No Place I'd Rather Be
That's how late it was when Lilly finally creaked open that blue front door she'd always loved and dropped her keys onto the little table just inside. One, two, three tries it had taken her to get the keys into the lock; not because she was drunk, but because she was so goddamn tired.
They'd stayed on Scotty's rooftop, talking about everything and nothing, until their beer supply ran out and neither of them could feel their extremities. He'd offered to take her home then, but the insistent growl of her stomach led her to comment that she was starving.
"Thank God," he'd said, then flashed that boyish grin in response to her startled expression. "Me, too."
So instead of taking her home, he'd fired up the Mustang and let its pistons sing, driving down the expressway at a speed that probably would've rattled her had she been entirely sober. Then, with exaggerated formality, he'd escorted her through the double glass doors of an all-night diner, where they shared hoagies and a plate of cheese fries, chuckling at the looks they got from truckers and various other itinerant characters who doubtless had never seen anyone visiting that establishment in formalwear.
It was a little bit how she'd always imagined prom night.
Now, having trudged up the stairs to her bedroom, Lilly kicked off her shoes, sank down onto the edge of the bed, and massaged her aching feet. She'd been dreading, maybe even avoiding, this return to her apartment. She hadn't been planning to come back at all tonight, and if she had, it sure as hell wouldn't have been alone. But, as Saccardo had said, it was the nature of the beast. The cop in her understood that.
The woman in her was just lonely.
Well. No. Not lonely. Scotty made sure of that. It seemed from the moment he'd found her on the balcony, he'd made it his personal mission to ensure that her evening didn't end in tears. And those hours they'd spent together tonight, talking, laughing, reconnecting…she couldn't remember the last time she'd felt that at ease in anyone's company, let alone his.
That, she supposed, was its own sort of magic.
Equally magical was the knowledge, as she extricated herself from the red ballgown, tossed it over a chair, and sank gratefully into bed, that she was just too damn tired to be sad about Saccardo leaving tonight. She was sure she'd feel it at some point. But not tonight. That was what mattered.
The last conscious thought that floated through Lilly's exhaustion-fuzzed brain was that she still needed to give Scotty back his jacket.
Scotty's first instinct, upon being jerked from a too-short slumber by the telltale trill of his phone, was to grab for it and fling it across the room.
Despite his exhaustion, it had taken him forever to fall asleep. His overloaded brain crackled with energy, flashing picture after picture of the evening's events. It was like mental channel-surfing. Only some actual channel-surfing—and some additional drinking—quieted his obnoxious thoughts enough for him to get some shuteye. And now here was his damn phone, ringing at the ungodly hour of…
Okay, fine. Maybe he wouldn't throw it.
It was, as he suspected, the boss. There'd been a new development in the case, Stillman said, and with the department breathing down his neck about the closure rate, he had to call them in, much as he hated to do so.
So an hour later, Scotty was at his desk. A little hung over, a lot tired…but also at least moderately relieved. Because here at work Lilly wouldn't be wearing that red dress. She wouldn't be laughing and sighing and needing him to take bobby pins out of her hair. No, she'd be back to being Normal Lilly, with her buttoned-up appearance and crisp, no-nonsense demeanor, and these strange things that had been stirring inside him since last night would subside.
But what he hoped wouldn't subside, as he slipped off his sunglasses and winced against the fluorescent lights of the squad room, was what seemed like a return to the comfortable, easy friendship they'd enjoyed until Saccardo butted into their lives. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed it until last night, up on the roof.
He supposed that was part of why he'd kept her out until three A.M.
To Scotty's surprise, most of his colleagues had already arrived. Vera, trudging in from the kitchen, was even more haggard and rumpled-looking than usual. Kat was at her desk, scowling behind a pair of sunglasses so large it looked like she was trying to impersonate one of the Kardashians. Jeffries, meanwhile, filled out paperwork, looking like he was about to burst into peals of laughter at the both of them.
