Chapter 8

 

"Julia? Couldn't this have waited until morning? It's after midnight," Joseph Cassinelli said in a sleepy baritone.

Julia raked her fingers through her hair as her stomach did flips. Her father always made her nervous, and she felt like a naughty little girl again. She tugged on the hem of her sweater and cleared her throat.

"I know it's late, Dad. I'm sorry." She winced at the aggravated sigh on the other end of the line.

Joseph Cassinelli sat up in the center of his king-size bed and adjusted the collar of his imported silk pajamas. He rubbed his palm across the top of his precisely trimmed silver hair. Red neon numbers glowed on the alarm clock on the bedside table, and he scowled at them impatiently. He had to be in court in less than eight hours, and his pre-trial ritual always included a good night's sleep before presenting his opening argument. He hated interruptions in his routines, especially where his work was concerned.

"All right. What is it?" He asked irritably.

Julia hesitated, sensing her father's foul mood. "Dad, I need to know if you're still friends with Martin Davis."

A long pause followed her question. Finally, the sound of a long, noisy breath filled her ear as her father exhaled slowly. She knew that annoyed sigh all too well.

"You called me at…" Joseph checked the time again. "12:46 in the morning to ask me if Marty Davis and I are still friends? Dammit, I have opening arguments in a very important case first thing tomorrow. There had better be a good reason for this."

She almost hung up the phone. Then the image of Maggie's face filled her mind and strengthened her resolve. She would do whatever it took to keep the woman she loved safe, even if that meant talking to her father. Julia took a deep breath and plunged ahead.

"There is a good reason. I'm…involved with someone." She pretended not to hear her father's groan. Resolutely, she continued. "She's a reporter."

"A reporter? Are you out of your mind?" Her father interrupted her. "Last time, it was a model, now another reporter. You're just looking for a scandal, aren't you? For god's sake, Julia, I had a hard enough time dealing with all the fallout from the last one. What was her name? Christine?"

"Kirsten. And that has nothing to do with this," Julia said, suddenly wishing she hadn't bothered to call. "Maggie's life might be in danger, and I think Martin Davis's daughter has something to do with it. I was hoping you could tell me something useful about her."

Joseph Cassinelli swung his legs out of bed and tucked his feet into his soft leather slippers. He turned on the bedside lamp, squinting at the harsh light. As long as he was up, he decided to work on his case, and he started flipping through a thick folder.

"Allison? I haven't seen her in years. I heard she was engaged, but I haven't seen a formal announcement yet. I expect her father would have told me if it was true. We still play golf every Friday." He reached for his reading glasses and laughed mockingly. "I'm sure Allison wouldn't be involved in anything as sinister as what you're suggesting."

He went on before Julia could speak. "You know, just because you turned your back on your upbringing doesn't mean that everyone has. Marty Davis's daughter wouldn't go mucking around with the kind of lowlife scum that you seem enjoy associating with."

Julia let out a harsh, barking laugh. "Oh, that's perfect! Especially coming from a man who spends his life defending rapists, murderers and thieves! Wait, I forgot. You only associate with rich lowlife scum. That makes quite a difference, Dad."

Joseph threw his glasses on the bed. His face and neck were flushed dark red with anger.

"You ungrateful little brat! I gave you everything and you just threw it all away. I may not approve of his specialty, but at least Drew is going to law school. You could have been anything you wanted to be, and now look at you."

"I am doing what I want to be doing."

He shook his head, not even listening to her. "You must really hate me. Well, you can just give the damn trust fund back, then."

Julia stiffened. No matter what they started talking about, the conversation always seemed to come back to money. When she had turned twenty-five, she had inherited a sizeable amount of money, along with the deed to the family vineyard.

"You didn't give me that trust fund. Grandfather did," she said in a dangerously low voice. "He also gave me the vineyard and the house that you have so conveniently forgotten to move out of."

"Is that what this is about? You want the damn house?" Joseph asked.

Julia sighed heavily. She had had enough of this conversation for one night. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Maggie descend the stairs and take a seat on the bottom step. Tiredly, Julia rubbed the back of her neck, trying to ease the stiffness that had settled into the muscles.

"No, this has nothing to do with the house," she replied after a long pause. "Keep the house, for all I care. I'm happy where I am. Just forget it. I'm sorry I bothered you."

She hit the off button and carefully placed the phone on the coffee table. Her hands shook, and she scowled at them irritably. Talking to her father always had this effect on her. Dammit, Julia. Don't let him get to you like this, she told herself. Oh well, it might not have been a total waste of time. Allison might be engaged, huh? Wonder if Danny Webber is the lucky guy.

As she turned over the possibilities in her mind, Julia stood and offered a feeble smile to her patiently waiting lover. She didn't want Maggie to know how much the phone call to her father had bothered her. Maggie rose as Julia approached, and without a word, pulled the taller woman into a tight hug. She rubbed Julia's back soothingly.

"You okay?" she asked, her eyes glistening with sympathetic tears.

Julia nodded. "I'm fine. I thought you went to bed."

Maggie tucked her arm around Julia's waist and guided her up the stairs. "I did. But then I heard your voice down here, and I don't know…I had this feeling that you were upset. I caught the end of the conversation. Your father?"

They had reached the bedroom, and Maggie sat on the edge of the bed while Julia changed into her pajamas. She frowned as Julia went into the bathroom to brush her teeth without answering her.

"Let me guess. You don't want to talk about it," she said when Julia returned. Together, they slid under the blankets, and Maggie rested her head on Julia's shoulder.

"There's nothing to talk about, really. I called him because I thought he could help us."

"Help us? With what?"

Reaching over, Julia turned off the lamp on the nightstand. "I thought he could give me something about Allison Davis. I didn't get much, but it turns out she might be secretly engaged to someone. I'm betting on Danny."

"Danny and Allison? Okay. So what does that mean?" Maggie asked curiously.

Julia shrugged. "I don't know yet. Maybe their company is in trouble. Or maybe they're using Netsports as a front for something else." She started throwing out suggestions. "I don't know, but I'm going to find out."

"I'm sure you will," Maggie said, patting Julia's stomach. "I have a feeling you can find out anything you put your mind to. Just promise me you'll be careful."

She wanted to suggest that they take Henry's advice and leave the matter to the police, but she knew that wasn't an option for Julia. Her tall, stubborn private investigator wasn't about to let this go. Okay, fine. But there's nothing that says you can't watch her back for her. Right, Maggie? Right. Nodding to herself in the dark, Maggie tried to stifle a yawn.

Julia chuckled faintly and pressed her lips to Maggie's temple. "I'll be fine. Now get some sleep. It's been one hell of a long day."

"Yeah, it has," Maggie agreed, yawning again. "I love you, you know."

"Oh yeah? That's good to know. I love you, too."

In the dark, Maggie sighed. "So, I guess our Halloween trip is out, huh?"

"Not out. Just postponed," Julia said.

"I'm sorry, Julia. I really wanted to make this holiday special for you."

