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.
Can't get this taste out of my mouth
Swallow it down, pretend
- Gwen Stefani
"The transaction is done."
Alexandr Verenka glanced at his older sister, somewhat nervously, waiting for her nod of consent. As with every deal, this was the moment he always hated. If things were to ever go wrong, now would be the time. As usual, though, Lena stood beside him, utterly unfazed by it all. With one hand holding a cell phone to her ear, and the other toying, idly, with a small charm on her necklace, she almost looked bored.
"I have confirmation," she finally announced, reaching into her pocket and producing a key, which she handed over to him. "Show them the merchandise, Sasha."
Alexandr approached the back of the truck he'd driven to the warehouse and quickly unlocked the doors. When he pulled them open, two men stepped forward and climbed inside with him. They began opening some large packing crates and examining the contents.
"Isn't this place a little too public?"
Lena glanced at the man standing to her right, who was busy eyeing their surroundings with a mixture of annoyance and paranoia.
John Flaherty worked for one of the most powerful criminal figures in LA. He was also one of the most irritating men she'd ever met, and she was grateful that her brother had handled most of their direct dealings. Fortunately, once their business here was through, it would be the last time she would ever have to lay eyes on him. That thought alone was enough to bring a smile to her face, but wisely, she suppressed it.
"I prefer close quarters," she answered.
"You keep doing business in such public places and the only close quarters you'll end up in is a jail cell."
The Ukrainian beauty's gray eyes smoldered. "While they are looking things over, I have one other item that your employer requested."
He glared at her. "What? What other item? Mr. Estevez didn't say anything to me about this."
Lena didn't immediately respond to his questions. Instead, she walked around to the back of her car and popped the trunk, then reached inside for a small black briefcase.
John stepped closer, trying to peer over her shoulder. He watched with growing interest as she opened it to reveal an old handgun nestled within the plush contoured interior.
"What is that?"
"It is a Borchardt Model 1893 pistol."
John snorted in contempt. "He wanted an old gun?"
"This is much more than an old gun," Lena remarked with obvious disdain. "It was considered a brilliant piece of mechanical design in its day." She traced a gloved finger over the old, worn grip, instinctually avoiding touching the metal surface. "The Borchardt pistol was the first of its kind to place the magazine inside the grip. You see?" She pointed out the location at the base of the handle, as if she were a schoolteacher explaining something to a six year old. "In fact, a model such as this resides in the West Point Museum in New York. It is also in excellent condition, which makes it somewhat of a rare find."
"And Mr. Estevez called you personally for this?"
"Yes." Lena closed the case with an audible snap and handed it to him. "And for one other thing, as well."
"What?" he asked, impatiently, practically yanking the case from her grasp.
A different gun suddenly seemed to materialize in the brunette's hand, this one pointing directly at his face. John barely had time to widen his eyes in shock before she pulled the trigger.
The shot was little more than a muffled pop, but it was loud enough to draw the attention of the three men in the truck, all of whom turned to watch as the tall, lanky redhead sunk to the ground, a small portion of his brain matter now splattered across the warehouse floor.
Alexandr tensed, waiting until the other two men turned back and resumed their inspection of the weapons their employer was purchasing. As Lena had explained to him earlier, Estevez had included an additional hundred thousand dollars in their payment as a fee for the murder and, as promised, the other men were ordered to look the other way.
But, he'd been unhappy about the arrangement. He'd never been a big fan of wetwork. Unfortunately, his sister seemed to mind it less and less as time went by, a fact that was beginning to disturb him.
Lena barely spared the dead man a glance as she closed the trunk of her car, looking up when her little brother dropped down from the truck and approached her. He eyed the body for a moment before bending down and grabbing the small briefcase John dropped when he fell.
"What about this?"
"Give it to them."
"So, he really did want it, then?"
Lena looked a bit offended. "Why would I lie about such a thing?"
The young man stared at her. "I only meant that well, I thought it was just a distraction." He almost breathed a sigh of relief when his sister favored him with a slight smile.
"I don't need distractions, Sasha. Men like John Flaherty are stupid enough to believe that women don't pose a threat to them. A fatal shortcoming."
Casting another glance at the floor, Alexandr had to agree with her.
Lena followed his gaze. "Fortunately, it is also a common one."
"We're good to go."
Estevez' two remaining employees approached the pair, neither of them even acknowledging the bloody corpse lying nearby. Alexandr quickly handed over the keys to the truck, along with the briefcase, grateful that this transaction was finally coming to a close.
"As are we," Lena announced, touching her brother's arm to get his attention. She motioned for him to get in the car and he immediately complied.
Taking a seat behind the wheel, Alexandr waited, keeping an eye on his sister as she exchanged a few words with their buyers. He couldn't hear what was being said, but he wasn't all that concerned. They'd always had an unspoken agreement that Lena was the one in charge. She was older and far more experienced in dealing with people like Estevez. She was also intelligent, cunning, and fearless.
Just like their father had been.
A pained look crossed his dark features as he continued to peer through the windshield. Thinking of his home, his parents, and the life he left behind was not only pointless, it was dangerous. Lena was right when she told him they could never go back. Not after what they'd done what she'd done.
They had a whole new life now, filled with beautiful homes, expensive cars, and more money that they could ever have dreamed of. All of it thanks to Lena.
She interrupted his introspection as she opened the passenger door and slipped inside, laying her head back against the seat with a soft sigh. "Tell Patrick to collect the charges."
Alexandr immediately got on his cell phone and dialed a number. "Round them up. We're leaving." When he hung up, Lena looked over at him and smiled.
"Let's go, Sasha."
He gave her an affectionate look and started the car. The two of them drove out of the warehouse and into the blinding sunshine, more than half a million dollars richer than they'd been an hour ago.
God, how he loved California.
Sara heard a soft knock at the door and took a cursory look around the small apartment, rubbing her hands along the tops of her thighs in a nervous gesture. She'd been hoping to try and smooth the rough waters with Billie by preparing a nice, romantic dinner for two. Not a miracle cure, certainly, but she'd decided it would be nice to have some time to focus on just each other for a change.
