DISCLAIMER: I don't own these characters, Fox does. I'm only
taking them out for a test drive.
SERIES: This story follows on from After the Fall, it might help if you read that first before venturing forth.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: Anything goes at this point.
We can't be certain who the villains are 'cuz everyone's so pretty.
- Sheryl Crow
Everyone in the room was silent, all eyes fixed on the figure at the far end of the conference table in anticipation. The news was shocking to say the least, although the man now finding himself being scrutinized by his colleagues could have told them he'd seen it coming a mile away.
Bob Parish was not unaccustomed to the heavy-handedness of other law enforcement agencies, or the tactics they employed to push their local counterparts into doing their bidding. Still, he bristled at the idea of having his department used as part of a jurisdictional pissing contest. But, as he met the intense gaze of the Deputy Chief, he knew there was little he could do about it.
"So, do I go on record now by saying that I think this is a bad idea?" he finally said.
The woman seated to his left was the first to respond. "Normally, we would never take this kind of approach, Captain, but it should be obvious to everyone that we can't pass up an opportunity like this."
Parish nodded. "I agree. But, you're a little too eager to sacrifice one of my detectives to do it."
"We're only asking for cooperation here," the woman quickly countered. "We just want a sit down with Lieutenant Chambers to explain the situation. If she declines, we move on. Simple as that."
"There is nothing simple about this," he retorted.
"From everything I've read about the case, it seems to me that she would probably welcome the opportunity to get more involved at this stage."
"Agent Noone, if I could interrupt for just a moment."
The F.B.I. agent turned to look at the fragile looking young man seated across from her. The tired pallor of his face was strangely offset by an energetic, almost gleeful look in his eyes as he leaned forward in his chair and pushed his glasses up higher on his nose. "Yes, Lieutenant Hill?"
The smile Roland flashed had all the warmth of a barracuda about to feed. "Billie Chambers is still on official medical leave, which means that, in order for her to participate in this investigation, she would have to return to active duty. And that is not in the best interest of this department."
"Or my detective," Parish added.
Special Agent Noone sighed, impatiently. "We are dealing with what could very well be one of the worst serial killers in the history of the state of California," she announced with a passionate tone, now focusing her full attention on Captain Parish. "Not to mention the fact that she is one of only a handful of known female killers of this type in the country. The information she can provide would be invaluable, to both the families of her victims, and to the NCAVC."
"Lieutenant Chambers needs more time," Parish insisted.
The agent quickly scanned the contents of a document lying on the table in front of her. "She has her first appointment with your psychologist tomorrow." Lifting her gaze, she purposefully directed her next words to the man seated at the opposite end of the table from Captain Parish. "The bureau has agreed to assist the task force on this case, and VICAP is giving us all the information it can. But, honestly, you cannot expect all of these agencies to put their considerable resources on hold. Ralston is willing to give us everything. No deals, no appeals. This is the only stipulation. Odd though it is, it's not entirely unheard of. We'll provide the lieutenant with whatever support she needs."
Forsythe shot Parish a meaningful look. "We need to move on this, Bob. Have Lieutenant Chambers come in after her appointment."
"Well, I guess it's my turn to go on record," Hill declared as he stood up from the table, a slight grimace on his face. He straightened up a bit more and buttoned his suit coat. "I won't have my division held responsible if Lieutenant Chambers goes postal. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a doctor's appointment." He snatched up his briefcase from the empty chair beside him, pausing as he passed Bob's chair. "Just send me the memo," he said, acerbically. "I'll add it to her file."
As the door closed, the captain caught the gaze of the Deputy Chief, who chose to remain silent. Calling in the feds had been Forsythe's idea. The Ralston case was becoming more complicated by the minute. The number of potential victims was growing and they needed someone with more expertise. But, now, things had taken a surprising turn, although the tactics Felicia Ralston was employing were nothing new. She obviously wanted the upper hand, even if she had to sit on death row to get it.
