Ken Harding sat in the outer waiting room of the police commissioner's office, flicking through a six-month-old magazine while he waited for the boss to see him. Harding was a mildly ambitious man but the officer behind the big teak doors, the man he had gone through Police Academy with, had him well beaten on that particular score. Not that Harding cared that the man was more ambitious than he. He respected the Commissioner and got on well with him, but that didn’t mean John Stiles was about to grant him any favors. Especially this one.
Finally the door opened and the Commissioner's full head of grey hair poked out.
Another area he wins hands down, Harding thought absently as he pushed himself up out of the fake leather chair.
“Harding! Good to see you. Come on in,” said Stiles, gesturing the big detective into his inner sanctum. “Haven’t talked to you in a while. How's the di Santo thing going?”
“Yeah good, Commissioner,” Harding replied. “Don't think there's any chance they won't put him up for trial.”
“Good, good. That's what we like to hear.” Stiles settled himself into his seat and looked over at Harding. “So what I can I do for you this morning?”
Harding cleared his throat and shifted in his place. “D'you remember Jo Madison, Commissioner?”
His commanding officer nodded slowly. “One of your pet projects,” he replied. “Yes, I remember her. She put away a lot of big names a few years ago. We had her on some kind of immunity deal, didn't we?”
“Yes, sir. And you helped me out a few months ago, getting an acquaintance of hers out of a spot of trouble up on Hamilton Island.”
A flicker of recognition crossed the Commissioner's face. “Was that her? Hadn’t connected the two matters until then but, yes, I remember. So what trouble is she in now?”
Harding shook his head. “None, sir. In fact she's helping us with the di Santo thing. Actually she's asked for a bit of information on a personal matter, and I thought I'd go straight to the top for the answer.”
The Commissioner's eyebrows climbed towards his hairline. “A personal matter? Like what?”
Harding coughed again. “Well, sir, she wants to get to the United States to help out a friend, and with her record, she might need a little assistance doing that.”
Stiles' brow furrowed. “That's something she'll have to fight with the Americans about, Harding. And I can tell you now, they won't like the idea at all. You know they’re hypersensitive about security matters these days. There’s not much chance they’re going to let a known criminal in voluntarily.”
“That's where I thought we could put in a good word, sir. With the consulate,” Harding persisted. “Maybe guarantee her return here, or something.”
The Commissioner looked decidedly uncomfortable. “By we, you mean me, I assume?” Harding had the good grace to blush a little, but he nodded anyway. “Jesus, Harding, that’s a bit of a political time bomb if it goes pear-shaped. How can we guarantee that she won’t go walkabout? She's not exactly trustworthy, is she?” The senior officer glared at the detective for a few seconds before he stood up and walked to the window, where he gazed out on the city landscape.
Harding swallowed and dropped his eyes as he thought about his response. He knew that whatever he said now would tell the Commissioner a lot about just how personally involved with Madison he really was. He wasn’t sure that was necessarily something he wanted to let John Stiles know. It never paid to have feelings on the job. Then again, this was Madison they were talking about. I always was a sucker for those baby blues.
“I can guarantee it, sir,” he said quietly. “Personally. I've gotten to know her bit over the years and I can guarantee that if she says she's coming back, then she's coming back.”
Stiles looked at him and let the silence stretch to a few seconds. “Ken, you've never tried to trade on the fact that we were classmates before. I don’t care about that Hamilton Island thing – that was nothing.” He waved that away with a dismissive hand gesture. “I’ve always respected you for not trying it on that way. So why are you breaking the habit of a lifetime now?” He turned back around to face Harding, leaning his backside on the windowsill and folding his arms.
Harding blinked and took a deep breath. “I like her, sir,” he said quietly. “Yeah, I know what she’s done, and I know what it looks like. But, frankly, she's done a lot for us. Apart from the arseholes she helped us put away five years ago, she's also going to be the final nail in di Santo's coffin, God willing.”
“You're surely not suggesting that we owe a known criminal – a murderer, what's more – anything at all?”
“I'm saying that she helped us and walked away, refusing our protection – saving us a bunch of money, if nothing else – and that she's kept her nose clean and now is doing more to put away a bloke we've been chasing down for years.” Ken cleared his throat again. “And, the bottom line is, I trust her, sir.”
The Commissioner ran his hand through his hair and sighed. “You’re asking an awful lot, Harding,” he growled.
“I know, sir.” And you’re never gonna let me forget are ya, you bastard.
“All right, Ken. But if she lets us down, it'll be you, not me, who pays the price. I’ll never let you forget it.”
“Yes sir, I understand.”
Stiles took another few seconds to look at the detective before he nodded decisively.
“Right then. Sit tight and let me make a few phone calls.”
“I find there is sufficient evidence to commit Mr Marco di Santo to trial on this matter,” intoned the judge. “He will be remanded in custody until his next appearance on …” He glanced down at his diary. “September 12. Court dismissed.” He banged his gavel down and rose creakily from his chair, the entire room rising with him.
Thank Christ that's over with, Jo thought as she slumped back into her seat once the old man had departed the room. Guess I get to do it all again in September, but at least by then Cadie will home and it will all be a bit easier to deal with. She thought about the prospect of her lover seeing more graphic evidence of her own seamy past and fought down the urge to panic. Come on, get a grip. She knows the worst by now, and she hasn’t run from it, so I guess she'll deal with that as well, Jo decided.
The prosecutor interrupted her thoughts when he turned to her and leaned over the low wooden railing that separated his desk from the public gallery. He reached out with a hand and she shook it, obligingly.
