M ARIEL STRETCHED AS she stepped out into the crisp night air, pleasantly stuffed. Despite feeling off-balanced by her dinner companion and partner, she was not above appreciating a good meal and a starry night. It was 9 o'clock on a Thursday and there weren't all that many Chicagoans bustling around this part of the city outside the restaurant. Even with the overwhelming glare of the street lights and businesses, she was still able to make out a few faint glimmers of stars above her. It certainly wasn't like out in the country where the entire sky lit up with a blanket of tiny flickers. She was still looking up into the night sky when she heard the enigmatic private investigator come out of the restaurant behind her.
"See something interesting?"
A low voice rumbled behind her and Mariel brought her eyes down to regard the tall sleek form moving towards her. With casual grace, Tina Amphipoli ambled forward, adjusting her leather jacket and finally letting her blue eyes rest on Mariel's. With a shy smile, Mariel glanced back up at the sliver of sky between the buildings.
"Just looking at the stars...I miss that.."
Tina turned her head upwards and narrowed her eyes, searching for the little sparkles of light she rarely paid attention to, much less was able to see. With a smile sounding in her voice, she spoke, her breath visible against the canopy of buildings and sky above her.
"Yeah? They do a lot of star gazing where you're from?"
Mariel turned her eyes toward the detective, watching the wind whip her long dark hair around. Standing there on the sidewalk, Mariel realized how tall Tina was in comparison to her and how that was probably only one of a thousand differences between she and this stranger. She could tell Tina was a woman who was confident of her abilities, who never questioned her own decisions, who took care of herself. This was exactly the type of person the young forensic psychologist envisioned herself to be, but because she had been cloistered away at school, she lacked the real world experience that Tina obviously had. Sometimes her naivete' and idealism made her feel like she was missing something important, like she couldn't see beyond a certain point and how there maybe was so much more out there in the world for her.
It wasn't until she realized that penetrating blue eyes were focused on her that she came back to the here and now. With a nervous chuckle, she smiled and blushed a bit, her own blond hair swirling around and thankfully hiding her face just a bit. Reaching up, Mariel moved the strands of hair from her face and spoke.
"Well...it's just..um, where I used to live you could look up and see forever. When I was a kid, I made up stories about all the different constellations..you know, the greek myths..the legends."
The young scientist had to drop her gaze from Tina's, unable to hold on to eyes that seemed to be taking her in with a quiet unreadable look. Putting her hands in her coat pockets, Mariel looked up and down the street, trying to locate a cab or the way to the elevated train. A car whizzed past on the street, full of hooting teenage boys, their indecent shouts echoing through the quiet neighborhood. Tina took a step closer to Mariel and put a casual hand on her shoulder, her voice reassuringly low and matter of fact.
"You need a ride home."
Mariel turned and looked at the investigator next to her and smiled. For some reason, the thought of being escorted home by this woman was entirely appealing. As much as she'd like to think she could take care of herself, the psychologist somehow felt much safer in Tina's presence in this unfamiliar city. Smiling, she protested nonetheless.
"I can take a cab."
Mariel watched as Tina Amphipoli smiled and raised a dark eyebrow at her, her hand leaving the shorter woman's shoulder and reaching into her pocket for her keys. With a shrug of one shoulder, Tina spoke as she turned to go.
Before the private investigator got two steps, Mariel had looked around the darkened street and then jogged to catch up with her. With a shy glance at Tina, she joined her strides to match the taller woman's down the side street to her car. Tina turned her head slightly and cocked an eyebrow. Mariel's lips curved into a tentative smile as she spoke.
"On second thought..."
Tina nodded her head at the younger woman with a slight smile. Mariel watched as the detective moved with grace ahead of her and reached out to unlock the passenger side door of her car. Mariel smiled her thanks and sank into the dark interior of the car that smelled of leather and spices and something deliciously mysterious. When she was settled, Tina locked the door and shut it tightly. In just a short time, they were off, gliding through the city of Chicago.
* * *
Tina glanced over at Mariel who was quietly taking in the dark choppy waters of Lake Michigan. Speeding along Lake Shore Drive, the detective was able to collect her thoughts a bit. Even though dinner had been rather..challenging, she still admired the way the young woman next to her handled herself. True, Mariel Potidean was green with youth and inexperience; however, she did possess a certain sense of conviction and strength that Tina appreciated. If there was anthing she disliked more, it was a lack of imagination. She could tell that the young researcher next to her was certainly able to hold her own. It might be possible to solve this case with her, but it would take both imagination and flexibility to accomplish it.
