Chapter 9

"So, what did the insurance company say?"

"Hmm?" Julia asked absently, stirred out of her thoughts by Maggie's question.

"You called the insurance company about your jeep, didn't you?" Maggie prompted her.

"Oh that. I filed a claim and the agent said she'd have a check for me in a few weeks."

"That's good news," Maggie said, trying to keep the conversation going. Julia had been quiet and distracted since leaving Danny Webber's apartment earlier.

"Do you know what kind of car you want? Another jeep, or something different this time?"

Julia shrugged and resumed her thoughtful gaze out the window of Maggie's car. "I don't know. Haven't really thought about it yet."

A thick wall of fog had rolled in from the bay as soon as the sun had set. As they passed the park, the mist hugged the ground, making visibility even worse. Maggie slowed the car to a crawl, unable to see the intersections until she was right on top of them. She nearly missed her street and made a sharp turn, throwing Julia off balance.

"Sorry," she said, as Julia braced herself against the dashboard.

"Well, I guess that's one way to get my attention."

Maggie grinned at the joke. "You just seem a little out there tonight. Is something wrong? Earlier, you said we needed to talk."

Julia squirmed uncomfortably in her seat. She had been dreading this conversation. So far, she hadn't been able to come up with an easy way to tell Maggie that her brother was most likely involved with criminals. Patrick was infuriating, but she knew that Maggie still loved him.

"Yeah, about that --- when I was at Danny's, I found something else." She began slowly. A startled exclamation from Maggie interrupted her.

"What on earth?"

Perplexed, Julia followed Maggie's gaze. They had turned into the apartment complex, and three squad cars were parked in front of the reporter's building. Maggie stopped the car abruptly and got out, running towards her apartment. Cursing, Julia unbuckled her seatbelt and chased after her, catching up to the blonde just as a police officer materialized before them.

"Sorry, but you need to stay back. There's an investigation going on here," he said, blocking their path.

"But that's my apartment." Maggie protested, pointing at her open door. Inside, they could see several officers searching the living room.

Julia loomed over the younger policeman, a fierce scowl on her face." What's this all about?" She demanded with a menacing growl.

An authoritative voice drifted towards them, and the young officer breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of his superior standing in the doorway. He took a step back, away from the tall, intimidating woman in front of him.

"Henry, what the hell is going on?" Julia asked, moving towards the stocky inspector.

Henry put his hands up, grabbing her by the shoulders and preventing her from entering the apartment. His eyes darted behind her to Maggie's ashen face. He smiled at her gently before returning his attention to his bristling friend.

"Calm down, Jules. Let me explain," he said.

Julia folded her arms across her chest and glared at him, waiting for him to continue. Henry steadied himself, doing his best to ignore her steely blue stare. He stepped out onto the doorstep, forcing Julia back a few feet.

"We have a situation," he said carefully. "Catherine Richards was shot in an elevator downtown."

"What?" Julia's voice hissed between her clenched teeth.

"What?" Maggie echoed weakly, scarcely believing what she was hearing.

Henry put a sympathetic hand on each woman's arm and continued his explanation.

"We're not entirely sure what she was doing in the building. The guard on duty claims he never spoke to her, and the security tapes don't show us anything. My best guess is that she was meeting with a lawyer. A secretary for one of the lawyers on the 15th floor found her when the elevator opened."

"Oh my god." Maggie whispered, stunned. Her knees buckled and she would have fallen if Julia hadn't been supporting her. She looked up at Henry as tears started in her eyes.

"Is she dead?"

Henry shook his head. "No. She's in surgery now, but it doesn't look good."

He hesitated uncertainly. Henry was aware of Julia's past relationship with Catherine, but he wasn't sure how well Maggie knew the victim. He cleared his throat softly.

"Maggie, did you know Catherine? Do you have any idea why she might have been meeting a lawyer?"

Maggie stifled a sob, and the sound tugged at Julia's heart. She glared at Henry, her face grim.

"Not now, Henry. Don't you think she's upset enough, already?"

Henry sighed and rubbed the flat of his hand across his stubbly jaw. He always hated this part of his job, especially when it involved someone he knew. There was more to the story, too, and he knew that Julia would become even more defensive once her father's name was mentioned. To his surprise, Maggie came to his rescue.

"It's okay, honey," she said, squeezing Julia's forearm lightly. She directed a faint grin up at the concerned inspector. "You have to ask these questions. I understand."

Henry returned the grin with a relieved smile of his own. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Julia relax slightly and take a half step back, giving them room to talk.

"To answer your question, yes, I know Catherine," Maggie said, taking a deep breath. "We're co-workers, but not friends, exactly. I had an interview with one of Councilman Davis's attorneys, but it got canceled. Maybe Catherine rescheduled it."

Henry scribbled furiously in his notebook. He looked up with a puzzled frown. "Why would Catherine reschedule one of your interviews?"

"I'm on leave from work. She took over my story." Maggie answered simply. She stole a quick glance at Julia's stony expression.

"None of this explains what you're doing here, Henry." Julia spoke up. "Do you have any leads? Any idea who did this?" A question was gnawing at her, but she wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer.

"We have a preliminary suspect." Henry confirmed. "And I'll explain what we're doing here in a minute." He looked around to make sure no one was listening and lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Just between us, though, something doesn't feel right."

"So, you don't know who Catherine was going to meet?" Julia asked, dreading the answer.

Henry coughed into his fist. "Not specifically." He took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "Jules, you know your father has an office on that floor."

Julia nodded slowly. She had been expecting this. "You think Catherine was going to see my father." It wasn't a question. She continued, her voice flat and unemotional. "He and Martin Davis are friends, but I honestly couldn't tell you if they have a working relationship."

Before Henry could respond, one of his uniformed officers summoned him. He excused himself and stepped back inside Maggie's apartment. They could see him in a hushed conference with two of his men, who were gesturing excitedly behind the couch. After a moment, the inspector returned with a troubled frown.

"Maggie, I need you to come take a look at something. You too, Jules." He led them both inside the small apartment. "Try not to touch anything. We still need to dust for fingerprints."

Henry stopped in front of the couch and pulled a pair of white latex gloves out of his pocket. He put the gloves on, the rubber snapping against his skin, and dismissed the other officers with a curt nod. Dropping to one knee, he dragged a half-unzipped duffel bag out from behind Maggie's couch.

"Do either of you recognize this bag?" He looked at them, his eyes moving from one face to the other.

"Yes." Maggie's whisper was almost inaudible. Her stomach plummeted further when Henry reached inside the bag and extracted a plastic baggie filled with a white, powdery substance. Her heart sank and she closed her eyes.

"That little shit!" Julia burst out angrily.

