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
"So that's the girlfriend, huh?" Georgia asked as she stared through the one-way glass at Pettit.
"That's her," Nikki confirmed. Her hip rested against the wall, her nose practically against the glass as she watched her partner sit down on the edge of the table next to Pettit. Nora was in full cop mode, wearing the job like it was a second skin. It was damn fascinating to watch. And damn sexy. Nikki bit her right thumbnail and gnawed absently as she watched her partner work. There was no reason to think Pettit knew a thing about Castillo or the other murders, but something had jived for Nora apparently.
"You're lucky," Georgia's voice intruded on her musings.
"What?" Nikki looked at her blankly, wondering which of her thoughts had telegraphed on her face.
"To get Nora for a partner. She kicks major ass."
For an instant, Nikki wondered if there wasn't someone in the squad that wasn't head over heels for her partner. Her lips quirked into a half smile. "So I've heard."
"Yeah, her reputation proceeds her. She's a bit of a maverick, though. You might find yourself having to rein her in from time to time."
Was it sick that she was rather looking forward to that? Nikki's smile broadened. "I'm more likely to go along for the ride."
Georgia chuckled. "God help us with two of you around here." She shook her head. "So what does she hope to accomplish by showing her the pictures?"
"Beats me," Nikki confessed. "She's got something going on in her head, though."
Georgia leaned against the wall. "You've seen it."
"That look she gets when she's about to bust a case wide open. Forget about asking her to tell you what's on her mind. She won't say. Used to drive Dan crazy."
Nikki considered that interesting bit of news as she watched Nora spread several photos out for Pettit to view.
"Don't take it personally," Georgia quickly added when she saw Nikki frown. "She just makes these wild leaps in logic and no one has ever been able to keep up with her. She just wants to have all her facts in a row before sharing. I think it's sort of safety measure on her part."
Nikki simply nodded, suspecting Georgia was right. Still. She wanted to know what was going on in that pretty head. She thought back to the room at Castillo's, to the look on Nora's face as she'd stared at the computer with Delana Archer's death frozen in time. What had Nora seen in that recording? What ideas were that brilliant mind tumbling and shifting through even as they watched?
Georgia pressed the intercom so they could hear what was being said.
"Who are these people?" Pettit asked, some of her sulky personality making a re-appearance.
"You don't recognize any of them?" Nora watched Pettit's face carefully for clues.
Tracy leaned forward and peered more closely at the images. Reluctantly she reached out and fingered the corner of one. "This is Thomas Mangold, right?"
"You know him?"
"I've seen him around some functions. He tosses a few bucks at women's causes I support. Very few bucks." Pettit frowned. "Isn't he dead?"
Nora just looked at her.
Pettit drew meaning from the silence and her demeanor sobered. She slid the picture aside and studied the others with deliberate intent. She finally shook her head. "Sorry. A couple of them may look familiar but maybe I'm just hoping they do."
The bit of honesty was a surprise but a welcome one. "What about these names?" Nora handed the taller woman the list.
Tracy ran a hand through her hair as her frown deepened. Unconsciously she began to nod. "Hainey. Yeah, I recognize that name. Seems like Del said something about her." She rubbed her bottom lip as her thoughts turned inwards. "It's weird. You showing me this."
"The week before Del died " Tracy took a breath. "We met for lunch. As she was leaving she dropped the book she was reading. A list of names fell out. I only remember the first name at the top was Margaret. I asked her about them but she shrugged it off. Said something about them being donors for Progressive House."
"How many names were on the list?"
Pettit shrugged. "It's not like I counted, but this looks similar, you know?"
"What book was it?"
"The book you said Del was reading. The one the list was in. What book was it?"
The question seemed to throw Pettit and she took a moment to think about it. "I don't know. I didn't pay attention. It was a paperback if that helps."
Nora got to her feet and walked past the observation window. Behind the glass, Nikki looked back at her, surprised by the development. She turned her head toward Georgia. "Do you mind getting the crime scene photos?"
Georgia was already in motion. "Be right back."
