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 this is Progressive House. Nora stood in the lobby, her head tipped back to take in the winding wrought iron staircase twisting its way up three floors. There was thoroughly waxed cherry wood under her feet and sunny, sand colored walls around her. She could hear doors opening and closing above. The rise and fall of women's voices as the residents came and went.
The detective stuffed her hands in her pockets and rocked on the balls of her feet. Nikki was in the administrative office, located behind the heavy oak door to the immediate left of the entrance. It had probably once been a parlor. Or an atrium. Or whatever rich people who lived in ridiculously ginormous mansions called a room that was to the left of the front door
Nora sighed and rolled her neck. It popped loud enough to make her wince and she had a passing moment to curse Tracy Pettit's name. If she had to make a trip to the chiropractor because of that
The door opened and Nora's train of thought derailed as Nikki emerged. The taller detective gave whoever was inside a wave before closing the door behind her. She gave her partner a grin.
"Aren't they going to let us look around?" Nora asked in a slightly miffed tone. She relaxed when Nikki held up a master key. "Oh."
"Oh ye of little faith." Nikki motioned with a jerk of her head for Nora to follow. They passed through a set of locked double doors before starting down a long, red carpeted hallway.
"This place is huge." Nora glanced at the portraits lining the wood paneled walls. Most of them were women. She didn't recognize a single name on the nameplates and finally skipped reading them all together, until she reached the end of the hallway. She came to an abrupt stop, struck by the image of a beautiful brunette with warm coffee eyes and chiseled cheekbones.
"You're good," Nikki drawled when she saw what her partner was looking at. She stepped up next to the portrait and the similarities became even more glaringly obvious.
Nora looked at the name. Virginia Beaumont. Nikki's mother's name had been Virginia. Why was that so damn fitting? "Your mom?" she asked unnecessarily.
"Yeah," Nikki said softly. She gave the frame a nudge, straightening it a fraction. "She was pretty actively involved."
Nora finally bit the bullet. "Okay. What exactly is this place?"
Nikki gave her a reproachful look, but there was glint of amusement in her eyes. "Took you long enough to ask. I'm surprised you didn't look it up on the internet."
"I've been busy."
"Hmm." Nikki threaded her arm through her partner's and gave her a gentle tug. "My mom had this best friend when she was growing up, Isabelle Lively. She married into a pretty wealthy family, but her husband he beat her. No matter what mom did, she couldn't get Izzie to leave. She thought she had no where to go. And when you think about it, she really didn't. Not then."
Nora canted her head so she could watch the face of her slightly taller partner. Nikki's warmth felt good in the overly air conditioned hallway. Again she was struck by how oddly at ease they were with each other. Normally she hated people who took this kind of liberty with her person, but none of her normal defenses came up with Nikki. "So it's a battered women's shelter?"
"Not exactly." Reluctantly, Nikki turned Nora loose so she could unlock another door. She held it open while Nora walked past her. A moment later they were inside a decent sized personal theater. There were enough chairs to seat about fifty people and a small stage at the front. Gold gilded accents stood out in sharp relief against the red velvet on the walls. "It's an empowerment center. It serves as a place for these women to go, but it also teaches them to be stronger. Progressive House offers classes in everything from business to computers. I even teach self defense courses here on Saturdays."
They passed through the theater and through another set of doors leading to a gym. Several women were working out with punching bags. Nora watched, impressed, as an instructor worked the women through a series of kickboxing routines. She glanced at Nikki again as her partner eyed the goings on with a distinct look of pride on her features.
"How many of these women go back to their abusers?"
Nikki turned her head and looked at her. "Three out of ten."
Nora's eyebrows shot skyward. "That's a pretty damn good average."
Nikki made a noncommittal noise.
"How many have been hurt by their husbands or boyfriends after going through all this?"
"Three," Nikki said quietly. "But we've had seven put their abusers in the hospital when they tried something."
"How ironic," Nora murmured after watching the women for a few silent moments.
"All those years Delana Archer raised money for this place and never used it for herself."
Nikki swallowed hard and was surprised when she felt the burn of tears. "She wasn't ready. None of this," she said softly. "None of this works if the woman isn't ready."
"What happened to Isabelle?" Nora asked gently.
"Her husband killed her. She turned up four months later a floater in Lake Pontchartain."
"Nikki!" The instructor finally noticed the two women and came jogging over. She was only about five foot two with her red hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. She was pretty, even without makeup, and Nora was impressed with the cut of the twenty- something year-old's arms.
Nikki smiled. "Hey, Cat. How's it going?"