Henry waited for one of them to say something else. When neither did, he spoke again. "Okay, one of you needs to tell me who this bag belongs to."

"Why? You already know the answer to that, don't you?" Julia asked pointedly. "That's why you're in Maggie's apartment, right?"

Sighing, Henry loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar. Julia always had to be difficult. Carefully, he placed the plastic bag back inside the duffel bag and stood. He turned to Maggie, wishing he didn't have to ask her these questions.

"Fine." He muttered in Julia's direction. "Maggie, does this bag belong to your brother, Patrick Robert McKinnon?"

Maggie blinked at him in confusion. She was certain that she had never discussed her brother with the police inspector. That meant that either Julia had mentioned him, or…. The alternative hit her squarely in the chest and knocked the air out of her lungs. Her mouth opened in disbelief and she stared at Henry with widened eyes.

"Patrick? You think my brother had something to do with this?" Her voice rose as a surge of protective anger began to burn in her veins. "That's ridiculous! Patrick could not possibly be involved in anything so, so……."

"Maggie, I'm sorry. I hate being the one to tell you this." Henry interrupted her indignant protestations. "We found a gun at the crime scene. We're still waiting for a complete ballistics report, but we're pretty confident that it's the right weapon. We pulled a partial thumb print off it, and it matched the prints your brother has on file in Ohio."

"Your brother has a police record?" Julia asked, staring at Maggie incredulously. She had known that he was an addict, but Maggie had never mentioned anything about a criminal record.

"He was arrested a few years back for vandalism, assault and possession of a controlled substance." Henry said, his voice trailing off as he realized that Julia had not known about Patrick's background.

"Most of those charges were dropped." Maggie defended her brother.

Julia was stunned, and she wondered what else she didn't know about Maggie's brother. Suddenly, she remembered the sheet of paper in her back pocket. She pulled the page out, unfolded it and handed it to Henry. He read it and looked at her, puzzled.

"You didn't get this tip from me." She warned him. "I pulled that out of Daniel Webber's home computer today. I think it's some kind of payroll or something. As you can see, it has Patrick McKinnon's name on it."

"What? You didn't tell me that earlier!" Maggie spun to face her lover.

Julia flinched at the intensity of the fire burning in the reporter's green eyes. "I was going to tell you."

"But you thought you'd accuse him of attempted murder first?" Maggie shot back angrily.

"Hey, hold on! I didn’t accuse him of anything!" Julia objected heatedly. "But I don't think it's a coincidence that his prints are on the gun used to shoot Catherine. Your brother is in this up to his beady little eyeballs. My god, Maggie! What if you had been the one to show up at that office?"

"Okay, first of all, you don't even know what my brother looks like. And second, he would never hurt me."

Henry edged away, giving them room to continue their discussion. In the kitchen, he took his cell phone from his pocket and dialed the police station.

"This is Chow," he said tersely. "I need a search warrant for Daniel Webber's residence and office, and I need it now." He listened for a moment. "I don't care how! Just get it! And while you're at it, issue an arrest warrant for Patrick Robert McKinnon. The charge is attempted murder."

Reading from his notepad, Henry provided a detailed physical description of his suspect. He hoped Maggie was right and her brother was not the shooter. Either way, though, Henry was determined to solve this case in a hurry. Two people had been shot in the last 24 hours, and he had an uneasy feeling that, unless he moved quickly, they wouldn't be the last.

In the living room, Julia and Maggie were still arguing. They were facing each other, eyes flashing dangerously. Henry had seen that look in Maggie's eyes before, when he had yelled at Julia. He knew that she was fiercely protective of the people she loved. And Julia was the most bullheaded, obstinate woman he had ever known. So, this is what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object, he thought wryly.

"Maggie, open your eyes! There's all this evidence that points straight at your brother. If he didn't shoot Catherine, then he sure as hell knows something about who did!" Julia insisted vehemently

"Patrick did not do this." Maggie retorted, just as forcefully. "Somebody is obviously setting him up, and you don't even seem to care! Do you want to see an innocent man go to jail?"

"Maybe jail would do the little punk some good." Julia suggested sarcastically, instantly regretting the comment.

Green eyes narrowed into slits, and Maggie's jaw trembled from the strain of gritting her teeth. "You know what? I'm out of here." She glanced at Henry, and he blinked under the force of her stare. "I'll be at my friend Jessica's if you need to reach me. Julia can get you the number."

"Maggie, wait a minute. Don't be silly." Julia called after her. "Come on, you have the car. How am I supposed to get home?"

Maggie never stopped moving. "I'm sure one of your police buddies can give you a ride." She left the apartment, and a few moments later, a car door slammed and an engine revved.

Julia blinked in disbelief. Maggie had really left her there. Her mind whirled as she tried to figure out how their argument had spun out of control so quickly. Maggie clearly had a blind spot where her brother was concerned, and all she had tried to do was show the reporter what was right in front of her. Julia's irritation rose again.

"Fine." She muttered under her breath. Still seething, she glared at the empty doorway. "Just fine!" She shot a frustrated look at her mutely waiting friend. "Henry, I think I'm gonna need a ride home."

 

Maggie shifted uncomfortably on the lumpy couch as she flipped through the worn pages of an old magazine. The evening news was playing on a muted television in the corner of the hospital waiting room. Maggie glanced up at the clock. Two days had passed since Catherine was shot, and she had finally regained consciousness earlier that afternoon. There was a policeman talking to her, and Maggie hoped that she would remember something that would clear Patrick.

"Here." Jessica appeared at her elbow and handed her a steaming cup of coffee. "It's disgusting, but at least it's caffeinated."

Maggie gave her a wry, tired smile. "Thanks."

She scooted over so Jessica could sit beside her. They had been at the hospital almost constantly since Catherine had come out of surgery. Though she had a long, painful road ahead of her, the doctors believed that she would make a full recovery. Maggie had heaved a sigh of relief at that. Despite Jessica's insistence to the contrary, she felt somewhat responsible for Catherine's condition. Especially since the bullet had most likely been meant for her.

"Your mother called again. Twice."

Jessica's voice broke through her thoughts, and Maggie turned to face her friend. She looked down at the small silver phone in Jessica's hand. As soon as the news about Patrick had reached Ohio, her phone had been ringing incessantly. After one conversation with her hysterical mother, she had given her phone to Jessica and was letting her screen the calls.

"I can't deal with my mother right now, Jess," Maggie said, rubbing her weary, red-rimmed eyes. She peeked hopefully through her fingers. "Did anyone else call?"

"Just one of your brothers. Jack."

Maggie groaned. "Great. He probably wants to yell at me too."

