it was functional. Looking at that second door I was so tempted to open it and see where it led to. Then as I looked down at the boy two things struck. One was that it might lead to other tunnels where I really could lose myself and the second thought that struck me was so unlike me, because I knew that I couldn't leave the boy alone down here.

I felt a bit calmer, well at least my heart had slowed down, but I almost felt like crying as I realized the predicament that I'd gotten myself into. I think the only reason I didn't go into full panic mode was having that boy with me, maybe I did have some maternal instincts hiding somewhere because I suddenly felt very protective toward him. How weird was that. That was when I decided to look at what Charlie had given to me. Wrapped up inside a pillowcase was a large hard backed book so I decided that if Charlie had given it to me then he would know that I would look at it.


Sitting at my desk looking at the paperwork in front of me I couldn't believe just how busy we'd been. The last few weeks had kept me focused on new clients and the inevitable meetings and site visits that came with them. To be honest I wasn't too sure that we needed this many new clients, that it wouldn't stretch us too far. I didn't want to have to take on any more new employees, concerned that more wouldn't support the efficiency and standards that I aspired to. I looked up as Tank came in, internally grimacing at the files in his hand.

"You look fed up Ranger"

I just gave him my patented look that I hoped conveyed that I didn't need him to tell me that. As he sat down in the chair on the other side of my desk, I looked at the files in his hand.

"A couple of FTA files. Cal picked them up this morning"

"Let Santos deal with those, I have other things that I want to do"

Those other things involved getting out of the office and maybe catching up with Steph. I hadn't seen or heard from her while I'd been busy and needed the distraction of her company.

"Anything else Tank?"

Because I could tell from how he was looking at me that he wanted to say something else.

"Yeah. These new clients. We could really do with Steph looking at the searches"

That had me sitting back in my seat and probably frowning at him because it wasn't usual to ask Steph to do that unless Tank felt that there was something not quite right.

"Do you think they're trying to hide something?"

"Maybe, I don't know, the way we suddenly started to get all these new clients and some of the properties they want covered. I just have this feeling in my gut"

I thought back to the meetings that we'd had, trying to remember each person that I'd met. I suppose in some ways they did seem too perfect, from what they'd spoken about to having any information we asked for to hand.

"Okay. I'll talk to Steph. Do you have any idea where she is or what she's up to?"

At least this would give me a legitimate excuse for finding her and talking to her.

"No. Cal reckoned that she'd already been to the office and that she must have been on her own because Lula was there with Connie"

I didn't like hearing that Steph was out working on her own. Okay maybe Lula wasn't the best person to have as a partner but at least she provided some sort of backup. I lifted my phone and hit the button for the monitoring room.

"Monitoring room"

"Hal, find me a location for Stephanie"

"On it"

I heard the click of the keys from the computer, becoming impatient with the wait.

"Err, boss. There's a problem. A call went out a couple of minutes ago for a shooting and that's where Steph's trackers put her"

"Send the coordinates to my phone and have the nearest team meet me there"

It seemed I didn't need to say anything to Tank because he was opening the door before I got there. I grabbed a jacket on the way out and was soon running down the stairs, taking two at a time. I couldn't understand how I'd missed that she was in trouble, usually I seemed to get a second sense if that were the case. I was also as mad as hell that no one put her trackers at the scene of a shooting sooner. Someone would be answerable for that but now I needed to see her for myself to be sure that she was okay.

Once down in the garage the pair of us got into one of the Cayennes and I was soon driving out from the garage. I watched as Tank turned on the display on the dashboard and as it came up with a map and the bright blue circles indicating the location of Steph's trackers. There were three there, two I knew were in her bag and the third was from her car. The radio crackled and came to life, so I assumed one of the teams had beaten us to Steph's location.

"Team 2 here. There're lots of cops here, blocking the street. Also, EMTs going into the house"

I couldn't even think about Steph being hurt and in the back of my mind I couldn't understand why I hadn't felt the unease that I usually got when she was in danger. I was hoping maybe that the incident involving the police had nothing to do with her. I was thankful that traffic was light as I speeded down the streets because I was still keen to get there as quickly as possible, just to make sure that she was in fact alright.