"Good job, Miss Madison,” he said, smiling. “I trust we can count on you again during the trial?”
Jo nodded. “I'd rather like to see him put away, Mr Roberts, so yes, I'll be here if you need me,” she said.
"We'll be in touch as the time approaches,” he replied, dropping his papers into the battered leather briefcase in his other hand. Without another word he clicked the case shut and exited down the center aisle of the courtroom.
“And goodbye to you, too,” Jo murmured. She looked around the rapidly emptying room, but Harding was nowhere to be seen. Jo rather hoped he was on a scouting mission for her. Her eye was caught by the sight of two policemen flanking di Santo as they handcuffed him and led him away. He cast an evil glance in her direction as he went and Jo flashed him the tiniest of waves.
“See you in September, you son of a bitch,” she muttered under her breath.
Harding walked back in and slid in to the row behind Jo. He leaned forward and rested his forearms on the wooden back of the bench on which she was sitting. Jo rested back and looked at him sideways.
“You missed the decision,” she said quietly.
"Yeah, well, I assumed they'd come to the right conclusion,” he answered.
Harding snorted. “Of course they did. Obvious as balls on a dog that he had to go to trial. Sometimes I think we waste too much time on giving these arseholes their so-called rights.”
Jo chuckled. “There speaks a man who's always been on the right side of the law,” she said, smiling at the big policeman. Harding looked even more disheveled than usual, she thought. His tie was askance and sweat trickled down the side of his face. One of these days, I swear, he's going to drop dead where he stands, Jo thought affectionately. “What have you been up to, Detective?”
Harding wiped his brow with a rather grey-looking handkerchief he fished out of his jacket's breast pocket before he answered. He stuffed it back and looked right at her.
“Running around on your behalf, actually,” he said smugly. "So, if we could figure out how to get you to the US, when would you want to go?”
Jo looked at him and raised an eyebrow in surprise and hope. "Are you serious?”
“M'not making any promises, okay?” he said hastily. “But I’ve managed to get us an appointment with some senior boffin over at the US Consulate General. You up for it?”
Jo’s heart skipped a beat. “Yes, of course,” she said, trying to contain the leap of hope. Probably won’t come to anything, so just calm down, she told herself. “When?”
“Soon as we can get there,” Harding said bluntly.
“How the hell did you manage that, Ken?” she asked wonderingly. “Did you sell your soul for it?”
Harding sported a rare grin, an expression that took years off his age and made Jo match it with one of her own in pure reflex. He touched the side of his nose with one meaty finger and winked.
“Can’t say too much,” he said playfully. “Come on, let’s get moving, or we’ll never get through the fucking traffic.”
“Lead on,” Jo said.
“Jesus Christ, Naomi. You scared me half to death.” Cadie hurriedly crouched down to pick up the sputtering candle that she had dropped, before it burned the carpet. “What the hell kind of bullshit was that to pull?” She felt a deep anger rising up in her chest at the thought that her ex-partner had deliberately set out to scare her.
Naomi sat as still as a rock in the sheet-draped chair across the room from the door. In her hand was the flashlight Cadie had been looking for, its light casting her face with an eerie glow that put Cadie in mind of a grotesque Halloween pumpkin lantern.
“No bullshit, Arcadia,” the senator murmured. “I had the power disconnected once I realized I had no idea when you would be home. I’ve only been here a couple of hours myself, so I haven’t had time to do anything about it.”
Cadie put the righted candle on the nearest flat surface and set about lighting a few more, placing them around the room.
“You could have said something when I first got here, instead of sitting there like some kind of malevolent toad.” Ease up, Cadie. Don’t let your temper get the better of you. She slammed a candle down hard, endangering the plate it was balanced on, the adrenalin still coursing through her system. Fuck her.
“I was asleep,” Naomi said calmly. “I’m sorry if I startled you.”
Asleep my ass. I made enough noise coming in here to wake the dead. Cadie whirled on her. “Startled me? Jesus, Naomi. How would you have felt if it had been the other way around?” She slumped down into one of the other armchairs and ran her hand through her hair in exasperation. Her heart was still pounding like a son of a bitch. “Jesus.”
A low, laugh came from across the room. Cadie would have almost described the sound as creepy if she hadn’t been trying desperately hard to minimize the panic Naomi’s stunt had generated.
“You can’t honestly say you weren’t expecting me to show up,” Naomi said softly. “You’re my partner, this is our house and I knew you would come here eventually.”
Cadie looked at her sharply. Naomi had switched the flashlight off, now that the room was at least semi-adequately lit by candles.
“Yes, Naomi, just how did you know I would be coming here tonight? I mean, I know that you were informed when I landed in the country, but I only really decided this morning that I would be driving down today. Besides, aren’t you supposed to be in the Senate?”
Naomi shrugged. “I’m sure the world will keep turning without me for a few days,” she replied mildly. “You may find this hard to believe, but I do still have friends in Madison. Friends who know how badly I want to patch things up with you and who did me the favor of letting me know your movements.”
Cadie was appalled. “You’ve had someone watching the house?” she asked, incredulous. Naomi chose not to reply, but an almost feral smile creased her face. “Unbelievable,” Cadie exclaimed. “I’d heard you were pretty much losing it, Naomi, but now I’m starting to actually believe it.”
The senator showed few signs of emotion, but her hands balled into fists on the arms of the chair in which she was sitting. “I don’t know what else you expected me to do. You don’t accept my phone calls, you don’t reply to my emails, and you certainly don’t initiate any contact with me, let alone have the courtesy to tell me when you would be coming to my home.”
