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
"No, thank you," Nora replied her voice tipped with frost. At the moment she was feeling like a bull in a china shop. Surrounded by expensive and delicate things she knew she could never afford, Nora sat stiffly in a high-backed chair, worried she'd break something if she even breathed.
"I'd love some, Ms. Foster. Thank you," Nikki said with impeccable manners. She gave Nora a look that was mildly reproachful then tried not to smile when Nora surreptitiously stuck her tongue out at her.
Delana Archer's sister, Melanie Foster, dipped her head at the servant lingering in the doorway. She left, obviously going to fetch the requested refreshment.
Foster seemed poised and not at all upset about the murder of her sister. Slightly older than Delana, her hair was pulled up into an austere bun of platinum blonde with a few carefully placed tendrils framing her hawkish face. Her eyes were a steely blue and were fastened only on Nikki, the considerably better dressed of the two detectives, having discarded Nora as a mere public servant from the moment she walked in.
"Ms. Foster," Nikki began, sensing that Nora had decided to let her lead on this one. "We are so very sorry about Delana. I met her at some of the functions at Progressive House. She was a very sweet woman."
Foster's eyes zeroed in on Nikki with even greater intensity. "You've been to Progressive House?" Her tone indicated how unlikely she thought that was.
"One of my father's pet projects."
"Arthur Beaumont is your daddy?" Foster's voice warmed and lilted with surprise.
Nora rolled her eyes but no one noticed.
"Yes, ma'am. He sends his regards."
"What is the daughter of Arthur Beaumont doing gallivanting around with the police?" Foster asked, genuinely curious.
"Hopefully solving your sister's murder," Nikki said simply.
Nora bit her lip, liking that response immensely.
Foster pursed her lips then nodded. "Delana and I weren't close. Not since she married Richard." The name was said with a sneer. "He seemed fine at first but then he didn't want Del talking to her family or friends anymore. She went from being a vibrant woman to a shell of her former self. Honestly, detectives," she said as her gaze darted to Nora. "I feel like my sister died a long time ago."
"Do you think he was abusing her?" Nora asked as the servant returned with a tray. Delicate china cups rested on the surface along with a blue and white floral patterned teapot. The maid handed her a cup and Nora gingerly accepted it.
Nikki tried not to laugh. Her partner was acting like she'd just been handed a scorpion instead of weak tea.
"I never saw anything to indicate that," Foster admitted as she took her saucer and cup. "Thank you, Evelyn."
"Yes, miss," the maid said as she left the room.
Nora gave Foster points for at least being gracious.
Nikki politely sipped her tea and waited.
"But I had a feeling," Foster finally continued. "I pressed her about it but she insisted she was fine. I knew she wasn't. I should have tried harder." Her voice had grown quieter.
Even the rich aren't immune to murder, Nora reminded herself of Nikki's words. "Ms. Foster, do you know if Delana was having an affair?"
Those steely eyes fixed on the other detective. "What makes you ask?"
"We're just following any possible avenues on this. As you know, her husband was out of town on a business trip."
"I'm well aware. He's made sure everyone in Del's circle knew that."
Shoring up his alibi, Nora considered.
"I doubt it," Foster replied getting back to Nora's question. "But if she did well damn good for her."
Nikki smiled. "Was there anyone that she was close to? Maybe a female friend she would have confided in?"
"Tracy Pettit. She seemed to be the only one who could get close to Del in the end." For a second Foster's voice quavered. She took a sip of her tea and straightened herself perceptively. "She's " Her eyes darted to Nora. "A community activist. Very strident in her approach. I found her quite abrasive but my sister my sister seemed to find her fascinating."
Bingo, Nora mentally shouted.
"When was the last time you saw your sister?" Nikki asked. She felt Nora stir to her left and suspected her partner now had what she needed from the conversation and wanted the interview over.
"Two weeks ago."
"Did she mention anything about going on vacation with her husband?"
Foster laughed, a bitter, husky sound influenced by too many cigarettes. "Del and Richard haven't been on vacation together in six years. I suppose anything is possible but that would surprise me."
"One last thing," Nikki asked as Nora stood.
"You call your sister Del. Did Richard?"
Nora went still at the question.
"Gracious no. He hated that nickname. Her own family wasn't allowed to use it when he was around."
"Thank you, Ms. Foster," Nikki said as she finished her tea and set the cup down.
"Detectives?" Foster asked when Nikki got to her feet. "Do you think it's Richard?"
Nora knew why the woman was asking and she felt a touch of pity for her. "He has an alibi, Ms. Foster."
"Doesn't mean he didn't hire someone, though. Does it?" She turned her head, signaling the interview was over.
"What?" Nikki asked as they walked down the sidewalk. Nora was giving her a sideways look that made her self-conscious.
"The 'Del' thing. What made you ask that?"