"Maggie, you make every single day special for me. We'll get to spend plenty of holidays together, I promise."

Within minutes, the rhythm of Maggie's breathing became slow and steady, and Julia knew that the reporter had fallen asleep. She was glad; Maggie needed the rest. Staring up at the darkened ceiling, Julia planned her strategy. In the morning, she would pay a visit to her old college buddy, Daniel Webber. Then, depending on the information she drew out of him, perhaps she would look up Allison Davis, as well.

Exhaling slowly, Julia closed her eyes, but sleep would not claim her. Her father's voice played over and over again in her mind. In her head, she knew that he was wrong about her, but his words cut deeply just the same. They always had. Nothing she had done had ever been good enough for him. As she stared into the gloom, a long-forgotten memory surfaced. In her senior year of high school, she had been the captain of the varsity volleyball team. They had had the best season in the school's history and had gone to the state championships that year. It was the only time her father had attended one of her tournaments. It had been close, but her team lost. She remembered the disappointment in his eyes as she had come off the court. All of her teammates' parents had been proud of their kids, but not Joseph Cassinelli. In his eyes, it was first place or nothing at all.

Julia shook herself, pushing the memory back into the recesses of her brain. Whoa. Where did that come from? She sighed and rested her cheek against the blonde head nestled against her shoulder. Her father didn't matter, she told herself firmly. All that mattered was Maggie. She wrapped her arms more tightly around the reporter's sleeping body and closed her eyes.

****************************************************************

Henry parked his unmarked police vehicle in front of a newly renovated apartment building. He sneered at the fake adobe walls and the brightly colored mural that adorned them. He hated what all these yuppies were doing to the Mission District. This area used to have character, he thought. Now, corporate coffee chains were replacing the family restaurants, and the lovingly hand-painted murals that decorated the old buildings were being painted over. New buildings were springing up overnight, featuring carbon-copied versions of fake adobe and stucco, like Daniel Webber's apartment complex. Even worse, the new places were decorated with stenciled murals spray-painted by huge corporations. Henry's opinion of Daniel Webber dropped another notch.

Shaking his head in disgust, Henry stubbed out his cigarette in his ashtray. It was his second one that evening, and he felt a pang of guilt as he eyed the crumpled pack on the dashboard. He had been clean for months.

"I'll just finish off that pack." Henry muttered, getting out of the car. "Then I'll quit."

He walked up to the iron gate and flashed his badge at the security guard in the booth. After exchanging a few words with the guard, he stepped back as the gate slid aside. Henry double-checked his notepad, making sure he had the apartment number right. He scanned each door until he found 31B. It was ground floor unit, tucked into a secluded corner. All the lights were off inside, but Henry thought he could hear music playing. He straightened his tie and checked the gun holstered beneath his jacket before knocking sharply on the door. The music stopped, and footsteps approached. Henry tensed slightly as he heard the lock turn.

"Inspector Chow?" Clad only in a pair of blue boxer shorts and a t-shirt, Danny opened the door and stared at the police inspector.

"Mr. Webber." Henry greeted him politely. "I'm sorry. I know it's late, but I have a few follow-up questions to ask you."

Danny hesitated. His heart rate quickened, and he hoped the inspector wouldn't notice the beads of sweat materializing above his upper lip. Grinning broadly to cover his anxiety, he stepped aside and waved Henry in. He turned on the overhead light, revealing a sparsely furnished living room.

"Have a seat, Inspector." Danny indicated the rich suede sofa. "Give me a second to get dressed, and I'll answer whatever questions you have."

Danny retreated into his bedroom and picked up a pair of jeans from the bed. As he dressed, he looked longingly at the phone and wondered if he could risk a phone call. He didn't understand why the police wanted to talk to him again. He hadn't thought they had been suspicious about him at all. Biting his lower lip, he cast a glance over his shoulder towards the door. It was quiet in the living room, and Danny wondered what the inspector was doing. Probably bugging the phones or something, he thought. He couldn't risk calling anyone. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he went back into the other room.

Inspector Chow was examining the small fishbowl on the counter between the living room and the kitchen. He turned as Danny reentered the room. Danny smiled at him and ran his hand through his tousled sandy hair.

"Can I get you anything? I could make some coffee. I was reading over some reports in bed when you knocked." Danny offered, vaguely aware that he sounded nervous.

"No, thank you," Henry replied brusquely. He went into his no-nonsense cop mode. "I'll be quick, Mr. Webber." He flipped through his notepad. "The gun that was stolen from your office is registered to you. Correct?"

"Uh, yeah. Didn't we go over this already?" Danny frowned. He didn't like where this was going.

"Yes, we did. Bear with me," Henry said. "You've already been informed that your firearm was used in a homicide. Right?"

"Right. A homeless man. I feel really terrible about that."

Henry nodded. "Mmmhmm. I'm sure you do. Do you know a man named Edgar Machado? He usually goes by Eddie."

Danny froze as his guts tightened into knots. There was no way the police could have traced Eddie to him. He was sure of it.

"Never heard of him." He answered confidently. "Why? Is he the punk who broke into my office?"

Henry smiled. He had noticed the moment of hesitation when he had mentioned Eddie's name. "We have no reason to suspect him in the break-in." Henry paused and cocked his head to one side, pretending to be puzzled about something. "Why did you automatically assume that Eddie Machado was a criminal?"

Danny swallowed hard as sweat trickled down his back. "What?"

"You asked if he was the punk who broke into your office. What made you think he was a punk, Mr. Webber?"

"Uh, I…I don't know." Danny stammered. "I couldn't think of any other reason why you'd be asking me about him, I guess."

"Ah. Well, that makes sense." Henry nodded, noting the look of relief that passed over Danny's face. "Actually, Eddie Machado was found shot to death tonight."

The color drained from Danny's face and a loud buzzing filled his ears. He felt like he was going to pass out. Eddie was dead? How could Eddie be dead? He shot a sideways look at the inspector, who still appeared to be engrossed in his fishbowl.

"Really?" He croaked. "And what does that have to do with me?"

"Would it surprise you to hear that Eddie Machado was also killed with your gun? And we have reason to suspect that the same weapon was used earlier in an attack on two motorists west of Vallejo."

Henry was bluffing. The ballistics results on Eddie hadn't come back yet, and as far as he knew, nothing had been recovered from Julia's jeep. He was hoping that Danny wouldn't realize that. He was right.

"I already told you! I have no idea who stole my gun!" Danny burst out loudly.

Henry smiled affably and held his hands up. "Whoa. Easy, Mr. Webber. No one's accusing you of anything."

Danny glared at him. "Well, then why do you keep looking at me like that?"

"Like what, Mr. Webber?"

"Like I'm a fucking suspect! That's what! I didn't know that homeless guy. I didn't know Eddie Machado. Hell, he probably got caught in a bad drug deal or something."

On the outside, Henry remained implacable. Internally, though, he was doing a little happy dance. Daniel Webber knew something. He was sure of it now. He nodded, tucking his notepad back in his pocket.

