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
Nora's stomach rumbled the instant she smelled the scent of bar-b-cue, French fries and grease. Sweeny's was populated with a motley group of diners from biker bad boys to suit clad cops. The place was small, only big enough to hold ten booths and a few tables. Most people sat at the bar which ran the length of the grimy establishment. A few unsavory fellows whistled at their entrance until Nikki struck a casual pose and stared up at the menu, her long leather duster falling back to reveal the gold shield at her waist.
"Nikki!" The owner called out from the kitchen. He came through a swinging door and passed around the bar before enveloping the brunette in a crushing hug. Shaped like a fire plug with a sparse amount of receding gray hair at his temples he somehow managed to be both simultaneously charming and oily.
"Syd," Nikki said as she stepped back. "What's the most artery clogging, heart attack inducing item on today's menu?"
He gave her a beaming smile, revealing a lack of several teeth. "Please," he said with a laugh and an accent Nora couldn't quite place. It wasn't Creole but it was close. "You know you want the pulled pork. You always get the pulled pork with extra sauce."
"And don't forget the beans," she warned him playfully, allowing a little of her own New Orleans accent to lilt into her speech.
"Shut your mouth," he teased before turning to Nora. "And what do we have here? Such a lovely young lady."
Nora's eyebrows rose as she glanced askance at Nikki. Then her eyebrows hiked even higher when Nikki threaded her arm around Nora's.
"This is my new partner, Nora Delaney."
"Ah. She's much better looking than that last one. I didn't like Sam."
Nora watched in fascination as Nikki blushed and immediately released her.
"Um not that kind of partner, Syd." Nikki reached over and lifted the hem of Nora's sweater, nearly making her partner jump when warm fingers brushed her belly.
Syd saw the shield then laughed. "Oops." He winked. "Well then. Come and sit. And I will get two platters for two of New Orleans finest." He waddled off leaving the two bemused women in his wake.
Nora glanced at Nikki to see she was still blushing. "Sam?"
"Don't go there," Nikki pleaded as she headed for the back booth.
Nora filed the name away for later ammunition. As she followed her partner she noticed a black man sitting in the last booth. His hair was in long dreads, his right nostril pierced and sporting a simple silver ring.
Darius stood and gave Nikki a hug. "You make it hard to do business, girl. Everybody in the joint knows I'm talking to a cop."
"What we're talking about has nothing to do with them so I doubt they'll care." Nikki slid into the other side of the booth, pleased when Nora followed. "This is my new partner, on the force," Nikki added for clarification. "Nora Delaney."
"Enchanted." Darius took Nora's hand and lowered his lips to bestow a gentle kiss on her knuckles.
"Likewise," Nora drawled. He grinned at her and she grinned back. He was a scoundrel. It was written all over him. But there was charm there and something more, she realized. Maybe it was because Nikki trusted him, Nora thought, but she found herself warming up to him quickly.
Syd chose that moment to arrive with two plates full of bar-b-cue, beans and fries. He also set down two plates of pecan pie followed by two sodas. Nora noted her soda was different than Nikki's and that her sauce was to the side, just as she preferred it. She gave him a startled glance.
"Syd's psychic," Darius explained off-handedly. "He knows what you want to eat and drink before you do."
Nora looked at Nikki who just nodded in agreement as she took a hefty bite of her sandwich. "Thanks," she said.
"On the house," Syd said with a wink. He nudged Nora in the arm. "Maybe you make Nikki here a better partner than Sam."
Darius nearly sprayed the table with the sip of water he'd just taken.
"Syd!" Nikki glared at the owner as he laughed and walked away. She knew she was blushing to her roots and swore she'd get even at some point.
Darius wiped his bottom lip. "Anyhoo " he murmured and Nikki gave him a grateful look he read easily. "Delana and Richard Archer."
"Do tell," Nikki said as she began attacking her beans
Nora drizzled some sauce on her sandwich then sampled it, her eyes nearly popping out of her head it was so good.