Cadie snorted. “Your home? A couple of minutes ago it was ‘our home’.”
“What do you want from me, Cadie?” Naomi snarled, the first indication of her true emotions. “I want to talk to you. I doubted if you would meet with me voluntarily, so I made sure that we would cross paths. You can’t blame me for that.”
“And you left the power disconnected just for effect, I suppose?” Cadie snapped back. “Thought it might be amusing?”
“Surpriiise …” Naomi said, letting another feral grin wipe the anger from her face.
For the second time in just a few minutes, Cadie felt a tendril of fear curl its way around her intestines. This was different, though. It wasn’t the shock, this time. This time it was the cold, stark knowledge that her ex-partner was not someone with whom she wanted to tangle. Not now and not ever again.
Cadie said nothing, but sat back in her chair and watched the senator warily.
One thing’s for sure, she’s not going to just let me wander around packing up my stuff. She crossed her legs and folded her arms, preferring to let Naomi make the next move. Instinct tells me I should just walk out now and drive back to Madison, but somehow I don’t think she’s going to let me get away with that, either.
“I was thinking that once we sort all this out between us, that we should redecorate the house,” Naomi said contemplatively, looking around as if seeing the place for the first time. “It’s been about five years since we did this room, hasn’t it? What do you think, darling?”
I think you’re nuts. “Mom and Dad are expecting me to call, or they’re going to worry,” Cadie said out loud. “Or have you disconnected the phone as well?”
“Feel free.” Naomi gestured at the telephone which sat on a nearby coffee table. “But I don’t think there’s much point in making a fuss, do you? I’m sure you don’t want them rushing down the highway for no reason.” She smiled again. “After all, you’re perfectly safe, here with me.”
The two forlorn figures leaning on the bar looked like some kind of bizarre comedy double act. Both leaned with their chin on their hand. Both held a half-drunk glass of something smooth and amber in their other hand. Both gazed ahead soulfully, blinking mindlessly at their own reflections in the mirror that ran the length of the back of the hotel bar. And both sighed intermittently between sips.
“Well, we tried,” Jo said glumly.
“Yeah, we did. M’sorry we couldn’t do more than that,” Ken replied, his words slurring just a little.
“Hey, mate, you got us in there in the first place. S’not your fault that little pipsqueak wasn’t going to give in no matter we said.” Jo took another swig of scotch.
Ken turned slightly to look at his drinking companion. “He was a knob wasn’t he? Damned if we didn’t nearly persuade him. Bastard.”
Jo glanced at him. “Would you really have come with me, Kenny?”
He gave her a lopsided grin. “Sure. Fuck knows I deserve a holiday and as long as you’d knocked me out for the flight I’d’ve had fun, m’sure. Just can’t stand fucking planes.”
“Well, you should try women instead.” Jo guffawed at her own pun, though it was lost on Harding, who looked nothing but puzzled. “S’a joke, Joyce,” Jo muttered.
“Jesus, you must be drunk if you thought that was funny,” Ken complained.
They had gone straight from the US Consulate to an early, and largely liquid, dinner, and then back to the bar at Jo’s hotel. It wasn’t late, particularly, but the day’s events were catching up with both of them.
“The depressing thing is I think I’m actually starting to sober up,” Jo said mournfully. “Damn, you know I was sure we had him when you suggested you’d go with me and I’d report in to the local authorities every second day.”
“I should’ve said every day, god damn it,” Harding muttered. “I knew it wasn’t gonna work the minute the words came out of my mouth.” He sighed loudly. “So what are you gonna do now?”
Jo shrugged. “Nothing, I guess. It was just an idea I had ‘cos m’missing her like crazy. Guess I’m just gonna have to stop being a big cry-baby and wait it out till she gets home.” She drained the last of the scotch. “M’just a big old mushball, huh?”
Harding snorted. “Yeah, that’s you all right.” He gestured at the bartender and waited while the man refilled his shot glass. Jo waved him away, covering her own glass with her hand. “You worried about that cute little sheila of yours going back to her girlfriend?”
Piercing blue eyes suddenly regained their focus and pinned him to the closest wall. “No, Harding, m’not worried about that,” Jo said coolly. Was she? Fuck sake, of course not. And quit breaking Ken’s balls.
“Oh yeah, you’re a big mushball,” Ken muttered, a half-smile playing across his lips. “Take it easy, okay? I was just asking.”
“Yeah, I know. Sorry. S’just the thought of that bitch makes me want to resurrect that nice little garrote of mine.” An evil twinkle winked back at Harding and reminded him of just who he was sitting next to.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet her,” Ken sniggered.
“You didn’t miss much. Try to imagine a cane toad, only with less personality.”
“Bleugh, no thanks.”
Jo leaned her elbow back on the bar. “I had a fabulous dream about her the other night,” she said.
Harding looked at the beautiful woman out of the corner of his eye. “You’re dreaming about your girlfriend’s girlfriend?” he asked. “Kinky.”
Jo slapped him across the shoulder. “Not that kind of dream, you old pervert,” she chided him. “No, we were all on this beach up in the islands. Can’t figure out which one,” she said, getting distracted. “Anyway, Naomi was giving Cadie grief about something and I was walking towards them, and I was dragging an anchor by its chain. Naomi said something that just really pissed me off – can’t remember what – and I started swinging the anchor round and round above my head.” Ken laughed, because he could see where this was going. “Shut up. I let it go and it sailed through the air in slow motion and – splat! – it nailed the bitch on the back of the head and shoved her face down in the sand. Just like Wile E. Coyote and that damn rock.” She smiled dreamily at the memory.