The private investigator was used to working alone. The way she solved cases was a combination of creative planning, artful manipulation, cunning execution, and of course, physical intimidation. Tina used all of her many skills whether it was bringing down illegal gambling rings, exposing trading commodity scams, or helping bring charges against crooked political insiders. The Windy City had a rich tradition of all makes and models of corruption. Naturally, along the way, the rogue private eye had made her fair share of enemies ranging from street thugs to rich and powerful businessmen and political leaders. Of course, she had also made many contacts, information brokers, and allies in every sector of the city.
While many people knew Tina Amphipoli, no one had neutral feelings about her. They either loved her or hated her. Her style tended to be no-nonsense. She preferred to get to the point when dealing with certain scum in the city, often using her superior physical condition to make that point. Under her street clothes, Tina kept her body lean and fit, solid muscles and power made others wary of crossing paths with the fierce woman. That also made her a target. Sometimes, tough guys would challenge her out in the field, either underestimating her or overestimating themselves. Generally a fist to the gut or an elbow against the side of the head changed their minds. However, what made her one of the most feared of foes was her ability to extract any information she wanted through a variety of means. Nothing could be kept from Tina when she wanted information.
With a sigh, the private investigator shifted in the leather seat of her car, her booted foot pressing further down on the gas. She had redone the entire interior of the Buick, replacing cheap vinyl with soft creamy leather. She had had this car since she was in Detroit and many nights it had been her home, whether that was by necessity or choice. With a casual but sure grip on the wheel, Tina drove smoothly along the stretch of road, streetlights occasionally casting a glow in the car.
"It's so dark. What are those lights way out there, do you know?"
Mariel's soft voice broke the silence and filled the car as Tina took her eyes from the road and glanced over to the smaller form sitting next to her. The Buick purred as it curved around LSD, the dimly lit interior providing little light for the occupants. With the skyline to the left and the lake to the right, Tina could only make out the outline of Mariel, the light from the streetlamps throwing a gold shadow and tinting her hair. With one hand resting comfortably on the steering wheel, Tina maneuvered through the light traffic with speed and skill. Another glance out to the lake and the investigator spoke, nodding her head in the dark towards the water.
"That's a water rig, people actually live and work out there for weeks at a time."
Mariel turn back towards Tina, her profile strong against the Chicago skyline as the road curved sharply to the left. Glancing back out to the water, she murmured.
"That would be odd...living out there...so close to millions of people but still far away. Bet it's lonely."
Tina shifted her eyes to the young scientist. With a slight sigh, the private detective's voice was quiet.
"I think a person can feel just as lonely in a city of millions."
With that, Tina reached for the radio and turned up the volume, missing the curious look from her passenger as the Buick sped north along Lake Shore Drive.
* * *
"Here's my place."
Mariel pointed out the window as Tina made a U-turn and pulled the car to a stop along Central Avenue. They had wound their way into Evanston, the streets dark and deserted on this weeknight. The short brownstone apartments across from Northwestern University's football stadium were characteristic of the type of housing found in this neighborhood. It was a mix of student-rented apartments and condominiums, a relatively safe neighborhood. Tina smiled to herself as she thought this was exactly the type of place the psychologist would choose.
Taking hold of the door handle, Mariel hesitated and turned to the investigator as the dark woman sat with her hands leisurely draped across the top of the steering wheel. With the car rumbling in idle, the minimal glow of the street lights caught a few strands of Tina's dark hair, making it shine violet. With a smile, the FBI scientist nodded her head towards her apartment.
"Um...would you like to come up for coffee or something?"
Tina smiled in the darkness as her fingers rested against the dashboard, lightly running them along the smooth surface. A woman walked past on the sidewalk, her dog tugging her down the dark street, sniffing at everything it could find. Glancing down at the faintly glowing lights of the car's control panels, Tina's voice was low.
"Isn't it a little late for coffee?"
Mariel turned and faced the profiled detective, a sigh escaping her lips. Taking a deep breath, the researcher spoke.
"I was hoping we might get a chance to talk a little about the case or at least get to know each other a bit better."
Lifting her eyes to meet Mariel's quiet regard, she weighed her options. She had felt a tad guilty for coming on a bit too strong to Mariel earlier in the restaurant. Sometimes Tina approached strangers as either potential enemies to be conquered or as allies to be seduced with no ground in between. It was easier that way because it kept everything clear and everyone at arms length. Whether enemy or ally, no one ever got close enough to Tina...not anymore at least.
