UNDER THE GUN

By Lori L. Lake

a/k/a Lorelei, Bard of the Lakes

lorelei-bard@juno.com -- www.LoriLLake.com

Part Two

THANKS: Scads of you have written to make helpful comments and thank me for finally posting this sequel. I appreciate that. It fuels me to keep on writing. Many of you have also made the assumption that I am a police officer. I’m not, though I do work in a prosecutor’s office (but not as an attorney). My information about police organizations has come from research, a ride-along, reading hundreds of novels, watching cop TV shows and movies, and utilizing the expertise of a phenomenal young cop, Officer Erin Linn. I am very grateful to Erin—and to every cop who puts his or her life on the line to serve and protect. This segment is dedicated to Erin, who has never hesitated to share detailed cop shop data with me.

REMINDER: This is a sequel. If you haven’t read the first book, GUN SHY, you might want to check it out.

Or you can purchase a copy of GUN SHY, published by Renaissance Alliance Publishing (Quest Division), at any bookstore or online bookseller. Also, I have another book just published, RICOCHET IN TIME, which has never been posted online. A good source for both books is at The Open Book:

http://www.openbookltd.com/search.shtml?srch_str_author=lori+l+lake&srch_str_title=&srch_str_category=0&srch_str_isbn=&srch_str_allfields=&sortby=2&srch_start=Start+Search

REITERATED DISCLAIMERS:

The characters and the plot are original and mine. Please give me advice, feedback, and criticism. If something doesn’t square up for you, go ahead and let me know. I won’t bite. At least not very hard. This sequel is still about cops. It contains scenes of violence and/or their aftermath as well as one or two swear words here and there. The story depicts a love/sexual relationship between consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state/country where you live, either be very sneaky about reading this or else don’t. I’m not your mother. Do what you want. J

 

UNDER THE GUN

Part Two

Dez parked her truck and headed into the station. All was quiet, which was out of the ordinary. Usually there were officers strolling the hall or hanging around outside smoking. She checked her watch to see that she was earlier than her normal arrival time and decided that explained it. She’d have plenty of time to dress leisurely, maybe even organize her locker.

She sauntered down the hall, past the communication center, past the watch commander’s office, and to the stairs that led down to the briefing room, also called the roll call room. Past it lay stairs down to the department gym, outfitted with fairly new weight equipment that Dez and Jaylynn regularly used. Beyond the first set of stairs lay another smaller flight of steps that led down to the men’s and women’s locker rooms which were also connected to the gym.

The tall cop shouldered her way through the swinging door and into the locker room. She opened her locker and set to work sorting and sifting through her gear. She took advantage of the unused benches all around her and laid out her weapons, three sets of cuffs, an older vest and the new one she wore regularly, two flashlights, two half-filled boxes of bullets, a pack of batteries, two ASR’s—aerosol subject restraint cans—also known as "mace," and various other odds and ends. On the top shelf in the back she found a red hand gripper and pulled it out, looking at it with no fondness. Fourteen months earlier she had been hit on the arm by a rapist wielding a baseball bat. He broke the radius bone in her left forearm and she’d worn a cast for several weeks. She gave the gripper a few squeezes, happy to see that her hand felt strong as ever. In fact, she had forgotten all about the grip exercises she had done every day for the first months after the cast came off.

She tossed the gripper into a bag with a few other items she was planning to take home, then arranged things on the two shelves, rehung her clothes, and dumped bullets from one box into another, and disposed of the extra cardboard container. Once she felt her gear was properly organized, she undressed and donned her police uniform, carefully hanging her street clothes in the locker.

Buttoning her light blue shirt, she looked up over the big blue lockers and around the large gray room, surprised that Jaylynn hadn’t yet arrived. When she left the house on Como Boulevard earlier, Sara and Jay had been finishing up dishes, and the rookie had said she’d be right behind her. Ha. Jaylynn is never early. She looked at her watch to see that it was a good thirty-five minutes until roll call. She gave the blonde another twenty minutes.

They had been coming in to work in separate vehicles, she in her Ford truck and the rookie in her little gray Camry. Without any conversation about it at all, they had just adapted to that practice. There was an unspoken understanding that they should downplay their personal relationship at work. No need for others to find out and make a big deal about it.

She heard a sound and stopped for a moment to listen, then realized it was only the pipes in the bathroom. The locker room was large and square with a main aisle running down the middle from the entrance to the far wall. The bathroom was back near the entrance door. On either side of the aisle were four sets of over-sized royal blue lockers, the only color in the otherwise gunmetal gray room. Rickety backless wooden benches, embedded into the concrete, sat in front of the lockers. From what Dez remembered, her high school locker room was better appointed than this tacky room, which was brightened by multiple rows of dazzling fluorescent lights. Every time she entered she had the desire to put on her sunglasses. Since the lockers were located in the lower, basement level, there were no windows whatsoever, so apparently they thought they would make up for it by blinding everyone.

Dez smacked her locker door shut and sat on the wooden bench to check and adjust everything on her duty belt. Nothing was fitting right—not either of her belts, her pants, her shirt, and most of all, not her TriFlex protective vest. She unbuttoned her shirt and ripped at the Velcro straps of the vest until she got them where she wanted them. She had lost twenty-six pounds over the last summer in order to compete in a bodybuilding show in August, and it seemed that in the weeks since then, she had put most of that weight back on—and more. Of course, who wouldn’t while hanging around a whole household of junk food junkies? French toast and syrup for breakfast, hot hoagie sandwiches before noon, pizza with the crew there at the house at 1:30. She patted her stomach. I’m stuffed! I shouldn’t eat another mouthful of anything for the whole shift.

She got her gun and holster situated comfortably on her dominant, right, side, then made sure the pouch for the ASR can was exactly where she could get to it, behind her gun, but not too close. There were "keepers" in between which held both her belts together and served as spacers between pouches. Her trouser belt went through her pants belt loops, so the duty belt required keepers to space her equipment so it wouldn’t slide around or shift as she moved. She wanted her gun, cuffs, baton, and ASR within easy reach close to her sides. The latex glove pouch, flashlight, radio holder, and double magazine holder were also necessary, and she had them spaced around the belt on the back and on her weak side.

She buttoned her cuffs and snapped the lock on her locker, then headed upstairs to put in a call to Investigations. She wanted information about the homicides from the night before. She had a hunch that it was a case both she and Jaylynn would be following.

She strode down the long hall, by the main entrance, and past the Lieutenant’s office. The duty sergeant looked up. "Hey, Reilly," he called out after her.

She stopped abruptly and turned around. "Hi, Belton."

"Busy night last night."

She nodded.

Belton straightened some papers on his desk. "Who caught the Tivoli murders from last Saturday night?"

"Your personal favorites, Tsorro and Parkins."

Belton rolled his eyes and sighed, then grinned up at her, his teeth sparkling in his thin, dark face. "You’d think those two would have retired by now. They’ve been here longer than me—and I’m a fixture."

She smiled.

Dinosaurs. Tsorro and Parkins were two of the oldest, most sexist, and least innovative investigators she had ever met. They knew their stuff, and they closed a lot of cases, but they had also been on duty the night Ryan had died. Just remembering them—and that night—made her shudder. Had they always been such a pain to talk to? Or was it just since her partner’s death? She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that she didn’t relish the thought of spending any time with them at all. Belton, on the other hand, she had always liked. He’d worked the desk for as long as she could remember, and he could be counted on to use good judgment about the parade of cops who passed him by each day

"You can stay as long as you like, Belton." She started to turn away.

"Reilly, wait. Lieutenant wants to see you."

She paused. "Oh? Why?"

Belton grinned again and Dez thought he looked positively mischievous. "He knows how much you enjoy special assignments."

She gazed at him, steel in her blue eyes. "I hate special assignments."

"You know that. And I know that. You’ll have to work harder to let him know that." He squelched a laugh, his sable forehead gleaming in the fluorescent light. "You can go on in now. He’s expecting you."

She stepped around Belton’s desk and tapped on the frame of the door, which was ajar, then pushed it open and poked her head in. Lt. Malcolm looked up. "Hey, Reilly. Come in and have a seat. No need to shut the door."

The Lieutenant, a balding Scandinavian in his mid-forties, set aside the papers on his desk. His cuffs were rolled up to mid forearm. He rolled each of them up another turn, then turned his gray eyes on the glowering woman.

With a sigh, she sat in the ancient solid wood visitor’s chair, shifting twice and banging her right elbow on the clunky armrest.

"I think you know this already, but you’re doing a great job with the rookies, and especially Savage. She is shaping up to be a fine officer. I reviewed her documentation from last night’s homicides and everything is in order."

"Yes, sir."

"I’ve got an assignment for you and Savage. Como Middle School is running their DARE program—Drug Awareness Resistance Education."

She knew what the acronym stood for, and she already didn’t like the sound of it.

"In the course of providing DARE services, the assigned officers, Hartwick and Sorenson, have learned that there is no self-defense course being taught for the girls at the school. Apparently, the school is not fully staffed, and the teachers for the Phys Ed program are filling in from other disciplines." He leaned back in his tattered leather chair and pulled at his mustache. "I know it’s short notice, but I want you and Savage to spend a little time over there—maybe an hour or two twice a week—teaching self-defense until after the Thanksgiving holiday."

"When?"

"Starting next Tuesday, the 23rd. Will you do it?"

"Of course, sir."

He smiled and leaned back in his chair. "Did I mention how pleased I am with the work you are doing—both as an FTO and as an officer on the street? I put a request in for a commendation for you, Reilly, for all the extra work you have done over the last year. Keep up the good work. And by the way, you might want to think seriously about taking the sergeant’s exam. It’s coming up, you know. I’d be happy to give you pointers and steer you toward what you need to study.

She nodded. "Thank you, sir."

"Now back to the self-defense issues. It would work best if you could cycle through the sixth and seventh grades and be done sometime after Thanksgiving and well before Christmas. I’ll leave it up to you to design a course in concert with the school administrator. You can file a report later with me so that I know what you designed. Maybe we can use it to assist other schools in the future. And I think you should do this in the early afternoon, then join the shift on time. Your shift sergeant will make sure to adjust your hours or give you O.T. pay, all right?"

"Yes, sir. Is that all?"

He smiled at her, his face lighting up. It occurred to her that she should probably discuss the situation with Jaylynn—but after a split second of thought, she rose instead. "How soon do you want that report, Lieutenant?"

"Just give me verbal prelim info by the end of next week, okay? You and Savage can write up the rest later, once you have a plan in place. Might take you a while to settle into something that works, so just get it to me in the next few weeks. Have a good—and safe—shift, Reilly."

She thanked him and left his office, allowing herself to fume once she reached the hallway. Sixth graders! What?—twelve-year-olds? A bunch of rude brats to deal with. She took a deep breath. She’d let Jaylynn handle that. She had a hunch the rookie would have some good ideas for this new project.

She looked at her watch, debating whether to call over to the main station. She now had only twelve minutes until roll call. She headed down to the locker room to get water, then back to the briefing room, still seething.

*****

Jaylynn rushed into the precinct, by the communication center, past the watch commander’s office, and to the stairs. She clattered down the flight of steps that led to the men’s and women’s locker rooms and hustled into the gray room, keeping her eye open for Dez. The tall woman was nowhere to be found, so she quickly changed, checking her watch to see that she had seven minutes until roll call.

When she entered the briefing room, she found a surly looking Dez sitting toward the back, a bottle of water gripped in her right fist. The rest of the personnel for the two sectors milled around, half of them seated, the others standing, and the main topic seemed to be the previous night’s murders. She stopped and listened for a minute, but when they began discussing the crime scene, she shuddered and squeezed her way past a heavy-set officer to settle into a chair next to Dez. She looked over at her partner to see the closed face and restless eyes. "Hey. What’s up?" she said softly.

"I’ll tell ya after roll call," the big cop said, her voice low.

Just then the sergeant called everyone to order and for the next ten minutes, Jaylynn listened closely, all the while aware that Dez was out-of-sorts about something. The rookie was constantly curious about the mercurial cop. One minute they were laughing and relaxed; the next, Dez had retreated behind tall walls. Jaylynn had already gotten to the point where she realized that nothing she said or did had much to do with her moody partner’s reactions to things, and the only thing she could do was wait to see what was going on behind those steely blue eyes.

Walking out to the squad car, Jaylynn waited patiently, watching the six-foot tall cop out of the corner of her eye. It wasn’t until she was in the cruiser, belted in, and backing the vehicle out that her passenger spoke up. "The lieutenant is assigning us additional duties."

"Oh?" She fell in line behind another departing squad car and turned out onto Dale Street.

"We have to go teach self-defense at Como Middle School."

"Really? That’s great! When?"

"Geez! I shoulda known you would think it was a good idea."

The big cop sounded so petulant that Jaylynn laughed out loud. "Of course. It will be fun. We get to teach kids, and that’ll be great. Boys and girls?"

"I think just girls. Head downtown."

