Merissa Karr dropped a handful of index cards on the floor of the car when Dennis Morgan accelerated to pass a semi on I-5. She kept her head up and her eyes fixed on the sun setting on the horizon as she groped for the cards, fighting off a wave of nausea. Her stomach lurched along with the sporty little BMW as he slid back into the right lane.
“Sorry,” Dennis said with a rueful grin in her direction. “I’m trying to tone it down for you.”
She waved off his apology. She’d driven with her boss and mentor often enough to know that he really was making an effort to smooth out his driving for her. She’d experienced his speed and sharp turns plenty of times before she’d been comfortable enough to tell him she was prone to motion sickness. She had been queasy during most of her internship with his firm. Damned inconvenient affliction. She focused on the city sprawled on her right and kept her breathing deep and even until she felt her stomach settle.
The view of the city wasn’t attractive enough to distract her mind, but her vision of its future was. The approach to Tacoma from Interstate 5 wasn’t pretty from either direction. From the south, the town snuck up on you in an increasing jumble of strip malls and cheap hotels, culminating in a large indoor mall. From the north, driving down from Seattle like she and Dennis were doing today, the city’s innards seemed exposed to view. The industrial Tideflats, with its pulp and paper mill and oil refineries, sprawled along the edge of Commencement Bay, spewing steam and God knew what else into the air and contributing to what was called—indulgently by locals and sneeringly by everyone else—the Aroma of Tacoma.
The nickname was a call to action for Merissa, and she wanted nothing more than to replace it with something more positive and beautiful. She stared at the downtown area where it climbed the hill rising steeply from the bay. From here, she could see buildings and houses, but the details weren’t obvious, especially as night descended and the streetlights were bright. The city’s efforts at improvement—from the museums and boutique shops to the Chihuly Bridge of Glass—blended in with the vacant, graffiti-covered buildings and run-down homes. The possibilities seemed endless from this vantage point.
“It looks like a blank slate from here, doesn’t it?” Dennis asked, as if reading her mind. He took the City Center exit and braked suddenly to avoid hitting the cars stopped at the light in front of him.
Merissa braced her hand on the dash. “Sometimes I wish we could wipe it clean and start from scratch,” she said. The idea of reinventing her city and making it a place more citizens would be proud to call home filled her with a sense of purpose she’d never felt before she came to the Morgan Consulting Group. She’d grown up in a world of big business and big money, but it had always seemed pointless to her. Her first tentative forays into urban planning after graduate school had been fulfilling, but she hadn’t even dreamed of the epic possibilities for change she now saw.
Of course, business always required compromise. She was slowly learning how to deal with investors and builders by watching Dennis whenever she got a chance. He had a natural ability to adapt and change his vision during negotiations, and she doubted she’d ever be as flexible. She’d have to figure out how to stay true to her vision while acknowledging the ideas proposed by other people who were involved in her renovation projects. She hadn’t seen his bargaining skills in action since he usually pitched ideas on his own, but she’d pieced together some sense of the concessions he’d made by comparing the ideas he seemed to particularly like during the firm’s weekly brainstorming meetings with the finalized specs he created before he met with his contractor. In her mind, the two versions of the same plan—what she and the other employees contributed and what he eventually created—were often very different, and she hadn’t been with the firm long enough to see the actualized concept after the third draft, when the contractor and investors gave their input. She figured the more money involved, the more say the investors had, but even when she factored in the necessary compromises, the potential for growth and positive change with this firm was still astounding and exciting to her. She had toured plenty of the spaces D.M. had designed and built before she came to work with him, and she was thrilled to be part of the firm’s future.
“It’d be amazing to begin with an empty space and create a city with intention and good planning, but who will ever have a chance like that? We have to work with what we have and take it one block at a time,” Dennis said, as if they were trying to cure the city of an addiction to unattractiveness.
Merissa took advantage of another stoplight and sorted through her index cards. She and Dennis had spent the afternoon in Seattle, driving around neighborhoods as they searched for ideas for their next renovation project. Sometimes she felt as if she learned more from a day with Dennis—slowly traveling up and down city streets while they talked about the different design elements they noticed—than she had in the two years spent pursuing her master’s degree. McGill’s program had been challenging, but Dennis had knowledge and insight she soaked up like a sponge. Many of their discussions seemed more theoretical than real, because few of the design elements they appreciated in common actually made it onto the plans for residential and business complexes the Morgan Group produced, but she lovingly filed away every structural form and general impression they observed and deliberated over. Once she had proved herself in the lower levels of the company, she hoped she’d be able to put her own flair on the proposals she presented. Until she had that sort of autonomy, she was determined to at least vocalize her ideas, whether or not they were used.
She looked away from her notes and out the window once they started moving again and pointed at a cement staircase leading up the hillside.
“I want an entrance like that in the new neighborhood,” she said. The Tacoma branch of the University of Washington was bisected by several series of wide steps and shrub-filled plateaus. Old-fashioned lampposts illuminated the ascending courtyards with a soft yellow glow, inviting pedestrians to walk through the campus instead of bypassing it. “We can line it with boutiques and open-air cafés. Maybe a small park.”
She imagined the families living in condos she had designed and gathering in the common areas she envisioned, exchanging conversation and sharing stories. “And how about a dog park? There aren’t any nearby, and the local residents could come and bring their pets. It’d be a wonderful way to draw families and people from nearby neighborhoods into the courtyard. They’d likely stay for a cup of coffee or something to eat at one of the cafés, and then window shop while they pass by the stores. They’ll return if they need something from one of the shops…”
Dennis pulled her out of her daydreams. She was good at picturing ideal neighborhoods and giving them shape in her mind. Dennis was more experienced at giving concepts a physical substance.
“Where will the condos go if you have so many elements in the center of the block?” he asked. “Will they be in a narrow strip around the outside? You’ll be giving up too much rentable space that way.” The argument was good-natured and familiar to Merissa. Dennis wanted to isolate the blocks they designed, and she wanted to welcome everyone inside. His tendencies were naturally more prevalent in the Group’s projects because he was the boss and sole head of design. Merissa and the other employees were on equal footing with each other, but far below him. She’d noticed his increased interest in the trajectory of her career lately, though, at least on a personal level. He took her on these trips and seemed to enjoy their discussions, and he even had her join him and his wife Karen for dinner at their home. She hoped an opportunity to experiment with her personal designs would follow someday.
Already, he had been incorporating more of her input than that of any of her peers. Those elements were small, but recognizably hers, and she hoped she was seeing a pattern emerge. Just like she rebuilt Tacoma in her mind, she also rebuilt her position at the firm, picturing a new future and more chances to create real-life versions of what she saw in her imagination.