The area we were pulling into was a street with town houses on either side all in varying states of repair. Police cars had closed off the street so parking the car I was soon on foot heading to where all the action seemed to be coming from. Manny and Zero had managed to park closer to the house in question so had obviously arrived before most of the police cars. Hoping that they had more information I headed over to where they were stood.

"They won't let us any closer and no one's saying anything"

I looked away from Manny while he reported to me as the sound of shouts reached me from closer to a house. The house I assumed where the shooting had taken place judging from the number of police going in and out.

I recognized Morelli and watched as he stood in front of another man, who to me had the look of a plain clothes detective. Walking over to where they were stood, I was pleased that no one tried to stop me. As I reached Morelli he turned and caught my eye, a look to his left giving me the message to talk with him first.

Once we were out of earshot of anyone he turned and stood in front of me, his cop face falling into place.

"She's not there"

That didn't make sense, her trackers had her there and her car was parked on the opposite side of the street.

"Where is she then?"

I asked concerned that maybe she was hurt and already on the way to the hospital.

"Gone, apparently. Her bag was found at the scene so now the lead detective is blocking me. Says I'm too close to a person of interest"

That was why Morelli had been shouting then because he wasn't allowed to go inside.

"Who was shot?"

"Charlie Watson. He was one of Steph's FTAs"

"Is he dead?"

Christ, it was like trying to get blood out of a stone getting any useful information from Morelli.

"No. Though not far off. Shot to the head and then one to the chest"

As he said that we both turned and watched as a gurney was pushed from the house. An IV had already been set up and there was an oxygen mask covering his face. As soon as he was loaded into the ambulance the lights and sirens came on and it was driving at speed from the street.

I turned back to Morelli wondering what was going through his mind. I knew for a fact that Steph wouldn't have shot the man, she wouldn't have been able to do it unless of course he'd fired first. I pushed that thought quickly from my mind because I knew that Steph never had her gun with her, it would be sat in her cookie jar in her apartment.

"Morelli, keep me informed"

"You gonna look for her?"

I didn't answer before I turned away from him and walked back toward Tank and the car. Morelli should know that I would always look for her. She could be hurt or even have been taken by the shooter, whichever, she would be in danger. I didn't feel that she was close by and judging by the number of police that were combing the area I was pretty sure that she had gone. As I walked to the car, I had my phone to my ear.

"Brown, get to the hospital, a man named Charlie Watson should be arriving soon"

"Do you want updates?"

"I want a man on him 24-7"

"On it"

The next call was to Hector because I needed him to hit the streets. He was someone that I trusted implicitly, and I knew that he would be worried about Steph.


"A man called Charlie Watson has been shot. Steph was with him and has disappeared"


No more words were needed. Hector would know what to do, he'd hit the streets and ask around for any information.

My next call was to Santos. After Steph he was probably one of our best researchers, because I wanted to know more about this man Charlie Watson. Santos could get Silvio to help him if necessary.

"What's up Ranger?"

"A man called Charlie Watson has been shot. Steph was with him and has disappeared. Find out everything you can about him and get Silvio to help"

"Is she hurt?"

"No idea"

I finished the call as I got into the car but didn't start the engine straight away. I had to think about where to go next. A minute later I was driving through the streets quickly again. I had to beat the police from them arriving there because I was sure that was where they would go to next.

"Team 2. Meet me at Steph's apartment"

Tank hadn't spoken so far and that in itself was making me uneasy.


"I spoke to Eddie while you were with Morelli. He was first on the scene and managed to get some photos while they waited for the EMTs. Seems the case has been taken over by a team from Hamilton Township"

I suppose that made some sense as the house was in their jurisdiction, but I was under the impression that serious crimes went to the main precinct in Trenton.

"Will Eddie send through what he got?"

"Already asked him and he's on board. He's worried about Steph, so he'll give us as much as he knows"

As Tank finished speaking, we were pulling up into the parking lot behind Stephanie's apartment block. I knew that Manny and Zero were somewhere close by but needed to know exactly where. Opening up a box in the front of the car I pulled out two earbuds and mics and handed one set to Tank.