"Mornin', all," Scotty managed. It was well past noon by this point, but the way he felt, and the way the others looked? It still definitely qualified as 'morning.'
Vera responded without words, just a gravellier-than-usual grunt.
"Gonna tell you the same thing I told the other two," Kat said, each word spoken slowly and with great effort. "Do not touch me. Do not talk to me. Do not even look at me. And for God's sake, Scotty, pick up your chair." Scotty paused, his hand on the back of his chair, feeling the heat of her glare even through her enormous shades. "Do not just scrape it across the floor. Do. Not. Because if you do, it will make fireworks go off in my head, and I will have to murder you."
Without looking at, talking to, or touching Kat, Vera placed a paper-wrapped cheesesteak from Geno's onto the desk in front of her, along with a bottle of water. Kat glanced up at Vera as she started to unwrap her cheesesteak, without words, but also without the venom Scotty expected from her. Vera nodded, grinned slightly, then plopped down at his desk and immediately tucked into an identical sandwich.
More power to them if they could eat, but the way Scotty's stomach recoiled at the normally mouthwatering aroma of seasoned meat and grilled veggies told him, in no uncertain terms, that food was not on his agenda anytime soon. His appetite was for two things and two things only: aspirin and coffee. He quickly retrieved the aspirin from his desk drawer, tossed a couple of the little white caplets down his throat, then rose from his seat—quietly—and headed for the kitchen to get some coffee.
And there was Lilly, pouring coffee into a deep blue mug. She looked up as he entered and flashed him a disarming smile.
"Morning, Scotty." She handed him the cup she'd just poured, then reached up onto the shelf for another.
"Mornin'." Taking a grateful sip of the bitter brew, he studied her through the steam as she poured her own cup. As expected, she was wearing normal work clothes. Her hair was pulled back into the ponytail she'd been sporting the last few weeks. Her makeup was, he was guessing, the same shades and amount she normally wore, though he couldn't remember ever paying attention to that sort of thing before. The only remaining trace of last night's glamour was the delicate diamond pendant, dangling discreetly between the top buttons of her crisp, pale blue blouse.
Lowering the mug, he breathed a quiet sigh of relief. It was just Normal Lilly. Normal Lilly didn't make his heart race or his stomach do somersaults. Normal Lilly didn't capture his attention from across the room and hold onto it at the expense of all else. Normal Lilly didn't make him want to feel that silky blonde hair falling down over his fingers again. Everything was going to be fine.
She arched a bemused brow as she turned and leaned against the counter, the coffee mug halfway to her lips. "You okay this morning?"
"Lot better than those two out there," he jerked his head toward the squad room, where Kat was devouring her cheesesteak and Vera was bumming a couple Advil off Jeffries. "You?"
She gave a slight shrug and a tiny, secret smile. "Little tired, I guess."
"No, no, don't apologize. In fact…" Lowering her gaze, she tucked a stray tendril of hair behind one ear. "I just wanted to say, y'know…thanks. For last night."
She looked up at him then, her eyes sparkling, her smile surprisingly vulnerable, and his heart gave a mighty thump. Because it was daylight now, and she was sober, and she wasn't sad about being ditched in the middle of the dance floor…and she was still letting him in. She'd lowered her defenses, let her guard down, and given him a glimpse straight into her heart.
That wasn't Normal Lilly. Not at all. And things weren' t the same between them. Not anymore.
They were better.
"Anytime, Lil. You know that." His grin turned a touch mischievous as they headed out into the squad room, coffees in hand. "Even at three A.M."
"Three A.M.?" Vera echoed.
"Please." Kat's head fell into her hands, her already-soft words muffled by the ropelike curtain of her hair. "Not so loud."
"Seem to recall sayin' somethin' like that to you last night," Vera said around a mouthful of cheesesteak.
"Surprised either of you remember anything from last night," Jeffries supplied, drawing dark glares from both his colleagues.