"You're probably right." He agreed. "I'm very sorry to have bothered you so late."

Henry started moving towards the door. He paused on the threshold. "Oh, one more question. You said your partner, Allison, was vacationing in Seattle. Did she fly there or drive?"

"What?" Danny blinked rapidly, flustered by the change of subject. "Uh, she flew, I think." This was getting worse with every minute. First, this cop was asking questions about Eddie. Now, he was digging for information about Allison.

"Hmm. That's odd. I checked with the airlines, and she wasn't listed on any of their flights to the Seattle area." It was another bluff.

"I don't know, then!" Danny was becoming more and more agitated.

"Ah, so you're not that close to her?"

"No, we're just business partners." Danny lied.

Henry nodded again. "Okay. Again, I'm very sorry to have disturbed you. Have a good night, Mr. Webber."

He stepped outside and headed back towards the gate. Once he was out of sight, Henry pulled a strip of photos from one of those coin-operated booths out of his pocket. He smiled at the three pictures of Daniel Webber and Allison Davis. He had them. It was just a question of proving it.

As soon as the police inspector had left, Danny made a frantic phone call. He raked his fingers through his sweat-dampened hair.

"We've got trouble," he said. "That police inspector was just here. I'm pretty sure he suspects something. And why the hell didn't anyone tell me that Eddie was dead?"

"Relax, Danny. Everything's under control," Allison said in a soothing voice. "You just let me take care of it, baby. I have a plan."

Hanging up the phone, Allison turned to the barrel-chested man in the chair across from her. He was nearly a foot taller than she was, and he outweighed her by a hundred pounds, but Tom Becker was terrified in Allison's presence. She was unpredictable, and that made him nervous.

"The police just questioned Danny again," she said.

"They've got nothing on him." Tom shrugged indifferently. He thought Daniel Webber was a spineless weasel, and he didn't much care if Allison's fiancÚ got caught.

Allison tapped her index finger against her lips and hummed to herself. Without warmth, she smiled at Tom.

"No, they don't. You know Danny, though. He'll crack if they pressure him enough." She circled behind Tom's chair and put her hands on his shoulders. She leaned down until her lips were nearly brushing the top of his ear. "That's why you'll take care of this little problem for me, won't you?"

"Just tell me what you want, Ms. Davis. You want me to take care of the cop?"

Allison's long, slender fingers tightened around his shoulders, and Tom winced as her nails dug into his flesh. He could hear the ice in her voice when she spoke again.

"As tempting as it is, leave the inspector alone. Killing him would bring too much attention. We just need to divert his attention away from Danny. Maybe another fire would throw him off track." Her eyes sparkled at the thought.

Tom nodded. "I can do that."

"You will do no such thing."

Both of them jumped at the authoritative voice. Standing in the open doorway, a man gazed at them coolly. His dark hair was silvered at the temples, and despite the late hour, he was still dressed in an expensive charcoal gray suit. Reaching up, he loosened his tie and undid the top button on his spotless white shirt. Allison beamed at him and clapped her hands together.

"Daddy! You're home."

"Just in time, it seems." Councilman Martin Davis crossed the room and poured himself a drink. He sipped the amber liquid and rolled it around on his tongue before swallowing. "Allison, are you out of your mind?"

Allison's eyes narrowed and her lips tightened to a thin line. The councilman smiled at her indulgently before draining the liquid from his glass and pouring himself another drink. He shot a cursory glance at his daughter's silent cohort.

"Well, Tom, you’ve made quite a mess of things," he said flatly. "I just got a call from one of my attorneys. It seems someone is asking too many questions about me and about my family."

Allison scowled. "It's that reporter again, isn't it? I'll have her taken care of, Daddy. Don't worry about a thing."

The councilman slammed the heavy crystal glass down on the desk with a booming crack. "You will do nothing without clearing it with me first. Is that understood?" He skewered Tom with a withering look. "If you hadn't gone after that reporter with guns blazing, we wouldn't be in this mess. Didn't it occur to you that you would just draw more attention to us that way?"

Tom kept his eyes on the floor and wisely chose not to answer. He had been working for this family for years, and he was accustomed to their violent mood swings. There was no question in his mind that Allison Davis was her father's daughter.

"Daddy, we had to do something about the reporter. She was asking too many questions. It was only a matter of time before she found out that I was at the fire." Allison explained calmly.

"You don't know that, sweetheart." Her father corrected her. "Even if the witness had told her something, how reliable was he? Besides, that fire never should have happened."

Allison gave her father a puzzled frown. "But you said to get rid of the stuff."

"I said to get rid of it, yes. I never told you to set fire to the whole goddamn building. I certainly didn't tell you to murder a security guard, or a homeless man, and I know I didn't tell you to chase Julia Cassinelli down a busy freeway!"

"No, that didn't work out the way I had planned." Allison admitted with a sigh. "But I have something much better in mind this time. It involves Maggie McKinnon's brother. Want to hear about it?"

Martin Davis resumed sipping from his drink. Loosening another button, he sat down in his armchair and waited for Allison to reveal her latest scheme. As he listened to her plan, a pleased smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. This time, he thought, it just might work

*********************************************************

Quietly, Maggie padded downstairs, grimacing as her bare feet touched the icy floor. She wished she had remembered to put her socks on. The first pale light of dawn was hitting the kitchen window as she filled the coffeepot with water and carefully sliced a whole-wheat bagel in half. She liked the thickness of the two halves to be as equal as possible

Julia's paperboy had an arm like a cannon, and there was a loud thump as the morning edition slammed against the front door. Maggie held her breath, hoping that the noise hadn't woken Julia. No one stirred upstairs, and she exhaled in relief. Opening the door, she squinted across the street at the two police officers that had been assigned to watch them. She lifted her hand to wave at them as she retrieved the newspaper.

Maggie carried the paper into the living room and tossed it on the coffee table. She turned the television on, hurriedly muting the volume before the noise reached Julia's sleeping ears. An anchorman, wearing an expression of deep concern, was reading the story about their car accident the previous night. She turned the sound up a bit.

"….Julia Cassinelli, daughter of prominent local attorney Joseph Cassinelli, was the apparent victim of a bizarre attack last night. As she and an unidentified friend were driving home on Interstate 80 after a trip to Marine World, a gunman opened fire on their vehicle, causing it to spin out of control and crash into the guardrail. Fortunately, no one was injured, and police say they currently have no suspects. Anyone with any information about this incident is urged to call the San Francisco Police Department."

"I hate that picture," Julia mumbled sleepily from the middle of the stairs.

Maggie examined the photo that was still showing on the screen. It was the picture of Julia at the Black and White Ball. After another moment, the anchorman moved on to a story about a fistfight at a local school board meeting.

"What's wrong with that picture? I think you look gorgeous in it," Maggie said.

Julia grunted as she wandered into the kitchen with Maggie trailing after her. She rummaged through the cabinets for a pair of clean coffee mugs while Maggie buttered her bagel.