“We can add a small central garden in the middle, for the surrounding tenants to use,” he continued. “With a big gate to keep everyone else outside.”
Merissa laughed. She’d long since learned that even if Dennis didn’t accept one of her ideas, he never minded when she offered suggestions, even if she was blunt. She couldn’t resist being forthright now. “You’re too shortsighted, D.M. People will come here to shop and eat in a relaxing environment. They’ll love it so much that they’ll be waiting in line to buy the next complex we build. Restricting access will limit exposure.”
“Shortsighted,” he repeated with a snort. “Yeah, that’s the reason we’re the number one consulting firm in the city. Because I can’t see past the nose on my face.”
Merissa glanced at Dennis before answering. He was grinning, the wrinkles around his light blue eyes proving he spent more time smiling than not, and he looked perfectly at ease in his beige cashmere turtleneck and brown suede jacket. He was prone to understatement in his words as well as his clothes, making his point more effectively because of it. Morgan Consulting was more than the top firm in Tacoma. It was the highest grossing one in the Northwest, and growing every year. Most of the credit for its success was due to the handsome gray-haired man sitting next to her, but for more reasons than his personal talent and drive. He oozed charisma and the promise of wealth through his bearing and his outward appearance, and he had the skill and instincts to back up his promises. Merissa doubted those traits alone would have made the Morgan Group what it was today if he hadn’t been the type to hire and encourage employees who saw the world in different ways than he did. He rewarded original thinking, even if—especially if, Merissa amended in her mind—the thinker didn’t agree with him. Merissa had grown up around the yes-men and sycophants her grandfather had hired, as well as the groupies who followed her globe-trotting parents wherever their whims took them. She’d never known a world where original thought and dissension were seen in a positive way. Right now most of her positive feedback from him was in the form of praise and validation, not necessarily in concrete buildings and blocks, but she was patient. She’d wait and learn and store away her designs in her mind. Once she had paid her dues and had moved up in the company, she would be ready to make the real changes she wanted to see.
Until then, she was thriving in her relationship with Dennis. She’d learned long ago to be suspicious of people who blindly agreed with anything she said. He spoke his mind and expected her to do the same, and she never had to look for hidden agendas or subtle manipulation in his interactions with her. She trusted Dennis more than anyone else, and he seemed more like family to her than her own.
She looked forward again, mentally cataloging the ages and styles of the houses they passed. Postwar Craftsmans, stately Victorians, early twentieth-century brick homes. Even though she wanted to revitalize the city, her visions were often based on older styles, and she liked the idea of keeping some of the higher quality and well-structured original homes and buildings. Yet another difference between her and Dennis. Restored and preserved, those old homes would make stunning shops and restaurants. Residential space, packed tight in the downtown area, would expand upward to newly constructed condos and apartments. “The city is changing,” she said. “The more blocks we transform, the more we’ll want to encourage movement and a flow of commerce between them. If we close them off now, they’ll be too isolated. We’ll have designed a series of tiny neighborhoods instead of a connected city.”
Dennis didn’t respond right away, and when she looked at him expectantly he was staring in his rearview mirror with a slight frown. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Hm, nothing. I just thought I recognized someone, but I must have been mistaken,” he said, turning left and heading up the hill, away from busy Pacific Avenue and toward their target block. He continued their conversation, a smile back on his face. “You’ll eventually learn, dear Merissa, that exclusion, not inclusion, is the key to making people line up for a chance to live in the neighborhoods you create. The more you look like you’re trying to keep people out, the more desperately they want in.”
“Cynic,” she said with a shake of her head.
“Idealist,” he countered.
Merissa smiled and pushed her dark blond hair behind her ear. They were each a little of both, she thought. Maybe that’s why they got along so well. He had been born and raised in Tacoma and he had seen both growth and decline over six decades here. She had been raised mostly in Europe with her jet-setting parents, and she still carried a slightly idealized image in her mind of beautiful cities where life was lived on the sidewalks and in the cafés. Places where it didn’t matter if you felt lonely behind closed doors, because once you stepped outside, everyone was family and friend. Her years in Montreal for university and grad school had cemented her belief that public spaces where citizens congregated and shared information, beliefs, and philosophies made for stronger communities in a general sense, and less isolation and loneliness on a personal level.
She wouldn’t let Dennis talk her out of her vision of the city as a walking-friendly one where neighbors and consumers lived more on the streets and less hidden away inside buildings. He, likewise, wouldn’t likely give up his goal of self-contained, exclusive—and expensive—complexes where select people lived and worked together. Their shared goal was a beautiful and safe Tacoma.
Dennis turned again and slowed even more. In some ways, the area around their target neighborhood didn’t look either safe or beautiful right now. Most of the stores had bars on their windows, and a lot of the cars looked like they needed to be towed if they were going anywhere besides where they were parked at the moment. Dennis gestured around them.
“You can see why insular is the way to go,” he said. “Tenants want to feel secure, and an enclosed environment is the only way to make them feel at home here.”
Merissa shook her head with emphasis and had to tuck her hair back again. “If we only look at what’s here before us, I’d have to agree with you. But we have to look into the future and see what this city can become.”
“Here we are,” Dennis said instead of commenting on her words as he started to circle the block they wanted to develop. Merissa watched through the passenger window as they passed a variety of structures. A derelict strip of medical offices, most vacant and for rent. Three short and squat apartment buildings, complete with peeling paint, balconies crowded with toys and plastic furniture, and weedy parking lots. A miniscule grocery store with displays of fruit and cases of beer in front. A smattering of single-family homes, including two that were abandoned and had graffiti-covered plywood over their doors and windows. Like stop-motion photography, in Merissa’s mind she saw all of it torn down piece by piece and her new vision erected in its place.
She noticed a family gathered on one of the tiny lawns that separated an apartment building from the sidewalk, and her mental construction project paused. A woman with gray hair pulled back in a tight bun sat on a chair in the center of the space, near a table with some balloons and a cake. She was surrounded by adults ranging in age from twenties to eighties. Little kids, some shirtless and some shoeless, ran and played around the group of adults, while a cluster of teens leaned on the brick wall between the apartment entrance and the grass. As she and Dennis cruised by, a pedestrian waved and called out to the woman, and then he was pulled in and assimilated into the group. A few of the younger adults moved away to join the teenagers. Flux and movement, a blurring of lines between families and strangers. There was no sign of wealth or prosperity here, except for the unity and friendliness she could see even from a distance.
“Where would you put the entrance to your town square?” Dennis asked, bringing her back inside the car.