"I don't think Lieutenant Hill truly appreciates the magnitude of the situation," Special Agent Noone remarked, laying a stack of papers on the table in front of Parish.
He looked down at them, recognizing the formatted, high gloss sheets. The one on top had a small photo of a young man in the top left corner. From the look of it, Parish guessed it was probably a high school picture. He lifted one corner of the pile, using his thumb to flip through the pages.
There were so many faces.
"Hill gets it," Parish said, grimly, his hand lingering on the reports for a long moment before finally sliding them back toward the FBI agent. "He just doesn't believe in wasting his time on a losing argument."
"Do you think Lieutenant Chambers should walk away from this?" she questioned.
"I honestly don't know," Parish sighed. "But, I know she won't."
The restaurant was crowded. An oversized entryway was already filled to capacity, lines of people spilling outside where a young woman hovered, busily taking names and informing everyone of the extremely long waiting time. Inside, hordes of would-be diners gathered in the adjacent lounge, the bar surrounded by rows of bodies, some silently coveting the precious few seats that remained filled on a seemingly permanent basis, but most far too busy with drinks and conversation to notice.
Paving a narrow swath through the chaos, two young women with drinks in hand made their way toward a somewhat less congested area near the windows that faced the street. The tinted glass panes were angled, allowing for a pleasant breeze to waft in while still filtering some of the blinding sunshine.
Physically, the pair were a contrast, though both garnered equal shares of appreciative looks from other patrons. The woman with shoulder-length, blonde hair was dressed in a sleeveless white, silk shirt and a pair of tan shorts that hugged her feminine curves and left a good deal of her legs exposed all the way down to a pair of sandals. The only piece of jewelry she sported was a gleaming, platinum chain around her ankle. Her companion, a very attractive brunette with long, straight hair and startling blue eyes, was wearing a midnight blue t-shirt and white pants.
"Looks like your friend's place is doing pretty well," Billie commented before tilting a Vodka7 to her lips and looking around at the growing number of new arrivals. The drink was frigid, a delicious contrast to the alcohol's warmth as it crept up to color her cheeks.
"Yeah, I guess so," Sara agreed, her own drink still cradled in her hand. She toyed with an orange slice, the fingers of her right hand running it, idly, along the rim. "I didn't know the place had become such a hot spot. I mean, Jesus, look at this crowd. And it's only a Wednesday night."
The detective watched her lover's gaze suddenly focusing on a young woman with short, dark hair coming toward them, talking and smiling to a number of people as she navigated her way through the throng of guests.
"Hey, there's Margo." Sara caught her friend's attention with a smile and a quick wave, which was immediately returned. The brunette was now heading, pointedly, in their direction.
Billie fixed a curious eye on Margo Linzi, Sara's friend and owner of the restaurant. The woman seemed to command attention as she moved, despite her relatively slight stature. She wore her jet-black hair in a blunt cut, which flattered her small, rounded face. Her attire was simple, yet striking: a black skirt with an eggplant shell blouse and a pair of black, leather boots that hugged her trim, well-toned legs. Even from a distance, she exuded style and confidence.
Inexplicably, two words popped into Billie's head as she watched the woman approach: New York.
Margo was only a short distance away from them when another woman caught her arm, drawing her attention away for just a moment. Although Billie couldn't discern the other person's features in the midst of the crowd, for a moment there seemed something familiar about her
"I'm really glad we decided to do this tonight."
The sound of Sara's voice drew Billie away from her musings and she turned to her lover and smiled. "Me, too." Considering she'd spent almost the entire day in court, the detective's mood was surprisingly good. She took another sip of her drink before adding, "It's about time we got out and had a little fun."
The blonde finally touched her own glass to her lips and tested the waters. "You haven't mentioned how it went, by the way," she said, now dunking the accompanying garnish and trying to be as casual as possible.
Billie's shrug was non-committal. Running through the details of her testimony in the Ralston case had been difficult, although she would never actually admit it. "I gave the D.A. what he needed. With any luck, it'll never go to trial."
