by Erin Jennifer
Julia hurried down the stairs, drying her long hair with a towel as she moved. She had just stepped out of the shower when someone had started banging on her front door. Throwing the damp towel over her shoulder, she ran her fingers through her dark tangles and pressed her eye to the peephole in the door. A short, stocky Asian man stood on her front porch, his image distorted by the glass.
"What are you doing here, Henry?" Julia opened the door, greeting the police inspector.
Without being asked, Henry Chow edged past Julia into the entryway. With an exasperated sigh, Julia shut the door behind him and ushered Henry into the living room. He sank down on the sofa, stretching his arms across the back as he regarded her calmly.
"I hear you ran into some trouble recently," he said finally.
Crossing her arms, Julia leaned against the corner of the bookcase. "Nothing I couldnt handle," she replied, a hint of irritation in her voice.
"Yeah, you handled it so well that you ended up in the emergency room," Henry pointed out. "Now, do you want to tell me whats going on?"
"It was nothing, Henry." Julia lifted her damp hair away from the back of her neck. "Besides, you know I cant discuss my cases with you."
Frustrated, Henry slapped his open hand against the leather sofa with a loud thwack. "Last time I checked, you werent a doctor, lawyer or priest. There is absolutely nothing that says you cant talk to me about your cases!"
He paused, shifting his approach. Years of experience had taught him that yelling at Julia wouldnt get him anywhere. In fact, the more someone yelled at her, the more quiet and obstinate she would become. Henry relaxed his demeanor and summoned up a friendly, concerned smile.
"How long have we known each other, Jules? Over ten years. As your friend, I just want to make sure youre okay. Maybe I can help you," he offered.
"I appreciate your concern, but Im fine. Really." Julia assured him.
He looked at her skeptically. "Youve got stitches in your head and a bruise the size of Alcatraz on the side of your face. Thats not my definition of fine, sweetheart." He broke off, peering at her more closely. "Hey, whats that on your neck? My god, Julia! Is that a hickey?
He looked around wildly, as if expecting the perpetrator to leap out of the couch cushions. Spotting a clue on the sofa armrest, Henry snatched up the incriminating evidence between two fingers. His eyebrows lifted into his bristling crew cut, and a giant grin spread across his face.
"Blonde, huh?" He held up a strand of hair. His eyes widened. "Not that reporter from a couple of days ago!"
It took every ounce of control she had, but Julia remained impassive. She stared at him calmly, refusing to answer. Shed known Henry Chow since high school, and he was one of the few friends shed kept over the years.
"What was her name? Mc-something, wasnt it?" Henry continued, undaunted. "She was cute. I was thinking about asking her out myself. Figures youd steal her away from me."
That finally got the reaction he was seeking. Julia started to laugh, her stony mask crumbling. It made her look more like the teenager he remembered and less like the quiet, isolated woman she had become, Henry noted thoughtfully.
"Youre an idiot," Julia chuckled fondly.
"Yeah, well, we cant all be evil geniuses like you," Henry replied. "So, come on, tell me about the girl." He leaned forward eagerly.
"I thought you came here to ask about my case," Julia countered.
"Screw your case. I want to hear about the girl." He cocked his head, noticing the lopsided grin on her lips and the faint blush coloring her cheeks. "You really like this one, dont you?"
Julia shrugged casually, but Henry could read the emotions flickering just beneath the surface. It had been too many years since he had seen those blue eyes sparkle like that. He crossed the room and hugged her, startling her.
"Im happy for you, Jules. Its about time."
"Thanks." Julia ducked out of his friendly embrace. "I really do like this one, Henry. It makes no goddamn sense."
She moved over to the window and opened the heavy curtains. A ghostly howl filled the air as the wind whipped through the branches in the trees outside. As Julia stood at the window, staring at the dark sky, the first heavy drops of rain spattered against the glass. This was going to be an ugly one. She turned back to Henry, who had resumed his seat on the sofa.
"Why doesnt it make sense?" Henry asked her gently. "With everything youve been through in the last few years, you deserve a little happiness. Besides, she was hot." He grinned at her.
Julia gave him a semi-disgusted look. "Quit talking with your zipper for once! This isnt just sex. Shes different."
Henry nodded, flipping through an imaginary notebook. "Mmhmm. Leaping to her defense. Yep, just as I thought. Its a definite early warning sign. Im afraid your white-knight syndrome is flaring up again." He sighed, shaking his head mournfully. "Im sorry to inform you that theres no known cure."
Julia rolled her eyes and snapped her towel at him. "Its not like that, either. Well, not totally anyway." She paused. "Okay, shes got this brother whos causing her a lot of grief. And, yes, I offered to help her out with that. But theres something more. I cant really explain it."
"Jules, Ive learned that its best not to question these things too much. Youll just make yourself crazy. Well, crazier, in your case." Henry grinned at her, blithely ignoring the dirty look she shot him. "Just go with your heart."
With an exaggerated sigh, Julia flopped down beside him on the sofa and propped her bare feet up on the coffee table. She glanced sideways at her friend, arching a dark eyebrow thoughtfully.
"Henry, in all the time Ive known you, I think thats the most intelligent thing Ive ever heard you say."
"Thanks," Henry replied smugly, his self-satisfied smirk turning to a frown as he absorbed what she had said. "Hey! Wait a minute!"
Julia burst out laughing and the warm, vibrant sound filled the room. Henry glared at her irritably for a moment, but even he could not resist her charm, and soon, he joined her laughter. They sat in companionable silence as their chuckles subsided. Henry rubbed his bristling crew cut as his mood turned serious.
"Look, Julia, I think its great that youve found someone," he started. "But, I really did come here on slightly more official business."
Julia chewed her lower lip, trying to decide how much information to share with the police inspector. She'd learned the hard way that the cops tended to get in the way of her investigations, and even thought she knew Henry meant well, she was reluctant to tell him too much. Still, she mused, it might not hurt to throw him a bone and see what he could dig up through official channels.
"I think theres more to the Netsports break-in," she said flatly, holding up a hand to cut off his question. "I dont have anything more solid than a gut feeling, yet, but theres something about that whole situation that just doesnt feel right."
Henry waited, hoping for more, but apparently that was all she was willing to share with him. He fiddled absently with his shoelace while he turned the possibilities over in his mind. On the surface, the Netsports break-in didnt look like anything more than a routine burglary to him. Julias instincts were usually good, though, and he went over the details of the case. Since no one had been injured, it wasnt his top priority, and he hadnt been giving the matter much thought.
