“Obssessions” [PG-13] – Chapter 11

“OBSSESSIONS”

Part 11

The following morning, Olivia and Darryl entered the BAY-MIRROR building, located not far from Union Square. “Okay, how are we going to handle this?” the redhead asked her partner. 

Darryl punched the “UP” button for the elevator. “Like this – I’ll talk to Mr. Dean about his newest employee and you’ll have a little discussion with the lady, herself. By the way, how’s your Italian?”

“Not bad,” Olivia replied. “Although I doubt that I’ll need it. If this Ms. Della Scalla is able to get hired by an American newspaper, I’m certain that her English is just as good.”

The partners stepped inside the elevator. As it began its ascent toward the BAY-MIRROR’s main newsroom, Darryl added, “By the way, how did Cole find out about this Portia Della Scalla?”

“He met her yesterday morning. Here at the BAY-MIRROR.” A pause followed before Olivia continued, “He was here with Deborah Mann to clean out her brother’s belongings. Only, I didn’t find out until eight hours later.”

Darryl shook his head. “Are you still pissed about that? Had it ever occurred to you that the man was simply busy? I bet you must have bugged the hell out of him during your practice, yesterday.”

“Actually, I didn’t have any practice session with Cole,” Olivia shot back. “I had a visitor.”

“A visitor?”

Nodding, Olivia continued, “Paul Margolin. He came by to ask me out for dinner.”

The news took Darryl by surprise. “You had dinner with the new ADA, last night?”

The elevator reached the fifth floor. “We only had coffee before he left. But we’re having dinner, tonight.”

“Lucky you.” The elevator reached the eleventh floor. Olivia’s destination. The door opened and she stepped out. Darryl added, “Meet me upstairs, when you finish with Ms. Della Scalla.”

The elevator doors shut and it continued its journey upward. Darryl contemplated Olivia’s news, wondering if his partner was making a mistake. Sure, the new ADA seemed more like a better prospect than Cole Turner. Not only was Margolin an officer of the courts, but also a witch. A good witch, who happened to be highly respected by Leo. But Darryl knew that a person’s moral state did not determine his or her capacity to love. Or receive love. He also suspected that Olivia did not love Paul Margolin or felt any real attraction. It did not matter how “good” Margolin was. In the end, it would not serve any relationship between Margolin and Olivia one whit. And a person never really has much control over with whom he or she will fall in love – a lesson that Phoebe Halliwell has yet to learn. Darryl only hoped that both Olivia and Cole will.

The elevator reached the fifteenth floor. The doors opened and Darryl stepped out. He made his way toward the reception area, outside Jason Dean’s office. Ten minutes later, he found himself in a confrontation with the young publisher over the latter’s new employee.

“This is ridiculous!” Dean cried. Darryl had just asked him a few questions about Portia Della Scalla’s references. “Are you trying to tell me that the police are suspicious of Ms. Della Scalla? All because she took Mann’s old job? They’ve never even met!”

Patiently, Darryl replied, “Mr. Dean, she took over Mann’s job in less than a week. That’s pretty damn quick, considering that we’re talking about a position that would normally be difficult to fill.”

“I had put an ad for Mann’s old job in various magazines and papers, on the same day I had learned of his death. Ms. Della Scalla was simply the first to respond. That’s all.” Dean’s voice bridled with hostility. “Has it ever occurred to the police to investigate Mann’s personal life?”

Darryl sighed. “We already have, Mr. Dean. And we’ve found nothing about his personal life that would lead to his murderer.”

“And you think that Ms. Della Scalla killed him? Or is somewhat involved?”

Darryl said, “Five days, Mr. Dean. She was hired five days after Mann’s death. And it took you – how long? Less than an hour to hire her for the job. Tell me, did she have a reputation as a well-known food critic?”

“I didn’t hire her,” Dean curtly replied. “Her editor did – Milo O’Keefe!”

An unrelenting Darryl continued, “Okay, so he hired Ms. Della Scalla. Didn’t you ever wonder why Mr. O’Keefe took such a short time to hire her? Didn’t he even bother to check her references?”

A scowl marred Jason Dean’s handsome face. “Look, I realize that you’re a close friend of Phoebe’s, Inspector . . .”

