Nightshade, p.9
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       Nightshade, p.9

         Part #3 of Night Tales series by Nora Roberts
 
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  it’s not an excuse, only a reason. You want me to say you scare me. All right. You scare me. This scares me. And I don’t think you want a partner who can’t focus because you make her nervous.”

  “Maybe I’m happier with that than with one who’s so focused it’s hard to tell if she’s human.” She wasn’t going to pull away from him now. He’d be damned if he’d let her. “Don’t tell me you can’t work on two levels, Thea, or that you can’t function as a cop when you’ve got a problem in your personal life.”

  “Maybe I just don’t want to work with you.”

  “That’s tough. You’re stuck. If you want to put this on hold, I’ll try to oblige you. But you’re not backing off from Liz because you’re afraid to let yourself feel something for me.”

  “I’m thinking about Liz, and what’s best for her.”

  “How the hell would you know?” He exploded, and if it was unreasonable, he didn’t give a damn. He was on the edge of falling in love with a woman who was calmly telling him she didn’t want him in any area of her life. He was desperate to find a frightened girl, and the person who’d helped him make progress toward doing so was threatening to pull out. “How the hell would you know about her or anyone else? You’ve got yourself so wrapped up in regulations and procedure that you can’t feel. No, not can’t. Won’t. You won’t feel. You’ll risk your life, but one brush with emotion and up goes the shield. Everything’s so tidy for you, isn’t it, Althea? There’s some poor scared kid out there, but she’s just another case for you, just another job.”

  “Don’t you tell me how I feel.” Her control snapped as she shoved the chair aside, clattering to the floor between them. “Don’t tell me what I understand. You can’t possibly know what’s inside me. Do you think you know Liz, or any of those girls you talked with today? You’ve walked into shelters and halfway houses, and you think you understand?”

  Her eyes glinted, not with tears, but with a rage so sharp he could only stand and let it slice at him. “I know there are plenty of kids who need help, and not always enough help to go around.”

  “Oh, that’s so easy.” She strode across the room and back in a rare show of useless motion. “Write a check, pass a bill, make a speech. It’s so effortless. You haven’t a clue what it’s like to be alone, to be afraid or to be caught up in that grinding machine we toss displaced kids into. I spent most of my life in that machine, so don’t tell me I don’t feel. I know what it’s like to want out so bad you run even when there’s no place to go. And I know what it’s like to be yanked back, to be helpless, to be abused and trapped and miserable. I understand plenty. And I know that Liz has a family who love her, and we’ll get her back to them. No matter what, we’ll get her back, and she won’t be caught in that cycle. So don’t you tell me she’s just another case, because she matters. They all matter.”

  She broke off, running a shaky hand through her hair. At the moment, she wasn’t sure which was bigger, her embarrassment or her anger. “I’d like you to go now,” she said quietly. “I’d really like you to go.”

  “Sit down.” When she didn’t respond, he walked over and pressed her into a chair. She was trembling, and the fact that he’d played a part in causing that made him feel as if he’d punched a hole in something precious and fragile. “I’m sorry. That’s a record for me, apologizing to the same person twice in one day.” He started to brush a hand over her hair, but stopped himself. “Do you want some water?”

  “No. I just want you to leave.”

  “I can’t do it.” He lowered himself to the footstool in front of her so that their eyes were level. “Althea …”

  She sat back, her eyes shut. She felt as though she’d raced to the top of a mountain and leapt off. “Nightshade, I’m not in the mood to tell you my life story, so if that’s what you’re waiting for, you know where the door is.”

  “That’ll keep.” He took a chance and reached for her hand. It was steady now, he noted, but cold. “Let’s try something else. What we’ve got here are two separate problems. Finding Liz is number one. She’s an innocent, a victim, and she needs help. I could find her on my own, but that would take too long. Every day that goes by … Well, too many days have gone by already. I need you to work with me, because you can cut through channels it would take me twice as long to circumvent. And because I trust you to put everything you’ve got into getting her home.”

  “All right.” She kept her eyes closed, willing the tension away. “We’ll find her. If not tomorrow, the next day. But we’ll find her.”

  “Second problem.” He looked down at their hands, studying the way the second hand on her watch ticked off the time. “I think … ah, and since this is a new area for me, I want to qualify it by saying that it’s only an opinion …”

  “Nightshade.” She opened her eyes again, and there was a ghost of a smile in them. “I swear you sound just like a lawyer.”

  He winced, shifted. “I don’t think you should insult a man who’s about to tell you he’s pretty sure he’s in love with you.” She jolted. He’d have bet the farm that he could pull a gun and she wouldn’t flinch. But mention love and she jumped six inches off the chair. “Don’t panic,” he continued while she searched for her voice. “I said ‘I think.’ That leaves us with a safe area to play with.”