"The safe." Julia said suddenly, breaking his train of thought. Henry gave her a puzzled look, wondering where she was going.
"Why steal the safe, Henry? A junkie looking for some quick cash isnt going to haul away something as heavy as a safe. Im not even sure that one person could have handled it alone."
Henry was about to respond when a fierce gust of wind rattled the living room windows. The lights flickered briefly, but stayed on. Julia stared out the window, lost in her own thoughts as sheets of rain pounded against the pavement outside.
"Only Danny and his VP had the combination to that safe." She spoke aloud, but Henry could tell by the faraway look in her eyes that she wasnt talking to him. She was working something out in her mind, and he stayed quiet, letting her think.
"That could mean a couple of things," Julia continued. "Either whoever stole the safe didnt know the combination and didnt have time to try to break into it, or whoever stole it did have the combo and didnt want anyone to know that."
Henry rubbed his jaw, his fingers tracing the thin line where he had nicked himself shaving that morning. He had to admit, everything Julia had just said made sense, and it bothered him that he hadnt thought of it himself.
"So you think that Netsports is connected your attacker?"
"Probably," Julia replied, her eyes still distant. There was something else about that safe nagging at her. According to Daniel Webber, it hadnt contained anything important, so why would anyone go to all the trouble of hauling it out of that office?
Henry recognized the finality in her tone, and he knew he wasnt going to get anything else from her today. He stood, straightening his tie. Glancing out the window, he grimaced at the torrents pouring from the darkened sky, and he wished he hadnt left his jacket in the car. He would be soaked by the time he reached the vehicle. Julia followed his gaze and read the expression on his face.
"You can borrow my umbrella," she told him as she rose and walked him to the door.
She opened the closet in the entryway and removed a small travel umbrella from a hook on the back of the door. Henry took it gratefully. He paused, his hand on the doorknob.
"Would it do me any good to ask you to leave this to the police?" He let out a resigned sigh as Julia simply stared at him. "No, I didnt think so. Just be careful, okay? I dont want anybody bashing in that pretty skull of yours."
That got him a barely noticeable twitch of her lips. He stepped out on the porch, shivering dramatically as the storm blew the chilling rain against his body. He opened the umbrella, fighting against the wind that threatened to turn it inside out.
"Im always careful, Henry," Julia deadpanned. "Ill see you later."
Henry let out a string of obscenities in English and Chinese as he dashed to his car. Chuckling softly, Julia shut the front door and headed back upstairs. Her bed was still rumpled and unmade, and she ran her hand across the soft flannel. Glancing around surreptitiously to make sure no one was watching but the dust mites, she picked up the pillow Maggie had used and held it to her nose. Closing her eyes, she breathed in deeply, relishing the lingering scent of the reporters strawberry shampoo.
"Okay, just stop right there," she scolded herself happily. "Youre gonna ruin your reputation like that."
Outside, the wind screeched and rain slammed against the side of the house. Thunder rumbled threateningly in the distance, somewhere out over the bay. Julia sighed. It was going to be an ugly day. She hoped Maggie was inside, safe and dry.
The newsroom was busier than usual when Maggie arrived at work, half an hour later than usual. Sipping from her steaming cup of coffee, she headed for her desk. There was a pink post-it note stuck to her monitor, and she instantly recognized Catherines handwriting. You owe me $150 for my shoes. Wincing, Maggie crumpled the note and tossed it into the wastebasket beside her desk. She shook her head. She had never in her life owned a pair of $150 shoes.
After leaving Julias house, Maggie had returned to her apartment to shower and change clothes. Patrick hadnt been there, but she had listened to his message on her answering machine. She wasnt sure what to think. At least he was alive and not in jail, she told herself, but she couldnt help wondering what kind of mess he was in. Patrick had only been in town for a few days. Who on earth could he have met in that short time? Maggie glanced at her phone and made a face. She was dreading telling her parents that Patrick had run off.
"Got in a little late this morning, didnt you?" Jessica appeared at Maggies elbow.
"Maybe a little," Maggie admitted with a grin. "Hey, whats going on around here, anyway?"
Jessica hopped up onto the corner of Maggies desk, her feet dangling above the floor.
"What, you havent heard? Oh, right. I guess you were sort of busy last night, werent you?" Jessica smirked at her. She turned serious then, leaning forward to tell Maggie the news.
"There was another arson fire on the waterfront. Only this time, a security guard got killed. Theres a joint press conference with the mayors office and the police department scheduled in a couple of hours."
"Thats awful. Did the guy have a family?" Maggie felt a pang of sympathy for the security guard. "Are the police any closer to catching anybody?"
Jessica shrugged and pushed her glasses up. "I think thats one of the things theyll talk about at the press conference. But I havent heard anything to suggest that they have any suspects."
"McKinnon!" Sam Vogelsang, her editor, bellowed from the doorway to his office. "Get in here!"
Maggie and Jessica exchanged a bewildered look. Sam seemed even more agitated than usual. Maggie seated herself in his office, waiting while her editor paced back and forth in front of her.
"Ive got another assignment for you," he said finally. "It might turn out to be nothing, but we got an anonymous tip that someone saw a woman leaving the fire last night. I want you to go to the scene and talk to anyone who might have seen anything."
Maggies eyes widened. This could be a huge break for her. "What about Catherine? I thought this arson story was hers." The last thing she wanted to do was step on Catherines toes again.
"It is. Shell be at the press conference." Sam said gruffly. "Shes still going to handle the official side of things. But I want you to look into the unofficial stuff."
"Look, I know the two of you dont get along very well. But I want this story, McKinnon, and I dont have time to soothe your egos. Go get me something good."
Maggie stood. She turned back at the door. "Sam? Youve got dozens of reporters out there with more experience. Why me?"
"Because I think you have more potential than all of them combined." Sam never looked up from the papers he was shuffling through. He shoved a note with an address on it towards her. "Now go show me what you can do."
Maggie had been at the paper long enough to know that praise from Sam was virtually unheard of. She had also learned to press her luck where her volatile editor was concerned, and she quickly slipped out of his office without another word. As she walked back to her desk, Maggie felt as if her feet never touched the floor. Jessica got up as she approached, looking at her expectantly.