Jessica nodded in sympathy. Every family had members who didn't get along, and in the McKinnon clan, it was Maggie and Jack.

"Do you want to call him back?" Jessica asked.

Grimacing, Maggie shook her head and sipped from her coffee. "Not a chance. He'll just lecture me about how I should have called them as soon as Patrick disappeared." She paused. "Okay, maybe I should've. But it's not like there was anything they could have done. And I thought he'd be back in a few days. He always comes back."

"Take it easy, Maggie. You don't have to convince me of anything," Jessica said. "Oh, I almost forgot. You got a few calls from unlisted numbers, and when I answered them, nobody said anything."

Maggie tossed the magazine aside and snatched the phone from Jessica's hand. Rapidly, she searched through the phone numbers. After a moment, her shoulders slumped and the back of her throat tightened as tears threatened. None of the numbers looked familiar.

"I'm sorry," Jessica said awkwardly. "I know you were hoping she would call."

Maggie nodded faintly but said nothing. She hadn't heard from Julia since their fight, and she was beginning to wonder if she ever would. Of course you haven't heard from her, her inner voice scoffed. Why should she call you? You walked out on her, remember? It was true. At her apartment, she had walked out on Julia and driven away without looking back. It hadn't hit her until she was halfway done the street, and by then it had seemed too late to go back. She had circled around the block twice before finally deciding to go stay with Jessica for a few days.

Still, I thought for sure she would have called, Maggie thought. She shook herself angrily. Wait a minute. I have every right to be mad at her. She practically turned Patrick over to the police and she didn't even discuss it with me first, Maggie reminded herself. So, if I have every reason to be upset, then why do I feel so horrible? She closed her eyes, remembering the look on Julia's face just before she had walked out. She had seen the shock and confusion in those deep blue eyes. What if she never forgives me, Maggie wondered desolately. Am I really prepared to lose her over this?

Suddenly, Jessica grabbed her wrist and pointed at the television. "Maggie, look!"

Maggie followed her gaze and sucked in a sharp breath as a live shot of Councilman Martin Davis entering police headquarters. She shot out of her seat and rushed across the room to turn the volume up. Stunned, she listened as an earnest young reporter informed her that the councilman had decided to voluntarily answer questions about his connection to Catherine's attack and the arson blaze at one of his warehouses.

As she watched, another car pulled up in front of the building, and a man with impeccably groomed silver hair exited the vehicle. For just a moment, he faced the camera and Maggie found herself staring into an achingly familiar pair of intense blue eyes. Joseph Cassinelli had arrived to serve as the councilman's attorney during this interview.

Jessica eyed her friend shrewdly, noting the trembling lower lip as Maggie tried to hold back her tears. Although she hadn't said much, Jessica knew that she was deeply troubled by Julia's silence, and she was desperately trying not to show it.

"Maggie, just call her." Jessica advised, placing a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder.

Biting her lip, Maggie shook her head sadly. "I can't. What if she doesn't want to talk to me?"

Jessica sighed and turned Maggie to face her. She gazed sternly into her friend's glistening eyes.

"You can't think like that. She loves you. I saw it in her face the first time I met her and I see it in yours every time I look at you. She's probably sitting at home right now, hoping that you'll call."

Maggie started to speak, but Jessica cut her off with a sharp wave of her hand.

"She loves you, Maggie," Jessica repeated. "Do you have any idea how rare that is? Don't you dare let that slip through your fingers just because of a silly little fight."

"I don't know, Jess," Maggie whispered doubtfully.

Exasperated, Jessica let her hands fall to her sides. "Do you love her?" She asked simply.

"Yes." Maggie answered her without hesitation.

"Then quit being so boneheaded and call her. Tell her that."

They were interrupted by an orderly who told them that the policeman had finished talking to Catherine. They were allowed to visit her, but only for a few minutes. As they started down the sterile white corridor, Maggie took a sip from her cup and made a face. The coffee had grown cold and she tossed it into the nearest trashcan. A few yards from Catherine's door, a man heading in the opposite direction inadvertently bumped into her.

"Sorry about that. Didn't see you there." He muttered before continuing.

Something about his deep, scratchy voice made Maggie's skin crawl. As she entered Catherine's room, she shot a curious look over her shoulder, but the man had already turned the corner and disappeared. Maggie shrugged and directed a guarded smile towards the woman in the hospital bed. Catherine's eyebrows arched as they approached. She waited until her visitors were seated and Jessica had handed her a card.

"It's from a bunch of people at work." The tiny copy editor told her.

Catherine responded with a tight, frosty smile. "I'm surprised you got anyone to sign it. I know what you all call me behind my back."

She ripped open the envelope and opened the oversized card. Her icy demeanor slipped a bit as she realized that almost everyone in the newsroom had signed it. Maggie's name was not among them, and Catherine directed a questioning gaze at her rival reporter. Smiling faintly, Maggie took another envelope from her purse and handed it to the auburn-haired woman.

"This one is just from me."

Catherine set it aside to be read later. "Thanks." Her eyes narrowed and she regarded Maggie appraisingly. "Why are you really here, McKinnon?"

"First of all, I wanted to make sure you were really okay," Maggie said, a bit defensively. "We may not like each other very much, but that doesn't mean I want anything bad to happen to you." She paused, her lips twitching in a grin. "Well, okay. Maybe once or twice I might have wished for you to be hit by a runaway cable car, but that doesn't count. I wasn't serious about it. And what are the odds of that happening, anyway?"

She heard Jessica's soft snort as she tried to stifle a laugh, and much to her surprise, even Catherine smiled briefly. The injured reporter struggled to sit up and gasped as her efforts sent pain shooting through her. She clutched at her chest and coughed weakly. Instantly, Maggie jumped out of her chair and sat on the edge of the bed. She slid her arm behind Catherine's shoulders for support and carefully helped her into a more comfortable position. She gave Jessica a grateful look as her friend handed her a cup of water and a straw. Maggie held the straw to Catherine's lips and waited while she sipped from it.

"Thank you," Catherine said, pushing the cup away. She tried to take a deep breath and winced as another bolt of pain ripped through her.

"You're welcome," Maggie replied. "Take it easy. I don't want you hurting yourself any further."

"Quit being so nice to me, McKinnon. It's creepy," Catherine said, eyeing her suspiciously. "Now, why don't you tell me why you're really here?"

Maggie hesitated. "I, uh, I wanted to know if you remembered anything about what happened. About who did this to, I mean."

Catherine closed her eyes and her mouth tightened into a hard, thin line. "So that's what this is about. You just want the scoop on the story. I should've known." She opened her eyes and gave Maggie a piercing stare. "Let me ask you something first. Where's your girlfriend? Or doesn't she give a damn if I live or die?"