The door closed behind her and Nikki shifted, crossing her arms as she continued to watch. It was mesmerizing. Seeing Nora in her element. There was something about her partner that held her rapt attention, made it nearly impossible to look away. She took a breath and stepped back from the glass, trying to mentally retreat from her unsettled feelings as well.
"You think Delana knew her husband had those people killed?" Georgia asked when she returned, file in hand.
"The wife always knows even when she doesn't think she does," Nikki echoed Pettit's words from the first time they met. She took the folder and flipped it open. Her gaze immediately zeroed in on the bedside tables.
"See any paperbacks?" Georgia glanced over her shoulder.
Nikki shook her head. "No. Maybe it was in her purse or a briefcase." She could hear Nora and Pettit talking through the intercom but was too absorbed in her current task to make out what they were saying. She flipped through several pages, looking for a catalogue of items found in the room. She found what she was looking for ten pages in. "Here. There was a paperback in her purse on the back of a chair."
"What was she reading?"
"To Kill a Mockingbird."
"Seriously?" Georgia gave the other detective a look. "You mean someone would willingly read that outside of high school?"
"I like that book," Nikki muttered. She flipped the file closed. "If Del knew about the murders then that's a pretty big motive for Archer to kill his wife."
"But she was a mouse. Too scared to turn him in for beating her. Why would he worry about her handing a list of names over to the cops? She was terrified of him."
Nikki crossed her arms as Nora approached the table again with a new folder. "Pettit, Shriver, Foster all of them spoke about the fire that once lurked under the surface. I don't think Delana Archer was as cowed as we all believe." Something niggled at the base of her brain but she couldn't quite get a grip on it.
"So maybe something sparked that fire," Georgia suggested.
Nikki felt the world tunnel down to the tableau on the other side of the glass. "Or someone," she realized aloud.
"One more picture," Nora said as she slid the folder down in front of Pettit. She flipped it open and watched for a reaction.
Pettit shifted forward in her chair and studied the photograph. Her eyes narrowed. "I've seen this guy."
"Around Archer. Dick and I got into it a few weeks ago. It got kind of physical. He warned me off Del."
"He knew about you and Del?" Nora's voice sharpened.
Reluctantly Pettit nodded. "Archer spied on us. Said he got off watching the videos, but he didn't want anyone touching his wife but him."
"When did you see this man?" Nora tapped the photo.
"Archer left, shuffling to his car after I gave his jewels a twist. This guy," Pettit touched the corner of the photo. "This guy drove him away. Archer said something to him and he turned and looked at me. I don't scare easy, but he made my skin crawl," she admitted.
Pettit looked up at Nora with sudden understanding. "This is the guy? This is the guy who killed Del?"
"Yes," Nora replied with a trace of compassion.
Pettit's lower lip began to quiver. She viciously wiped at her tearing eyes. "Give me two seconds alone with him."
"Tracy," Nora said gently. "He's dead. I killed him in self-defense."
Pettit closed her eyes and shook her head. "He got off too easy," she whispered brokenly. "Too damn easy."
Nora was inclined to agree. "I'm sorry."
Tracy nodded then looked back up into Nora's bruised features. Castillo had been a big guy. This cop had to be pretty tough to take him down. She felt a flicker of respect cut through her grief. "You think Archer paid him?"
Nora leaned back and Nikki watched as that shadow clouded over her partner's eyes again. That secret she was keeping to herself. The angle she was polishing. What in the hell was it?
"We're trying to find out," Nora said neutrally.
"He said he was going to kill me," Pettit stared at the photo of Castillo. "Archer did. He called me a few days before Del died. Told me to get my affairs in order. Prick."
"Did you tell Del that?"
"Hell yes," Pettit answered with some heat. "I thought maybe that would get her to leave the bastard." She shook her head as more tears fell. "Instead she shut down. Pulled away. She wouldn't return any of my calls. Wouldn't see me."
"I'm sorry," Nora said again. "For both of you."
"What kind of life was that for a woman?" Pettit wanted to know. "All those years of being abused? He had her so terrified, so manipulated. It's hard to believe someone can have that much control over another person."