"That picture makes me look like someone I'm not." She shook her head. "I'm not a part of that world. I never was."

"That's not what Catherine said," Maggie murmured softly, recalling her rival's harsh words the day before.

Julia nearly choked on her coffee. Worried blue eyes darted to Maggie's face as she tried to guess the details of the reporter's conversation with Catherine Richards. She frowned, unable to read Maggie's expression.

"What exactly did she say to you?" Julia asked cautiously.

Maggie shrugged, trying to appear unconcerned. "It was nothing. She just implied that I was using you for your money, or something like that."

Julia swore under her breath, and her knuckles turned white as she gripped her mug so tightly that Maggie was sure it would shatter. Puzzled by her lover's reaction, Maggie crossed the kitchen and took the mug out of Julia's hands. She put her hand on Julia's forearm and felt the taut muscles beneath the skin.

"Hey, it's okay," Maggie said. "She was just trying to get to me. I knew she was full of it."

"No, Maggie. It's not okay. There's something I should have told you."

Julia kept her gaze focused on the wall behind Maggie's head, not trusting herself to look into her eyes. She felt Maggie's hand fall away from her arm and knew the reporter was preparing for the worst.

"Tell me," Maggie said, her whisper barely audible in the silent kitchen.

"Catherine and I were lovers." Julia paused, waiting for a response. When none came, she continued. "It was a long time ago, and we were only together for a few months. I ended things after something I said to her in private ended up in a front page story about my father."

"You and Catherine." Maggie repeated the words slowly, not quite believing what she was hearing. Things began to click into place. "That's why she hates me so much. We never really got along, but it got so much worse after I met you."

Stunned by Julia's revelation, Maggie walked out of the kitchen and started to head back upstairs. Julia chased after her, catching up to the reporter in the entryway.

"Maggie, wait!" Julia circled in front of her. "I'm so sorry. I know I should have told you before now."

"Yes, you should have." Maggie shot back, hurt and confused. "Why didn't you?"

"I don't know." Julia let her hands fall limply to her sides. "I didn't think it was that important."

Maggie shut her eyes. Did it really matter to her? She knew she had nothing to be jealous about now. Julia loved her, and she had never shown the slightest bit of interest in anyone else since they had met. In fact, she had displayed nothing but contempt towards Catherine. Still, she hated the idea of Julia and Catherine together, and she didn't understand why Julia had kept it a secret.

"How long ago was it?" Maggie asked, finally.

"Six years."

"Did you love her?"

"No," Julia said simply, and Maggie knew it was the truth.

Sighing, Maggie reopened her eyes and allowed a small, sad smile to touch the corners of her lips. Reaching out, she ran her thumb across the delicate, dark eyelashes across from her, brushing away the tears that had collected there. She laced her fingers together behind Julia's neck and pulled her close.

"It's okay," she said, kissing Julia's cheek.

Julia's chest heaved as she swallowed a sob. "Is it?"

"Yeah. I just wish you had told me a little sooner." Maggie played with a lock of Julia's sleep-tousled hair, weaving it into a thin braid.

"I know. I'm sorry. I'll do whatever it takes to make it up to you."

Maggie's eyebrows arched suggestively and she grinned. "Oh, really?" She drawled, her eyes twinkling "I'm sure I can think of some suitable acts of penance for you to perform."

Julia smiled tentatively at Maggie's bantering tone. "Maybe I should start saying a few 'Hail Mary's'?"

Maggie drew her in for a long, passionate kiss. Once their tongues had become thoroughly reacquainted with each other, she pulled back, dizzy and out of breath. She gasped as warm hands slipped under her shirt and found bare skin. A low, seductive chuckle rumbled in her ear and sent shivers of anticipation running down her spine.

"I think we need to take this upstairs." She panted as lips and teeth nipped at her throat. "And just for the record, 'Mary' is not the name I want to hear you screaming."

Laughing, Julia led the way up the stairs. In the hallway, Maggie squealed in surprise as Julia bent down and slid an arm behind her knees. She found herself being scooped up and carried into the bedroom as if she weighed little more than a child.

"Julia, put me down before you hurt yourself!"

Strong arms deposited her in the middle of the bed, and the mattress springs creaked faintly as a second body stretched beside the first. Maggie tangled her fingers in Julia's dark, silky hair as hungrily seeking lips found hers again. Sighing happily, she closed her eyes and lost herself in the sensations.

Much later, sunlight streamed through the window as they sprawled together, sweaty and exhausted. Maggie snuggled closer, sliding her lips across Julia's bare shoulder and tasting the tangy saltiness of her skin.

"Hmmm. I think I should take a vacation from work more often," she said, her fingers tracing Julia's jaw.

"Oh, you do, huh?" Julia nibbled lightly on the wandering fingers. "You don't think we'd get bored with each other after a couple of days?"

Maggie propped herself up on an elbow and peered into a pair of amused blue eyes. "Bored? You're kidding, right?"

Grinning, Julia winked at her. "So, what do you want to do today?"

"Besides staying in bed with you all day? Hmmm….let me think." Maggie made a face. "I suppose I should go down to the paper and turn over my notes. Might as well get that over with. Maybe I'll see if Jessica wants to have lunch. After that, I guess I'm all yours."

"Okay. That'll give me time to take care of a couple of things. I need to call the insurance company about my jeep. Then I think I'll give Danny a call. He and I need to have a little chat."

Maggie frowned. "Be careful with him. If he is involved with these attacks, there's no telling how dangerous he might be."

"I'll be careful." Julia assured her. She glanced at the alarm clock. "What time were you planning to head out?"

"I don't know. Sometime around noon, I guess."

Eyes dancing wickedly, Julia rolled on top of Maggie and grinned at her as her fingers trailed down to the reporter's thigh. "Then we have plenty of time."

**************************************************************

Shortly before noon, Maggie dashed out the door and headed for the newspaper office. Work crews in fluorescent orange vests were digging holes in the middle of the street, and traffic had slowed to a crawl. Maggie hummed along with her car radio as she inched forward through an intersection.

It was well after lunchtime when she finally made her way into the newsroom. A few friendly faces directed smiles her way, but most of her co-workers went about their business without giving her a second glance. Chris Garcia flashed her a toothy grin and waved her over to his desk. He offered Maggie his chair and pushed aside a pile of loose papers and a football-shaped clock, clearing a space for himself on the corner of his desk.

"Hey, Maggie." He greeted her warmly. "It's good to see you. We all heard about your accident. That's some serious craziness."

"Thanks, Chris. It was an adventure," Maggie replied dryly. "So, where's the Hellcat? I would've thought she'd be here to gloat."

Chris rolled his eyes and made a gagging sound. "Don't even get me started. I know how much you must hate turning your part of this story over to her. I think she had a lunch interview, or you know she would be here to rub your nose in it."

Maggie sighed. Chris was right; she hated giving Catherine all her work. It irked her even more, now that she knew about her rival's history with Julia. She stood, pulling a file folder out of her briefcase.