She paused, her hand still resting on the doorknob, a bit puzzled that Billie would even bother to knock since her temporary living quarters were being paid for by the LAPD. Suddenly feeling the need for caution, she leaned in and peered through the crack of the door to see a familiar brunette standing there.
"Hey," Billie greeted.
Sara smiled and pulled the door open. "Hey, yourself."
"Sorry I'm so late."
"That's okay." She stepped back and waved a hand. "Come on in."
Billie surprised her by suddenly stepping forward and wrapping her arms around her. Sara could feel the tension in her lover's embrace, and she tightened her hold, grateful when Billie seemed to noticeably relax against her.
After a long, quiet moment, the blonde felt a pair of soft lips brush against her cheek.
"Thanks," Billie whispered in her ear. "I needed that."
The two women pulled back, slightly, and Sara studied Billie's face. There was something very unsettling in the blue eyes looking back at her.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"Let's talk about it later." Billie lingered, appearing reluctant to leave the comforting warmth of Sara's arms. She finally did, though, and after turning to close the door behind her, noticed the subtle decorations scattered throughout the apartment. "What's all this?"
The tabletops in the modest living room were adorned with a variety of candles, and several vases of wildflowers added a splash of color to the otherwise drab furnishings. On the countertop dividing the room from the equally simple, yet functional kitchen, there were two place settings and a chilled bottle of wine.
Sara had been so engrossed in trying to decipher Billie's mood that she'd completely forgotten everything else. Shaking off her discomfort, she slipped an arm around Billie's waist. "I made dinner."
A delicious aroma finally penetrated Billie's senses. "Mmm what's cooking?"
Billie shot her a sideways glance. "Since when do you eat veal?"
Sara shrugged. "I had a craving." She released her hold and slipped a hand into Billie's as she reached for the dimmer switch on the wall, lowering the overhead lighting to create a more comfortable atmosphere. "Come and sit down."
There was something strange in the tone of Billie's voice, and Sara looked over at her, seeing the lines of tension forming on her face.
A second later, the realization hit her.
"Oh, God, I'm sorry." Sara quickly brightened the lights, mentally kicking herself for not thinking of it on her own. Her face must have betrayed her thoughts, because she felt Billie give her hand a reassuring squeeze.
The detective's expression was guarded, but Sara had heard enough in the wee hours of the night to understand.
"No, it's not," she replied, lifting a hand to Billie's cheek and soothing it, lovingly. "No one should be afraid of candlelight."
Billie quickly dropped her gaze and turned her face away, obviously ashamed to admit such a thing. "It just makes me a little uncomfortable." Sara closed her eyes and rested her forehead against Billie's dark hair.
Her memories of the room where Felicia held Billie were vague, a fact that still bothered her despite her doctor's assurances that it was fairly typical after such a severe trauma. Even the physical pain of her stabbing was like an elusive phantom, as if her body could recall the sensation, but her mind continued to block out the actual event.
But there was one thing she did remember with horrifying clarity, an image that her heart and mind would never be so merciful as to allow it to be forgotten: The sight of her lover hanging from a rope, half naked and covered in her own blood.
It was a moment that had been permanently branded into Sara's psyche.
"We'll get passed this, Billie," she whispered.
Billie merely nodded in response and gently removed Sara's hand from her face, kissing the palm before lowering it.
"I'll pour the wine," she said with a slight smile.
Sara leaned in and stole a quick kiss. "I'll check on dinner."
The two women set about their tasks, purposefully falling into some more casual conversation. Sara had already given Billie the particulars about her day at the restaurant during an earlier phone call, including, most notably, that Lena had been conspicuously absent all day. There was no denying she was curious about that, but knowing what Billie's reaction would be if she inquired further, she'd decided to let it go.
So, now, instead of a tension-filled discussion about her 'covert' activities, she found herself talking about some of the more humorous moments that had taken place, and discovered that, strangely, she already felt a certain amount of camaraderie with her new co-workers.
"I guess he can be a real handful," Sara announced with a grin, relaying her first encounter with Gordon Reede while she and Billie started into their meals.
"So, you charmed good ol' Gordon with your feminine wiles, did you?" the detective teased before groaning, appreciatively, around a mouthful of veal.
"Yeah, right," Sara laughed. "The man's gayer than I am."
Billie shrugged. "Hey, Van thought he could turn you, you know."
Sara blinked. "Excuse me?"
A smirk began to curl the corners of Billie's lips as she picked up another forkful of food. "I believe his comment was 'They might be lesbians, but they don't have to stay lesbians'." She then popped a bite into her mouth, looking very amused by the distasteful look on Sara's face.
"Jesus, where in the hell did you find that guy?"
"He's not so bad once you get to know him."
Sara arched an eyebrow. "Has he ever tried to turn you?"
Billie almost spit out the wine she was sipping, and she lowered the glass from her lips to stare at Sara. "Why would you ask that?"
"Oh, come on, Billie," Sara prodded. "I've seen the looks he gives you. And he certainly doesn't bother to hide the fact that he's jealous of me."
Billie's eyebrows shot up. "Jealous? Van?"
"Are you telling me you've never noticed?" Sara asked skeptically.
"No," Billie shook her head, emphatically. "Van has never given me any kind of signal like that." She stopped, as though reconsidering it for a few seconds, and then resumed her firm denials. "Absolutely not, I mean, it's not like he hasn't had ample opportunity, believe me..."
"Oh?" Sara's ears perked up at that remark. "What kind of opportunities have you given him?"
Billie shot Sara a look. "I only meant that we've worked together for a while, and if there was something going on" she hesitated, apparently groping for the right word, " there, I would have known about it by now."
Sara almost laughed out loud at the irony. Billie was an experienced, well-trained detective and she didn't have a clue.
"I think you're wrong."
Billie sighed in exasperation. "Sara, Van is like my little brother. He's annoying, he's too hyper, his taste in music sucks, he talks way too much, and sometimes I have to give him money just to make him go away.
"But, he's also loyal to a fault, compassionate beyond all reason, and he would lay down his life for me in a heartbeat."
"Uh-huh." Sara chewed on a bite of her dinner, looking at Billie and nodding as she lifted her own glass of wine to her lips. She took a long, slow sip and placed the glass back on the table. "I still think you're wrong."