"Im on the arson story," Maggie said, scarcely believing the words that were coming out of her mouth.
Jessica squealed in delight and threw her arms around her dazed friend. "Oh my god! Congratulations, Maggie. This is gonna be so huge!"
Still stunned by her editors faith in her, Maggie could only nod dumbly as she returned Jessicas friendly hug. She was dimly aware that most of the newsroom was watching them. Most of her co-workers were looking at her with grudging admiration, although a few of them wore expressions tinged with envy.
"Wow, this is turning out to be quite a week for you, isnt it?" Jessica laughed.
"Yeah. It sure is," Maggie answered softly as a slow grin lit up her face. "Thanks, Jess. I guess Id better get out of here."
She grabbed her damp raincoat, which was draped over the back of her chair. Patting herself down, she checked to make sure she had all of her essential tools: keys, cell phone, notebook and pen. She decided to leave her laptop behind. It would be of little use out in the rain, anyway, she reasoned.
"Okay. Wish me luck," she said, tying the belt to her black raincoat securely around her slim waist.
"Honey, you dont need luck," Jessica replied. "Youve got skill."
They looked at each other and burst out laughing. As she exited the newsroom amidst a flurry of muttered congratulations, Maggie could still hear her friends girlish peals of laughter. She headed down to her car, glancing at the location Sam had given her as she slid behind the wheel. It was just a few blocks away from the site of the previous blaze. Maggie thought back to that earlier fire, and that night. A chorus of what ifs floated through her mind. What if she hadnt gone to that scene? She probably wouldnt have gotten Sams attention, and she wouldnt be off on the biggest story of her career, so far. More importantly, she thought as she smiled at her reflection in the rearview mirror, she never would have met Julia Cassinelli. Julias office wasnt far from the scene of the current fire, and she wondered if the private investigator was still at home. It wouldnt hurt to swing by Julias office on her way back from the warehouse, Maggie decided as she pulled out into the rain-slick street.
It didnt take her long to reach the charred remains of the warehouse. The scene was cordoned off by yellow police tape, but Maggie was surprised to note that there was no one in sight. A single empty squad car sat in front of the building, its presence meant to deter anyone stupid enough to go climbing through the rubble. Maggie parked next to it and sat in her car for a moment, listening to the rain pound against the roof. There had to be an officer to go with the car, and she wondered where he was. Glancing in her rearview mirror, she noticed a small coffee shop half a block away. The officer had probably taken refuge from the storm in there. Maggie smiled at her good fortune. There would be no one to stop her from poking around.
She stepped out of her car and looked up at the sky, wishing that the rain would let up. The black clouds stared back at her implacably. Maggie sighed and briefly thought of the travel umbrella in her car trunk. She decided against it. It would be hard enough for her to take any notes without having one more item to juggle. Pulling her raincoat closer around her body, she resigned herself to the idea of getting soaked. A quick look in both directions told her that nobody was watching her, and she ducked underneath the tape. Black water ran in rivulets from the burned warehouse, and the air smelled like a wet campfire. Splashing through the puddles, Maggie wished she had worn her hiking boots as the water seeped through her thin loafers. She had no idea what she was looking for as she circled around the building.
The citys homeless liked to use these warehouses for shelter whenever they could, and Maggie saw evidence of their presence as she approached a small storage shed near the main warehouse. Trash and tattered bits of clothing littered the ground, and Maggies nostrils flared as she encountered the unmistakable stench of human waste. The rusted metal door to the shed had been forced open and stood slightly ajar. Nervousness fluttered through her stomach, and her hand trembled as Maggie reached out to push it open. Without warning, the door jerked backwards from the other direction. Maggie screamed and staggered back, tripping over her own feet and landing hard on the muddy ground. Crab-like, she skittered backwards as a gaunt, filthy man dressed in mismatched rags loomed in the doorway. He pointed at her with a gloved hand covered in grime.
"Whaddya want? This is mine! Mine!" He shrieked at her. One eye was a deep, impenetrable black. The other had turned milky white.
Slowly, willing herself not to show any fear, Maggie climbed to her feet. She held her hands out, trying to pacify the agitated man.
"Im very sorry, sir," she said in a soothing tone. "I didnt mean to trespass."
This seemed to mollify him slightly, and he folded his arms across his chest. His bad eye twitched violently and he smacked his dry, chapped lips constantly. Maggie wondered if it would be pointless to question him. Still, it was worth a try.
"My name is Maggie and Im a reporter." She pulled a ten-dollar bill out of her pocket and held it out to him, trying not to flinch when he snatched it from her.
"I was hoping I could ask you a few questions," she continued, encouraged that he seemed to be listening. "Have you been living here long?" Maggie nodded behind him at the rusting, dilapidated shed.
He shrugged indifferently, holding the ten-dollar bill up and examining it closely. He grunted when he found what he was looking for. Maggie watched, fascinated, as he removed his gloves and carefully tore the edge off the bill, removing the thin paper strip inside it. He discarded the thread and stomped on it, grinding it into the mud. The rest of the bill disappeared beneath the rags.
"Thats how they track you," he informed Maggie seriously. "Cant let them find you."
"Oh? Okay, Ill remember that." Maggie took a different route with her questions. "Have you ever seen them?"
He regarded her warily with his good eye. Looking around, he put a finger to his lips, warning her to be quiet. He beckoned her closer. Maggie took a step forward, breathing through her mouth to try to avoid the putrid smell emanating from the man.
"One of em was here last night," he confided. "I saw what she did."
"She?" Sams sources were right, Maggie thought, there was a woman here last night.
"Yep," the man nodded. "Pretty girl. Just like you."
He took a step closer, hands reaching out for her, a leering grin twisting his mouth. A harsh cackle burst from his lips as Maggie stumbled backwards, nearly losing her balance again. From somewhere behind her, a gunshot ripped through the air. The bullet struck the base of the mans throat, and tore through the back of his neck, sending a fine spray of blood everywhere. Bile rose in Maggies throat as droplets of the warm, sticky liquid hit her face, and she choked back a scream as the man toppled forward, gurgling helplessly. Another shot whizzed past her ear, close enough that she could hear the whine of the bullet. Her paralysis broke and she ran blindly without looking back.