Jaylynn frowned and glanced over, puzzlement on her face, but she turned the car and headed down a side street back toward University Avenue. "Where downtown?"

"Main station. We need to drop by and see Tsorro and Parkins, the two homicide cops for the Tivoli killings."

Jaylynn nodded. This would be her first opportunity to talk with detectives about a homicide she knew something about. Though she was sorry for the victims, she looked forward to the chance to learn more about investigating this kind of case. It was important to her that the killer—or killers—be brought to justice. She could still see the small heap that was once a young girl, and it made her skin crawl.

When they arrived at the main station house, the Second Watch officers were straggling out after the end of their shift. Third Watch was well under way, but there were plenty of cops hanging out in the squad room and near the commanders’ offices. When they turned the corner, a six-and-a-half-foot tall male officer suddenly loomed up in front of them. He leaned against the wall in the hallway near the break room. Still dressed in his work uniform, his shirt was unbuttoned partly, revealing a bleached white t-shirt underneath. The white-blond hair on his head was ultra-short, and practically standing on end as though he had been running his hands through it. He held a pair of gold colored wire-rimmed glasses in his left hand and rubbed his eyes with his right, which explained why Jaylynn could take him by surprise. In two quick steps she was at his side, poking him in the middle and startling him. "Cowboy!"

"You little runt!" The big man put his glasses on in haste, then reached out and picked her up by the scruff of her jacket and let her dangle.

"You big oaf," the rookie said, but she was laughing too hard to make it sound serious.

He set her down and gave her a pat on the head, which caused her to aim a small fist at his mid-section.

Dez crossed her arms and stood off to the side. "Cowboy, we haven’t got all day."

He grinned at the dark-haired woman and swaggered over to her, his stride a little bit bow-legged. "And hello to you, too, Ms. Desiree Reilly." He grabbed her around the middle and squeezed, picking her up off her feet.

"Hey! Save that physical stuff for Jaylynn."

He eased up and set her back on the tiled floor, but he still kept his arms around her. He was one of the few people on the planet who Dez would allow into her personal space, and one of even fewer from whom she would accept a bear hug like that. Her previous partner, Ryan Michaelson, and Cowboy had been best friends. When Ryan was shot and killed in the line of duty, it cemented an already strong bond between the tall blond man and dark-haired woman, and for the rest of her days, she would consider him more than her brother in blue. He was a friend for life.

"You don’t want to be picked up," he teased, "because you don’t want anyone to know how much weight you’ve packed on."

"Ha. Look at yourself, ape man."

They had both gained weight after competing in the bodybuilding competition in August. Cowboy made an excellent Pairs partner, and they walked off with the first place trophy as well as individual trophies for their weight classes. They agreed that the dieting to cut weight was ridiculously painful, and since then, they both vowed never to compete in bodybuilding again.

Jaylynn cleared her throat and made a show of looking at her watch. "I don’t mean to break up this little love fest, but we’ve got work to do."

Blushing, Dez pushed Cowboy away.

He laughed and put his fists up. "Let’s see your dukes, Dez, honey. Let’s see if I can still whip your butt."

"Yeah, right, Cowboy. Doesn’t hitting women go against your Wild West code of honor?"

"For you, I’d make an exception." Smiling, he dropped his hands to his sides, and Jaylynn thought he was one of the most handsome men she had ever seen. His broad shoulders, the lean hips, the white teeth and sparkling blue eyes . . . reminded her of someone she knew. She gazed up at Dez, then turned back to Cowboy.

"Hey, Culpepper. Big party at my house for Sara’s fiance’s return from the Army."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. Come over Saturday night, okay? Should be a lot of fun. Luella’s coming, and we’ll be there. Drop by any time after seven."

"That’d be fun—but I’m on duty."

"If you can get away—even for a while—stop by."

"Okay. I might just do that."

They stood smiling at one another until Dez interrupted. "Let’s go, Jay." She turned to the big blond man. "See ya around, Cowboy."

He nodded. "Yup. Take it easy, Dez."

 

*****

As Dez had expected, Tsorro and Parkins had been a real education for Jaylynn. At first, they had discussed the Tivoli crime scene dispassionately, as though each victim were nameless, faceless, just numbers—numbers 16 and 17, to be exact. She could tell Jaylynn was struggling not to take the two men to task, and with a pointed look, the dark-haired cop shut down the younger woman’s impulse to mouth off to them.

Tsorro didn’t look like a cop at all. He resembled a cross between the singer Tom Jones and any conventional movie star hit man. With his wavy black hair greased back and gold rings and necklaces in abundance, he could also have been a cheap lounge act in Las Vegas. His black oxfords were well-shined, and his gray suit pressed, but he was tie-less with his top two shirt buttons open and revealing tufts of thick black chest hair tangled up in gold chains. He and Parkins were near the same height—about five-foot-nine. Tsorro had an irritating way of clicking his tongue against his teeth while shifting his shoulders around in his jacket, then reaching down to shoot his cuffs. Later, she knew Jaylynn would be surprised to hear that Tsorro was a year short of 60. He didn’t appear to even be 50 yet.

Parkins didn’t look like a cop either. He reminded Dez of the driver on her junior high bus route. Beefy and balding, he’d obviously eaten his share of doughnuts in his street cop days. Despite the fact that he wore well-pressed suits similar to his partner’s, they never appeared to fit him quite right, and every move he made served only to make him more uncomfortable. His eyes were as pale as Tsorro’s were dark, his skin almost as white as Dez’s. He looked like the average cranky middle-aged man, so much so that if it weren’t for the extra bulge under his left arm, most people wouldn’t peg him for a cop. Unlike Tsorro, he could blend into a crowd with little difficulty. In high schools, kids thought he was a visiting administrator. At athletic events, he looked like an unhappy, pot-bellied fan. Out on the street he was perceived to be a struggling businessman having a very bad day.

They were long ago dubbed Zorro and Tonto, but Tsorro was no Lone Ranger. In actuality, it was Parkins who had the smarts and was the eyes and ears of the partnership. While Tsorro yukked it up, threatened, or strong-armed witnesses and suspects, Parkins watched and made the observations that often cracked cases. During their long careers, they’d both worked with other partners, but over the last decade, it had been together that they had had the most success, despite the fact that both of them were sexist, homophobic, and almost completely computer illiterate. It bothered Dez more that the brass didn’t require them to take some computer courses so they could do better investigative work than it did that she was just as likely to be referred to as "that young thing" or "the little lady." Never mind that she stood four inches taller than either of them in her duty boots and could probably crush them barehanded.

They seemed like throwbacks to an earlier time, a time when all cops were male, belonging to a "brotherhood" truly made up of only of men. In this modern day and age, they had adjusted to many aspects of the new world of police work, but Zorro and Tonto were also allowed to operate as though they existed in a time warp back to the Fifties. While their cool and disconnected attitude toward the victims always bothered her, their dedication to catching killers made up for it, and for that she respected them.

When Tsorro learned that the Tivoli case was the first homicide Jaylynn was involved with, he patiently explained to her the steps they were taking to conduct witness interviews. He had his arm around her, called her "Honey Bun" and an Italian endearment, and spoke as though she were a teenager on a career day visit to the station. Dez couldn’t hear most of what was being said, but she had to bite back a smile because she could see the color flaming in her partner’s face. She had a pretty good idea what the topic of conversation would be once they returned to their cruiser.

Parkins leafed through a folder of autopsy photos. "Reilly, this one’s pretty ugly. That little girl, according to the medical examiner’s prelim report, wasn’t but a slip of a thing—maybe fourteen. Also PG."

Across the room, Jaylynn turned away from the fawning Tsorro to listen. "Pregnant?"

Parkins nodded. "Seems pretty sick to me. We know Tivoli was thirty-six. He’s an old greaser ex-con, and there he is sticking it to a tiny little white girl not even out of junior high."

Jaylynn and the lounge lizard moved the few steps to close the gap between the four of them. The blonde was obviously biting her tongue, and Dez found herself feeling a little sorry for the rookie.

Tsorro said, "Too bad he’s dead. Would’ve liked to nail the malfattore for statutory rape." He rolled his shoulders and shot his cuffs, then reached up with his right hand to finger the gold chains around his neck.

Jaylynn’s face was returning from hot pink to its normal peachy color. "Any indication of who did this? Gang-related? Drugs? Robbery motive?"

Both detectives shook their heads. Parkins leaned back against the desk, his hefty behind crinkling the sheaf of loose papers spread all over it. "No money missing—not from the till and not from the victim’s pockets. Well, the little girl didn’t have any I.D. and no money other than change. Still, I don’t think she was robbed. We’ll get some more info from the M.E. once he gets the tox screens back. It’ll be a few days before we get the complete autopsy report. But we do know for a fact that the tests show neither of the victims had shot a gun lately, so it’s not like he killed the girl or vice versa."

Tsorro said, "We don’t have a clue yet why someone would murder the two of them—unless it was some sort of thrill kill. We’ve been getting a few of those here in the Twin Cities lately."

Dez nodded. "Maybe when you I.D. the girl?"

"We’re on that," Parkins said. He looked at his watch. "We’ve got some canvassing to do. There’s a good 180 witnesses to interview—that we know of—so far. Got several dozen car license numbers to track. Thanks for getting on that so quickly last night." He nodded to both of them, then sighed. "It’s gonna be a shitload of work." He stood up from the desk, causing two pieces of paper to flutter to the ground. He ignored them. "Come by or call anytime you like. Savage, I remember my first murder case. Learned a lot from it. You will, too."

Tsorro nodded and smiled, his white dentures gleaming in the fluorescent light. "See you lovely ladies another time." Both men headed over to the coat rack and grabbed London Fog overcoats. Dez and Jaylynn exited the room and headed out to their squad car.

Jaylynn waited until the car doors were closed before exclaiming, "Dinosaurs! That Tsorro is worse than a dinosaur—he’s pond scum!"

Dez laughed out loud as she put on her seatbelt. "My sentiments exactly."

"Where does he get off?" She started the car, put it in gear, and peeled out of the parking lot. "Reminded me of cops back in the days of Peter Gunn or Perry Mason. Why, they’re practically caricatures of cops, Dez!"

"They do close a lot of cases."

"I’d positively hate dealing with them if I were a witness or a victim of a crime."

"Yeah. Well, they’re not so bad, but let’s hope you never have to. If you want to stay abreast of their investigation, you’re gonna have to put up with them."

Jaylynn just shook her head and drove on in silence.

 

*****

At one p.m. the following Tuesday, Dez and Jaylynn showed up at Como Middle School, reported to the office, and were escorted to the gym by a talkative young receptionist who didn’t look old enough to have even graduated from high school. They had left their duty belts locked in the car along with their weapons. She wondered how long it would take for the kids to ask her where their guns were. Usually those were every child’s first questions: "Can I see your gun?" and "Hey, how many people have you shot?"

Dez didn’t listen to the young receptionist’s chatter as they passed down narrow hallways lined with scratched and dented lockers. The school was old—maybe built in the Sixties—and it had definitely seen better days. It smelled just like all schools seemed to smell...like chalk and erasers, paint and dust. Lots of dust. Her nose twitched and she was reminded of her allergies.

They entered the gym, a large and drafty cavern with a discolored wood floor. The ceiling was high with metal rafters criss-crossing it. Dez revised her estimate and guessed the school to have been built in the Fifties. Rickety wooden bleachers that could probably seat five hundred sat on either side of the basketball court. Set up in the middle of the floor were four gigantic blue wrestling mats in a large square with about sixty girls sitting cross-legged all around the perimeter.

A man in navy blue Adidas sweatpants stood in the middle of them. His tennis shoes were brand new and shiny white, but his blue sweats and plain tan t-shirt were old and worn.

The office receptionist made a final comment to Jaylynn, then turned and departed, leaving the two of them facing the man under the scrutiny of five dozen seventh graders.

"Good morning, Officers. I’m Paul Hawley. Health and Phys Ed teacher." He moved across the mat, stepped between two girls, and walked toward them. Jaylynn shifted a manila envelope from her right to left hand as he reached out to shake each of their hands. "I also coach girls’ softball. It’s great to have you. The girls have been looking forward to it."

He took his whistle and lanyard from around his neck and handed it to Dez.

The blonde asked, "So what’s your plan, Coach Hawley?"

"They’re all yours. See those double doors?" He pointed to the end of the gym. "I’m going to leave them open, and my office is just inside, first door on the right. I’m leaving ’em open just in case you need me." He gave the young girls a knowing look. "Listen to what the officers have to say, or there’ll be laps for anyone who causes trouble." He turned back to them with a bright smile. "You’ve got..." he glanced at his watch. "...43 minutes, then I’ll be back."

He turned and trotted toward the double doors and propped them open, then disappeared.