“Lieutenant,” Darryl corrected.

Dean nodded. “Lieutenant. Excuse me. I realize that you’re Phoebe’s friend and you’re just doing your job. But that does not give you the right to question this paper’s employment policy. Nor do you have the right to insult Ms. Della Scalla’s integrity. She’s a beau . . . uh, intelligent and decent woman who had no idea what she was getting into when she applied for the job.” The publisher stood up and glared at the other man. “Now, if you persist with this ridiculous idea, I’ll have you up on charges of harassment.”

Now, Darryl stood up, his face a cold mask. “Charge me all you want, Mr. Dean. You better make damn sure that I’m wrong about my suspicions regarding your employer. If not, you might find yourself in hot water over obstructing justice. Good day.” He turned on his heels and left the office.

* * * *

Outside of Dean’s office, Darryl found the reception area empty. Obviously, Olivia had not finished her questioning of Portia Della Scalla. Darryl made his way to the building’s eleventh floor. He arrived in time to witness Olivia leaving Milo O’Keefe’s office. With the editor searing her back with a baleful glare.

Rolling her eyes, Olivia approached her partner. “How did it go with Jace?” she asked.

A gust of breath escaped from Darryl’s mouth. “Badly. He seemed insulted that the police would find his newest employee suspicious. He even threatened to charge me with harassment.”

One of Olivia’s auburn brows rose an inch. “Jason? That doesn’t sound like him. Well, not quite. I mean, he’s a bit overbearing at times, but not that much.”

“What about Ms. Della Scalla?” Darryl asked. “Did you talk with her?”

Olivia shook her head. “She left about a few minutes before our arrival. I suspect that she’s gone to see Mom and Bruce about the interview.” A frown creased her brow. “Dad’s suspicious of her, so hopefully both Mom and Bruce will be on their guard. In the meantime, I ended up talking with Mr. O’Keefe, who seemed downright touchy about the newest columnist. Almost hostile.”

“Like your old boyfriend,” Darryl added. “Interesting reaction to a woman whom neither man had met before yesterday. I wonder what Phoebe thinks of her. Let’s find out.” He strode toward Phoebe’s office, aware of Olivia at his heels. Darryl knocked on the door before entering. “Hey Phoebe!” he greeted the Charmed One. “How’s everything?”

Phoebe responded with a bright smile. “Fine, Darryl. How are you?” Her smile dimmed slightly at the sight of Olivia. “Olivia. You guys must be here for Whatshername. Patricia . . .”

“Portia,” Darryl corrected. “Miss Portia Della Scalla.”

“Yeah right. What do you want to know about her? Has Cole been speaking to you?”

Olivia asked, “Did he ask you about her?”

“Yesterday,” Phoebe replied. “He was here with Wolfie’s sister, when Jason hired that woman. Cole asked me to keep an eye on her. Said there was something odd about her.” She frowned. “What’s going on?”

Darryl eased himself into one of the chairs on the other side of Phoebe’s desk. Olivia remained standing. “We heard about Ms. Della Scalla taking Mann’s place on the staff and decided to investigate,” he said.

“Yeah,” Olivia added. “We were a bit surprised to find out that she was hired not long after O’Keefe and Jason interviewed her. Does she . . . um, have a reputation as a food critic or something? Because I can tell you right now that I’ve never heard of her. Nor has Mom or Bruce. I asked them this morning.”

Phoebe shook her head. “No, I’ve never heard of her, either. And I guess that if Cole is suspicious of her, there might be a good reason for us to feel the same.” Another frown creased her forehead. “Have you checked her background, yet?”

Darryl replied, “We’re looking into it, right now. So far, we haven’t found anything.” He paused. “I tried to tell your boyfriend, but he gave me the brush off, instead.”

“O’Keefe did the same to me,” Olivia added. “I’m beginning to wonder if this Della Scalla woman has some kind of supernatural effect on others. Or that you were right about Mr. Mann’s death having a magical connection.”

Phoebe sighed. “Maybe. I mean, a part of me believe that you and Cole are right. It’s just . . . well, there’s still the matter of my premonition. I saw a man’s hand slitting Wolfie’s throat. Not a woman’s. If this Portia woman is the killer, how do you explain that?”