Ahead of her, there was nothing but the end of the pier, and beyond that, the bay. She veered left and ducked behind the corner of the burned-out building. Flattening herself against the blackened wall, Maggie squeezed her eyes shut and prayed that someone had heard the shots. Sweat poured down her temples, mixing with the rain, and her breath came in frantic, shallow gasps. Her vision tunneled and brightened around the edges, and she knew she was beginning to hyperventilate. Footsteps sloshed through the mud, and Maggie looked around in a panic. Several yards away, she spotted a door leading down to an underground storage facility. The footsteps were moving closer and there was no time to think. She dashed to the door and tugged on the slippery iron handles. It came open with a whispering groan, and she threw herself down the precariously steep steps. The door shut behind her, plunging her into complete darkness.
The minty cool flavor still tingled on his tongue as Daniel Webber spit a mouthful of toothpaste into the sink. He turned the faucet on and watched the water and foam swirl down the drain. The phone was ringing. He ignored it. The machine would get it. Hitching up his boxer shorts, he strolled back into his bedroom, pausing in front of the full-length mirror in the corner. His gaze traveled downward, resting on the ugly scar along his left kneecap, a reminder of the injury that had ended his hopes for a professional football career.
"Hi, Danny. Its Julia. Listen, I have a few questions for you, so give me a call when you get a chance."
Lunging forward, Danny snatched the receiver off the nightstand. "Julia? You still there?"
"Danny?" Julia sat down in the rocking chair in her living room. She tucked her long legs up beneath her and picked up the Netsports file she had been compiling.
"Hey, Julia. Sorry about that. I was brushing my teeth," Danny said, sitting on the edge of his bed. "So, what can I do for you?"
Absently cleaning under his fingernails, he listened while Julia explained her concerns about the missing safe. When she was through, he exhaled slowly.
"Well, I guess that rules out me and Allison, then," he joked.
Julia frowned, wondering why Danny didnt seem to be all that concerned about either the break-in, or the missing safe.
"Not quite," she replied slowly. "Maybe the two of you are conspiring to throw me off track."
She had meant it as a joke, but the microsecond of dead silence on the other end of the phone sent a warning signal shooting through her head. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. She hadnt suspected Danny of anything. Not Danny, the easygoing former frat boy who had been her chemistry lab partner in college. If she suspected anyone at this point, it was his vice president, Allison Davis, who was rather conveniently out of town. Now, she wasnt so sure. Danny laughed finally, a forced, too-loud laugh that told Julia she had hit a nerve.
"Good one, Julia," Danny said. He raked his fingers through his sandy hair. "Why would we ask you to look into this if we were guilty?"
"To make yourselves look innocent, of course." Julia kept her tone light and friendly. "Relax, Danny. Im just kidding."
She scribbled a note down on a piece of paper inside her file and underlined it. Danny and Allison?
"Besides, Im sure the police are probably right. Itll turn out to be a couple of junkies," she lied.
Danny laughed again, relieved. He was glad she wasnt planning on pursuing the case any further since he had always liked Julia, and he didnt want to see her get hurt. He exchanged pleasantries with her for a few more minutes before hanging up the phone. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the blinking icon on his computer, indicating that he had a message. He walked over to the desk and clicked on it.
Julia tossed the handset onto the sofa. Deep in thought, she chewed on the end of her pen. Danny was a terrible liar, and his guilt had practically screamed at her through the phone. Julia searched her mind, but she couldnt come up with a logical motive. According to all the information she had about Netsports, the business was sound, so it couldnt be just about money. She tapped her pen against Allison Davis name. It was time to find out more about Dannys elusive vice president.
A glance at the clock told her that it was mid-morning. Outside, the storm raged. Her jeep was still parked in front of her office, left behind during her unexpected trip to the hospital, and she hoped she had remembered to roll up the windows all the way. In spite of the weather, Julia decided to go retrieve it and spend a few hours at her office. She dialed the number for a cab company and the dispatcher informed her that she would be picked up in fifteen minutes. Julia sat down to wait. She would get a bit of work done, nothing too strenuous, she promised herself, then maybe she would see if a certain reporter was free for lunch.
The cab was late, of course, and it was nearly an hour later when Julia unlocked the door to her office. She stepped inside and turned on the overhead lights as she shook the rain out of her hair. Tossing her jacket across one of the leather chairs, she took a look around. Papers were scattered near her file cabinet, where she had struggled with her assailant, and there was a small puddle of dried blood on the floor. Her hand went up to the plastic band-aid covering the stitches in her head. Julia grabbed a handful of damp paper towels out of the bathroom and scrubbed at the stain. Anger coursed through her and she silently vowed to find the man who had attacked her.
Discarding the towels in the trash, Julia sank into her chair behind her desk. She turned on her computer and read the three new messages. Two were unimportant, and she deleted those. The third was from Henry. She read that message again. Another warehouse had burned, and two witnesses claimed to have seen a woman running away from the blaze. The Davis family owned the warehouse.
"Well, thats interesting," Julia commented aloud.
The Davis family was wealthy and politically connected in the Bay area, and they had traveled in the same social circles as the Cassinellis. Allison was the only child of Martin Davis, a city councilman. That was the extent of Julias knowledge about them. She wasnt even exactly sure what sort of business the Davis were in, since that type of thing had never interested her. Her father, she recalled, had occasionally played golf with the councilman, but Julia wasnt about to go to him for information.
With a few rapid keystrokes, she surfed into the Chronicles website and ran a search for articles on the Davis family. Frowning in consternation, Julia stared at the 93 matches found by the papers search engine. The articles ranged from financial news to appearances at various charity functions. She narrowed down the parameters, typing Allisons name into the little box. This time, only 14 matches came up. The most recent was Maggies story on the Netsports burglary. She had already read the story. In fact, after Maggie had left, she had clipped the story out of the paper and tucked it into her wallet. Still, she wanted to read it again. Julia clicked on the link and smiled proudly as Maggies byline appeared on her screen. She skimmed through the article again, but it only mentioned that Allison Davis, vice president, was out of town and unavailable for comment.
The next two links were write-ups of social events that Allison had attended recently. Even before Julia had turned her back on her family, she had always found the society stuff boring, and she scanned those stories without interest. Finally, she found what she was looking for, a short bio that had run in the business section when Allison was hired at Netsports.