“On the north side of the block,” Merissa replied without hesitation. She had the site fully developed in her head and on paper in her office. She pointed toward the east, where Mount Rainier would be visible from the hillside in daylight. “That way, we maximize the number of condos with a view of the mountain. The block on the north side is a prime location for our next renovation project, and we could eventually connect the two. Maybe even put an elevated walkway between them…”
She faded to a stop as she started to imagine the next block and the types of stores and services they could provide to the local residents. Like a cascade of dominoes, the rest of Tacoma’s city blocks were emptied of the old and refilled with new homes and shops. A new thought came to mind after watching the celebrating family, and she easily added it to her list of renovations.
“What if each block had an apartment building on the non-view side with less expensive units? If we use standard materials and go with a simpler design, we could offer a more affordable option right next to the luxury condos. That would give people more options for buying or renting, instead of limiting our potential residents to the wealthy ones who want to live downtown. We’d expand our market, and—”
“Whoa,” Dennis said with a laugh as he drove along the north side of the block. “Keep focused on this block for now, and on the style and quality of housing the Morgan Group is known for. Always keep this in mind, Merissa. Investors need to be able to imagine themselves living and working in the buildings they’re funding. Even if they never set foot in any of them, they will expect to see a certain level of security, privacy, and comfort in your designs.”
Merissa frowned. “How many people can afford the kinds of communities we’ve been bringing to Tacoma? There are so many new waterfront and view condos popping up, and not enough people to fill them. Doesn’t it make sense to diversify, especially on the west side of each block? No one will pay the amount we need to make if all they can see from their windows is another neighborhood that needs renovations.”
“Good point, Merissa, but for now I want you to focus on what we do best. Align your vision with the other Morgan Group projects just this once, so you’re confident and prepared when you pitch your ideas to Kensington.”
Merissa was busy trying to rein in her expanding plans, and she nearly missed the meaning of Dennis’s words. “When I…you mean I’m doing the proposal? With my own design?”
Dennis patted her on the knee. “It’s a big step, but you’re ready to take point on a project this size. We’ll work together to get a mock-up done by Thursday, and we’ll meet with him next week.”
“I’d hug you if we weren’t driving,” Merissa said. She figured the smile on her face must be goofy and huge because she felt it all the way from her toes to her head. She was one step closer to making the dreams she had for her city a reality.
“Of course you would. You’ll make a fortune if this deal goes through.”
Merissa shrugged. She’d grown up having a fortune, but she hadn’t discovered a real purpose until this job. Even if she had to learn how to compromise before she’d even stepped into the meeting room, by altering her elaborate plans, she was willing to do what it took to make Dennis proud. He hadn’t steered her wrong yet, and she’d known she would have to get better at letting go of some of the elements she held dear in her visions. She hadn’t expected him to move her forward in this way so soon, and she wouldn’t let her ego get in the way.
She hadn’t processed much of Dennis’s earlier statement after hearing that they were going to use her design, but she finally turned her thoughts to the second thing he’d said. “Why Kensington and not Edwin Lemaine?”
“It might be time for a change. See what some new blood can do,” he said, with a casual shrug. Merissa wasn’t fooled. Dennis never did anything on a whim. He had a calculated reason for pitching to a developer other than the one they usually used. She wondered if he’d tell her his reasons before the meeting or after. “Based on the other projects Jeff has done, I’ll bet he’ll be inspired by your vision. We’ll see how it goes Monday, and if we don’t feel he’s right for the job, we can pitch to Lemaine.”
Merissa filed away a mental note to research Jeff Kensington’s career before the weekend was over, to get tips on presenting her proposal and to help her decide if he was the best person for the project. She shuffled through her index cards again, looking for one with a sketch she’d made of some decorative stonework. “Remember the cornice on that building we saw today in Pioneer Square? I’d like something similar on the condos, to keep them from looking too modern and boxy.”
She saw the edge of a white card under her seat. As she bent down to get it, she heard the dull thwack of a rock or something hitting the car and felt Dennis weave a little out of his lane. Her stomach twisted at the movement and she sat up quickly.
“Oof.” She held up the missing card. “I might get sick after that maneuver, but it was worth it because I found the drawing.”
Dennis didn’t answer, and Merissa looked over at him. He was staring ahead, with a surprised expression on his face. He slowly pulled over to the curb and put the car in park with what looked like a tremendous effort.
“Dennis? What’s wrong?” Merissa struggled to figure out what she was seeing, what had gone wrong in the seconds she’d been looking away. “What happened?”
“Karen,” he whispered, still staring straight ahead, his eyes wide and vacant. “Tell Karen I…”
“Tell Karen what?” Merissa’s confusion was steadily rising as panic fueled the already queasy feeling she had. She saw blood slowly begin to drip from his chin and onto his neatly pressed khakis. “Dennis? Dennis? Dennis!”
Her voice got louder with each repetition of his name, and she reached for his chin to make him look at her and explain what was happening. The fourth time she called his name was a scream.
Billie Mitchell sat on her heels in the dusty alleyway between abandoned shops. Her back was pressed so hard against the comfortingly solid wall behind her, that she knew she’d have bumps and creases in her skin from the irregularly shaped bricks. Sweat gathered between and under her breasts, and her leg muscles ached from the miles of crouching, crawling progress they’d made to get here, to the center of an enemy-filled town. She sat perfectly still, not shifting to flex her cramping calves or reaching up to wipe away a drop of sweat caught on her long eyelashes. She held her M4 against her chest as if she was cradling a teddy bear.
Someone had been out here for a cigarette recently. Her nose and throat burned with the scent of cheap smoke, probably laced with more than nicotine. She kept her breathing shallow. Weak, sore, burning. On the outside, she was calm and untouched by the swirling dust and the stench of the trash-filled alley.
“Hey, Beast,” Mike whispered. She turned and looked at his grinning face. The sun was behind him, creating a halo of light around his head. Regulations meant little out here, and he hadn’t shaved for days. “I’ll bet you dessert that the cockroach over there makes it to the street corner before we do.”
A large roach scuttled along on the other side of the alley, traveling over rocks and twigs with purpose. Their point man, Hamilton, was either the most cautious person alive or just the most closely related to the sloth. Smart money was on the bug, and dessert—even though it was probably only a tiny package of cookies—was a hot commodity these days. Still…
“You’re on,” Billie said, unable to resist a bet. She raised her voice slightly. “Yo, Hamill. We’ve got to be at the LZ before dawn. Let’s move.”
“No fair,” Mike protested. He stood up and walked over to the roach. “Hurry up!”
“Mike!” Billie yelled, suddenly terrified. She ran toward him and caught one last look at his relaxed smile and cheerful blue eyes before the cockroach exploded and he disappeared.
