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
Thunder woke them both. It vibrated the windowpanes, rattling them into reluctant wakefulness. Nikki's eyes blinked open, and she stared for several confused moments at an unfamiliar ceiling. The scent of candles came to her, mingled with the pleasing smell of clean cotton sheets and the seductive quality of Nora's perfume. She took a slow, deep breath and realized she heard not only rain but also purring. She followed the path of her right arm down to the cat nestled next to her fingers. Reba looked blissfully content, oblivious to the apparent storm raging outside. Finally Nikki turned her head then sucked down a startled breath when she saw familiar green eyes at very close range.
Distantly, Nikki noticed the bands of gold around Nora's pupils for the first time, marveling a little at them until her partner lifted a curious eyebrow. "Hi," Nikki said in a voice husky with sleep.
"Hey," Nora answered softly as another grumble of thunder sounded outside. Her lips curved into a lazy smile as she took a moment to observe Nikki this close. She lifted her arm and studied her watch in the low grey light of the room. It was almost four thirty in the afternoon. "Jeez."
"Getting there. We must have been wiped."
Nikki yawned and stretched, feeling the skin warmed sheets ripple around her body. "Well we have had a few eventful days."
"There is that." Nora stretched as well, testing her body's limits gingerly. She was pleased that she wasn't as sore as she anticipated and hoped her luck would still hold out tomorrow.
"How you feeling?" Nikki asked as she watched her with guilty pleasure.
Nora's eyebrows shrugged rather than her shoulders. "Like I went a few rounds with a much bigger and nastier person than me."
Nikki slowly rolled onto her side, reminding Nora of a cat as she did so. The taller detective put her head on her fist and regarded Nora with a bemused expression. "That may be so, partner, but you still won."
"Yeah I did, didn't I?" Nora responded smugly then laughed a little when Nikki poked her in the side under the covers. "Watch the stomach," Nora reminded her with a smirk. "My bruises have bruises." She took a moment to simply look at her partner, glad that she'd been fast enough, strong enough to stop Castillo from hurting her. Her thoughts must have shown in her eyes because Nikki's gaze unexpectedly softened and a small, beckoning smile eased onto her lips.
Nora cleared her throat and looked away before tossing the sheet back. She was startled by the flushed feeling that swept through her body, but she was damn well not going to think about what had caused it. She glanced around and realized with a bit of surprise that Reba was nowhere to be seen. "Huh."
"What?" Nikki asked around another yawn, completely unconcerned to be lying in her partner's bed at the moment.
"What about her?"
"She always sleeps on my left side."
"Well she's sleeping on my right at the moment," Nikki answered blithely.
Nora sat up in surprise then cursed a blue streak when her stomach and back protested. The bed jostled with her movement and Reba lifted her head and shot her owner a cross look. Something in Nora's stomach fluttered at the sight.
"What?" Nikki asked.
"She's never done that before."
Nikki seemed to understand what Nora meant. "She knows I'm a pet person. Don't you pretty thing?" Nikki drawled as she scratched the cat behind the ears.
Nora could hear the purring ramp up like it was right next to her ear. "She's just never " She shook her head at the cat who was now watching her placidly over the curve of Nikki's bare thigh. Nora forced her gaze away from the expanse of skin. "I guess she likes you."
Nikki smiled. "She has good taste."
Nora eyed Nikki for a moment, trying to think of something to say. If her partner had any idea what Reba had done to the last three people who'd occupied the same space in Nora's bed she doubted Nikki would be as quick to put her hand anywhere near the cat. "You hungry?" was all she could come up with.
"Starving, actually," Nikki replied after considering it. "Let me treat you to dinner. I can have something from Nola's delivered."
"Nola's?" Nora recognized the name of one of Emeril Lagasse's restaurants, but she'd always guessed it was a bit high on the price scale for a cop. Not for Nikki obviously. "Sure," she said slowly.
"You trust me to order for you?"
Nora's gaze went to the cat before leaping back to Nikki's mischievous expression. "Sure," she said again. She reached over and grabbed her cell phone, handing it to her partner. "I'm going to go get a bath."