"Not bad. We got a kickass group in here today," Cat replied loudly enough for the women to overhear. Her gaze turned to Nora appraisingly. "Cat Sullivan," she introduced herself. "You must be Nora."
"Nice to meet you," Nora replied as she returned the firm handshake with one of her own. She gave Nikki a questioning look.
"Cat pretty much runs this place. I mentioned that we'd probably be stopping by."
Cat dabbed at the sweat on her face with the towel draped around her neck. "You give her the tour?"
"Some of it," Nikki answered as she and Nora followed Cat across the gym to a small set of benches. Cat dropped her towel onto a gym bag and picked up a bottle of water.
"So," Cat said after she taken a few swallows. "You wanted to talk to me about Delana Archer and Tracy Pettit."
Nora sat on the bench, glad to be off her feet. "What was your impression of each of them?" She shifted to the left a hair when Nikki joined her.
The shorter woman took another drag on her water bottle as she considered her reply. "I knew Archer was an abuse victim. You don't do this as long as I have without seeing the signs. I tried to talk to her. Tried to get her into the program. It was so weird that she worked so hard to raise money for the place she needed most and then never used it."
"Do you think Archer's husband forced her to do it? That maybe it was some sort of sick joke for him?" Nora asked.
Cat frowned. "I never thought of that. It wouldn't surprise me, though."
"What about Pettit?" Nikki asked.
"Tracy Pettit. Yeah " Cat sat on the bench. "She's " She shook her head. "She's a hell of a fundraiser."
"I'm sensing a 'but' here," Nikki prompted.
"A pretty big one, actually. I think Tracy takes advantage of some of these women."
Nora leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees. "You think she preys on some of them? Uses Progressive House as her own little "
"Dating pool? Yeah, I do. It's like shooting fish in a barrel for her. Some of these women are very vulnerable, and Tracy knows all the right things to say to them. In some cases I think she's even been good for a few of the women, but that still doesn't make what she's doing right."
"I knew I didn't like that girl," Nora growled.
Nikki shifted so she was facing Cat better, her shoulder brushing up against her partner's. "What about Richard Archer?"
"Richard." Cat shook her head. "I hate to admit this but I slept with the guy." She held up a hand when she saw Nikki and Nora's looks. "Before he met Delana. Actually I think the two were dating at the time, but I didn't know about it till afterward."
"What did you see in the guy?" Nikki demanded.
"He's good looking. A little like Richard Gere. Charming when he wants to be. And I was younger and stupider back then. Like you never knocked boots with a loser?" Cat rallied.
Nikki glanced at Nora and was mildly bemused when she caught her partner staring at her with a rather speculative expression. "What?"
Nora shook her head. "So why break it off with him? Did he hit you?"
"Hell no. I was a pretty physical person even then. I might be short but I'm feisty. I think that's why he left me. He doesn't like strong women. Maybe for a quick roll in the hay but that's it." Cat sighed. "He was awesome in the sack. I'll give him that, but as a person?" She shook her head. "I can't believe I didn't see what a jackass he was."
"He's fooled a lot of people," Nikki said.
"Yeah. Makes me sick to think I slept with the kind of man that puts women like these in here, though." Cat stood.
"We heard Pettit and Archer got into it."
The instructor looked down at Nora. "They did. At a fundraiser several weeks ago. Tracy said something to him and he hit her. Hard. I mean he punched her right in front of God and everybody."
"And what did she do?" Nikki asked.
"After she spit out a tooth and a mouthful of blood, she grabbed hold of his crown jewels and squeezed. Never in my life have I heard a man make a sound like that." Cat's features relaxed into a tiny grin. "Then once Archer was on his knees she head butted the bastard. I don't think she broke his nose, but she sure bloodied it."
"Sounds like she embarrassed the hell out of him," Nora commented in a low voice.
"Whatever she said to him first did that," Cat replied. "She really pissed him off."
Half an hour later the two detectives stepped back out into the late afternoon sun. Both slipped on their sunglasses as they made their way to the El Camino parked at the curb. They would be off duty in another hour, but Nora was reluctant to let the day go. She peered over the roof at her partner. "You got plans tonight?"
Nikki gave her a startled glance. "Why?"
"I was thinking about taking a stroll down by the docks."
"Hmm. Looking for a hitman, maybe?"
"Dan will have our heads."
"Only if he finds out. I just want to get a bead on Castillo. Maybe get a head start with him for tomorrow."
Nikki drummed the fingers of her right hand on the sun-warmed roof of the car. "Sounds like my idea of fun."
"Mine, too," Nora agreed.
They slid inside the car and shut the doors.
"We need to get out more," Nikki joked.
"Three o'clock, heads up."
