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
Vange's Gallery was located just on the fringe on the Arts and Warehouse District. Nora eased the El Camino into a tight spot alongside the street before the two detectives stepped out into the mid-afternoon sun. They stared at the place, taking its measure for a moment or two. The front was plain brick, crumbling in spots. The front door had been recently painted with a new coat of stark white. Large windows framed the sides of the doorway and allowed passersby to peek in at the photographs inside.
Nora bet there was a lot of peeking if the half nude photographs she saw on display were any indication. Idly she wondered if she should charge the owners with public indecency. "Have you been here?" she asked her partner.
"Not yet. Let's check it out." Nikki yanked on the handle and they stepped inside.
Ceiling fans stirred the warmish air. Nikki swiped at a loose tendril of dark hair as it fell over her eyes. She approached the nearest photograph, a shot of two people intertwined in an intimate embrace. Her eyebrows elevated as she took a closer look, realizing both subjects were women. "Huh," Nikki murmured with mild surprise.
"Lovely, isn't it?" a voice intruded and both detectives turned toward it.
"It's nice," Nikki replied as she eyed the tiny woman who had appeared beside them. No more than five feet tall the newcomer had startling silver gray eyes that looked out from behind a pair of thick rimmed black glasses. Her red hair was a mop of loose curls flowing down as far as mid-ear before stopping abruptly. Her ensemble was a clashing mix of colors and styles, designed to scream 'artist' but instead it probably caused people to think 'nut job' instead.
"You the owner?" Nora asked.
"One of them. My life partner and I own the place." She eyed them. "Are you two looking for a piece for your place? We also take on some commission work. If you'd like something taken with the both of you "
"Oh, we're not " Nora shook her head rapidly then gestured at herself and Nikki. "We're partners "
"I figured as much, sweetie," the woman said.
Nikki bit her lip and looked at the old wood floor, trying desperately not to giggle.
Nora jerked back her jacket to reveal her shield. "Not that kind of partners," she explained feeling both embarrassed and very lame. "I'm detective Nora Delaney. This is detective Nikki Beaumont." She did a double take when she realized her partner was trying not to laugh.
"My apologies, detective," the owner replied, but she still eyed them both skeptically. "Too bad. You two make a striking couple. Amy, my partner, would love to photograph you."
Nikki grinned shamelessly as she finally looked at Nora again. "Two offers in one day, Detective Delaney. Maybe you're in the wrong profession."
Nora made a face at her. "I didn't get your name," she said to the owner.
"Madeline Steel. So what can I do for you today?"
"Tracy Pettit," Nikki said simply.
Madeline frowned. "What has Trace done now?"
"We just need to speak with her," Nikki said. "She may have some information that could help us with a case we're working on."
The gallery owner nodded in sudden comprehension. "The Archer murder."
"She's not back, yet. We're expecting her in around three." She sighed. "We didn't want to tell her over the phone that Del was dead."
"You knew Mrs. Archer?" Nora asked.
"Only in passing. We met at a few showings, when she would come with Tracy." She looked at them both, frowning suddenly. "You don't think she had something to do with Del's death "
Nikki eased closer to Nora. "Would that be hard to believe?"
"Very," Steel said, her voice sounding pinched. "Tracy is a lot of things, detectives, not all of them nice, but a killer she's not." She watched as Nikki and Nora exchanged glances. "Tracy has been out of town. There is no way she could have harmed Del." She turned just as a nearly six foot tall woman with a short shock of black hair walked in the room. "Oh, there you are. Trace, these women need to talk to you."
Nora's body tensed the instant their eyes met. She was already moving before Tracy Pettit had processed the thought to run. Without a second thought, she threw the car keys at Nikki, felt her partner turn and bolt for the front door. "Police!" She shouted as Pettit pivoted and ran.
