Never Look Back

By: Linda Lael Miller

While I explained, as coherently as I could, the other guy finished his conversation with the 911 operator. I watched, out of the corner of one eye, as he took out his own cell phone, dialed a number, muttered a few words, then grabbed a bottle of water from the miniature refrigerator on a nearby wall and brought it to me, politely twisting off the lid first.

I narrowed my gaze, even as I accepted the water with a nod of thanks. I'd seen this guy before, I realized, in the group photo of Sonterra's softball team. I guessed, accurately, it turned out, that he'd just called his good buddy and given him an update on the adventures of Clare.

Without a trace of chagrin, Cop Number Two gave a slight, crooked grin, confirming my suspicions.

"Anybody out to get you?" the crouching cop asked. Hii name tag read "Atienzo," and I decided I liked him. His manner was gentle, nonconfrontarional.

The dog began to squirm, and I set her down on the floor, stalling while I weighed the question. Two months before, I'd had some problems, but that was over. It didn't even occur to me to mention Peter Bailey; I'd written him off as local color.

"Not that I know of," I answered between restorative sips of ice cold water. In Arizona, it's important to stay hydrated, particularly in times of stress. I get those a lot.

"It was probably a drive-by," the standing cop said with weary resignation. "This isn't the best part of town."

Shades of Sonterra. Okay, so there are a lot of pawnshops, seedy dives offering "adult entertainment," and boarded-up businesses around my office. There are also some decent restaurants, well-stocked supermarkets, churches, and community centers. Should the good guys bail out, and leave the place to the scumbags?

I held the wet part of the T-shirt away from my stomach. "No," I said carefully, "it's not the best neighborhood. All the more reason for me to be here. I like feeling needed."

The guy rolled his eyes, and I could guess what was going through his mind. If he and Sonterra were pals, then he'd most likely been filled in on my history, my stubbornness (to which I readily admit, by the way) and probably my inherited millions, too. I guess he couldn't be blamed for wondering why I didn't just paint my toenails, lounge by a swimming pool somewhere, champagne flute in hand, and watch the dividend checks roll in. On the other hand, it was none of his damn business if I cut each and every dollar bill into little pieces and flushed them down the John. It was, after all, my money.

"According to what's left of the window," Atienzo observed, rising to his feet with another symphony of leather and jingling handcuffs, "you defend people for free."

"If I think they're innocent," I specified.

"Innocent," murmured the second cop, as though nobody had ever been accused of something they hadn't done, in the checkered history of American jurisprudence.

I sighed. A lot of cops take a dim view of human nature, and it isn't hard to see why. In Phoenix, or any other major city, they run across so much blood, insanity, and flat-out meanness, they come to expect it. They are outgunned, underfunded, and mostly unappreciated. You couldn't pay me enough to do what they do, so I try to keep perspective.

"Some people, Officer"—I squinted to read his name tag— "Culver, are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Culver gave a grunt. He was obviously unconvinced. Oh, well.

Just then, through the shattered window, I saw Sonterra's SUV whip up to the curb. He'd made good time, I thought ruefully. He must have been close by. Homicides were common in that section of the city, and even though Sonterra's official beat was Scottsdale, he often worked in conjunction with the Phoenix PD. When he wanted to get somewhere quickly, all he had to do was snap his handy-dandy cop-light onto the roof of his car and put the pedal to the metal,

Atienzo busied himself checking out the arc of bullet holes in the wall, making notes for the inevitable report.

Sonterra boiled into the office like a dust devil, and slammed the door so hard that the last tiny fragments of glass tinkled from the front window.

"Fancy meeting you here," I said. We'd had our most recent disagreement two weeks before, when I insisted on moving into the modest house I'd bought in Scottsdale, instead of taking up permanent residence at his place, and we'd been at an impasse ever since. I operate on a need-to-know basis; if I'd cussed and moaned and even shed a few tears over the estrangement, well, Sonterra didn't need to know. ,

"jesus," he said, taking in the shambles with a sweep of those chocolate brown, miss-nothing eyes, "this place looks like a back street in Baghdad."

"Of course I'm okay," I said pointedly.

His jawline tightened. Sonterra is a specimen of true genetic excellence;, with his dark hair, smoldering eyes, and GQ body, but his personality could use a little work. The concept of winning friends and influencing people is beyond him.

"Is the dog all right?" he asked. Bernice scrabbled at his shin with her front feet; he bent to scoop her up, and even let her lick his face. She was in one piece, and there was no blood, so I didn't bother answering. I merely folded my arms and willed him. to leave.