“Aunt Billie! Aunt Billie!”
The children’s shouts were accompanied by a stomach-crushing leap onto the bed. Billie gasped, pressing her palms into the mattress as she struggled to figure out where she was and whether she was in danger. As the weirdly combined fragments of truth and fiction making up her dream shattered, she managed to see what was in front of her open eyes. She was in her apartment. The small weights currently holding her down were Mike’s children. She was safe.
Mere seconds passed before she felt her reflexes relax enough for her to tickle the kids until they writhed and giggled on her bed. Another few moments and her heart rate and breathing slowed and she was laughing along with them. Even though she tried not to sleep deeply enough to lose herself when the children were at her house, the wrenching moments between waking and settling back into her present surroundings were always a little frightening, especially when her two human alarm clocks kept her from easing slowly and carefully into the wakeful world.
The three of them collapsed back on the bed, and Billie’s gaze moved to the photo on her dresser of her and Mike sitting outside a canvas tent. A wicked dust storm made the sky behind them look threatening and dark, but they wore shorts and bright smiles as they posed for the picture. They were a contrasting pair—Mike was tall and blond with the handsome and healthy look of a Tommy Hilfiger model, while Billie was shorter and dark-haired. She was private, both in expression and personality, while he was as open as anyone she’d ever met. They were an unlikely combination, but they’d become best friends from the first moment they met. And now he was gone…
Billie refused to get sad while his kids were here. “Who wants pancakes?” she asked, getting out of bed and pulling a sweatshirt on over the T-shirt and sweats she was wearing.
“I do! I do!” Ryan and Callie were only a year apart in age, at six and seven, and most of their conversation seemed to be in the form of a chorus. Words and phrases were echoed between them, proving how close they were as siblings, not just in years.
Billie walked to the kitchen like a monster in a horror film, lurching and dragging her feet since one child was wrapped around each calf. Their infectious smiles and obvious delight at staying with her helped her maintain her happy mood—they were as good for her as she seemed to be for them. They sat on stools at the chipped laminate counter while she cooked, chattering on about friends at school and the vacation they were taking with Mike’s parents later in the summer. Billie cracked eggs and poured milk while she listened. She’d spent months in therapy after she’d returned from her deployment, minus Mike forever, but the sessions had never been as helpful as times like this were for her. The failure had been partly due to the mission’s level of security—how could any therapist really help her when the most she could say was some version of I was somewhere, and something happened, and now I’m sad. No specifics meant no real understanding or sympathy. Billie was so accustomed to keeping classified information out of her conversations that she even omitted it in her own mind. She never thought of the place names or the specifics of her missions, especially the final one. Everything was vague. Mike had been there, and she had been whole. Then he was gone and she was bleeding and in pain.
She was healed on the outside, now. And her occasional weekends with Mike’s kids healed her insides a little more every time. They anchored her in the present as few other things and people were able to do. They reminded her of the past and of Mike, but led her into the future as well, with their conversations and anticipation and the glimpses they showed of the teens and adults they’d eventually become. She was able to settle somewhere in the middle while she was talking to them. She was here, the same way she was when riding a horse or patrolling with her mounted police unit.
Billie ladled the first batch of pancake batter onto an electric griddle and got syrup and butter out of the fridge while the discs browned. She flipped them and smashed them with her spatula, preferring thin, crepe-like pancakes to the fluffy thick ones she got in restaurants. A throwback to the breakfasts her dad used to cook when he was at home and not at sea on the fishing boats. Old habits.
Billie piled the finished pancakes onto plates and started another batch while Ryan and Callie ate. She gave them the second batch as well before making a plateful for herself and dousing it with sugary syrup that had probably never seen the inside of an actual maple tree. The three of them were hungrily demolishing the remaining pancakes when someone knocked on the door.
“Mom’s here!” Ryan yelled, hopping off the stool and running to answer the door. Beth Grant came in and dropped some bags on the floor before grabbing Ryan in a hug.
“I missed you,” she said, putting him down and hugging Callie next. She picked up the bags again and brought them into the kitchen. She gave Billie a kiss on the cheek. “I missed you, too. I brought you some grown-up food to thank you for watching Ryan and Callie again.”
Billie had been watching Beth’s entrance with a feeling of relief. The years following Mike’s death had been hard on her—Beth had seemed to age twice as fast as normal, and the blond good looks that had meshed so well with her husband’s had been overlaid with dark circles and frown lines. Lately, Beth had been smiling more and her skin color was brighter and healthier. Billie had a suspicion there was someone behind those changes, but she was waiting for Beth to bring up the topic first. She peered into one of the bags and saw a bottle of red wine and a six-pack of beer. “Grown-up food? All I see in here are grown-up drinks.”
Beth started emptying the other bags. “I brought steaks for that silly little grill you have on your patio, and fruits and vegetables. Real food.”
“I eat real—” Billie started to defend her eating habits, but Beth waved her off.
“When I was here on Friday, I noticed that your fridge was full of the kids’ favorite foods and old takeout containers. You only buy groceries for them.”
Billie wanted to protest, but she decided to let Beth believe her statement was true, and that Billie only cooked on the rare weekends when the kids were with her and the rest of the time either grabbed a bite in a nearby bar or brought home dinner in a fast-food sack. In reality, Billie rarely ate takeout, and the cartons Beth had seen were her coworker’s leftovers from when he had visited her earlier in the week. Don Lindstrom’s wife didn’t approve of him eating fried food and burgers, so he came to Billie’s once or twice a week with a contraband meal. Billie gave him safe haven, with the warning that if Marie ever asked her what he was eating at her place she wouldn’t lie for him.
Billie didn’t want to admit she had a fridge full of children’s food because she ate the same way herself. Chicken nuggets, fish sticks, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on soft white bread. As much as she tried to break away from the past, Billie couldn’t keep herself from craving the foods she’d eaten as a child. She put up with the teasing she got from the other members of her team, and at least when the kids were here, she had an excuse for eating the way she did.
Billie put a large bag of broccoli in the vegetable crisper while Ryan and Callie rinsed their breakfast dishes. “How was your weekend?” she asked after Beth had sent the children to the spare bedroom to pack their things.
“It was fine. I learned a lot, and the keynote speaker was one of my favorite professors back when I was getting my teaching certificate.” Beth put the breakfast plates into the sink and ran the tap water while she talked, keeping her face averted from Billie. “I feel guilty leaving the kids with you while I travel so much.”