Nikki shrugged as they reached the El Camino. She loved Nora's classic car and hoped her partner would let her drive it at some point. It did, however, look very out of place in the Garden District alongside the BMWs and Mercedes lining the street. "I don't know. Something about the way Archer was using it. It just seemed "
"Deliberate," Nora suggested as she slipped behind the wheel. Now that she thought about it she could see Nikki's point. She waited till Nikki was in the passenger seat before starting the car.
"Yeah. Deliberate. I asked my daddy about it. He said he'd never heard anyone call her Del, especially not Richard."
"That was a good catch," Nora admitted with frank admiration. "It went right by me."
"That's why you have a partner. I wouldn't have wasted my time on the sister this morning and it looks like she's going to lead us right to Delana's girlfriend."
Nora considered that. It was odd how they seemed to be balancing each other out so well after only a day and a half of working together. She pulled out and chose the fastest route back to the station. "I like the husband for this."
"He's a bastard but I'm not sure he actually killed her," Nikki said quietly. "He does have an airtight alibi. Ten people were with him on the day Delana was killed."
"Then we have to figure out who and how he hired someone to kill her."
"Maybe the girlfriend will help," Nikki drawled.
"You think she sought out the comfort of another woman because she was being abused?" Nora asked unexpectedly.
Nikki leaned against the passenger door and watched her partner drive. Her voice sounded cautious when she replied. "Maybe. Maybe she's always been attracted to women and never had the chance or courage to act on it."
Nora gave Nikki a look. "Do you know this Tracy Pettit?"
"Never heard of her," Nikki admitted, wondering about the look she just received. "But then again I tend to leave my community activism for the job."
"You gave at the office, huh?" Nora said with a chuckle.
A quick run past the station gave them all the personal info on Tracy Pettit they needed to track her down. Nikki made a quick call to Darius, asking him to meet them in an hour for lunch and to dig up everything he could on Delana Archer's apparent lover.
"We can still do a quick interview with the Progressive House woman," Nora suggested as they made their way back out to the parking lot.
"Stephanie Shiver," Nikki said automatically.
"You know her?"
"Sure. She even dated my daddy for a while." Nikki gave her a knowing wink.
"In that case," Nora said tossing her keys at a surprised Nikki. "You drive."
"Rock on," Nikki said with a full-fledged grin.
Nora smiled as well as she slipped into the passenger side of the car. It felt weird. She never once let Dan drive in all their years as partners.
"Where'd you get these wheels anyway?"
"My step-dad restores cars."
"You think he'd restore me one?"
"You want an El Camino?"
"Only if it looks as sexy as yours," Nikki said as she threaded her way through the French Quarter. There were a fair amount of tourists jamming the streets in search of crawfish, beignets, or voodoo curses.
Nora paused. "You think my car is sexy?"
Nikki gave her a quick flirtatious look just for fun. "Meow," she joked.
Nora didn't know what to say to that so she said nothing at all. Nikki was proving to be rather adept at rendering her speechless.
A few moments later they were in front of a small but expensive boutique. They exited the car and Nora followed Nikki inside, getting another lungful of that nice perfume as her partner passed.
"Nikki!" A voice exclaimed from the back of the store. The shoppers who had been frowning in Nora's direction shot the owner a startled glance then quickly averted their gazes as the taller detective was embraced by the petite shopkeeper who had all but run up to greet her.
"Gracious, child, let me look at you." Stephanie Shriver stepped back then clucked her tongue. "Looking prettier every time I see you."
Nikki blushed but smiled. "You're sweet, Stephanie. I'd like to introduce my new partner, Nora Delaney. I'm with Special Crimes now."
"So you'll be dealing with drugs and murder instead of just drugs?" Stephanie clucked her tongue again but she shook Nora's hand with a firm grip. "Nice to meet you, detective."
"Likewise," Nora said quickly.
"Come on to the back. Can I get you girls some coffee?"
"Sure," Nora said remembering Nikki's reproachful look at Foster's. Her partner bumped her hip playfully as they walked and Nora's features eased into a grin.
"Please, have a seat." Shriver shut the door behind them as they entered the store room. Suddenly they were surrounded by silence and dresses.
Nora had to admit the other woman had taste. From what Shriver was wearing now, a flattering three piece gray suit that set off the silver in her short hair, to the evening gowns lining the racks around them, Shriver was obviously a woman who knew her trade. She had pretty small blue eyes set in an almost elfish face. She reminded Nora of a pixie.
The detectives accepted their cups of coffee, presented in plain white mugs this time rather than fine china.
"So you're here about poor Delana Archer." Shriver shook her head. "I always felt sorry for that girl. She was kind and she did a lot for Progressive House but I often felt she was doing the work because she had to not because she wanted to."