The detective lowered her fork and stared at Sara from across the counter.
"I think maybe you're the one that's jealous."
Sara's jaw dropped. "Of Van?" A bubble of laughter rose up from her throat and she brought her napkin to her lips. "Yeah, right, like that jerk even has a prayer of getting-" She stopped abruptly, noticing the grin slowly plastering itself across Billie's face. Her eyes narrowed, dangerously. "Very funny."
"He is kind of cute, though," Billie teased, "in a scruffy, stray puppy kind of way." The blonde made a face at her.
"No, thanks. Frankly, the whole concept is lost on me."
"Lucky for me."
Sara winked at her and took another sip of wine, watching her young lover over the rim of her glass. Whatever it was that had been troubling Billie when she'd first arrived was still there, simmering just beneath the surface, making all of her smiles seem a little too forced.
This was the part of their relationship that Sara found increasingly difficult to deal with. No matter how close they had become over the last few months, there was still a part of Billie that always seemed distant and out of reach. Was she always that way, Sara wondered, or had something happened to make her retreat into herself? More importantly, had anyone ever been truly able to breach the walls that surrounded her?
"So, tell me what you've been up to today," she ventured, keeping her tone light. "You didn't say much over the phone." Billie suddenly grew quiet, staring at her plate and moving the food around with her fork. Sara could see that she was reluctant to talk.
"I have some news," the detective finally said.
"Not good news, apparently," Sara drawled.
"Sara " Billie reached over and took Sara's hand. Her expression was deadly serious. "Felicia's out of the coma."
Cold fear slithered up Sara's spine. Until that very second, she didn't realize how much she'd been dreading hearing those words. She tightened her grip on Billie's hand. "You saw her, didn't you?" She didn't mean for it to sound like an accusation, but she couldn't seem to help herself. Thankfully, Billie didn't appear to be bothered by her reaction.
"I went to the hospital this morning."
"Did you talk to her?"
The brunette nodded. "Yeah, I did. She's still recuperating, but, for the most part, same old Felicia. Apparently, a few bullet holes didn't have much effect on her."
"What if she gets out-"
"She won't," Billie said firmly. "We have people all over that hospital. She can't so much as blink an eye without someone knowing about it. And the only place Felicia is going when she leaves there is a maximum security prison."
"Assuming she gets convicted," Sara remarked bitterly. "You know how the law works for rich people, Billie."
"Well, that won't be an issue. Felicia signed a confession. There aren't enough Johnny Cochrans in the world to get her out of this one."
Sara looked stunned. "Wow, I can't believe she confessed."
"Something to do with a control complex," Billie remarked with a shrug. "And believe me, that's about as deep as I care to dig into that psychological cesspool."
Feeling somewhat reassured by Billie's calm, rational attitude, Sara held up her glass and smiled. "Well, at least she's somebody else's problem now, right? And you and I can just work on forgetting we ever even heard of her." She waited as Billie contemplated her wine glass for a moment before raising it and tapping Sara's in return.
"You should have told me."
Bob Parish sunk deeper into his chair, trying to summon what little patience he could muster as the irate visage of a certain FBI agent glowered at him from across his desk. After an apparently disastrous interview at the hospital that morning, the woman had barged into his office demanding answers. Answers to questions that he, himself, had specifically chosen not to ask.
"I said it was a bad idea."
"But, you didn't say anything about Billie having a personal vendetta against this woman," Liz retorted, still fuming over being left in the dark about the lieutenant's relationship with Sara Matthews. "That little bit of information would have been helpful to have before I stuck her and Ralston in a room together alone."
He raised his eyebrows. "You don't think her cutting Billie up was personal?"
The agent blew out a frustrated breath. "I think she'd have handled her own victimization with a certain amount of detached professionalism. But, the attack on Matthews changes everything, and you know it!"
"She's angry," Parish remarked. "And she's still trying to deal. Wanting to strike back comes with the territory."
"There's a lot more to it than that, Captain."
"Maybe so," he conceded. "But you took a calculated risk by putting them together, and you got burned." Bob leaned forward and rested his arms on the desk, giving her a significant look. "You also got some of what you were looking for, didn't you?" Liz seemed to back off by only the slightest margin.
"You still should have shared your suspicions with me."
"I don't gossip," the captain said seriously, "and I trust my detective. Whatever decisions she's made, misguided or not, weren't made lightly. She'll deal with the consequences, if, and when the time comes. In the meantime, leave it alone. She's been through enough. Her personal life, such as it is, is off limits. Period."
"I'm not trying to make things more difficult for her," Liz said as she stood up, her briefcase dangling from her left hand. "I'm only here to get whatever I can from Ralston."
"I know," Parish remarked as he looked down at the transcript lying in front of him. "Look, if Billie says it won't happen again, then it won't."
The agent frowned. "I wish I had your conviction."
"Worst case scenario is, if this doesn't work, you go at Ralston another way."
"Really? Because I was thinking worst case scenario is that, at the next interview, Billie ends up breaking her neck."
"That'd be a real loss."
Liz stared at him for a moment, trying to read his inscrutable face. She finally allowed herself a slight grin. "Okay, I get it. You know her better than I do. So, we'll try again in a couple of days. But, if things go south-"
"Right." She started out the door, then suddenly stopped and looked back at him. "Why are the good ones always attracted to the bad ones?" With a quick shake of her head, the agent walked out of Bob's office, closing the door behind her.
Parish leaned back in his chair with a heavy sigh, his dark eyes drifting down to a small gold picture frame sitting on the corner of his desk.
"Maybe you should ask my wife that question."
Billie squinted against the glare of oncoming headlights and lowered her head, waiting for the car to pass by before resuming her vigil from behind the wheel of a black Toyota Camry. The old brick building across the street from her was mostly shrouded in darkness, save for a couple of windows on an upper floor bathed in soft light. Her eyes drifted between them and the front door just below. The person she was following had gone inside almost two hours ago. If his schedule was the same as it usually was, she could expect him to emerge at any minute.
Marking the late hour, she kept watch for anything suspicious looking, though she wasn't all that concerned for her safety. True, the neighborhood was somewhat rundown, but it wasn't really known for having a high crime rate. About the worst one could expect around here was the occasional B&E or street corner drug deal.