"I'm glad she's not here," she said. "I really didn't want to see her face today. I'll just leave this on her desk and get out of here."

"Hang in there, Maggie. You'll be back to work before you know it. Then you'll be begging for a vacation like the rest of us."

Maggie dumped the file in Catherine's inbox and exchanged pleasantries with Chris for a few minutes longer. As more people started to filter back into the newsroom, she excused herself. She wasn't in the mood to deal with their curious looks and well-meaning questions, and she didn't want to be around when Catherine showed up. In the corridor, on the way to the elevator, a familiar voice called out to her.

"Oh my god, Maggie! Are you okay?" Jessica hurried towards her, her eyes wide with concern. "I tried to call you fifteen zillion times last night, but you're never at your apartment anymore, and you didn't answer your cell phone."

Maggie winced. "I had my phone turned off, and I forgot to check my messages this morning," she admitted sheepishly. "I'm fine, though. Not even a scratch."

"That's a relief. I take it Julia wasn't hurt either?" Jessica asked.

"No, she's fine. I met her brother last night. That was interesting."

Jessica hooked her arm through Maggie's and pulled her towards the empty elevator. "Oh yeah? C'mon. You can tell me all about it over lunch."

They ended up in a crowded deli, and Maggie told her friend all about Julia's fight in the parking lot, the car chase and Drew. Jessica listened intently, growing more amazed with each part of the story. Swallowing a bite of her sandwich, the tiny copy editor gave Maggie a skeptical frown.

"Don't you think it's odd that Julia's brother just happened to show up at just the right moment? I mean, it seems like a huge coincidence."

Maggie slurped noisily at her diet soda. "I don't know. It was a little strange, I guess, but he seemed pretty harmless. Actually, I liked him."

"That's what they always say," Jessica said, shaking her head. "Then the nice, harmless guy turns out to be an ax murderer."

Maggie laughed, nearly sending a spray of soda across the table. "I seriously doubt that Drew's a killer. You've been watching too many of those late-night TV movies, Jess."

"Uh-huh. We'll see who's laughing when stalker-boy starts sending you bouquets of dead roses." Jessica snatched the check out of Maggie's hand, ignoring her friend's startled protest. "I've got this. I'd better get back to work before someone notices that I've been missing for two hours."

"Next time lunch is on me," Maggie said. "I should probably head over to my apartment and check my messages there. Maybe I should get call-forwarding."

Jessica snorted as they went out the door. "Maybe you should just move in with her and be done with it."

"She hasn't asked me to move in, and I don't want to push her."

"I've seen the way she looks at you, Maggie. It's just a matter of time."

"We'll see," Maggie replied, closing the subject.

She dropped Jessica off in front of the newspaper offices before making the twenty-minute drive to her Richmond apartment. A white, windowless van was parked in her space, and she scowled at it in frustration for a moment. Sighing, she drove past it, searching for one of the scarce visitor's spaces in her complex. She ended up parking on the other side of her building, and her irritation grew as she hiked back to her unit.

"Just because I didn't come home last night doesn't mean some idiot can park in my spot," she said to Oscar, the cat, as she passed him. Oscar stared back at her placidly, undisturbed by her rant.

Maggie stopped at her front door, her key in the lock, as prickles of apprehension raised the fine hairs on the back of her neck. Something didn't feel right. Stepping back, she scrutinized the door and noticed the faint scratches around the lock. Icy bands of fear tightened around her chest, squeezing the air out of her lungs as she realized that someone had been tampering with her lock. Instinctively, her hand went to her pocket in search of the cell phone that she had unthinkingly left in the car. Damn, damn, damn. Maggie's mind raced. Okay, what are the odds that there's someone in there? Whoever was here is probably long gone by now, she reasoned. Holding her breath, she cautiously pressed her ear against the door.

"Is something wrong, Maggie?"

With a muffled shriek, Maggie jumped backwards, crashing into the equally startled arms of her neighbor. Her eyes darted towards her apartment, but she heard nothing inside. Embarrassed, she grinned at her confused neighbor.

"Sorry, Spencer. You startled me. Everything's fine."

Spencer, owner of Oscar the cat, blinked at her doubtfully. "Are you sure? I was looking for Oscar, and I saw you over here."

Trying to hide her fear, Maggie gave him a bright, reassuring smile. "I'm sure. It looks like somebody scratched my door, but it was probably just kids or something." She pointed toward the walkway. "Oscar was there a minute ago. He's probably hiding in the bushes."

"Oh, okay then. I haven't seen you around here lately," Spencer said as he headed towards the bushes.

"Yeah. I've, uh, I've been really busy," Maggie replied.

Spencer shot a knowing grin over his shoulder. "Uh-huh. I've seen who you've been busy with." Crouching down, he dragged a growling ball of fur out from under the branches. He cradled the squirming cat in his arms as he walked back to his own apartment.

"See you around, Maggie. Don't be such a stranger."

"I'll try. See ya, Spence." Maggie waved at him as he retreated into his apartment and closed the door.

Alone, Maggie stared at her front door. She would come back later, she decided, and she would drag Julia with her. As she walked back to her car, she shook her head, chastising herself for her lack of courage. Oh well, she thought, better to be safe.

Inside her apartment, Tom Becker breathed a sigh of relief as he adjusted his gloves. He hadn't been expecting the reporter to turn up in the middle of the day like that. Working quickly, he pulled two plastic baggies out of his pockets. Patrick's forgotten duffel bag was still stashed behind the couch, and Tom bent over it. He unzipped the top and stuffed the two bags inside, burying them deep at the bottom, beneath Patrick's clothes. From another pocket of his coat, he retrieved a thick roll of $100 bills. He buried that inside the duffel bag, as well.

Straightening up with a satisfied grunt, he took a quick look around the apartment. Nothing appeared to be out of place and he nodded to himself as he quietly slipped out the front door. No one was watching him as he got into the white van and drove away.

*************************************************************

Like a caged tiger, Julia prowled back and forth across the floor of her home office. She had called the Netsports offices twice, looking for Danny. Both times, the receptionist had politely informed her that Mr. Webber was "in a meeting," and he would return her call as soon as he was available. Julia glanced at the clock again. Her last call had been well over an hour before, and she was starting to get the impression that Danny was avoiding her. Out of patience, she grabbed the phone from her desk and hit redial.

"This is Julia Cassinelli. Again," Julia said tersely, cutting off the receptionist's standard greeting. "Tell Mr. Webber that I need to talk to him now. It's urgent."

She listened in disbelief as the receptionist told her that Danny had already left the office for the day. A long string of curses streamed from her mouth, and she tossed the phone aside in disgust.

"So, the little weasel thinks he can get away from me, huh? We'll just see about that."

Julia stomped downstairs and went into the kitchen to retrieve her keys from the counter. Halfway to the front door, she stopped, suddenly remembering that her jeep had been totaled the night before.

"Son of a bitch!"