Allison had graduated from Stanford with a degree in marketing, two years after Julia and Danny. Julia didnt remember ever meeting her there, but it was a big campus, and she had never been the outgoing type, anyway. She wondered if that was where Allison and Danny had met. After graduation, Allison had gone to work for one of her fathers banks. Julia paused there, rereading that sentence. Councilman Davis was in the banking industry. Why would a banker own a warehouse on the pier?
A booming thunderclap rattled the roof of her office, and Julia ducked in reflex. Too much rain was falling in too short a time period, and water was beginning to seep underneath the door. It wasnt enough to cause a panic, and Julia knew that the danger of flooding was pretty minimal. She went into the bathroom and seized a double handful of paper towels. She was about to stuff them under the front door when the lights flickered and went dark.
"Oh, son of a bitch," she muttered irritably.
She made sure her computer was turned off, so that it would not be damaged whenever the power returned. Her hands on her hips, she stood in the dark for a moment as she decided what to do next. A check of her watch told her that it was still too early for lunch. Cursing at herself under her breath, she wished she had jotted down the address of the recently burned warehouse. Well, its a burned-out warehouse along the pier. It cant be that hard to find.
Julia grabbed her jacket and her keys and headed out the door, dodging the minor waterfall cascading down from roof of her building. Pulling her jacket shut with one hand, she trudged to her jeep, ignoring the stinging raindrops pelting her. She slid into the drivers seat. It was like getting into a refrigerator and shutting the door, and she shivered violently for a moment before her body heat began to warm the interior of the vehicle. The cold, damp weather was making her bruised ribs ache, and as she started the jeeps engine, she turned the heater on full blast. The street was clogged with confused drivers since Californians were notorious for their inability to drive in the rain, and Julia ground her teeth impatiently as she waited for an opening in the traffic. Finally, she eased her jeep into the street and headed for the waterfront.
Up ahead, a three-car accident had slowed traffic to an infuriating crawl as rubberneckers gawked at the sight. Julia barely glanced at it as she inched her way past. An unsettling feeling of dread was creeping through her, and she couldnt shake the sensation that something was wrong. On the radio, the disc jockeys were making prank phone calls to local businesses, and their braying laughter was wearing on her nerves. She ran through the preset stations and finally shut the radio off, welcoming the relative quiet. In the distance, a car backfired twice. The light turned green, and Julia started to slowly move her jeep through the intersection. A tiny furrow appeared on her brow as she heard the sounds again in her mind. Two sharp cracks, a minute or so apart.
"That wasnt a car. Those were gunshots!" Intending to notify the police, Julia reached for her cell phone on the passenger seat. As her hand touched it, it started ringing.
"Hello? Hello? I can barely hear you," Julia said into the phone, straining to hear through the crackling static. "Listen, I have to go. I need to make an important call."
As if on cue, the static cleared just enough for her to recognize the panicky, whispered voice on the other end.
"Julia? Oh my god, Julia! I need your help!"
It was Maggie. Julias stomach tried to crawl up into her throat, and she grimly swallowed it back down. Ignoring the outraged honking of horns, she steered her jeep into the right lane and turned into the parking lot of a grocery store. Julia struggled to stay calm. All she wanted to do was get out of her jeep and run to wherever Maggie was.
"Maggie? Im right here. Whats going on? Where are you?"
"I Im underground. Its so dark down here. Im so scared," Maggie whispered back, her voice sounding very far away.
"Down where, honey? You have to tell me where you are." Julia fought to keep the fear out of her voice. She knew she needed to stay strong for Maggie, but inside, it felt like someone was tying her intestines in knots.
Maggie was huddled in the corner of the underground storage area. Her knees were pulled up tightly against her chest, and she rocked back and forth slowly. There was not a single glimmer of light anywhere, and she had become completely disoriented in the dark. She wasnt even sure where the door was anymore. Maybe there was no door, she thought irrationally.
Something scurried past in the blackness, and Maggie let out a strangled sob. She was eight years old again, and her older brothers had locked her in the basement of the abandoned house on the corner of their street. It was supposed to have been a joke, but they had forgotten about her for hours. Her absence hadnt even been noticed until dinner. After forcing the boys to tell him where she was, her father had rescued her, but not before the rats had come sniffing around.
"Maggie? Come on, Maggie. Tell me where you are so I can come get you." Julias voice brought her back to reality.
"Julia? Oh god. There was a fire, and I came to ask around. Someone shot "
A loud thump overhead silenced her. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears, and she was acutely aware of the harsh sound of her own breathing. She wondered if anyone else could hear it, if Julia could hear it through the phone. Julia was saying something to her, but she couldnt hear it. She waited, half-expecting the door to be flung open, and she wondered if the bullets would hurt when they hit her.
"Someone shot at you? Maggie, are you hurt?" Julia paused. No response. "Are you still there?" Still nothing.
Julia screamed in frustration, noticing that the street was still backed up for blocks. There were only a few more piers ahead, and she knew that Maggie had to be at one of those. Turning off her engine, she made a decision.
"Maggie, Im going to hang up now. Hang in there. Im coming to get you."
She dialed as she opened her door. Cold air blasted her and rain pelted her immediately, but she was oblivious to all of it. Henry picked up on the second ring.
"Henry, its me. Send someone out to the warehouse. Ill explain later." Julia hung up without waiting for his inevitable questions. She tucked the phone in her pocket and started to run.
Sitting at his desk, Henry stared at the phone as the dial tone droned loudly in his ear. He had heard the fear in Julias voice, and that alone was enough to make him very, very worried. A uniformed officer started to walk by and he signaled her over.
"That warehouse that burned last night. Whos supposed to be at the scene?"
"Sanders," the rookie officer replied, her eyes bright with excitement.
"He just called in a few minutes ago. Shots fired."
"Oh, shit! Julia, what the hell have you gotten yourself into now?" Henry bolted
out of his chair and headed for the door.
The rain stung her face, and the wind tore at her hair and clothes. Her breath was visible in large white puffs as she sprinted two and a half blocks. Julia wasnt a runner. She had nothing but disdain for the disgustingly healthy joggers that routinely appeared on her street in their bright Lycra and spandex. Today, though, she wished she ran more often. Her legs burned and her lungs ached as she sucked down huge gulps of cold air. She forced herself to ignore the pain and focus on the only thing that mattered. Maggie.
Less than half a block away, she could see the blackened, hulking remnants of the burned warehouse. Putting her head down, Julia dug deep inside herself and summoned one final burst of speed. She had no idea how long she had been running. Police sirens whined in the distance, but they were undoubtedly slowed by the traffic gridlock that gripped the area.