Nikki watched her partner gingerly slip out of bed before padding barefoot toward the bathroom. She tried to be inconspicuous as she leaned over. No harm in admiring another woman's muscular legs, right? She grinned when Nora disappeared from sight then dialed a number from memory. Her grin turned to a smirk when she heard the water running. Idly she wondered what Nora would think if she tried to join her in the tub.
The blonde detective blinked her eyes open and looked around. "Jesus," she muttered when she realized she'd dozed off in her tub. "Yeah," she called out in a raspy voice.
"Dinner is here," Nikki called back before Nora heard her moving away from the door.
"Dinner?" Nora murmured. She was mildly alarmed at how long she must have been in the bath. The last thing she remembered was turning off the damn water. She climbed out, grimacing as her back tightened. A few minutes later, she emerged clad in her robe, her feet in sock-like slippers. Outside the storm still raged, occasional flickers of lightning casting interesting shadows across the walls. Nora took a breath and immediately noticed a scent that made her stomach growl with interest.
"What in the hell smells so good?" Nora asked when she arrived in the kitchen. She drew up short when she saw Nikki had lit a few candles. A bottle of wine was open on the table and breathing. Two place settings were out, and Nikki was in the process of transferring their food to their respective plates.
"Hey. I ordered you the garlic crusted Texas redfish," Nikki replied as she finished doling out Nora's entrée and sides. She placed her own food on her plate, shrimp and grits, a Nola favorite of hers. She then carried one more container to the fridge. "Chocolate peanut butter cake for later."
So that's what the smell was. Nora came closer and gazed down on her plate as Nikki returned to her seat. "Nikki, you didn't have to do all this." No doubt the meal had cost a small fortune. Nora hefted the chilled bottle of wine and glanced at the label.
Her partner hesitated then looked up at her. "You didn't even hesitate to put yourself between me and a bullet. Let me buy you a nice dinner, okay?"
The earnestness and gratitude in Nikki's eyes caused Nora's cheeks to warm. What the hell, she decided. Setting the wine back where it belonged she dipped her head in acceptance. "I guess chatting about the case over a decent dinner doesn't sound like a bad idea."
"Ha. This is way more than a decent dinner." Nikki was relieved Nora was giving in so easily. She poured her partner a glass of wine.
Nora sat. She felt Reba brush against her bare ankles. The cat probably wanted a bite of whatever smelled so damn good which seemed to be pretty much everything in front of her. Nora picked up her fork then took a bite of her wild mushrooms. "Wow."
"Wait till you try the fish," Nikki replied as she forked up a mouthful of her cheddar grits. She chased them down with a sip of white wine.
Nora wasn't surprised at how easily the fish flaked as she cut it with her fork. She was, however, totally unprepared for the explosion of flavor on her tongue. "Oh God," she muttered. "I think my mouth just had an orgasm."
Nikki nearly spit her wine across the table. Instead she choked, feeling the alcohol burn her nose and the back of her throat. She wiped her mouth with a napkin. "I have found your weakness," she declared in a husky voice.
"Food?" Nora took another bite. Savored it. "Partner, you keep feeding me like this and I'll put myself between you and a bullet every day."
Nikki smiled but it didn't reach her eyes. "I'd really rather you didn't."
Green eyes lifted and met Nikki's shadowed gaze through the candlelight. "Sorry I gave you a scare. I just didn't think."
"You acted on instinct. Lucky for me." Nikki chewed on a forkful of shrimp and bacon. They regarded each other through the small flame for another silent moment before Nikki looked away. "So why do you think Archer sent Castillo after me?"
"Other than the fact you kicked the guy in the privates?"
"It's been almost a year. He could have sent the guy months ago."
"Obviously we've rankled him somehow."
Nikki considered that. "I don't know. All of this it just feels like Archer is reacting. Like he's scared."
"Probably because he knows we're going to bust his ass for murder."
"But why kill her?" Nikki asked. She struggled to voice the jumbled thoughts she'd been having about the case. Her fork made designs with her food. "He's kept her under his thumb all this time. He enjoyed it. Why would he end it now?"
The blonde took a sip of wine. Her eyebrows elevated at the expensive taste. "Pettit?"
Nora stopped eating for a moment. "What are you thinking?"