The two women looked at one another, trying to disguise their surprise. Dez handed the lanyard to Jaylynn who put it around her neck, then blew one short report, which was probably unnecessary since all the girls were staring at them, waiting patiently. The rookie unbuttoned her breast pocket and pulled out a pack of blank stickers. "Listen up, kids, my name is Jaylynn Savage, and this is Dez Reilly. You can call us Dez and Jaylynn. There’s a lot of you and only two of us, so everybody take a nametag and put your first name on it." She took six thick felt markers out of her jacket pocket and handed them around. "Hustle up, girls. You’ve got sixty seconds to get all set with the name tag on your shirt."

The two officers slipped out of their jackets and laid them on the bleachers to the side of the gym along with Jaylynn’s manila folder, then began walking around the ring of seated girls. Dez crossed her arms as she took stock of the group: 58 girls of all shapes and sizes. They wore various colored shorts and athletic shoes, but each wore the same type of plain white t-shirt. About a quarter were Asian, a quarter Black, maybe six were Hispanic, and the rest white, which pretty much reflected the makeup of the Como neighborhood. All of them were eyeing her, openly curious.

Jaylynn waited until they got their name stickers on, then clapped her hands together and walked into the center of the mats. "All right everyone, on your feet. Everybody off the mats and on the gym floor in a big ring." The girls rose and backed up into a large circle. "Let’s do a little running in place, get some blood flowing."

Some of the girls rolled their eyes, but they all went through the motions of jogging in place with Jaylynn hollering encouragement. After a minute she blew her whistle. "All right, good." She glanced around the circle and pointed at two girls. "You, Ramona, and you, Tess, come stand by me. The rest of you sit back down at the edge of the mats. Do a little stretching of your arms and legs while you’re down there watching."

She gestured to the two girls left standing. Ramona, a tall, thin white girl with glasses, looked scared. In contrast, Tess was a compact Asian kid who looked a lot more confident.

"Come here, both of you, and face one another. Either one of you ever been pushed or hit before?"

Both girls nodded.

"What did you do?"

The girls looked at each other. Ramona said, "I ran away."

"Me too," Tess said. "Except when it was my brother. Him, I pushed back."

Jaylynn smiled. "Good answer." She looked around at the group on the floor. "One of the first rules of self-defense is to run away any time you can—that, and make a lot of noise—but we’ll get to that shortly. "Now what should you do if you can’t run away?"

A voice from the crowd piped up, "I thought that was why you guys are here—to teach us."

Jaylynn nodded. "That’s right. So let’s talk about balance first." She turned to the taller girl. "Ramona, shove Tess—not a killer shove, but just a solid shove, right here at the chest." She gestured at her own chest, right below her collarbones.

Tentatively Ramona reached out with one hand and gave the smaller girl a timid push. Tess didn’t even have to step back.

"No, a little more—wait." She beckoned toward the dark-haired woman. "Dez, come over and push me to show them what I mean."

The tall cop stepped over the girls sitting around the mat and strode up to Jaylynn. Without stopping, she reached out with two hands and gave the blonde a firm shove, causing Jaylynn to step back but not to lose her balance.

Jaylynn turned toward her volunteers. "See what I mean, Ramona?"

The girl nodded. She gave Tess a hard push that thrust the littler girl backwards and onto the mat. Tess popped back up, her face red. "I wasn’t ready for that!" she protested.

Jaylynn nodded. "That’s right. Being ready is really important." She looked up at Dez. "Push me again, Dez." The big cop complied. "See how she can push me pretty hard, but it doesn’t knock me over? That’s because I’m balanced for the impact."

She showed the two girls how to take a wider stance, bending their knees slightly. The next time Ramona shoved the Asian girl, Tess didn’t fall.

"Good," Jaylynn said. "Now Tess, you push her—Ramona! If you stand there like that…"

Tess’s shove knocked Ramona flat on her butt, and the girls around the circle laughed.

"See," the blonde said, "if you’re just standing there, unprepared, your attacker will always get the advantage over you. Try that again. One foot slightly in front, a wider stance...yes, that’s it, Ramona." The tall girl stumbled a little bit when Tess smacked her on the chest, but she stayed on her feet, recovering well.

"Just standing around, knees locked, is a weak position. Balanced, with knees slightly bent is a much better stance to come from." She gestured at the two girls. "I’ve embarrassed you two enough, you can sit down. You, Elizabeth—and how about you, Lakeisha, come on up."

Two girls, evenly matched for size, stood. Lakeisha was a solid-looking Black girl with lots of corn-rows in her hair. Elizabeth was long-legged and pale skinned with her blonde hair tied back in a pony-tail. They grinned at one another, sheepish and awkward.

"Dez, show them a grab."

The dark-haired woman reached out a hand and grabbed at Jaylynn’s left arm. The smaller cop twisted her arm and pulled away without difficulty.

"With a ready stance, you will be able to withstand a push and the same thing goes for a grab. If I am just standing here, knees locked, see how easy it is for someone bigger than me to get control of me?"

Dez reached out again, and this time when she grabbed Jaylynn’s left arm, the smaller woman was jerked off balance. The tall cop grinned and for a brief moment her partner gave her a dirty look. Dez suppressed the grin and assumed her mask of indifference.

Jaylynn looked back at the girls sitting around the circle. "Balance is everything. If you lose your balance and end up on the ground, you can’t run. You can’t hit back. You’re at a big disadvantage. Okay, show us, Elizabeth. Go ahead and grab Lakeisha’s arm."

The girls went through the drill, both of them assuming strong stances.

"Don’t worry about the actual releases from holds. We’ll get to them later. For now, all we’re going to concentrate on is making sure you get used to adopting a powerful stance whether you are being pushed or pulled. All of you, on your feet. Pair off, and I want you to each practice some controlled pushing and grabbing."

Dez and Jaylynn moved through the pairs of girls, giving encouragement and making sure the shoving didn’t get too out of hand.

After a few minutes, Jaylynn blew a short blast on the whistle. "Okay, you’ve been taken by surprise, you assumed a strong stance to deal with a push or grab. What do you do next?"

In an unsure voice, Tess said, "Run?"

Jaylynn inclined her head slightly. "Yes, if you can, you are going to run, but along with your stance, there’s another piece we want you to do." She looked around at all the expectant faces. "You want to shout out. Everyone take a deep breath." She put her fists at her abdomen. "Now, shout out ‘No!’"

Half the group bellowed loudly, while the other half let out shy peeps.

"Girls, you can all do better than that. Someone has just entered your space, invaded your safety zone. You’ve been grabbed or pushed, and you’re on alert now. As you go on alert, I want your automatic response to be to let your attacker know, very clearly, that you’re setting a boundary. Most of you would rather die than make a scene, but that’s what might scare off an attacker or bring help to you. You want the attacker to know that you won’t stand for being manhandled."

She waved Dez toward her, and the tall cop advanced, a wicked grin on her face. The big cop grabbed the front of the smaller woman’s shirt and moved her backwards. Jaylynn went into her power stance, shrugged the big hands off, and almost simultaneously shouted, "No!" with her voice coming out in a loud bark.

"It needs to come from your diaphragm, girls. Everybody face me and feel your abdomens.... Okay, all together now, say ‘No!’" The sound rang out in the gym, much louder than before. She looked around at the students. "That’s better. Now couldn’t you feel the tenseness in your middle when you shouted?" Most of the girls nodded. "Good, very good. Now then, let’s pair up again and practice your stance and the shout."

Jaylynn was happy to see that all the girls took the drill seriously. Some of them were shy and needed coaxing and coaching, but all of them seemed to be trying. After a couple minutes she blew her whistle again. "Okay, everybody back to the mats, and go ahead and sit back down." While surveying her audience, she pointed at Dez who stood next to her, touching her on the shoulder. "Now what do we do if we get grabbed and we can’t run?"

Someone in the audience said, "Deck ’em!"

Jaylynn turned toward the speaker. "But what if the person is way bigger and way stronger?"

A well-muscled, brown-haired girl said, "Sock ’em in the stomach, knock the wind out of them, and then run."

"Oh, I see," Jaylynn nodded as though this made total sense. She turned to Dez with an impish look on her face. "Go ahead, Dez." Under her breath she said, "And be ready."

Dez grabbed at her partner, catching hold of her forearm and jerking her forward. Jaylynn wound up and slammed a fist into the dark-haired woman’s middle. Nothing happened, except a quiet grunt from the taller cop. With both hands, Dez yanked the smaller woman toward her and lifted her off the ground onto her right shoulder. Jaylynn let her body go slack, and Dez set her down.

The brown-haired girl frowned. "You pulled the punch," she said in a scornful voice.

Jaylynn, still catching her breath, shook her head. "Oh, no. I didn’t. Stand up, uh, Amber."

The brown-haired girl stood, unconvinced by the blonde’s comments. She stood half a head taller than Jaylynn, but a good four inches shorter than Dez.

Jaylynn waved her over and gestured toward her partner. "Go ahead. Punch away."

Dez scrutinized the advancing brown-haired girl. With broad shoulders and lean muscles, she looked like an athlete, maybe a budding basketball player. The girl met her eyes, almost as if she was asking permission. Dez stood up tall and pointed at her own mid-section with both her index fingers. "Fire away."

Amber pounced forward and delivered a powerful blow. Her fist made contact with the tall woman’s abdomen and bounced back. The girl looked at her hand, surprised. She was even more surprised when her arm was grabbed, twisted behind her back, and she found herself face down on the mat with a solid knee in her back. Almost as quickly as she hit the floor, she was released, and by the time she rolled over and got to her feet, she was looking up at the dark-haired policewoman with respect.

Jaylynn said, "Self-defense is just that: defense. We’re not going to focus on you attacking your assailant. We want to teach you how to defend yourself and get away with the least amount of harm done to you as possible. There’s a lot to learn, but with practice, you can all learn ways to protect yourself." She glanced at her watch. "We’re running out of time for today, but we’ll be back twice a week to work on self-defense skills. We’ll teach you how to get away if somebody grabs you. We’ll teach you what to do if someone does strike you. You’re all going to learn where to hit an attacker to disable him so you can get away. You’ll all get to practice a lot." She stepped off the blue mat and strode over to the bleachers and picked up the manila envelope. "Next time, Dez and I are going to talk about the common characteristics and behavior of attackers and ways to be aware of possible bad situations before they happen." She pulled out a sheaf of papers, split it into two bunches, and sent one stack to the right and one to the left of the circle. "Everybody take this information and read it. Come back on Thursday prepared to talk about it with us. It’s not boring. It could save your life." She looked around the group. "Any questions?"

Tess spoke up. "Why can’t we do this every day?"

Jaylynn smiled. "Twice a week until a couple weeks before Christmas. Dez and I have a job to do, too, you know."

Another girl named Yolanda spoke up. "Have either of you ever shot anybody?"

Dez shook her head. "We’re here to teach you self-defense, kids, not talk about that sort of thing."

"That’s right," Jaylynn said. "Okay, off to the locker room you go. We’ll let Mr. Hawley know how you all did. See you Thursday."

*****

Dez awakened. The light shining in Jaylynn’s bedroom was bright and she shut her eyes against the burning under her eyelids. With one arm she patted next to her. No Jaylynn. Now that was unusual. The blonde didn’t usually wake up before her. She rolled to the outside of the bed and snagged her watch off the nightstand. 10:14. Unbelievable. She had slept over seven hours.

She rose and showered, and when she emerged from the bathroom, she smelled something good, like cinnamon, which made her stomach grumble and growl. The tall woman dressed quickly in jeans, tennis shoes, and a blue and white flannel shirt, then headed downstairs.

She moved through the living room, and strode toward the kitchen, slowing when she heard Sara’s voice.

"Oh yeah. Right there! Right there! Yes, yes! You’ve got it now."

Jaylynn murmured something Dez couldn’t quite hear, then said, "Hold real still…good…good…this is great!"

Dez frowned. She slowly pushed open the swinging door to the kitchen and surveyed the scene before her. "What in the hell are you two doing?"

Jaylynn straightened up abruptly and turned to face her. Dressed in jeans, tennies, and a sweatshirt, she brandished a long skinny knife. Sara sat next to the kitchen table in one of the rickety chairs, one forearm on the table, holding a metal bar out in both fists.

With a big grin, the blonde moved next to Dez and put an arm around her waist and pressed her face into the tall woman’s chest. She pulled away a little, and with her other hand, held up a black-handled knife. "This is so cool. Sara ordered this knife from the Home Shopping Network. It’s supposed to cut through anything, even metal."

Sara held out the metal dowel. "Look! It’s working. We’ve got it going."

Dez nodded, holding back a laugh. "I see." She pressed her lips together to keep the smile back and gave Jaylynn a one-armed hug. "So you two are down here sawing metal rods in half instead of getting things ready for Bill’s party?"

Jaylynn gazed up at her. "Why do I get the distinct feeling that you’re not impressed with our handiwork with the Aikuchi All-Purpose Utility Knife?" She picked up a heavy-duty cardboard sleeve which said CAUTION: EXTREMELY SHARP on the side and turned it over. The print on the other side was too small for Dez to read from the distance. "Now this, Dez, was a real buy. Listen up. It says it is guaranteed to stay sharp for ten years, cut through anything but diamonds, and assist its owner in kitchen, shed, stable, or garage. A fine acquisition for our household, if you ask me."

