Part Seven


Julia slammed the phone down in disgust and pushed her chair back from her desk. For the last week, she had been trying to track down more information about Allison Davis and her family. She had called every upper crust college classmate she could find, but the result had been the same. Either they didn’t know the Davis family, or they were unwilling to talk about them. A cold, hard knot in Julia’s stomach warned her that it was the latter.

Sighing, she flipped through her address book again, hoping that there was a name she had overlooked. Blank pages stared back, silently mocking her. Other than a handful of professional contacts, there were few names in her book. A scrap of paper slipped out from between two pages and fluttered to her desktop. Julia stared at it as a bitter taste filled her mouth. It was the new number that her father had given her eight months before. No, Julia corrected herself; it was the number that her father’s secretary had delivered on her voice mail. Joseph Cassinelli had been much too busy to call his daughter himself.

With one finger, Julia pushed the paper back and forth on her desk. Her father and Councilman Davis had been friends at one time. She wasn’t sure whether or not they were still close, but she knew that her father would probably know something that would help her. However, the odds of him sharing any information with her were woefully slim.

"Okay, Julia. Remember why you're doing this," she said aloud, convincing herself to make the dreaded call. "This is to keep Maggie safe."

She dragged the phone towards her, steeling herself for the inevitable unpleasantness. The call was never made. As she started to dial, the door to her office opened and Maggie burst in, looking out of breath and wild-eyed. Leather creaked loudly as Julia leapt out of her chair.

"What is it? What happened?"

Maggie waved her back and collapsed into the chair on the opposite side of Julia's desk. She smiled gratefully as Julia produced a clean mug and filled it with steaming, black coffee.

"So, are you gonna tell me what's wrong?" Julia asked.

"Why does something have to be wrong?" Maggie replied evasively. "We were supposed to meet for lunch, right?"

Julia glanced at her watch skeptically. It was just after 9:30, much too early for anything remotely resembling lunch. Something was clearly wrong. She sat quietly, waiting for Maggie to speak.

"Oh, okay. Here." Maggie handed her a crumpled slip of paper. "Do you think you can find out who that belongs to?"

Julia carefully smoothed the wrinkles out of the paper and read the combination of numbers and letters. Her brow creased. It looked like a license plate number.

"What is this and where did you get it?"

Maggie leaned back in her chair. "I thought you were supposed to be the investigator," she said testily. Exhaling, she reached across the desk and laid her hand on Julia's wrist. "Sorry. I'm a little stressed at the moment."

"So I see," Julia replied, squeezing Maggie's hand reassuringly. "Tell me what happened."

Maggie took a deep breath and launched into the story of the red Camaro and its creepy driver. By the time she was through, she could feel the dark anger pulsating from her fuming lover. The image of a cartoon character with steam pouring out of its ears popped into her head, and she just barely stifled a giggle. The urge to laugh quickly morphed into the urge to cry, and she ended up doing both simultaneously.

Julia hurried around the edge of the next and knelt next to Maggie's chair. "Hey, it’s okay. I’ll find out who this bastard is, and I swear, he won’t bother you again."

Maggie shoved her chair back so forcefully that she nearly knocked Julia over. As she paced across the small office, her outrage grew with each step. Near the door, she spun around, her green eyes smoldering.

"You know what? This is really starting to piss me off," she said heatedly. She pointed at the computer humming quietly on Julia’s desk. "Work your p.i. magic and find out who that car belongs to. Let’s get this son of a bitch."

"That’s my girl." Julia grinned proudly as she sat down at her desk again. She patted her lap invitingly. "C’mere. Help me nail this guy to the wall."

Maggie took a seat, as requested, and slipped her arms around Julia’s neck. She watched, fascinated, as her lover’s fingers flew across the keyboard. Plastic keys rattled and clicked furiously, and Julia’s determined scowl turned into a self-satisfied smirk as the criminal history of Edgar Alejandro Alvarez Machado appeared on her screen.

"This look like him?" Julia asked, flicking the mug shot on her monitor.

"That’s him. How did you do that?"

Julia’s smirk broadened and her eyes twinkled. "P.i. magic."

She coughed into her fist as Maggie elbowed her in the ribs. "Okay, okay. Henry might have showed me how to access certain official databases," she admitted guiltily.

"Are you telling me you hacked into police department files?"

"Sshh! Trade secret. Besides, I wouldn’t call it hacking, exactly."

"You are amazing." Maggie planted a kiss on Julia’s cheek with a loud, wet smack.

Julia winked at her as she reached for the phone and called Inspector Henry Chow. She told Henry that Maggie had been followed at work, and she gave him the information she had pulled up on Eddie Machado. Henry agreed to have Eddie picked up for questioning, and despite his grumbling, he promised to let Julia observe, as long as she was willing to behave herself.

"So, Henry’s going to let you watch while they question this guy?" Maggie asked after Julia hung up the phone.

"Yep. A little thug like that is most likely working for somebody else. I want to know who he takes his orders from." Julia’s eyes glinted dangerously. "Henry said he’d call me as soon as they have this guy."

"Well, it’s still too early for lunch." Julia changed the subject. "What’s your plan for the rest of the day?"

Maggie made a face. "I suppose I should go back to work. I have an interview with one of Councilman Davis’s lawyers this afternoon."

Julia’s ears perked up. Maybe Maggie would be able to turn up something interesting about Allison. "Oh, yeah? Which one? He has a whole pack of ‘em. I’ve been trying to find out some information about his daughter."

Blonde eyebrows shot skyward, and Julia immediately realized that she could have phrased her last statement much better. Grinning sheepishly, she began to stutter out a clarification. Maggie laughed finally, letting her off the hook.

"Relax. I knew what you meant. I know you think Allison is involved in this whole thing."

Julia’s mood sobered. "Yeah, I do. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea for you to meet with this guy by yourself."

"It’s just a lawyer, Julia. I think I can handle it." Maggie bristled slightly.

"Oh, I’m sure you can," Julia replied hastily. "What time is your meeting? If I’m done at the police station, maybe I can go with you."