Nora casually glanced to her right. The sun was past setting and was now only a fiery red sliver on the horizon. Around them dock workers were clocking out for the day, another shift taking their place. The pervasive scent of fish and diesel clung to the air along with the smell of the muddy Mississippi rolling by a few hundred yards away. Nora squinted, her eyes skimming the sea of humanity walking their way. Finally a small group passed in front of the headlights of a forklift. The flame tattoos Darius had mentioned stood out just like he said they would.
"Tacky," Nikki drawled.
"You think tattoos are tacky?" Nora asked, wondering if she should be offended.
"Not yours. Yours are gorgeous. Those are so overdone. I mean flames. Come on. Think of something original."
Her tattoos were gorgeous? Nora had to shake her head to get it back in the game. "He's a big guy," she murmured.
"Yep. Looks like his muscles swallowed his neck."
Nora snorted. "Do we chat him up tonight?"
Nikki considered. "Let's see where he goes. I'd rather get him away from that crowd around him at the moment."
Nora had to agree. The company Ed Castillo was keeping looked about as friendly as he did. They watched him wander over to an old, beat up Harley. Moments later he was roaring out of the parking lot. Nora shifted the El Camino into gear and followed at a discrete distance.
"Maybe he's on his way to my place to whack me," Nikki joked.
"That's not funny."
Nikki leaned back in her seat and studied her partner in the glow of the dashboard lights. After a few silent minutes passed she decided a little conversation was in order. "Can I ask you a personal question?"
Oh boy, Nora thought. "Sure," she answered slowly.
"You and Dan. Did you ever " Nikki waggled her eyebrows suggestively.
"Uh no." Nora kept her eyes glued on the taillights of Castillo's Harley.
"He's gorgeous and he's obviously interested. I just thought maybe you two had " Nikki grinned when she detected the blush creeping up Nora's neck.
"No," Nora said a little more firmly. "I don't date other cops."
Nikki blinked when she felt a pang deep in her chest at Nora's words. She took a breath and ignored it. "You've never dated another cop?"
"The rule is in place now because of a stupid mistake I made not long after I graduated from the academy." Nora frowned as Castillo made a right turn. He was headed for a section of town populated by chic restaurants and hard to get into clubs. He obviously wasn't headed home.
"Now that sounds like a good stakeout story," Nikki drawled. She glanced around, noticing their surroundings. "Where in the hell is he going?"
"That's what I was wondering." Nora made another turn. "You think he's meeting someone?"
"Well he's not getting into one of these places without going home and washing the dock smell off him." Nikki's nose wrinkled.
Just then Castillo pulled over in front of a small, closed coffee shop. He parked the bike and hopped off before heading into the alley next door, apparently not seeing his tail slide into a space two stores back.
"What is he up to?" Nikki murmured. She shot a look at Nora. By silent agreement they both got out of the car.
Nora took the lead as he maneuvered through the shadows. Music was blaring all around them, the sounds of steel drums from one establishment blending rudely with the thumping of heavy bass and the blare of trumpets from another. Communicating was going to be out of the question. For a second she thought of turning back, but Castillo could have her partner in his sights and the thought was enough to keep Nora moving.
They followed him for five blocks. Castillo mostly kept to dark and smelly alleys, and it was in one of them that they lost him. They were next to the last club on the street, and the bass was so loud they could feel it in the soles of their feet. A streak of lighting flickered overhead, illuminating the whole alley for one blinding moment. Nora blinked, wondering if she'd seen what she thought she had.
Her body reacted before she could decide.
The strong scent of old beer and asphalt invaded Nikki's nose and lungs as she was thrown hard to the ground. Her palms scraped through grit as did her cheek and she felt the wet sensation of blood on all three. "Nora!"
Her partner was suddenly on top of her, covering her longer body as best as she was able.
"Get the fuck off me!" Nikki shouted back, not at all pleased. She didn't know what had gotten into her partner but she was damn well
The shot kicked up loose pieces of gravel inches from Nikki's face, and she recoiled not having heard it. The heavy bass from the club had covered the sound of gunfire but somehow Nora had known.
Nora grabbed her partner by the collar of her jacket and jerked, rolling both of them behind a rusted metal dumpster. She felt the impact of the next shot striking the corner, sending out a brief shower of sparks. Anger rose up in her, smothering her initial wave of fear as she drew her weapon.
"Well shit!" Nikki growled. She drew her own weapon and took a breath, trying to steady her nerves. "You got bat ears or something?"
Nora didn't answer. Instead she swung around the corner of the dumpster and started firing. Nikki cussed again as her partner's shots boomed like thunder against the mostly empty dumpster. Another shot impacted the metal behind them and Nikki heard something rattle.