“And the best thing was the sound,” she continued. “It was just like when you take a swing at a cane toad with a seven-iron.”
This time Ken almost choked on a mouthful of scotch, he laughed so hard. “That’s the second time you’ve mentioned cane toads in the last 10 minutes,” he said. “Is this some kind of fetish you only develop when you’re half-cut?”
“Not a fetish,” Jo mumbled. “S’just the image I get when I think of that bitch.”
“You gonna be all right to get home, mate?” Jo asked as she clambered off her barstool. “I think I’m about done for the night.”
“Yeah, I’ll be right. I’ll just whistle up a patrol car. They can drop me off.”
She looked at the big man affectionately. “The perks of rank, eh?”
“Yeah, something like that. M’gonna finish my drink first, though.”
“Fair enough.” Jo felt a wash of gratitude for the older man. Whatever his motivations, Harding had proven himself to be a good friend. On impulse she leaned forward and dropped a kiss on his florid cheek. “Thanks for everything, Ken,” she murmured before she turned on her heel and exited the bar, heading for her room.
Harding sat stunned for a few seconds before he lifted a hand and touched the spot she had kissed with nerveless fingers. “I’ll be damned,” he muttered. “She kissed me.” He looked down at the almost empty glass in front of him. “That calls for a drink.”
Jo was dreaming again. The images were jumbled and nonsensical but they were pleasant enough, thankfully. Somewhere in the dreamscape a phone was ringing, loudly and persistently. Ringing and ringing and ringing.
Ugh. Jo reached out blindly and fumbled for the phone. She almost dropped it before she managed to get it to her ear.
“Yeah, hello,” she grumbled.
“Is that Jo Madison?”
Female. American. Not Cadie. Can only be one of two choices and I’d recognize a cane toad if I heard one.
“Hello, Mrs Jones. Yes, this is Jo.” A sliver of fear washed through Jo, the sudden wave of adrenalin cutting through the residue of fatigue and hangover. Why would Cadie’s mother be calling me, when Cadie’s … “What’s wrong? Is Cadie all right?” Panic tasted bad, she realized.
“Yes, yes, she’s fine,” Cadie’s mother replied. “At least … well, at least, we think she is. I’m actually calling to see what you think.”
Confused and still befuddled by sleep, Jo sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed her face with her free hand. Come on, Madison, get your brain working. “Okay,” she said.
“Cadie called us a few hours ago. She’s at the Chicago house.”
“So is Naomi.”
Jo’s heart sank and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She swallowed. “She told you that?”
“Oh yes,” Helena said. “She also said everything was fine and that she didn’t need us to drive down to be with her.”
Jo thought about that. “And you don’t believe her?” She could just imagine the intimidating figure of the senator listening in on that call. Don’t panic her mother, Jo. No matter what you’re feeling.
There was a pause on the other end of the phone. “Well, she sounded very tense. I don’t think she was happy about things at all.”
I bet. Jo felt slightly sick. On the one hand, her first instinct was to send in the local reinforcements as quickly as possible. Especially as even if I could get on a plane right now, I won’t be there for another 24 hours. She felt renewed anger at the pigheaded US Consulate official. Damn him. On the other hand, she knew Cadie would consider that she was perfectly capable of handling Naomi without any interference from her parents. Or me, for that matter. Look at how Cadie handled herself at the airport. That took a cool head and some quick thinking. She bounced up off the bed and began pacing. On the third hand, you know damn well that bitch will do almost anything to get Cadie back.
“I’m not really sure what to tell you, Mrs Jones,” Jo said quietly, forcing her own sense of uneasiness down deep, where she hoped it wouldn’t show. “I think if Cadie had needed you there, she would have found a way to tell you exactly that. It could be that this will be a good opportunity for them to finally tie up all the loose ends.” Right. And it could be a good opportunity for Naomi to start getting nasty when she finally realizes Cadie isn’t going back.
The older woman sighed. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. I just keep thinking of all the stories Cadie has been telling us about Naomi’s behavior lately.”
Jo had a quick flash of Naomi’s hand pulled back to strike Cadie in the watch-house of the Hamilton Island police station. “Yes, I know what you mean,” she murmured. “I wish I was there.” M’going. I don’t care what it takes anymore. But how?
“I wish you were, too,” Cadie’s mother said. “Cadie’s told me a lot about … well, about how you make her feel safe.” Jo felt herself blushing and she rubbed her face again. “I’ll be very glad when Naomi is out of her life for good, because somehow I don’t think she’s ever made Cadie feel that.”
The solution came to Jo in a cold flash, stopping her mid-pace. She made a quick decision, a calm settling over her as she sat back down on the bed.
“Look, how about this as a compromise,” she said aloud. “I’ll get there as soon as I can. That gives Cadie just over a day to deal with Naomi. Hopefully, she’ll be just fine.” Hopefully.
“Thank you, Jo.” The relief in Helena Jones’ voice was obvious. “It’s always a fine line between letting your children make their own mistakes and keeping them too sheltered from the world. I want to race down that highway, but if we do, and everything’s fine, Cadie won’t thank us for it. But we’re so worried for her.”
Jo heard a world of pain and memories in that statement and she remembered the grief in Cadie’s eyes as she had told Jo about the death of her older brother, Sebastian. No wonder her mother’s torn about this, she thought. Keep it calm and normal.
“It’s okay,” she murmured, thinking that perhaps she might get to like Cadie’s mother, very much. “Um, could you tell me the address of the Chicago house, please?”