Jessica started to leap to her friend's defense, but Maggie silenced her with a look. She gazed placidly at her rival, determined not to let Catherine know that she and Julia were apart.

"Julia couldn't make it, but I'm sure she doesn't want you to die." It was the truth, sort of. Maggie continued. "And I'm not after any story, either. I'm still on leave from the paper, so I couldn't write it even if I wanted to. In case you forgot, someone tried to kill me not too long ago, so I was just curious. That's all." She held her breath, hoping Catherine didn't know about her brother.

Catherine softened slightly. "I already told the police everything I remember, which isn't much." Her gaze became distant as she recalled the events of that day. "I had an appointment to meet with Julia's father." She glanced at Maggie. "I used your name to get the interview. If I had used my own, there's no way Joe Cassinelli would have agreed to see me. He likes me about as much as his daughter does."

"Anyway, I went up in the elevator. Somewhere before my floor, two men got in, but I didn't really look at them. They didn't interest me." Catherine frowned, struggling to remember. "I don't even remember the gun. There was a loud noise and it felt like something just shoved me backwards. It didn't even hurt."

"Two men? Are you sure there were two?" Maggie interrupted her.

Catherine stared at her, puzzled. "Yeah. I couldn't tell you what they looked like, but I'm sure there were two of them. You know, the cop that was just here asked me that same question, even though I already told this story to the two cops that were here when I woke up. Why is that?"

Maggie froze. Something was setting off alarm bells in her head, and her mind worked frantically to process what Catherine had just said. Two sets of cops? No, wait. One pair of cops, then another policeman, apparently working alone. Why would they ask the same questions, though? Unless…

Jessica made the connection first. "Catherine, the cop that just left. What did he look like?"

Catherine shrugged. "He was big. Kind of heavy-set, like a boxer or a wrestler. I didn't pay that much attention to his face." She shuddered weakly. "His voice creeped me out, though. It was all low and gravely. It was like the voice the killer uses when he calls you from inside your house."

The description clicked in Maggie's mind. 'Sorry about that. Didn't see you there.' The words of the man she had run into in the hall echoed through her head. Quickly, she described him to Catherine, and the other reporter nodded.

"Yeah, that sounds like him," Catherine said.

Maggie leaned forward excitedly. "Did he give you his name?"

Catherine thought for a moment. "Beck. Officer Beck. He told me they didn't have any suspects yet. That I was probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He asked a couple of questions about you, though. Probably because I used your name when I set up the interview." She paused, observing as Maggie and Jessica exchanged glances. "Will somebody tell me what the hell is going on here?"

Maggie stood hurriedly, nearly knocking the water pitcher off the small table beside the bed. Fumbling through her purse, she pulled out a plain white business card and used the hospital phone to dial the number on it.

"Henry? I can barely hear you." She listened while he explained that he was crossing the lower deck of the Bay Bridge. "Never mind that. I need to ask you something. Do you know an Officer Beck?"

As she expected, Henry answered negatively. Maggie raked her fingers through her hair as she paced back and forth.

"Okay, I need you to do me a favor. Send someone to Catherine's hospital room. There was a man here a little while ago, posing as a police officer. He asked her a bunch of questions about the shooting and about me." She held the receiver away from her ear as Henry squawked at her in alarm. "I know. I'll be careful. Just send someone over here."

Henry agreed, and she hung up the phone. Maggie turned to Jessica.

"Can you stay here until the real police show up?"

Nodding, Jessica shooed her towards the door. "Of course. Go do whatever you need to do. We'll be fine here."

Catherine waved her hand at them to get their attention. "Excuse me. Somebody needs to start explaining right now."

The two friends glanced at her briefly.

"Get out of here. Just promise me you'll be careful." Jessica practically pushed Maggie out into the hall. "And tell Julia I said hi."

Maggie tossed a faint grin over her shoulder as she hurried down the corridor. She exited the hospital and paused for a moment on the curb, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. The lights in the parking lot were dim, and she frowned as she tried to spot her car. As she walked towards her row, she felt exposed and vulnerable. She picked up her pace, glancing around nervously. Suddenly, leaving the nice, crowded hospital didn't seem like such a good idea. Footsteps approached behind her and she tensed, clutching her keys in her hand like a weapon. A young woman passed by her without a glance, and Maggie breathed a sigh of relief.

She reached her car without incident and dialed Julia's home as she drove out of the parking lot. There was no answer. Even the answering machine failed to pick up. Frowning, Maggie called the private investigator's office, but there was no answer there either. This time, though, she was directed to Julia's voice mail, and she listened to the outgoing message.

"Out of town? Where the hell did she go?"

The traffic light turned red, and she slowed to a stop. Impatiently, she tapped her fingernails on the steering wheel. Where would Julia go? Maggie drifted back to a conversation from a few days before. Julia had mentioned something about a cabin on the beach. It was very secluded, she had said, and Maggie had gotten the impression that it was someplace she went when she needed time alone.

"I guess it's worth a shot," Maggie told herself. "Now, if I could just remember what beach she was talking about."

The light changed to green, and Maggie made a left turn. Her eyes darted briefly to her purse where her cell phone waited. She would call Henry again at the next light. If anyone knew exactly where Julia had gone, it would be the police inspector. And if he didn't know, Maggie reasoned, then she would search every damn beach between San Francisco and San Diego. With new determination, she turned her car towards the Golden Gate Bridge and the coastal highway that stretched beyond.

Maggie's apartment was on the way to the bridge, and at the last moment, she decided to stop and check her messages. She was sure that there would be more frantic phone calls from her mother, but she hoped there might also be something from Julia. Recklessly, she spun the steering wheel and swung her car into her parking spot, narrowly missing the rusty iron pole that separated the spaces. As she headed for her front door, she took a chance and dialed Julia's cell phone. Still no answer from the private investigator.

Worry and doubt began to gnaw at the reporter. She still had to check with Henry, but it seemed like Julia had vanished without a word. Maggie refused to believe that Julia would simply abandon her. It was more likely that her stubborn, moody lover had needed some time alone. An insistent whisper sounded in Maggie's mind, but she tried to ignore it. What if Julia didn't leave voluntarily? What if something happened to her?

"No. Don't think like that." Maggie told herself firmly as she unlocked her door. "She's fine. Maybe she got a lead on a case or something. Yeah, that's probably it."

Maggie stepped inside her apartment and closed the door, making sure to lock it behind her. The police had searched her place thoroughly and hadn't found any fingerprints other than hers, Julia's and Patrick's, but being there alone still made her nervous. Splotches of bluish-grey dust, left behind by the crime scene unit, dotted everything in her apartment, and Maggie absently ran her index finger through the powder. Her gaze automatically drifted to the empty spot behind the couch where Patrick's duffel bag had been. The police had taken anything that belonged to her brother. She shook her head stubbornly. Patrick wasn't a saint, but he wasn't a killer, either, and she was determined not to let anyone pin a crime on him that he hadn't committed.

