DISCLAIMER: Nikki & Nora are the property of Nancylee Myatt and Warner Bros. Television. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Trial By Fire
By Inspector Boxer
It looked so harmless in the daylight.
Nikki stood at the mouth of the alley and surveyed the space. There was no rain, no darkness, no thumping music making her eardrums ache. She eyed the dumpsters, brick walls and iron fire escapes with a look of intense disgust. This was not a place she would want to be caught dead in.
It pissed her off that she almost was.
"So where do we start?" Nora interrupted her musings as she joined her. She flipped her phone closed having just hung up with Dan and slipped it into her pocket. He was sending a squad of CSIs to go over the alley from top to bottom but there was nothing that said that they couldn't get a head start.
Nikki shrugged and blew out a breath. "He would have more than one camera."
"Yep." Nora nodded toward the fire escape where she'd fought Castillo. "Money says there is one up there."
Nikki felt a chill and she rubbed her bare arms absently. She'd left her blazer in the car, hoping to spare one piece of her expensive attire from the filth around her. "Yeah. He'd want his close-up." She caught Nora's arm when her partner started past her for the fire escape. "Where are you going?"
The blonde looked at her like the answer should be obvious. "Up there," Nora said slowly as she tilted her head at the fire escape.
"Why don't I go?"
Nikki hesitated. "You almost died up there," she finally murmured.
Nora scratched the back of her neck. Nikki realized it was a nervous gesture of her partner's and she filed the information away for later use.
"But I didn't," Nora answered. "It was a fist fight. I've been in more than a few scuffles. You think I'm going to have some sort of freaky flashbacks up there or something?" She scoffed at the idea.
"No," Nikki's reply was immediate. "I'm not questioning you, Nora, but you did almost die up there. That weirds me out a little so I can only imagine how it would make you feel."
Nora opened her mouth then closed it when she could think of nothing to say. Truthfully she wanted to climb back up on that fire escape as much as she wanted to go another round with Castillo and lose. Her aching ribs weren't too keen on the idea, either. "It doesn't matter how I feel," she finally admitted
"It matters to me."
The two detectives looked at each other for a long, silent moment.
Nora was thrown by the concern. "It's the job."
"And fortunately for you it comes with a partner." Nikki winked, feigning nonchalance she didn't feel. "You could give me a boost up so I don't have to take the stairs, though."
Still confounded by Nikki's offer, Nora could only nod and follow her in a fog to the fire escape. The ladder was down from where Nora had dropped it the night before last. They both looked up at the distance then at each other.
"Seemed closer the other night," Nora joked. She eyed Nikki's suit and heels. "I should really be the one to climb "
"Ah." Nikki held up a hand and watched in amusement as Nora lapsed into instant silence. "I'll take the stairs down." She made a hurry up motion with her hand and Nora rolled her eyes before lacing her fingers and crouching.
"You're going to be lucky if I don't toss you into the ladder at this point," Nora groused good-naturally. She worried her bottom lip with her teeth, hoping like hell her abused muscles wouldn't embarrass her. It would be mortifying if she couldn't heft Nikki up high enough, and she was damn sure her partner would give her all kinds of playful grief for it. "Try not to stab me with those heels of yours."
Nikki snorted then put her hand on Nora's leather-clad shoulder before putting her foot in Nora's cupped hands. Somehow they over compensated and the next thing Nikki knew she was sprawled across Nora's body, the blonde detective blinking at her in surprise.
"Sorry," Nikki said breathlessly. Nora's body was warm and firm underneath her, her partner's perfume mingling with the scent of leather. Her brown eyes met Nora's intense green gaze and Nikki could suddenly think of nothing to else to say. The heat of Nora's hands at her waist seemed to burn through the silk shirt Nikki was wearing. Nikki swallowed hard as Nora took a moment to just look at her. Nikki could feel the electricity arc between them and she quickly scrambled off her before she did something stupid.
Nora blinked as Nikki got to her feet. She took a quick breath and tried to get control of her sudden racing heart, tried to pretend she wasn't disappointed when her partner's heat and curves no longer blanketed her own. "Um my fault," she managed, not sure if it actually was. "You okay?"
"Fine," Nikki answered quickly. She held out a hand and helped Nora to her feet letting her go the instant Nora was upright.
Nora regarded her for a moment then slowly smiled even though her aching back was none too pleased at the moment. She felt unexpectedly bashful as she suspected the reason for Nikki's sudden onset of obvious nerves. "Shall we try again?"
Nikki licked her lips. "Beats taking the stairs in these heels," she replied with a breathless laugh.
Nora looked down at Nikki's shoes then let her gaze slowly wander up Nikki's toned body. "You aren't exactly dressed for this."