The topic of Felicia was a tough one for both of them, and watching her lover still struggling with it made Sara wish she'd shot the bitch when she had the chance, before she'd left such an indelible mark on their lives. "Well, at least we're both done with it now, so let's just forget about everything for tonight and enjoy ourselves," she suggested while raising her glass in a casual toast.
"Here, here," Billie replied, returning the gesture. She took another sip of her drink and decided to follow Sara's advice by focusing her mental energies on something else. "So, how long have you known Margo?"
"A few years. We met through a mutual friend."
"Oh? What friend was that?"
"Dana." Sara lifted her drink and made a show of taking a long, slow sip, her restless, blue eyes looking around the room everywhere, in fact, except at her companion.
Billie smiled, knowingly. Sara was leading her on, teasing her with only the tiniest piece of information. She was very familiar with this game.
When the blonde's gaze finally resettled on her, the detective continued her probe. "I've never heard you mention her before. Was she a close friend?"
Sara gave her an amused look. "You ask a lot of questions." The dodge was deliberate, of course, and she could see that Billie wasn't about to give up yet.
"An ex-lover, maybe?"
"Are you interrogating me, Lieutenant?" Sara questioned, playfully.
"Just curious," Billie responded, taking another long sip before rattling the near-empty contents of her glass. With a quick motion she tipped it up, allowing an ice cube to slip passed her lips. Idly, she let it melt on her tongue as she watched her lover, waiting for the young woman to offer up the next clue.
Sara leaned in close, as though she were about to reveal something secretive in nature, and Billie could feel the blonde's warm breath moving the hair beside her ear. The faint, tickling sensation caused her to shiver.
"He and I were never lovers," Sara whispered, giving the brunette a quick peck on the cheek, followed by a wicked grin.
"Ah," Billie nodded in understanding. She'd walked right into that one.
The two lovers turned in unison to see Margo approaching, the person she'd stopped to speak with now trailing just behind her. Less than ten feet away, Billie was finally able to catch a glimpse of the other woman.
Instant recognition hit her like a slap in the face.
"Hello, sweetie," Margo gushed, leaning in for a hug before stepping back and giving her an appraising once over. "It's been so long. How are you?"
"I'm great," Sara answered with a smile, immediately turning to Billie to make the introductions. "Margo, this is-"
"Samantha Bennett," Billie interjected swiftly, reaching out and shaking the woman's hand. "Very nice to meet you." She could see Sara staring at her, mouth slightly agape, her brow furrowed in question. There had been no opportunity to warn her, but the detective felt pretty confident that she would go along with it for the time being. Without missing a beat, Billie added, smoothly, "This is a fabulous place you have."
"Well, thank you, Samantha," Margo replied, laying her other hand on top of Billie's and giving it a firm squeeze. "I'm absolutely thrilled to have you both here. I'm sure Sara didn't bother with reservations," she said with a lilting laugh. "The last time she was here the only competition was the crickets. But, not to worry, I'll make sure you get a table."
Sara continued to stare at Billie, who, in response, reached out and gave her forearm a gentle squeeze. To her credit, the blonde recognized the subtle cue and recovered quickly. Though Billie's cool demeanor gave absolutely no outward indication of it, something was obviously very wrong. Unfortunately, it was going to be an agonizing wait until she got her lover alone for an explanation.
Margo released Billie's hand and gestured to the taller woman next to her. "This just so happens to be the woman responsible for our burgeoning success. I'd like you both to meet my new business partner," she stated with a note of gratitude.
Billie was standing right beside Margo's companion and held her hand out, feeling the other woman's firm grip, already very familiar with the attractive, intelligent face looking back at her. It was the same face that adorned a pile of surveillance photos currently locked away in her office.
Despite the growing numbers around them, there was no missing the woman's voice, or the way her thick, European accent wrapped around her words when she spoke. "A pleasure to meet you both," she greeted warmly. "I am Lena Verenka."