“You don’t need to feel guilty. Not at all,” Billie said. She kept herself busy rearranging the groceries in the fridge and giving Beth some space. Beth’s job as a school administrator meant she had to travel to seminars and symposiums on a regular basis. And Beth knew how much Billie loved having Mike’s kids be part of her life. She figured Beth’s concerns were stemming from a different source.
“There’s this guy…”
Billie kept her face neutral even though she wanted to smile. Of course there’s a guy she wanted to say. She’d suspected as much for several months now. “Who is he?” she asked.
“He’s a principal in the Ferndale school district. We’ve been to most of the same seminars over the past year and we talk a lot. About work. We had coffee together.”
She said the last sentence with as much shame as if she’d confessed to murdering someone. Billie closed the refrigerator door and faced her.
“This is good, Beth. Very good.”
Beth shook her head, and Billie saw her eyes redden. She stepped closer and put her hand on Beth’s shoulder.
“I’m just not sure what to do. If it’s been long enough…If this would hurt Ryan and Callie…If I’m even ready.” Beth gave Billie’s hand a squeeze and then she sighed audibly. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. Forget I said anything.”
Billie shook her head. Beth had never mentioned anyone before, but Billie had no doubt other men had shown interest in her during the past few years. “Has he asked you out before this?”
Beth shrugged. “Once or twice. He knows about Mike and he doesn’t push, but he’s let me know he’s interested.”
“You’ve never mentioned this before.”
Beth looked away. “I don’t know why. I guess I didn’t want to bother you with it.”
“Or maybe it’s because now you want to go out with him.”
Beth was silent for so long that Billie thought she might have misread her. When she finally spoke, her voice was almost a whisper.
“You were his best friend, Billie. Sometimes I thought the two of you were even closer than he and I were, because of everything you went through together, everything the two of you shared and that he wasn’t allowed to talk to me about.” She paused and visibly inhaled. “I need your honest advice, Billie. What do you think he’d say to me right now?”
Billie wanted to launch into a series of encouraging platitudes. Time heals all wounds; it’s time to move on; Mike would want you to be happy. There was some truth to them, but Beth wanted honesty. And Billie wanted her friend to have hope for the future again. She chose her words carefully.
“Mike was one of the most matter-of-fact people I’ve ever met, about both life and death.” She thought back to the days before each mission, when they had to write letters home in case they didn’t survive. Billie had written to her dad and sisters, feeling the distance between them measured both in miles and in emotional connection. The letters had been a chore to her, a necessity before she was allowed to go into the field. Hers had all been alike and as impersonal as a form letter, unlike the ones Mike wrote for Beth. “He knew the odds of being hurt or killed were high. He accepted it, and I know how proud he was that you did, too.
“If I could talk to him right now about you and what you’re going through, he’d say Of course she’s moving on. Why wouldn’t she? He wouldn’t be at all surprised that someone is interested in you because he always talked about how gorgeous and smart and wonderful you are.” Billie paused and took a breath, making an effort not to look like she was gasping for breath. The nightmare and the resurfacing memories over the weekend had weakened her. Now, thinking of Mike and imagining what he would say to Beth, she felt her insides clench. But she kept her tension inside. Not on her face and not in her voice. It was what she was expected to do, what Beth needed from her. She exhaled and continued.
“More important, though, he wouldn’t be surprised in the least to hear that you might want to let someone new into your life. He’d expect it. He’d see it as a natural and human thing to do because he understood more than most people that life would go on whether we survived a mission or not. He’d never judge you for moving on, or condemn you to the life of a martyr. He’d want you and the kids to live a full and happy life.”
Beth wiped away the tears on her cheek and hugged Billie. “Thank you,” she said when she pulled away. “You’re pretty wise for someone who avoids romantic relationships of any kind.”
Billie laughed. “I don’t avoid them. I just move around too much to find someone and settle down. It’s a family trait, I suppose.”
“Hmm.” Beth glanced around the apartment with an unreadable expression. She didn’t say anything else, and Billie was about to ask what was on her mind but she had a feeling she knew what Beth was thinking. Billie had pictures crowded on the walls, and every surface was covered with something personal—mementos from her travels, more photos of the friends she’d made in the service and in the department, and pieces of tack she’d brought home from the police barn to either clean or repair. She looked like a settler here, not a temporary occupant. What Beth didn’t know was Billie had always lived this way. She’d been shuffled from house to house because of her dad’s job. He was on the boat for long periods, and she and her sisters had stayed with someone different almost every time he left. Spreading the wealth, he called it. Desperately trying to find someone willing to take in three kids was more like it, in Billie’s opinion. Still, she and her sisters hadn’t had much choice, and they’d gotten in the habit of unpacking and making each new room their own as soon as they arrived. Billie had never shaken the habit, no matter if she’d been at an army base for two weeks of training or here in Tacoma for almost a decade. She might give the appearance of being settled, but her heart was always prepared to move again.
Callie and Ryan came back into the room lugging their suitcases. Billie would miss the kids’ company, but she was relieved to have the conversation end in the chaos of good-byes. She was willing to listen to Beth’s issues but much less comfortable when the topic of her own love life—or lack of one—arose.
As soon as her guests were gone, Billie showered and got her police uniform out of the closet. She pulled on the tight navy pants and straightened the seams so the extra material designed to protect her inner thighs from the stirrup leathers was placed just right. She buttoned her freshly ironed shirt and tucked it in before buckling her duty belt around her waist. The belt was modified from the one she’d worn as a patrol officer to make it easier for her to move on horseback, but it still held everything she might need while at work, from gun to handcuffs to notepad.
Even the act of putting on the outfit of a mounted patrol officer soothed her. She loved Beth and the kids, but being around people who’d been through trauma always made her relive her own. She was as exhausted by their presence as she was uplifted by the children and her friendship with Beth. Soon she’d be with her horse, Ranger. Grooming him and riding the streets of Tacoma. He’d put her back in balance.
Her first mount, a gray mare named Corona, hadn’t worked the same magic as Ranger. Billie had joined the unit with little riding experience, trusting her sergeant and fellow officers to help her transition from a beginner with only a handful of therapy lessons to a capable rider. Instead, she had found herself in the middle of an unanticipated battle to destroy the unit and take over the land where the police barn now stood. Billie had managed to seem confident even though she was never certain whether Corona would do her job or decide to bolt or buck, but she’d spent more of their training sessions on her butt on the ground rather than in the saddle.
Then Rachel Bryce had stepped in as sergeant and put her on Ranger. Billie had finally found the healing and strengthening kind of partnership she had been hoping for when she had joined the team, not just with Ranger, but also with Rachel and Cal—Rachel’s girlfriend and the team’s trainer—and her teammates Clark and Don. Don especially was an odd choice for someone she now considered to be one of her closest friends. They were far apart in age and interests and lifestyle, but they’d bonded over the horses and their friendship had carried over into everyday life beyond the barn. The mounted team had come to mean everything to her.