The red light on her answering machine was blinking furiously at her, begging for her attention, and Maggie crossed into the kitchen to stare apprehensively at the little black box. The machine was completely full of messages, and she dreaded listening to them. With a resigned sigh, she hit the playback button and her mother's shrill voice immediately filled the room. Grimacing, Maggie skipped to the next message. That one was from her mother, as well. She kept scanning, ignoring the urgent voices of various family members. Sam, her editor, had called once, and she made a mental note to call him back. She was nearing the end of the messages, and her disappointment was growing steadily. Finally, her heart soared hopefully as a welcome voice filled her ears.

"Hi Maggie. It's, uh, it's me." An awkward pause as Julia cleared her throat. "I know you're not there right now, but just in case you checked your messages, I wanted you to know that I'm heading out of town for a few days. I just didn't want you to worry or anything."

Relief flooded over the reporter as she listened to the message, which had been left early that morning. She still didn't know where Julia had gone, but at least she knew that nothing sinister had happened to her. Maggie replayed the message, letting the warm tones of her lover's voice wash over her. Julia still cared enough to let her know that she was all right. That was something, at least.

Glancing at the clock, Maggie realized that it was getting late, and she debated waiting until morning to start her search. No, she decided, she didn't want to spend one more minute without Julia and she was eager to tell the private investigator about Catherine's mysterious visitor. She was confident that Julia would be able to make sense of it. Her mind made up, Maggie cleared her answering machine and reset it before heading for the door. In a hurry, she yanked it open and crashed headfirst into a warm, solid body. She let out a startled yelp and backpedaled fearfully, adrenaline pumping through her veins.

"Maggie? God, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you or anything."

With one hand, Maggie steadied herself against the kitchen counter and forced herself to breathe normally. Drew Cassinelli was standing on her doorstep, peering at her anxiously. She gave him an embarrassed half-grin.

"It's okay. I guess I'm a little jumpy these days."

Drew returned the smile warmly. "Understandable, considering everything you've been through lately." He glanced at the keys in her hand. "Were you on your way out?"

As Maggie started to respond, Jessica's warning flashed through her mind. Was Drew really who he seemed to be? It seemed strange that he was at her apartment, especially since she didn't recall ever telling him where she lived. Maggie's heart thundered in her ears and her smile was frozen to her face. She was sure he could see the uncertainty behind it.

"Actually, I was about to go run a few errands." She lied, hoping he wouldn't notice the flush she could feel creeping up her neck. "If you're looking for your sister, she's not here right now."

"Oh, I know," Drew replied hastily. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and jammed his hands in his pockets. "I was sort of hoping that you and I could talk. Maybe we could go grab a cup of coffee or something?"

Maggie desperately searched for a way out. "I don't know, Drew. I'm awfully busy tonight."

"I don't want to keep you," Drew began. "It's important, though."

Maggie regarded him warily, trying to gauge his intentions. Despite Jessica's cautionary words, she wasn't getting the impression that Drew was dangerous. She did suspect that there was something he was holding back, though, and she wondered if it had anything to do with Julia. She checked her watch.

"It's about Julia." Drew blurted the words out, and that sealed Maggie's decision.

She nodded briskly. "Okay. Let's go get some coffee and then we can talk." She held up her car keys. "I'll drive, if you don't mind."

Drew stepped back so she could exit her apartment. "Sure. Whatever you want."

They headed down the walkway towards Maggie's car, and she made sure to keep Julia's half-brother in her line of vision at all times. She felt she could trust Drew, but it was still better to be safe. They were both quiet during the short drive to the coffee shop where Maggie stopped every morning. Drew seemed uneasy and his nervousness was contagious. By the time they sat down at a small corner table, Maggie was ready to jump out of her skin.

"Okay, Drew. Whatever it is, spit it out," Maggie said bluntly, folding her hands on the table.

Drew fidgeted uncomfortably. "Uh. Well, you see…" His voice trailed off and he stared at his feet, as if he expected the answers to be written on his shoelaces.

Maggie was losing patience quickly. "What's going on? Did you want to talk to me about something or not?"

Drew looked so crestfallen that Maggie would have laughed if she hadn't been so irritated. She glared at him, exasperated, and waited for him to start explaining.

"She told me not to tell you anything," he muttered.

"Who did? Julia?"

Drew nodded sullenly. He looked just like his sister when he pouted. Same scrunched up eyebrows and jutting bottom lip. Maggie tried unsuccessfully to suppress a smile. Fortunately, he didn't notice her amusement.

"Jules called me early this morning and asked me to keep an eye on you while she went out of town." He admitted, keeping his eyes on the floor. "It took me all day to track you down. Finally, I ended up just waiting outside your apartment and hoping you'd show up there eventually. I'm surprised your neighbors didn't call the cops on me."

Maggie blinked at him incredulously. Julia had sent her brother to watch over her. The more she thought about it, the more it seemed like something she would do. Maggie couldn't decide whether she was touched or irritated by it.

"Julia asked you to watch out for me." Maggie echoed, still trying to figure out what it meant. "She didn't tell you where she was going, did she?"

Drew shrugged. "She said something about following up on a lead, but she didn't give any details and I didn't ask. I learned a long time ago that Julia only tells you what she wants you to know."

Maggie leaned across the table and took Drew's hand, noticing that he tensed slightly at her touch. She tried not to grin as she realized that he was blushing furiously. Oh, please don’t tell me Julia's brother has a crush on me, she chuckled silently. She banished the thought from her mind on focused on the matter at hand.

"This is really important, Drew. I need to find her and she isn't answering her phone. Are you sure she didn't give you any idea where she was headed?"

Drew's forehead creased as he thought for a moment, trying to recall the details of his conversation with his closemouthed sister. He looked up at Maggie doubtfully.

"She really didn’t say much." His face brightened as he remembered something. "Hey, I don’t know if this helps, but I could hear waves in the background when she called. So I guess she was somewhere near the ocean."

Maggie sighed. "Well, that gives me someplace to start, at least," she said, more to herself than to the young man sitting across from her.

Drew stared at her. "What are you planning on doing? Driving up and down the coast until you find her?"

Determined green eyes gazed back at him. "If I have to. But I think I'll stop by her house first. Maybe I'll find something there that will tell me where to look."

She pushed her chair back and stood, turning towards the door. Drew rose, as well, and cleared his throat to get her attention. She looked at him expectantly.