Darryl stared at the Charmed One. She seemed so certain about her premonition that he began to wonder if this Portia Della Scalla was the real killer. Yet, a nagging part of him could not dismiss the fact that even Cole felt suspicious toward the woman. And who could argue with the instincts of a powerful half-demon?

* * * *

Smoke curled in the middle of an alley, before it manifested in the form of a woman. Portia Della Scalla. She smoothed down her neatly tailored gray suit and strode out of the alley. To her right stood the Golden Horn restaurant. A satisfied smile curled her lips. She loved it when a plan proceeded on course.

Portia walked into the restaurant and nearly gasped aloud. The restaurant’s atmosphere nearly took her breath away. She reveled in the smell of food and wine. Her ears took in the conversation that filled the dining room and she could not help but appreciate the restaurant’s elegant décor. The Golden Horn seemed to be everything that a successful restaurant should be. And more. Portia approved. Then she remembered that she had other matters to consider. Like her plan to seduce and kill one Bruce McNeill.

A well-tailored maitre’d approached the succubus. “Good afternoon, miss. How may I help you?”

Portia politely replied, “I am Portia Della Scalla of the BAY-MIRROR newspaper. I have an interview with Signor Bruce McNeill.”

The eyes of the maitre’d lit up. “Oh yes! Both he and Mrs. McNeill are expecting you.”

Mrs. McNeill? A small frown appeared on Portia’s face, as the maitre’d led her to the restaurant’s office, upstairs. As they passed the kitchen, she heard a woman bark orders to a group of cooks. The voice struck Portia as being very feminine, yet very commanding. Portia could not help but admire the woman.

Finally, the maitre’d led her to a door above the restaurant’s dining room and kitchen. He knocked on the door. “Mr. McNeill, that reporter from the BAY-MIRROR is here to see you!” The door slowly opened.

The first thing that struck Portia was that Bruce McNeill seemed a lot more handsome than his photograph had hinted. In his own way, he looked just as handsome as Jason Dean, or that enigmatic lawyer she had met, yesterday. There seemed to be an open and friendly air about Signor McNeill that led Portia to believe that seducing him would be an easy task.

“Miss Della Scalla,” Bruce McNeill warmly greeted the visitor, “how nice to meet you. Why don’t you have a seat? My mother should be up here, any moment.”

Mother? Portia gave Bruce a dazed smile. Mother? That idiotic Streghone had said nothing about a mother!

* * * *

In all of her one hundred and seventy year existence as a succubus, Portia never had such difficulty with a potential victim, like she did with Bruce McNeill. She had expected to spend time alone with him and ended up spending hours on end, discussing the restaurant business with him and his mother, Gweneth. While the latter engaged in a lengthy description of the Golden Horn’s development and opening day, Portia began to wonder if killing Bruce was worth all of this trouble. Worth the mind-boggling boredom.

“. . . the trouble with financial backing and construction, we finally opened on May 28, 1978. On my youngest son’s first birthday,” the middle-aged woman added with a wistful smile.

Portia returned the smile. Politely. Before she could ask another question, the maitre’d appeared in the office’s doorway. “Pardon me, Mr. McNeill,” he said, “but Ms. Bowen is here to see you.”

“Barbara?” Bruce frowned. “Thanks Greg. Send her in.”

Seconds later, a beautiful blond-haired woman entered the office. “Hey Honey!” she greeted.

Bruce’s frown remained intact. “Barbara, what are you doing here?”

“I thought your interview might be over, and decided to see if you were available for lunch.” Barbara gave Portia a curious look. The succubus immediately recognized trouble. “So, you’re Ms. . . Della Scalla? From the BAY-MIRROR?”

Another polite smile formed on Portia’s mouth. “Si, Signorina . . .?”

“Bowen. Barbara Bowen.”

Gweneth added in a voice that seemed a touch too loud. “Barbara is my son’s fiancé, Miss Della Scalla. The wedding is later this month.”

Portia’s smile widened insincerely. “How nice.”

Bruce added, “Also, Barbara used to work here, herself.”

“As a waitress?” Portia asked. She felt a tug of satisfaction at the blond woman’s slight frown. The insult had struck its target.