"I don't know." Nikki shook her head, frustrated with her inability to articulate her churning and disjointed thoughts. "It's just Archer probably killed six other people and was so careful he never landed on a single cop's radar. Now it's like there are all these spotlights on him. He may have an alibi but then there is Castillo." Nikki went totally still when the thought that had been niggling her brain all last night finally came into focus. "That's it."
"Care to share?" Nora asked as she took another bite of her mushrooms.
"What if Archer didn't send Castillo to kill me?"
"Then I'd say Castillo is really lousy at following orders."
Nikki pursed her lips. "Let me clarify. Archer sends Castillo to kill me but maybe it's Archer's way of getting rid of Castillo."
Nora sat up a little straighter, intrigued by the notion. "You think Archer was counting on us taking Castillo out."
"We both knew we'd never pull the guy in without one hell of a fight. He would have thrown himself over the fire escape before going back to prison."
"Archer would win either way. Castillo kills you, we're off the case and it gives him a day or two of wiggle room, maybe even gives him the chance to pull in cops that are friendly to his cause. We off Castillo and a major piece of evidence goes out the window." Nora considered the angles. "Son-of-a-bitch."
"I don't know why I think this call it instinct if you want, but I don't think Castillo was a person we could use against Archer."
"Because he wouldn't roll on him?"
"There is that, but think about the motive for all of Archer's other killings."
"They were personal," Nora said slowly. She processed that. "You think Archer has something personal against Castillo?"
"Like maybe Ed knew who killed Delana Archer. And maybe he was using that against Dick."
Nora abruptly went still. "Shit."
"I just I just remembered something Castillo said to me when we were struggling on the fire escape. It didn't hit me then. I was too busy trying to stay alive and he had a gun to my head." Nora's gaze went unfocused.
Nikki felt her bite of shrimp go down like a stone. She coughed. "He had a gun to your head?"
"There wasn't a bullet in the chamber when he fired," Nora said in a distracted tone. "He was reloading when I jumped him." She missed her partner's face as Nikki blanched. Warm fingers curled around her wrist and Nora looked up into Nikki's stricken eyes. She blinked, realizing how she would have felt had the words come from Nikki's lips. "Sorry."
Nikki's thumb idly stroked the underside of Nora's wrist. "He almost killed you."
Nora felt her mouth go dry at the innocent touch. Her gaze dropped to Nikki's fingers and lingered there. "Um he almost killed us both. Several times in fact." She swallowed, feeling short of breath again. "He told me he was going to kill me. Then he was going to have fun with you the way he did with Delana Archer." Nora's voice grew softer when she realized how differently the night could have ended. Nikki could take care of herself, Nora was sure of that, but the thought of Castillo getting the upper hand of him touching Nikki
Nora covered the shudder that wracked her frame by tunneling her hands through her hair. She missed the loss of contact with Nikki's warm skin, but she didn't want her partner to know how much the thought affected her.
The rest of Nikki's glass of wine went down in one hard swallow. She licked her lips, feeling her insides shake with the news. What Castillo had said about his plans for her didn't disturb her nearly as much as the thought he'd had a gun to her partner's head, that he'd pulled the damn trigger. "Christ," she whispered as she refilled her glass then moved to fill Nora's. Instead the bottle was taken from her hand and set aside as Nora's warm, callused fingers intertwined with her own. Nikki inhaled sharply, her eyes lifting to Nora's intense green gaze.
"Hey," Nora said gently. "I wasn't going to let him touch you."
Nikki felt her stomach flutter at the words. "I was never worried about that," she confessed. "I know you have my back." She smiled and was rewarded when Nora's face eased into a grin as well. "I just I should have been up there on that fire escape with you."
Nora shook her head. "Too small. We wouldn't all fit." It was the right thing to say, Nora decided, as Nikki laughed, the tension ebbing from the room. She squeezed Nikki's hand, taking a moment to marvel at herself for taking it in the first place before she released it.
"So," Nikki said slowly. "He confessed to killing her?"
"More or less. Not outright but enough to satisfy me." Nora noticed how pale Nikki looked in the candlelight. "You okay?"
"Nothing a few more glasses of this stuff won't fix," Nikki muttered with a tip of her glass.