Pettit was fast, her long legs eating up the hardwood floor as they flew through the store room then out an open garage door in the back. Nora poured on the speed, feeling her thighs burn with the effort. In the distance she heard squealing tires. Then it was all Nora could do to pull up as Pettit abruptly crashed into the side of the El Camino and flipped over the hood. Nora opted to slide over it after her, and was on her before the woman even realized what happened.
"New Orleans PD," Nora informed her as she put a knee in Pettit's back to keep her from resisting. "Don't move."
Nikki climbed out of the car and drew her sidearm, keeping it trained on the suspect.
"Way to hustle," Nora told her with a grin.
Nikki shrugged. "I just had to drive." She smirked though before turning her attention on Pettit, who was cursing and twisting underneath Nora's hold on her. "Stupid move, Tracy," she informed the struggling woman as Nora slapped handcuffs on her. "We just wanted to talk."
"Fuck you," Pettit wheezed. "Archer sent you. Like I won't end up at the bottom of the delta."
Nora hauled Pettit to her feet and slammed the woman up against the side of the car. The passing thought crossed her mind that the suspect better not have messed up her paint job. "Richard Archer? You think he paid us to kill you?"
"Just do it, bitch," Tracy snarled. "Was it you who tried last week? Well you missed, didn't you?"
Nikki holstered her weapon and grabbed the woman by the elbow. "We're not here to hurt you. We're investigating the death of Delana Archer."
And just like that the fight went out of Tracy Pettit's body. "What?"
"You knew Delana Archer?" Nora demanded.
"Del's dead?" Tracy's gaze locked on Nora's. "But " She shook her head. "No "
"You said someone tried to kill you last week?" Nora prompted.
Pettit shook her head as tears slipped unchecked down her cheeks. "Last Sunday. I've been in Birmingham all week. Someone shot out my tire on the interstate. There's a police report "
Nikki walked back and leaned inside the car, picking up the radio.
"What happened to Del?" Tracy demanded.
Nora tuned out her partner as Nikki checked on Pettit's alibi. "She was stabbed to death in her home."
"Jesus. Oh Jesus " Tracy shook her head then sat on the edge of the car. "Son-of-a-bitch. I didn't think he'd Mother fucker "
Nora put her hands on her hips and tried to catch her breath. "Your friends didn't tell you? The owner knew."
"I just got back. I pulled up ten minutes ago." Tracy jerked her head at a navy blue Jeep parked a block or so behind them.
There was a spare tire on the driver's side of the car, Nora noted with interest. "No one called you?"
"I left my cell phone at home. No one knew where I was staying."
"Why would Richard Archer want you dead?"
"I was fucking his wife," Tracy snarled, an effect that was ruined when she sniffled. "Good enough reason for you?"
"I was under the impression Archer and his wife didn't get along. That he had several affairs of his own. Why would he care?" Nora tested carefully.
"Because she wasn't a person to him! She was a thing. A trophy wife that gave him the money and prestige he needed to get into the high life. He beat her. Raped her. I was trying to get her away from that. I was trying to give her a better life!"
"Your ultimate cause, huh?" Nikki asked when she'd finished with the radio. "Did you love her, or was it all about rescuing a damsel in distress?"
"Fuck you!" Pettit started for the taller detective, ignoring the fact she was still cuffed. Nora slammed her back against the side of the car.
"Answer her. You've got a reputation for being a bully, Ms. Pettit. I wonder where someone would get that idea."
Pettit's dark eyes regarded them both. "I don't put up with people's shit. I might come off as a bitch, detective, but I'm not a bully. Unless I'm trying to get some uptight, conservative dickweed to come off some of his cash for a good cause." She gave Nikki a closer look. "I know you. You're Arthur Beaumont's kid."
Nikki said nothing as she laid her arms down on the top of the door.
"So you loved Delana. Is that what you're telling us?" Nora asked.
Tracy frowned. "No. I wasn't there, yet. Maybe if she could have gotten away from Richard. If we could have seen what we were like out from under that shadow." She shook her head. "But I liked her. I hated what he'd turned her into. But the woman she was under that I liked her. There was fire in there. It had been banked, smothered, but there was still some fire in that soul."