"Want some company?" He went on before she had a chance to decline. "Look, I promised her I'd look out for you, and you know what she'll do to me if I break that, right?"

Smiling, Maggie nodded and Drew gave her a familiar, lopsided grin.

"Then it's settled. I'm going with you." His expression sobered. "Besides, I want to make sure she's okay, too."

To his surprise, Maggie pulled him into a friendly hug. He sputtered and squirmed, trying to free himself from her embrace. When she released him, Maggie noticed that his blush had extended all the way to his scalp.

"Thank you," she said simply, unable to find the words to fully express her gratitude.

Drew ducked his head and shrugged sheepishly. He pulled a wad of money from his pocket and dropped a few crumpled bills on the table to pay for their coffee. His eyes met Maggie's, and although they were brown instead of blue, they still held the trademark Cassinelli twinkle.

"C'mon," he said. "Let's go track down my bullheaded sister."

Maggie and Drew left the bustling coffee shop and headed for the reporter's car, parked at the far end of the lot. The Corolla was engulfed in shadows and neither of them noticed the figure crouched behind the vehicle. As they approached, he straightened slightly, his head just barely visible over the hood of the car. Drew saw him first and stopped in his tracks. He seized Maggie's arm, pulling her back behind him.

"Drew? What the…"

The words died in her throat as she followed his gaze to the person standing beside her car. The outline seemed vaguely familiar, and she strained her eyes to see him better as Drew took a step forward.

"Who's there?" The young man demanded in a threatening, belligerent tone that Maggie had never heard from him before.

The figure flinched, as if planning to flee, and Drew tensed, preparing to give chase if necessary. Maggie stepped around her well-meaning protector, still trying to get a better look. The fog was not as dense as usual that night, and she could make out the lowered chin and the slightly hunched set of the man's shoulders. It was not the stance of an attacker. It was the stance of someone who was trying to hide. She took another, faltering step forward as realization began to dawn on her.

"Maggie, stay back." Drew warned her, trying to catch her arm again.

She shook free from his grasp. "No, I think it's okay." Squinting into the darkness, she took yet another step towards the shadowy man.

"Patrick?"

"Maggie, I need help." Patrick McKinnon whispered back, his voice cracking from fear and desperation.

Uttering a soft cry, Maggie rushed forward and enveloped her brother in a tight embrace. He was cold and shivering, and he reeked of dirt, stale sweat and god knew what else, but at least he was alive and safe. Taking his face between both hands, Maggie peered into his eyes, noting the dark circles beneath them and the purplish-black bruise that covered his jaw and most of his left cheek. He looked tired and scared, but sober, and she took that as a good sign.

"Patrick, are you okay? Where have you been? What happened?" Maggie asked, her voice filled with urgency.

"Uh, guys?" Drew scanned the parking lot and adjacent sidewalk nervously. "I hate to interrupt, but maybe we should take this someplace less public."

Maggie nodded. "Right. Good idea." She unlocked the car doors and ushered both men inside. "Let's go. We can talk when we get there."

Ducking his head, Patrick slipped into the backseat and immediately slouched down, out of sight. Drew sat up front, next to Maggie, and they exchanged a nervous glance. Maggie started the car and slowly pulled out of the parking lot, observing every traffic law. The last thing she wanted to do was attract attention with her fugitive brother hiding in the backseat.

"Where are we going?" Patrick asked.

Maggie glanced at him in the rearview mirror. "Julia's house."

"Oh. Okay." He paused, frowning. "Who's Julia?"

Maggie coughed into her fist as Drew hid a grin behind his hand. She had forgotten that Patrick did not know about Julia. She had a feeling that this was going to be a night for all sorts of revelations.

"I'll explain when we get there." She answered her brother tersely.

He shrugged, unconcerned for the moment. "Whatever."

Maggie returned her attention to the road, and after a few minutes of silence, Drew leaned toward her.

"Do you think it's safe there?" He asked, keeping his voice low.

Maggie exhaled slowly. Suddenly, everyone was looking to her to take charge, and she wasn't sure she had any answers. Julia would know what to do, she was sure of that. But Julia wasn't there.

"I don't know," she said finally. "I think it's probably safer than my apartment. No one would expect Patrick to show up at Julia's house. At least, I hope they wouldn't."

"I hope you're right," Drew said.

Me too, Maggie thought as she turned the car toward North Beach.

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

Allison Davis paced impatiently across the balcony of her father's retreat. Nestled amongst the evergreens, the house sat high on a sheer cliff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Waves crashed rhythmically against the rocks below, invisible in the inky darkness. Behind her, Allison could hear her fiancÚ clicking away on his laptop.

"Danny, stop that. It's giving me a headache," she said without turning.

Pausing, Daniel Webber looked up at her, silhouetted in the sliding glass doorway that led from the master bedroom to the balcony. Allison had always been excitable, even in college, but tonight she appeared even more agitated than normal. She was full of nervous energy and her dark, unreadable eyes were far too bright.

Allison had been edgy since her father had ordered them out of town early that morning. For the past few days, Danny had been hiding at the Davis estate while the police searched his home and his business. The cops had found nothing. The councilman had made sure of that, but Danny was drawing too much attention and people were beginning to ask questions about Allison and her father, as well. His solution had been to send his daughter and his future son-in-law to his coastal retreat. Few people knew he owned the beach house, and no one would look for them there.

Gradually, Danny became aware that Allison had turned around. She was staring at him expectantly, waiting for a response to her directive.

"Stop what?" He asked cautiously, trying not to trigger her explosive temper.

She snarled, glaring at him, and he shrank back on the bed. In a few long strides, she closed the distance between them and swept the laptop off the black satin sheets, knocking it to the floor with a clatter.

"That incessant click, click, click," she said, pretending to type on an imaginary keyboard. "I can't think clearly with all that damn noise!"

Danny reached out to her, but she pushed him away savagely, nearly throwing him off the edge of the bed. He watched her as she resumed pacing, her hands gesturing spasmodically as she carried on a private conversation with herself. Slowly, he rose and moved toward the open bathroom door. As he expected, a small paper envelope had been discarded on the floor in front of the sink. Kneeling, Danny checked the contents and discovered that it was empty, except for a few granules of powdery residue. He licked his finger and his tongue immediately went numb.

"Allison, I thought we agreed you would lay off this stuff for a while." Danny stood, holding up the envelope for her to see.

She giggled and covered her mouth with her hand. "That was supposed to be a secret."

Danny sighed and tossed the empty envelope into the wastebasket. Allison pouted, poking her lower lip out as she glided towards him on bare feet. Throwing her arms around his neck, she nibbled his ear.