The dark-haired woman reached an arm out, palm up, and Sara placed the piece of metal in her hand. Dez extricated herself from Jaylynn and turned the bar over and examined it. Though it was a good fifteen inches long, it was perhaps only three-eighths of an inch thick. In the middle were two faint markings, then one deeper slice where the two women had obviously sawed successfully. She hefted it in her hand, feeling its cool solidness, then paused for a moment as a scrap of memory, a tiny snippet of a dream, clicked in her mind—then disappeared. The grin she was holding back evaporated, and she felt her hands go cold. Pushing down the burgeoning feeling of panic, she quickly handed the rod back to Sara before her hands started to shake. In a gruff voice she said, "Do you realize that knife could slip? One of you could get hurt."

Jaylynn hit her with a soft jab to the upper arm. "Quit being a worrywart. We were very careful."

Dez frowned. "What are you going to do with it when you cut it in half—and what’s it from anyway?"

Sara set it on the table and shrugged. "We just wanted to test it out on something. I found this lying in the garage. There are some others in there, so I didn’t think anyone would miss it. I have no idea what it is. Do you?"

Dez shook her head, trying not to notice that Jaylynn was studying her intently. She took a deep breath and turned to the shorter woman. "When do you want Luella over to help?"

The hazel green eyes softened and stopped their examination. "Any time. Any time is fine. Is Vanita coming too?"

"No, she’s got something going today—but she’ll be at the party."

Sara nodded. "Good. That’ll be a kick."

Jaylynn said, "Maybe Luella would like to come over for lunch?"

Sara took the sheath from Jaylynn. "Yeah, we can certainly make lunch for her. We don’t want to wear her out or take advantage of her."

"Are you kidding?" Dez said. "She’s probably standing at the back door even as we speak with her purse over her arm waiting for me."

Jaylynn laughed and handed the knife over to Sara.

The tall woman lowered herself into one of the other rickety vinyl covered chairs and leaned her flannel-clad arms on the table. "Before I go get her, can I have a snack? What smells good?"

"That’d be Jay’s world-famous cinnamon sugar toast." In a conspiratorial voice, Sara added, "Heavy emphasis on the sugar ingredient."

"Hey!" the blonde said as she opened a bag of bread. "You certainly weren’t complaining earlier when I served you up the tasty delicacies I so carefully created."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." The brown-eyed woman gazed at her best friend with affection. "I don’t have the high standards that Dez does. I don’t mind scarfing down lots of sweet glucose, but if I recall correctly, she’s not big on straight sugar."

"I’ll make an exception this morning. Lay it on me, Jay."

The rookie popped two pieces of bread in the toaster and leaned back against the counter, her arms crossed over her tan and green flannel shirt. "Let’s get the timeline down here. Bill will arrive at the military airport tonight—sometime—and you’ll get him and bring him back as soon as you can. Then you guys will spend the following 24 hours—pretty much all of Friday—in bed—"

"Jay!" Sara said. She glanced over at Dez and blushed.

The toast popped up and Jaylynn turned her back on the two at the table to butter it at the counter. Over her shoulder, she said, "It’s not like Dez wouldn’t understand, hon. If we’d been apart for eighteen months, believe me, we’d be spending at least 24 hours in bed."

"Well, hon," Sara said, "he and I will be spending as much time as possible together—alone—through tomorrow. But Saturday night we’ll fill the house up with whoever wants to show up to welcome him home."

"Provided, of course," Dez said in a dry voice, "that the two of you have emerged from cocooning."

Sara looked back and forth between the two of them and slowly shook her head. "What is it with you two? Sex, sex, sex—that’s all you have on your minds these days."

Jaylynn turned and presented Dez with a plate containing two slices of warm toast covered completely with a thick layer of melting butter and cinnamon sugar. "That’s not the only thing on our minds. We think about food, too. Besides . . . cocooning is not all about sex." She stood over the two women, one hand on each shoulder and smiled.

Dez picked up a slice of toast and sunk her teeth into it. Sara was right. Sugar was, truly, the main ingredient. It was sweeter than Dez preferred, but still good nonetheless. Munching away, she glanced up into the hazel eyes above her and felt herself immediately bathed in warmth and light. Her stomach fluttered—and she realized it wasn’t from hunger. So this is love. How totally utterly completely—her mind blanked for a moment as it searched for the right word—frightening. How would she live without this, without Jaylynn, if something were to ever happen to her? The toast stuck in her throat and she swallowed with difficulty.

Jaylynn dropped her hands from the two women’s shoulders and moved to the fridge, saying, "You want some milk or orange juice, Dez? Something to wash down the dry toast?"

"Just a shot of milk—but you don’t have to wait on me, Jay."

"I know that. But I’m up." She opened the fridge door. "And I like to wait on you." She placed a short glass of milk on the table, catching Sara rolling her eyes. "Oh, yeah, sure…you go ahead and laugh now, my friend, but I’ll have the last laugh tomorrow when you’re down here whipping up snacks to fortify Billy Boy!"

Sara rose. "We’ll see about that. Seems to me that you two clowns laze about in bed most of the day yourselves, and with all the party prep—I don’t think you’ll have a lot of time to make fun of me."

"I’ll work on it though," Jaylynn said.

Dez rose, too, and started to clear the plate and glass, but Sara snapped them up first. "Don’t worry about these. You go get Luella, and Jay and I will start pulling things together here."

"After I get her," Dez said, "what do you want me to do?"

Sara said, "We’ve got quite the shopping list. If you and Jay don’t mind, I’ll work on the lasagna while you two go off to the grocery store for more tasty vittles."

"Fine with me," Jaylynn said, looking up at Dez to find her nodding, too. "I’m going down into the dungeon to get how many pounds of burger?"

Sara closed one eye, squinted, and looked up toward the ceiling. "Hmmm…three huge pans of lasagna…let’s do…four pounds—no, five pounds. All those big, tough Army types will want lots of protein."

Jaylynn cut past Dez and looked back at her from the fridge, then gestured with a quick jerk of the head. Dez ambled around the corner to the basement door and followed the rookie down the poorly lit stairs. As they reached the bottom, she said, "Need some protection in the scary basement, Little Lady?"

"No. Just wanted one last passionate hug and kiss before the house is overrun for the day." Jaylynn wrapped her arms around the taller woman and pressed her face into the warm flannel. Dez cradled her snug against her mid-section, feeling a string of emotions: tenderness, protectiveness, helplessness, love. When the blonde tipped her head back, Dez brought her right palm up and touched the soft cheek gently. She leaned down, closed her eyes, and met soft lips—lips she thought she would now know under any circumstances, any time, anywhere. The hold around her middle tightened as the kiss deepened, and when they came up for air, Jaylynn whispered, "I love the way you kiss me. You are by far the best at it of anyone I’ve ever known."

Dez grinned sheepishly, repeating something the rookie had said to her before they had made love for the first time. "And that would be what—a cast of thousands?"

Even in the dim light, she could see Jaylynn start to blush. "I can’t believe I said that."

"I thought it was a pretty cute way of asking, actually."

"You did? How come you didn’t ask me how many other relationships I’d had?" She let her hands slide from Dez’s waist to the slim hips and pulled her snug against her.

"Figured I’d get around to it sooner or later."

"Well? Is it sooner or later now?"

Dez raised an eyebrow. "You can tell me now if you like—or not. Your choice."

Jaylynn paused for a moment, then said, "Third time’s a charm. That’s how I look at it."

Dez nodded, then leaned down and nuzzled into Jaylynn’s neck. Dez thought she smelled wonderful, like sugar and spice and everything nice—actually, like cinnamon toast. She smiled to herself as she tucked the blonde head under her chin. From her vantage point, she surveyed the basement. The ceiling was low, only about a foot above her head. It was dark and cramped, but tidy, with mismatched wall-to-wall shelving on two long walls and the furnace and water heater taking up a whole quarter of the room. For such a small area, there was a lot of stuff stacked around. "I didn’t realize this was so small. You’d think it would be as big as the whole house."

Jaylynn looked over her shoulder. "Yeah, it’s small, but it works for us. It didn’t take on a drop of water during that last big storm, so it’s a really sound basement."

Dez reluctantly loosened her hold on the rookie and stood waiting at the foot of the stairs. The freezer was around the side of the stairs past boxes stacked four deep, which Jaylynn had to sidle past. She opened the lid of the chest freezer and a faint light shone up.

"Geez!" Dez said. "That thing is huge."

"We joke that you could easily put a body or two in there and still have room for the ice cream and frozen foods."

"How did they even get it down here?"

Jaylynn cradled five packages in her left arm as she pressed the lid shut. "I have no idea. You’d think they would have had to build the house around this monstrosity. The doorway and stairs are wide enough for it, so they must have stood it on end and bounced it down."

Dez turned and looked up the stairs, gauging the dimensions. She thought Jaylynn was right, though the steep steps must have been a bear to navigate.

Jaylynn brushed past her and took two steps up, then turned around, a grin on her face. "This is one of the few times I can be taller than you."

"But too far away." The dark-haired woman took one stair up, which put her only a couple inches below the rookie, but able to pull her close and encircle her with strong arms.

"Hey! This hamburger is cold." Jaylynn held the five pounds along her forearms and pressed up against her chest.

In a hoarse whisper, Dez said, "I’ll warm you up," then kissed her again.

"Ex-cuuuuuse me," a voice said from the top of the stairs. "If I’d known it would take you two lovebirds half an hour to bring up the freezer goods, I’d have asked you to clean the basement, too."

Dez choked back a laugh and smacked Jaylynn lightly on the butt. "Up we go."

Jaylynn spun around and mounted the stairs, shaking her head and complaining to Sara about the complete and total lack of privacy. Dez followed, still feeling the race of her pulse as well as the Jaylynn-generated heat against the cool of the basement. It occurred to her that everything that had happened with the younger woman in the last several weeks was enough to make her head spin.

She told the two roommates that she’d be back shortly with Luella, then headed over in her truck, still feeling the effects of holding her favorite blonde woman. They had not been apart, not even for one night, for the last seven-plus weeks. As far as she was concerned, things could stay exactly that way forever. In fact, sometimes she felt like she had known Jaylynn forever. She had never in her whole life felt so close or so comfortable with anyone—not even her mother, brother, or father. Sometimes she felt a connection that seemed ages old and that went soul deep. She couldn’t quite explain it, not to herself, and certainly not to Jaylynn. She said she loved kissing me. But she hasn’t come right out and said she loves me. Of course, neither have I, and I probably should. I want to.

She wished she could say the words, had rehearsed them in her head in a number of situations, but so far, it didn’t seem the opportunity had presented itself. It bothered her that she felt this sense of alarm and apprehension. I can’t imagine being without her—correction: I actually can imagine being without her, and I never want it to happen. How did I ever survive before she came along?

It was a puzzle to her, and one that was troubling. It was just as well that she arrived at the duplex to get her landlady just then, because it was clear she was making herself awfully nervous.

*****

"I can’t wait for Bill to see you and Dez together," Sara said. Chewing on the eraser end of a pencil, she leaned over a list lying on the table in the nook corner of the kitchen. She named off ingredients while Jaylynn scurried around pulling spices and noodles and cans of sauce out of various cupboards.

"I can’t wait to see you and Bill together either. I know you’ve been waiting and waiting…. And really, Sara, I don’t know how you’ve done it. Eighteen months. I’d just die without Dez for eighteen months."

The brown-eyed woman laughed. "You would not. You were perfectly self-sufficient without her, just as you are now with her. You’d get by just fine." She picked up a container of oregano. "Is this enough for a triple batch?"

Jaylynn stood next to her, shoulder to shoulder, as they both examined the contents of the plastic container. "I think so. But that’s the nice thing about spices. If you have enough just to give the flavor, it works out. We’ll throw other stuff in, maybe chili powder or something. It’s kind of fun when every batch ends up tasting a little different."

"We got any basil leaves?"

"Tons. Don’t fret." She scooted around the other side of the table and sat in one of the wobbly orange and red vinyl chairs. "Wow, eighteen months is a terribly long time. It’s going to be bad enough that I have to go off to driver training in Iowa for four days. I’ll miss her a lot."

"But homecomings are so much fun."

"Yeah—but lots more fun when they’re after four days. Eighteen months would be a real killer!" Sara nodded at her thoughtfully. "Are you worried, Sara? Do you feel you’ve changed much—and has he?"

The brown-eyed woman slid into the chair nearest to her and across from Jaylynn. She put her elbow on the table and chin in one hand. "Yes and no. Bad things have happened to both of us. I was nearly raped, and he got beat up in that German tavern last year. Maybe it’s easier for guys though. It wasn’t like anyone was trying to rape him."

The blonde nodded. "Sad to say, guys are a lot more used to fighting and violence. It’s really a shame. None of us should have to feel that terror or anger or fear. It really sucks."

"Sucks, huh? What a way with words you have."

"Thanks. I done learnt it all in college." Jaylynn grinned.