And if the real thing don't do the trick
You better make up something quick.
- Ann Wilson
Sara Matthews was discovering exactly how thin her patience could actually wear. Not that anyone around her could notice. But, as she sat in the midst of a crowded restaurant, trying to behave normally, and desperately fighting the urge to grab her lover's arm and demand an explanation, it was all she could do to keep track of the conversation going on around her.
After they'd exchanging greetings with Margo's new partner, Lena, the woman quickly excused herself in order to attend to some other business. Then, the restaurant's hostess suddenly appeared by Margo's side, ready to show Sara and Billie to a table. With Margo escorting them, there was never an opportunity for the two lovers to talk, privately, which meant that Sara was still completely in the dark about the cause of Billie's behavior.
She tried to make some incidental small talk, but soon became quiet and allowed Billie to take control of the conversation. In less than five minutes, Margo had already told the detective about moving to Los Angeles from New York, her difficulties trying to get a new business off the ground, and how she was pulled from the brink of financial ruin by a miraculous young woman named Lena Verenka.
"Her timing really was impeccable," Margo was saying. "I had just about given up hope of making a go of the place. My husband and I were fighting constantly " She looked around and smiled at her good fortune. "To be perfectly honest, I think Lena saved my marriage, as well as my business."
"How did you happen to meet her?" Billie asked casually.
"She came in one evening with some friends and we just started talking. She had some really creative ideas, clever marketing strategies before I even knew what was happening, she asked me about buying in."
"Wow," the detective exclaimed. "Just like that?"
"Well, we had quite a few discussions about it before I agreed. I'd never considered the idea of a partner, so I was more than a little hesitant, at first. But, Lena was persistent, and she finally convinced me. Now, I couldn't be happier. I mean, just look at what she's been able to accomplish in only a couple of weeks."
"That's great, Margo," Sara finally spoke up. "I'm really happy for you."
"Looking for anymore investors?" Billie questioned with a smile.
"Why, are you interested in the restaurant business?"
"Maybe," she replied. "I'm actually new to L.A. myself. I haven't been here very long, though, so I'm still weighing my options." No matter how long she'd been playing this game, Billie still marveled at how easily the lies would come. It was like a reflex.
"Where are you from, Samantha?"
"And how do you like L.A.?"
Billie's blue eyes flicked in Sara's direction. "So far, I like it very much."
Margo smiled, knowingly. "Well, it certainly does have something for everyone. I just love the weather here. I haven't battled a raging snowstorm in almost four years. It's simply wonderful."
"And with your restaurant doing so well, it looks like it'll be quite a while before you see the east coast again."
"Yes, it does. Although, I will admit, I really do miss Manhattan some days. The dining, the shopping, the theaters " Margo shook her head and laughed. "I'd better be careful, I have New York snob written all over me."
"That's alright. I still haven't found a cup of coffee good enough to rival anything from home."
"You haven't tried ours yet," Margo quickly pointed out.
"Give it your best shot," the detective replied with a grin.
"Now that sounds like a challenge." The restaurant owner glanced over at her friend, who remained unusually quiet. "Is everything alright, Sara? You look like you're a million miles from here."
Sara forced a smile. "I'm fine. I was just thinking how much the place has changed since the last time I was here."
Billie took a sip of her water and looked around, discreetly following Lena's movements as she greeted two men entering the lounge. The detective easily recognized one of them as Lena's brother, Alexandr, his dark, attractive features mirroring those of his older sister. But the other one, a thin, gangly looking man with long, red hair and glasses was unfamiliar to her.
In the brief period of time they'd spent working the case, Van and Deaq never mentioned anyone fitting his description, and she'd never seem him in any surveillance photos. He was probably no one of consequence, but she decided to get a better look at him anyway.
"Would you excuse me for a minute?" Billie said as she stood up from the table, immediately putting a restraining hand on Sara's shoulder when the blonde looked up at her, questioningly. "I just need to make a quick call."
