Never Look Back

By: Linda Lael Miller

I stiffened. Who, indeed? "Just a friend," I answered, hoping I sounded casual. Sonterra and I were in a rocky patch, and we weren't having sex, so technically, he was free to pursue other avenues. It shook me, how much I hated that idea.

Another silence, breathy and faintly moist. "Tell him Leanne called, will you?"

Will I ever. "Sure," I said lightly.

Leanne, whoever she was, didn't bother with a good-bye.

Before the phone call, I'd planned to make myself an omelet. Now, my legendary appetite was stalled. I poured some kibble for Bernice and wrote two words on a sticky note, in block letters, pressing hard. LEANNE CALLED.

I finished my coffee, then loaded Bernice into the Escalade and backed out of Sonterra's garage with a slight screech of tires. Luckily, I'd opened the door first.

All the way to the police station, which is downtown, and not far from my office, I gnawed on my lower lip. I was keeping Sonterra at a distance. Maybe he was taking up the slack with somebody else.

Reaching the station, I parked, removed the .38 from my purse, sticking it under the seat, scooped up Bernice, and headed for the main entrance. The guys manning the security setup looked askance at the Yorkie.

"Seeing-eye dog," I said.

One of them grinned. Who says cops don't have a sense of humor? The other one checked every item in my purse, right down to my packet of birth control pills, which I swear he counted.

Bernice and I were finally allowed to pass, and I headed for the reception desk, where I filled out and signed a report relating to the incident at my office the night before.

"So that was you," commented the female officer on duty, reading it over.

I refrained from comment. Okay, so I'm well-known around the cop shops in two counties. I get into situations more often than most people, but it isn't like I do it to make a pest of myself. I just seem to attract trouble, effort on my part not required.

"We'll be in touch," the gatekeeper said, after a long wait.

Less than ten minutes later, I pulled up in front of my office. In the stark light of an Arizona day, I had to admit Sonterra hadn't been far off in his assessment the night before. The place did look like something out of a CNN report from Iraq.

With a sigh, I climbed out of the Escalade, taking Bernice with me, unlocked the front door, and went in. First order of business, call the window-repair people. I used my cell phone, since my equipment was still in the car.

They promised to send somebody over right away.

Taking them at their word, I settled Bernice in the desk chair with a dog biscuit and got busy unloading my stuff. I was down on the floor, hooking up my computer, when I heard the bell over the door jingle. Bernice growled, sniffed the air, and went back to. her biscuit.

A chill went through me, and when I lifted my head to greet whoever was there, I half expected to get it blown off.

A young black girl -stood just over the threshold, looking around with an expression of horror. The cutest child I've ever seen perched on her left hip, dark eyes round and luminous, hair in tidy little cornrows tied with pink ribbons.

"May I help you?" I asked.

"I hope so," the girl answered. She was tall, with high cheekbones, and her hair, like the child's, was intricately braided, though with beads for accent, rather than ribbons. She frowned, taking in my casual clothes. "Are you Clare Westbrook?"

"Yes," I answered, rising to my feet.

"I'm Shanda Rawlings," she said, looking as though she wanted to sprint in the opposite direction. "I heard you take clients who can't pay."

"Under certain conditions," I replied, indicating the chair facing my desk. "Have a seat."

She sat, but gingerly, her gaze fixed dolefully on the pattern of bullet holes gracing the wall above the coffeemaker. She was visibly tense, and I didn't blame her, given the fact that the place obviously doubled as a target range.

"Can I get you some water or a cup of coffee?" I asked, while we sized each other up. I wondered what she'd been accused of, and if she'd done it or not.

She shook her head, bit her lower lip. "No, thanks."

I snagged a bottle of water for myself and sat on the edge of my desk. Bernice jumped down from the chair and trundled around to sniff at the baby's foot, and the little girl giggled and strained to touch her.

"That dog bite?" Shanda wanted to know.

I shook my head, and Shanda set the child on the floor, where she and Bernice checked each other out.

"I'm in trouble," Shanda said, watching her baby watch the dog, and tears gleamed in her eyes. "I wrote a couple of bad checks a few months ago. My probation officer says I'll probably go to jail, and that means Pretty Baby will have to go to a foster home, because Mama can't take care of her and work, too."

I stifled a sigh and sat back in my chair. "So this isn't your first run-in with the law," I said, venturing the obvious, based on the reference to her probation officer, and resisting the urge to ask if Pretty Baby was the child's real name. It certainly suited her, but it would be a hard sell on the playground.

Shanda met my gaze, and shook her head. "I used to have a small spending problem," she said.

I took a long draw on my bottle of water. " 'Used to'?"