"He's got armor piercing bullets!" Nikki grabbed the hem of Nora's jacket and jerked her down as more shots punched through the dumpster and clanged around inside.
"I'm going around!" Nora motioned with her hand just in case Nikki couldn't hear her. Her partner shook her head adamantly. "Just stay down. It's you he's after!"
All the more reason to do the opposite, Nikki thought sourly. She watched, helpless as Nora bolted for the other side of the alley as a hail of gunfire lit up the dingy passageway. The fear roared back. She wasn't afraid for herself. If it was her time then it was her time. But she would be damned if she let someone take out Nora while trying to get to her.
Recklessly, Nikki stood up and started firing blindly into the mouth of the alley. When the next shot came at her she ducked, but not before she'd seen a muzzle flash from the wrought iron railing five floors up at the old hotel at the end of the alley. "Bastard," she hissed as she unlocked her clip. Her gaze went to the other side of the alley, searching for Nora. Her partner was no where to be seen.
Was she down? Nikki felt her heartbeat arrest at the thought. "Nora!"
Only the music and another gunshot answered her. Nikki swore again as she jammed a fresh clip home. She wanted to go after Nora, but both of them running around like idiots in the dark and unable to hear one another didn't seem like a good idea. All she could do was wait and worry. One more than the other.
What the hell am I doing?
The logical part of Nora's brain kept screaming the question at her as she broke into a run around the front of the building. Castillo had to be on the fire escape at the end of the alley. It gave him the perfect angle. He'd led them right to it. Right into a nice, neat little trap. If the lightening hadn't glinted off the muzzle of his gun If she hadn't been looking up
She had to kick a door open to get access. It splintered inward, the sound muffled by the noise from the club next door. Nora couldn't hear shots being fired but she could feel it in the base of her spine, the knowledge shivering up her nerves and making her almost jerky with panic. The smart thing to do was to call for backup. The smart thing to do was to wait him out. The smart thing to do was to not do this alone.
But he was trying to kill Nikki. She couldn't let that happen.
It was the one thing that made sense. Protocols and procedures could all go to hell.
As she rounded the landing on the third floor she heard a shot. The report boomed down the stairwell she was in, and, for a second, she thought he was shooting at her. Nora poured on the speed, taking the steps two at a time. At least Castillo was still firing. That meant he had to have something to shoot at.
On the fifth floor, she jerked the door open and pointed her 9mm out into the empty hall. The building appeared to be vacant but undergoing renovations if the buckets, lumber and sawdust scent were any indication. She edged down the hallway, fighting the urge to run toward him. A spark hit the wall behind him. A bullet, Nora realized. A bullet from Nikki's gun.
"Atta girl," she said under her breath. Of course she was going to have to take care not to get shot by her own partner.
Then she heard Castillo curse as he dropped down. Faintly Nora heard the pinging of spent bullets hitting the floor. He was reloading.
No time. She flew out onto the balcony, hoping like hell Nikki didn't shoot her. Castillo saw her shadow and looked up just as she descended on him. A swift right hook sent him toward the rusty floor of the fire escape. A kick sent his gun skittering the opposite direction.
But then Nora's luck ran out. Castillo was on his feet too fast for her to get out of the way. His bulk slammed into her, and she hit the doorframe hard enough to make her teeth rattle. In a moment of odd detachment, she noted he reeked of the docks, just like Nikki had said he would then she was slumping to her knees as he got off a good punch to her stomach. She retched once before her survival instincts kicked in again and she rolled on to her back, bringing her knees in and kicking at his shins. He howled in pain and stumbled back into the hallway.
Nora held up her gun and identified herself as a police officer. She'd barely finished speaking when a bucket nailed her in the arm and her sidearm dropped with a clang onto the fire escape. A bullet punched through the brick near her head and she dove for both cover and her weapon, feeling rather than seeing Castillo bearing down on her.
"Gonna kill you, bitch," Castillo snarled as he slammed Nora's face into the rusty flaking metal under foot. "Then I'm gonna have some fun with your partner. Just like I had with Delana Archer."
Nora went still when she felt the cold muzzle of his .357 press against her temple. Then he pulled the trigger.
Nora's whole body jerked as the gun fired.
And clicked impotently.
She yelled in a rage and shoved him back, twisting around until she could deliver a brutal kick to his manhood. He screamed and fell away from her. Rather than go for his gun, she went for hers, scooping it up and pivoting back to face him. He was already coming at her, a murderous look in his eyes.
"Police officer. Stop or I'll shoot," she screamed over the music.
He didn't stop.
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