As Sara watched her walk away, she thought about getting up and following, despite Billie's subtle gesture to remain where she was until another hand reached out and touched her arm.
"I just wanted to say how sorry I was to hear about Jill," Margo said sadly. "I know the two of you were very close."
At first, Sara couldn't meet the woman's gaze. It was difficult to accept anyone's condolences over Jill's death, especially since a part of her would always feel some responsibility for it. "Thanks," she answered softly.
"I still can't believe it. I mean, Felicia Ralston, of all people. I met her on a couple of different occasions. I even purchased a painting for the restaurant from one of her galleries. She seemed just as normal as anyone else. Of course, so did Jill " Margo halted her words when she saw the expression on Sara's face. "Oh, I'm sorry, sweetie, I didn't mean that the way it sounded. It's just that well, the whole thing is still so hard to believe."
"Did you have any idea what Jill was doing?"
The directness of Margo's question took Sara by surprise, and she stared at the woman for a moment, unsure of what to say. Thankfully, her name had never been mentioned in any of the lurid stories circulating about the now infamous art dealer who murdered her criminal paramour. And once the whole truth was known about Felicia, no one would give a damn about the lives and times of a small-time thief like Jill Kistler any longer.
A fact that made Sara feel both utterly relieved and profoundly sad.
"I'm not really ready to talk about this yet, Margo."
"I understand," the woman responded, patting her hand. "I shouldn't have brought it up."
"No, it's okay." Sara began to fidget with her napkin and wonder what the hell Billie was doing.
Margo could easily sense her friend's discomfort and thought it best to change the subject. "How about you tell me where you've been keeping yourself? I haven't seen you in months."
From over Margo's shoulder, Sara caught a glimpse of Billie heading toward the lounge. She watched the brunette maneuvering through the crowd, her gaze tracking the detective's progress as she tried, somewhat distractedly, to answer Margo's question. "I was out of town for a while."
"Doing some sightseeing in Seattle, maybe?"
Sara gave her a blank look. "Huh?"
Margo smiled. "So, how long have you and Samantha been seeing each other?"
Sara hesitated. She hadn't really been paying enough attention to the details of Billie's story. Did she even mention how long they were supposed to have known each other? "Umm not long."
"What about work? What are you doing?"
"At the moment nothing."
"Are you looking?"
Something in the tone of Margo's voice made Sara focus on her. "Why?"
"Well, Vicki, our hostess, is leaving next week, and I'm still looking for the right person to replace her."
Sara immediately dismissed the idea with a shake of her head. "I've never done anything like that before."
"All you have to do is handle the reservations, help seat the guests, monitor the flow, that kind of thing. And you have the two most important qualities: an outgoing personality and a gorgeous face."
"I can't believe you just said that," the blonde remarked.
"Report me to the EEOC, if you like, but I know what works."
"So, you don't need to be a rocket scientist, right?"
"No, you don't."
"Why's Vicki leaving?"
"She's heading to Honduras to work on a farming project with the Peace Corp." Margo paused, briefly, before adding, "Which you don't need to be a rocket scientist for either, by the way."
Sara smirked. "I get your point."
"Then, think about it," Margo insisted. "You have a way with people, Sara. For God's sake, you charmed me into buying you a drink the first time we met, and I'm not even gay."
That comment finally brought a genuine smile to Sara's face. "Well, I thought you were."
"Truthfully, that night was the one and only time I ever entertained the thought 'what if'," Margo admitted with an affectionate look.
The blonde's smile suddenly faltered.
What if ?
It was a concept Sara had spent a lot of time thinking about recently. Looking back over the past few months, there seemed to be an almost limitless supply of squandered opportunities. Bad decisions made at every turn.
So many times she could have saved Jill.
It had all started with her plea agreement, she knew. Instead of standing up and taking what was coming to her, she jumped at the chance to save herself -- like a drowning swimmer ready to push someone else under just for that one, last, desperate breath.