She was just reaching down for her coffee when a sudden movement to her right caught her attention. The gun was in her hand and pointed at the passenger window before the person's identity even registered.
"Whoa, Boss, chill out it's just me."
Billie immediately lowered her weapon and glared at the man peeking in the half-open window.
"Deaq, what the hell are you doing here?"
He quickly opened the door and slid into the seat beside her. "You know I like a good stake-out -- cold coffee, three day old deli sandwiches, leg cramps and a stiff neck. But, I usually get stuck listening to the world according to Donovan Ray, which can be a very scary and confusing place, you know what I'm saying?"
"Deaq, go home."
"Besides, this'll give us a chance to spend some quality time together." The detective gave her a pointed look. Billie shifted her gaze back to the building.
"I don't need you checking up on me."
"I'm not. I'm checking in. There's a difference." Deaq glanced over at what was capturing his boss' attention. "Who we on?"
"Go home," she repeated.
"Come on, Billie, you shouldn't be doing this lone ranger bullshit. You need someone watching your back."
Billie rolled her eyes and sighed, impatiently. "It's surveillance work, Deaq. I think I can handle it. Contrary to what you may think, I was a capable detective long before you came along."
"So what does that mean? You got something you're trying to prove here?"
"Oh, fuck you, Deaq," she snapped.
"Hey, we're all we got, Boss," he stated reasonably. "I don't know how many times you've told me and Van that." He could see she was doing a slow burn, but he knew she'd come around eventually. His boss was many things, but stupid wasn't one of them.
Billie settled back into her seat, trying to ignore Deaq while silently cursing Parish for insisting that each and every one of the Candy Store's vehicles be fitted with a GPS. Now, anyone could find her, provided they knew which car she was using. It was overkill on his part, a reaction based purely on her abduction. But, after some deliberation, she'd agreed to it, thinking more of the boys' safety rather than her own.
After a lengthy silence, she glanced over at him and asked, "Why are you suddenly so interested in what I'm doing with my downtime, anyway?"
"Baby girl, you wouldn't know downtime if it came up and bit you on your tight little ass." She merely gave him her patented glare and he shrugged. "Just looking out, is all."
"You're so full of shit."
"Why, thank you," he smiled.
Billie was about to order him out of the car again when two men suddenly emerged from the front door of the building across the street. "Shit." She watched them, intently, her hand coming to rest on the key dangling from the ignition. Both men got into an expensive looking sedan parked by the curb and pulled away. Billie uttered another soft curse and looked over at Deaq. "Out. Now."
"Who was that?"
"Deaq, so help me-"
"I'm not going anywhere." Deaq folded his arms and leaned back into the seat, making a show of getting into a more comfortable position. "So, if you don't want to lose 'em, you'd better move."
She shot him another withering stare before starting the car. Once she pulled out onto the street, she quickly spotted the other vehicle and began to follow, carefully maintaining a discreet distance.
The lieutenant fumed, silently, still wondering why it was that Deaq always seemed to appear when she needed him even though she really didn't.
"You gonna tell me now?"
"Come on, Billie," Deaq pleaded, a hint of frustration creeping into his voice. "I just want to help." He stared at her, frustration slowly giving way to anger when she continued to ignore him.
They drove on through the brightly lit streets, heading deeper into West Hollywood. It was almost three in the morning, which meant that some of the nightclubs were beginning to spew their drunken patrons out onto the sidewalks. After a short time, the car they'd been tailing finally pulled over in front of a small, sleazy looking strip joint. The two men got out, the one who'd been driving peeling off a few bills and handing his keys over to a third man who'd obviously been waiting for them.
Deaq watched them disappear into the club, which was aptly titled, 'Hard Knocks'.
"You planning on going in?" he asked as Billie pulled the car over and parked. After a moment, it was clear that she wasn't going to answer him. Deaq sighed, heavily. "Okay, fine. You win. Sara asked me to talk to you, alright? She's worried about you. She said you keep disappearing all the time, you never tell her where you're going-"
"It's called work, Deaq," Billie cut in, clearly perturbed at the thought of Sara and Deaq engaging in such intimate conversation without her knowledge. "You do remember what that is, right? Crazy hours, total secrecy "
"Yo, Billie, this is me you're talking to. I know exactly how much you like to work which is way too much. I even told Sara that, but she thinks there's something more to it."
"Well, there isn't."
Once again, Deaq waited for her to elaborate. He had to fight the urge to smack her upside the head, knowing she'd kill him the second after he did it.
"Then, tell me who we're on here," he asked again.
Billie fixed her gaze on the strip club, wishing she could just go inside and have a look around, maybe sidle up close enough to overhear a conversation. Unfortunately, that was out of the question. This was familiar territory, after all, a place where she might be recognized. And the last thing she wanted was to tip him off. The slimy little bastard had already slipped through her fingers too many times.
But, experience had made her a more patient cop. She would tread carefully, this time, and she would get him. Then, she would make sure his sorry little ass rotted away in prison for the rest of his life.
Deaq jumped, slightly, when a thick, heavy envelope suddenly landed in his lap. He stared down at it, not even sure where Billie had been hiding it. Needing no further encouragement, he picked it up and began sifting through its contents.
Billie's voice was quiet when she finally spoke. "I want this guy, Deaq more than I've ever wanted anything in my life." Her penetrating blue eyes locked on him. "I mean it."
"I get that," he said in an equally soft tone, now holding up a small photograph of a man he'd never seen before. "Who is this guy, Billie?"
And what do I get for my pain
betrayed desires and a piece of the game
- Billy Corgan
It was relentless. No matter how hard he tried, it wouldn't stop. He was surrounded by it, choking on it, always feeling it bearing down on him like some unstoppable juggernaut.
"Here's that file you wanted on Detective Cruz."
Roland Hill stared at the folder as it landed, unceremoniously, on his desk. The pile it now rested upon was nearly up to his chin.
"Why worry about drowning in this quagmire of human filth we call society, when we're, slowly and inexorably, burying ourselves in paperwork."
His secretary waved a hand as she strolled out of his office. "Good morning to you, too."