Nora smiled again before taking another bite of her dinner. She chewed in thoughtful silence. "So if Castillo killed Delana Archer where does that leave us?" she finally asked.
Setting aside her wineglass, Nikki rubbed the back of her neck. "It means either Archer hired Castillo to kill his wife or Castillo acted alone."
"Castillo has always been Archer's fixer. Why would he kill Delana without being told to do so?" Nora put her chin on her fist as she scooped up some mashed potatoes and sampled them.
"This is just a theory, but maybe Archer owed Castillo money and Castillo literally took his pound of flesh."
Nora shook her head. "Castillo would know Archer's weaknesses and Delana wasn't one of them."
That was sad but true, Nikki admitted. "So Archer hired him, then."
Again Nora shook her head. "No. I think you're on to something with the idea of Archer reacting to all of this. He's been so cool and calm about the other murders. But this one is messing with him. It's sloppy. And you're right. It's putting a pretty damn bright light on Archer."
"So bright it's illuminating his other murders," Nikki added thoughtfully.
"Someone killed Delana Archer to get us to look at her husband," Nora suggested.
"Why not send us evidence? Why go so far as to kill his wife?"
"It's like you said, this is personal."
Nikki took another bite of her own meal. "You think Castillo was setting Archer up?"
"No. The only way that would happen is if Castillo grew a conscience and I think it's far more likely it would be snowing in hell before that happened. I think Castillo killed Delana and tried to hide the fact from Richard. Richard must have started to suspect or was worried we'd find out about the other murders."
"So he sends Castillo to kill me, hoping we'd off Castillo instead."
Nora leaned back and took a sip of her wine. "That tracks for me."
"Me, too." Nikki leaned forward and put her elbows on the table. She felt Reba brush her leg and absently offered the cat a piece of her bacon. "So someone else hired Castillo to kill Delana."
"But who? Archer has more enemies than I have miles on my car." Nora broke off a piece of bread and nibbled it. "Someone would have to hate Archer something fierce. I mean marrow deep hate to order something like that done to the man's wife."
"That's what's off about this to me," Nikki said. "Whoever it is knows about the other murders yet they don't know Archer and his wife aren't exactly the loving couple?"
Her partner had a point and Nora found it was an annoying little wrinkle to an otherwise sound theory. "Maybe they didn't care. It was a gruesome rape and murder of a rich socialite. Usually the nastier it is the more media coverage. The real killer didn't care about Del, he cared about doing everything he could to focus all eyes on Archer."
"So maybe we're dealing with a loved one of one of Archer's other victims. They'd certainly have motive." Nikki finished off the last bite of her meal then washed it down with another sip of wine.
"We'll need to touch base with Georgia. See what she's found about Castillo. Maybe that will help lead us to the killer."
"Have you seen any of the media reports on the case?" Nikki asked.
"I ignore them like the plague," Nora confessed.
"I don't need the pressure," Nikki admitted. She got to her feet and went to the fridge. "So why hasn't Archer bolted?"
"Any sane person would. Archer is a sociopath. He sees this all as a damn game." Nora watched as Nikki opened the fridge and retrieved their dessert. She quickly polished off the rest of her meal with three quick bites.
"And now we're unwitting players," Nikki pointed out as she handed Nora another fork. She sat and opened the container allowing the scent of chocolate to waft across the table. "Man that smells good."
"I think my mouth is about to have another orgasm," Nora said under her breath.
Nikki pretended not to hear her. "Dig in. I have a feeling we're going to have to enjoy ourselves while we can. Tomorrow is not going to be a fun day."
"Just one more question to consider," Nora tossed out there.
"Why not tell us Castillo killed his wife?" Nikki guessed. "Still a lose/lose proposition for the guy. We'd still wind up connecting Ed to Dick."
"Yeah." Nora took a bite of the dessert. "Damn," she said with pleasure.
Nikki chuckled. "So where do we start in the morning?"
"With Darius," Nora said around another bite. "You call him. I'll talk to my brother. He knows some of the street folks. Maybe that angle will turn something."
"Then we can meet with Georgia. Compare notes. See what the worker ants turned up today while we were sleeping."
"Sounds like a plan."
"Good. Then let's stop talking about murder and focus on eating pie."
Nora smiled, all too happy to oblige.
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