"So you would worry if you and Dez were apart for a long period?"

Jaylynn’s face took on a thoughtful look as she considered the question. "I’d just be so damn lonely for her. I read some stuff in my psych class that talked about how when you love someone, you share more than just good feelings. You also share all kinds of pheromones and hormones and chemicals, and you get used to that. You get used to a certain level of daily interaction, and you get so accustomed to the hormonal exchange that when the other person goes away, you can’t help but feel homesick for them, physically and emotionally. You get something along the lines of the DT’s—it’s almost like drying out from drugs or alcohol. Isn’t that something? Scientists are only just beginning to understand some of it."

"No wonder battered wives stay with the batterer."

"Could be a piece of it."

They gazed out the nook window at the sunny October day. The fall had been so mild that there were still birds to be seen in the black walnut in the middle of the yard and in the maple trees along the side yard.

The brown-eyed woman said, "I am afraid—a little bit anyway. What if he comes home—after having traveled all of Europe, seeing the Mona Lisa and the Louvre and the Sistine Chapel and Stonehenge and all those famous places—and I’m no longer enough for him?"

Jaylynn nodded. "I don’t think that will happen. I hope it won’t happen, but I can understand why you’d feel that way."

"Don’t get me wrong. I am more excited than worried, that’s for sure. But every once in a while a little kernel of doubt inches its way in."

"You both have a lot in common, and he left crazy about you, Sara." This caused her friend to smile a little. "He was more than crazy. I’ve never seen an Army man cry—"

"And you weren’t supposed to notice! Don’t you ever mention it to him," Sara said, admonishing her.

Jaylynn put her thumb and forefinger up to the side of her mouth and drew them across her lips, then pretended to toss something over her shoulder. "My lips are sealed. I’ll never tell. But I have to say, that was one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen…almost sweet enough for me to consider liking a guy."

In mock horror, Sara said, "No way! I can see it now, he comes home and you try to steal my boyfriend!"

They both burst into laughter, and simultaneously said, "Bloody unlikely!"

Clump, clump, clump. They heard steps on the back porch, and Sara leaned back to look out the window behind her. The door opened, and in came Tim and Kevin, faces ruddy from biking.

The brown haired woman stood, crossed her arms, and tapped her foot on the floor. "About time you two showed up. We’ve been slaving away!"

Tim gave her a long look starting at her feet and slowly traveling up her shapely figure. In his best drag queen voice, he said, "Well, hey, honey, a fella’s got to get a little exercise at times." He ran his hand through his red hair as Kevin nudged him out of the way to shut the back door.

The handsome blonde-haired man rolled his eyes. "Don’t give him a moment’s notice. We got halfway around Como Lake and ended up freezing our butts off on a bench watching the Canada geese packing up to fly south for the winter."

Tim pinched Kevin on the butt and made him jump. "Shhhh, boyfriend. Don’t tell these ungrateful girls all our little secrets." Turning to Sara and Jaylynn, he said, "We’ll just go get out of these terribly unattractive biking shorts and be down directly. The supreme chef and his unerringly tasteful lover will be right back to dazzle you with our fabulous concoctions." He swished over to the swinging door, smacked it open, and disappeared.

Both women burst into laughter.

Kevin rolled his eyes again. "He’s been like this all morning—in fact, he’s been insufferable ever since last week when he found out he got into chef school."

Jaylynn composed herself and said, "We’ll put him in charge of something like the salad. That’ll keep him busy chopping and shredding and dicing and arranging and crying over onions."

"Fine with me. All right. I’ll be back in a few minutes." He turned, then stopped. "Say, where’s Tall, Dark and Deadly?"

Jaylynn’s face split with a grin. "She went to pick up Luella."

"Luella’s coming over? Yes!" He made a pumping motion with his arm. "That’s just great." He headed out of the kitchen, leaving the swinging door whapping back and forth behind him.

Sara looked at Jaylynn. "Why do these guys like Luella so much?"

Jaylynn shrugged. "I don’t know. Well, actually, everybody loves Luella. Maybe gay guys are the only ones who are confident enough to gush about it. Maybe it’s because she’s so accepting. She truly sees the good in everyone, even thoroughly rotten people. And she has such a way of bringing out the best in the people she knows."

Sara stepped over and put an arm across her friend’s shoulders. "Just like you, Jay. That’s an accurate description of you."

The blonde blushed. "Oh, get outta here."

"It’s true. As usual, I’m right." Sara smiled at her blushing friend. "Now, let’s open the tomato paste and saute some tomatoes. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us."

*****

Dez pulled right up in front of the neat, two-story stucco house, not bothering to go around back. Sure enough, she saw the curtains in the front porch open, and a silver head peeked through for just an instant. Dez counted to five, then the door opened, and Luella emerged, turned and locked the door, and came down the walk carrying a hefty-sized black leather handbag and a bright smile on her face.

Luella Williams was 75 years young, going on 16, but at the most, she looked 60. An elegant black woman, she had silver hair swept up on either side of her head and held in place with fine silver combs. She and her sister Vanita were all that was left of their generation, but Vanita had a thriving brood of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Ever since Luella’s husband and two sons had died in a tragic house fire in the Sixties, she had taken her nieces and nephews under her wing as well as a lot of other misfits and odd ducks. Dez thought that she herself was one of the latter.

Dez got out of the truck and met Luella at the passenger door. The deep, mahogany colored eyes sought her out. "So, Desiree, what’s shakin’?"

"Not much." She gave the older woman her arm and helped her up into the Ford truck.

"I swear," Luella said, as she settled into the seat, "this truck keeps growing taller every time I’m not looking."

Dez grabbed the retractable seatbelt, and handed it to the silver-haired woman, then slammed the door and went around to get in the driver’s side. She put it in drive and started off down Como Boulevard.

Luella reached across the cab and patted Dez on the arm. "Please tell me I haven’t missed anything good."

"Nope. Not unless you count using some sort of all purpose utility knife to saw metal in half."

"Hmm. Doesn’t sound particularly appetizing…no, not at all. Whose idea was that?"

"You should just ask. Okay?" With a devilish look in her eye, Dez zipped around the block and headed back to the other house. "Why don’t you see if they’ll let you make the metal rod dessert? Just ask about that, okay?"

Luella gave her a strange look, then turned her eyes back to the road.

*****

It was a madhouse in the kitchen. Luella was camped out at the kitchen table between Tim and Kevin, all three shelling walnuts and talking in excited tones. Every few words were punctuated with a solid thwack as Kevin cracked the walnuts on a cutting board. Tim and Luella picked out the meats and dropped them into a bowl. Periodically Luella collected up the shards of shells and tossed them into a brown paper bag on the floor.

Jaylynn and Sara stood next to the stove arguing about whether to lace the pot of lasagna sauce with chili powder. The blonde was in favor of jazzing it up, while Sara was concerned that it would be too strong.

Dez stood off to the side, a cookbook on the counter in front of her. She was searching for a good recipe for walnut cake. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the group and listened to the squabbles and conversations.

She knew she wasn’t in a dream, but sometimes things felt a little unreal. She wondered how she got so lucky to be associated with these people. They were a bit unusual—and yet, they seemed completely normal, too. They appeared to accept her and like her just fine, exactly as she was, and it had been that way immediately upon meeting all of them. That puzzled her. She had built the relationship with Luella over time, revealing a little bit of herself every so often until now the older woman knew her better than anyone on the planet, perhaps even Jaylynn. The trust to do that had taken a great deal of time, a number of years. Luella had never been pushy, though. As a matter of fact, she was so warm and patient that Dez had always felt comfortable with the slow pace of their friendship.

Jaylynn was a whole other story. She was like a whirlwind of movement and emotions, yet she was also gentle and serene. Whip-smart and at the same time, still a little na‘ve. Passionate, self-assured, curious, and funny. Dez had never met anyone like her before.

Paradox. That’s the word that came to Dez’s mind to describe her young partner. How could she have developed so much personality at such a young age? Jaylynn turned 25 in August, and in some ways, Dez thought the blonde bundle of energy was older and wiser than she, at the ripe old age of nearly 30. No matter how she thought about it, the tall woman couldn’t quite get her mind around her own good fortune. How had she been so lucky to have the laughing blonde like her so much—maybe even love her?

Over the din of the voices, the stove fan, and the kitchen radio, which was currently playing Sara MacLachlan’s song, "Your Love is Better Than Ice Cream," Dez heard Luella holler, "Hey Jaylynn! We’re done with these nuts now. You want us to start in on the steel rod dessert?"

Both Sara and Jaylynn paused in their good-natured bickering and simultaneously said, "What?"

Luella’s white teeth flashed, and she looked positively mischievous. Tim and Kevin, sitting on either side of her, glanced over at the girls and back to the older woman. Tim said, "Never heard of such a thing. What are the ingredients?"

Luella gazed at the two roommates, pausing for a couple seconds. "Well? You going to enlighten us?"

Jaylynn turned around and squinted at Dez, obviously suppressing a grin. "You must be carrying tales again, Miss Big Mouth Cop."

Dez held her hands out to either side of her, palms up. "Just thought you might like to share your cutlery technique with Tim, especially now that he’s in chef training."

"Look," Tim said in a dry voice, "if you’re going to make Ginsu knife jokes, you can forget about it. I’m partial to Chicago Cutlery."

Jaylynn spun around to meet the brown-haired woman’s amused eyes. Sara said, "Obviously we’re going to be mocked, Jay. We should just ignore them."

Kevin waved a hand. "Wait a minute! I never did any mocking. What is this special dessert?"

So Sara and Jaylynn got out the Aikuchi All-Purpose Utility Knife and explained all of its fine features as Dez checked the cupboards for brown sugar. She opened the doors to all four cupboards and left them open, fumbling around inside until she found a bag containing no more than two tablespoons of dried up brown crystals. She tossed the bag toward the kitchen garbage and added brown sugar to her ever-expanding grocery list. She was glad she had thought to case the cupboards ahead of time, and even so, she was still not sure whether she would end up having to make two trips to the store as they discovered more items they needed.

She wondered how Tim, Kevin, Sara, and Jaylynn could live together without killing one another. Their kitchen cupboards were in a shambles, and since none of them were over five feet eight inches tall, they obviously never used the top shelves, which were stuffed full of mismatched Tupperware pieces, old pie tins, and a multitude of plastic butter tubs. Pretty much everything on the top shelves seemed to have been pitched up there just before the door was quickly closed. She moved some items, rearranged the cereal, and nested all of the plastic-ware together. If she lived here, the kitchen alone would drive her crazy. The thought struck her that she practically did live there. She hadn’t slept in her own bed at the apartment more than once or twice in the last couple weeks. Her tiny three-room place was now serving as nothing more than a glorified closet to which she went only when she had to get clean clothes or Luella needed help with something.

She and Jaylynn had not discussed being apart nights since a couple weeks earlier when the tall cop decided to go home after Third Watch. Jaylynn was supposed to get up very early for a one-day Saturday writing class she was taking. Dez told her she should be rested and insisted on sleeping at her own place so that they wouldn’t stay up all night talking and making love. So the tall woman had gone home, turned on all the lights in her tiny apartment, and sat on the couch. Picking up her acoustic guitar, she played a few chords, lost interest, and set the golden colored instrument back on the stand. She couldn’t help it. She felt restless and inexplicably lonely.

She lasted all of twenty minutes. Just when she was ready to give up and go get in the truck to drive over and confess her weakness, the phone rang, and it was Jaylynn telling her she missed her too much and to please come over right away. Pride intact, the dark-haired woman threw some clean clothes in a duffel bag and arrived, breathless, at the house on the boulevard in less than ten minutes.

Since then, it had been a given that they would sleep nights together, even if they didn’t ride together that day or if their schedules were off in some way. Jaylynn gave her keys to both doors, and that was that.

But now, in a few hours, Bill would arrive, and there would then be six twenty-somethings living in the three-story house. Kevin and Tim were comfortable in the sizable third level attic. Dez and Jaylynn were managing just fine in Sara’s old room. But Bill and Sara were going to be quite cramped in the remaining bedroom on the second floor. No one had addressed this issue, and Dez wondered how to go about bringing it up. Maybe she should talk to Jaylynn about moving into her apartment above Luella’s place—but then again, that was awfully small, too. Maybe they should get their own place. But then I’d have to leave Luella . . . I don’t want to do that.

It was a quandary.

Dez had never lived with anyone, not since leaving her childhood home, that is. Even in college she had had her own dorm room all to herself. Only once had she ever considered moving in with someone, but she had been young and innocent at the time, fresh out of Police Academy. She hadn’t been careful with her heart and had fallen in love with someone who turned out to be a user. The woman, another cop, had trifled with her, seduced her, played mind games, then thrown Dez away once the dark-haired woman grew attached. It had been tremendously painful, and Dez had sworn never ever to get involved with a fellow officer again. She hadn’t counted on Jaylynn though.