Cocking her wrist back, she flung her car keys across the living room. She watched in dismay as they ricocheted off the wall and slid behind one of her tall bookcases. Shit, she swore internally. Julia squeezed her eyes shut and slowly counted to ten, letting her irritation fade. Once she felt the urge to snap something in two subside, she crossed the living room and began trying to fish her keys out of their hiding place.

Easing her arm into the narrow space between the bookcase and the wall, she stretched her fingers as far as she could. Ten minutes later, her forehead was damp with sweat, and she was out of breath. She had fished out a quarter, a chess piece and a dust bunny the size of her fist, but no keys. With a resigned sigh, Julia rose and brushed herself off. Briefly, she thought pulling the broom out of the hallway closet and using that to drag her stubborn keys out, but that seemed dangerously close to housework.

"That's it. Time to get the spare." Temporarily giving up the fight, she went into the kitchen and dug her spare house key out of a drawer. Tucking that into her pocket, she flipped through the phone book until she found the listings for cab companies. Randomly, she chose one and returned to the living room to wait for her ride.

Precisely twenty minutes later, a car horn blared outside, and she raised an eyebrow, impressed by the cab driver's punctuality. Putting on her jacket on the way out the door, she hurried down the front steps to the waiting vehicle and nodded politely to the driver. She had written Danny's home address on a post-it note, and she double-checked that before giving the cab driver a destination.

She stared blankly out the window during the drive to Danny's apartment. The cab driver had the radio on, and she could just barely hear the local news report in between bursts of static. Julia strained her ears to listen as the disc jockey read from the morning's headlines. The top story was Eddie Machado's murder and his possible link to both the Netsports burglary and the arson fires. An unnamed police source had leaked the fact that Eddie and the warehouse security guard were shot with a gun registered to Daniel Webber. Julia smirked mercilessly as she imagined the panicked look on Danny's face. He had to be sweating buckets by now. As the cab pulled up to the gate of Danny's apartment complex, Julia found she was looking forward to grilling her old college buddy.

She leaned forward to exchange a few words with the indifferent security guard. He gave her a bored nod and pushed a button on the panel in front of him. Slowly, the gate slid aside. The cab driver stopped in front of Danny's unit and waited as Julia exited the vehicle. She glanced around, taking note of her surroundings. Danny's complex was home to hundreds of young, upwardly mobile, professionals like him. As a result, there were few residents around on a Thursday afternoon.

"Hang on a minute. Let me see if he's home," she said, handing the driver a crisp twenty.

The driver shrugged and slouched down in his seat as Julia made her way to the door. Frowning in concentration, she listened carefully, but there didn't seem to be any sounds coming from within the apartment. The morning newspaper still waited on his front step. Hmmm, either he left for work awfully early, or he was never home at all last night, Julia thought to herself. She knocked sharply on the front door, the sound echoing through the stillness. No one stirred inside, and Julia sighed in frustration as the silence confirmed her suspicion that Danny wasn't there.

Impulsively, she checked the doorknob and was stunned when it turned easily in her hand. Glancing over her shoulder, she held up five fingers toward the waiting cab driver, indicating that he should give her a few more minutes. Julia turned back to the door and gnawed on her lower lip as she considered her options. If she was caught inside Danny's apartment, she would have a lot to explain. On the other hand, if she passed up this opportunity, there was no telling what kind of evidence she might miss. Steel blue eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Images flashed through her mind --- images of the fear in Maggie's eyes after her attack at the burned warehouse, images of her own attack in her office, and images of her crumpled jeep after the previous night's car chase.

"God help you if you're the one behind this, Danny," she whispered harshly.

The decision made, she cautiously pushed the door open and stepped inside. The apartment looked like it had been in the center of a violent windstorm. Papers and clothing were strewn about on the floor; the cushion had been thrown off the sofa and a dining room chair rested on its side. Julia carefully picked her way through the mess as she headed for Danny's bedroom. She found it in the same state. Drawers and the closet had been emptied, and Julia had the impression that someone had packed and left in a hurry.

Nothing in Danny's bedroom looked useful, so she returned to the living room and began sifting through the papers on the floor. They were mostly copies of receipts and bills, and Julia noted with interest that Danny had reached or exceeded his limit on three separate credit cards. At the sound of a car driving away, she scrambled for the door, reaching it just in time to see the taillights of her cab turning the corner.

"Son of a bitch."

Taking her phone from her pocket, she dialed one of the pre-programmed numbers and hoped that Maggie would answer. She wasn't disappointed, and a warm glow spread through her body at the sound of the reporter's voice.

"Hi, honey. Listen, I need you to do me a favor and pick me up." Julia paused, listening to Maggie's question. "I'm at Danny Webber's apartment." She answered. "No, he's not here. I'll explain later. Can you just come get me before I get caught?"

She gave Maggie directions to the apartment and settled down to wait. A flash went through her mind, and she recalled seeing a computer in Danny's bedroom. She hurried towards it, nearly tripping over an empty briefcase in her haste. Sitting down at the desk, she booted up, wincing as the electronic hum seemed unusually loud in the silence. Within minutes, Julia was browsing through the contents of Danny's hard drive. Most of what she found appeared to be standard, business-related files, and her initial excitement was turning to frustration and disappointment. She glanced at her watch. Maggie would arrive soon, and she hadn't found anything significant yet.

Scowling, Julia opened an untitled document and through it. It was a list of names and figures. Towards the bottom of the page, three familiar names jumped out at her --- Eddie Machado, Patrick McKinnon, and her own. Her scowl deepened as she tried in vain to make a connection between the names and the numbers on the list. She printed the document and stuffed it into her pocket, just as a car door slammed outside. Quickly, she shut down the computer and moved away from the desk.

"Julia? Are you in here?" Maggie's voice, lowered to a whisper, drifted through the open doorway.

"Hey." Julia met the reporter in the living room.

"Hey, yourself. What are you doing here?"

"C'mon. Let's go before someone sees us. I'll explain in the car."

Julia slipped her arm around Maggie's shoulders and propelled her towards the door. Once they were pulling away from the complex, she let out a tense breath. Patrick's name on that list disturbed her, and she searched for the best way to tell Maggie what she had found. Glancing sideways at Maggie's profile, she wondered if it would be better to stay quiet until she had more information.

"So, are you going to tell me what's going on?" Maggie asked.

Julia shrugged. "I wanted to talk to Danny, and his receptionist kept putting me off. Then she told me that he had already left the office, so I called a cab and went to his apartment."

"And you broke in." Maggie finished the story.

Julia grinned briefly. "Technically, no. Not exactly, anyway. The door was unlocked."

"And, of course, you just had to go inside."

"Of course," Julia said innocently. "What kind of friend would I be if I didn't make sure everything was okay?"

"I hope Danny realizes what a devoted friend he has." Maggie returned wryly.

Julia's grin disappeared and her eyes turned dark and cold. "Oh, he will. When I'm through with him, he will."

A chill ran down Maggie's spine at the almost-savage quality to Julia's voice. She knew she never wanted to be on Julia's bad side.

"Well, did you find anything interesting while you were there?"