"There is a police report," Nikki told her partner.
Nora nodded before reluctantly turning Pettit around to un-cuff her. As tempting as it was to run Pettit in, she really hadn't done anything wrong except piss her off. Irritating as that was, it wasn't illegal. Nora slipped the cuffs back into her holster, mentally prepared to deal with Pettit's attitude. She was mildly surprised when Tracy merely turned back around and slumped against the car once more. "Richard Archer has an alibi for the time of his wife's death," Nora informed her, curious to see her reaction.
"Then he hired someone to kill her."
"You seem sure of that," Nikki said.
"You met him last Christmas, Detective," Pettit drawled. "What do you think?"
Nikki's eyes narrowed. She didn't like the woman in the least and was glad they'd managed to keep from crossing paths before. "Did Del ever mention anything to you about any of Archer's affairs?"
"Nothing directly. But she knew. The wife always knows even when they think they don't."
Nora had to agree with that one. "Where can we find you if we have more questions?"
Pettit fished a wallet out of her back jeans pocket. She handed Nora a card before turning her eyes to Nikki. "So Arthur Beaumont's kid is a cop. Who knew?"
The cop in question remained silent.
"You looked mighty fine last year in that Versace number, detective," Pettit drawled. "I especially liked the view of those long legs when you kneed him in the nuts." The air went out of her as she was suddenly thrust back against the car with unnecessary force.
"Watch your mouth," Nora warned in a voice laced with steel. Her hand was around Pettit's throat but she didn't squeeze no matter how much she wanted to. "That's my partner you're talking to."
"Lucky you. Does she taste as good as she looks?"
Nikki caught Nora's arm as the detective reared back to swing it. "Nora, she's baiting you." She was startled by how swiftly and completely Nora came to her defense.
The tough girl attitude was back but both detectives could see the tiny lost look in Tracy Pettit's eyes. She wanted Nora to hit her, wanted to feel something other than the pain she was so obviously in.
"Get the hell out of here." Nora dropped her arm, mentally kicking herself for reacting the way she had. It was out of character for her, and a tiny voice in her head wanted to examine what had set her off so severely, but she studiously ignored it.
Pettit eyed them for a string of breaths then decided not to push her luck. She shoved past Nora and went back the way she'd come.
"Charming," Nikki drawled as she felt the tension ease from her body. "I do believe that's a whole new level of crassness."
"Considering the type you dealt with in narcotics, that's saying something." Nora turned to look at her. "You okay?"
Nikki's lips quirked. She was charmed by Nora's concern. "Believe me; I've had worse comments tossed in my direction."
"I think in a weird way they were compliments."
"Hmm. Thanks for defending my honor, though." Nikki smiled when Nora predictably blushed.
"Apparently I'm not her type," Nora said with a laugh.
"You're too butch," Nikki replied with a squeeze of Nora's impressive bicep. "She likes a girly girl."
"Butch?" Nora pretended to sound offended as she kept an eye on Pettit's retreating figure. "Gee, thanks."
Nikki giggled, a nice sound Nora found herself reacting to with a little laugh of her own.
"Come on. Let's get out of here." Nora took the keys from her partner and slipped behind the wheel while Nikki went around and climbed in the passenger side. She gave her a partner a sideways look. "So I guess you're a girly girl then, huh?"
"I'm a closet butch," Nikki informed her in hushed voice. "I get all frilly on the outside but I bet I can bench press more than you." That got Nikki a full throated laugh out of her partner.
Nora cranked the car and shook her head as she pulled out into traffic. "Why any woman would find Pettit attractive "
"It's the confidence thing," Nikki answered readily. "She's comfortable in her own skin."
"You think someone who's comfortable with themselves is attractive?"
"It's an attractive trait," Nikki clarified.
"Did you think she was pretty?"
Nikki tried not to react to what she was sure was just a casual question. "Not my type," she said truthfully. She gave Nora a sideways glance. "You can't imagine the two of them together," she guessed.