Seeing the open unguarded look on Mariel's face made the investigator reassess the FBI psychologist. Even in this short amount of time, Tina could see that there didn't appear to be any hidden motives behind those honest green eyes. It was clear that all Mariel wanted was a chance. Tina smiled and turned off the headlights, resting her hand on the keys in the ignition.
"Got a beer? I hate coffee."
With a wide grin, Mariel nodded and the deal was sealed.
* * *
Opening the door to her dark apartment, Mariel could feel the tall presence of the private investigator behind her as she clicked on the lamp. Stepping inside, she led Tina into her place as she took her coat off, hanging it on the closet doorknob. With a gesture, she smiled at the detective and spoke pleasantly as she moved off into the kitchen.
"Have a seat..I'll get us a drink."
Tina nodded back and walked further into the hardwood floored apartment, glancing out the bay window that faced the courtyard below them. On the third floor, she could see a few lights on in the apartments across and below them, the shades open. With a slight pause, she reached over and closed the vertical blinds to the window and sat down on the dark green sofa nestled under the expanse of windows. Settling herself on the edge of the couch and resting her forearms on her knees, Tina's hands unconsciously played with her keys while she looked around the softly lit apartment.
It was clear that Mariel Potidean had just moved into the place not too long ago as there were a few boxes still unpacked against one wall next to a desk with a computer. Stacks of paper and files were piled on the desk and the PC was on, the screen saver flashing a small round silver ring across the darkness, bouncing off the edge and careening back across the screen. Along the length of another wall there was a set of tall dark wooden bookcases filled to capacity with even more stacks on the floor. A few Georgia O'Keefe prints hung on the walls, but the rest of the place was sparsely decorated. The hallway leading back to the rest of the apartment was dark. Mariel's place had a comforting, familiar smell to it, a citrus scent that wormed its way deep into her memory. Though not overtly feminine, the place certainly had that kind of feel to it. Tina smiled when she thought of her own spartan apartment.
Glancing into the kitchen, the detective watched as Mariel moved in the softly lit room, digging through drawers for a bottle opener. Her longish blonde hair settled down her back, the golden tints contrasting against her navy sweater. Even from where she sat, Tina could make out the slim lines of the scientist's body. And while the detective knew a fit, trim body when she saw one, she was a bit surprised by the hint of muscles Mariel displayed as she set the bottles of beer on the counter and pushed up the sleeves to her sweater. With a grace all her own, Mariel reached up into the cupboard and pulled down a glass, turning to look over her shoulder with a question on her face. Tina smiled and shook her head.
"Nah, the bottle's fine."
With a nod of her head, Mariel turned and put the glass back up and busied herself with opening the two Coronas. Tina shook her head at herself. Now was definitely not the time to be thinking anything remotely sexual about the young woman. They had a job to do and those kind of thoughts and actions tended to make matters worse, not better in these kinds of situations. Besides, Tina seriously doubted the good doctor played on the same team as she. She looked too goddamned wholesome. Of course, the sloping, curved lines and subtle rich colors of Ms. O'Keefe's painted irises staring back at her from the wall suggested the slimmest of possibilities otherwise.
Mariel turned, making her way into the living room with two bottles of beer in one hand. Pulling a grey cushioned chair over, she handed a beer to Tina who murmured her thanks and sat back, crossing her feet at the ankles. With a smile at the detective, she brought the bottle to her lips and took a sip. For her part, the dark woman did the same.
Mariel started the conversation with an unusual lack of eloquence on her part. She suspected part of the problem was the beautiful private investigator sitting on her couch. Her quietly commanding presence aside, Tina's piercing blue eyes tended to distract Mariel's thoughts. She hadn't ever really met a woman who had immediately made her nervous. She considered herself a people person and most times, she was comfortable and at ease with just about anyone. Even the guys she dated in college never made her feel...nervous...at least not in this way. Part of her profession, forensic psychology, was about getting a feel for other people and never letting one's own insecurities be shown. One did not get through graduate school by showing any fear or hesitancy and Mariel had quite effectively learned to defend her beliefs even when the evidence for them was questionable.
However, this was an entirely new situation: The big city, her first professional case, people's safety on the line, and being partnered with a woman she was finding herself inexplicably and surprisingly attracted to even though she had just met her a few hours ago. Mariel Potidean had a feeling that things were about to change and her world was going to be thrown upside down. She smiled to herself and turned her gaze back towards the woman occupying her couch. When those blue eyes hesitantly met hers, she knew that indeed, things were definitely going to get interesting.