"Married for ten years. No kids. Not even a cat."
"We knew that already, Darius."
"Yeah well Mr. Archer likes the ladies. Sometimes he even likes the gents. And sometimes he likes them both at the same time."
The two detectives shared a glance.
"My, my," Nora murmured before taking another bite of her sandwich.
"What about their relationship? Any word on the street?"
Darius frowned and waggled his hand from side to side before snatching one of Nikki's fries. "I'm not hearing much in the way about what went on between their sheets if you know what I'm sayin'. But my sources are telling me that he's a ruthless prick. He gets off running some of the smaller shipping companies out of business. He's closed ten since moving to New Orleans eleven years ago."
"You think he could have killed his wife?" Nora asked.
Darius leaned back as he nibbled on the fry. "You bet your cute ass. I'm just not sure he'd get his hands dirty. I've got feelers out to see if maybe he hired someone to do it. I mean, you got to be one cold crazy bastard to stab the woman you married thirty six times."
Nora's head came up in surprise. "How did you know ?"
"I'm connected," Darius said with a smile and a flick of the lapels of his tan leather jacket.
Nora tilted her head in acceptance of that and continued to eat. "This is pretty damn good," she admitted.
"Wait till you try the pie," Darius told her.
"Those are nice boots."
Nora looked down at her footwear, nearly tripping as they entered the glassy lobby of Bellwether Industries. "Thanks," she replied. "Target special," she drawled, wondering if Nikki would react to that with horror.
Instead, the other detective held out her watch, a thick black leather strap with an intricately flowered design in the center. "This one's mine."
"Nice," Nora admitted with a quirk of her lips. Nikki had kept her on her toes all morning, surprising her at every turn. She kind of liked that.
They approached the receptionist, noting the view of the Mississippi beyond the tempered glass behind her. Nora flashed her badge. "Detectives Nora Delaney and Nikki Beaumont to see Richard Archer."
"One moment please," the receptionist murmured. She turned to the phone bank and punched in a number.
Nora leaned against the counter and turned to face her partner. "Is that really a Target watch?"
Nikki smiled mischievously. "No. It was a gift from my dad. I just wanted to see what you'd say."
"Like you weren't fishing for a response by telling me your boots are from Target."
Nora hiked an eyebrow but a smile stayed on her face. "They are."
"That doesn't make them any less nice. You probably just paid a much more reasonable price for them."
That was a point they could both agree on.
Nikki turned and leaned against the desk as well, her shoulder brushing Nora's. "Impressive digs."
"It's pretentious," Nora drawled. She noticed Nikki's perfume, an earthy scent that was rather pleasant.
"It's meant to be," Nikki answered. "We're meant to tremble in awe at the sheer cost of it."
"Money is power."
Nikki glanced at Nora. "Sometimes," she conceded as she heard the receptionist wrapping up her call. "And sometimes people just think it is."
"You're cleared to go up. Third set of elevators on the right. You'll need this," the receptionist said as she handed a keycard to Nora. "Level fourteen."
"Thanks," Nora replied as she and Nikki turned and headed for the six sets of elevators a few feet away.
There was no one else in the lobby except them and their footfalls seemed loud in the quiet. Nora tapped the "up" button and waited for the elevator to arrive.
"So you equate money with power," Nikki stated casually.
Nora shrugged. "Seems like people with a lot of cash can get a lot of things done. Even when it's at the expense of someone else."
Nikki frowned. "You think I've got power? You recognized my daddy's name."
There was something oddly ridiculous about a thirty three year old woman calling her father "daddy" like that Nora decided. The elevator arrived and they stepped inside. Nora swiped the keycard and pressed the button for the top floor, stalling for time as she formulated a response. "I don't know," she said when the elevator started its smooth ascent. "But your daddy certainly does."
"I've never used his money to get me anywhere in this life," Nikki said simply. "Some nice shoes at Sak's, sure."
Nora felt a grin trying to worm onto her features.