  “Sounds more like a minefield to me.” Because she was afraid it might start shaking again, she drew her hand away from his. “I think it would be wise, under the circumstances, to table that for the time being.”

  “Now who sounds like a lawyer?” He grinned, not at all sure why it seemed so appropriate to laugh at himself. “Darling, you think it puts the fear of God into you? Picture what it does to me. I only brought it up because I’m hoping that’ll make it easier to deal with. For all I know, it’s just a touch of the flu or something.”

  “That would be good.” She choked back a laugh, terrified it would sound giddy. “Get plenty of rest, drink fluids.”

  “I’ll give that a try.” He leaned forward, not displeased to see the wariness in her eyes or the bracing of her shoulders. “But if it’s not the flu, or some other bug, I’m going to do something about it. Whatever that might be can wait until we’ve settled the first problem. Until we do, I won’t bring up love, or all the stuff that generally follows along after it—you know, like marriage and family and a two-car garage.”

  For the first time since he’d known her, he saw her totally at a loss. Her eyes were huge, and her mouth was slack. He would have sworn that if he tapped her, she’d keel over like a sapling in a storm.

  “Guess it’s just as well I don’t, since talking about them in the abstract sense seems to have put you in a coma.”

  “I …” She managed to close her mouth, swallow, then speak. “I think you’ve lost your mind.”

  “Me, too.” Lord knew why he felt so cheerful about it. “So for now let’s concentrate on digging up those bad guys. Deal?”

  “And if I agree, you’re not going to sneak in any of that other stuff?”

  His smile spread slowly. “Are you willing to take my word on it?”

  “No.” She steadied herself and smiled back. “But I’m willing to bet I can deflect anything you toss out.”

  “I’ll take that bet.” He held out a hand. “Partner.” They shook, solemnly. “Now, why don’t we—”

  The phone interrupted what Althea was sure would have been an unprofessional suggestion. She slipped by Colt and picked up the extension in the kitchen.

  It gave him a moment to think about what he’d started. To smile. To think about how he’d like to finish it. Before he’d wound his fantasy up, she was striding back. She righted the chair, snagged her shoulder harness.

  “Our friend Leo, the bartender? We just busted him for selling coke out of his back room.” The warrior look was back on her face as she shrugged into the harness. “They’re bringing him in for interrogation.”

  “I’m right behind you.”

  “Behind me i
s just where you’ll stay, Nightshade,” she said as she slipped into her blazer. “If Boyd clears it, you can observe through the glass, but that’s the best deal you’ll get.”

  He chafed at the restraint. “Let me sit in. I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

  “Don’t make me laugh.” She grabbed her purse on the way to the door. “Take it or leave it—partner.”

  He swore at her, and slammed the door behind him. “I’ll take it.”

  Chapter 7

  Colt’s initial frustration at being stuck behind the two-way glass faded as he watched Althea work. Her patient, detail-by-detail interrogation had a style all its own. It surprised Colt to label that style not only meticulous, but relentless, as well.

  She never allowed Leo to draw her off track, never betrayed any reaction to his sarcasm, and never—not even when Leo tried abusive language and veiled threats—raised her voice.

  She played poker the same way, he remembered. Coolly, methodically, without a flicker of emotion until it was time to cash in her chips. But Colt was beginning to see through the aloof shell into the woman behind it.

  Certainly he’d been able to surprise many varied emotions from the self-contained lieutenant. Passion, anger, sympathy, even speechless shock. He had a feeling he’d only scratched the surface. There was a wealth of emotions beneath that tidy, professional and undeniably stunning veneer. He intended to keep digging until he unearthed them all.

  “Long night.” Boyd came up behind him bearing two mugs of steaming coffee.

  “I’ve had longer.” Colt accepted the mug, sipped. “This stuff’s strong enough to do the tango.” He winced and drank again. “Does the captain usually come in for a routine interrogation?”

  “The captain does when he has a personal interest.” Fletcher watched Althea a moment, noting that she sat, serene and unruffled, as Leo jerkily lit one cigarette from the butt of another. “Is she getting anything?”

  With some effort, Colt restrained an urge to beat against the glass just to prove he could do something.

  “He’s still tap dancing.”

  “He’ll wear out long before she does.”

  “I’ve already figured that out for myself.” They both lapsed into silence as Leo snarled out a particularly foul insult and Althea responded by asking if he’d like to repeat that statement for the record. “She doesn’t ruffle,” Colt commented. “Fletch, have you ever seen the way a cat’ll sit outside a mouse hole?” He flicked a glance at Boyd, then looked back through the glass. “That cat just sits there, hardly blinking, maybe for hours. Inside the hole, the mouse starts to go crazy. He can smell that cat, see those eyes staring in at him. After a while, I guess, the mouse circuits in his brain overload, and he makes a break for it. The cat just whips out one paw, and it’s over.”