“Oh yes, of course. Do you have a pen?”
Jo reached for the hotel stationary and pen sitting on the bedside table. “Yep. Go ahead.”
Helena gave the Australian the address. “Jo, there’s a chance Cadie may be back here by the time you arrive in Chicago,” she said. “I mean, there’s just no way of knowing really.”
“Yeah, I know,” Jo replied. “That’s okay. I was thinking of flying over to surprise Cadie, anyway.” Of course, I still have to run a few gauntlets before then, but why burden her with the details.
“Oh, really? It will be lovely to finally get to meet you,” said Helena, oblivious to the dark thoughts running through the mind of her daughter’s lover. “I think Cadie’s missing you, really quite badly.”
Jo smiled to herself. “Well, that’s mutual,” she replied. “Thanks for calling, Mrs Jones. And I’ll see you in a couple of days, hopefully.”
“Yes, hopefully. Goodbye, Jo. Safe travels.”
Jo sat for several minutes after she hung up, her head bowed, her hands clasped in front of her, her elbows on her knees. She knew there was now only one way of getting herself to the US in short order.
And that means resurrecting an old friend, she thought grimly. And finding one or two others as well. Somewhere in this god damned city.
Finally she stood, her decisions made and nothing for it but to get it all done. Calmly she walked around the room, pulling on clothes and gathering together her money and her attitude. By the time the tall, black-clad, icechip-eyed figure strode out of the door, she was, more or less, her old self.
Time to go a-hunting.
It had been a very long night. Cadie rubbed her eyes wearily as she tried to focus on the vase she was wrapping in newspaper. She and Naomi had been hammering away at the same issues, all night long, talking around and around the fact that Cadie wasn’t coming back to the senator and that was that.
Naomi’s emotions had ranged from depression to fury and back again, cycling several times through the night. The only constant had been the glass of bourbon Naomi had kept by her side. The alcohol had kept her by turns aggressive and blurry, but nothing had seemed to penetrate Naomi’s unwavering belief that Jo was the cause of all the world’s troubles and that eventually Cadie would see reason and come home for good.
Eventually the politician had passed out in the same armchair Cadie had found her in. Cadie’s first thought had been to forget about salvaging her belongings and just get the hell back to Madison. But then fatigue, combined with a low-burning anger at the senator’s antics had convinced her to stick it out.
Why the hell should I let her intimidate me out of the things that are rightfully mine, she had thought, setting her chin even as she watched the older woman snoring where she was slumped. God damn her.
And so Cadie had spent the few hours since dawn quietly moving around the house gathering up her belongings. She felt anxious and exhausted, not the least of which was because the one chance she had had to call Jo, there had been no reply from either the Australian’s cell phone or the hotel room. Cadie knew it was now well into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, Sydney time, so she was loathe to try the numbers again, in case she interrupted her partner’s no doubt badly needed sleep. I wonder where she is.
Cadie finished filling one of the packing boxes and she carried it, quietly, to the front door. She put the box down to open the door and breathed in the sweet, crisp spring air of early morning.
Maybe I’m just being too stubborn for my own good, she thought as she picked the box up again and began the walk out to her car. I’ve got the essentials in this box – my business and personal documents, jewelry, clothes. Maybe I should just get out of here now while I have the chance.
Before she could follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion, however, she rounded the large bushes that shielded the driveway from the house.
Leaning against her car were two large men in black suits. One was reading a newspaper, the other watched Cadie as she came to an abrupt halt at the top of the driveway. She recognized the goons as members of the security team Naomi regularly used when she was campaigning.
“Morning, Miss Jones,” said the man who had been watching her. His colleague folded his newspaper into neat sections and tucked it under his arm. “Going somewhere?”
Shit. “If I said yes, would you let me?” Cadie asked.
The goon shrugged. “You know how it is, Miss Jones,” he said wryly. “We’re just here to make sure you and the senator have all the privacy you need.”
Riiiiight. “All I want to do right now, Mr, um, Smith, isn’t it?” The goon grinned and nodded at her. “All I want to do now, Mr Smith, is put this box in that car.” Cadie nodded in the direction of their seat. “Would that be all right by you, do you think?” The sarcasm fairly oozed from every word, and she knew it probably wasn’t the smartest attitude to take, but now she was really pissed, and somewhat intimidated, but Cadie was goddamned if she was going to let them see that.
“Certainly, Miss,” Smith said agreeably. He stood upright and watched as Cadie unlocked the trunk and dropped the box inside. She slammed the lid shut and walked back around to where the two bodyguards stood.
“You won’t mind if I hang on to these,” Cadie said, dangling the car keys in front of them as she began to walk past the men back towards the house.
“Not at all, Miss.”
“Fuck you,” Cadie muttered as she climbed the driveway. Well, that’s just great. A house full of drunken bitches and a yard full of hit men. How much worse can this get?
She walked back inside, following the trail of loud and destructive sounds into the kitchen. Naomi had come to with a vengeance and was throwing pots and pans around in a fit of temper. The stocky woman was bouncing off the counters and cupboards like an irate pinball, cursing a blue streak.
It just got worse.
The wind whipped around the dark figure as she strode silently along the grimy sidewalks of King’s Cross. Even though it was just after 3am there were still people on the streets, as the dance clubs and strip joints began spewing their drunken, happy clientele. There was, however, something about the woman that made them all get out of her way, with those that were too inebriated to notice pulled out of her path by their more sober, aware friends.