"You're enjoyin' this, aren't you, Will?" Scotty pulled his chair out as quietly as he could and gingerly lowered himself into it.
Will's pen danced across his paperwork. "That's what happens when you're the only one smart enough to stay sober."
"Oh, bite me," Vera muttered.
"Afternoon, everyone." Even Stillman looked a little more subdued than usual as he emerged from his office. "Sorry again to call you in on a Sunday, especially given the late night it looks like some of you had."
Scotty glanced toward Kat, who seemed to be ignoring the goings-on in favor of munching her way through her sandwich.
"Whatcha got for us, Boss?" Lilly asked.
"Tracked down Ellie King's fiancé, James Fleming. He owns a chain of car dealerships in the Baltimore area, but he's in town today."
"What's the occasion?" Jeffries asked.
"The Philly Classic and Custom Car Expo," Stillman replied. "Special emphasis on Flemings this year; he's here to represent the company."
Scotty nearly choked on his mouthful of coffee. "Classic and Custom? I've been tryin' to get tickets to that thing for weeks!"
Stillman grinned. "Well, that badge of yours is all the ticket you need today, Scotty."
His irritation at having to come in on a Sunday suddenly a distant memory, Scotty drained the rest of his coffee in a single gulp and glanced toward Lilly. "Best car show in Philly; wanna come with?"
"Sure," she said, with a bemused grin.
"Will, you and Nicky see if they've gotten any handwriting matches off that threat letter yet," Stillman instructed. "And Miller?"
Scotty glanced over to catch her wincing behind her enormous shades. "Yeah, Boss?"
"I'm sure you have some paperwork to catch up on. I'll give you the conference room." He paused. "Should be nice and quiet."
A rueful smile quirked her lips. "Thanks, Boss."
Assignments distributed, everyone rose from their chairs at once, the chorus of scraping setting even Scotty's teeth on edge.
"Goddammit." Kat grabbed at her head again. "I swear to God as soon as I get rid of this hangover, I'm gonna kick all your asses."
Once again, without speaking to, touching, or looking at her, Vera quietly placed a couple of Advil on her desk.
As soon as Lilly entered the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Philly Classic and Custom Car Expo assaulted all her senses simultaneously. The driving beat of some sixties rock song she couldn't immediately place. The burnt smell of tires and exhaust. A stage full of dancers in vintage clothing, whirling and twirling in the bright lights.
And cars. An ocean of them, seemingly every make, model, and color imaginable, as far as the eye could see. Some looked as though they'd just rolled off the assembly line, while others were so heavily and creatively customized as to stretch the bounds of credibility.
Lilly blinked and waited for her senses to adjust. She was definitely out of her element here, but one look at her partner told her he was definitely not. His dimples deepened with each passing second; eager eyes darted to and fro, trying to take everything in all at once. He looked simultaneously enchanted and overwhelmed, like a five-year-old standing at the entrance to Disney World.
"Damn," he muttered appreciatively. "Sure am glad I didn't call in sick today."
After a brief search, they located James Fleming, who but for the silver in his hair seemed to have scarcely changed since 1962. He was standing next to a cobalt blue sedan polished to mirror-like sheen, engaged in animated conversation with a glut of other suit-clad gentlemen.
As the detectives approached, Fleming flashed a toothpaste-commercial smile. "If you're looking to register for the auction of the Thunderhawk, the table is just inside the east entrance. And…" he gave them both a cool appraisal. "Qualified buyers only."
"Ain't here to bid on a car, James." There was more than a hint of reluctance in Scotty's voice as he pulled his badge from his belt.
"Detectives Rush and Valens, Philly Homicide," Lilly flashed her own badge.
"Homicide?" Fleming gave a nervous laugh, then turned his unnaturally-white smile to the other men nearby. "Would you excuse us for a moment? I'm sure this is just someone's idea of a joke."
As the other men shuffled off, Fleming's plastic persona crumbled. "All right, what the hell is this about? I haven't lived in Philly for over thirty years."