Nikki took in an unsteady breath. She wondered if Nora had any idea how she was looking at her right now. "That's what dry cleaners are for."
The quip worked. Nora chuckled and the tension eased. The blonde detective laced her fingers again. "Let's try this one more time without falling on our asses."
"Falling on your ass you mean. I'll just use you as a pillow again." Nikki felt brave enough to wink and she watched in delight as Nora blushed.
A few minutes later, Nikki was looking out over the alley from the third floor fire escape. It seemed higher than she remembered and she glanced down with a wince, thinking about how far Castillo had fallen. "Good thing Nora killed you first," she muttered. "That would have hurt."
She refused to think of Nora fighting for her life in the small space. Nikki couldn't let her mind go there and still do the job. She focused on Delana Archer. Focused on the justice the woman deserved. The thought steeled her resolve.
The techs would have swept the rail and the floor for evidence. She dipped her head back and looked upward. Her eyes skimmed the bottom of the fire escape platform above her. All she saw was metal and rust. She frowned and fished into her pocket for the penlight she carried on her keychain. She clicked it on and started in the back corner, easing the beam along the edges of the fire escape.
The tiny lens winked when the light hit it and Nikki felt her heart stutter. She swallowed and kept looking. She didn't expect to find another camera, but she did. He had put a camera in each front corner. There was no doubt he would have captured every single frame of his fight with Nora, even though he had never planned on going toe-to-toe with her partner.
Nikki clicked off the penlight then moved to the rail, looking over the side and watching Nora as her partner prowled the alley. "Nora!"
Her partner looked up.
Nikki held up two fingers and watched as Nora took a deep breath and nodded.
"This day is really stating to suck," Nikki drawled as she turned away and went to the door to head up to the floor above.
Two hours later they were armed with discs and cameras recovered from the scene. Nikki had been all too glad to get the hell out of that alley. Nora had seemed fine, supervising the techs as they scoured the surrounding buildings for the recording equipment. They'd been mildly surprised to realize a small microphone had been hidden on the fire escape Castillo had used as a firing stand.
Nora had been almost robotic as she'd helped process the scene. Nikki had envied her partner her cool. She could have used a little herself. Smelling that alley again had been enough to trigger the rush of unpleasant memories. She'd buckled down and did her job because that was simply the kind of person she was.
But she hadn't much liked it.
Nora was quiet as they rode back to the station with the evidence. It was nearing one o'clock, almost time to meet Darius, Nikki realized. She wished she had more time to pull her partner aside, to talk to Nora about what was so obviously bothering her.
Nikki cleared her throat. "Do you mind if we save the home movies until after lunch?"
Nora glanced at her as they stopped at a red light. "I thought you were skipping lunch?"
"I am," Nikki said emphatically. "But Darius is stopping by to meet me."
"So is Bobby." Nora glanced at her watch and sighed. "Like it or not we should eat something. Maybe the four of us can hit Sweeny's."
"Okay. Sounds good to me."
The light changed and Nora stepped on the gas. Her brow was furrowed and as Nikki watched it deepened. "You okay?"
Nora nodded. "I just I had a weird thought back there in that room at Castillo's. A very unsettling, weird thought."
"Want to share?"
"Not yet," Nora murmured. "Let me look at some of the tapes first."
Nikki nodded even though she felt a little stung. "Being in the alley didn't bother you?"
Nora took a breath as she made a left turn. "A little, I suppose. It's not the first time I've been shot at. Or the first time I almost died."
"You've come closer than that?" Nikki asked with mild alarm and more than a little curiosity.
"About three years ago. A suspect Dan and I were chasing managed to double back and get his vehicle. Nailed me with it and broke both my legs." Nora shook her head. "What happened with Castillo seems tame in comparison."
Nikki's gaze dropped to Nora's legs. She'd noted a few scars the other night but nothing to indicate her partner had gone through such major trauma. "That's when you got the phoenix tattoo," she guessed.
Nora opened her mouth to respond then closed it as she considered what she wanted to say. "Yeah," she finally confessed. "I was in physical therapy. I figured getting a tattoo couldn't hurt any worse than the pain I was already in. I was wrong," she joked faintly.
Nikki smiled. "Do they still give you trouble? Your legs?"
Nora shrugged. "Sometimes when it rains. Doesn't that make me sound like an old geezer?"
Her partner chuckled. "I had a perp wail on me with a baseball bat. Broke my left shoulder and a couple of ribs. I know a thing or two about aching bones when the weather gets wet."
"Ouch." Nora winced in sympathy. "He wasn't high was he?"
"As a kite. And he was a she, actually. What a freak."
