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


Part 5

The detectives swung by a small deli near the station to pick up some muffulettas and pasta salad. By the time they reached Louis Armstrong Park, the sun made leaving the jackets in the car a necessity. It beat down on their shoulders, warming them pleasantly, as they walked side by side, comfortable in the silence between them as if they were old friends.

Darius was ahead and waiting, sitting on a park bench, tossing pieces of bread to the gathering pigeons. Cooing and pecking, the birds only took flight at the last possible moment, parting for the detectives seconds before they sat.

"Darius, my man," Nikki said by way of greeting. She tossed him a bag and he caught it one-handed.

"You know how to treat me right," he said when he peeked inside. "My favorite."

They took up residence on either side of him. Nora handed him a tall Styrofoam cup full of soda which he accepted with a wink and grin. She smiled back pleasantly surprised that she was actually happy to see him.

"So I hear y'all are gonna be models," he drawled then batted his eyelashes innocently in Nora's direction.

The blonde detective snorted then shook her head. "You scare me. Do you have us bugged or something?"

"Would that I could, detective. I'd happily plant one on you." Nora shook her head at his double meaning and Darius chuckled with delight. "Can I watch?" Darius bit into sandwich then wiped at a few stray sesame seeds that clung to his bottom lip.

"No," Nora said easily. "Bad enough I'm going to have to do this as it is." She glanced at Nikki then away, still puzzling over her motivation for accepting Shriver's off the wall offer. Even now she could remember the dress in Nikki's hands, what it had looked like against her skin. She pinched the bridge of her nose and gave her head a little shake, trying to toss the enticing images away and the physical reactions those images caused. She'd wonder about all this later, when she didn't have a killer to catch.

"Why would you want to come to a stupid photo shoot?" Nikki asked as she nibbled a French fry.

"You gonna be in a nice expensive dress?" Darius replied.

"Yeah," Nikki said slowly.

"Is she?" Darius hooked his thumb over his shoulder at Nora who rolled her eyes in reaction.

Nikki grinned, her eyes dancing as she watched her partner. She didn't realize her smile had softened or that Darius had noticed. "Yeah."

Darius shook his head. "Being mighty clueless for a cop today, sugar." He grinned when Nikki swatted him on the shoulder.

Nora smiled at their antics but her grin faltered when Nikki's gaze lifted and met her own. Something in her chest fluttered and she coughed in reaction.

Nikki sighed dramatically before bringing the conversation back to more important matters. "So what did you find on Pettit?"

Darius licked a dab of salad dressing off his thumb. "She's mostly into women's causes. Works with all the pro-choice outfits in town. A couple of empowerment groups."

"Like Progressive House," Nikki added.

Darius nodded since his mouth was too full of meat and cheese to answer.

Nora frowned. She was vaguely aware of Progressive House but as much as the place kept coming up in conversation she was going to need to read up on it. Beyond being some sort of charity outfit for women, she didn't know much about it.

"She's pretty abrasive from what I hear. Very Annie Oakley."

"Annie Oakley?" Nikki asked in confusion.

"Anything you can do I can do better," Nora warbled in a decent singing voice. "She's apparently got a thing about men, huh?"

"About besting them and making their manhood shrivel…" Darius laughed. "She's had a few run-ins with your boy Archer. He did not come out on top when it came to any of them." He looked at Nikki. "Do I need to go see Nestor today?"

"If you're free, I'm sure he'd love the company." Nikki took a bite of her pasta salad. "My dog," she explained at Nora's baffled look.

"Ah." Nora filed that information away, intrigued. She wondered what kind of dog a woman like Nikki Beaumont would own.

"So tell us about these incidents," Nikki prompted with a nudge to Darius' shoulder.

"The first happened about a year ago. Apparently Archer had come to 'fetch' his wife from that art gallery opening… you know the one in the warehouse district last year that caused all that controversy."

Nikki nodded while Nora kept eating.

"Apparently that's when Delana met Ms. Pettit for the first time. This chick didn't like what she saw with Archer and she gave him what-for. He left with his ears burning bright red as those in attendance applauded."

"Yeesh." Nora took a sip of her soda. "What else happened?"

"Two weeks ago there was a run-in between them at Progressive House. A couple of witnesses saw them arguing but couldn't hear what they were saying." Darius paused for effect. "He hit her."

Both Nikki and Nora stopped chewing.

"You're kidding. There wasn't a police report." Nora gave her partner a look.

"That's because she hit him back. Harder." Darius looked over at Nikki. "It's a wonder the guy can still get it up as many times as women have kneed him in the privates."