"It’s at 2:00, and you just want to be my bodyguard," Maggie told her, softening the accusation with a smile.

"Well, hey…someone has to guard that body of yours. I admit, I would feel safer if you didn’t go alone. But I have a selfish reason, too. I want to know more about Allison, and I’m hoping this lawyer can tell me something."

Maggie sighed. "Okay, then. I guess we’ll have to save lunch at Mario’s for a different day. Call me when you’re done at the police station. I really should get back to work now."

Julia frowned, sensing Maggie’s reluctance to return to the paper. She followed her lover to the door.

"Maggie? Did something else happen at work?"

"No. Well, Catherine and I went another round, but it was no big deal." Maggie winced internally at her little deception. That conversation could wait for another time, she decided. "Oh, do you have Halloween plans? Jessica invited us to a party."

Julia stiffened and Maggie could almost see the shadow that fell over her face. "No. No plans. I, uh, I don’t usually celebrate Halloween. It’s my mother’s birthday, and I don’t remember it ever being a very happy occasion."

"Oh. Julia, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know."

"It’s okay. I just never really felt like celebrating it before. But you go ahead and go to the party if you want. It sounds like fun."

"I would rather spend the day with you," Maggie declared. "Unless you would rather be alone, that is."

"I’ve been alone for thirty years and I think I’ve had enough of it. I would love to spend the day with you." Julia’s face brightened as an idea struck her. "In fact, I know of this place on the coast. Private cabin, outdoor shower, cozy fireplace. Are you interested?"

"Sounds perfect."

"I’ll make the arrangement, then."

"You do that. Okay, I’m really going back to work now. I’ll see you later." Maggie gave Julia a quick kiss before heading out the door.

She ached for Julia’s lost childhood. No Halloween. Birthdays and Christmases were probably lonely affairs, too. She knew that Joseph Cassinelli was a powerful and busy man, but she wondered what kind of father let his children grow up in such an emotionally bleak environment. As Maggie reached the car, she vowed to make this holiday, and every other, special for Julia.

Maggie arrived at the paper just in time to see the police arrest Eddie Machado. She smiled in satisfaction as she watched a uniformed officer unceremoniously shove him into the back of a patrol car. Catherine was nowhere in sight when she entered the newsroom, and the rest of the busy staff barely gave her a second glance. The day was starting to look better and better, she thought as she sat at her desk and began to work on her Halloween story. Julia called her three hours later, sounding disappointed and annoyed.

"The cops didn’t get anything out of this Machado guy," Julia reported disgustedly. "Some fancy lawyer showed up and got him released a few minutes ago."

"Damn," Maggie commiserated. "They didn’t find out anything at all?"

"No. I got the lawyer’s name, though. I was going to see if I could find out who he worked for."

"That sounds like a good idea. Are you still planning on coming with me on my interview?"

"Absolutely. Listen, I thought maybe we could grab some lunch before then. How does that sound?"

Maggie’s stomach heard the word ‘lunch’ and grumbled loudly. "That sounds like an even better idea."

"Good. Because I’m standing outside your newsroom right now," Julia said into her cell phone as she opened the glass doors.

Maggie swiveled around in her chair and beamed as she saw Julia crossing towards her. Julia was like a magnetic force, and all heads turned to watch her as she passed. She ignored them all, her gaze firmly fixed on the small blonde on the other side of the room. She stopped abruptly, startled, as a tiny Asian woman stepped into her path.

"Hi, I’m Jessica. Maggie’s friend?" Jessica Sato shook Julia’s hand enthusiastically.

"Oh, right. She’s told me a lot about you," Julia replied. "Sorry we can’t make it to your party."

"I know, you have other plans. That’s cool," Jessica said, waving a hand

dismissively. "I just wanted to introduce myself and tell you that I have never seen Maggie look so happy. It’s a total cliché, but her face lights up every time she speaks your name. It’s great. I’m thrilled for both of you. But if you break her heart, I will track you down and kill you. Okay?"

Julia blinked down at the young woman who stood nearly a foot shorter than her. She recognized the fierce protectiveness burning in those dark eyes and had no doubt that Jessica was serious. Julia smiled. They were going to get along just fine.

"I understand completely," Julia said agreeably.

"Good, I’m glad. It was very nice meeting you, Julia." Jessica stepped aside, craning her neck and winking at the woman towering over her. "You know, you really shouldn’t keep your girlfriend waiting like this." She waved at Maggie before hurrying away.

"That was Jessica," Maggie said.

"Yes, so she said. She’s….interesting," Julia laughed as they left the newsroom. "Actually, she seemed very nice. I’m glad you have a friend like her."

They had lunch at a small sidewalk café before heading over to a hulking, steel and glass monstrosity in the heart of the city’s financial district. Julia grimaced in distaste as she stared up at the top floors of the building.

"I hate these modern buildings. They just look so tacky and out of place next to all the old stone and brick."

She held the door open as they entered the cavernous marble lobby. Her nose wrinkled at the cool, filtered air that chilled the entire room. The security guard at the desk regarded them blandly as they approached.

"Can I help you, ladies?"

"Yes. My name is Maggie McKinnon. I have an appointment to speak with one of the attorneys for Councilman Davis."

The security guard shuffled papers on a clipboard. He looked at them with watery brown eyes and smiled, exposing his tobacco-stained teeth.

"Sorry, ma’am. There’s nobody by that name on my list."

Maggie stared at him incredulously. "There has to be a mistake. I set up this interview yesterday. Could you check again, please?"

The guard shrugged and sorted through the pages again, barely glancing at any of the names on them. "Sorry. Nobody named McKinnon on here."

"How would you know? You didn’t even look," Julia growled at him. She heard a faint buzz and looked up at one of the six surveillance cameras in the lobby. This one seemed to be focused directly on her, and the red light flashed at her as she stared at it.

"Maybe you could call someone and tell them I’m here?" Maggie suggested.

The guard grinned at her, folding his arms across his narrow chest. "Sorry. They’re all in a meeting. Can’t be disturbed."

