A/N: Sorry for the irregular updates but my week had been somewhat stressful :) And it won't get any better soon, since I'm moving in a week and won't have internet at my new place until mid June. So hang in there please. Also... I have - hopefully - a poll up on my profile where I'd like to know whoch of two possible future stories you'd be more interested to see. I hope the poll shows up, since it doesn't show up when I look at my profile... As for this chapter: I hope you enjoy and thanks for sticking with it. Comments are love :)
Christopher had announced he'd leave back for Denver on Wednesday and that day came a lot sooner than I would have liked for it to arrive. I had so much still planed what I needed to quiz him about and all the questions on my papers seemed to get more and more with each hour instead of less. I was pulling files from other contracts to get a feeling how quotes worked and if there was something similar I could work on and maybe make up my own system for the time being until Tank and the others would come back.
I needed to find a system that worked for me and everyone else and trying to find that in the files on my desk wasn't going to work. I needed to create a system that made sense, seemed practical and understandable for everyone as well as didn't put previous customers at disadvantage either way. So jotting that on my to-do list I grabbed another file of my seemingly endless stack of papers. For the millionth time I wondered how Ranger had been doing that job of running the company as well as sorting my life. I started feeling guilty once more for my previous seemingly careless behaviors on all these occasions which required for him to step in and step away from the stacks of work on his desk.
The other offices had surprised me by sending me their financial reports almost a day later, adding to my pile.
A knock on my door ripped me out of my thoughts and current workload for a moment and looking up from my files I saw Christopher in the door to my office. His look of surprise didn't go unnoticed when he looked at my desk and the chair opposite of it all filed with files for various reasons.
"I'm about to head to the airport and wanted to say goodbye Stephanie Plum," he mentioned and I laughed at his semi-formality.
"Is it really that time already?" I asked, checking the clock on my desk and also the fact that the last two days had passed in a blur it seems.
Collins just nodded at me. "Afraid so. But I'm positive you have everything under control on this end of the company."
"I hope you are right," I smiled, getting up from my chair and walking around the desk to say my farewell. "How will you get to the airport?"
"Vince and Binkie give me a lift," he explained and I noticed the duffle bag next to him in the door.
"That was all you brought for the time you would have been here?" I asked surprised, pointing to the bag at his feet.
He just shrugged before grinning at me. "When you work for a company like RangeMan and have been in the military for years you learn to pack lightly. Uniform-wise I didn't need to bring much seeing that RangeMan has plenty of spare ones in every office."
"I know we didn't have a lot of time with each other and didn't get to know each other very well, but I'll miss you."
"I'd say you miss more the fact that you can't ask me a million questions I have no answers to."
"Maybe that as well," I admitted amused, before giving him a loose hug as last farewell.
"Can …um …Can I ask you something without risking losing my job?" he asked with a smirk and I just nodded, surprised at his question.
"I know I'm probably overstepping a line here and everything but I can't help but wonder…That thing between you and Ranger….what was it? I ….or rather everyone in the franchise heard all these crazy stories and yet no one could ever say whether you and him had something going on."
"Would it matter?" I asked carefully, not sure how to take his question and remark.
"Not really, but I have never seen Ranger talk about anyone the way he talked about you. Don't get me wrong, he never said a lot, and most stories were shared from the other guys, but when he spoke about you or just mentioned your name, it was… in a way I don't think any of us have ever heard him speak. There was this sort of spark that all of a sudden filled his eyes. A lot of us kept wondering what you'd be like if we ever met you in real."
"Did I meet the expectations?"
He hesitated in answering which told me that I would most likely not like the answer he was about to give me. Not that I blamed him. Ranger was a god compared to other men. And I didn't mean that in a teenage puberty kind of way. He wasn't just good-looking or plain handsome, he was hot. Like… on another level hot. Well-toned body, muscles in all the right places and gave you an enormous amount of feeling secured. He was smart and not as hot-headed as most of the guys I knew. His smartness wasn't just book-smart but also street smart and he had character. He thrived on accomplishments rather than financial status and was loyal that seemed almost fierce. Of course when you'd imagined a woman in his life it would be someone other than me. It would be someone glamorous and settled in life, someone who was the perfect counterpart to him and suave.
"Well…" he finally said hesitantly, ending my train of thought abruptly.
"It's okay," I waved of. "I'm not the model-type girl that you'd see in a guy like Ranger's life – as either a companion or a friend."
"What?" Collins asked almost shocked. "That's not… that's not what I meant in any way. Or a thought I'd harbored. Or any of us. ´This has nothing to do with… superficiality or how you look as such."
"Then what did you… um…expect? Since judging by your reaction I'm not it."
"Um… it is just. Throughout the company there are these set of rules that everyone is aware and follows. It isn't as much rules at it is requirements."