Drawn forward by some magnetic force, Julia ducked under the police tape surrounding the warehouse and tore around the corner to the rear of the building. She collided with something solid and wool-covered that let out a startled yelp as it went down in a tangle of limbs. Somehow, Julia managed to stay on her feet, and her gaze latched on to a set of metal doors embedded in the ground. She dashed toward them, her shoes squelching in the mud.
"Hey. Hey!" Officer Sanders shouted, scrambling to his feet.
Going full speed, Julia reached the doors and threw them open. Blinking the water out of her eyes, she searched frantically until she spotted what she was looking for. Maggie had pressed herself as far back into the corner as she could, and her eyes were squeezed tightly shut. Julia flew down the steps, nearly losing her balance in her haste.
Maggies heart started beating again at the sound of the familiar voice. She opened her eyes, and let out a sob of relief as the tall, soaking wet, mud-spattered, absolutely beautiful figure stumbled towards her. Tears spilled down her cheeks as she flung herself into Julias arms.
"Julia," she gasped, burying her face against her lovers shoulder.
They were both trembling violently, and Julia feared her rubbery legs were about to give out. She guided them up the steps, stopping at the top as she was blocked by a muddy, angry police officer.
"Dont move," he commanded, his gun drawn and pointing down at his side.
Julia drew herself up to her full height and fixed him with her most intimidating stare.
"Move. Now," she snarled at him, one arm wrapped protectively around Maggies shoulders.
Officer Sanders blinked at her uncertainly. A burst of static squawked at him from the radio clipped to his belt. He looked down at it, and Julia used the distraction to brush past him. He stared after them in exasperation as he listened to Inspector Henry Chows instructions on the radio.
Julia steered Maggie over to the loading dock and sat her down on a crate that had been spared by the fire. In spite of the puddles, Julia knelt in front of her and lifted both of Maggies hands to her lips. Breathing heavily from her mad sprint, she took a moment to collect herself and suck down some much needed oxygen. She smiled reassuringly at Maggie.
"Are you okay?" she asked tenderly.
Maggie nodded silently, staring at the ground. Julia could tell she was on the verge of breaking down, and she pulled the shaken reporter into a tight embrace. Maggies shoulders shook as she tried in vain to hold back the tears.
"Ssshh. Its okay. Im here," Julia soothed her, pressing her lips to Maggies temple. "I wont let anyone hurt you."
Maggie pulled her head back, searching the depths of those blue eyes.
Julia leaned in and kissed her lightly.
Tom Becker stuffed himself into the passenger seat of the red Camaro. His dripping clothes made a wet, squishing sound against the leather of the seat, and his lips tightened into a thin, harsh smile when the cars tattooed driver cursed in protest. Tom hated this car. The roof pressed down on his head, and riding in it gave him a suffocating, claustrophobic feeling. He felt like he was sitting in a coffin.
He hated the driver too, he thought, glancing sideways as Eddie Machado pulled the sports car into the street with a grating screech. The tires left a trail of rubber in their wake. Cold, hard metal dug into the small of his back, and Tom reached around to pull the gun out of his waistband. He turned it over in his beefy hands and imagined himself pressing the barrel to Eddies head and pulling the trigger. He let out a short, barking laugh as he returned the gun to the glove compartment.
"Dude, that was too close," Eddie said, turning his head to stare at the big man. His dark eyes flashed with excitement. "That cop ran right past me."
Tom said nothing, and Eddie continued to chatter aimlessly. "That was so fucking awesome. Its about time DC gave me something to do. Shit, yeah!" Eddie slapped his hands against the steering wheel. "So, tell me what happened. Did you blow that guys brains all over the ground?"
"Shut up and drive, you worthless little punk," Tom snarled, staring straight ahead through the windshield.
Eddie slouched down further in his seat and sulked quietly. He was used to Toms venom. Tom grabbed the cell phone off the dashboard and hit one of the numbers. While he waited for someone to answer, he pictured the blonde woman who had nearly ruined everything. Even though she hadnt seen him, he had a gut feeling that she would be trouble, and Tom hated loose ends. He would have to find out her name. Finally, someone picked up his call.
"Its me. Hes taken care of, but we have another problem. There was some woman asking questions." Tom nodded, listening to the person on the other end. "Do you want me to handle it?"
The police and the paramedics had arrived, and activity swirled around the burned warehouse. Exhausted, Julia leaned her head back against the backseat of the unmarked police car she was sitting in. Maggie was wrapped in an emergency blanket given to her by the paramedics, and she was pressed against Julias side, her head nestled against the other womans shoulder.
The police had questioned them both, and at Julias insistence, Maggie had allowed the EMTs to examine her. Then, Henry had taken charge and ushered them both to his car. Through the front windshield, Julia could see him standing in the steady rain, getting drenched as he watched two men load the homeless mans body into a white coroners van. Beside her, Maggie shuddered, still shaken by her ordeal, and Julia drew her closer. She brushed her lips across damp blonde hair and tried not to look at the stark white bandage covering the top of Maggies ear. The second bullet had passed much too close to Maggie, closer than the reporter had even realized. It had grazed the top of her ear, leaving a shallow furrow that she hadnt even noticed until Julia started fussing over it. Maggie had been lucky. It could have been much worse. Closing her eyes, Julia silently thanked whoever was listening for keeping Maggie from being seriously hurt. She refused to even think about the alternatives.
Julia tried to take a deep breath and felt a sharp twinge in her side. So much for her nice, quiet day, she thought sourly as she attempted to hide a grimace. Maggie noticed the sudden tension in the surface beneath her cheek, and she lifted her head to stare accusingly at Julia.
"You hurt yourself, didnt you?" It was the first thing Maggie had said since she had given her statement to the police.
"No, no. Im fine. Just a little tired." Julia shook her head emphatically.
"Liar," Maggie shot back, the ghost of a grin taking the sting out of the word. Her expression sobered and blonde eyebrows scrunched together in concern, creating a tiny crease in her brow that Julia thought was absolutely adorable.
"Julia, maybe we should have a doctor check you out."
"Uh-uh. Im fine, I swear," Julia repeated. "I think I just pulled something."
Maggie eyed her skeptically. "Okay. If you say so."