Julia thought about the printout in her pocket. "A couple of things. First, Danny's pretty heavily in debt. He's maxed out three credit cards, all of them gold or platinum level. I took a quick look at his statements, and it appeared that most of the significant charges came from cash advances."

Maggie's brow creased as she considered the implications. "What would he need with so much cash?"

"That's an excellent question. I'm not sure I have the answer to that yet." Julia hesitated for a moment before continuing. "I also found a list of names and figures. They looked like dollar amounts, but I'll have to do a little checking to be sure. Eddie Machado's name was on that list."

Maggie steered the car into the crowded parking lot of their favorite Chinese take-out restaurant. She had checked Julia's refrigerator that morning, and she knew that it was virtually empty. They exited the car and headed for the door, joining the long line of people seeking a quick meal.

"Eddie Machado was working for Danny?" Maggie asked. "Did you recognize any of the other names?"

Julia fidgeted uncomfortably as she scanned the menu. "Uh, sort of. My name was on it," she admitted.

Maggie stared at her, eyes wide in surprise. "Your name? Why?"

"Well, he did hire me to look into the break-in. Maybe that list was a payroll of some kind." She had decided to tell Maggie about the presence of her brother's name, but a crowded public restaurant didn't seem like the proper place to do it.

"I guess that makes sense." Maggie conceded as they edged toward the front of the line.

Julia was a regular at the restaurant, and she smiled at the wizened, frail-looking man behind the counter. Speaking in flawless Cantonese, she ordered steamed rice, kung pao chicken and vegetable egg rolls. Maggie gaped at her in amazement, and she grinned modestly as they waited for their food. Julia had learned at an early age that she had an ear for other languages. She also spoke passable Spanish and a tiny bit of Japanese.

"When I was growing up, we had a Chinese gardener. He taught me a few words," She explained. "Henry taught me a few, too, but they’re not the kind you repeat in polite company."

"Oh yeah? Well, you're gonna have to give me a few private lessons." Maggie teased.

Julia's eyebrows shot up into her hairline and she grinned wickedly. "I think I can arrange that."

Thanking the elderly man behind the counter, she took the food and led the way back to the car.

"Let's go home. I'm starved."

Julia was quiet during the short drive back to her house, and Maggie could feel the tension coming off her in waves. Out of the corner of her eye, Maggie examined her lover's face, noting the worried creases around her eyes and mouth. She began to suspect that Julia had found something else in Danny Webber's apartment. Something that she wasn't prepared to share yet.

"You're awfully quiet. Is everything okay?" Maggie asked casually as she parked in front of the house.

"Sure. Everything's fine," Julia said with a weary smile. "I'm just hungry."

With difficulty, Maggie swallowed her reply, not wanting to push Julia on the issue. Whatever it was, she trusted that Julia would tell her in time. She took the take-out cartons while Julia fumbled in her pocket for her key. A sudden jolt of apprehension ran through her as Maggie remembered the odd scratches on her apartment door. Julia, noticing the tension in the reporter's frame, looked at her questioningly.

"I stopped by my apartment after I left the office." Maggie began slowly, preparing herself for the inevitable reaction. "I was about to unlock the door and I noticed all these marks around the lock. It's probably nothing, but it sort of freaked me out at the time."

Julia's chest tightened, and she took a long, slow breath to calm herself. She opened the front door and ushered Maggie inside, taking care to turn the deadbolt behind them. Maggie started for the kitchen, but Julia grabbed her elbow and held her in the entryway. She turned the blonde around so that they were eye to eye.

"What kind of marks?" Julia's voice had a hard, dangerous edge. Any thoughts of Maggie's brother and the mysterious list were instantly forgotten.

Maggie shrugged, trying to appear unconcerned. "Scratches. It's really no big deal."

"You didn't go inside?"

Maggie shook her head, starting to feel embarrassed about the whole thing. "No. I sort of, well, I..."

To her surprise, Julia pulled her into a tight hug, nearly crushing their dinner. Maggie felt soft lips brushing the top of her head.

"You did the right thing, Maggie. Even if it does turn out to be nothing, it's always better to be safe." Julia said, looking deeply into the reporter's eyes. "I can't be sure until I see for myself, but it sounds like someone might have been trying to break in."

"Why?" Maggie whispered.

They both knew the answer. Someone obviously believed that Maggie knew too much. Neither woman wanted to think about what might have happened if Maggie had entered her apartment.

"Maybe we should call the police," Maggie said. "Or Henry. We could call Henry and have him check it out."

Julia shook her head. "No. No police. Not even Henry. I can find things out faster on my own."

"It's too dangerous." Maggie protested, putting herself between Julia and the door. "I really think we should at least call Henry on this."

"Maggie, this is what I do. Remember?" Julia smiled at her reassuringly. "Besides, if there was anyone in your apartment, I'm sure he's long gone by now. I just want to take a look."

Maggie let out a resigned sigh. She could tell that Julia could not be talked out of this. Switching tactics, she held up one of the take-out containers and swung it under Julia's nose. The spicy smell of kung pao chicken wafted out.

"Okay, but like you said, if anyone was there, he's gone now. So there's no reason why we can't have dinner first, right?" Maggie swung the container again. "Kung pao chicken. Your favorite."

Much to her chagrin, Julia felt her stomach rumble insistently. Her resolve slipped a notch. Maggie was probably right, she thought. It couldn't hurt to grab a bite to eat first. Giving in, Julia followed the blonde into the kitchen and watched while Maggie spooned the food onto a pair of plates.

"Fine," Julia said gruffly. "Dinner first, then I'm going to check out your apartment."

"Sounds like a plan." Maggie handed her a steaming plate. "You do realize that I'm going with you. Right?"

Blue eyes narrowed as Julia regarded her thoughtfully. "I don't suppose I could talk you out of it, could I?" She asked around a forkful of rice.

"Nope."

Julia sighed. "Didn't think so. Okay, we'll both go. There are a couple of things I want to talk to you about anyway."

************************************************************************

Catherine tugged on the heavy glass door and shivered as a blast of chilled, recycled air hit her in the face. The cavernous lobby was empty, except for a single security guard, and Catherine approached him imperiously, her heels echoing on the polished marble floor. Earlier that day, while sifting through Maggie's notes, she had noticed her rival's mysteriously cancelled interview with one of the Davis attorneys. Using Maggie's name, Catherine had called the law firm and rescheduled the appointment. Much to her surprise, the clerk had given her a meeting with Joseph Cassinelli at 5:30 that afternoon. This would be the interview of her career, she gloated. Of course, he would recognize her immediately, but it wouldn't matter. Once she was in his office, Catherine knew that the prominent attorney would be forced to talk to her.

Her eyes flicked briefly to her watch as a smug smile touched her thin lips. It was precisely 5:25. She impatiently tapped her index finger on the desk to get the guard's attention and peered down her nose at him with a haughty glare.

"I'm Maggie McKinnon, with the Chronicle," she said in a frosty tone. "Mr. Cassinelli should be expecting me."