"Look," Nikki said after a moment. "I know you've got a chip on your shoulder about the rich. Dan told me."
"Oh he did, did he?" Nora drawled, surprised that she wasn't more upset by that knowledge.
"I just I want you to know that I know how the other half lives," Nikki said softly. "But that doesn't mean it's the way I want to."
The elevator dinged and the doors parted, revealing the two detectives caught in an intense regard of one another. Without a word Nikki slipped past Nora and out into another lobby, leaving the other detective momentarily stunned. Slowly Nora followed, her entire perception of Nikki Beaumont shifting under the import of her partner's simple declaration.
Nora tasted the phrase as she looked at Nikki talking to another receptionist.
Maybe this could work after all.
Fifteen minutes later, they were led into an ostentatious office and left alone to wait some more. Nikki sat in one of the deep, brown leather chairs without hesitation. Nora on the other hand prowled the office, her gaze skimming over the rows and rows of books, trophies, and pictures of Richard Archer glad-handing several celebrities. She rolled her eyes before crossing to the window.
"Nice view," she muttered. She turned her head when she felt warmth at her side. Nikki had come up behind her and was staring out the glass to the Mississippi below. It was sunny for now, although clouds were gathering on the horizon. As the two women watched wordlessly, a steamboat puttered along filled to nearly bursting with tourists. Nora glanced at her partner again, studying Nikki's attractive profile.
"Why?" Nora asked suddenly.
Nikki looked at her. "Why what?"
"Why are you a cop?"
Nikki had been expecting the question all day but she knew she didn't have the time to give the answer it required. "Later," she said, but her voice held the note of promise to it that Nora needed to let it rest for now.
The door opened and Richard Archer appeared. Normally he would have been a handsome man but today his appearance was haggard, his salt and pepper hair ruffled, his tie slightly askew as he motioned them to their seats. "Please," he said in a strained voice. "Thank you so much for coming detectives."
Nikki and Nora exchanged glances as they complied. They all sat. Nora introduced herself and Nikki. From his lack of reaction to her partner's name, Nora guessed Archer didn't remember the charity ball incident. Nor did he seem to realize that Nikki came from even more money than he could imagine.
"Mr. Archer," Nora said softly. "Let me begin by telling you how sorry we are for your loss."
Nikki watched in fascination as the tears seemed to come on cue.
"Thank you," Archer said, his voice quavering. "I I didn't know what to do with myself. It's not like I can go home. When the officers came and told me " He paused, his gaze going to his clasped hands. "I just "
"I understand," Nora sounded sympathetic. "We just need to ask you a few questions."
"Of course." He sighed, a ragged sound.
"It's estimated that your wife has been dead almost a week. Were you not home during that time?"
"No. I was in Boston on business. I still have the receipts " Archer said in a distracted voice. "Del was supposed to be away on vacation. We have a house in the Keys."
A ready alibi, Nikki thought. She'd make sure to get those receipts. And as fair skinned as Delana Archer was she had a hard time imagining the woman would have chosen the Keys for a getaway. She doubted Delana had even owned a swimsuit.
"You didn't try to call her?"
"Yes, of course I did. I called the house in Florida. Our home here. Her cell. I just figured she was ignoring me. We fought before she left. I was supposed to go with her." His voice broke and he cleared his throat. "I just got back this morning."
"Was there anyone who might have wanted to harm your wife, Mr. Archer?" Nora asked. She darted a glance at Nikki. Her partner had her eyes narrowed, studying Richard Archer very carefully.
"God no," he said earnestly. "She's just so sweet. And she's quiet. Like a mouse. All she does is serve on the boards of a bunch of charities. Who would want to hurt a woman like that?"
Nora noted that he still referred to his wife as if she were alive. An honest choice or a deliberate one to throw them off she wasn't sure. "We're going to find out," she promised. "Meanwhile, we need you to come down to the station as soon as you're able."
"We need a sample of your DNA and your fingerprints for exclusionary purposes," Nikki finally spoke.