When I didn't reply – since obviously I wasn't really aware of how I should respond to something I didn't really understand – he kept going on a moment later.
"We call it the RangeMan codex. You know, regular training, work out, a certain diet, certain things that are just a set rule if you come to work for RangeMan. And… you don't seem to follow any of that. Not that you'd have to as the boss, obviously, since you can do whatever you'd like and please…"
"I get it," I said reassuringly. "I'm not usual RangeMan recruit. I follow my own set of rules and Ranger has never enforced these rules on me as much. I knew he would have liked to see me get more training and use my gun and all that. And for a while I tried, figuring I could actually benefit from it and make a better job at catching my FTAs. I saw the looks I was receiving from the guys when I devoured another pizza from Pino's and they were stuck with some healthy option that they had to endure from Ranger. In a way Ranger let me get off easy, never pushing me too much into that RangeMan mold. I had a liberty that no one else really could claim and often enough I wondered why Ranger wasn't being stricter with me. I mean he was strict with everyone. Even with himself. Because as much as he liked to deny it, I'm certain he wasn't ecstatic about living that restricted life either. I mean…. No pizza? No sodas? No donuts?"
"It is sort of what you learn when you join the military," Collins declared. "I mean it doesn't mean that any of the people there have never pizza or the likes in their lives ever again. But it is about discipline. And in our line of work, discipline could be the difference of seeing another day or not. Ranger had always been a creature of habit and that was just one more habit Getting up at sunrise and running ten miles meant he could outrun the best of them if the need arose – or chase after each and every single FTA that figured running would get him away. Being able to shot a gun to perfection could mean he wouldn't be the one with the bullet stuck somewhere in his body. And being a master at self-defense meant if he'd ever have to rely on his hand to hand combat skills he wouldn't draw necessarily the short stick. But even in a situation which wouldn't mean life-or-death it applies a certain advantage. Being aware of your strength and what you can do if you need to rely on yourself helps you project an image of you onto others that could result in a different approach to you as a person. In a lot of ways though I think Ranger did it because that was what he was used to. It had been for the longest years his daily routine and some routine – especially these enforced under extreme circumstances and over years and years – are hard to break."
"How did us debating about whether I'm the expectation that everyone wondered about to how and why Ranger lived the way he lived?" I wondered and saw Collins shrug.
"Can I just also say…You might not have been what we all expected you to be like…you actually exceeded that expectation? There is a reason Ranger saw you as his successor and that has nothing to do with whether or not you had something going on that none of us will ever know about. It has all to do with that maybe he saw something that was needed for running RangeMan and a bunch of crazy ex-military guys who have nothing better to do than making the world maybe a better place."
"So you admit you want to save the world?" I asked with a twinkle in my eyes. "Because I could never get Batman to admit to it."
Christopher laughed for a long moment. "I guess in a way you need to have that sort of syndrome in order to do our job."
He gave me a last soft hug, said "Take care, Stephanie Plum, I'll see you online Monday," and then left. I could see Binkie and Vince waiting by the elevators and a moment later the door opened, they stepped in and Christopher Collins left the Trenton branch of RangeMan, leaving the operations in my hands.
I got back behind my cluttered desk and started to work again but couldn't really concentrate. Not after what Collins had said to me. And to a certain degree I got it and understood where he came from. I knew the unofficial rules of RangeMan and the guys working here. To some degree I guess I always avoided these rules by being a girl. As odd as it sounded. And the fact that I hadn't really been a fulltime employee but rather a short-term help that did the occasional paperwork, searches or a distraction if need arose. I wasn't doing the full job but rather came by when I needed cash or Ranger needed help – and him needing help wasn't often. But then again… how official were these rules? I needed answers.
On the floor I only saw Junior and Zip with everyone else probably out and about doing their jobs. I figured any Merry Man would know about official or unofficial rules and Junior and Zip would provide me as much with needed answers as anyone else.
"Can I ask you something," I asked when approaching.
"Need help with a file?" Junior asked, looking up from whatever he was doing right now.
"Not really. Just… a follow up on something that's keeping my mind busy."
"What do you need?" Zip asked from his desk next to Juniors'.
"When you join RangeMan, are there actual rules? Like… written down, official rules that apply throughout the franchise? That everyone has to abide by? And I mean, diet requirements or the likes."
"Yeah," Junior said casually. "We have certain requirements. Like once every six months there's like an evaluation in regards of shooting a gun and the likes. There is technically a physical every few months as well as a fitness test to determine whether you're technically still up to the requirements of the job. The diet requirements are some sort of an unofficial rule that is easy to abide by since all the cooking is done by Ella and on the days we are off and should decide on going all out and stuffing our faces with stuff it wouldn't really matter as much. Why do you ask? Thinking of changing things around?" he asked laughing and I saw Zip grin.
"Does it bother you that I technically would probably fail all these tests if I'd ever be subjected to them?"