"Every single attorney in this whole goddamn building is in a meeting?" Julia asked, her voice growing colder with each word.

"Yes, ma’am. I’m afraid so. You’ll have to come back another time."

Julia leaned forward, intending to grab the smug security guard by the front of his ugly khaki shirt. Shaking him until his puny brain rattled suddenly seemed like a good idea. Sensing her lover’s deteriorating mood, Maggie smoothly slid between Julia and the desk. She gave Julia a warning look before turning back to the guard, giving him her best small-town smile.

"I really hate to ask this, but maybe you could just let us up there anyway? It’s really important and I promise I won’t tell anyone you did me this little favor."

"I’m very sorry, ma’am, but I can’t do that. If your name isn’t on the list, you do not get up to those offices." He couldn’t help throwing an arrogant smile in Julia’s direction. "Now if you don’t leave, I’ll have to…"

"You’ll have to what? Call security?" Julia scoffed, interrupting him. "Let’s go, Maggie. We’re wasting our time here."

Julia stomped out the door with Maggie trailing quietly behind her. She stopped on the sidewalk and glowered up at the building.

"Bunch of pompous idiots," she snarled.

"You want to tell me what’s going on with you?" Maggie asked as they walked back to Julia’s jeep.

Julia sighed. "Nothing. Places like that just get on my nerves."

Maggie absorbed that in silence for a moment. "Because they remind you of your father?" she asked gently.

"Maybe," Julia admitted reluctantly. "So now what? Do you have to go back to work?"

"Hmm. I don’t know. Let me call and see if there’s anything going on." Maggie made a quick phone call to the paper and found that there was nothing pressing that needed her attention.

"Nope. I don’t have to go back," Maggie reported. "I’m all yours for the rest of the day."

Julia smiled at her as they reached the jeep. "What do you say we get out of here and have some fun? I’ve had enough of security guards, lawyers and tattooed punks for one day."

Maggie buckled her seatbelt. "What do you have in mind?"

"Well, I’ve never really done anything Halloweenish, and there’s this big haunted house thing at Marine World in Vallejo. Are you up for it?"

"Are you kidding me? My brothers used to run the best haunted house in Marion when we were growing up. We charged a dollar to get in and usually made out like bandits."

"Speaking of making out…." Julia leaned over and kissed her thoroughly. She drew back, grinning. "So, is that a yes on Marine World?"

Maggie pointed to the steering wheel. "Drive."

Two hours later, they were standing a line for a maze that was guaranteed to give them nightmares, according to the zombie who had directed them there. Many of the park employees were dressed in Halloween costumes, and Maggie and Julia had been forced to dodge out of the way as a trio of clowns chased two teenage girls through the crowd. Artificial fog swirled in the air, lit up by the bright neon lights.

"In another month, they won’t need the fake stuff." Julia observed as the line inched closer to the maze entrance.

"In another month, it won’t be Halloween, dear," Maggie reminded her.

A loud roar whooshed by and screams pierced the air. Maggie tilted her head back and stared at the rickety, wooden rollercoaster. She shuddered.

"Not a big fan of the rollercoaster?" Julia asked.

"Ugh. Not really. I’m always afraid we’ll go flying right off the track."

Julia wrapped her arms around Maggie’s waist. "I would never let you fall."

"Aw. That was really sweet, honey. But I’m still not riding one of those things with you."

Julia laughed. A group of teenage boys in front of them were watching them, contempt evident on their faces. She arched an eyebrow at them silently, daring one of them to make a comment. One, a pasty-faced boy with bad skin and a nose ring, muttered something under his breath. His three companions laughed.

"Julia, maybe we shouldn’t do this here," Maggie said, trying to extricate herself from her lover’s embrace.

"Just ignore them. We have nothing to be ashamed about," Julia raised her voice a bit, making sure the boys heard her.

The pasty-faced boy rolled his eyes. His buddies laughed again. All four boys turned away, and Maggie breathed a sigh of relief. They reached the entrance to the maze, and the attendant sent the boys through. She stopped Maggie and Julia from following them inside.

"I saw the way those guys were looking at you two. I thought it might be a good idea to let them go through first," she said.

Julia straightened her shoulders. "I’m not afraid of ignorant brats like them."

The attendant looked Julia up and down and grinned at her. "No, I bet you aren’t. I was more concerned with their safety, anyway." All three women laughed. "Okay, you can go in now. Have fun."

Julia ducked inside the tent first. It was pitch dark inside. A red light glowed around the corner to her left, and she headed toward it. An open coffin with a decaying corpse inside it rested on a table draped in black cloth.

"Is that the best they can do?" Maggie asked as they neared the coffin.

As they passed in front of it, the corpse popped up and shrieked at them. Maggie jumped backwards, pulling Julia with her. The greenish-black, rotting corpse continued to cackle madly at them as they turned and found themselves face to face with another hideous creature. Looming over them, a pumpkin-headed monster munched on a dripping, severed leg. Maggie screamed and darted down another corridor. Laughing helplessly, Julia followed behind her.

"What happened to brave little Miss my-brothers-built-haunted-houses?" Julia panted as they scurried down a long hallway.

"That was a flesh-eating pumpkin monster!" Maggie cried, beginning to laugh with Julia.

They turned another corner and strobing white lights blinded them. The room was filled with fog, and it was impossible to see more than a few inches ahead. Maggie grabbed hold of the back of Julia’s leather jacket as they entered the room. Julia crept forward slowly, stretching one hand out in front of her. Her adrenaline was pumping and every muscle was tensed and ready for the next scare. They reached the other side of the room without incident, and Julia glanced over her shoulder at Maggie.

"See? That part wasn’t bad at all."

Maggie’s eyes widened and she pointed frantically. Julia spun around as a knife-wielding figure with a grinning death’s-head charged down the corridor towards them. Its bleached skull gleamed beneath a black hood, and it spouted gibberish at them as it ran.

"Oh shit!"