She checked her reflection in the bathroom mirror and straightened the small TPD pins on her lapels. She combed her hair and was clipping back her too-long bangs to keep them out of her eyes when her cell buzzed. A photo of her lieutenant, Abigail Hargrove, popped up on her screen.
“Hey, Hargrove. What’s up?”
“Murder and mayhem.” Abby was speaking in her work voice, crisp and no-nonsense. When they’d first met, Billie had doubted there were any other sides to Hard-Ass Hargrove, but lately she’d discovered the funny and playful woman beneath the controlled officer persona. Love had been good for her. Abby was all business today, though.
“Another homicide last night. Drive-by. I need you to canvass the area with the witness, so report to the one sector substation instead of the barn.”
Billie sighed. No time with Ranger today. Instead she’d be subjected to the fresh trauma of a murder witness. “Fine. What are we looking for? Did they see the shooter?”
“No. She doesn’t seem to have any useful information since she was looking for something on the floor when it happened, or getting carsick, or whatever. But driving around the area might jog her memory. Plus, she’s pretty upset, obviously, and I want you to spend time with her. You’re one of the best in cases like these, and I’m sure you’ll be able to calm her down and get a clear story from her.”
Great. An afternoon playing grief counselor. Billie was flattered by Abby’s praise because she knew Hargrove never gave it lightly. The only reason Billie was so good at working with frightened or traumatized people, though, was because she had all her own grief sitting right under the surface of her skin. Maybe other people sensed it was there and knew she understood them, or maybe the currents of PTSD just made her more sensitive to the resonating vibrations coming from victims of trauma. Whatever the reason, these interactions eroded her strength a little more each time, and she was left fighting harder than ever to conceal and control her own feelings and memories. But she had to put aside her personal issues and do her job. “I’ll be there,” she said.
Merissa sat slumped over in the hard plastic chair. She’d been ferried around the city in cop cars since the police had arrived at the crime scene the night before. Everywhere she went, though, the picture of Dennis staring out the window of the BMW with unseeing eyes and a trickle of blood dripping off his chin superseded everything else. Brief flashes of other images came and went, but they shifted through her mind out of context and a little fuzzy. She couldn’t describe the inside of the main police station, even though she’d seen the exterior hundreds of times. All she remembered of her time there was resting her clenched hands on a metal table in the stark room where she was interviewed by a string of detectives. The hospital morgue was reduced to a flash of Karen’s horrified and confused expression after she identified her husband and before she rushed into Merissa’s arms. And when Merissa closed her eyes, all she could recall from the tiny Hilltop precinct room where she was now and had been waiting for the past two hours was the curved, orange chair on which she sat. It must have been there since the seventies, but was the rest of the furniture in the room just as old, or was it more modern? She had no idea. Even when she opened her eyes and looked around, she couldn’t make her mind register the rest of the décor. It slipped in and out of her head, unable to dislodge the image of Dennis.
She shifted in the uncomfortable chair. She was apparently waiting for yet another officer or detective to come see her. She knew the drill by now. Each time someone new was about to approach her, they’d first talk quietly with the detective who’d been in charge of her most of the night, both of them glancing her way as if she was a specimen in a lab. Then each new arrival would walk over to her wearing what they must have hoped was a consoling and reassuring smile. They’d gently ask her the same questions about what she’d seen and heard, she’d give the same brief and unhelpful answer—nothing—and they’d sigh and leave her alone again. She tried to make them understand that she wasn’t trying to disappoint them or herself or Dennis. More than anything, she wanted to be the one to identify the shooter and have the horrible person locked away forever. Why had she been focused on finding her index card and not paying attention to what was going on around her?
The next awaited officer finally arrived. Instead of the grizzled older male cop Merissa had come to expect, this one was a woman about Merissa’s age. A gorgeous woman. Her dark thick hair was blunt cut and held off her face with a plain clip. Her uniform was different from the ones the others wore, made of a clingy fabric and snug enough to show off her slender legs and small waist. She was beautiful with her combination of gentle curves and muscular strength, but Merissa’s attention was drawn past her looks and to the expression on her face. Intense and shielded, as if she had powerful thoughts and memories and emotions below the surface, but would only show faint ripples on her controlled face.
Damn. Merissa had been feeling vulnerable and raw since she had first stumbled out of the BMW and called for help. She hadn’t showered yet, and she was so tired she’d probably get lost if she stepped outside the precinct and tried to get back in. She hated feeling weak and at a disadvantage in any situation, but she had been managing her irritation just fine with the string of unappealing cops that had been interviewing her. Just because she found this one attractive and confident didn’t explain why she was suddenly angry, but her emotions had been running the gamut from extreme to nonexistent all night.
The woman walked toward her, and Merissa realized with a start that this officer was the first person or thing to really register in her mind since she’d realized Dennis was dead. She felt an odd mix of guilt, like she was betraying him somehow, and gratitude that she wouldn’t be stuck in the memory of the immediate moments after his death forever.
“Shitty day, isn’t it?” The woman stopped next to Merissa’s chair, no trace of the placating smiles others had worn. She carried with her a faintly spicy and sweet scent. Merissa couldn’t quite define what it was, but she inhaled deeply and exhaled with a sigh, glad to have the momentary break from stale police precinct air.
“Yes,” Merissa said. A simple answer, but she was as relieved by the honest words as by the respite from the sweaty, ferrous aromas of death and fear that she’d been living in for the past hours. No Are you doing okay? and Yes, I’m fine lies to suffer through.
“I’m Billie. I’m going to drive you around the neighborhood. I know it will be hard to be back where the shooting happened, but maybe something will jog your memory.”
Merissa shook her head. Why go through all this when it was hopeless? “I didn’t see anything until…after. I’m sorry, but I’d rather not—”
Billie put her hand on Merissa’s shoulder and stopped her words with gentle pressure. “Don’t apologize. Our minds can play tricks on us, making us forget what we actually remember. You might have seen or heard something that you don’t realize will be important to us. Any clues we can discover will help us find who did this to your friend.”
“Okay,” Merissa said. She was distracted by the feel of Billie’s touch. She felt a shiver pulse through her at the contact, and Billie must have interpreted it as discomfort because she pulled her hand back. Merissa could only call it awareness, as if her cells were turning toward Billie’s palm and fingers, and drawing her mental focus there as well. Traitorous body and exhausted mind. Merissa shouldn’t be feeling attraction after what had happened. Or was it a stress response and nothing more? Unlikely. Billie would have caught Merissa’s attention in any circumstance. She wanted to explain away her body’s response the same way she’d been rationalizing her unexpected reactions to everything happening to and around her since the shooting, but she couldn’t convince herself. She needed distance and privacy before she could process what happened and understand her reactions, and she wasn’t likely to get either one soon.