"Why would you be subjected to them? You are the boss. If you don't want to do it, don't," Junior said plainly and Zip nodded.
"I wouldn't say that it bothers me," Manny said, appearing almost out of thin air. "Well, at least not as long as you are out in the field. I'm gonna be honest and say I would like for you to work on your general fitness, but more as a precaution and because you never know when you'll ever need to run."
"Most of these rules are not even actually hard to live by since they are just standard things you'll have to do when joining the military anyway," Zip shrugged. "I can guarantee you, if you'd take the work out routines and the gun training away from the guys, they'd go crazy sooner or later. After years in the service they are used to routine and getting up at the crack of dawn seems normal to us. The same goes for following a strict routine. You are not a military recruit and therefore subjecting you to something that is normal to us wouldn't be fair. We all understand and won't be bothered if that is what you needed to know."
I nodded, signalizing that I understood what he meant. I was their boss now, so whatever I decided on doing – or not doing – would be accepted either way from them. I was like their CO and my word was the new rule. Okay, maybe that sounded a bit tough, but a part of me really believed that these guys would do whatever I asked of them, mainly because they trusted me to know what to do and also to and because it was what they were taught for years: never disagree with your leader.
I guess I had a lot of thinking to do. And I presumably did my best thinking with a glass of red wine. Good thinking that I had asked Ella a few days ago to stock a bottle or two in the kitchen of the apartment on seven.
I was having my second glass and contemplating once more about the entire day, Collin's little speech and what Zip, Manny and Junior had said when I reached for my phone almost out of reflex. My battery was running dangerously low but I contemplated that it would just be enough to make one call. While speed dialing the number I remembered I had never called Joe back and I was assuming that call was long overdue but would have to wait until the next day.
When I heard the familiar beeping of being forwarded to the mailbox, I took a long gulp of my wine before I started to speak, filling the mailbox with my rumblings about today and the last few days.
"So, Collins left officially today, leaving your company in my hands. Well, I guess I could always call and split the work and my questions and tasks but somehow… I want to prove that I can do it without them. I had a video conference with every office on Monday – as you probably know since that was something you yourself did. It was nerve-wrecking and exciting equally. I think the other guys in the other offices didn't really expect someone like me and Collins kind of confirmed that today when he said I wasn't what everyone thought I'd be whenever they heard a Bombshell story. I still don't know for sure what they expected. But… I think there will be a time soon when I might live up to some of that expectations. Hopefully. I start realizing how busy you always have been and how much time I must have cost you whenever I needed your help with something. There is just so much going on that I still have no idea how to tackle. Like recruiting. Or budgeting. I don't even know what your finance guys will tell me next week. I haven't thought about roosters or how that works and right now I just hope that payroll is an automated process. I had my first client meeting last week and can't really say it was a success or something I'd need a repetition of. I assume you'd remember Mr. Gold. I have a few more meetings with potential clients lined up next week and hope they just go better but then again I don't think they could go any worse. I… I don't know why I keep calling and tell you all this. I mean, it isn't like you'll respond or call me back. But in a way I guess it just feels good to talk about my day and let it all out. A bit like therapy. There is still no word from Tank, Bobby and Lester. They are somewhere up north, bringing someone in. That's all I know and that they are supposed to be maybe back not too far in the future. I don't think they know about you yet and I haven't even thought about how I'll break the news. But one thing is for sure, I want to be the one to tell them. And also maybe try to explain what happened while they were gone. I think it would be easier to some degree if they heard it from me and not some random person that has no connection to you, them or RangeMan. Of course any of the Merry Men would also be good. But somehow I want it to be me to tell them and maybe try and shoulder some of their grief. Maybe together we can overcome this and move on."
I paused for a moment, swallowing my own tears that were threatening to come out. "I... I miss you Ranger. And there are so many things I wish I would have said throughout the years of knowing you. So many things that I never said, but thought you should have known. I hope on some level that you knew without me telling you, but I guess… we'll never know. I… I didn't mention it before but I asked Connor to file a missing person's report for you. That way, your family will have some closure at some point and I'm afraid that is the best I can do for you and them in that regards. I… I really miss you and I wish I could have seen you one last time. The fact that I don't even remember what my last words to you were is annoying me, since I won't have any way of remembering you that way, but I guess it also means I didn't need to regret anything in regards of bas words or things that were said in agony and anger or something. I… I just wish I could have one last day with you or something. Or just… one last chance to say what should have been said between us. I would give almost anything I could to have that day, or even more. I wouldn't mind having you back in full and forever. But… I guess it is a bargaining that will never take place. I hope wherever you are, at whatever place you are now, that you are still allowed to be the hero you always disagreed on being but both us secretly knew you were."
A second after I had hung up and ended my monologue, my battery reached its end and the phone shut down completely.