They could have gone down together, maybe even helped each other. But, when Jill fled the scene, leaving Sara alone with Billie, the horrifying realization of her new lover's betrayal still stinging her to the core, it was too much. If she couldn't take out her pain and rage on the young detective who deceived her, then she would direct it at the only other person she cared about, the one who abandoned her.
It wasn't until much later that she finally came to understand the reason why Jill ran that day. Sara hadn't been the only one hurt and betrayed by someone they loved.
"Are you sure you're alright?"
Margo's voice brought Sara's thoughts back to the present. "Yeah I'm sorry," she sighed, irritably, massaging her right temple with her fingertips. "I just have a bitch of a headache."
"Let me get you some aspirin." As Margo rose from the table, Sara shot to her feet, as well.
"No, that's okay," she replied. "To be honest, I'm suddenly feeling pretty lousy, so I think I might call it a night. I hope you don't mind."
"No, of course not."
"I'll just go find Bill um, Samantha and head on home." Sara cringed, inwardly, at her mistake, hoping it would go unnoticed.
Margo gave her an odd look. "Sara, is there anything I can do to help?"
The blonde tried to offer a reassuring smile. This little ruse was becoming more unbearable by the minute. She needed to talk to Billie, to know what was happening. If Margo was in some kind of trouble, she sure as hell wasn't about to sit by and do nothing.
"Honestly, Margo, I'm fine. I just need some sleep. I'll give you a call tomorrow."
"Do that," the brunette said, firmly, giving her friend's hand a brief squeeze. "And think about my offer, will you?"
"Excuse me, Lena?"
Lena turned around as Billie approached her from behind. "Yes?"
The detective gave the woman's companions an apologetic smile. "Sorry to interrupt, but can you point the way to the restroom?"
"Certainly," Lena replied with a wave of her hand. "Just over there."
"Thanks." Billie caught the gaze of the man standing next to Lena and held it for a few, calculated seconds, hoping he would take the bait.
Measuring in at a modest five-foot-nine inches tall, Alexandr Verenka was hardly an imposing figure, but what he lacked in stature, he more than made up for with stunningly handsome features. His dark hair was thick and a bit unruly, although he kept it short. He had a strong, chiseled face and a disarming smile, which he was now directing at Billie.
"Excuse me for staring," he finally said with a soft, deep voice that carried easily over the commotion around them. "But, you have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen."
Billie smiled, patiently. It didn't matter what country you came from, bad lines were universal.
Beside him, Lena rolled her eyes and laughed. "You must excuse my brother, Samantha. Sometimes he cannot help himself."
"And sometimes my sister forgets her manners," Alexandr shot back, giving his older sibling a look of mild annoyance before extending his hand in greeting. "Alexandr Verenka."
The lieutenant reached out and shook his hand, noting with some distaste that his palm was warm and sweaty. When he released his firm grip, she had to resist the urge to wipe her hand on her pants "Nice to meet you, Alexandr, and thank you for the compliment."
"This is my friend, John," he offered, finally giving Billie at least some of what she came for as the red-haired man next to him nodded once in greeting.
John kept his hands tucked into his pockets, making it obvious he didn't care to observe the usual social graces. "Hello," he said curtly.
With practiced skill, Billie committed his features to memory with barely a glance. "Hi."
"Samantha is here with a friend of Margo's," Lena announced.
"Who's probably wondering where I've wandered off to," the detective replied, using the unintentional segue as an opportunity to make her excuses and get Sara the hell out of there.
Billie felt Sara's hand on her shoulder and turned to her. She could see the distressed look on her lover's face. "Hey, I was just heading to the ladies room. Are you alright?"
"Could we go please?" Sara's voice was soft, but insistent. "I'm suddenly not feeling very well."
Lena stepped forward with a concerned look. "Would you like me to get Margo? I'm sure she would want to-"
"I spoke to her, thanks," Sara answered quickly, already in motion as she clasped Billie's hand and started to pull away.
"It was nice meeting you." Billie barely got the words out before she and Sara were making a beeline for the exit.