She stood up and only noticed she was a couple of inches taller than Billie when they were standing side by side. Billie’s bearing made her seem larger than her physical size. They went outside and got in the patrol car waiting by the curb. Merissa buckled the seat belt. She’d managed to avoid being in police cars for all thirty-four years of her life. In less than twenty-four hours she’d been inside more of them than most felons probably had.
Billie got in the car and hesitated before she started the engine. “I’m sure you’ve gone over this a hundred times today, but will you tell me your version of what happened?”
Merissa sighed. The car seat was much more comfortable than the chair had been, and all Merissa wanted to do was wrap Billie’s scent around her like a blanket and take a nap. No such luck. It was bad enough that she’d had to experience Dennis’s death one time, and now it was time to relive it yet again. She’d sympathized with victims of violent crimes on news reports, but she had never realized that what happened to them wasn’t a single event, a single moment in time. Instead, it was a repetitive series of internal reruns and external conversations. Over and over—how many more times? Her stomach clenched and growled, and she put her hand on her belly. “I had dropped some notes I’d taken earlier in the day and when I picked them up I missed one card. I leaned over to find it, and when I sat up again, I noticed something was wrong with Dennis.”
Merissa shuddered at the understatement. Something wrong sounded as innocuous as the flu or a headache. Billie was frowning while Merissa talked, and Merissa interpreted her expression as one of judgment. She had felt judged throughout this entire process, by the detectives and even by Karen, although they all tried to deny it. She should have noticed more, done something different, saved her boss and dear friend. She heard the tone of her voice growing more defensive as she talked. “I heard a noise, but it sounded like a rock hitting the window, not a loud gunshot. And there was so little blood. It shouldn’t have taken me so long to figure out what was going on, but I was sort of distracted because I was carsick, and it wasn’t…it wasn’t like you see on TV.”
“Hey, I’m only trying to figure out what happened, not blame you for it.” Billie’s voice was soft and free of judgment. So very different from the harsh and berating one Merissa had been hearing in her own skull all night. The kindness in Billie’s tone washed her free of recrimination for a moment, but Merissa fought with the freedom from guilt. She didn’t believe she deserved it, and the realization made her want to weep. She was glad Billie didn’t look her way as she started the car and pulled away from the curb. “This was a small caliber bullet and it would have been fairly quiet and with a small point of entry. I’m sure you, like most people, don’t drive around expecting someone to shoot at you, so on the rare occasions when it does happen, it’s perfectly natural for the brain to take a while to process what’s happened. Start from the beginning and tell me about yesterday without beating yourself up in the process. Where were you when you took those notes?”
Billie managed to say the right words to ease Merissa’s worries, but she struggled against the sense of being soothed. The other officers had been kind enough and had reassured her when she started to spiral out of control with guilt and sorrow, but Billie did more than comfort. She understood the heart of what was hurting Merissa and she reached inside and addressed it directly, closing the gaping wounds. Billie’s strength only made Merissa’s weakness even more obvious, though, and her ability to say the right thing threw Merissa’s half-formed thoughts and sentences into stark relief. Merissa felt an irrational anger because Billie’s help made her seem even more vulnerable than she’d been feeling. She wasn’t sure how to handle her confusing reactions, and she focused instead on reliving the last moments she’d ever spend with Dennis.
“We’d gone to Seattle to scout some neighborhoods,” Merissa said, focusing on the facts of yesterday and wishing she could change the day’s end by changing her words. She thought even further back, to their discussion when she had wanted to take her car, but Dennis had offered to drive instead because she liked to sketch plans while they were on these trips. If only I’d been the one driving sounded like it might qualify as beating herself up.
“What exactly were you looking at in Seattle?”
Merissa, jarred back into the present, noticed they were driving downhill, toward the Tideflats and away from the street where Dennis had been shot, but she answered Billie’s question instead of asking why. “Ideas for a renovation project we have in the works. Had in the works. During the planning phase, we’ll look for inspiration in all sorts of places. Or we used to look for inspiration.”
Billie reached over and patted Merissa’s leg. The touch was brief, but somehow it pulled all of Merissa’s focus to the spot on her thigh where Billie’s hand rested. Her rioting thoughts and emotions centered, and then spun out of control again. She gave a deep sigh.
“Don’t worry about getting the tenses right,” Billie said. “Just talk. How long were you in Seattle?”
“About three hours. We got back here just after six.”
Merissa kept her answers short and let Billie’s calm questions lead her through the recounting of the night’s events. Piece by piece, Merissa gave more details about their route from the freeway, her carsickness, and their conversation than she’d realized she could recall. Billie was like a puppeteer, making Merissa talk and seek out her memories. Merissa wanted to cut the strings and be left alone again, but at the same time, she was relieved to be remembering so much more than she’d expected. Her tale ended where she began, with the dropped card and the gunshot.
“Good,” Billie said. “You have an excellent memory. We’ll retrace your steps and maybe something new will come to you. First, though, let’s get some food.”
She pulled into the drive-thru lane of a McDonald’s, and Merissa grimaced. She rarely ate fast food and she wasn’t about to start today. She doubted she could keep anything down, let alone a greasy hamburger. “Nothing for me, thanks.”
Billie ordered a meal and a Coke and then she inched the car forward in line. “When’s the last time you had something to eat?”
“We had a late lunch in Seattle,” Merissa said. Pad Thai at their favorite restaurant. She’d never eat there with Dennis again. The realization should have made her cry, but instead she felt curiously numb.
Billie paid for the sack of food and dropped it on Merissa’s lap. “Eat.”
Merissa was about to protest some more, but the scent of french fries made her stomach growl again. She reached into the bag. Maybe just one. Or maybe a handful. She finished the fries in a matter of seconds, barely pausing to wipe oil and salt off her fingers before she unwrapped the burger and took a huge bite. She’d been hungry before, of course, but this was nothing like a normal appetite, just like the fatigue from jet lag was more profound than normal weariness. The unaccustomed neediness accompanying her meal brought tears to her eyes. Great. Now she wanted to cry. Because of a stupid Quarter Pounder, not because her mentor had died right in front of her.
Billie drove down Pacific Avenue toward the freeway, glancing at her occasionally with an inscrutable expression in her intense eyes, but she didn’t speak until Merissa had wolfed down the entire meal. “It’s normal,” Billie said. She accelerated onto the freeway heading north toward Seattle, but she didn’t stay on I-5 long and took the Portland Avenue exit instead.