So lost in thought was she that it took a moment before she realized the din of conversation had ceased. The stove fan still hummed and the radio played a Sheryl Crow song. She glanced back over her shoulder to find five pairs of eyes staring her way. "What?"

Jaylynn moved away from the stove and put an arm around Dez’s waist. "You don’t have to do that—"

"But it sure looks ship shape," Tim hollered across the kitchen.

Dez let her eyes focus on the four open cupboards. She hadn’t intended to rearrange things so entirely, but it seemed that she had. And now there was open space in nearly a third of the lower shelves. The kitchen garbage can was overflowing with boxes and bags that contained little or nothing. "I—I—well, I hope you don’t mind . . . ."

"No," Jay said, admiring the shelves. "They look much better. Thanks. I think we’re ready to go for more groceries now. We’ve certainly got room for them!" She looked at her watch. "Only got a few hours ’til Dez and I have to go in to work, so we better get a move on." Turning, she announced, "Any last requests? Speak now or forever hold your peace."

"Nilla wafers," Tim said.

Sara looked at the list around the big woman’s arm. "Did you write down teriyaki sauce and brown rice?"

Dez perused the list and nodded when she found it.

Jaylynn peered over at Luella who was sharing a quiet conversation with Kevin. "Luella, you want any special delicacies?"

"Nope. I could use something now to wet my whistle though."

Sara opened the fridge door. "Lemonade, orange juice, canned ice tea, milk—both two percent and skim—Coke, Diet Coke, 7-Up, Gatorade, or Hawaiian Fruit Punch?"

The silver-haired woman paused. "I do believe that the punch would suit me fine."

"If that’s it then we’re gone," Jaylynn said.

Dez picked up the grocery list and tucked it in the pocket of her plaid shirt along with the pen. She felt a warm pressure on her hand and looked down to find Jaylynn’s hand in hers, pulling her toward the swinging door. Glancing back over her shoulder she found Luella’s eyes on her, amusement spreading across the smiling face. With one last backward glance, she shrugged, then let herself be drawn out of the kitchen, through the living room, and out the front door.

*****

Dez felt more lighthearted than usual as she dressed in the locker room at the precinct. Nothing like a little sleep to perk me up. And she’d had a great time shopping with Jaylynn and getting things ready for the party with Sara, Luella, and the boys. She thought that the homecoming celebration for Bill on Saturday was going to be fun, even if she wasn’t much for parties. As long as Jaylynn was there, Dez knew she would enjoy herself.

She grabbed her water bottle and headed up to roll call. No one else was in the briefing room, so she dialed the main precinct from the house phone and asked for Tsorro or Parkins. When told they were out on a call, she declined to leave a message. She was curious about the Tivoli investigation, but not enough to bother them with a message.

She heard someone coming down the hall. When she turned and sat, a figure rounded the corner and entered the room.

"Yo! Dez, baby. What’s hap’nin’?"

Few officers could get away with calling her "baby," but she made many exceptions for Crystal Lopez. The Latino woman had eighteen years of experience and had worked with Dez since she joined the force nearly ten years earlier. Crystal had never let the dark-haired woman down and had been an especially loyal friend in the months after Ryan had been shot and killed in the line of duty. She was shorter and much stockier than Dez, but very nearly as wide-shouldered. Her short-cropped hair was jet-black without a speck of gray in it, despite the fact that her fortieth birthday was coming up after the New Year. The tall cop liked to tease Crystal sometimes about "robbing the cradle" because her girlfriend, Shayna, was closer in age to Dez. She also liked to taunt her every once in a while about always being late. And Shayna was even worse. The two of them couldn’t ever get anywhere on time. Dez had given up on them ever arriving at the appointed time set and usually lied about start times, moving them up at least half an hour.

"Nothing’s happening, Crystal. What are you doing here so early?"

"FTO feedback to the sergeant." As she moved toward Dez, she ticked off names on her fingers. "I’ve had Oster, Mahoney, Pike, Neilsen, Grainger, and that new transfer from Houston. Oh, and also Jaylynn." She sighed. "Seven oral reports to give."

"You’ve had all of them, huh?"

Crystal smacked the big cop in the upper arm, hard, then sat in a chair next to her. "You know what I mean, chica. Supervisors are always looking for information on the probationers, and I’ve ridden with a variety. I still can’t believe that asshole, Neilsen, is probably gonna make it. I had a talk with Alvarez, but he says you can’t kick someone off the force for being an ass. Alvarez says Neilsen’s patrol work is proficient."

Dez shook her head and closed her eyes. Dwayne Neilsen was a rookie jerk from Jaylynn’s Academy class, and he had been nothing but rude to both of them. Sexist, racist, and homophobic—he was a throwback to the old days. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought he had joined the force in the Fifties. She knew cops who had thirty and forty years in who were more open-minded than that twenty-two year old bigot. He was one of her least favorite people on the force, especially because of the disrespectful way he treated Jaylynn. She changed the subject. "How’s Shayna?"

"Real good." She stretched out her short legs, crossing them at the ankle. "They just made her manager at the store. She’s got more book work and does the work schedules now. She doesn’t like worrying about whether everyone’s going to show up or not, but she got a two dollar an hour raise, so that’s a little bit of incentive."

The noise level increased out in the hall, and officers began to trickle into the roll call room. Braswell, one of the old dinosaurs who Neilsen made look halfway decent, wandered in carrying a giant slab of fudge. Calvin Braswell had a prodigious potbelly hanging out over his duty belt. He looked like he hadn’t washed his sandy-colored hair for a couple days, and his 70’s "porkchop" sideburns puffed out far enough to indicate to her that it was time for a serious trim. Another officer walked up to him and said, "Jesus, Cal, like you need that big ol’ piece of fudge!"

Braswell grinned and wolfed down a huge bite. "You’re just jealous." He gave a little salute toward the two women, then found a seat a few chairs ahead of them.

Crystal and Dez exchanged a smile. Braswell was an okay guy, but nobody ever wanted to ride with him. He was lazy, preferring to sit in a cafe or coffee shop and wait to be dispatched to a scene. He couldn’t run a block—with or without fudge—and all he wanted to talk about was football. But he wasn’t nearly as boring as some of the other old-timers. Trenton, Steussel, and Franklin were all dull and bland. On the other hand, Reed, a gray-haired Black man who had over thirty years in was full of stories about things that had happened in the past. He even remembered the old days when Dez’s father was still alive and arresting bad guys. So all the old-timers weren’t too bad. And all of them were vastly better than some of the younger guys like Barstow, who thought he was God’s gift to women, or Neilsen who Dez felt was God’s punishment to all of them.

Another day with this happy little family of wackos. Dez bit back a smile. These sisters and brothers in blue were like family sometimes. They gossiped and worried about each other, backed each other up, and carried on feuds just like any family. Some didn’t get along, but some of them were people you’d want to know for life. Like Crystal. And Cowboy. Like Ryan had been.

A feeling of sadness washed over her. It was the same emotion she always felt when she thought of Ryan. Thirty-eight was too young to die. She thought about his wife, Julie, and the two kids, Jeremy and Jill. She hadn’t seen them for a while. That was still hard. The grief threatened to well up and spill over whenever she was in their presence. But maybe after Sara and Bill’s party, she would call Julie and ask to take the kids somewhere. And she ought to start thinking about holiday presents for the kids . . . but later. She put it out of her mind in haste.

An energetic, blonde-headed dynamo whisked into the room, and Dez’s gaze was drawn to her, soaking in the intensity of her presence. All of the big cop’s past griefs had been made bearable because of this smiling being. It was a wonder that everyone in the room didn’t sense the energy that so often passed back and forth between the two of them. She felt the heat rise up her neck to her ears, and she grabbed up her water bottle from the floor and drank from it, hoping that no one noticed her red face. Jaylynn flounced over and sat next to Crystal, two seats away from Dez, which was just as well. If she had sat beside the tall cop, Dez might not have been able to recover her balance as quickly as she did. And it was a good thing that she regained her emotional equilibrium because the duty sergeant stalked into the room to update them about the latest crimes and stolen cars to watch out for. In short order, he sent them out to their cars to begin the shift.

*****

The air was cold outside, and Jaylynn was glad to be riding for once in a squad car with a decent heater. Once the sun had gone down four hours earlier, the air took on quite a chill. Like the last few nights, it had been a quiet shift, and she had stayed warm for all of it. Dez was driving to allow her the chance to finish off a hamburger, and now she felt slightly over-full as she looked out on the deserted streets of the Frogtown area.

She couldn’t believe how time was flying. Time was marching on toward the end of October, and any day now, the sunny weather during the day could change from the balmy 40’s and 50’s and then eventually to below freezing. As usual, she was not looking forward to it. For the past six years, every winter she wondered why she hadn’t yet moved to a warmer state.

The rookie drained the last of a bottle of warm Pepsi and stuck the plastic container in a paper bag under her feet. "You know what, Dez?" The dark-haired cop glanced her way, arching an eyebrow in answer. "We sure aren’t eating very well lately. I swear I’ve gained five pounds."

Shaking her head, Dez growled, "Tell me about it."

"We need to spend a little more time in the gym, I think."

"We need to spend a little less time at the pig trough, Jay."

The rookie laughed out loud. "I always liked your plan of eating five or six times a day—but I suppose you didn’t intend for pizza and fried chicken and Taco Bell burritos to be on the list."

"Nope."

"What are we going to do about this?"

"You mean before we’re as big as that poor woman in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’?"

"Yeah. Way before that."

Before Dez could answer, Dispatch came over the radio to report a fire.

"That’s right down the street there! Look, Dez! You can see the smoke. We should have noticed."

The dark-haired woman was already wheeling to the right as Jaylynn responded to Dispatch. Dez didn’t even bother to turn the siren on, though she did flip on the lights. They pulled up in front of a two-story stucco house, and in seconds they were both out of the car and up on the lawn, flashlights out. Dez ran up the cement stairway and beat on the front door. She called out "Police!" but no one came.

She tried the front door. It was locked and the metal knob was hot. She pulled her hand back with a yelp, then turned and ran down the stairs. "Circle the place, Jay. Look to see if anyone’s home. Watch for open doors and windows." She started to back away, pointing as she moved. "If you see anything unusual—footprints in the flower beds, tools, gas cans, bomb parts, whatever—take note. Don’t touch anything. I’ll meet you around back and compare notes."

Dez took off to the right at a fast clip, using her flashlight to survey the house and surroundings. Jaylynn trotted to the left, sweeping her heavy-duty flash across the porch. Beyond the porch railing she could see in the front window, and something in the background glowed a dull red. She moved to the side of the house checking out the windows in the upper and lower story, examining the flowerbed alongside the house. Of the three double casement windows along the top story, only the middle one, near the front of the house, was open. She could see wisps of smoke coming out of the window and floating upwards. The air smelled acrid, like burning plastic.

Otherwise, nothing looked out of the ordinary. She ran to the back of the house and met Dez, just as the bigger woman climbed up the back stairs and tried the rear door. She beat on it with her flashlight. It, too, was locked, though not hot like the front knob. She stood on her toes and looked through a tiny window in the upper part of the door. "Dammit! I can see flames coming toward the kitchen now, too." She turned and hurtled down the wooden stairs. "You see anything?"

Jaylynn shook her head. "Just one open window, upper west side.

Dez touched her shoulder mike. "Two-Five Boston to Dispatch. Where is the fire department?"

A tinny voice came back. "On their way, Two-Five Boston. E.T.A. less than five minutes."

"Right," Dez snarled to Jaylynn. "If they’re on the way, why don’t we hear them?"

Jaylynn grabbed the dark-haired cop’s forearm. "Listen...do you hear that?" She pivoted and walked toward the west side of the house, her head cocked to the side. Dez followed. "There! You hear it? A whimpering sound."

Just as she said that, very clearly they both heard a high-pitched wail. "It’s hot, Mommy! It’s hot! I want Mommy! Mommy, where are you?"

They spotlighted the side of the house with a criss-cross of lights from their two flashlights as they both moved toward the front of the house.

"Hey!" Dez shouted. "Hey, kid!" Under her breath she said, "I hope to hell that’s not coming from this house."

"Oh my God, Dez, it is." For a brief moment, the beam of the rookie’s flashlight captured a shock of light-colored hair in the open window in the second story, then the little head disappeared.

Both cops backed up in the yard and shone their lights up at the window. Dez touched her shoulder mike. "Two-Five Boston to Dispatch. We have a small child in the upper story of the house. Confirmed visual. We request immediate assistance."

The dispatcher sounded irritated when he informed them again that the Fire Department was on the way.

Jaylynn was pacing with anxiety. "We can’t go in, can we?"

"Even if we break the door down, I don’t think there’s a way to get upstairs. I’m afraid we have to wait."

The blond head was back at the window, and now he was wailing. "Mommy! It’s hot. Help me!" Jaylynn thought he looked to be three or so. He put his hands on the windowsill and pulled himself up, leaning forward.

In unison, both Dez and Jaylynn screamed, "No!" and rushed below the window.