Lena's stormy, gray eyes followed the two young women as they disappeared into the crowd. "That was strange," she remarked.
"You shouldn't have told her my name," John grumbled at his companion.
"You are paranoid, my friend," Alexandr announced with a smile in his voice. "A beautiful woman like that wouldn't even give you the time of day."
"I think you hold very little interest for her as well, Sasha," Lena teased as she glanced over at her brother.
"Did you not see how she looked at me?" he asked indignantly.
"And did you not see how she looked at her dinner companion?"
The young man opened his mouth to shoot down his sister's observations, but John immediately cut him off.
"We have an appointment and my client doesn't like to be kept waiting."
"As I said, we expect the transfer before final delivery," Lena instructed the other man. "If you have any concerns, my brother will contact me."
"You are not coming?"
"Margo and I have other business this evening."
"Then, let's get going," John snapped.
Alexandr caught his sister's arm as he started to leave. "Ask her about this Samantha person for me, would you?"
Lena sighed, inwardly. It was so typical of her brother to waste his time on a woman who would never be interested in him. His ego was a little twisted in that way.
But, it was Margo's friend Sara that piqued her curiosity. For some reason, the young woman had been nervous, almost to the point of distraction, although she'd been trying to conceal it. There may be a simple explanation for her behavior, of course, but Lena's instincts were telling her something else.
"I'll be sure to make an inquiry," Lena reassured him.
As soon as they made it out to the sidewalk, Sara pulled Billie aside. "What the hell is going on?"
"In the car," the detective replied, firmly, gesturing to the valet and handing him her ticket.
For Sara, the wait was interminable, but after only a few moments, they were in Billie's Corvette and pulling out of the parking lot. "Okay," she said a bit more calmly than she felt. "Tell me."
"I want you to stay away from Margo for a while," the lieutenant stated, continuing to stare straight ahead.
The blonde looked over at her. "What?"
"You heard me."
"That's it?" Sara asked incredulously. "That's all you have to say?"
"No," Billie answered. "But, before I fill you in, I have a couple of questions of my own."
"How well do you know her?"
"Well enough. Now, what the hell-"
"How well does she know you?"
"What?" Sara shot her lover a furious glare. "Billie, just tell me what this is about."
"Does she know what you used to do for a living?" the detective pressed on. "Besides parking cars, I mean."
Sara knew the question wasn't meant to be insulting or snide. The young detective was strictly on a fact-finding mission. Besides which, double-talk was not the way her lover operated. If Billie had something to say, she would just come right out with it.
The blonde flashed back to her conversation with Margo. "No," she answered honestly. "Now, tell me why you're asking me about this."
Billie flexed her fingers. She'd been gripping the wheel so tight her knuckles were turning white. "It's her business partner, Lena. She's been under investigation by the LAPD. By me, actually."
"I can't get into that with you, Sara."
The young woman's jaw clenched. The last thing she wanted to deal with right now was Billie's brick wall. "Look, whatever this is, Margo is not involved," she said vehemently. "I know her, Billie. She's a good person."
"Sometimes we think we know people " Billie turned her head and looked at Sara for the first time since getting in the car. "And then we find out we were very wrong." She hated saying it. It was like rubbing salt in the wound. But, she had a point to make, and the look in Sara's eyes told her that her words had hit home. No matter how much time passed, the memory of her deception would always be there.
"That was different," Sara retorted, knowing her words lacked conviction.
"Yes, it was," the lieutenant conceded. "But, the bottom line is that you don't know for sure. So, until you do, you need to keep your distance."
"Is Margo in any danger?"
"If she's not involved in Lena's other business dealings, than I would say probably not."
Sara refused to relent. "But, you can't be sure of that."
"No, I can't."
"And you expect me to just sit by and do nothing?" Sara questioned, folding her arms in a gesture of defiance.
"Somebody should be looking out for her."
"I'll do what I can to protect her."