Julia’s composure broke and she ran back into the strobe lights, pushing Maggie ahead of her. It was the wrong move. The swirling fog and pulsing bright lights concealed the creature until it was standing right in front of them. A second skull grinned at them, knife raised and ready to strike.

"Ahhhhhhh!!!!!" They screamed in unison, tripping over each other in their dash out of the room.

The first creature was waiting for them around the corner, and it jumped out in front of Julia.

"Get the hell away from me!" She screamed at it, pushing it aside as she ran.

Both of the death’s-head monsters chased them until they reached the end of the corridor. Once their prey had escaped their clutches, they turned back, waiting for the next set of victims.

Standing at the mouth of the hallway, Julia and Maggie stared at the scene ahead. On either side of the narrow path, barred doors held back all sorts of vile things. They could hear the whispery moans and unearthly howls emanating from each cell. Julia knew it wasn’t real, but still, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She grinned at Maggie, her eyes bright with excitement.

"Ready?" Julia asked, holding out her hand.

Maggie gripped it tightly, grinning back. "Ready."

Screaming and laughing all the way, they sprinted through the corridor, twisting and weaving frantically as hands reached out at them between the bars. Something inside one of the cells flung the bloody stump of an arm at them, and Julia leaped over it without breaking stride.

That hallway led to another. This one was dark and eerily quiet, until they reached the halfway point. Then the sandpapery, scuttling noises began. It sounded like bugs, running up the walls and across the ceiling.

"Do you hear that?" Maggie whispered as they stood motionless in the middle of the passageway.

"Yeah," Julia whispered back. "It sounds like bugs. I hate bugs."

At that moment, large, furry, wriggling spiders started to drop from the ceiling. Some of the arachnids were the size of newborn kittens, and Julia swore she could feel their hairy legs crawling all over her.

"I hate spiders!" Julia yelled as they ran to the next room.

Julia stopped in her tracks, and Maggie slammed into her back. This room was long and narrow. The walls glowed a dark red, and contorted, grotesque figures appeared to be carved directly into the plaster. Exposed sinew and muscle. Innards spilling out of torn bellies.

"This is really sick," Maggie said as they started inside.

"Yeah. Wonder what kind of twisted mind thought this one up."

Of course, the statues weren’t statues at all, and as the two women crossed the room, the figures began to move. They came crawling out of the walls, shuffling on deformed feet that left trails of slime in their wake. It was the last room in the maze. They could feel the cool night air wafting in from the exit ahead. Maggie and Julia looked at each other, both of them grinning madly. As one, they dashed for the last door. Maggie ducked underneath an arm that reached for her, and she lost her balance, tumbling to her hands and knees. Laughing too hard to get up, she crawled to the door and collapsed on the sweet, scratchy hay outside. Julia sank down beside her, holding her sides.

"Is this what I’ve been missing out on all these years?" Julia asked.

Maggie sat up, brushing bits of hay out of her hair. She smirked wickedly.

"These are just the tricks. If you’re good, when we get home, I just might give you a treat."

Dark eyebrows lifted, and a slow smile tugged at Julia’s lips. She scrambled to her feet, pulling Maggie up with her. Unfolding her map of the park, she charted their course.

"Where to?" Maggie asked as they headed towards a giant, swinging pirate ship.

"Carnival of Doom," Julia replied, pointing to another tented area.

They could already hear the terrified screams coming from within.

"Carnival? Oh, I don’t know, Julia." Maggie eyed the tent nervously. "That one probably has clowns. Big, scary clowns."

Julia slid her arm around Maggie’s shoulders. "It’s okay. I’ll protect you from the killer clowns."

"Um. Julia?"

Maggie pointed at a pack of extraordinarily fast-moving zombies who were edging towards them. The lead zombie grinned at them, exposing black, rotting teeth.

"Oh, shit." Julia gulped audibly.

Grabbing Maggie’s hand, she began to run. The zombies sped in pursuit and chased them screaming into the night.

Droning over the loudspeakers, a weary voice informed them that the park was closing for the evening. Maggie and Julia joined the throng of exhausted thrill-seekers trudging towards the main exit. Blue eyes peeked over a mountainous pile of stuffed animals and souvenirs.

"Are you sure you don't want me to carry some of that?" Maggie asked for the fifth time.

"No, no. I've got it," Julia replied, juggling her prizes to keep the stuffed whale from sliding off the top of the heap.

Much to Maggie's delight, Julia had turned out to be an expert at beating the games on the midway. She had been especially adept at squirting water into the clown's mouth. The first player to blow up a balloon that way won a prize, and Julia had kept trading up until she walked away with the giant killer whale.

Maggie smiled at the park employees as they moved through the main gate. It was a long, uphill hike back to the jeep, and the wind was blowing in from the lagoon. Her new sweatshirt with the cartoon martian on the front blocked most of the chill. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that Julia was puffing a bit under her armload of goodies.

"At least let me carry Bert," she said, tugging on the whale's tail.

"Bert?" Julia glanced sideways at her. "You already named the whale, Bert?"

"Yep. That's his friend, Ernie, there," Maggie replied, pointing to the bottle-nosed dolphin peeking out from the crook of Julia's arm.

Rolling her eyes in amusement, Julia held her arms out so Maggie could remove the stuffed whale from its lofty perch. She adjusted her grip on the plastic bag clutched in her right hand and darted a surreptitious glance at her lover. She didn't think Maggie had seen her purchase that particular gift, and it had been easy to hide that bag with all the others. It had caught her eye while she was waiting for Maggie to buy her ice cream. Mounted on a piece of polished driftwood, the crystal dolphin had winked and sparkled at her under the lights. She had known immediately that it was perfect. A warm smile touched her lips as Julia imagined the look on her lover's face when she gave it to her.

Tilting her head to study Julia's chiseled profile, Maggie saw the tiny smile twitching the corners of her lover's lips. Green eyes narrowed thoughtfully as she wondered what was causing the devilish twinkle in those brilliant blue eyes. She nudged Julia lightly in the ribs.

"What's that grin for, huh?"