"It was just a little bit," she murmured. "I was so tired earlier. I needed a little something to keep me going. That's all."

Her mood changed again and she pushed him away. "Daddy said he would call as soon as he was done with the police. Why hasn't he called yet?"

Danny followed her back out to the balcony, where she was leaning precariously over the rail. Gently, he put his hands around her waist and pulled her back.

"I don't know, baby. Maybe the cops are still talking to him. I'm sure he'll call soon and everything will be just fine."

"Hmmm. Maybe you're right." Allison's face brightened and she moved past him, back into the bedroom.

"I think I'll go down to the pool." She gave him a sly glance. "Join me?"

Danny smiled at her indulgently. "Sure. Go on down. I'll grab the towels and the wine and meet you in a few minutes."

"Bring the phone with you. Can't miss Daddy's call." She gave him a hard, steely grin and he thought he detected a threat lurking behind her impossibly dark eyes.

"Oh, and Danny? Don't keep me waiting."

She brushed past him and left the room, humming airily as she descended the stairs. A spacious living room stretched out below her on the first floor. The entire rear wall consisted of plate glass and a sliding door that opened onto a wide redwood deck. A few steps down, a swimming pool and a connecting hot tub waited.

As Allison strolled through the living room, a soft thump alerted her. She stopped, cocking her head to the side, listening. It had sounded like it had come from the front steps, and her eyes narrowed as she padded towards the door. She pressed her ear against it but heard nothing further.

"Fuck this," she muttered under her breath, yanking the front door wide open.

 

There was no one there and not a car in sight as far as she could see in either direction. Allison stepped out onto the front patio, shivering a bit in the cool night air. A brisk sea breeze rustled through the dense evergreen branches, but other than that, everything was still and quiet. As she turned to reenter the house, her bare foot brushed against something hard and prickly. She looked down at the small pinecone that rested near the door.

"Damn squirrels."

She kicked the offending object into the darkness, grunting in satisfaction as something skittered away into the night. Her high was wearing off and she could feel the headache building behind her right eye. The pain would be blinding soon, unless she did something about it. Heading back into the house, she paused at the foot of the stairs.

"Danny? Be a dear and bring me one of my migraine pills too." She shut the door behind her and continued out to the pool.

Once the footsteps had receded from earshot, a tall figure materialized out of the dark recesses to the side of the house. Julia heaved a sigh of relief. While checking the lock on the front door, her small flashlight had slipped out of her hand. There had been just enough time to grab it and duck out of sight before Allison ripped the door open. Moving carefully to avoid making any more noise, Julia crossed the front patio. She tested the knob again, hoping that Allison had forgotten to lock up. It would not turn.

"Damn."

Deep in thought, Julia chewed on her thumbnail as she planned her next move. For two days she had skulked outside the Davis estate, trying to figure out a way to get past the guards and get inside. Martin Davis had more security than she had expected, and there had been several close calls as she eluded them. Finally, just after dawn that morning, her luck had turned. The gates had opened and Danny's shiny red sports car had emerged. It had sped away, but not before Julia had caught a glimpse of his passenger. Her suspicions had been confirmed. There was something going on between Danny Webber and Allison Davis.

In her brand-new Toyota 4-Runner, Julia had followed, taking care to stay several car lengths behind them as they fled San Francisco. They had led her to the councilman's retreat overlooking the southern edge of Stinson Beach. She had driven past the house at first, then doubled back once she was sure that Danny and Allison were inside. After leaving her vehicle out of sight around a sharp curve, Julia had hiked back to the house, taking cover amidst the dense thicket of trees that surrounded it. When night had fallen, she had begun trying to devise a way to get inside.

Scowling in frustration, Julia took a step back and stared up at the house. Okay, Julia. Think this through, she reasoned with herself. You get into the house and then what? Walk up to them and say 'tell me what's going on, or else'? A heavier set of footsteps descended the stairs, and she prepared to hide again. Danny's footsteps, she surmised, listening as they moved away from the front door. There was a splash, followed by a pair of low voices.

The pool, Julia thought. This was the perfect opportunity to get into the house and have a look around. She was positive that there would be something inside to connect Danny and Allison to the attacks on Maggie. Perhaps she would even find evidence to help clear her lover's good-for-nothing brother, though Julia wasn't as convinced of that. She still believed that Patrick was, at least, peripherally involved in whatever game Danny and Allison were running. Julia didn't understand her lover's loyalty to her brother, but she had decided to do what she could to help him. For Maggie's sake.

Their argument had bothered her more than she cared to admit. When Maggie had walked out of the apartment that night, Julia had been positive that they were over. Everyone she had ever remotely cared about walked out on her eventually. Kirsten. Her mother. Why should Maggie be any different? Besides, Julia knew that she made a mistake by blurting out the information about Patrick without discussing it with Maggie first. She had known it the second the words had tumbled out of her mouth. It was a realization that came too late, and she couldn't blame the reporter for being angry. She would not be surprised if Maggie never forgave her.

Henry had driven her home and stayed the night on the couch, watching over her while she drank herself into a stupor. He had tried several times to talk to her, but she had been beyond listening. She had destroyed the best thing in her life. Maggie was gone. Nothing else mattered. When she woke up the next morning, alone, she made a decision. Even if Maggie didn't want her anymore, Julia vowed to solve the case and make sure that the reporter stayed safe. It was the least she could do.

There was another loud splash, and laughter cut through the night, reminding Julia of her purpose. Come on, Julia. Focus, she chastised herself mentally. There was a good chance that the answers to her questions were in that house, and she was determined to do whatever it took to find them.

Flattening herself against the side of the house, she edged around to the back. Carefully, she poked her head around the corner until she could see Danny and Allison lounging in the hot tub and sipping from wineglasses. They had their backs to her, and more importantly, they had their backs to the house. Sizing up her chances, Julia calculated the distance between herself and the half-open sliding glass door. She would have to move quickly and silently, but she thought she could cover the ground and slip inside the house without being seen. It was risky, but it was worth a shot.

"What the hell," she whispered. "What have I got to lose?"

She clenched her fists, her fingernails leaving deep crescents embedded into her palms. She would only have one shot at this. One chance to get inside the secluded beach house without being seen by the couple relaxing in the hot tub just yards away. Julia could feel her heart rate quickening and she forced herself to take slow, deep breaths. Bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet, like a boxer sizing up his opponent, she gauged the distance between her hiding place and the back door. Ten seconds. Maybe fifteen. That was all she would need.