Jo’s demeanor was every bit that of someone who ruled the streets and knew it. Cold, hard, pale blue eyes took in her environment, old landmarks tweaking her memories and her sense of direction. She glared balefully at anyone unfortunate enough to step across her path. And for the first time in over five years, she felt naked without her weapons.
Jo walked through the eastern end of the nightclub district and into an even seedier part of town. Warehouses and adult entertainment dominated the scene here and the eyes that met her own were less inclined to be intimidated. More than one pair flashed surprised signs of recognition, but Jo ignored them all as she continued to search for her target.
Finally one alleyway in particular caught her attention and she ducked into it, pacing down its length until she came to a darkened doorway. It was the quintessential gangster movie scene, and Jo would have smiled at the irony if she hadn’t felt quite so nauseous. Instead she pounded twice on the heavy door, unsurprised when the tiny sliding peephole at eye level snapped open almost instantaneously.
Jo said nothing, just fixed the beady eyes peering out at her with an intense stare.
“Holy fuck!” came the hoarse greeting and the sliding panel slammed shut again.
“Open the door, Vincent,” Jo growled, letting her voice take on its most menacing timbre.
“I’m not in that business anymore, okay?” came the muffled and vaguely tremulous response.
Why do I find that hard to believe? Jo wondered. “Open the door, before I break it down and wring your silly neck,” she said aloud.
There was a loud groan and another curse from behind the door and an obvious moment of hesitation in which Jo thought she was actually going to have to break down the door. But then she heard a sigh and a series of bolts being thrown.
The door swung open just wide enough for her to slide through and it slammed behind her quickly.
“Heard you were in town. Saw you on the telly. Didn’t expect to hear from you though.” The shadowy figure behind the door paused as if weighing up his own words. “Not since you turned rat.”
Jo’s long, strong fingers were around his neck and she had him slammed against the wall almost before the word was out of his mouth. She leaned close, ignoring his bad breath and oily skin, as she squeezed his throat steadily.
“You’re a fine one to be calling someone rat, Vincent,” she snarled. “They don’t call you Vincent the Weasel for nothing.”
The wizened little man ignored her words – it certainly wasn’t the first time he’d ever been insulted, let alone threatened – but his hands came up to hers, trying to break her grip.
“You’re crazy for showing up on the streets, Madison,” he gasped. “They’re out for your hide, you know that, right?” His eyes widened as he realized something. “Jesus Christ, how did you get here? Tell me you didn’t just walk down here like some fucking tourist?” Jo’s feral grin answered that question for him. “Fuck, Madison, if they saw you, they’ll come right here to find you. Jesus!” Sweat broke out on his forehead.
“Then you’d better get to work, hadn’t you?” Jo muttered. “Because the quicker you finish what I want done, the sooner I’ll be out of your way.” She let go of him. His feet hit the ground and he slumped against the wall, rubbing his neck ruefully.
“I told you, I don’t –" He stopped catching her glare and deciding against any further prevarication. “What do you need?”
“Passport, driver’s license, birth certificate.” Back in her criminal days she’d had a set of fake documents – hell, more than one set – but she had given them up when she had turned herself in to the police. She pointed a finger at him. “And nothing shoddy, Vincent. Your best work.”
He grinned, regaining some of his confidence. “S’gonna cost ya, Madison.”
“Don’t worry about that,” she snapped. “Get the work done the way I want it and this is yours.” Jo pulled a hefty roll of notes out of an inside pocket in her coat, long enough for him to absorb its size. She tucked it back out of sight and lifted an elegant dark brow at the man. “Fair enough?”
“Fair enough,” he agreed. “When do you need them by?”
Jo glanced at her watch. “You’ve got five hours,” she replied grimly.
“You’re not serious?”
Jo nailed him with her most intense and intimidating glare. “Do I look like someone who’s joking, Vincent?”
“Okay, okay. Let me get my shit together here.”
They had moved through to a dingy looking room at the end of the passage. Old, yellowed wallpaper was peeling from the walls, which were stained with damp. Jo sniffed, wrinkling her nose at the dank and slightly rotten smell. Nothing much had changed here, at least. Still the same grubby little weasel he always was, she thought.
The man in question came back into the room, carrying a large camera and tripod, as well as a canvas bag, which he dumped on the large wooden table in the middle of the room.
“Need to take your picture,” he grunted as he carefully set the photographic equipment down. He indicated the far wall which, although hardly clean, was at least free of dogs playing pool and not so tasteful nude pin-ups.
Jo sat down on a battered wooden chair, trying not to think about her surroundings or what she was doing. Doesn’t pay to think, Jo-Jo. Not too much. Not right now. She forced down a lump of panic which threatened to send her running out on the streets. Just wish I could think of another way of doing this.
It wasn’t that Jo was scared of getting caught, she realized. She had spent many years traveling all over Australia, and the world for that matter, as Tony’s bodyguard, and she had never done it under her own name. She knew how easy it was to do. It would scare Joe Public silly to know how easy it is, she thought wryly as she watched Vincent setting up his gear.
No, what was freaking her out was, first and foremost, what Cadie was going through. Those possibilities were rattling through her brain at the rate of knots. And then there was what she might have to do once she had arrived in Chicago. And what that might do to me. And her. Hell, us.
“Are you gonna smile for the camera, or are ya just gonna sit there scowlin’,” Vincent said, chancing his luck now that he was out of arm’s reach of the tall woman.
“Just take the fucking picture,” Jo muttered.
The counterfeiter didn’t waste any further time, taking her picture as soon as she turned square-on the camera. He immediately began pulling blank passport templates, licenses and certificates out of the canvas bag. Jo stayed where she was, content to grab what rest she could for the time being. God knows, I’m not gonna get much in the way of sleep for a while.