Julia stared at her innocently as they cut across the mostly empty parking lot. Keeping quiet, she shrugged. Maggie let out a faintly exasperated sigh. She knew that look. That was the look that meant "ask all you want, but I'm not gonna tell you until I'm good and ready." The blonde pursed her lips, trying to figure out what her not-so-innocent girlfriend was up to.

They could see Julia's jeep parked beneath one of the dim yellow lights. A few spaces behind it, four teenage boys passed a paper bag back and forth as they sat in the bed of a battered truck. Maggie's stomach sank as she recognized them. They were the same boys from the haunted house.

Beside her, Julia stiffened as she caught sight of them. Almost unconsciously, she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin in a defiant challenge as she swaggered towards her jeep. Twin chips of ice bored into the occupants of the truck as her gaze swept from one sullen teen to the next.

Smoothly, she glided around to the passenger's side of the jeep and unlocked the door. Her eyes never left the boys in the truck as she deposited her armload in the back of the vehicle and waited while Maggie buckled herself in. She slammed the door shut and turned to face the dented, rusting truck.

"Something you boys want to say?" Her silky voice dripped with menace.

The pale ringleader with the bad complexion hopped over the side of the truck. His heavy boots landed on the asphalt with a solid thump. Behind him, his buddies snickered as they anticipated a fight.

"People like you make me sick." Leaning back against the side of the truck, he spat on the ground.

"Then we have something in common. People like you make me sick, too."

There wasn't a hint of warmth in the hard smile Julia gave him as she circled around to the driver's side of her jeep. Briefly, her eyes flicked to Maggie's face and she saw the concern in the blonde's expression.

Movement caught her attention as the teen sauntered towards her, his eyes flat and cold in his doughy face. Julia backed away from the jeep, giving herself a wide area to work with. As the boy drew closer, her nose wrinkled. He reeked of stale sweat and cheap beer. Her senses sharpened as he approached. All extraneous noise disappeared and she focused all her energy on the potential opponent in front of her.

"You know what you need? You need a real man," he said when he was nearly toe-to-toe with her.

Julia didn't bother with a response. Her hands dangled loosely at her sides and she flexed them as she waited for him to make a move. She didn't have to wait long. Rubbery lips leered at her as he lunged forward, reaching out for her arm. Julia easily dodged to the side, letting his momentum carry him past her. His friends laughed and hooted, making him even angrier. He whirled around and charged at her, his eyes revealing his intent to do serious damage.

She ducked under a wild swing. As she came up, Julia drove her fist into his solar plexus, and he doubled over as all the air rushed out of his lungs. The blow sent a jolt of pain traveling all the way to her shoulder, and she shook her hand to relieve the stinging. Wheezing painfully, the teen staggered towards her again, and she sighed.

"Haven't you had enough yet?" she asked.

"Fucking bitch," he coughed, lunging for her again.

This time, she brought her knee up into his groin. His eyes bulged and, moaning and croaking like a sick bullfrog, he slumped to the asphalt. Julia carefully stepped around him, her gaze fixed on the rest of his friends.

"Anyone else?"

They stared at her coldly, but no one moved. She got into the jeep and drove away without looking back.

Tom Becker watched the entire incident from behind the tinted windows of a black luxury sedan. He grunted in approval when Julia dropped the ignorant young punk to the ground. She was one tough bitch, and he liked that. He had admired her strength since she had fought against him in her office. Tom sighed. If it weren't for her connection to the reporter, Cassinelli might have been a valuable ally.

He had been following them since they left the law offices earlier that afternoon. He hadn't been at all surprised to learn that Eddie had fouled everything up yet again. The idiot had let Maggie McKinnon slip by right under his nose. He would deal with Eddie later, he thought as he smoothly turned the car up the ramp to the freeway.

Tom frowned, speeding up to keep the dark green jeep in sight. Things were becoming too complicated. There were too many loose ends and uncontrolled variables dangling around out there, and he hated that. It was his job to clean them up.

Daniel was succumbing to the pressure, and he was slowly unraveling. Tom had expected that. He had always known that Danny was weak and that Allison was the one who was really in charge. Upon learning of Eddie's latest failure, she had walked into Tom's room and calmly given him a set of instructions. Take care of the reporter, then take care of Eddie Machado. She hadn't elaborated, but Tom had known what she meant. Slowly, he increased the pressure on the accelerator, maneuvering his car directly behind the jeep. He reached for the gun sitting on the passenger seat.

"Sorry. What were you saying?" Julia asked, shaking the red haze from her mind as she realized that Maggie had been calling her name for some time.

Maggie looked at her critically. She had known that Julia was strong, and that she could be intimidating at times, but she had never expected violence from her. She wasn't sure what disturbed her more, that Julia had clearly enjoyed the scuffle, or that she had enjoyed watching it. She laid her hand on Julia's thigh and could almost feel the crackling energy running through the other woman's body.

"Are you okay?"

Julia glanced at her briefly before returning her attention to the merging traffic. The thrill of the fight was still sending endorphins flooding through her bloodstream. She darted another glance sideways and saw the hint of uncertainty and fear in Maggie's eyes. Instantly, her adrenaline high began to subside and she shifted gears mentally.

"I'm fine, Maggie." She cleared her throat awkwardly. "I'm so sorry about that. I don't know what got into me."

Maggie relaxed as she saw the odd, hard glitter fade from Julia's eyes. She patted her leg reassuringly.

"It's okay. Those guys were jerks."

"Yeah, but I shouldn't have let them get to me like that," Julia said, flexing her sore right hand. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of jerks in this world. I can't go around beating them all up."

"No. Not all of them," Maggie agreed. "Just the ones who try to physically threaten you. Where did you learn to do that, anyway?"

"Self-defense class in college." Julia grinned briefly. "This makes twice in the last month that I've actually had to use those skills."

Before Maggie could reply, the rear windshield shattered inward with a deafening crash, and the dashboard between them splintered. She screamed as Julia swerved wildly across three lanes of traffic.

"Stay down!" Julia shouted, reaching over to push Maggie's head below the level of the windshield.