Nikki took off her sunglasses and perched her right elbow on the back of the bench. "Did he know Pettit was sleeping with his wife?"

Darius shrugged. "Maybe. One thing is for sure. He threatened Pettit when he left. Told her he'd make her pay."

"Maybe he did," Nora said. "By killing her lover."

"His own wife?" Nikki murmured uneasily. "That's twisted for you if that's the motive."

The three of them ate in silence for a few minutes, thinking over that unsettling thought. Darius finally set aside his sandwich and started fishing around in his jacket pocket. He took out a slip of paper and handed it to Nora.

"What's this?" Nora asked.

"A list."

The blonde detective set her soda down and opened the wrinkled piece of paper. "I can see that." She skimmed over the six names written in precise print. "Who are these people?"

"I've been doing a little more digging into your boy Archer," Darius said with a shrug. "It's taken me to see some pretty seedy places."

"What kind of seedy places?" Nikki asked.

"Rat-trap hotels. Brothels. But it's not so much the locations as a person that's got me a little wigged."

"A person on this list?" Nora handed the paper over to Nikki.

Nikki wiped her hand on her jeans before accepting the page. She skimmed over the names.

"No. The guy's name is Ed Castillo. He's a foreman for one of the shipping firms Archer bought out."

"Castillo. That sounds familiar." Nikki frowned.

"It would. Word on the street is that he's into some serious drug running shit."

The details started coalescing in Nikki's brain. "Hispanic. About six two, two hundred thirty pounds. Flame tattoos running up both arms."

"And don't forget the pretty teardrop with the skull inside it next to his right eye," Darius reminded her.

"Tasteful," Nora drawled.

"Yeah. I remember the guy," Nikki said. "Narcotics caught him in a raid about eight months back. We suspected he was fronting drugs for someone bigger but couldn't get the guy to flip."

"So where is he now?" Nora wondered.

"Back on the job," Nikki said with disgust. "The evidence disappeared. We had nothing to hold him on."

"And you've tied this guy to Archer?" Nora asked Darius with surprise.

"Aside from being his employee, word on the street is that Castillo is Archer's… fixer."

"His hitman?" Nora shifted so she could see both her partner and Darius better. "Are you telling me…" Her gaze went to the paper in Nikki's hands. "Is that a list of victims?!"

Nikki's brown eyes dipped to the paper. Something cold seemed to touch the base of her spine then started a sickening crawl upward. "There are six names here, Darius."

"That's just the ones I've heard about. Who knows if there's more?"

Nora tunneled her hands through her hair. "Jesus. You're telling me Archer had all those people killed. That he hired Castillo to do it."

"That's the word."

"Christ," the blonde detective growled. She shot to her feet and began to pace. "What in the hell did those people do to him?"

"Some of them were… indiscretions. Most of them, actually," Darius clarified. "But there are a few who may have gotten in the way of something Archer wanted."

"Like a shipping firm," Nikki said feeling nauseous.

"Yeah. One of them… one of them simply made an enemy out of the guy. They were competitors."

"Mangold. Thomas Mangold." Nikki picked his name off the list. "He owned a bunch of property down by the docks. He was found stabbed to death seven months ago. I thought I recognized his name but it just clicked for me."

"How the hell did no one ever connect six murders to Archer?" Nora demanded.

"The guy's good. Castillo is one sick and scary sonofabitch. The two of them together make one damn disgusting but efficient team. Archer's got some of the right people in his pocket."

"Like cops," Nikki said quietly.

"Like cops," Darius agreed.

They were all quiet a moment.

"Do you think Castillo killed Delana Archer for his boss?" Nora sat back down as her brain started sifting through this new and alarming information. She'd known Archer was going to be a tough case but the stakes had just gotten a lot higher.

Darius sighed. "I'd start there." He studied his hands.

Nora's eyes narrowed. "What? You've found out something else?" It was hard to imagine how this case could get much worse.

He was impressed that she could read him so easily. "Archer has been… looking for info."

"On what?" Nora asked.

"Not what. Who." Darius licked his lips and turned his head to face Nikki.

The taller detective stared at him blankly for a moment. "Me?" she finally asked. "What's he looking at me for?"

"You've definitely made his list, Nik. First you hit the guy where it hurts and now you're trying to put him away for murder. You've not exactly left a positive impression with him." Darius took a sip of his soda.

"Are you sure he's just looking at Nikki?" Nora asked with concern. Her green eyes were riveted to her partner as Nikki studied the names with a frown.

"Feeling left out?" Darius drawled.