"You think someone was forcing her to do charity work?" Nora asked as she sipped her coffee. Her eyebrows elevated as she glanced down at the cup, realizing it was real Kona.
Nikki and her partner exchanged amused glances. "Richard Archer?" Nikki asked for clarification.
"That's right. Dick." Shriver shook her head again, her long silver earrings swaying as she did so. "I detest that man. How he snows so many people I'll never know." She took a sip of her own coffee. "I kept telling Delana she needed to get out of that marriage. Find herself a real man. She'd just give me this vacant smile and nod politely. Used to drive me insane."
Nora smiled. She kind of liked Shriver. The woman had money but she'd obviously held on to her senses. Just like her partner. She shot a glance at Nikki, studying the lines of her profile for a moment before looking away. She discovered Shriver eyeing her with a tiny grin on her face that inexplicably gave the detective goosebumps.
"Do you know a Tracy Pettit?" Nikki asked.
"Oh dear." Stephanie got to her feet and moved about the small store room. "She's attended a few events at Progressive House. She's a passionate woman and a hell of a fund raiser "
"But " Nikki prompted.
"She's just very, what's the term ?"
"Lesbian?" Nora offered dryly.
Shriver gave her an amused look. "Well, she is that." Her eyes slid questioningly to Nikki who gave her a quick wink. "I was going to say a bully. She started hanging around Del. And damn it all of Del didn't start responding to her. I felt like she was trading in one oaf for another."
"You think there was something between them?"
"Are you asking me if they were having sex? Maybe. But that would be awful reckless for Del. And being married to Richard maybe dangerous as well."
"You were encouraging her to find another man," Nora reminded her.
"Yes, one who would hopefully protect her against Richard. Tracy may be rather butch but I don't think she could handle Richard in one of his full on rages." Stephanie took another sip of her coffee then eyed Nikki over the rim. "You missed it last winter, dear, after you left the party."
"You mean after I kneed Richard Archer in the nuts?"
"Nikki, such language," Shriver scolded but she was wearing a wicked grin. "He trashed the lobby. Threatened you even."
"No one told me that," Nikki said surprised.
"Richard was drunk and your daddy put his head in the fountain to cool him off."
Nora snorted, wishing she could have seen that. Councilman Arthur Beaumont stuffing Richard Archer's face in a fountain would be a Kodak moment to cherish.
"Are you kidding me?" Nikki asked. "Well that sounds about like my daddy."
"Well once Richard realized Arthur Beaumont was your daddy he shut up right quickly about hurting you. But for a few minutes there, Nikki, I was actually afraid he might."
"I'm a cop," Nikki reminded her.
"And he's the devil. You watch your step, sweetheart." Shriver's gaze lifted to Nora again. "You ever do any modeling?"
"Excuse me?" Nora asked feeling like she'd just suffered a case of verbal whiplash.
Shriver sorted through a nearby rack then approached Nora with a flowing white gown wrapped in cellophane. She snatched the wrapping off and held it up next to Nora's tan skin. "Goodness," Stephanie said. "You would look lovely."
If her suddenly dry mouth was any indication Nikki agreed. She could easily see her partner in the dress, her arms and shoulders bare, the slope of her back and a fair amount of cleavage exposed. She stared, hoping she could imprint the image onto her brain and call it up later for review.
"Um " Nora wondered if somehow Nikki wasn't getting her back for the incident at the morgue. She shot her partner a look only to discover that Nikki was watching her with a grin of frank admiration. Nora swallowed and willed her eyes back on Shriver. "Thank you," she answered feeling lame. "But I don't "
"I'm having some women photographed for a spread in Vogue. I would love it if you would wear this."
"Vogue?" Nora asked, her voice rising into a squeak. She cleared her throat as she set down her coffee. "Ms. Shriver "
"I'll give you the dress as payment."
Nikki's eyes almost popped out of her head. Nora took that to mean the dress was incredibly expensive. "I appreciate the offer really it's just "
"Ooo." Stephanie thrust the dress into Nora's hands, failing to notice that the detective held it away from her body as if it were a baby she was afraid she'd drop. Shriver went back to another rack, slipping out a barely there sapphire dress that she handed to Nikki. "Stand up, dear."
Nikki set her own coffee down then slowly did as asked. She took a sharp breath when Stephanie handed her the dress. "Oh I "
"Gracious. You two would be visions. Please tell me you'll do it."
Nora was about to offer a more firm decline until she saw Nikki with the dress. With a plunging neckline and no back to speak of, plenty of her partner's pale skin would be on display and the blue of the dress complimented it nicely. "Sure." She blinked when she heard her own voice agree.
"Sure?" Nikki asked in shock. Deciding that Nora had gone temporarily insane she looked at Stephanie. "We're cops, not models."