On noiseless feet, she moved, staying in the shadows, keeping her back pressed flat against the side of the house. She placed each step with the utmost care, knowing that the crack of a twig underfoot could be her undoing. All the while, her eyes never left the man and woman in the steaming hot tub. As she inched toward the redwood deck, the theme to Mission: Impossible resounded through her head in an endless loop, and she almost laughed at the absurdity of her situation. Then she remembered the sound of gunfire ripping through metal mingling with Maggie's screams, and all traces of humor vanished. This was no game.

Julia paused at the edge of the deck. This was the tricky part. Once she stepped up onto the deck, she would be completely exposed until she was inside the house. It would only take a few seconds, but if Danny turned his head a fraction of an inch to the left, he would see her.

With exaggerated slowness, she placed her boot on the edge of the deck. The wood creaked beneath her weight, and she tensed, expecting to hear shouts of alarm. When none came, she continued, covering the space in four long strides. Turning sideways, she slid through the partially open door, the frame brushing against her soft leather jacket.

Quickly, Julia ducked behind the curtains and risked a glance outside. Allison still had her back turned, but Danny's position appeared to have changed. Julia's stomach tightened and she wiped her damp palms on her jeans as she tried to recall exactly which way he had been facing.

"Be reasonable," she said under her breath. "If he had seen you, he would have said something and it would be all over."

Dismissing the roiling in her gut as mere paranoia, she turned to survey the living room. The sparse, precisely arranged furniture made her feel like she was standing in the pages of a magazine. Her instincts told her that the information she sought was elsewhere and she headed for the stairs, taking care not to disturb anything. Danny wouldn't notice if the throw rug had moved a quarter of an inch, but Allison might.

The polished banister was slick and cool beneath her hand as she climbed to the second floor. Every nerve ending in her body stood at attention and she started at every tiny sound. Her own breathing sounded too loud in her ears. She had to admit that in all her years as a private investigator, she had never been this nervous. The stakes had never been this high. Julia wondered again if leaving Maggie behind had been the best idea. It had been one of the most difficult decisions she had ever made, and she hoped that her brother was keeping a close eye on the reporter, as he had promised.

With a little luck, the whole ugly mess would be over soon, she told herself as she entered the master bedroom. Various articles of clothing spilled out of two open suitcases resting on the floor, and she started toward them. At the last moment, she swerved over to the bed as something more interesting caught her eye. Cocking her head to one side, she examined the closed laptop balanced at the foot of the bed. She opened it and cursed in frustration when it prompted her for a password. Typing in words at random got her nowhere, and Julia searched her mind for a clue that would point her towards the right password. Face it, her inner voice mocked her, you don't even know who this thing belongs to. You could sit here all night and still not come up with the right word.

Though she hated to admit it, the voice was right. Julia put the computer back on the bed and stood, smoothing away the wrinkles she left on the satin sheets. She returned her attention to the open suitcases and began to sift through the contents. Danny's contained nothing of interest. As she dug beneath Allison's hastily folded clothes, Julia's hopes were fading.

"There has to be something here," she said, her desperation growing.

She searched the walk-in closet and rifled through the dresser drawers, finding nothing out of the ordinary. She was running out of time and she knew it. Her gaze was drawn to the thin sliver of light shining through the crack at the bottom of the bathroom door. Julia moved toward it hopefully. She nudged the door open and stepped inside the glossy black tiled room. There was nothing on the counter or in the sink. A quick glance inside the sunken bathtub revealed nothing there either. Julia spun in a slow circle, searching for something, anything that would help her crack this case. Downstairs, the sliding door opened.

"Oh, shit." She breathed, heading for the bathroom door.

Her instincts screamed at her. Get out or find a place to hide. At the edge of her vision, she caught sight of a scrap of paper poking out from behind the wastebasket. Julia snatched the small white envelope between her thumb and index finger and shoved it into her pocket. She would examine it more closely later. If she managed to escape without being detected.

Returning to the bedroom, Julia paused, listening. Every muscle in her body tensed, waiting for a confrontation. She expected to hear footsteps on the stairs at any moment. Instead, the faint clinking of dishes told her that someone was in the kitchen. Keeping her guard up, she eased out into the hallway.

"Allison, where's the bottle opener?" Danny's voice floated up to her.

There was a short pause, then a muffled reply. Julia listened as Danny opened drawers and rummaged through their contents. He emerged from the kitchen with two beer bottles in one hand and a bottle opener in the other. Julia stepped away from the railing, back into the shadows. She sighed in relief, allowing herself to relax when he returned to the swimming pool without looking in her direction. It was time for her to get the hell out of the house.

Patience had never been one of her virtues, but Julia forced herself to wait. After counting to twenty, she started down the stairs, keeping an eye on the back door with every step. As she reached the bottom, the phone rang. She froze, panic rising. She was completely vulnerable. There was nowhere to hide if Danny or Allison came back into the house. On the second ring, Allison answered the call outside, her voice drifting through the half-open door.

"Daddy! It's about time. I was getting worried."

Julia knew she should get out while Allison was occupied, but the opportunity to eavesdrop on this conversation was one she could not pass up. She crept into the living room and ducked down behind the corner of the sofa. She strained her ears, trying to hear more of the phone call.

Judging by Allison's reactions, Julia surmised that the councilman was giving her a list of instructions. Allison objected vehemently, but she was overruled. She and Danny were to stay at the house, out of sight, until further notice. Julia could almost picture Allison's sullen, child-like pout. A long stretch of silence followed, and Julia's anxiety rose. Her heart nearly stopped at the sudden mention of Maggie's name.

"What about those reporters, Richards and McKinnon?" Allison asked. "What are you going to do about them?"

A delighted squeal turned Julia's blood to ice. Ignoring the risk, she edged closer, needing to hear more of the details. Peeking through the curtains, she watched as Allison finished the exchange with her father and replaced the cordless phone on the deck.

"Well, well." Allison turned to Danny gleefully. "It seems Maggie McKinnon lost her great protector. Daddy says no one has seen your friend Julia in days. He's sending people to take care of both of our reporter problems."

A red haze filled Julia's mind and a steady stream of profanity swirled endlessly in her head. Struggling to control her blinding rage, she suppressed the urge to storm outside and throttle the gloating socialite. She clenched her fists reflexively, imagining the feel of Allison's throat beneath her fingers. This wasn't the time, she told herself. First, she had to make sure that Maggie, and Catherine, stayed safe. Swift, silent and resolute, she exited the house. As soon as she was out of earshot, she broke into a run, dashing down the road to the spot where she had left her truck.

Back in the hot tub, Danny smiled vacantly while Allison filled him in on the plan. In her excitement, she failed to notice that he wasn't looking at her. Instead, Danny's eyes were focused on the house. He wondered if Julia had found anything useful. If she had, it would not take her long to act on the information. He had to make a decision. Soon.

To be continued...

 


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