In her rearview mirror, she caught a glimpse of a dark car with tinted windows. Instinct took over, and she wove in and out of the lanes. Reflexively, she ducked as a two more shots ricocheted off her jeep. One shot ripped her side mirror off. The second hit one of the rear tires, sending the jeep into a sickening spin. Desperately, Julia fought to regain control of the vehicle. The guard rail was coming at them much too fast, and she took a deep breath, bracing herself for the impact.

"Hang on!" Julia grabbed for Maggie's hand. Metal shrieked and crunched as the jeep slammed into the concrete barrier.

Cursing at himself in disgust, Tom surveyed the wreckage in his rearview mirror as he sped away down the dark stretch of California highway. As he fired the first shot, he had hit an unseen bump in the road, just enough to throw his aim off. The Cassinelli woman was smart. Once she realized what was happening, she had managed to evade his follow-up attempts.

Grinding his teeth in frustration, Tom debated whether or not to go back and finish the job. Twice he had tried to take care of that damn reporter, and twice she had escaped. It wasn’t at all like him, and he hated it. He took great pride in his success rate.

Going back was too much of a risk. Even though there weren’t many other vehicles on the road that night, some good samaritan was bound to have stopped by now. He brightened slightly as he considered the possibility that the crash might have succeeded where his bullets had failed. He hoped so. Otherwise, he would have to explain to Allison why the reporter was still alive, and he knew that would not be a pleasant experience.

He shifted his shoulders beneath the merino wool sweater that fit snugly across his thick chest. His entire upper body felt tighter than a giant knot that had been soaked in seawater. Trying to relax, he let out a deep breath as he reached for the CD player and inserted his favorite disc. The soothing strains of Debussy filled the car as he disappeared into the night.

"Maggie? Oh my god, Maggie, are you okay?" Julia hastily extricated herself from her seatbelt and leaned over to check on her dazed passenger.

"I’m okay, I think," Maggie replied as she gingerly tested her limbs. "Julia, you’re bleeding!"

Frowning, Julia examined the blood trickling from her left elbow. She examined the wound carefully and determined that it was just a small cut, probably inflicted by all the flying glass. Both airbags had inflated, saving them from serious injury, but the entire driver’s side of the jeep was a crumpled mess, and Julia knew that she had been extraordinarily lucky. Bright halogen headlights momentarily blinded them as a minivan stopped behind them. A wide-eyed woman got out and hurried over to the passenger side of the jeep.

"Are you two okay?" The woman asked, stepping back as Maggie opened her door. "I called the police. They’re on their way."

Maggie smiled at her gratefully as she got out of the jeep. Her arms and legs appeared to be in working order, and except for a bit of soreness in her neck and shoulder from the seatbelt, she was unscathed by the accident.

"Thanks so much for stopping. I think we’re okay," she turned back to Julia, who was trying unsuccessfully to open her own door. "Honey, I don’t think that’s gonna work. Can you climb over the seat and get out this way?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Julia grumbled, wincing as she bumped her tender elbow on the steering wheel.

"I saw the whole thing," the woman was saying. "Why in the world was someone shooting at you? Is it because you’re, well….you know," she gestured at them meaningfully.

Julia’s eyebrows rose as she finally managed to climb out of her wrecked jeep. "Because we’re what?"

Maggie shushed her with a look. "We have no idea why someone would shoot at us. There are a lot of twisted people out there."

They could hear the sirens approaching in the distance as another car slowed to a halt beside them, its tires crunching across the broken glass. A young man with close-cropped, chestnut hair and warm brown eyes poked his head out the window. He squinted at the tall, dark-haired woman bathed in the glow of his headlights.

"Jules? Is that you?"

Maggie noticed the way Julia started at the sound of his voice, and she peered closely at the young man. Something about the shape of his face seemed oddly familiar. She caught a glimpse of him in profile and watched the way the shadows played across his high cheekbones and thin, aquiline nose. He almost reminded her of....

"Drew?" Julia took a step towards the car.

Swinging the door open, he got out, towering well over six feet. As Maggie watched, he awkwardly punched Julia in the shoulder, getting a tolerant grin in return. So, this was Drew Cassinelli, Julia's half-brother. She didn't know much about him, other than that he was a law student at Berkeley. Julia rarely mentioned him, and Maggie had always had the impression that family, in general, was a subject she was not comfortable with.

"So what the hell happened here?" Drew asked, nodding at the twisted metal that used to be Julia's jeep.

"Lost control and plowed into the guardrail," Julia replied tersely, her eyes searching for Maggie. She beckoned to the small blonde.

"Drew, this is Maggie. She's my, uh,...." For some inexplicable reason, the word stuck in her throat.

"Girlfriend?" Drew supplied helpfully.

"Uh, yeah," Julia mumbled, grateful for the dark that covered her burning ears.

She knew Maggie was staring at her, and that if she looked, she would see hurt and confusion on the blonde's face. Good job, Julia, now she probably thinks you're ashamed of her or something. Mentally, she started preparing an explanation, but much to her relief, Drew rescued her again.

"Relax. I'm not him, remember?" Drew told her. He smiled at Maggie with a pale echo of the same wry grin that Julia frequently charmed her with. "Dad isn't exactly Mr. Supportive when it comes to his children. He saves that for his clients."

Maggie smiled back at him uncertainly. She knew that her lover did not get along with her father, but she had never known the reason. Every time she had tried to bring the subject up, Julia had either artfully dodged it or completely shut down. She had suspected that Julia's sexuality had something to do with the estrangement, but she had never been sure. Drew's offhand comment seemed to suggest that she might be right.

"Not now, Drew." Julia sighed.

"What? It's the truth, isn't it?"

The first of two police cars arrived, temporarily ending their discussion. The officers took statements from the two women and the witness to the incident. Maggie noticed that Julia had pretended not to have any idea why they were attacked. She did the same in her statement, though she didn't understand the reason for the deception. The jeep was a complete loss, and the police told them they would have it towed after they were done looking at it. Drew offered to give them a ride back to the city, and Julia reluctantly accepted. She began to transfer their personal belongings to his car, leaving Maggie alone with her half-brother for a moment.