Archer looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. There was a flicker of something in his eyes but neither detective was sure if it was recognition or frustration with his situation that had caused it.
"Of course," he said again. "I'll come down within the hour if that is acceptable. I just want the bastard who hurt Del to be punished. Whatever you need from me."
Nora nodded once then looked at Nikki. By silent agreement they stood. "I think that's all for now. We may have some more questions for you later."
Archer nodded. "I understand." He shook Nora's hand then Nikki's. "Please. If there is anything I can do to help."
"A list," Nora told him. "Of all her friends and family. We'll need to talk to them."
"As well as a list of all the charities she served on," Nikki added. "And those receipts."
"Absolutely. You'll have both when I stop by the station."
"Thank you," Nora said as she walked away and headed for the door with Nikki in tow. "We'll be in touch."
Then they were through the door, past the lobby, and into the elevator. Nora started to speak but Nikki gave a quick shake of her head that had the more seasoned detective lapsing into surprised silence.
They returned the keycard to the receptionist then made their way out into the late afternoon. Both women slipped on sunglasses as they headed across the plaza toward Nora's El Camino.
"What was that in the elevator?" Nora asked once she'd turned the key in the ignition.
"There was no way Archer wasn't listening in on what we were saying. He's too shrewd for that," Nikki answered as they pulled away from the curb.
"You weren't buying what he was selling, huh?"
Nora frowned. "Hard to tell. Sometimes people are in such shock they act the way they think they're supposed to act."
"Archer was a theater minor in college," Nikki informed her.
Nora shot her a startled look. "Really?"
Nikki shrugged as her gaze took in the passing scenery. "He did seem awfully willing to offer up his DNA and prints, though."
"Maybe too willing," Nora agreed.
"Maybe. He must know we can't use either against him."
"We'll just see about that."
They put in another six hours on the case, finally deciding to call it a day around ten in the evening. In addition to familiarizing themselves more thoroughly with both Archers' backgrounds and financials they'd also set up several appointments with some of Delana Archer's friends and family for the following day.
A cold rain was starting to fall as they made their way to the parking lot. Nora glanced at her partner, realizing she was actually a little reluctant to say goodnight. "You never answered my question," she said as Nikki started to get in her car, a snazzy red convertible mustang.
Nikki paused, one foot inside her car. She stepped back out. "My mother."
Nora stuffed her hands in her pockets and sauntered closer. They hadn't had much time to chat about anything personal since returning to the station and she found her curiosity about the other woman purring again. She ignored the rain. "What about her?"
"She was murdered."
Nora went still, shocked at how intense the ache was for the woman before her. "Nikki "
Nikki looked down at the roof of her car, watching the drops pool together then scamper down her windows. "They never caught her killer. I was fifteen when it happened." She traced her finger through the moisture, aware of Nora's silence to her left. "Someone shot my mother full of heroin and left her alone to die in our greenhouse." She looked at Nora then seeing both sympathy and understanding in her green eyes. "So maybe I am from a more privileged background than most. But having money doesn't make you immune to murder."
Nora came closer and stopped only a few feet away. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice sounding considerably more sincere than it had with Archer earlier in the day. "I hate it when people make assumptions about me just for being a cop, or a woman. I made some assumptions about you I shouldn't have."
Nikki watched Nora's face, struck again by how beautiful she was as the rain washed down the other woman's cheeks. She was shivering faintly, her light leather jacket poor protection against the elements. "What changed your mind? The fact that my mom was murdered?"
"It was what you said in the elevator. It's been your attitude all day. It's the fact that your mother was murdered. I guess the whole package was like a needle popping my balloon of misconceptions about the rich."
Without thinking Nikki reached out and wiped Nora's wet bangs away from her chiseled features. It seemed like the most natural thing to do in the world. "Don't assume they're all wrong, Nora. But don't assume they apply to everyone in a particular tax bracket, either." With a soft smile she slipped into her car. As she drove away she saw Nora Delaney in her rearview mirror, watching her until the darkness and distance came between them.
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