The IA Director leaned back in his chair and removed his glasses, tossing them, carelessly, onto his desk. He began rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands, trying to drive away the gritty, sandy feeling, and cursing himself for forgetting his eye drops.
"Janice, do you have any Visine?" he hollered.
A second later, she poked her head in his door. "Nope. Want me to run out and get you some?"
"Are you feeling alright?"
"Well, you look like hell."
Roland scowled. "Thank you for that." The woman shrugged and disappeared again.
Several minutes ticked by as he sat there, his bloodshot eyes boring a hole in his desk. Lately, it was becoming an effort just to drag himself into the office. Work had always been his top priority. It was his refuge. But, these days, it was beginning to feel like a prison, and the mounds of files covering his desk were the bars that held him trapped.
The phone rang, jarring him from his stupor. He snatched it up, irritably. "Hill."
"What's keeping you?"
Roland blinked. He recognized the voice, but couldn't quite conjure up a face to go with it. "What?"
"Shultz's deposition." There was a slight pause. "Roland, did you forget?"
Like the tumblers of a combination lock, Roland's thoughts slowly clicked into place. It was Rick Martel on the other end of the line. They had a meeting scheduled at nine o'clock with Jeff Shultz, a patrolman from Rampart's Koreatown Substation, who was currently on suspension for shooting an unarmed teenager during a drug bust.
He glanced at his watch. It was now nine-thirty. Shit.
"I got held up."
"You want me to start without you?"
"No. I'm on my way." Roland slammed the phone down before the other man could say anything else. "Janice!" When she appeared at his door with a questioning look, he slipped his glasses on so he could see her more clearly. "Why didn't you remind me about the Schultz meeting this morning?"
"You said it was postponed until next Wednesday."
"No, I didn't," he argued. "I told you the Barros hearing was postponed because we were still waiting for one of the detectives to come back from vacation."
She gave him a confused look. "The Barros case was wrapped up almost a week ago."
A look of uncertainty flashed across Hill's face. "What are you talking about?"
"The COC met on Tuesday."
"Where the hell was I?"
"You called in that morning."
"I-" Roland stopped. He did remember calling in one day last week. He'd been too out of it from the pain meds to even get out of bed. "I forgot."
"I can see that." Janice stepped further into his office, lowering her voice as she did so. "Look, Roland, maybe you should have taken a little more time off."
He held a hand up. "Don't even start."
"You're obviously pushing yourself much too hard-"
"I don't need you to mother me!" he suddenly shouted, startling both of them with the ferocity of his tone. Such an emotional outburst was totally out of character for him.
"You'd better get going," Janice finally said before turning to walk out of his office.
The older woman stopped in the doorway and looked back at him.
"Sorry," he muttered lamely.
Her features softened just a bit. "After the meeting, you should go home."
Roland watched her leave and slumped back into his chair, staring blankly out the window beside him. With a somewhat shaky hand, he felt into the pocket of his jacket and curled his fingers around the tiny bottle tucked inside. It was full now, though he swore to himself last night that he wouldn't take any more than was absolutely necessary. He knew he'd been taking too many of them these past few weeks, and if he wasn't careful, it would start to affect his ability to do his job.
Now, it had.
Still, despite his logical, analytical nature, there was something else at work here -- a part of his mind that seemed to be rationalizing his increasingly erratic behavior. And it painted a very different picture of things.
It constantly replayed that single, terrifying moment when the bullet tore into his flesh. It reminded him of the horrible fear he'd felt as he lay on the ground, bleeding onto the pavement, thinking he was about to die. It told him that no one would have cared if he had.
But, perhaps, most insidiously, it convinced him that he needed relief from the pain.
Roland looked down at his hand. Two pills now rested in his upturned palm. Just two That's all he needed to get through this meeting. Two would definitely do the trick.
His wrist twitched ever so slightly.
"His name is John Flaherty. He spent the last two years laundering some major cash for Jorge Estevez, the newest top dog in the SoCal meth business. Last night a security guard found him in a boat storage warehouse in Santa Barbara, shot in the head."
Van was looking at the video monitor as Billie paced the three feet of space behind her desk. The split-screen showed two pictures of a middle-aged man with long hair. The first was a grainy, black and white image, obviously from some sort of surveillance camera. The second was in stark contrast, showing him in full-blown digital colorgreen eyes glazed and unfocused, his red hair matted and stained with dried, rust-colored blood.
"This was the guy you saw at Linzi's?" he asked.
Billie nodded. "And he was definitely feeling uptight. Probably didn't like the idea of conducting his boss' business in the middle of a busy restaurant."
"I'm betting he likes dead even less," Van muttered.
"MO's the same as the others, single bullet at point-blank range. Definitely our girl. " Billie paused in her movements and stood with her arms folded across her chest, fixing a curious gaze at the screen. "The question is: why did Lena kill him?" she mused. "Flaherty was a bean counter, not an enforcer."
Deaq shrugged. "Maybe the deal went bad."
"She's not stupid enough to bring someone like Estevez down on her over money," Van remarked, still staring at the dead man's image. "Besides, if a buy went down in that warehouse, there would have been other people there. More people, more guns. More guns, more blood."
Billie hummed in agreement. "Van's right. This was too clean. There has to be another reason why she did this." She resumed her pacing as the three of them lapsed into silence, mulling over all the possibilities, the seconds eventually stretching into minutes.
All of Lena Verenka's purported victims, although killed in the same method, had been a rather diverse group, making it somewhat of a challenge to determine the motive for each shooting. Adding to the mystery was the fact that, with the exception of Richie Bowens, a sleazy drug dealer trying to beat a third-strike conviction by snitching for the ATF, none of the murders seemed directly related to the Verenkas' gunrunning business.
Deaq was considering all of these facts when an idea suddenly came to him.
"What if killing the guy was part of the deal?"
Billie immediately stopped in her tracks. It was certainly a plausible scenario. She could tell by the look on Van's face that he'd reached the same conclusion.
"Estevez buys a shitload of guns and does a little down-sizing at the same time," Van extrapolated.
"Lena gets a nice cash bonus for cleaning his house," Billie added.
"And now we can add contract killing to her resume," Deaq finished.