"So, how long have you two known each other?" Drew asked, trying to make conversation.

"Not that long, really," Maggie admitted, wrapping her arms around herself to stay warm. "Just a few weeks."

"Really? I would've thought it was longer than that," he replied, watching as Julia savagely kicked one of her tires as she passed by it. "I bet she doesn't tell you much about me, does she? Most of the time she doesn't even tell people she has a brother."

"She doesn't talk about her family at all, actually," Maggie said quietly. She felt a little guilty having this discussion with him, but she hoped it would help her understand Julia better.

"Our father was having an affair with my mother. She thinks that's why her mother killed herself," Drew revealed bluntly. "We've never been very close."

"I'm sorry. I don't know what to say. I'm sure she doesn't blame you, though."

Drew shrugged. "Hey, it's not your fault. I don't think she blames me either, but I think I remind her that her father is a self-centered bastard."

"He's your father too, isn't he?" Maggie reminded him.

Drew laughed bitterly. "The only things he ever gave me were his name and a nice trust fund." He paused. "That's all he gave Julia, too. That's why she does what she does, you know. To spite him. She always swore she wouldn't be anything like him."

"Looks like Bert and Ernie survived intact." Julia returned, handing the giant stuffed whale to Maggie. She glanced at her brother briefly. "So, what were you two talking about?"

"Aw, we're just getting to know each other a little," Drew replied quickly. "Ready to go?"

They chatted amiably on the way back to the city. Maggie listened while Drew and Julia analyzed the 49ers Super Bowl chances for the upcoming season. They stared at her in horror when she professed her allegiance to the Cleveland Browns.

"I'm just gonna pretend I didn't hear that," Julia teased. "Next, you're probably gonna tell me you're an Indians fan, too."

"Hey! What's wrong with the Indians?" Maggie bristled indignantly.

"You'll have to take her to a Giants game next season, Jules," Drew suggested, glancing over his shoulder at them, snuggled together in the backseat.

"Yeah, I just might do that."

Drew dropped them off at the Chronicle offices so Maggie could retrieve her car. He and Julia exchanged an awkward good-bye, followed by hollow promises to call each other more often. Maggie waited until Drew had driven away.

"He seemed nice," she observed as they headed for her car.

"He's okay," Julia replied, distracted, her eyes sweeping across the nearly deserted garage. She spotted the silver Mercedes parked in a prominent spot next to the elevator. "Looks like Catherine is still here."

Maggie blinked, a bit surprised that Julia had recognized her rival's car. "She must have gotten something good today." She glanced at her watch, noting that it was nearing midnight. "Catherine never works this late unless she has something good."

"Do you want to go up and see what's going on?" Julia asked as they reached Maggie's car.

The reporter hesitated. Part of her wanted to find out what Catherine was working on, but the rest of her just wanted to go home, crawl into bed and pull the covers up over her head. Plus, the thought of another run-in with Catherine made her vaguely nauseous. She would rather sit and listen to someone dragging fingernails across a chalkboard.

"No," she decided finally, unlocking her car door. "Let's just get out of here."

After a quick stop at Maggie's apartment, they arrived at Julia's house to find a squad car waiting for them. Henry Chow emerged as they parked behind it. There was no trace of humor in his dark eyes as he regarded them soberly.

"What's going on?" Julia asked, getting out of the Corolla.

Henry nodded politely at Maggie. Returning his attention to Julia, he gestured towards the front door. "Let's go inside. There's stuff we need to talk about."

Julia led the way up the narrow front steps. She fumbled in her pocket for her keys, nearly dropping her armload of souvenirs. Henry and Maggie each took a bag out of her hands, and she mumbled a thank you as she unlocked the door and waved them inside. She set the rest of the bags down on the stairs and turned to the stone-faced police inspector.

"Okay. We're inside. Now, what's going on?"

Henry opened his mouth to speak and shot a sideways glance at Maggie. Julia rolled her eyes, quickly losing patience with him.

"There's nothing you can't say in front of her, Henry. Just spit it the hell out."

"Where were you tonight, Julia?"

"Why? What difference does it make?" Julia shot back obstinately.

"Because we found that Machado guy dead a couple of hours ago."

Even Julia looked taken aback by that. Speechless and stunned, she slipped past Henry into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Maggie followed her, sitting down beside her. Henry paced in front of them, his forehead creased with concern.

Acting on an anonymous tip, Henry and two other officers had discovered Eddie Machado's body just after 11:30 that night. He had been shot once in the back of the head and dumped in an alley behind a busy strip club in old North Beach. No witnesses had come forward yet, and so far, they hadn't been able to collect any solid evidence either.

"We were in Vallejo," Maggie spoke up. "At Marine World. We just got back, so if you're suggesting that Julia had something to do with this…"

Henry flinched under the onslaught of the twin green daggers piercing his flesh. "Hey, hold on. I didn't say she did. But I had to ask. I know how worried she was about this guy being out on the street, especially since he was stalking you."

He glanced at Julia, who was still silent and staring blankly out the window. "Guys like this end up dead all the time. It'll probably turn out to be a drug deal that went sour, or something like that."

"Someone tried to kill us tonight," Maggie offered, ignoring the warning look Julia gave her. "While we were on our way back to the city, somebody shot at us. Julia's jeep was totaled."

"What?" Henry was becoming more and more agitated. Unconsciously, he searched through his pockets for a cigarette. He glared at Julia. "Why didn't you tell me this immediately?"

Julia sighed, scrubbing her face with both hands. "Because I knew you would get all upset. Like you are now."

"Of course I'm upset!" Henry's voice rose in both volume and pitch. "When someone tries to hurt one of my friends, I get upset! It's a natural human emotion, Jules. You should try having one of those some time!"

Maggie leaped to her feet, her eyes blazing. "That's enough! Maybe it's just me, but I don't see how yelling at Julia is going to help you find out who's doing this. So back off!"