Lilly tilted her head at his sudden defensiveness. "We'd like to ask you a few questions about Ellie King."
Fleming looked momentarily stunned, but then his chiseled features took on a look of exasperation. "Oh, for the love of God, not this again. Look, I told the cops back then that—wait." He blinked. "Homicide?"
Scotty gave a brief nod. "That's right."
Silvery brows knit. "So she's dead? You found her…her body?"
"Not exactly," Lilly replied, as coolly as possible, while Scotty quickly pulled copies of the scene photos from the black leather folder he carried with him.
"We found a suitcase with Ellie's name on it," he said. "You recognize any of this stuff?"
Fleming took the photos from Scotty's outstretched hand and flipped through them, his defensiveness melting away with the years. "Oh, sure. That dress was her favorite."
"The books have any significance to you?" Lilly handed him a photo of the two yellowed paperbacks found in the suitcase.
Fleming glanced at them with a quiet chuckle. "Oh, she was always reading something. I told her she could read as much as she liked as long as she had dinner on the table when I walked through the door." His smile was met with stony silence from the detectives. "Well…different times, I guess." He handed the photos back. "Where'd you find the suitcase?"
"An old apartment in Kensington," Lilly replied.
"Kensington? What the hell would she be doing there?"
"We're still workin' on that." Scotty pulled out a clear plastic sleeve containing a copy of the letter found in the suitcase. "You recognize this?"
Fleming peered through his bifocals at the faded text. "'By my hand you shall meet your end?'" He raised a horrified expression. "Is this a threat?"
Lilly noted his reaction, which seemed like one of genuine surprise. "Looks that way."
"My God." Fleming adjusted his glasses. "Who could've written something like that?"
"We were hopin' you could shed some light," Scotty replied.
"Do you recognize the handwriting?" Lilly asked.
Fleming barely even looked at the letter before handing it back as though it were a used tissue. "I can tell you for damn sure it's not mine, if that's what you're wondering."
Lilly met his disgusted glare with a chilly one of her own. "We'll need a sample all the same."
With a slight roll of his eyes, Fleming withdrew a slender silver pen from his breast pocket. "Fine. I have nothing to hide."
He quickly scrawled a few sentences onto a crisp sheet of lined paper in Lilly's notebook, then clicked the pen shut and slipped it back into his pocket. "Will there be anything else?" he asked, in a tone that suggested there'd better not be.
Lilly suppressed a smile. They'd gotten what they needed from this arrogant weasel. No need to press further.
"Call us if you think of anything else that may be of help." She extended a card, which he refused to take. Instead, he produced one of his own.
"How about you call me when you finally figure out what happened to Ellie?"
"Just take the card, pal." Removing the card from Lilly's outstretched hand, Scotty slipped it in just behind the stunned Fleming's pocket square, then gave it a gentle pat. "We'll be in touch."
Lilly waited to let the smile overspread her face until her back was safely turned and she and Scotty had put a few paces between themselves and their suspect. "Nice move."
"You like that, huh?" He tossed her a lopsided grin. "So what's your read on that guy?"
"Don't know yet. Seemed a lot more concerned about his innocence than finding the truth. That always raises a red flag."
"Think he's good for it?"
"Not sure. I got a feelin' we'll be talkin' with him again, though." They stopped, and she glanced around the room, then grinned at him. "Okay, we did what we came for. Go nuts." She gestured toward the rows upon rows of gleaming show vehicles.
"You sure you wanna open that can, Lil?" Cautiously optimistic eyes darted around the show floor. "We…might be here a while."
Lilly couldn't help but smile. After he'd been so wonderful to her last night, she'd be hard-pressed to deny him anything. And the adorable eagerness that was already bursting through the thin veneer of his professionalism made her want to do whatever she could to give him as much happiness as he'd given her.
"Tell you what. If I get bored, I'll take the car back to Headquarters and you can find your own way home."