"Word is, Estevez is jacked into MS-13," the lieutenant announced, finally taking a seat behind her desk. "So, I shared some of our intel with Major Crimes. Hopefully, they can latch onto him, find out what he's up to."
"Sounds like he's stocking up for a war," Van said warily.
"I told them we'd feed them anything that comes our way, but I also made it clear that we've got dibs on his supplier." Billie's cell phone rang and she quickly snatched it off the desk. "Chambers." There was a slight pause. "Hang on." Whoever it was, it was obvious that the lieutenant wanted some privacy as she suddenly got up and left the room.
Deaq watched her go and then stole a glance at Van, who now appeared to be sulking. "What's on your mind, partner?"
After a moment of hesitation, Van sat forward in his chair, looking both eager and nervous, his eyes flicking toward the door before he spoke.
"I was with her last night," he started, keeping his voice low.
Deaq's eyebrows shot up and he leaned in closer. "You two already hit the sheets again?" When Van merely nodded, the detective shook his head in disbelief. "Jesus, how the hell do you do that? Man, I thought she'd toss you out on your ass the minute she saw you."
"I told her the baby wasn't mine."
"And just like that?"
"No, it wasn't 'just like that'," Van shot back impatiently. "I had to make up this whole bullshit story about how the girl was really getting it on with one of her schoolteachers and that she finally told her daddy that I'd never even slept with her, and then, because he thought I was such a stand up guy for not calling his daughter a lying slut to his face, I got the honor of beating the living shit out of the little prick that knocked her up before taking him to get a tux rental, and now they're living happily ever after in a nice little house on Long Island."
Deaq tossed his head back and laughed out loud. Only Van Ray, with his incessant, and often incoherent, babbling could get away with spinning such a ridiculous tale and somehow make it believable.
"Hey, I know it sounds stupid," Van added somewhat sheepishly, "but I think I was pretty convincing."
"I bet you were," Deaq agreed, the look of amusement on his face suddenly giving way to a more sober expression. His best friend just spent the night with a woman who, only hours before that, had most likely executed someone for money. Even worse was the realization that this wasn't unfamiliar territory for either of them. His dark eyes strayed to the monitor again, wondering if Van had given any thought to that fact. "Listen, man, you better watch out for this one."
"I got it covered," Van replied in a defensive tone.
"Jesus," Deaq sighed, "You know who you sound like?"
"Billie," Van said, quickly straightening up as their boss walked through the door. The lieutenant stopped in her tracks, looking somewhat startled at the sound of her name.
Deaq could almost see Van beginning to squirm under Billie's questioning glare. He sat back in his chair and rolled his eyes, wondering how Van could be so good at what he did when his emotions were always so clearly written on his face.
"Uhh is everything okay?"
"Yeah," she answered, dismissively, and walked back to her desk, obviously still distracted by the call. She perched on the edge of her desk, one hand resting on the small leather purse lying beside her. "So, are we making any progress here?"
Van shot his partner a look of warning which Deaq pointedly ignored.
"I saw Lena last night," he said slowly.
Billie stared back at him. "And?"
Van hesitated, unsure of exactly how much he wanted to tell her. "I'm working on it, but it's gonna take a little time."
"Just do whatever you have to, Van," Billie told him. "Our body count's climbing, and with all this firepower being dumped into our backyard, some of our own will start being added to those numbers." She released a weary sigh and looked at each man in turn. "Truthfully, guys, as much as I'd like to get all the links in this chain right now, I'll settle for the Verenkas."
"We'll do our best, sir."
"I know you will." Billie slung her purse onto her shoulder and got up to leave. "Alright, I have to take off. If you need me, call."
As she headed out of the office, Deaq suddenly got up from his chair and followed her, leaving Van alone, stewing in his own thoughts. He stretched out his legs and dropped his head back against the chair, gray-green eyes fixed on the rafters hovering high above Billie's office. All around him were the empty balcony seats of the old theater, a ring of red velvet barely discernable beyond the glare of the overhead lights. Sometimes, when his partner and his boss were otherwise occupied, he liked to sit up there in the semi-darkness and play his guitar, enjoying the acoustics and the solitude. It was a place he often retreated to when he needed to sort out his problems.
He wished he were up there right now.
Nothing felt right since he came back to work. The three of them had certainly been stretched too thin before, but now it was as if they were hardly working together at all. And the fact that his boss had just given him free reign to do whatever he wanted only reaffirmed his growing sense of unease. Billie never allowed them to cut loose, no matter how bad things were. She was way too into the whole micro-managing thing to ever give him and Deaq that much slack. "God is in the details" she'd told the two men on more than one occasion. Of course, they were always getting in over their heads, anyway, but at least when the shit hit the fan, they could still count on Billie to come through. The woman paid attention to everything.
But, lately, she was different, although he couldn't say exactly how. She'd always been an enigma: intensely private, emotionally distant. That wasn't to say she didn't have her soft side, though. Van had even seen it once or twice. Still, she had an air about her now, and it was more than just that inherently cool detachment she so often displayed to the rest of the world.
Parrish had warned them to expect a backlash. When the three men were gathered at the hospital just after Billie had been found, the captain offered them a bit of insight into her personal history. Van was stunned to learn that her parents were dead. It was one of those moments that served to remind him of exactly how far apart she really was from him and Deaq. The two young men had few secrets from each other, but they knew next to nothing about the woman who'd brought them all together. And after hearing about the accident that took the lives of Billie's mother and father, Van was even more distraught when he remembered all of the photos he'd seen strewn about the floor at Felicia's loft. He couldn't even imagine what it must have done to Billie to have that psychopath use such a horrible, painful part of her past to hurt her.
When the three of them finally spoke about what happened, Van could see how difficult it was for Billie to talk about it, and, truthfully, it had been nearly as hard for him to listen. But he did. And so did Deaq. Seeing her relive some of those awful moments tore them both up with guilt. They were supposed to watch her back, the same way she watched theirs. Even Sara had called them on it the night Billie disappeared, something she'd had every right to do.
And so, they'd waited.