“You gonna breathe down my neck, or give me some room to move?” Vincent asked testily, throwing a glance her way as he bent over his work.
Jo crossed her legs at the ankles and clasped her hands in her lap. “You’ve just finished telling me how dangerous it is for me out there on the streets. Why would I go out there if I don’t need to?” she replied, letting a small, cold smile play across her lips. “Besides, I think you work better with supervision.” It had occurred to her that this particular weasel could easily turn rat for the right price.
Vincent glared at her for a few long seconds, and then shrugged, turning back to the long night’s work he had ahead of him. “Suit yourself, Madison.”
“Thanks. I will.”
“Idiot,” Cadie muttered. “What the hell was I thinking?” She watched Naomi warily as the senator’s temper tantrum blew over, and she finally came to rest, leaning against the countertop. I should have known better than to think I could get away with just coming down here and quietly cleaning my stuff out. I should have come down here with three attorneys, a bodyguard, Mom and Dad and an attack dog. And Jo for good measure. Goddamn it.
“I guess it’s pointless me asking what all that was about?” she said quietly, as Naomi sighed heavily and turned to face her.
“I wanted some breakfast, but there’s nothing here to eat,” the senator said grumpily.
Cadie folded her arms and leaned against the doorjamb. “You didn’t really think this through, did you, Naomi?” she asked. “I guess you figured that by now I’d be happily back in your life and you could leave it to me to figure out how to feed you.”
Naomi, for once, looked unhappy. Actually, she just looks hung-over, Cadie thought.
“You’re right, I didn’t really think about it,” the politician admitted, rather surprisingly. “I just thought that once I had you away from that … from Jo … then I could convince you to stay.” She paused, running a hand through her closely-cropped salt and pepper hair. “I didn’t really know what else to do, to be honest.”
Cadie looked at her suspiciously, not quite believing the senator’s vulnerable act hard on the heels of her temper tantrum.
“It’s true,” Naomi said, seeing the look of disbelief on Cadie’s face. “You just left me there at Sydney Airport, looking like an idiot in front of the press, and since then you’ve refused to talk to me. So what choice did I have?” She broke out what Cadie was sure was supposed to be a charming smile, but it felt nothing but chilling to the blonde. “All I want is a chance to show you that we can fix our relationship and that it’s worth trying.”
“Naomi, you have two goons out there stopping me from getting in my car to leave, you cut off the power to deliberately scare me, but somehow you expect me to believe that you didn’t really have a plan for this little confinement you’ve got going here.” Cadie snorted and pushed herself off the doorframe. Somewhere in here I know there’s got to be coffee, she decided. And God knows I need one. “What exactly do you think is going to happen now?”
Cadie opened up the one cupboard Naomi hadn’t ransacked and found the coffee.
“Let’s get real shall we?” She pulled down two mugs and began putting together beverages for herself and her ex-partner. “You’re acting like a criminal, Naomi, not someone who’s trying to win me over. Do you really think you’d get away with hurting me, or kidnapping me, or whatever it is you think is going to happen if I don’t agree to come back willingly?”
“I’m not going to do either of those things,” Naomi replied quietly.
“Then why do you need the reinforcements out in the driveway?” Cadie asked as she scooped teaspoonfuls of coffee into the cups. The sudden presence of Naomi close behind her made the hairs on the back of Cadie’s neck stand on end, but before she could move away, the senator had a strong arm wrapped around her waist.
“I just wanted some time alone with you, with no interruptions,” Naomi whispered, her breath hot and damp on the back of Cadie’s neck. “Is that so much to ask after 12 years of marriage? Don’t you think that history demands that we at least talk?”
“Let go of me,” Cadie answered hoarsely, her hands frozen, wrapped around the coffee mugs.
“Come on, Cadie, give me break here,” Naomi replied, not releasing Cadie for even a second. “Don’t you remember how good this used to be between us? I used to be able to do this …” She leaned forward and kissed the nape of Cadie’s neck. “And we’d spend hours in heaven, just enjoying each other.”
Cadie swallowed. She did indeed remember how it had been, but the shivers of revulsion radiating out from the spot Naomi had kissed told her that those days were long gone.
“I’m not that naïve young woman anymore, Naomi, and you’re certainly not the same woman I married 12 years ago.”
Naomi moved even closer. “Give us a chance. How can you just walk away without giving us a chance? Don’t you miss this?” She kissed the same spot again and Cadie found herself hard-pressed not to laugh outright.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. “You have a very selective memory, Naomi. Things have been less than ideal between us for a very long time. Including the sex. Don’t kid yourself that you can do anything to me sexually that could change my mind about leaving you.”
Cadie felt the mood change very quickly as Naomi tightened her grip around her waist. The sudden shift from sweet and vulnerable to pure menace was breathtaking and palpable. Damn, she’s all over the place. What the hell is coming next?
“Perhaps that Australian bitch has turned you on to some weird stuff,” Naomi growled, her mouth close to Cadie’s left ear. Her left hand began roaming down the outside of Cadie’s thigh. “Well, don’t you worry. I can match anything that whore did to you. I can make you feel better than she ever could.”
“Naomi, let go of me,” Cadie urged one more time. “Please. I don’t want to hurt you.”
The senator laughed harshly and pressed Cadie hard up against the edge of the counter. It was the last straw for the blonde. She grabbed the closest coffee mug and swung it back over her shoulder, slamming it into Naomi’s nose and forehead.
“Aaarghh!” Naomi reeled backwards, letting go of Cadie long enough to cover her face with her hands. “God damn you! Jesus!”