The grin with which he responded made her heart do a little flip. "You got it." He quickly shed his coat and tie and rolled up his sleeves, his eager gaze flitting around the room once more.
Lilly chuckled. "Do you even know where you wanna start?"
"Sure." His eyes lit on a nearby vendor's station. "Right here. I'm starved." He fished his money clip out of his pocket. "Get you anything?"
Lilly was already reaching for her own wallet. "Oh, you don't need to do that."
"Maybe not. But I want to."
The warmth from last night flickered in his dark eyes and found its way to her heart, causing her to smile up at him and slip her wallet back into her pocket. "Okay. Thanks."
After buying them each a hot dog and a soda, Scotty led Lilly down the rows of cars, chattering excitedly about the horsepower of one or the torque of another. Occasionally he'd stop to talk with an owner, as he was doing now, and Lilly would hang back and observe. Just as when he spoke Spanish in an interview, she could pick out a word here and there, but mostly it was just a rippling brook of flowing, musical speech.
She knew from the interested looks her partner had gotten over the years that many women considered him attractive, though she'd never let herself go there. But now, seeing him in his element with that easy, dimpled smile, the excitement glittering in his endless eyes, the animated motions of strong hands as he talked about one of his favorite subjects…she could understand their attraction. There was definitely something magnetic about him.
Scotty finished his latest conversation, and they started to meander down the next aisle.
"You ain't bored yet?" he remarked with some surprise.
"Nope. Not yet." She shook her head and smiled, but he was already predictably distracted by the next car down the line.
"Wow. Now this? This has dream car potential." They'd stopped in front of a cherry-red convertible, manned by a proud, yet protective-looking, middle-aged guy with a Red Sox ballcap and a neatly trimmed beard. In seconds, he and Scotty were old friends, engaged in rapid-fire Car Geek speak.
Well, she had to hand it to her partner; the car—a 1968 Fleming Juggernaut, according the little placard in the windshield—was indeed a beauty. Lilly's eyes followed the sleek lines and smooth curves, a deceptively calm exterior for what she knew had to be quite the firecracker beneath the hood. Every inch was a silent testimony to expert craftsmanship and meticulous restoration. Hell, even the hood ornament was gorgeous. Shiny chrome, with a woman's face tilted to the sky, so detailed Lilly could almost see the woman's hair ruffling in the wind as the car sped down the freeway.
Wait a minute. There was something familiar about that hood ornament.
Her heart racing, Lilly slid the file out of her notebook and flipped through the pictures until she found what she was looking for: the picture of Ellie and James, standing next to Ellie's car…a car with an identical hood ornament.
Quickly, she slid the photo back into the file and flashed her winningest smile at the car's owner. "Pardon me for butting in, but I have to tell you I just love this hood ornament."
She suppressed a chuckle at the dumbfounded look on Scotty's face.
"Part of the customization." The owner bounced eagerly on the balls of his feet. "Betty Sue here was missing her original hood ornament when I started the restoration process. This one here's from '62, so it's not exactly historically accurate, but…what can I say?" He smiled broadly. "I think it suits her."
"Oh, I think it captures Betty Sue's personality perfectly." Once again, she reveled in her partner's astonishment. Taking advantage of his silence, she once again smiled at the car owner. "Would you excuse us for a moment?"
"Sure, sure." The bearded owner turned his attention to a couple of older men who'd wandered up, presumably to salivate over the car, and Lilly turned that winning smile on Scotty, who was studying her with furrowed brow and a tentative grin.
"Didn't know you had a thing for hood ornaments, Lil."
"I don't." She opened her notebook, anticipation zinging through her veins. "But James Fleming did." She moved the photo so Scotty could see it. "See anything familiar?"
"I'll be damned." Scotty slid the photo out of the file and brought it in for a closer look. His eyes darted from the photo to Betty Sue and back again before locking with Lilly's. "That's Ellie's hood ornament."
They stared at one another, each knowing what the other was thinking.
This could be the break they needed.