"I want real women for my ads. Two of New Orleans finest will send my ad agency into a tizzy." She clapped her hands in delight. "Could you be available next Tuesday? We could shoot in the evening. Perhaps around 8:00?"
Nora continued to blink stupidly, realizing what she'd just agreed to do and why. It was the why that was making her stomach flip-flop. She took a breath, feeling like the air in the room was suddenly in short supply.
"We'll have to clear it with our captain," Nikki said slowly. She handed the dress back to Stephanie and watched as the older woman took the gown from Nora's unresisting fingers. Her partner looked absolutely shell-shocked.
They said their goodbyes and wandered back to the car, climbing in with dazed expressions. Nikki started the engine then swiveled in her seat to look at Nora.
"I don't know," Nora said quickly, not wanting to look at Nikki until she could process the odd urge that had come over her. "I must have been high from the Kona."
Nikki's lips twitched. "That's a nineteen thousand dollar dress."
So much for not looking at her, Nora thought as her head whipped around. "Are you shitting me?"
"She designs them, Nora. That was a Shriver original. She must have liked you."
"I'm not a model," Nora replied plaintively. "I'm five six. I have no business modeling in freaking Vogue!"
Nikki smiled, surprised to find Nora was clueless as to how attractive she was. The way Nora carried herself with such confidence she'd just assumed the woman knew she looked good. Apparently that confidence came from something deeper and Nikki had to admit that made the other woman that much more appealing.
"I mean " Nora pointed at her. "You're the fashion plate."
Nikki's smile got wider. "You really will look like a million bucks in that dress," she said in a softer, gentler voice.
Nora stared at her, aware that her heart was beating faster than it needed to be. "Nineteen thousand bucks at least," she muttered. "God, Dan is going to have a field day with this."
A half hour later Dan stood up from the corner of his desk and walked to his window, using the precious few moments to get the shit-eating grin out of his system. "A photo shoot, huh?"
Nora ran her hand through her hair as she eyed his back warily. "Look, all you have to do is say no and we can "
That word was getting them in a lot of trouble today. Nikki's eyebrows elevated but she didn't say anything. They'd returned to the station to pick up a few things before meeting Darius for lunch. Nora had insisted that they tell Dan about Shriver's offer. No doubt her partner was hoping that their boss would veto the idea.
"What?" Nora asked when his answer finally sunk in.
Dan turned, looking serious now. "I said sure. Why not? It could be good publicity. I'll have to run it by the brass but I don't see why they'd turn it down."
Nora and Nikki exchanged quick glances before Nora took a breath and tried again. "Dan, are you sure that this is a good idea?"
The chance to see detective Nora Delaney in a Shriver original? Not to mention the fact he'd have a picture of it he could hang on his wall. "I'll let our publicity people know. What could be the harm?" Dan allowed a little bit of a smile to show.
"You're enjoying this," Nikki teased.
He shrugged. "Can I get your autographs?"
Nora gave a half grunt, half growl as she abruptly got to her feet and left the office.
Nikki bit her lip. "We will take a lot of heat from the other guys in the squad," she admitted. "And I don't think it's a good idea for us to be posing for Vogue while Delana Archer's killer is still on the loose."
Dan crossed his arms as he watched his former partner stalk out to her desk. "You'll survive it," he said mildly. "And we could use some positive PR." He shifted his focus to Nikki. "As for the Archer case I sincerely hope for all involved that you'll have it wrapped up by then."
"Right." Nikki stood and headed for the door.
"Did you see the dress?" Dan asked her before Nikki could open the door.
It was an odd question and Nikki found herself reacting strangely to it. "Excuse me?"
"The dress she's going to wear. Did you see it?"
"Yeah," Nikki answered slowly.
"How will she look?" He tried to keep his voice casual.
Nikki swallowed as her gaze cut back to Nora. "She'll look beautiful," she confessed. She looked at him again, seeing him in a way she hadn't before.
"I'm sure you will, too," he said good-naturally.
She gave him a tight smile before yanking open the door and heading out into the bullpen. Nora was shrugging into her leather jacket when Nikki approached. "He's sneaky," she said in a low voice.
"You don't know the half of it," Nora answered with exasperation. "Just wait till he asks you out."
"Has he asked you?" Nikki's voice betrayed her stirring suspicions about her superior officer. She slipped her purse over her shoulder and grabbed her jacket.
"Every freaking day we were partners." Nora brushed past her.
Nikki watched her go before her gaze darted back to Dan's office. Her new boss lingered in the doorway, watching Nora walk away until she was out of sight. Something about his expression made Nikki uneasy. She wasn't sure why, Nikki only knew she didn't like him looking at her partner like that.
Feeling oddly disgruntled, Nikki slipped on her sunglasses and followed Nora out of the squad room, back out into the harsh daylight of another sunny New Orleans afternoon.
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