Nora shifted her gaze and it turned into a glare. "It's one thing when he's looking at us both. It means he's trying to find leverage, trying to find something to make one of us throw the investigation. If his attention is solely on Nikki then it's personal."

"It's personal," Darius agreed.

"I knew the bastard recognized me," Nikki suddenly said, her voice oddly faint. "It took a few minutes, but I saw something in his eyes."

"He certainly remembers now. You and your dad embarrassed the hell out of him last Christmas," Darius reminded her.

"I'm not worried," Nikki said with easy confidence. She'd handled worse than Archer and Castillo while she was in narcotics.

"Nikki…" Nora's voice was quiet and the slightest bit husky. She was completely unsettled by this development, more than she thought she should be. "I'm sure you can take care of yourself," she said slowly. "But Archer might have killed his wife to get back at someone. Who's to say he won't go after a loved one?"

Nikki went cold. She sucked down a breath then immediately reached for her phone. Darius put a hand over hers, stopping her from making the call.

"I got associates watching your pop," he said gently, easily discerning who she was worried about the most. "No one has been near him. There is nothing on the radar to indicate he's in any danger."

Nikki took a slow, measured breath. She wasn't sure if she should be frightened or pissed. At the moment anger was winning by a landslide. "He'd have to be an idiot to go after my daddy."

"Archer's a lot of things… an idiot ain't one of them. He knows he couldn't pay off enough people to make that one go away." Darius rubbed her knuckles with his thumb. "You just look out for you, okay, sugar?"

Nikki nodded. She still felt like she was freezing and suddenly longed for the jacket in Nora's car. Her stomach soured with this development and she shoved the rest of her lunch back into the bag, no longer interested in eating it. Her first case in Special Crimes and she was becoming a part of it instead of solving it.

"Hey," Nora said after a moment. "Maybe this is something we can use to our advantage. You obviously rattle the guy's cage…"

The thought made the other detective feel mildly better. "Maybe," Nikki conceded before taking a sip of her soda, relieved when her hand didn't shake. She decided a swing by the gym was in order. She was in the mood to hit something.

Nora glanced at her watch. "We need to get going if we're going to track Pettit down today."

"Try the Arts District. She's apparently helping out with some feminist showing at Vange's Gallery."

Nikki leaned over and gave Darius a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks, my man."

They were almost to the car when Nora suddenly turned back. "Forgot my drink." She tossed Nikki the keys. "Be right back."

Nikki nodded absently and kept walking.

As Nora approached she saw Darius watching her with a knowing smile. He handed her the cup.

"Whatcha want to say to me, sugar?"

Nora fiddled with the drink in her hands. "You really think he won't go after her father or were you just saying that?"

"A bit of both," Darius admitted. "But he remembers her now. She made a fool out of him. And the fact that she's one of the primaries on this case… That will stick in his craw."

Nora glanced over her shoulder as she watched Nikki slip inside the car. A fierce protectiveness surged inside her, making it almost hard to breathe. Damn if she was going to let Archer add Nikki's name to that list. "You think he'll try something."

"Ain't a doubt in my mind, detective." He tossed a bite of bread to a returning pigeon. "And I'd keep an eye on Pettit, too. She's not on Archer's good side, either."

Nora took her time getting back to the car. Chewing over everything Darius had told them, she almost walked right past the El Camino. With a shake of her head she slid behind the wheel. Her observant eyes noted that Nikki had slipped her jacket back on. "You okay?"

Those warm brown eyes darted to look at her and Nora felt something freefall in the pit of her stomach.

"Fine," Nikki lied. She looked away. "Let's just nail the son-of-a-bitch." She almost jumped when she felt warm fingers on the back of her left hand. Her gaze jerked reflexively back to Nora's.

"We will," Nora promised. "But you might have to put up with me sticking kind of close until we do."

Nikki started to protest but lapsed into silence when Nora shook her head. "Nikki… you're my partner now. I know we've only known each other a handful of days, but I take that responsibility pretty damn seriously. If the roles were reversed you'd have my back. Right?"

It was the one saving grace in all this, Nikki decided. That Archer was targeting her and ignoring Nora. "Yeah," she agreed as she felt something in her soul settle.

"Besides," Nora drawled as she released Nikki's hand and started the car. "I actually kind of like you, and I'd be really pissed off if something happened to you on my watch."

A smile twitched at the corners of Nikki's mouth. "That goes both ways," Nikki answered. "Archer and Castillo are a lot more than we bargained for when we started this whole investigation. Just make sure you don't get yourself hurt watching my back."

"I can't promise that," Nora confessed.

Neither could she, Nikki realized as they backed out of the lot.

Part 6

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