The boy was startled and dropped back six inches until his feet must have hit the ground. They could just barely see the top of his little shoulders and head as he squinted into their lights. "Get me down," he commanded.

Dez shone her flash onto her own face. "Hey, kid. Look at me. I’m gonna help you. Look behind you...." The little boy turned, and Dez said, "Can you see any fire?"

He looked back, nodding. "It’s berry wed in here." He coughed as a puff of smoke billowed out.

"Oh, shit," Jaylynn whispered.

"Catch me," the little boy said. He pulled himself up onto the windowsill again.

"No!" they screamed again, and he dropped back, shaking and confused.

Jaylynn muttered, "What if he does jump?"

Dez shook her head. "I can’t guarantee I could catch him. He could fall in toward the house and bounce off. Even if he just kicked the house or bumped it, we might not be able to get him" She took a deep breath. "So that’s not a good idea."

Jaylynn craned her neck, stepping back three strides as she did so. "What’s your name, honey?" She listened closely, but his answer wasn’t clear. She thought he said "Bicker." She glanced at Dez, a frown on her face. "Oh. Victor, he means." She raised her voice. "Victor, the Fire Department is coming any minute."

He let out a scream. "It’s hot! I want my mommy!"

Dez raised her hands in the air, sweeping the light back and forth. "Wait, Victor. Wait." She looked at the rookie. "I really don’t want him to jump fifteen or twenty feet—if we missed…" She shook her head.

By now a small crowd of neighbors appeared in the yard.

"You’ve got to get him down," shrieked a woman in curlers, housecoat, and slippers. She held her hands to her mouth, looking for all the world like she was going to be sick. "Oh, God—

he’s just a little boy."

"Yes, ma’am," Jaylynn said. She faced the five women standing behind her. "Can any of you get a ladder from your house or garage?"

They looked at one another, shrugging and shaking their heads as if ashamed. One woman said, "We have a ladder but it’s only about five feet. That won’t do it. I’ll go get a thick blanket." She turned and scurried off.

"A blanket won’t be enough," Jaylynn said, her face worried.

"No. The firefighters have those special ones—not the same as someone’s old afghan."

Jaylynn turned away and looked up at the little boy crying in the window. She saw Dez gauging the height and looking at her. "What?"

Dez grimaced, like she was gritting her teeth. "If I could just get up high enough..." A surprised look came over the dark-haired cop’s face. "Wait!" She turned and ran toward the street, jumped in the squad car, and gunned it up on the lawn right next to the house. She parked so close that there wasn’t more than three inches between the stucco of the house and the passenger door.

Victor leaned out the window, one little leg over the sill.

Dez got out of the car. "Wait, Victor! We’re coming up to get you." She stepped up onto the hood in one smooth motion, then sprang on top of the car’s roof. Jaylynn stood for a moment, her mouth open, then followed in her footsteps, scrambling and inwardly cursing the fact that her legs were so short. Dez reached up toward the window, but she was a good five feet short of the boy.

"Shit! I can’t reach. But I can boost you up high enough, Jay, and steady you. You get an arm hooked over the sill, then get a hold of him and hand him down." Jaylynn put her hand flat against the rough stucco and raised a foot into Dez’s interlaced hands. Suddenly she was flying upward, her head zooming above the window level. She got her arms over the sill, pulled herself up, and was shocked at what she saw. No wonder Victor wanted out so badly. The far wall of his small bedroom was burning, flames licking toward the ceiling. The room was thick with smoke. Over the crinkling sound of the fire, she finally heard the tiny whine of a siren.

Below her Dez shouted instructions to the bystanders while holding steady pressure on her feet and legs. The rookie angled her left arm and shoulder over the sill and reached to the side to grab the boy by his flannel pajama top, hoping it would hold. Victor already had one bare leg over the sill. As his little behind cleared the windowsill, he choked back a sob and gave a little wave into the room. "Bye bye, Cee Cee."

Puzzled, Jaylynn hefted the boy out and away from the window, letting him dangle for an instant until he was taken by someone below. Cee Cee? The pressure on her legs and feet shifted, and she was, for a moment, supporting most of her own weight by hanging on to the sill, but then Dez shouted something. She could see over the sill into the room, and through a break in the smoke, white slats swam into her vision. Dez shouted again, but she swung her other arm onto the windowsill, and with difficulty pulled herself up. Below, she could very clearly hear her partner screaming at her to get down. Instead, she let herself go headfirst into the smoking room.

Coughing and panting for breath, she got on her hands and knees and crawled. It’s only maybe four feet, and over to the left of the window...should be here... Her head hit something solid. She reached up and felt the slats of the crib. The smoke cleared for a brief second, and in the light of the raging fire, she could see the tiny form. She stood, choking as the smoke engulfed her. Coughing, she snatched up the small bundle, then threw herself toward the light of the open window. The carpet around her feet burst into flames and the room was very nearly engulfed. Air. Air. It’s so close... Black dots swam in front of her eyes as she got her left leg over the windowsill. And then Dez was there, up in the air, one arm over the sill and her eyes wide and face frantic. Wordlessly, she grabbed the blonde by the front of her leather jacket.

"Wait—the baby."

"The hell with the baby," the big cop growled, but she took the limp bundle in her free hand and passed it down to the women who had boosted her up.

Jaylynn was now more out of the window than in. She couldn’t quit coughing. "Hurry," she gasped. "The wall is on fire."

"Follow me down." Dez’s head disappeared, and Jaylynn was alone. Now the sirens were blaring and she saw flashing lights coming toward them. She looked out, in a sort of daze. Later, it occurred to her that if her right pant leg hadn’t caught fire, she might have enjoyed the view for a few seconds longer. Instead, she let out a shriek, grabbed the sill and kicked her other leg out the window. She dangled for a mere second before strong hands guided her down. She landed, off balance, on the right front fender. Dez jumped off the car a split second after the blonde, then tackled the rookie and rolled her on the ground until the flames on the cuff of her pants leg went out. They lay tangled on the ground, coughing and panting until Dez pulled her feet away and got up. She bent over, wheezing, and patted Jaylynn’s shoulder. "You okay?" Her voice shook. She repeated the question over the increasing roar of the fire.

The rookie nodded, and Dez straightened up and moved away, gesturing at the bystanders, who by now numbered several dozen. "Get away from the house," she hollered. "Everybody back on the street."

Jaylynn lay on her side, still choking and gasping for air, fighting back the urge to vomit up the hamburger she had recently eaten.

Seconds later, when she opened her eyes, she found she had a perfect view of several pairs of paramedic and fire fighter’s boots as they approached her. A little blond-haired boy squatted down beside her head and touched her cheek. "You is real dirty." He stood up and brushed his hands together as though he was finished with her, then turned and watched the medics. She marveled at how calm the little boy was.

One of the paramedics, who had heard the boy’s comment, snickered as he went down on his knees next to her, an oxygen mask in his hand. He looked at her nametag. "Well, Savage. You can wash up later. This ought to help. Take a big gulp of some clean air."

The mask slipped over her nose and mouth, and he was indeed right. The cool air soothed her ragged throat and almost instantly she felt better. Later, she would be surprised to find that their entire rescue operation had taken less than three minutes. When she thought back, it seemed to have lasted much more time, almost as if it were in slow motion.

In fact, all around her everything moved as if in slow motion. She saw two squad cars parked at an angle up on the curb. Red and white and orange neon lights flashed, and police officers held back a large crowd that lined the sidewalk and edges of the lawn. Exasperated, she thought, Where were all of those people when we needed them earlier? Another fire engine approached, followed by two more cop cars. One set of fire fighters had a hose up in the front of the house, and another crew pulled a second hose past her around to the back. As they passed, one of them paused to shout, "Whoever parked this—get it the hell outta here."

Jaylynn rolled onto her back, oblivious to the fact that the paramedics had a blood pressure cuff on her. She sucked in more good air, then tensed her stomach muscles and raised her head. Dez leaned against the front fender of their squad car, which, Jaylynn now noticed, was sporting a very dented roof and hood. The tall woman was bent half over, her hands on her knees. Something was wrong. Jaylynn wanted to go to her, but when she made a move to get up, the paramedics restrained her.

"It’s off to the hospital for you, Savage. Your lungs need to be checked."

She shook her head, tried to speak, but the mask prevented it.

Dez straightened up, strode over, and pulled a paramedic aside. They spoke for just a moment, then she spun around and approached the rookie. "Jay, you’re gonna to be all right. They have to take you in though . . . it’s policy. I’ll stay here, update the detectives, and meet you at the hospital in about half an hour." She ran her hand over her dark hair as she stared into Jaylynn’s eyes. Then, abruptly, she turned and walked over to the squad car, got in, and backed it up and away from the house.

*****

Jaylynn wanted to go back on duty after she was given a clean bill of health at the hospital, but the sergeant on duty arrived and insisted she go home on sick leave for the rest of the night. Once she knew that the choice was not up to her, she let herself relax and found that she was worn out. It was just as well that she go home.

The nurse who came in to discharge her couldn’t tell her anything about the baby from the fire. She wondered if Cee Cee had been dead when she picked her up. The tiny bundle hadn’t made any movement.

She found Dez in the waiting room, pacing nervously. "Hey. Want to run me home?"

The tall cop nodded. Wordlessly, she turned and headed out the automatic doors of the E.R. and the rookie followed her, hastening to catch up.

They got in the car, and Dez backed up, hit the gas, and navigated out of the parking lot.

"Dez? The dark-haired woman gave her a quick glance and looked away. Jaylynn frowned. "What’s the matter?"

Her partner shook her head. "Not now. I’ve got to finish out the shift."

"What? What do you mean?"

"We’ll talk later."

"So you are coming by after shift?"

The dark-haired cop turned onto Como Boulevard. "Yeah."

No further words passed between them until Dez pulled up in front of the house.

Jaylynn got out and leaned back into the open door of the squad car. "So I’ll see you in a couple hours?"

Dez nodded and looked away. The rookie slammed the door shut and turned to walk up to her front door. Puzzled and feeling unsettled, she unlocked the door and pushed it open, then glanced back. The white cop car still sat out front. She couldn’t see in the dark windows, but as she stepped up and into the house, the squad car rolled forward and accelerated down the street. She didn’t know why she had a bad feeling, but Dez surely hadn’t been herself. Oh well, it must be stress. We certainly had enough of that tonight.

Nobody was home. She had expected Bill and Sara to be crashed in Sara’s room, but her car was gone, so they must have gone out. She went toward the kitchen, shrugging off her jacket, which she hung on the hook near the back door. She opened the refrigerator door and got a glass of milk, then opened the cupboard and picked up a plastic Winnie the Pooh plate and took a big hunk of banana bread off the counter to set on it, and then headed up the stairs. Her left shoulder ached as though she had pulled some muscle—probably while hanging from the windowsill.

In her room, she set the glass and the plate on her bedside table, flicked on the light, and went into the bathroom. She would have laughed, looking in the mirror, if she hadn’t been so tired. The little boy at the scene had been right. She was very dirty. Her white-blonde hair was streaked with black soot. Her face was smudged. The dirt and ash smeared all over her uniform made her look like she had just rolled in someone’s outdoor fireplace. The side of her right pant leg was charred from hem to mid-calf. So much for those slacks. Forty bucks totally trashed.

Standing in the bathroom, she disrobed, letting all her clothes drop to the floor behind the door. She turned on the water and ran it ’til it was good and steamy, then stepped under the shower.

She let the water splash over her for a couple of minutes, then soaped up, relishing the feeling of cleanliness and the lemony smell of the soap. Another wave of fatigue washed over her as she shut off the water and stepped out of the tub. She dried off, brushed her teeth, and opened the door to the darkened hallway. Arms crossed over her naked chest, she paused to listen. After a few seconds, she was sure that the house was still empty, so she hurried across the hall to her room, shut the door, and slipped into her warmest flannel pajamas. She sat on the edge of the bed and picked up the glass of milk and took a gulp. It tasted funny because of the leftover toothpaste flavor, but she drank it and ate the banana bread anyway. She was still hungry when she finished it, but she was too tired to go downstairs for anything more.

She lay down on her bed and pulled the covers over her. Her heartbeat picked up, and she felt a shudder. She shivered again, but the bed was starting to feel warmer. I am so tired. Shift isn’t even over, and I’m exhausted. Once she closed her eyes and started to drift, she could see the closed-in little bedroom, the crib on one side, the twin bed on the other. Sound in her head was muffled and everything swirled around her. She fought to see, but the room was full of smoke and the walls were covered with fire. Surrounded by fire, she started to choke. In the far distance, someone was screaming her name. She looked around, but all she could see was flames. And then the floor gave out beneath her, and she fell into the abyss.

Jaylynn gasped, and her eyes popped open, her heart beating staccato. Without warning, it hit her that she could have been killed. If the floor had collapsed while she was standing on it, she’d have fallen down into an inferno of flames. She trembled. Despite all the images of fire, her whole body felt cold. She shuddered again, then sat up and grabbed the blanket at the foot of the bed to make another layer.