Nora took a breath. She had no answers. She had never met Delana Archer but she wished she could have known her a single day. Maybe, just maybe, she could have changed things, made a difference somehow for her. It was an irrational thought, but it made her feel like she'd failed Del somehow. Like the whole world had.
"We'll keep you in the loop if there are any new developments we can share," Nora offered as she handed the woman a tissue.
Tracy nodded wearily as she got to her feet. She wiped her eyes then balled the tissue up and stuffed it into a pocket along with her hand. "I feel like I let her down. You know? Like I should have tried harder to make her leave."
"A person in that position has to be ready to get help."
"She wasn't," Pettit said in a faint voice. "All that time she spent at Progressive House. All the good that she watched that place do for women just like her. I don't get it."
"I don't, either. But you have to remember her husband terrorized her for years. That's not something that's easily overcome. He still had control of her to a point," Nora confessed as she looked speculatively at Pettit.
Tracy nodded once then headed for the door. She wasn't surprised to see Georgia or Nikki standing on the other side of the glass. Nikki gave her a sympathetic smile and Pettit acknowledged it with a dip of her head before walking away.
"I think she cared about Del more than she knew," Georgia murmured.
"I think she just figured that out," Nikki quietly agreed.
Dan studied the piles of DVDs. There were a lot of them. Fifty in all. Fortunately many of them bore similar labels, suggesting different angles rather than even more victims.
Somewhere in that pile was a visual record of what happened two nights ago.
The night Nora could have been killed.
He tried not to think about it in all the hours since but to little avail. She'd been his partner for five years. Five good years. Then he'd abandoned her for his ambitions.
It felt wrong knowing that someone else had Nora's back. A new title and raise didn't take away the instinct to protect her. It didn't take away the feelings five years on the job with her had solidified in him like cement. She was his partner. Even now. Even if she didn't see it that way anymore. Even if he had to pretend otherwise.
He wondered if he should be the one to watch those DVDs. Dan knew he'd see them eventually. Should he just bite the proverbial bullet and get it over with? Or should he hand them off to Nikki, someone who had very little emotional investment as yet?
Then again, Nora had broken all kinds of rules trying to save Nikki's ass the other night. Maybe Nikki wasn't invested, yet, but Nora was obviously well on her way. She did take that whole "protect and serve" thing to the nth degree.
A door opened behind him and he turned to see Nora let Nikki enter first. They both pulled up when they saw him.
"Hey," Nora said carefully.
Dan sighed as he came to a rapid decision, feeling just a bit like a coward for his choice. "Lots of footage to watch. I thought you guys could use a hand." He noted the easing of the tension in his former partner's shoulders and he smiled.
"Thanks," Nikki said before Nora could respond. "We could use the extra eyeballs."
Nora slowly nodded. "We'll each take ten. Radek and Georgia skipped out for lunch but they'll be back in a few."
"Sounds like a plan." Dan grabbed the first ten and handed them to Nikki. The second ten went to Nora. The third set he kept for himself. "How'd it go with Pettit?"
"It was interesting," Nikki chimed in once more before Nora could answer. "She recognized Castillo."
Nora glanced sideways at her partner, sensing Nikki was intentionally hiding Pettit's comments about the list. She hadn't planned on mentioning it either. Not until she had all her ducks in a row. Not until she was sure about the twisted idea in her head.
"That's something," Dan agreed. They stood in awkward silence for a moment. Finally he cleared his throat. "Well. I'll just get to one of the media rooms " He gave them a tight smile and brushed past them both. He gave Nora a swat on the butt, faking playfulness he didn't feel.
Nora thumped him on the back of the head in response. That was one thing, at least, that hadn't changed.
"How did ?" Nora started once Dan had left the room.
"You'll share when you're ready. I get it." Nikki hefted the stack of DVDs then started past her partner.
Nora frowned at the odd tone that had been in her partner's voice. She wanted to tell Nikki her messed up idea, but experience had long since taught her not to vocalize her thoughts until she knew they were facts. More than once she'd been tossed from a case for her outlandish theories. It didn't matter that in the end she'd been right.