"Maggie, it's okay," Julia tugged at the sleeve of the reporter's new sweatshirt.

"No. It is not okay." Maggie kept her gaze locked firmly on Henry's face as he turned several shades of red. "You're supposed to be her friend."

Henry shook his head sadly. "I am her friend. I don't want to see either one of you get hurt." His eyes flicked over to Julia. "Which is why I'm telling you to leave this case alone. Let it go, Julia. Let the real cops handle it. In fact, it might not be a bad idea for you both to get out of town for a while."

Julia laughed tiredly. "I can't go anywhere. I don't even have a car anymore."

Maggie eyed her carefully, noticing the weary lines around her eyes and mouth. "Henry, we're both pretty tired. Can we finish this tomorrow?"

Henry's shoulders slumped. "I guess so. I sent a car over to your apartment earlier. You must have just missed them. Are you going to stay here tonight?" He hoped the reporter was staying. He didn't like the idea of Julia being alone.

"Yes. I'm spending the night here."

"Okay. I'm gonna have a couple of officers watching the house, just to be safe." He started toward the door, stopping when he reached the entryway. "Julia, I just don't want you to get hurt. Please stay out of this one."

Julia raised her hand to acknowledge him, but she didn't speak. Henry sighed and let himself out, waving to the two officers sitting in an unmarked vehicle across the street from the house. Julia never backed down from a fight, but this time he thought she was outmatched. It was up to him to figure this out before she got in over her head.

He scratched absently at the coarse stubble covering his jaw. This case just didn't make any sense to him. On the surface, he thought he saw a connection between the Netsports break-in, the latest warehouse fire and the attacks on Maggie and Julia. Something about it still didn't ring true, and thinking about it was starting to make his brain hurt. It was almost as if two separate people were working towards the same goal, without telling each other what they were up to.

Henry had spoken to Daniel Webber once already, regarding the security guard killed with his gun. The former athlete had been charming and appropriately bewildered by the situation, sticking to his claim that he had no idea who had broken into his offices. There wasn't a shred of evidence directly linking him to anything, but Henry couldn't shake the feeling that there was something sinister going on there. As he drove away from Julia's house, he checked his notebook for an address. Smiling grimly, he wondered how Daniel Webber would like a late night visit from the police.

Peeking through the heavy curtains, Maggie watched the two police officers across the street. It was an unnerving feeling, knowing that they were there to prevent someone from killing her. She did her best to suppress the shudder that ran through her body. Behind her, Julia slouched wearily on the sofa as she tried to absorb everything that they had been through that day.

"Hey." Maggie crossed the room and sat down beside her again, resting her hand on Julia's knee. "What's going through that head of yours?" She gently smoothed a lock of dark hair back, tucking it behind Julia's ear.

"Nothing, really." Julia covered Maggie's hand with her own. "I'm tired, that's all."

Maggie slid her arms around Julia's waist and hugged her tightly. "Henry had no right to jump all over you like that."

"He's worried." Julia lifted Maggie's chin until they were eye to eye. "Thank you for leaping to my defense, though."

"Somebody has to."

"Yeah, well, the job is yours if you want it."

"I want it."

Maggie leaned in for a tender kiss. In her pocket, her pager began to vibrate and buzz, and she scowled down at it, annoyed by the interruption. Julia laughed quietly as the reporter retrieved the offending device and read the display.

"I knew I was good, but I don't think I've ever set off alarms before," she joked.

"It's my editor." Maggie informed her, turning the pager around so Julia could see the number.

Julia sighed, releasing the blonde. "Ah. I guess you'd better call him, then."

"Be right back."

While Maggie went into the kitchen to use the phone, Julia stretched out on the sofa. Eddie Machado had been picked up for following Maggie, and now he was dead. She was sure that the two were connected, and on some level, she felt responsible for it.

She could hear Maggie's voice growing louder as she argued with her editor. A moment later, muttering under her breath and looking utterly exasperated, Maggie stormed back into the living room.

"I can't believe this," Maggie burst out angrily. "Sam took me off the arson story. He said it was a liability thing. The paper can't have me getting hurt."

"Maggie, I'm so sorry." Julia sat up, reaching for the reporter's hand.

"Oh, it gets even better." Maggie continued bitterly. "I've been placed on leave. Supposedly, it's for my own protection."

"Shit. I'm so sorry, honey," Julia said again. "Maybe he's right, though." She paused, bracing herself for the protestations she was certain would follow.


Julia winced, hearing the quiet disbelief in Maggie's voice. She chewed her lower lip as she tried to figure out a way to make the reporter understand. Maggie's job was important, but not as important as her life.

"Maggie, I know you're hurt, but maybe this really is for the best," Julia said softly. "I couldn't stand it if anything happened to you, and if this will help keep you safe, then I'm glad you're off the story."

Maggie's shoulders slumped. Dejected, she stared at her neatly trimmed fingernails. Part of her wanted to be angry with Julia, but she knew that her lover was afraid for her safety, and she couldn't fault her for that. It infuriated her that no one seemed to think she could look out for herself, though. Even worse, Sam had instructed her to turn over all her notes to Catherine, of all people. Maggie could already picture the smug look on her rival's face. Sighing tiredly, she closed her eyes.

"Are you mad at me?" Julia asked, taking the reporter's hand and gently rubbing her thumb across her knuckles.

"No. I'm just exhausted. I think I'm going up to bed now." Maggie stood, groaning a bit at the stiffness in her neck and shoulders. "Are you coming up?"

Julia gave her a small smile. "In a minute. I need to make a quick phone call first. Meet you upstairs?"

Maggie nodded and leaned down for a quick kiss before she headed for the bedroom. Once she was out of sight, Julia reached for the phone. She pulled her leather wallet out of her jacket and dug a small scrap of paper out of one of the pockets. She stared at the string of numbers, written precisely in ink. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she dialed, her stomach churning anxiously as she listened to the ringing. A deep, masculine voice answered on the fifth ring.

"Hello, Dad," Julia said. "It's me."


To be continued....Part 8

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