Why did I do that? What was I thinking? But she realized she hadn’t been thinking. It had just happened, with no forethought. If there was a baby there, she couldn’t just abandon the child. Her instinct was to act, to try to get to the child.

She wondered if that was a bad instinct—or not. Somehow, in the darkness of her bedroom and with all the thoughts now running through her mind, it seemed like it had been a very stupid impulse. But then again, she believed Dez would have done the same thing. Neither one of them could have lived with themselves if they could have grabbed the child to safety and instead had let her die.

Rolling over on her side, she curled into a ball and felt the warmth from the thick blankets begin to soothe her. She felt like she might cry, but she didn’t. Before she knew it, she was asleep.

*****

Dez finished out the shift, stopping to make a full report to the sergeant on duty and to Lieutenant Malcolm. She knew that the way she phrased things would go a long ways toward making Jaylynn seem brave and judicious—or stupid and foolhardy. A part of her wanted to emphasize the latter, because as far as she was concerned, what the rookie had just done was stupid. Reckless. Dangerous. But she was purposefully neutral, stating only the facts and downplaying how rash and careless she thought Jaylynn had been. Several cops as well as both the lieutenants on duty congratulated her on their quick thinking. So far, nobody had made a big deal about the dented-in squad car, but she thought they might be called on the carpet about that later.

She left as quickly as she could—not even pausing to change clothes—and strode out to the parking lot, passing Jaylynn’s Camry on the way to her truck. They’d have to come get the Camry in the morning. She climbed into her truck and sat for a moment, not sure what to do. Even though she felt numb, she was also sure that any minute Mount Vesuvius was going to come blasting up and out of her. She didn’t want that to happen in the parking lot, so she started up the Ford and got out of there.

She knew she was going to Jaylynn’s, but first, she wanted to go home to her apartment, sit for a bit, think about things. A part of her wanted to grab the rookie by the neck and choke her. A cold wave passed through her body, and she felt shaky through and through. She had just barely gotten Jaylynn out of there—just barely. After she dropped the rookie to the ground and rolled her to put the fire out, she had stood up and seen the flash of light and fire roar past the windows on the main floor. A matter of seconds more and the upper floor would have caved in, taking the blonde down with it. Dez shuddered, her breath coming fast. She pulled up in front of Luella’s house, cut the lights, and turned off the ignition. I need to talk. I need to talk to Luella. She pressed the Indiglo on her watch to see that it was 12:38. But a dim light glowed from the back of the main floor, so she knew the older woman was still up and about—probably watching TV.

She went around to the back entrance, unlocked the outer door, and trudged up the stairs to her back door. She had time to take off her jacket, uniform shirt, vest, and bra before she heard the thump-thump-thump of her landlady banging a broom handle on the ceiling below. She shook her head. As usual, Luella seemed to have her radar running. Dez didn’t know how the old woman did it, but she always seemed to know when something was up. She stomped twice on the floor with the heel of her boot, and the thumping stopped.

The dark-haired woman knelt and untied her duty boots, kicked them off, and slipped out of her uniform pants and underwear. All of her dirty clothes went directly into the hamper. She got out clean briefs, a pair of jeans, socks, and tennis shoes and put them on, then opened the drawer to her bureau, pulled out a gray sweatshirt, and slipped it over her broad bare shoulders. In the bathroom she checked her face and long hair. She was nowhere near as dirty as Jaylynn had been, but she pushed up her sweatshirt sleeves and washed her hands, arms, face, and neck, then took out her French braids and let her hair hang loose. Running a brush through it, she could see that it was kinked up and hopeless but she didn’t care. She took one more minute to brush her hair, then grabbed a coat, wallet, and keys and descended the stairs.

When she tapped on the door, it was already open, and Luella called out from the dining room. "Get in here. I’ve got ham and fried potatoes going."

Dez smiled fondly and rolled her eyes. If she ate all the goodies that Luella presented to her, she’d weigh three hundred pounds in no time. But tonight she wasn’t going to turn down hot food. She hadn’t eaten anything since their dinner break hours earlier, and her stomach had been growling for over an hour.

She moved down the hall and through the kitchen, glancing down at the steaming food in a large black frying pan on the stove. The silver-haired woman set some silverware on the table and turned to meet her at the dining room doorway. She ran a soft, warm hand down Dez’s arm from shoulder to forearm. Then, she squinched up her face and sniffed. "You smell like barbecue, Dez." She sniffed again. "Really bad barbecue. What is that?"

"Fire up on Thomas Avenue tonight."

"Ah, that explains it. Heard something about it on the news. Sit down, sit down." She ushered the tall woman over to the dining room table and shuffled back over to the stove where Dez could still see her as she dished up a plate of food. "Milk? Water? Glass of wine?"

"Milk would be great."

In moments she had in front of her a steaming plate of flavorful ham and succulent fried potatoes which were crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside. Dez lit into all of it like she hadn’t eaten in ages while Luella sat across from her drinking a cup of tea and munching on store-bought shortbread cookies.

"They didn’t say your names on the ten o’clock news, but Channel 4 did a quick story about the house fire. So you’re the one who pulled two children out of a burning house? Seems like that’s kind of a replay of what happened a few years ago."

"No, I didn’t pull the kids out—Jaylynn did." The time Dez had gone into a burning house, the fire had been contained in the front of the building, and she had merely busted in the back door, awakened the parents, and helped drag three sleepy kids out of the back bedroom. It was nothing like tonight’s fire, which was close to out-of-control by the time the fire department arrived.

She forked up the last of the potatoes, chewed, and swallowed them with difficulty. Usually she didn’t scarf her food down so fast, but she could tell an attack of nerves was about to hit her. Pushing the plate away, she drank down the last of the milk, aware that Luella was studying her.

"You don’t seem very happy about it, Dez."

"Nope. I’m not." She sat still, finally acknowledging the fatigue that had been threatening for an hour.

Luella finished a cookie, then picked up the package, closed the top and set it to the side. "Well? Why not?"

"It was a crazy thing for her to do." She took a minute to describe the scene and what had happened. "I only intended for her to get that kid down. Didn’t even know about the baby. Little three-year-old was hanging out the window, trying to escape the heat. Next thing I know, she’s disappeared through the window into fire and smoke going after a baby that was probably already dead from smoke inhalation. You woulda had a heart attack."

"But it all turned out fine. Jaylynn is okay, and the baby is, too. That’s what they said on the news."

Dez crossed her arms and glared. "She was seconds away from the floor falling in, Lu. It was stupid—damn dangerous!" She smacked a fist on the table and the china jumped and jiggled. "I just wanna kill her."

Luella chuckled. She stood and picked up the empty glass, stacked it on the plate with the fork and knife. With her other hand she stroked her tenant’s hair. "But it all turned out okay. I repeat: everything’s fine."

Dez bowed her head, accepting the gentle touch. "It just makes me feel so—so—"

"Helpless?"

Dez crossed her arms in front of her and scowled. "Mostly just angry."

"That’s your fear talking. You have to focus on the fact that everything is all right, and she’s fine. She is fine, right?"

"She had to make a little trip to the hospital to get checked for smoke inhalation, but yeah, she’s okay."

"Well, honey, you just have to chalk it up to experience."

"I’ll tell you what—nothing like this is gonna happen again. I’ll be watching her like a hawk."

Luella bit back a grin and picked up the plate and glass. "You do that." She carried the dishes and silverware in to the sink and turned on the tap. Dez rose and followed her into the kitchen.

"Thanks for the midnight snack, Luella. I feel a little better."

The older woman turned the water off and wiped her hands on a kitchen towel. She came over to Dez and took one of her hands. "What are you going to do now—you are going to go check on her, aren’t you?"

The tall woman frowned. She met Luella’s eyes, still scowling, but she nodded.

"Good. She’ll probably appreciate that. Go on."

"I’ll do the dishes up."

"No, I got nothing better to do, and it’s not like I’m tired." She looked at her wristwatch. "There’s still twenty minutes left of that alien conspiracy radio show, so I’ll turn it on in here."

Dez looked at her landlady to see if she was serious. "You’re still listening to that?"

"Oh yeah. I work a crossword or two and listen in. There are just scads of goofball people who call in. It’s a laugh a minute." She reached up and tugged on the tall woman’s hair. Dez bent and her landlady planted a dry kiss on her cheek. "Go be with her. And you’re not allowed to kill her, all right?"

The tall cop let out a snort. "Yeah. Right."

"I’ll see you at the party tomorrow."

"Oh, geez. I forgot all about that."

"Well, don’t forget all about showering. Your hair smells like it’s been slow roasted in a fire pit."

*****

Dez pulled up to the front of the house on Como Boulevard. She shut off the engine. The downstairs lights were on, so someone was up, though she had a hunch it might not be Jaylynn. She expected the blonde to have crashed as soon as she got home—but then again, she could be wrong. Tim’s banged up red Corolla was parked in front of her truck, so he was home. She didn’t know about Sara.

She sat in the truck, her heart racing. After closing her eyes, she did some deep breathing in an effort to still her uncooperative heart. Instead, she felt like she was going to start crying. She couldn’t confront Jaylynn feeling like this. For a moment she contemplated going back to her own apartment, but she couldn’t make herself do it without checking first on the rookie.

So she got out of the truck and made her way up the walk, her legs shakier than she expected. Dammit! Cut that out. Luella’s right. Everything’s fine. As she drew closer to the house, she could see a blue flicker of light through the slats of the front window blinds. Someone was up watching TV. She tapped on the front door. No response. She tapped a little louder, then heard the hollow thump-thump of footsteps. The curtain was drawn aside, then the door flew open. The slender, red-haired man standing before her gave her a big grin. "Dez. Hey, how are you?" Tim stood in stocking feet and wore baggy sweat bottoms and a white long-sleeved jersey with a brown streak across the chest. He held the door wide as she passed, then quickly shut it to keep the cold out..

"Good. You?"

"Fine. Just fine. Kevin and I are making homemade dark chocolate truffles."

"That’s a relief." She pointed to the streak on his shirt. "That looks pretty poopy—if you get my meaning.

He looked down as he turned the lock for the door, then giggled. "It’ll wash. You want to come in the kitchen and have one? They are really luscious."

"Nah. Not hungry."

He grinned up at her. "So where’s Jay?"

Dez paused. In tennis shoes, she towered six inches over him. She didn’t know why he looked so short tonight. "I was hoping she was here."

He threw his hands up in the air in a mock gesture of ignorance. "She could be for all I know. We’ve only been home an hour or so. Check out her boudoir." He leered at her and gave her a wink, which she ignored, instead heading for the stairs and taking them two at a time. At the top of the stairs, she found Jaylynn’s door closed. She turned the knob and poked her head into the dim room. Once her eyes grew adjusted to the darkness, she could make out a motionless lump on the far side of the queen-sized bed and Jaylynn’s blonde head poking out of the blankets.

The dark-haired woman eased into the room and shut the door behind her. She slipped out of her jacket and pulled her sweatshirt over her head, then shed her shoes, jeans, and socks. Tiptoeing, she lifted the blankets and crawled into bed, trying hard not to let any cold air in. She maneuvered onto her side, facing Jaylynn. In the moonlight shining through the partly open blinds, she could make out the top half of the blonde’s slumbering face. It was no longer covered with soot and didn’t seem to have a single mark on it. She shuddered, thinking again about how close her partner had come to disaster at the fire earlier. It was hard to stop thinking about that and how there was nothing she could have done to stop it. She wanted to reach out and touch the younger woman, but she was afraid she would wake her.

"Why are you staring at me?"

Startled, Dez took in a quick gasp of air.

The blonde’s eyes popped open and looked at her with amusement. "You some kind of spy now, or what?"

"I—I didn’t want to wake you."

"As if the furnace of heat you’re emitting wouldn’t have been noticeable?" Jaylynn wormed her way over and pulled Dez close. "Oooh, warm bare skin. That is nice." She nuzzled into Dez’s neck and wrapped herself around her. With a sigh, she said, "It’s not the same sleeping here without you."

Dez rolled onto her back, pulling the smaller woman on top of her. Her racing heart stilled a little. She’s safe. It’s okay. Nothing bad is going to happen. She felt the flannel under her hands and stroked skin through the warm material. Jaylynn molded into her, and the big woman worked at relaxing.

"That was pretty scary tonight, Dez."

"Tell me about it," was Dez’s low reply.

"Next time, we’ll have to move faster."

"Next time you’re staying in the car." Jaylynn laughed out loud. "Don’t laugh. I mean it."

"Yeah, right." She burrowed her nose into Dez’s hair. "I do hope this little reminder of the fire isn’t a permanent fixture."

"Huh?" Dez looked at her quizzically.

"Your hair smells like burnt wood."

The dark-haired woman opened her arms wide. "Geez! Everybody’s a critic."

Jaylynn planted a lingering kiss on her lips. "It’s okay," she whispered. "It’s kind of sexy...like making love near a fire pit at the beach."

"Only no sand."

 

 

More to come……

: ) Lori


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