Nora stepped in Nikki's path, effectively blocking her exit. "I " She took a breath, compelled to explain in some way. She met Nikki's brown gaze with her own and saw a shadow of hurt there, felt an answering ache in her own guts. "Nikki "
Warm whiskey eyes softened. "I really do get it, Nora," Nikki interrupted. "Just don't leave me out here in the cold for too long. Okay?" She didn't wait for an answer. In truth she was too afraid of what her partner might say. She stepped around Nora, getting a lungful of her perfume as she opened the door and left.
Nora stood still. She could hear the muted sounds from the bullpen down the hall. Phones rang. Voices carried and faded. Her eyes dipped to the stack of DVDs. She'd been burned enough. No need to get close to that fire again. Except
Except she wanted to tell Nikki, to share her idea with her partner and hear her take on it. Nikki wasn't Dan or any of the other men she's been partnered with over the years. She deserved the benefit of the doubt. Hell, Nikki had earned it.
Nora sighed. One way or another she'd fill her partner in once she watched the DVDs.
Maybe by then she would believe her own crazy theory.
The Sprite was losing its bite. Nikki unconsciously winced at the stale flavor sliding across her tongue. The soft drink was warm now, having been opened four hours ago. Instead of chucking the can she left in on the coaster. Stale Sprite was probably just what her nauseous stomach needed.
She'd watched two people die in the last four hours. From multiple angles. The sounds they'd made the pleas the loved ones they'd called out for
The detective rolled her tight shoulders then ran a hand through her dark, loose curls. Her thoughts threatened to turn toward her mother and she resolutely pushed them away. That was something she never wanted to imagine.
What her mother's final moments had been like.
She licked her lips and kicked out the current DVD. So far she'd watched Thomas Mangold die again as well as Melissa Blevins some poor college kid that got mixed up in drugs and sex and then ended up on the wrong side of Archer's wrath. She'd called for her mommy. Again and again. Castillo buried a blade in her forty three times. Nikki knew she'd hear those cries in her sleep tonight.
She set the DVD aside not bothering with gloves. They'd already been swept for prints. The next DVD she picked up was blank. Nikki felt her heart kick against her ribs so hard she almost coughed.
The only blank DVDs had been from the alley.
"Just my luck," she grumbled. Deliberately she put the DVD in the tray and slid it closed. The air-conditioned room, already only big enough for the door to open and to hold the table with the computer equipment, seemed to press in on her. When the DVD launched she hit play.
A tight shot of the fire escape.
Nikki felt her guts twist. She could hear the music from the nearby clubs and behind that the gathering storm. For four long minutes she stared at the empty space, waiting for the main player to take his stage. When he finally did, she needed another sip of her stale soda. Castillo seemed like something the devil himself had sent. The flame tattoos that raced up his arms were visible in the low light, flickering like real fire in the flashes of lightening. He lifted his gun, grinning with anticipation as he watched and waited.
For her, Nikki realized with a faint shudder.
Another flash of lightening. Then he fired.
The lightening. Nora must have caught the glint off the muzzle of Castillo's gun. That was all that saved her. All that saved them both.
The detective had to hit the spacebar to stop the image and take a breath. "Why did you have to hand me the first stack?" she muttered to her absent captain before hitting play again.
For several minutes all she saw was Castillo firing. His features quickly lost their glee as his prey continued to elude him. He was reloading for the second time when Nora appeared behind him. Nikki felt her breath catch at seeing her partner, her face a mask of pure intent. Then Nora was moving, slamming into him with all the force her smaller frame could muster.
The gun skittered away. Nikki watched in sympathy as her partner was slammed against the doorway. Then covered her mouth when Castillo punched Nora in the stomach. She watched Nora slump to her knees, clearly in agony.
"Oh Jesus," Nikki whispered as she continued to watch, horrified when she realized she'd almost shot her own damn partner.
Then time and the image stopped. Nikki felt her veins ice as she slammed the spacebar, freezing the image of Castillo with his gun to her partner's temple. It had been that close. The gun had clicked impotently a second before she stilled the moment.
Nikki surged from her seat and bolted for the bathroom.
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