  Colt sipped more coffee, nodded at the glass. “That’s one gorgeous cat.”

  “You’ve gotten to know her pretty well in a short amount of time.”

  “Oh, I’ve got a ways to go yet. All those layers,” he murmured, almost to himself. “Can’t say I’ve ever run into a woman who had me just as interested in peeling the layers of her psyche as peeling off her clothes.”

  The image had Boyd scowling into his coffee. Althea was a grown woman, he reminded himself, and more than able to take care of herself. Boyd remembered he’d been amused to find Colt and his former partner in a clinch in his kitchen. But the idea of it going further, of his friends leaping into the kind of quick, physical relationship that could leave them both battered at the finish, disturbed him.

  Particularly when he thought of Colt’s talent with women. It was a talent they both had, and both of them had enjoyed the benefits of that talent over the years. But they weren’t discussing just any woman this time. This was Althea.

  “You know,” Boyd began, feeling his way with the care of a blind man in a maze, “Thea’s special. She can handle pretty much anything that comes her way.”

  “And does,” Colt added.

  “Yeah, and does. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t have her vulnerabilities. I wouldn’t want to see her hurt. I wouldn’t like that at all.”

  Mildly surprised, Colt lifted a brow. “A warning? Sounds like the same kind you gave me about your sister Natalie about a million years ago.”

  “Comes to the same thing. Thea’s family.”

  “And you think I could hurt her.”

  Boyd let out a weary breath. He wasn’t enjoying this conversation. “I’m saying, if you did, I’d have to bruise several of your vital organs. I’d be sorry, but I’d have to do it.”

  Colt acknowledged that with a thoughtful nod. “Who won the last time we went at it?”

  Despite his discomfort, Boyd grinned. “I think it was a draw.”

  “Yeah, that’s how I remember it. It was over a woman then, too, wasn’t it?”

  “Cheryl Anne Madigan.” This time Boyd’s sigh was nostalgic.

  “Little blonde?”

  “Nope, tall brunette. Big … blue eyes.”

  “Right.” Colt laughed, shook his head. “I wonder whatever happened to pretty Cheryl Anne.”

  They fell into a comfortable silence for a moment, reminiscing. Through the speakers they could hear Althea’s calm, relentless questioning.

  “Althea’s a long way from Cheryl Anne Madigan,” Colt murmured. “I wouldn’t want to hurt her, but I can’t promise it won’t happen. The thing is, Fletch, for the first time I’ve run into a woman who matters enough to hurt me back.” Colt took another bracing sip. “I think I’m in love with her.”

  Boyd choked and was forced to set down his mug before he dumped the contents all over his shirt. He waited a beat, tapped a hand against his ear as if to clear it. “You want to say that again? I don’t think I caught it.”

  “You heard me,” Colt muttered. Leave it to a friend, he thought, to humiliate you at an emotionally vulnerable moment. “I got almost the same reaction from her when I told her.”

  “You told her?” Boyd struggled to keep one ear on the interrogation while he absorbed this new and fascinating information. “What did she say?”

  “Not much of anything.”

  The frustration in Colt’s voice tickled Boyd so much, he had to bite the tip of his tongue to keep from grinning. “Well, at least she didn’t laugh in your face.”

  “She didn’t seem to think it was very funny.” Colt blew out a breath and wished Boyd had thought to lace the coffee with a good dose of brandy. “She just sat there, going pale, kind of gaping at me.”

  “That’s a good sign.” Boyd patted Colt’s shoulder comfortingly. “It’s real hard to throw her off that way.”

  “I figured it was best if it was out, you know? It would give us both time to decide what to do about it.” He smiled through the glass at Althea, who continued to sit, cool and unruffled, while Leo gulped down water with a trembling hand. “Though I’ve pretty much figured out what I’m going to do about it.”

  “Which is?”

  “Well, unless I wake up some morning real soon and realize I’ve had some sort of brain seizure, I’m going to marry her.”

  “Marry her?” Boyd rocked back on his heels and chuckled. “You and Thea? Lord, wait until I tell Cilla.”

  The murderous look Colt aimed at him only made Boyd’s grin widen.

  “I can’t thank you enough for your support here, Fletch.”

  Boyd gamely swallowed another chuckle, but he couldn’t defeat the grin. “Oh, you’ve got it, pal. All the way. It’s just that I never thought I’d be using the word marriage in the same sentence with Colt Nightshade. Or Althea Grayson, for that matter. Believe me, I’m with you all the way.”

  * * *

  Inside the interrogation room, Althea continued to wear down her quarry. She scented his fear, and used it ruthlessly.

  “You know, Leo, a little cooperation would go a long way.”

  “Sure, a long way to seeing me greased like Wild Bill.”