"Its nothing a long, hot bath and a bed wont cure," Julia assured her. A dark eyebrow rose thoughtfully and a mischievous smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth. "Care to join me for that?"
The car door opened before Maggie could answer, and Henry leaned down to look at them. His clothes were plastered to his skin and water dripped from the tip of his nose. He looked completely miserable, but Julia was too exhausted to bother teasing him about it.
"Hey, how are you two doing?" Henry asked, looking from one woman to the other. Julia gave him a slight nod. He rubbed his hands together and blew into them, trying to warm the chilled flesh.
"Okay, listen. Im having a couple of officers drive you both home," he held up his hand, silencing Julias sputtered protests.
"I am having someone drive you home," he repeated stubbornly. "Dont worry about your cars. Tow trucks are already taking care of them. Maggie, I didnt know where you lived, so I had them take your car over to Julias. I hope thats okay." Henry winked at Julia, and she rolled her eyes at his lack of subtlety.
"Henry " Julia growled at him.
Maggie curled her fingers around Julias hand and shushed her. She smiled gratefully at the sodden police inspector. "Its fine. Thank you."
He grinned back at her and winked again, ignoring Julias muffled snort. Straightening, he beckoned to a pair of nearby officers and handed one of them the keys to his car.
"This is Officer Bayley and Officer Clark. Theyll make sure you get home safely." Henry stepped back from the car door as the uniformed officers slid into the front seat. "Julia, Ill probably stop by later with some more questions, okay?"
Julia nodded. "Okay. Thanks, Henry."
His eyes widened in mock surprise at the expression of gratitude, and he clutched at his chest theatrically. Julia shook her head at him slowly, rolling her eyes in exasperation. Grinning broadly, Henry shut the door and thumped twice on the roof of the car. He waved as the car pulled away. Once it was gone, the grin vanished and Henry became all business again. First, someone had attacked Julia in her office. Now, Julias new girlfriend was getting shot at, and he had the feeling that the two incidents were connected. This case had just become personal, and he vowed to catch the people responsible for attacking his friends.
"Henry!" One of the other inspectors working on the case called out to him. "I just got a call from the coroners office. The security guard from last night was not killed by the fire."
"No?" Henry asked, curious. "I suppose youre gonna tell me how he did die, right?"
"Gunshot wound to the back of the head, .45 caliber," the officer informed him. "Weve got guys searching for the slugs from todays shooting to see if they match."
A long stream of Chinese obscenities tumbled out of Henrys mouth, and a hush fell over the crime scene as his fellow officers eyed him warily. Once he had regained control of his temper, he turned to a young policeman.
"Find me Daniel Webber. He and I need to have a little chat."
Henry stalked away angrily, fumbling in his pockets for a cigarette. Instead, he found a mangled stick of chewing gum, a reminder that he had quit smoking six months before. Glaring at it in disgust, he removed the silver wrapper and popped the gum into his mouth, chewing furiously until the nicotine craving began to subside.
The rain had slowed to a light, annoying drizzle, but the wind was still coming off the water in strong gusts that cut through his soaked clothing. Muttering to himself in a singsong mixture of English and Chinese, Henry headed up the street to the coffee shop on the corner. Halfway there, a woman, walking in the other direction, stopped him.
"Excuse me. Do you know what time it is?"
Henry glanced at his watch and wiped the water from it with the cuff of his shirt. "Uh, yeah. Its almost noon." He gave her an appraising look. She was wearing a long raincoat and the hood was pulled up, obscuring her face, but he caught a glimpse of blonde hair.
"Thank you. Are you a police officer? I heard there was some kind of a shooting up there," she said, gesturing towards the warehouse.
Her voice was light and melodic, and all Henry could see of her face was a pair of full, heart-shaped lips. He smiled and straightened his shoulders, turning on the charm.
"Inspector Henry Chow, San Francisco PD," he introduced himself, extending his hand towards her. She took it, and he noticed that her hands were soft and smooth, and her fingernails were neatly manicured. Her grip was surprisingly strong, and he almost winced at the pressure wrapped around his hand.
"There was some trouble back there, but its all being taken care of," he said.
"Really? I feel much safer knowing that the police are on top of it," she purred. "So, what happened? Or is that top-secret information?"
Henry laughed. "Im just a cop, not a spy. A homeless man was killed and a reporter from the Chronicle was shot at, but shes fine."
"A reporter from the Chronicle?" she echoed thoughtfully. "How awful. Im glad she wasnt hurt."
Weighing his options, Henry stared up the street towards the coffee shop. Oh well, he decided, it couldnt hurt to ask.
"I was about to get a cup of coffee," he pointed towards the street corner. "Would you like to join me?"
The heart-shaped lips curved into a regretful smile. "I would love to, Inspector, but Im afraid Im late for an appointment. Maybe some other time."
She resumed walking down the street, and Henry watched her for a moment. Suddenly, he realized that he hadnt bothered to get her name. He swore under his breath and debated calling out after her. Nah, that would seem too desperate. It wasnt the first time hed missed an opportunity with a woman. Shrugging, he headed for the warm, dry sanctuary of the coffee shop.
Julia had fallen into a light doze by the time the car stopped in front of her house. A gentle nudge to her side awakened her, and she opened her eyes groggily. Maggie grinned at her.
"Hey, sleepyhead. Youre home," Maggie teased her.
"Hey, yourself," Julia leaned over and kissed her partner, oblivious to the two police officers watching from the front seat.
Now that the adrenaline rush had worn off, the cold weather, her strenuous physical exertion and the long period sitting in the car had all combined to wreak havoc on Julias muscles. As she tried to get out of the car, she found that she was so stiff that she could barely move. She groaned out loud, her sore legs and back screaming in protest. Maggie turned back, lines of concern etched on her forehead.
Julia gave her a wan smile as she slowly scooted toward the open car door. "Nothing. Just a little stiff." As she stood, pain shot through her lower back and wound around to her side, and she had to bite her lower lip to stifle another groan.
Maggies sharp eyes didnt miss anything, and she shook her head and sighed. "Just a little stiff, huh?" She turned to one of the waiting officers. "Can one of you please help me get her inside?"
Supported by a policewoman on one side, and Maggie on the other side, Julia made her way carefully towards her front door. Both her jeep and Maggies car were parked along the curb, and another policeman was waiting on her front porch. He came down the steps to assist them and nearly tripped on a fallen tree branch that was lying across the walkway. Julia tried, unsuccessfully, not to laugh.