Nora snorted with amusement as she realized some of her funk was starting to ease. She shot an oblivious Nikki a look of gratitude. "Were you okay in that alley?"
Nikki shrugged. "I managed. I don't know if it was nerves or the smell making me want to gag."
"Probably both." Nora pulled the Camino into the parking lot of the police station. She immediately saw her brother who was sitting on the stoop in front of the door. He waved.
"Is that your brother?" Nikki asked in a delight. "What a cutie."
Nora shot her partner a glance. "You don't want to go there."
"I didn't say I wanted to go there but there is nothing wrong with admiring the scenery." Nikki got out of the car as Nora did the same.
"Hey, sis," Bobby said as he approached. His gaze went to Nikki. "You must be the new partner."
"Guilty as charged," Nikki replied as she accepted his handshake. His grip was firm and warm as he smiled at her. Cuteness apparently ran in the Delaney family.
"Bobby, this is my partner Nikki Beaumont. Nikki, my worthless brother Bobby." Nora scowled as her brother continued to hold Nikki's hand.
"Watch it," Bobby shot back at his sister. He dipped his head and brushed Nikki's knuckles with a quick kiss. "Charmed."
Nikki couldn't help but giggle but she stifled it when she saw Nora roll her eyes. "Nice to meet you, Bobby."
"Did you find out anything?" Nora demanded of her sibling, glad when he finally let go of her partner.
"Margaret Hainey," he replied getting down to business. "I might have something for you there. I'm guessing you know all about Mangold. As for the rest still digging."
"Ladies," a voice interrupted.
They turned to see Darius standing there, the beads in his dreads catching what little light was available. He was in jeans and a grey Saints sweatshirt. Nora wondered if he'd chosen the most inconspicuous thing he could find to wear.
"Darius." Nikki kissed his cheek. "Darius, this is Bobby Delaney, Nora's brother."
Darius gave the officer a tight but not unfriendly smile. "Officer."
"Nice to meet you," Bobby replied hoping the newcomer wasn't Nikki's boyfriend.
"Come on. Let's all do lunch and swap info," Nora directed as she headed back for the car, assuming the others would follow.
Ten minutes later they were gathered around the back booth at Sweeny's. Nora sighed and leaned back before massaging the bridge of her nose.
"One of those days, huh?" Bobby asked with a playful jab to his sister's ribs. He missed her brief wince of pain. Darius was opposite him talking quietly into his cell phone. Nikki sat next to the informant, her gaze distant as she watched the traffic pass slowly beyond the windows.
"Yeah," Nora grumbled, rubbing at the spot where he's poked her. "When we get done here Nik and I have to go watch a bunch of people get murdered."
"We found DVDs of the murders Castillo committed," Nikki explained. A tiny warm ball formed in her guts at how easily Nora had used her nickname.
"Nice way to spend an afternoon," Darius drawled as he hung up. "Don't forget the popcorn."
"You'll be lucky if I manage a few fries. After what we saw earlier I don't think me or Nora has much of an appetite." Nikki fiddled with the edge of her napkin.
"Wishing you was back in narcotics?" Darius guessed.
Nikki looked up and found herself caught in Nora's intense regard. "No," she said instantly. "I'm where I want to be."
Darius looked from one woman to the other before sneaking a glance at the oblivious Bobby. "I'm glad I don't have your job."
Their orders arrived. The place was packed so Syd had merely sent out what he thought his customers needed.
"We didn't order this," Bobby started to complain.
"Syd's psychic," Nora informed him dryly. "Trust me. You'll love it." She looked up and smiled at an amused Nikki before snapping her teeth down on a fry.
"So what do you boys have for us?" Nikki sipped her Coke and made it a point to look at Bobby first. He'd been flirting with her from the start and she had to admit she was charmed, but the younger Delaney just couldn't hold a candle to his sister. Doing anything with Bobby would be settling and Nikki was smart enough to know better.
"Margaret Hainey." Bobby took a bite of his sandwich. "Whoa that's good." He wiped his mouth. "I know a few folks that work over at Delta Distribution. They have lunch twice a week down on Bourbon Street. I chatted up one of them this morning."
"And?" Nora prompted.
"His name is Mark Honeycutt. He's some sort of accountant. You know Archer is trying to take them over."
"Old news," Nora told him bluntly.
"Right." Bobby swallowed a fry. "Well, Hainey left Bellwether and took a lot of Archer's underhanded plans for Delta Distribution with her. She was working for them less than a week when she was found murdered."
"That jives with what I've heard," Darius interjected. "Although you left out the part where she used to bang the boss. Those papers she got hold of would have been impossible to get to without some special time in Archer's office."