The guard's watery eyes roamed across her curves, and he grinned at her appreciatively. She ignored him as she examined her manicure. Realizing that the reporter was not going to succumb to his charm, the guard frowned in disappointment as he checked a list of names on a clipboard. He nodded once.

"McKinnon, right." He pointed to the twin elevators at the rear of the lobby. "Mr. Cassinelli is on the 15th floor."

Without a word, Catherine strode towards the elevators. She paused, checking her reflection in the shiny brass doors. She had heard that Joseph Cassinelli had an eye for beautiful women. Must be where his daughter got hers from, she mused with a harsh laugh. Catherine tucked her auburn waves behind her ears and smoothed a few faint wrinkles out of her tailored jacket. Satisfied with her appearance, she pressed the call button and waited for the elevator car to arrive.

Out of earshot, the security guard picked up the phone, his gaze never leaving the tall, willowy reporter. He whispered a few words into the receiver and watched as Catherine stepped into the elevator.

On the 4th floor, Tom Becker prepared himself, flexing his fingers, encased in leather gloves. He stuffed his phone back into his pocket and shifted his shoulders beneath his form-fitting black turtleneck. He glanced sideways at his nervous companion. Beads of sweat clung to Patrick McKinnon's temples and he fidgeted uncomfortably, drumming his fingers against his thighs. Patrick had no idea what was going on. He had been working out on the loading dock when Tom had driven up and told him to get in the car. Eddie was dead, and Patrick suspected that Tom had something to do with it. He wondered if he was next.

Tom had offered no explanation on the way to the law offices. In fact, he hadn't said a single word to Patrick during the entire drive. They had arrived nearly 30 minutes earlier, and they had been waiting on the deserted 4th floor since then.

"Calm down," Tom said, his gravelly voice rumbling through the silence.

He removed a handgun from his waistband, and Patrick stared at it fearfully. This was it. Tom had brought him here to kill him, just like Eddie. Sweat poured down Patrick's back, and he irrationally wondered if he could outrun a bullet. Tom noted the panic-stricken look in his companion's eyes with a mixture of contempt and pleasure. Gripping the gun by the barrel, he thrust the weapon toward Patrick.

"Here. Hold this for a second, wouldja?" He laughed at the young man's hesitation. "Relax. It isn't loaded. I carry it for show. Just in case I need to put the fear of God into someone."

Patrick slowly took the gun as Tom bent to fiddle with his shoelace. The cold metal warmed quickly to his bare hand, and he hefted the weapon in his palm, feeling the weight of it. Straightening, Tom took the gun back and tucked it away beneath his coat. He smiled, and Patrick felt an icy shiver run down his spine. He had never seen Tom smile before, and the sight unnerved him. The urge to flee was overwhelming.

The elevator pinged softly, and both men turned toward the sound. The doors slid open noiselessly, revealing a tall, pale woman with a mane of auburn waves. She barely glanced at them as they stepped inside the car. The doors shut again, and Tom gestured towards the panel in front of the woman.

"Could you hit 12, please?"

The woman complied and the three rode in silence, watching the lights change as the elevator continued its ascent. Tom surveyed the auburn-haired woman thoughtfully. He didn't know who she was, but she was not Maggie McKinnon. He wondered why she was using the reporter's name.

"So, are you a lawyer?" It was the best conversation-starter he could come up with.

Catherine glanced at him and gave him a condescending smile. "No. I'm a reporter. I have a meeting with Joseph Cassinelli."

"Hey, I've heard of him. He's supposed to be some rich big shot, isn't he?"

"He's a very important man, yes. He's also one of Councilman Martin Davis's personal attorneys."

Tom nodded soberly. "I see."

So, she was a reporter after all, Tom thought. They were nearing the 12th floor, and he had to make a decision quickly. Once this new reporter reached her destination, she would discover that there was no meeting scheduled. That could not happen. Tom let out a resigned sigh as he reached under his coat. He had no choice; Allison would understand that.

Patrick watched in horrified disbelief as Tom took action. Moving with deceptive speed, the big man crossed the elevator and punched the stop button, halting the car with a sudden, rumbling jolt. Catherine glared at them, annoyance clearly stamped on her features. Before she had time to speak, Tom smoothly pulled his gun from his waistband and fired, striking the reporter in the chest.

The impact slammed her back against the wall, and her eyes widened in shock. A choking, gurgling cough bubbled forth from her lips as she slowly crumpled. The acrid smell of gunpowder mixed with the sharp, metallic scent of blood, and Patrick fell to his knees, retching violently in the corner. Warm wetness trickled down his leg as his bladder emptied.

Tom gazed at him in disgust. Calmly, he pressed another button on the control panel, and the elevator resumed its journey. They reached the 12th floor, and the doors opened. Tom had chosen this floor because it was being renovated and would be deserted. With one hand, he hauled Patrick to his feet and shoved him into the corridor. The doors shut behind them, and the elevator continued to climb. They had to hurry now, before the body was discovered. Pushing Patrick in front of him, Tom moved towards the stairwell. He paused momentarily outside the door, discarding the gun in a trash bin. Patrick was already starting to descend the dimly lit steps, and Tom grabbed the collar of his shirt, yanking him back.

"Hang on a sec," he said.

As Patrick turned toward him, Tom swung his massive fist, connecting squarely with the young man's jaw. He left Patrick sprawled, unconscious, on the landing and hurried down the stairs, whistling softly to himself. The lobby was quiet when he emerged. He exchanged a quick glance with the guard at the desk as he exited the building and unhurriedly strolled down the street.

The guard watched him leave and double-checked to make sure the security cameras had not recorded anything. Within seconds, a red light began to flash frantically on his phone. He answered and managed to sound appropriately shocked as a secretary on the 15th floor informed him that a woman had been shot in the elevator. Slowly, he counted to ten, letting Tom get a bit further away before he called the police.

Groaning, Patrick opened his eyes. His head throbbed and his jaw ached where Tom had hit him. The memories came flooding back in a rush, and Patrick's stomach heaved again. He rolled to his knees, and once the nausea had subsided, he gripped the rail and pulled himself to his feet. Tom was gone, and Patrick realized that he had been set up. He had no idea how long he had been out, but he knew that the woman's body had probably been discovered. Patrick shuddered, remembering the blood and the look in the woman's eyes as she fell. He was sure she was dead. She had looked dead. He scrubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand, trying to collect his thoughts. He had to get out. Quickly. Before the cops showed up.

Fighting through the dizziness, Patrick ran down the stairs. The lobby was completely empty when he stumbled through the door, wild-eyed and sweating profusely. He dashed out the exit into the cool evening air, drawing curious stares from the people passing by. Sirens screamed in the distance, rapidly approaching. Dodging the traffic, he sprinted across the street and blended into a tour group, just as the first squad car turned the corner and screeched to a halt in front of the law offices. Keeping his head down, Patrick followed the tour group down the street. One thought kept racing through his mind. Maggie. He had to get to Maggie. She would know what to do.

To be continued...Part 9


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