"You mean, like you protected Jill?" The second the words were out of her mouth Sara regretted them. She immediately reached over to put her hand on Billie's forearm. "I didn't mean that."
Billie didn't show any reaction. She just kept her cool gaze on the road in front of her. The comment hurt, but she couldn't get angry about it. She'd lobbed the first shot, after all, bringing up their past to try and get through to Sara. She certainly couldn't blame her lover for doing the same thing. "I'll find out what I can. Then, we'll have a better idea of how much trouble she's in."
"But, you're not even working right now," Sara lamented. "Can you trust someone else to do this right?"
"I'll have to," she answered. "Unfortunately, we don't have anyone on the inside. Van and Deaq were getting close, but it'll be a while before they can make their move again."
"Maybe there's another way."
Billie shot her a quick look. "What?"
"Margo offered me a job," Sara announced. "The hostess is-"
"No way," Billie said firmly. "Forget it, Sara."
"Look, I'm not going to sneak around or spy on anyone. All I want to do is see for myself that everything is okay, at least where Margo's concerned. And she is the only thing I care about here. I'm not interested in playing cop. That's your department."
"I said no."
Sara's blue eyes narrowed, dangerously. "You know, the last time I checked, I didn't take orders from you."
That was all Billie needed to hear. She suddenly jerked the wheel and shifted gears, the tires squealing in protest while she spun the car around and started heading back into the city.
"What the hell are you doing?!" Sara yelled, but the young detective ignored her question, pressing her foot down on the accelerator and pushing the car even faster down the street.
The blonde's right hand gripped the door handle while her left groped for purchase on the console between the front seats. They were still moving extremely fast, even with the busy traffic, and she kept expecting to hear the sound of sirens erupt at any moment. She stole a quick glance at Billie, who didn't look the least bit concerned.
Within minutes they were downtown, on the outskirts of the wholesale district, taking a dizzying series of turns that Sara knew she'd never be able to memorize, and her companion remaining mute throughout the drive.
"Where are we going?" she demanded to know, and with another quick turn of the wheel, Sara realized she was about to get her answer.
They turned into a small, narrow alley, still moving at a fairly good clip. The car barely squeezed through the passageway. Illogically, Sara sucked in a breath, as if it would help to make the car skinnier, somehow, and waited for them to kiss the brick wall on either side.
But, it never happened.
She saw Billie's hand reach up to the visor just as they cleared the alley and entered a small parking lot. Straight ahead of them was an old, run down building. As they approached it from the back, it was hard to guess what function it served. It could be a warehouse. Or a department store. Hell, it might even be a movie theater. But, something told Sara that whatever she may have imagined, she would be wrong.
Billie steered the car around the building. Sara's curiosity had now quieted her protests and she merely sat there, waiting until they arrived at their destination.
They pulled up close to the side, the descending twilight casting long shadows where the car's headlights shined against the building, and that was when Sara noticed a large gaping hole in the wall in front of them. It took her eyes a few seconds to process the illusion, and she finally realized that what she was looking at was two large doors opening, almost silently, allowing enough room for Billie to pull the car inside.
"Billie, what are we doing here?" Sara asked quietly.
"I want to show you something."
The car rolled in and came to a stop, the interior darkness slowly enveloping them as the doors began to close behind them.
Billie pushed back an unpleasant feeling. She'd done this so many times before she'd lost count, but this was the first since her abduction. The sensation of being swallowed up by absolute darkness brought her to a place she'd just as soon never revisit.
She waited until the doors were completely shut before reaching up to press a few more buttons on the small keypad clipped to her visor. "Lights are coming on," she warned.
Sara squinted against the brightness that immediately flooded the room around her, giving her a sudden and awesome view of the cavernous interior. She sat there, dumbstruck, looking at her new surroundings with a mixture of shock and surprise.
Beside her, Billie had already unbuckled her seatbelt and shifted to a more comfortable position, leaning back a bit and resting her head against the seat. She looked over at her lover and offered a weary smile.
"Welcome to the Candy Store."
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