"Youll have to forgive my friend. Shes really tired," Maggie apologized to the reddened policeman.
Somehow, they all managed to make it up the front steps, and Maggie fished in Julias pocket for her keys. She turned to the two officers, who were already starting to walk away.
"Thank you for everything," she said sincerely. "We really appreciate it. And please tell Officer Bayley thank you, as well."
The police left and Maggie followed Julia inside. Julia was standing in her living room, staring at the couch and apparently trying to decide if it was worth the effort to sit down. Maggie circled around her until they were face to face. Raising up on her toes, she kissed Julia squarely in the center of her forehead. Julia blinked at her, slightly perplexed.
"What was that for?"
"That was for running to my rescue today," Maggie explained. Tilting her head up, she captured Julias lips for a longer, deeper kiss. "That was because I love you."
"Oh. Okay." Julia gave her a lopsided grin. Lowering her head, she returned the gesture. "That was because I love you, too."
Maggie beamed at her happily. "Okay. Sit down, if you can manage it." She pushed Julia towards the couch. "Ill go run a hot bath for you. Would you mind if I borrowed some of your clothes? Mine are sort of disgusting, and I would really like to get out of them." She looked down at her damp, muddy, blood-spattered clothing.
"Yeah, go ahead. Id like to get you out of them, too," Julia cracked, flopping down on the couch with an exaggerated groan.
Maggie cocked an eyebrow at her. "Oh, thats very funny. Ill be right back." She started up the stairs, kicking her shoes off as she went.
"You know, a back rub might be sort of nice, too," Julia called after her playfully.
"Dont push your luck, Cassinelli!"
Julia chuckled, listening to the sound of footsteps moving down the hall upstairs. A moment later, she could hear water splashing, and she sighed, anticipating the hot bath that would help soothe her aching body. Every muscle in her body hurt, and she was so tired she could barely breathe. It was just as well, she mused, since breathing sent tendrils of pain crawling up her side.
Julia shut her eyes and let her thoughts drift. A wondering smile touched her lips at the sound of Maggie moving around above her head. After Kirsten had left, Julia had convinced herself that she enjoyed the solitude, but now, she realized that she had been kidding herself. She had missed the companionship more than she had cared to admit.
A faint scowl darkened her face as she wondered what Maggie had been doing out at the Davis warehouse. She reminded herself to ask the reporter about it. Sleep tugged insistently at her, and she willingly surrendered. Moments later, she was awakened by warm hands brushing against her skin, and a single sleepy blue eye fluttered open, unnoticed by the blonde who was methodically unbuttoning her shirt. Maggie had exchanged her clothing for a pair of Julias flannel boxers and a t-shirt that was much too large for her smaller frame. She was drowning in faded blue cotton.
"Hey, are you trying to take advantage of me?" Julia teased, her voice scratchy from fatigue.
"Oh, you wish," Maggie laughed, sliding the damp, chilled fabric back from Julias shoulders. "Come on. Theres a bathtub upstairs with your name on it."
Julia slipped her arm around Maggies shoulders and pushed herself off the couch. She let Maggie help her up the stairs and into her bathroom, where steam rose from a large, gothic bathtub, complete with clawed feet. Thick, peach-scented bubbles trailed over the side, creating a small puddle on the tiled floor.
"Didnt leave much room for me in there, did you?" Julia observed.
Maggie shrugged sheepishly as she unfastened Julias jeans. "I sort of dropped the bubble bath," she admitted, peeling the denim down the taller womans hips. Kneeling, she removed Julias shoes and socks, setting them aside.
"I can probably undress myself," Julia pointed out, though she was thoroughly enjoying the attention.
Maggie looked up, grinning at her impishly as Julia stepped out of her jeans. "Im sure you could," she replied. "But isnt it more fun this way?"
"Definitely," Julia agreed as Maggie removed the rest of her clothing.
Maggie guided Julia over to the tub and sat on the edge as Julia carefully eased herself into the water. Bubbles spilled over the sides, splashing to the floor. The heat instantly started to unlock Julias stiff muscles, and a sigh of relief escaped her lips as she slid down until her chin touched the surface of the water. Maggie dipped her hand into the tub, and her fingers left lazy trails through the bubbles. Her throat constricted and tears welled, darkening her eyes.
"Maggie? Whats wrong?" Julia interlaced her fingers with Maggies.
"Nothing. I love you," Maggies voice cracked as she struggled to hold back the emotion.
Julia blinked uncertainly. "Theres something wrong with that?"
"God, no! Its just, I thank you. I dont know what I wouldve done without you today."
"You dont have to thank me, Maggie. I wish I could have been there sooner. If anything had happened to you " she trailed off without finishing the thought.
Julia sat up, letting the water cascade down from her shoulders, and the muscles in her back rippled as she leaned forward. She rested her forearms across Maggies lap, closing one hand around her knee.
"You dont have any idea who shot at you?"
Maggie shook her head. "I didnt see anything. It was all so fast. One minute, I was standing there, talking to this man. The next minute there was so much blood. It didnt look like I thought it would. I thought it would be darker, but it was bright red. Like water color paint."
Julia stared at her intently, noticing the odd, distant tone of her voice. Maggies pupils were dilated, her eyes were far too bright, and the skin beneath Julias hand was cool. Julia sighed and rose from the tub, pulling Maggie up with her as she continued to speak in that faraway voice.
"I ran and hid. I was so sure I was next. Have you ever been shot? Do you think it hurts?"
Julia grabbed a fluffy blue towel from the rack and wrapped it around her body. She took Maggies hand and led her towards the door. Maggie stopped suddenly, jolted back to the present.
"Wait. Where are we going? What about your bath?"
Julia turned to face her, putting her hands on Maggies shoulders. "Youre still in shock, I think. And Im tired. So were gonna go lie down for a while, okay? We can finish the bath later."
A tear rolled down Maggies cheek, and Julia brushed it away with the back of her hand. Maggie gave her a grateful, trembling smile.
"I dont know what Id do without you."
"Well, youre in luck. Because youll never have to find that out," Julia replied as she resumed leading Maggie to the bedroom. "Although, if you want to repay me, theres always that backrub "
They crossed into the cool, dark bedroom, and Julia kicked the door shut behind them, blocking out the rest of the world.
To be continued...Part 6
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