Her partner shrugged. "It's not because they're both women," Nora said. "It's just she didn't seem like Delana's type either."
"Someone strong and confident? Someone who treated her with respect and came to her rescue? I think she was exactly what Delana Archer wanted and needed. Or at least she thought she did." Nikki eyed the passing scenery as her thoughts whirled.
Nora glanced at her, feeling a sudden suspicion. "Have you " She realized what she was about to ask and abruptly clamped her mouth shut.
A slow, devilish smile formed on Nikki's face as she turned to look at Nora. "Were you just about to ask me if I'd ever slept with a woman?"
Nora's face heated as she pretended to focus on driving. "Sorry. I don't know where that question came from. Just "
Nora's head whipped around so fast she almost clipped the back bumper of a parked car. She overcorrected and swerved into oncoming traffic just missing a trolley. She pulled into an empty space along the side of the road and slammed the car into park. "Okay," she said slowly when her heartbeat had slowed. She risked looking at Nikki to see that her partner was still giving her a knowing grin. "You're yanking my chain."
Nikki shook her head. "No. I'm not."
They stared at each other for a moment. Nora swallowed, feeling more than a little intrigued by the revelation. She blinked. "Sam the guy Syd mentioned "
"Sam is short for Samantha." Nikki tried to keep breathing steadily. "Now Lee on the other hand, Lee was a guy I dated before Sam."
"Syd thought we were "
Nora nodded stupidly. She was aware that Nikki was watching her with a more worried expression now. "You're "
"Bisexual. Daddy actually prefers to call it 'greedy.'"
Nora nodded again as she took a breath. She had other friends that were gay, but somehow this news had caught her completely off guard. She glanced at her partner again, losing herself for a long moment in Nikki's soft brown eyes. She cleared her throat. "Why does that not surprise me?"
"You just about wrecked the car, Nora. I think it did surprise you."
The other detective laughed and it released some of her tension. "I mean you're just so free and open " She shook her head. "It suits you."
Nikki tilted her head, unsure, but thinking that she'd just been paid a compliment. "Does that bother you?" she asked hesitantly.
"No," Nora replied instantly. "No. Shit. I'm sorry. I must seem like an ass." She looked at her again. "A closet butch, huh?"
Nikki laughed this time. "I love to shop. I love shoes. I adore my makeup. And my uncle Mike taught me to build a racecar from the tires up."
Nora bit her lip as she watched Nikki through her bangs. Her affection for the other woman swelled a little more. Damn it if she didn't really like her new partner. "You keep me on my toes, Beaumont."
The taller woman let out the breath she'd been holding. She hadn't meant to just blurt out her sexuality like that. She was relieved that Nora was okay with it. "What about you?" she teased.
"What about me what?"
"Have you ever " Nikki gave her a half-lidded look and was rewarded with the sight of another blush crawling up Nora's chiseled cheeks.
"No." Nora cleared her throat. "Only steeds have checked into this stable."
The saying made Nikki laugh and she was charmed when Nora seemed pleased by that. "You never wondered?"
Nora's gaze unconsciously wandered over Nikki's features. She remembered how badly she'd wanted to see Nikki in that dress. "Maybe wondered," she said a little more seriously. "I'm sure everyone has wondered."
Nikki was all too aware that she'd be happy to give Nora a demonstration. "You don't know what you're missing," she replied, her voice playfully husky.
"So " Nora desperately tried to come up with something to say. "What is your type?"
Dark eyebrows arched skyward. "I don't really have one," Nikki answered slowly. "For me it's always been about the person."
Nora licked her lips and nodded. "Then I can see why Pettit isn't your type."
"What? Because I have taste?"
The blonde detective grinned and risked another peek at her partner. "Do me a favor?"
Nikki could think of several favors she's happily do for her partner. "Sure."
"Don't tell Dan."
"Why?" Nikki asked suddenly feeling a little defensive.
"Because the horny bastard will be on us about a threesome till the end of time."