Since the one thing he and Deaq did know about their boss was that she was the type to suffer in silence, they kept a watchful eye, looking for any signs of distress, anticipating the eventual eruption of anger and rage. But, it never came. Save for a couple of phone calls, Van didn't even see Billie for the entire three weeks she'd been on leave. Now, after that hiatus ended so abruptly, it was business as usual.
But, it really wasn't.
The Billie he knew wouldn't do this. She wouldn't just set him on a course and get the hell out of the way. It wasn't her style. And though he'd never admit it, he was glad. Some days, Billie was the only thing that stopped him from going over a cliff. She was the strong one, the voice of reason the person who was always there to grab him by the scruff of the collar and remind him that he wasn't invincible.
Now, however, it seemed as though the tables were turned, and Billie was the one riding perilously close to the razor's edge. She was operating at a very dangerous speed, as if trying to outrun the pain and damage she'd suffered, and Van could see that it was only a matter of time before everything caught up to her.
Which left him wondering: was he capable enough to save her from going over? And, more importantly, would she even want to be saved?
While Van Ray was pontificating about how his boss was handling her day job, his partner was more interested in discussing the lieutenant's after-hours activities.
"I thought we were gonna talk about this other thing?"
Billie groaned, silently, and turned to face Deaq, who was just coming down the steps outside of her office. They'd already gone around on the subject of Anthony Pellegrini until almost four-thirty this morning, when she finally abandoned her surveillance for the night and drove him back to his car.
"I don't have time for this, right now, Deaq. Besides, I already told you, if I need help-"
"You'll let me know," he interrupted, impatiently. "Yeah, I heard that one before." When he saw the set of her jaw, he knew she was finished with their conversation. But, Deaq wasn't quite ready to give up yet. "Look, Billie, it makes more sense for me and Van to get inside on this one. It's too risky for you to be hanging around. You said yourself you two go way back. If someone fingers you, it'll blow any chance of nailing this guy."
What Deaq was saying was logical, of course, and Billie knew it. With all of the resources at her disposal, it was stupid, not to mention more than a little egotistical, for her to try and go after Pelligrini on her own. He wasn't exactly the big time, but he'd still managed to run his businesses in relative obscurity for more years than Billie had worn a badge, and that said a lot. The man was nothing, if not careful.
But, now he'd crossed a line that even she couldn't live with. When he willingly allowed people to fall prey to a sadistic murderer strictly for the financial windfall, he became more than just a small-time wiseguy. The fact that he wasn't actually the one committing the murders didn't change a thing, because in Billie's eyes, he was just as guilty. And she wanted him to pay. Badly.
"He knew," she said softly.
"Yeah, but at least he gave up the info on Colby. And if we didn't have that-"
"No, Deaq," Billie interrupted forcefully, "I mean, he knew it was Felicia."
The detective narrowed his dark eyes. "Say what?"
Billie looked away from him for a moment. Up to now, she hadn't shared her suspicions with anyone except Bob Parrish. "He only tried to pin everything on Colby to save his own ass," she explained, her sharp, blue eyes shifting back to him. "This guy is no idiot. When I showed up out of the blue, asking questions about Ilsa Karlsen, he knew the past was about to catch up with him. So, he twisted the truth."
Deaq looked a bit skeptical. "The guy gave up the name of the judge."
"I know," she acknowledged. "But, I'm sure he thought David was a dead end. Keep in mind that he had no idea if Ilsa Felicia was already in custody. It looked good for him to be forthcoming. You just proved that."
"Okay," he relented, still trying to put it all together. "But, laying a trail to Colby, even a cold one, was still a pretty big risk."
"So, maybe he already knew Judge Dylan was dead," she insisted. "Think about it, Deaq. If you actually knew a serial killer, up close and personal if you knew their secrets, wouldn't you always be watching your own back, afraid that they might show up on your doorstep one day?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"So, the best way to stay healthy would be to keep them on your radar. I'm telling you, I know this guy. He had a contingency plan."
While there was no denying that Billie's theory had merit, it also had about a million holes in it. But, Deaq knew from past experience that his boss would often see connections where no one else could. It was part of what made her so good at what she did.
"Alright, so let's say our boy knew about Felicia all along. Now, that you've been sniffing around, that's gonna make him even more uptight. And a fearful man is a dangerous man." Deaq conjured up his most earnest look, sensing that he was finally beginning to get through to her. "You've got enough going on, Billie. Let me and Van work this guy. I guarantee you we'll bag the son of a bitch."
Billie lowered her gaze and studied the floor. Deaq could see that she was still torn. There were several factors at work here, the most obvious of which was her desire to take the man down herself. She and Anthony Pellegrini had a history, of sorts, though Deaq didn't know all the details. But, he did have some idea of how she felt. The chance to finally heal an old wound was a powerful motivator.
After a long moment of deliberation, Billie lifted her head and nodded. "Okay," she sighed, then shot a glance at her watch. "But, right now, I have to go. We'll meet up later and I'll bring you both up to speed."
"And no Han Solo shit in the meantime, right?" He immediately recognized that oh-so-familiar look of annoyance as it flashed across her features, and perhaps, for the first time ever, he welcomed it.
"You're really pushing it."
When Deaq grinned at her, the lieutenant spun on her heel and headed for the door. "Check you later, Boss," he hollered at her back, feeling a small sense of triumph at having finally won her over. It seemed that Billie was thinking in more tactical terms and that was definitely a good thing
Now if he could just get his partner to do the same thing life would be damn near perfect.
"So, how do I look?"
Sara glanced up from behind the bar. Gordon Reede was standing a few feet away from the wait station, his arms held out to his sides, obviously awaiting her inspection. He was dressed in an impeccably tailored and very expensive looking, black and gray pin-striped suit, complete with a crisp, white shirt, string tie and black leather, gold-tipped cowboy boots.
He glared at her. "That's it? All I get is wow? Do you know how long it took me to get ready?" The chef brushed his fingertips over his ears to flatten his dark, wavy hair. "Oh, for Christ's sake who do I look like? And if you say 'Carson Daly', I swear I will pitch a hissy fit of epic proportions."
Sara narrowed her eyes and gave him a long, appraising look. "I was thinking more along the lines of a younger, sexier Vince Vaughn."
Gordon stepped up to the bar and leaned over it, a broad smile breaking out on his face. "Marry me?"