Cadie swung around and stepped out of arm’s reach of the politician. “I asked you to let go of me, Naomi,” she said grimly, watching a dribble of blood drip through her ex-partner’s fingers. “You lost the right to touch me like that a long time ago.”
“Fuck you,” Naomi snarled. “I lost the right as soon as you started creaming for that criminal.”
Cadie’s temper, already frayed by being manhandled, bubbled past its boiling point.
“No!” she shouted. “You lost that right a long time before that. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for months. You lost that right when you stopped treating me like a partner and started treating me like a secretary. You lost that right when you started abusing drugs and alcohol.”
With every word and increase in her anger, Cadie stepped forward until she was right up in Naomi’s face.
“You lost that right when you started screwing every bimbo that would bat her eyes at you. I’m nothing but a good-luck charm to you. Don’t you …” She jabbed Naomi in the chest with an angry finger. “… DARE … talk to me about the rights and wrongs of our god DAMNED relationship.”
Cadie was so focused on holding Naomi’s attention, she didn’t see the blow coming. The back of the senator’s hand caught her across the cheek, hard enough to leave a stinging red mark. Hard enough to send Cadie tumbling to the kitchen floor.
Naomi laughed coldly and shook out her hand as she watched Cadie pick herself up off the floor.
“You’re never going to convince me that Jo Madison isn’t the cause of all this trouble, Arcadia,” she said bluntly. “So why don’t you just stop making excuses for the fact that you just can’t control your slutty little disposition?”
Cadie pulled herself up using the kitchen counter. I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming, her stunned mind admonished. I can’t believe I’m still here, putting up with this shit. Well, no more. That’s it. Victim impersonation now over. She turned to face Naomi, who still smirked with self-satisfaction despite the blood oozing from the bridge of her nose.
Cadie walked towards the phone extension on the wall and picked up the receiver, quickly dialing 911.
“I should have done this a long time ago.”
Jo slid her carry-on bag into the overhead bin and closed the lid with a quiet click. She glanced around the business-class cabin at her fellow passengers. Not surprisingly, the 747 was packed to the rafters and she congratulated herself again for deciding to spend the extra money on an upgrade. Being packed into coach would not be my idea of fun right now.
She was in dire need of some sleep. After spending the rest of the night watching Vincent do his thing, Jo had cabbed it back to the hotel to pack, check out and undergo a quick change of clothes. The deadly vision in black had been replaced by a typical tourist, dressed in t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. Her hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail and Jo looked a long way from the intimidating presence she had been in Vincent’s dingy living room.
Jo eased her long frame into the seat, giving a polite nod to the man next to her. People were still boarding the plane, forming a long and somewhat disgruntled queue down the aisle as flight attendants moved around trying to get everyone seated. Jo was content to let the masses do their thing before she tried to get herself organized for the leg to Los Angeles.
You can always tell the ones who’ve never been on an international flight before, Jo mused, as she watched the faces of the boarding passengers. They always look so stunned to see the amount of room they have to live in for the next 14 hours. She stifled a grin and lifted her feet up onto the bulkhead in front of her. It was worth putting up with having the movie screen three feet away to get that little bit of extra leg room.
She let her head rest back and she closed her eyes, letting the last few hours catch up with her. She had money, false documents that had so far made getting on the plane a piece of cake, and tickets all the way through to Chicago. All she had to do now was survive Customs and Immigration in LA, avoid any law enforcement entanglements and she would soon be wherever Cadie was.
Hopefully in time to help, she thought as a yawn blocked out all other considerations. Hopefully …
Maybe I should have had Vincent make me up a fake US passport while he was at it, Jo thought ruefully as she watched the queue of American citizens moving steadily forward. Nah, I’d never get away with the accent.
The line she was in, packed with non-Americans, crawled forward another foot as it snaked through a series of roped-off twists and turns that led to three Customs and Immigration officers.
Half as many officers for twice as many non-citizens, she noted. Why does this not surprise me? Ahhh, the privileges of citizenship. She smiled wryly to herself as tensions continued to climb around her. Grumbling in three languages – what a waste of energy.
Jo preferred to keep herself quiet and self-contained, knowing that the biggest test of her false documents was about to start. In fact, has already started, she realized as she looked around, noting the extra Customs officers standing around the periphery of the crowd, just watching the passengers. And probably won’t stop till we’re out of the arrivals hall at least. Just stay cool, Madison.
Finally she found herself standing in front of a Customs officer, handing over her passport and smiling at the man’s weary greeting.
“G’day,” she said.
The man flicked through the pages of the passport until he found what he was looking for – the departure and visa waiver stamps that told him Jo was a legitimate visitor. Like I’d be standing here waiting for him to catch me if I didn’t have those things.
“What’s the purpose of your visit to the US, Miss, er, Markson?” the officer asked, flicking his eyes from her picture in the front of the little book up to her face.
Jo shrugged. “I’ve got friends in Chicago. M’just paying them a visit,” she answered casually. “Haven’t seen them in a couple of years.”
“How long will you be staying?”
“About three weeks – just under,” Jo replied.
He turned to his computer screen and studied it for several seconds before he typed in a few characters. He tucked Jo’s immigration cards back into the passport and handed them back to her.
“Thanks. Have a good day,” he said, his thoughts already turned towards the next person in the queue.
“Thanks. You too,” Jo murmured as she took the passport from him and picked her bag up. She moved out into the main corridor and turned right, following the signs to the baggage claim and yet another long line of people.
One down, seven thousand to go.