"Ick," Nikki muttered as she nibbled her sandwich.
"The folks at Delta think she was murdered because she screwed Archer over," Bobby said.
"She did," Nora admitted. "And she probably was. The question is why the cops didn't zero in on Archer."
"I checked in to that, too," Bobby admitted. "Archer was out of the country on business. He's got at least twenty associates who can alibi him."
"He was off closing deals while he had Castillo killing the competition literally." Nikki sighed and rolled her tense shoulders as Nora watched her with clear empathy.
"Tying Archer to these murders is going to be a bitch," Nora added. "We can tie them all to Castillo. Hell, we'll probably watch him kill every person on the list by the end of the day. We can tie Castillo to Archer but in a completely harmless way. Hundreds and hundreds of people work for the guy. Lawyers will argue Castillo was just another cog in the machine."
"So what did Mangold do to piss off Archer?" Nikki asked.
"Mangold is a banker," Darius supplied as if that said it all.
"And?" It was Nikki's turn to prompt. She already understood what that could mean but she suspected Bobby and Nora would need an explanation.
"Mangold played both sides of the fence if you know what I'm saying. I'm hearing he and Dick were lovers for about two months. Then Archer found a new toy and blew him off, not realizing that Thomas has a hell of a lot of pull with the numerous financial institutions in the area."
"He made sure Archer couldn't get financing to take over any more companies," Nora realized. "Sonofabitch. Bet that pissed Archer off good."
"You bet, sweet britches." Darius popped a fry into his mouth and talked around it. "Once Mangold was dead, the money started flowing again."
Nikki and Nora exchanged looks. Again, Nikki saw a shadow of something in her partner's eyes some notion that was clearly disturbing her. She let the questions be for now. Trying to draw Nora out with Darius and Bobby present would probably not be appreciated.
"Do we know what cops Archer has in his pocket?" Nikki asked.
Darius forked over a list. "There's some preliminary names. I'll firm that up some by tonight."
Nikki kissed him on the cheek and he smiled.
Nora noted Bobby's frown at Nikki's display of affection and she almost laughed. Her poor brother didn't stand a chance. With a sigh she glanced at her plate, surprised that's she'd finished off most of her meal. "Thanks for the help guys. The picture is definitely getting clearer here."
"You still don't have enough to pin these murders on Archer," Bobby pointed out. "Everything is circumstantial. Any lawyer worth his salt would nail you guys on that."
"That's why we have to keep digging. There is always a chink in the armor somewhere. We just have to find it," Nora said with conviction.
"And we will," Nikki vowed.
Nikki and Nora paused as they headed across the parking lot to the police station. They'd left Bobby and Darius less than half an hour before to finish their lunch at Sweeny's before returning to the station to watch the discs. Nikki fingered the business card Bobby had slipped her with his personal number on the back. She wondered if she should mention it to Nora or simply toss it in the first trashcan she came across.
"Pettit," Nora said when she saw Delana Archer's lover strutting over the asphalt in painted on jeans, a white tank and army boots.
"Oh boy," Nikki muttered when she spotted the woman as well. A stiff breeze was blowing, ruffling Pettit's short crop of black hair. "As if this day didn't suck enough already."
Pettit stopped a few feet from them then stuffed her hands in her pockets. "I " She hesitated, clearly trying to regain some of the bravado that had conspicuously fled once she'd opened her mouth. "I wanted to know how the investigation was going."
"You haven't watched the news? Picked up a paper?" Nikki asked. It felt like a hypocritical thing to say considering that she hadn't either.
"Why? Did you arrest Archer?"
"A man named Ed Castillo killed Delana." Nora watched the taller woman carefully for a reaction.
"Castillo," Pettit tasted the name. "Who the hell is that? Why did he ?" She swallowed before shifting uncomfortably. "You got proof?"
More than they wanted, Nora privately thought, her mind turning to the waiting DVDs inside. "A full confession."
"Could he be lying for Archer?"
"He confessed while trying to kill my partner." Nikki crossed her arms. "He didn't have any reason to lie."
Pettit's dark eyes jumped to Nora's features, taking in the small bruises on her face for the first time. "Why?" she asked as her voice unexpectedly broke. "Why did some stranger do that to her?"
Nora felt a sliver of pity. Pettit was a user without question. But she wasn't soulless. Clearly some part of her had cared for Delana. At least someone had. "Can you come inside? Look at a few pictures?" She felt Nikki twitch in surprise but her partner said nothing.
"Sure," Pettit slowly answered. "I ain't ever heard of the guy, though. I don't know what help I could be."
"Let's find out." Nora took her elbow and led her inside as a quiet and curious Nikki followed.
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