The blonde smirked. "That could be interesting."
"Look at the two of us. Our kids would be fucking gorgeous."
"If not a little screwed up "
"Meh." Gordon waved a hand, dismissively. "Who isn't? I had Ozzie and Harriet for parents and look at me." He dropped onto a stool, looking around at the boxes Sara went back to unpacking. "What are you doing?"
"I'm helping Peter stock the bar."
Gordon glanced at his watch. "You shouldn't even be here. We don't open today, and god knows Margo and Lena won't stroll in here for hours."
"I had some free time, so I thought I'd come in and get familiar with everything."
She reached up and replaced a bottle of spiced rum. "New here, remember?"
He sighed impatiently. "I mean, why do you have free time?"
Sara shrugged. "I just do."
"Are you telling me that there isn't someone at home who worships the ground you walk on?"
His question brought a short bark of laughter from the blonde. "Not at the moment." Gordon's rather dramatic gasp caused Sara to turn around and smirk at him. "She works. I work. Capice?"
"I love a woman who can speak Italian."
Sara maneuvered around the debris on the floor, slinking up to him from the other side of the bar. She leaned in close and whispered, "Gradite una bevanda?"
Gordon closed his eyes and groaned softly. "I want sex on the beach."
"You've been holding out on me, Gordon," the blonde commented with a sly grin. He smiled back, gazing at her thoughtfully.
"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Sara pulled a glass out and placed it on the bar in front of him, then spun around and grabbed a shaker, poking around until she managed to fill it with ice, vodka, schnapps, and several other liquids. "So, what are you doing here? And what are you all decked out for?"
"My partner, Drew, and I have some friends visiting, so we're showing them a few of the hot spots tonight. I just stopped by here because I forgot my cell." His eyes suddenly brightened as an idea occurred to him. "Hey, want to come with?"
"No, but thanks," she replied, rattling the shaker's contents before pouring it, deftly, into his glass. "I'm just gonna hang around here for a bit."
Gordon took a slow sip of Sara's concoction and made a noise that clearly signaled his approval. "You look much better behind this bar than Peter."
"Does that mean that you would volunteer to greet our guests?"
The chef turned and spotted Lena, who was leaning around the corner of the bar, watching them. "Oh my God," he gasped, glancing at his wrist. "Has the sun gone down already?" She offered him a patient smile.
"I hope you are not drinking up all of our profits, Gordon."
"Don't worry. I'm a big tipper." He made a gesture for Sara to come closer to him then spoke in a stage whisper, "She's a pain in the ass until she's had her Earl Grey."
Still leaning on the bar, Sara glanced over at her new employer. "I hope you don't mind?"
The brunette shook her head. "No, of course not. I often ply him with liquor, myself. It keeps him docile."
Gordon smiled, sweetly, as he flipped her off. "You wish."
Lena's gray eyes lingered on Sara. "Actually, I'm glad to find you here, Sara. I'm afraid I've been so busy for the past few days that I have not had a chance to welcome you."
"No problem," the blonde replied, suddenly feeling as though the woman's appearance was no coincidence. She reached over and gave Gordon's forearm a gentle squeeze. "Everyone's been great."
"Thanks, sweetheart," Gordon replied, doing his best 'Humphrey Bogart' impersonation. He took another long sip from his glass and slid off the stool. "I have to run, ladies." He shot Sara a meaningful look. "Sure you won't change your mind?"
"I'm sure," she answered. "But, thanks for asking."
"Anytime." Gordon clicked his heels and bowed in Lena's direction. "Until tomorrow, Mein Fuehrer." He flashed a cocky smile and winked at her.
"I can hardly wait," Lena commented dryly, though she softened the remark with an amused smirk.
The chef made a quick exit, navigating through the tables in the dining area and whistling a tune that Sara recognized, but couldn't recall the name of. When he disappeared from sight, she shook her head and laughed to herself before resuming her unpacking. To her surprise, Lena suddenly appeared beside her and began reaching into another box, taking the bottles out and stocking one of the lower shelves.
"You and Gordon seem to be getting along well," the brunette remarked.
"He's actually made it pretty easy," Sara announced, tossing an empty carton aside and reaching for another. "Despite what everyone says."
"He does have a bit of a reputation," Lena acknowledged with a soft, lilting laugh. She slid another case closer to her, glancing around for something to open it with. Sara grabbed a small utility knife off the counter and handed it to her. "Some of it is deserved but, truthfully, I think his bark is worse than his bite, as they say." With a series of quick, experienced strokes, the carton popped open, and she glanced up at Sara with a mischievous smile. "But, don't ever tell him I said so, hmm? He would go to great lengths to prove me wrong."
"Your secret is safe with me," Sara assured her, feeling her nervousness ebbing. Something about Lena's mannerisms seemed almost familiar to her
"I like a woman who can be discreet." Lena finished unpacking the box and stood up, brushing some dust and cardboard bits from her pants. She glanced at her watch and turned to Sara. "Have you eaten yet?"
"No, actually I haven't," the blonde answered, the words popping out of her mouth before she'd even had a chance to think.
"Then what do you say we leave the rest of this for Peter and you and I can go and raid the kitchen?" Lena shot her a conspiratorial grin which Sara couldn't help but return in kind.
"Gordon would probably have our heads if he caught us in there "
"I know," Lena said as she rubbed her hands together, obviously relishing the idea of treading on the man's territory without his knowledge. "But, I think the risk makes it all the more exciting. Don't you agree?"
Despite what she knew of Lena, Sara was enjoying her display of child-like rebelliousness. But, she quickly had to remind herself of her promise to Billie. Her lover's head would likely explode if she ever found out that Sara had actually sat down and ate lunch with the woman.
Still, Sara had always relied on her instincts more than her good sense. Perhaps spending a little time with Lena wasn't such a bad idea. If Margo was really in danger, she might be able to pick up on something useful. Of course, that would mean admitting to Billie that she decided not to heed her warning, but maybe learning some valuable information would help soften that blow
Or maybe pigs would sprout wings and fly.
Suddenly, Sara was beginning to feel a little rebelliousness of her own.
"As a matter of fact," she replied honestly, "I do."
To Be Continued
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