Nikki bit her lip then burst out laughing.
"You think I'm joking," Nora muttered but she couldn't help but chuckle. "I'm serious."
"I know. That's why it's so funny." Nikki wiped her eyes. She studied Nora a moment. "If you weren't " She took a breath.
Nora glanced at her and their eyes met.
"You've got that confidence thing going on," Nikki said as her chuckles wound down.
"And that's an attractive trait?" Nora asked remembering Nikki's early comment.
"Even more so because you aren't aware of it," Nikki admitted honestly. "If you weren't my partner and if you swung that way " She playfully bumped Nora's arm.
Nora managed a smile even though she was suddenly very short of breath. She could feel an odd tingle in her belly. Pretending she was imagining it didn't seem to make it go away. "Thanks." She grinned. "I don't have to worry about you making a pass at me do I? I mean, I just got rid of that kind of partner."
Nikki smiled, relieved that her usual forthrightness hadn't gotten her into trouble. "You should be so lucky."
A cell phone rang. Nora reached into her jacket to retrieve hers, realizing that her hands were actually shaking. She flipped the phone open. "Delaney," she answered.
"It's Darius, but pretend I'm someone else."
Nora blinked and felt her stomach sink. "Hi dad. What's up?"
A chuckle. "Who's your daddy, sugar? I thought you'd want to know word on the street is that Castillo has been hired for a job."
"Really?" Nora said casually. "Do tell."
Darius got decidedly more serious. "I don't know. But my money is on Pettit. Or that pretty little lady sitting next to you at the moment."
Nora glanced sideways at her partner who was watching her with a politely curious expression. "Well I'll keep that in mind, thanks," she answered. "That's good to know."
"Keep your eye on her, Nora. I love that girl like a member of my own family. I'm trusting you to help me keep her safe."
"You know I will, dad. I really think we should let the others in on the plans, though."
"Nuh-uh. She'll go all Rambo on you. Just stick close. I've got her on nights but you take care of her days. Got me?"
Rambo??? "Right. Okay. Well I gotta go. I'm working."
"Love you, sweetie," Darius joked as he disconnected.
"Love you, too," Nora said feeling rather inane as she hung up. She looked at Nikki again who had narrowed her eyes. "What?"
"That's the problem with cell phones. They display the number of the incoming call on the outside." Nikki tapped the face of Nora's phone. "What's going on? I recognized Darius' number."
Nora swore inwardly. Her partner really was damn observant. "Nikki "
"Just tell me."
"Darius said you'd go all Rambo on me."
Nikki leaned back. "Rambo? I'm so going to kick his ass for that."
The blonde detective merely gave her a pointed look.
Nikki ignored it. "What did he learn?"
"Word on the street is that Castillo's been hired for a hit."
"Mine?" Nikki asked calmly.
"Or Pettit. We'll need to put a protective detail on her." Nora gazed at her worriedly. "Nikki, I appreciate that you're a cop, and from what I've seen so far a damn good one. But we may be dealing with a man who has killed seven people. I don't want to mess around on this."
"I can take care of myself," Nikki said defensively. Tendrils of fear were squirming through her, though. She thought of Delana Archer's autopsied body in the morgue and tried not to shiver.
"I know that. But you don't have to do it alone."
Nikki blinked then took a breath. Nora was very different than her last partner who had insisted on being top dog and had often smothered her with his over protectiveness. "He may not be after me," she said in a more subdued voice.
"I'm not going to take that chance."
How could she say no to those damn jade eyes? Nikki sighed. "Fine. But we don't tell Dan."
Nora started to protest.
"He'll pull us from the case, Nora. At least me anyway. Then Archer will still have gotten what he wanted."
The blonde slumped back into her seat and ran her hands through her hair. She didn't like it but she understood it. "All right," she agreed reluctantly. "But if things start getting hairy if we know for sure you're the one in his sights "
"I can live with that," Nikki murmured. She only hoped that wouldn't turn out to be the most ironic thing she ever said.
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