Merissa braced her hand on the dashboard as Billie made a sweeping turn and crossed under I-5. “What’s normal?”
“Whatever it is you’re feeling right now. You look upset, but don’t be. After what you’ve been through, everything will seem upside down. You’ll have extreme emotions at one moment, but when you think you should feel sad or scared or whatever, you’ll be completely numb. You’re not a monster if you don’t feel grief at what you believe are appropriate times, and you’re not overreacting if odd things make you cry. These are normal responses to stress, even though they seem weird and unpredictable.”
Merissa nodded and wiped the tears off her cheek. She took her attention off the horizon long enough to look at Billie. Her words and expression seemed to show a calm compassion and understanding, but Merissa wondered if Billie knew the right words to say because she had been around other victims in her line of work or if she had been through trauma herself. Merissa was annoyed because Billie seemed to read her so well, but Billie even understood her confusing annoyance. A vicious cycle, with Merissa spinning out of control. Wondering about Billie’s life and past distracted her from her own emotions. Still, she now felt a little less worried about her unexpected reactions to both the night’s events and to Billie’s calm presence. She wasn’t used to being pissed at someone just because they were helpful to her, and she decided to chalk her responses—even her physical attraction to Billie—up to stress and nothing more. “Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” Billie said. “Now keep your eyes on the road so you don’t get sick.”
Merissa gave a brief laugh, surprising herself with the sound. “Don’t worry. I won’t throw up in your car.”
Billie shrugged. “Go ahead, it’s a pool car. But if you’re planning on it, I’ll have to put you in the backseat because it’s easier to hose down.”
Merissa glanced back at the hard plastic shell in place of a normal, padded seat. With the surrounding plexiglass shield, it looked like a clear coffin. “No thanks,” she said. “I’ll stay up here.”
They merged onto the freeway again, going south. “Okay,” Billie said. “You took the I-705 exit. What was happening in the car?”
“We were discussing the neighborhood we want to renovate. I was telling Dennis I’d like to have an open pathway through the center, like the staircase over there, and he was trying to convince me to make it a more isolated community. Our usual argument. We turned here.”
Billie retraced their route through downtown Tacoma. Billie rolled down the windows, and the bracing breeze helped Merissa focus. Billie didn’t say much while Merissa talked about their plans to refurbish the city block, and Merissa thought the atmosphere in the car changed in some indefinable way but she had trouble reading the unflappable officer next to her. Billie seemed level on the surface—her voice, her reasonable words, the spare but graceful way she gestured with her hands while she talked—but Merissa sensed passion and movement beneath the calm. She was too consumed by controlling and understanding her own fretful insides to be able to truly see or understand what Billie might be thinking about her, and she gave up trying. Maybe Billie was just giving her a chance to remember the trip without distracting her with questions. As they were about to turn off Pacific Avenue, Merissa felt her thoughts swing back to the night before with a jolt.
“He saw someone. He was looking in the rearview mirror and made a kind of grunt. When I asked what was wrong, he said he thought he saw someone he knew.”
“Good, Merissa,” Billie said. Merissa felt a swell of pride because she’d finally remembered something potentially useful, but Billie’s next words brought her down again. “Did you look back when he said that? Did you notice what kind of car he was looking at, or ask who he saw?”
“No,” Merissa said. She felt her shoulders droop. “We turned off Pacific right after he mentioned it. Do you think it was related to what happened? And I completely missed it!”
Billie nudged her with an elbow. “It might have been connected, and it might be completely separate from what happened after. He lived in Tacoma, so the chances are good he’d see familiar faces while driving anywhere in the city. Just keep focusing on remembering details like that, not on what you should have done.”
Merissa would try for now, but she doubted she’d ever get past the guilt she felt. How many opportunities to see the shooter or to prevent the murder completely had she missed? She wanted Billie to be angry with her, to blame her for what happened and validate her own guilt, but Billie remained as stoic as she’d been since the first moment she walked into the precinct. Merissa was sure Billie had strong emotions just like she did, but Merissa’s were plainly visible to everyone around her. Billie’s were tucked inside.
When they got close to the neighborhood, Billie slowed the car. She stopped at a red light next to a convenience store where a group of young men were lounging under a bus stop shelter.
“Hey, Mitchell,” one of them called. “Where’s your horse? You get bucked off?”
The group laughed and Billie grinned in response. “He’s off today,” she said. “He gets more vacation days than I do.”
“He deserves them, having to haul your ass all over the city.” The guys laughed harder, and Billie waved when the light changed and she drove forward again. Merissa was surprised by the easy banter between a cop and what looked to her like potential troublemakers. “Your horse?” she asked. “Is that street slang for something?”
Billie chuckled. “Yes. It’s slang for a large animal with four hooves. I’m with the mounted unit, and I’m usually riding on my patrol beat, not driving.”
Merissa suddenly realized why Billie was wearing a different uniform than the other officers, and she also remembered where she’d seen her before. The Daffodil Parade through the streets of Tacoma and nearby Puyallup in the fall. Of course, she hadn’t recognized Billie’s face because then she’d worn sunglasses and a helmet.
“You ride a chestnut Thoroughbred, with a small white sock on his left hind.”
“Yes,” Billie said, looking at her with raised eyebrows. “Ranger. How’d you know?”
“I’m on the Daffodil Festival committee and I saw you riding in the parade. I couldn’t see your face, but I remember your figure.” Merissa waved vaguely at Billie’s body, feeling her face heat with embarrassment. She’d thought Billie was sexy even before she got a good look at her edgy face and gorgeous eyes. “I mean the way you rode. Your team, that is. You’re all good riders, and I…”
Her voice trailed to a halt. She pointed with a suddenly shaky finger. “I saw that car.”
Billie braked swiftly. “You saw it last night? Are you sure?”
Merissa stared at the old brown Chrysler. Snatches of memory came back to her when she was distracted by either anger toward or attraction to Billie and not focused on remembering, like seeing flashes of the past in her peripheral vision. “Yes. At least, I think so. Or one just like it.” She shook her head, hating the uncertainty in her voice. “It passed us right before I could scream for help, right after Dennis was shot.”
Billie frowned and took out her notepad and pen. “Good job, Merissa,” she said, but her praise sounded flat. Merissa wasn’t sure why, since she’d finally uncovered a shred of useful information from her confused mind.
“There wasn’t a lot of traffic,” she said. “Maybe the shooter was in that car.”
“Maybe,” Billie said, her frown deepening. “Let’s get back to the precinct.”