  Althea inclin
ed her head. “As much as it pains me to offer it, you’d have protection.”

  “Right.” Leo snorted out smoke. “You think I want cops on my butt twenty-four hours a day? You think it would work if I did?”

  “Maybe not.” She used her disinterest as another tool, slowing down the pace of the interview until Leo was squirming in his chair. “But, then again, no cooperation, no shield. You go out of here naked, Leo.”

  “I’ll take my chances.”

  “That’s fine. You’ll make bail on the drag charges—probably deal them down so you won’t do any time to speak of. But it’s funny how word spreads on the street, don’t you think?” She let that thought simmer in his brain. “Interested parties already know you’ve been tagged, Leo. And when you walk out, they won’t be real sure about what you might have spilled while you were inside.”

  “I didn’t tell you anything. I don’t know anything.”

  “That’s too bad. Because it might work against you, this ignorance. You see, we’re closing in, and those same interested parties might wonder if you helped out.” Casually she opened a file and revealed the police sketches. “They might wonder if I got the descriptions of these suspects from you.”

  “I didn’t give you anything.” Sweat popped out on Leo’s forehead as he stared at the sketches. “I never seen those guys before.”

  “Well, that may be. But I’d have to say—if the subject came up—that I talked with you. A long time. And that I have detailed sketches of suspects. You know, Leo,” she added, leaning toward him, “some people add two and two and get five. Happens all the time.”

  “That ain’t legal.” He moistened his lips. “It’s blackmail.”

  “Don’t hurt my feelings. You want me to be your friend, Leo.” She nudged the sketches toward him. “You see, it’s all a matter of attitude, and whether or not I care if you walk out of here and end up a smear on the sidewalk. Can’t say I do at the moment.” She smiled, chilling him. “Now, if you were my friend, I’d do everything I could to make sure you lived a long and happy life. Maybe not in Denver, maybe someplace new. You know, Leo, a change of scene can work wonders. Change your name, change your life.”

  Something flickered in his eyes. She knew it was doubt. “You talking witness protection program?”

  “I could be. But if I’m going to ask for something that big, I have to be able to prime the pump.” When he hesitated, she sighed. “You’d better choose sides, pal. Remember Wild Bill? All he did was meet a guy. They might have been talking about the Broncos’ chances for the Super Bowl. Nobody gave him the benefit of the doubt. They just iced him.”

  The fear was back, running in the sweat down his temples. “I get immunity. And you drop the drug charges.”

  “Leo, Leo …” Althea shook her head. “A smart man like you knows how life works. You give me something, if it’s good enough, I give you something back. It’s the American way.”

  He licked his lips again, lit yet another cigarette. “Maybe I’ve seen these two before.”

  “These two?” Althea tapped the sketches, and then, like Colt’s cat, she pounced. “Tell me.”

  * * *

  It was 2:00 a.m. before she was finished. She’d questioned Leo, listened to his long, rambling story, made notes, made him backtrack, repeat, expand. Then she’d called in a police stenographer and had Leo go over the same ground again, making an official statement for the tape.

  She was energized as she strode back to her office. She had names now, names to run through the computer. She had threads—thin threads, perhaps, but threads nonetheless, tying an organization together.

  Much of what Leo had told her was speculation and gossip. But Althea knew that a viable investigation could be built on less.

  Peeling off her jacket, she sat at her desk and booted up her computer. She was peering at the screen when Colt walked in and stuck a cup under her nose.

  “Thanks.” She sipped, winced and spared him a glance. “What is this? It tastes like a meadow.”

  “Herbal tea,” he told her. “You’ve had enough coffee.”

  “Nightshade, you’re not going to spoil our relationship by thinking you have to take care of me, are you?” She set the cup aside and went back to the screen.

  “You’re wired, Lieutenant.”

  “I know how much I can take before the system overloads. Aren’t you the one who keeps saying time’s what we don’t have?”

  “Yeah.” From his position behind her chair, he lowered his hands to her shoulders and began to rub. “You did a hell of a job with Leo,” he said before she could shrug his hands off. “If I ever decide to go back to law, I’d hate to have you take on one of my clients.”

  “More compliments.” His fingers were magic, easing without weakening, soothing without softening. “I didn’t get as much as I wanted, but I think I got all he had.”

  “He’s small-time,” Colt agreed. “Passing a little business to the big boys, taking his commission.”

  “He doesn’t know the main player. I’m sure he was telling the truth about that. But he ID’d the two Meena described. Remember the cameraman she’d told us about—the big African American? Look.” She gestured toward the screen. “Matthew Dean Scott, alias Dean Miller, alias Tidal Wave Dean.”

  “Catchy.”

  “He played some semipro football about ten years ago. Made a career out of unnecessary roughness. He broke an opposing quarterback’s leg.”

  “These things happen.”

 
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