"Team 2, position"

"I'm covering the back entrance and Zero is at the front"

Turning to Tank I had an unusual idea.

"Have we got any mobile cameras with us?"

"We should have. You want me to set some up?"


I watched as Tank removed some surveillance cameras from the trunk of the car before we set off across the parking lot to head upstairs to Steph's apartment.

I opened her apartment door with a key that I had, yeah it was much easier than picking the lock though Steph had no idea that I had a key, and after closing it behind me slid the chain and floor bolt into position. If anyone were to show up, then I needed some time before I would allow them inside. Both of us had our guns out, though if Steph was here, I knew our arrival would frighten her to death.

All seemed very quiet as we cleared the kitchen and lounge. I knew the place was empty, I couldn't feel her here, so while Tank checked the bedroom, I went to the cookie jar on the kitchen worktop. I was more than surprised when it wasn't there so shouted out to Tank.

"Look for her gun, Tank"

A few minutes later and we were both stood in the kitchen with no sight of Steph's gun. I couldn't understand why she would have taken it with her. That's when I heard a warning from my ear bud.

"Morelli's on his way up"

I removed the chain and floor bolt from the door and stood back as I heard a key in the door only to have Morelli walk in with his gun out and pointed at me. A raised eyebrow at him was all it took for him to replace it in his holster.

"I take it she isn't here?"

"No and neither is her gun"

The reaction from Morelli was not what I expected. He seemed more subdued and closed off from any emotions as he took in what I'd said. Did he know something about her gun that he wasn't telling me?

"Morelli. What aren't you telling us?"

I saw the anguish in his eyes as he looked at me and then after taking in a breath, he proceeded to tell me what I needed to know.

"The gun found at the scene was a Smith & Wesson Model 637 air weight revolver. They're dusting for fingerprints and waiting for the hospital to provide a bullet before they do a ballistics comparison"

That was the gun that I'd bought Steph years ago when she first came to me for help. For some reason I had no doubt that those two tests would come back positive. Anyone could have found Steph's gun in her bag and used it to fire at Charlie Watson, effectively framing Steph. The evidence might point to her, but I had no doubts in my mind that she hadn't done it.

"Ranger, it's not looking good. It would look better if she came forward and gave herself up"

I didn't answer because I knew she wouldn't stand a chance of defeating any charges. If the police thought that she'd done it then they'd stop looking for the truth and that was not something that I was going to do.

A nod of my head to Tank and we left Morelli in the apartment taking the stairs back down to the parking lot.

"Team 1 remain and keep up surveillance. When you're relieved go up to Steph's apartment and fetch Rex back to Heywood"


As we got into the car, I could tell that Tank was keen to ask me why I'd asked Manny and Zero to remain to keep surveillance so waited patiently for him to ask me.

"I set up the cameras. One in the bedroom, lounge and hallway. If we have those why have the team staying?"

"I want to see who sets up surveillance on the building"

Once back at Rangeman I called a meeting with the core team to take place in 40 minutes and asked for other teams to send in any reports. I chose one of the conference rooms and with Tank's help we started to put together what we had. While Tank printed out the crime scene photos that Eddie had sent through, I read through the search provided by Santos on Charlie Watson. Brown came in and was soon looking at the photos as Tank pinned them up so after 40 minutes, I felt we had something to move forward on.

"Brown, how's Watson's condition?"

"He's still in surgery. The shot to the chest nicked his lung but they're confident that won't be a problem. Maybe not so lucky with the head wound, seems the bullet hit his skull and skimmed off. They're not sure though what damage was caused from the skull fracturing so the doctors want to keep him sedated"

At least the man was still alive and if he made a full recovery then at least he could tell us what the hell had happened. Keeping him alive and safe suddenly became very important.

"Bobby, have a man in his room and one outside the door"

"You think someone will try to kill him?"

I didn't need to answer that question because as Brown asked, I could see him working out why it was important.

"Has anyone anything to say about the photos?"

I asked looking toward the board. I watched as Brown got up and studied the photos, wondering what he was seeing.


"I had a good conversation with the emergency doctor. The shot that hit his head skirted around the right side of his skull in a horizontal line, indicating that the shooter was probably taller than him and possibly left handed. While the shot to the chest, well it entered the chest at a sharp angle which is why it didn't do more damage"

There were several things that came to my mind as I listened to Brown's description of the bullet entries. One was that Charlie was taller than Steph, second the bullet to the head had to be somewhere in that room and thirdly Charlie was already down when he was shot in the chest. I wasn't too sure how that would help me in clearing Steph's name but felt that finding that first bullet would be important.

"Tank, can you get Eddie to take you to the house. Use the photos for comparison and look for the bullet that was first fired"

I passed around copies of the initial search that Santos had run and waited as the men picked them up and flicked quickly through it.

"It doesn't make sense to me. When I first read this through, I just couldn't see this fella being a drug taker let alone a pusher"

I was glad that Santos had the same gut feeling that I'd had but it didn't help in trying to solve the problem that we had.

"I agree, but he must have been involved with something if someone wanted him dead"

"Maybe he saw something, you know witnessed something or came across something that could do some damage?"

It felt right but until we found out more about him all we could do was make guesses. It didn't help us to find Steph and that was something that was beginning to worry me.


I looked up to see Hector walking in and hoped that he had more news for us.

"No one has seen Estefania. I've had the programs running through our property surveillance cameras and street cameras with a face recognition program, but nada"

"Anything else on the streets?"

"No one recognizes that man Watson as either a buyer or a seller"

I sat back as I internalized what Hector was saying. If Watson had nothing to do with drugs, then how was he charged? Did that mean that someone had planted evidence on him and called the cops? That was maybe something that Morelli could find out about.

"Has anyone any ideas on where Steph would go?"

"No. Ram organized surveillance on her parents, sister and the bonds office. Maybe we need to tap into some phones because she may well call for help from someone"

I nodded back at Santos, but I have to say my heart dropped that she hadn't called me. In the past if Steph was in trouble, she'd let me know and depending on how serious her problem was then she often stayed here at Rangeman where she felt safe. Did that mean that she couldn't, or would she try and get in touch with Morelli? I had no idea on that one.

I knew that she wasn't happy with Morelli, that had seemed to be the subject of our last conversation three weeks ago. Knowing that she was upset with Morelli I'd declined to get involved. The relationship she had with Morelli never failed to amaze me as they bounced back and forth between each together. And that was why I'd focused on work to give her some space to sort out her emotions. I knew what I wanted to happen but there was no way that I would give her my opinion. That was a decision that she had to make for herself.

As the men left the room, I took out my phone and called Morelli, surprised when he seemed to take so long to answer it.

"What have you found out?"

I was taken aback by the tone and the question as Morelli answered and decided that I really didn't like it, sufficiently that I wouldn't be telling him anything that he didn't already know. That didn't mean I couldn't use him though.

"That man Watson. His profile and background don't add up to what he was charged with"

"Doesn't really matter now does it. The prints on the gun came back to Steph and the bullet they pulled out of him is a match for her gun"

I was annoyed that he was just accepting this about Steph, that he wasn't fighting to clear her name.

"Maybe someone else wanted Watson dead. He doesn't fit the profile of drug user or dealer, maybe he was set up?"

"Can't see it, from what I know it was a clean capture. I'll look into it though"

I was left looking at the phone as I finished the call not feeling very confident with his answer. Maybe we needed another way of finding out about those charges against Watson because I wasn't too sure that I trusted Morelli. I had no idea why I felt like that and cursed that I hadn't spoken to Steph sooner.

Looking at my watch I realized that it had been 7 hours since Steph had gone missing, and we were no closer to finding her. Looking at the files on my desk I remembered the conversation with Tank and decided to postpone any movement on those contracts. I trusted his judgement and intuition so wanted more information as well.

I spent the evening looking at every detail of every piece of paper pinned to the board on the wall in the conference room. As each team came off duty, I was there to meet them as they came into the monitoring room, eager for any news. Hell, I even went down to Hector's office only to see him shake his head as I opened the door. Eventually I ended up laid down on the couch in my office because I wanted to be close by if any news came in.