Barbara coolly replied, “No, as a pastry chef. I worked here for a few years, following college. Also, my uncle was one of the bankers who had approved the loan for the restaurant’s construction.”

“She’s also an excellent pastry chef,” Bruce said.

Portia’s smile remained frozen. “Really? What was your specialty?” she asked Barbara.

It was Gweneth who answered. “Chocolate soufflé. And desert crepes.”

To Portia’s credit, she managed to maintain a façade of interest. “And what about you, Signor McNeill?” she asked, focusing her full attention upon the male witch. “When did you first become the restaurant’s manager?”

A waiter entered the office, carrying a tray with three plates. When he spotted Barbara, he asked if she would like to order for lunch. The blond woman shook her head and the waiter left.

“Actually, Mom still pops up, now and then, to put some backbone into the staff,” Bruce replied charmingly. He took a bite of his baked salmon. “As for your question . . .” Soon, Portia found herself listening to her soon-to-be victim reveal his career as a chef – his training and early career in France, and his jobs since his return to San Francisco, as she ate her lunch. It was not that Portia found Bruce a bore. On the contrary, she considered him to be a very charming and intelligent man. Unfortunately, she lacked the patience to listen to someone discuss cooking as a profession. If only he had been a fashion designer, a movie producer, or perhaps a book publisher, this interview would be a lot more bearable. And with his mother and fiancée around, Portia found it difficult to accomplish her task. She would simply have to find another way to get Bruce alone.

” . . . three years ago, last fall.” Bruce paused. “But I didn’t start managing the Golden Horn, until . . .” He faced his mother. “When did I take over, Mom?”

Gweneth answered, “Over two years ago. February 2001.” Then she faced Portia. “How was your lunch, Miss Della Scalla? Would you like a tour of the restaurant?”

Portia glanced at her empty plate. As much as she had enjoyed her meal and Bruce’s presence, she had to escape from this mess. Fast. She glanced at her watch. “Oh dear! Look at the time.”

Barbara glanced at the office’s wall clock. “It’s only ten after one.”

“Yes, and I have . . . a doctor’s appointment.” Portia shrugged helplessly. “I made it before I was hired by Signor Dean.” She stood up. So did the others. “I am so sorry.” She faced Bruce and Mrs. McNeill. “Perhaps we can re-schedule this interview for tomorrow. Yes?”

A bright smile lit up Bruce’s handsome face. “Of course. I’ll . . .”

An idea came to Portia, as she interrupted the witch. “Oh, one more thing. I came here by taxicab. Could you . . . could you give me a ride back to my office? If that is not too much trouble.”

Nodding, Bruce replied, “Of course. I would be more than happy to. I won’t actually be on duty, until this evening, anyway.”

Curiosity and a touch of suspicion gleamed in the blond woman’s eyes. “Excuse me, Signorina. But what about your doctor’s appointment? Shouldn’t you be going there, instead?”

A long pause followed. Portia smiled at Bruce’s fiancée. “Of course, but I must go to the BAY-MIRROR’s office, first. I have something to pick up.”

“In that case, Bruce, you might as well give me a lift to the shop, as well.” Barbara gave Portia a sweet smile. “If you don’t mind.”

Portia’s returned Barbara’s smile. “Of course not.” Bitch.

* * * *

The bell above Ostera’s front door rang, announcing a new customer. Paige glanced up from her task – examining the list of new inventory – and spotted none other than Nick Manusco, entering the shop. The man seemed to be more than a regular customer. Paige began to wonder if Nick regarded Ostera’s as a second home.

“Hey Nick,” she greeted him. “Back for more herbs?”

The Streghone nodded nervously. “Uh, yeah. The . . . uh, the last batch I had bought, didn’t exactly work.” He glanced around the shop. “Uh, where’s Barbara?”

“Out to lunch,” Paige replied. “With Bruce.”

Dark brown eyes widened considerably. “Bruce? But, I thought . . .”

Paige stared at him. “Thought what?”

With a shrug, Nick replied, “I thought she . . . uh, she went to lunch around 11:30.” Under Paige’s unrelenting stare, he continued, “I uh . . . I wanted to ask her a few questions. About this potion I’m trying to create.”

Paige finally looked away to spare Nick any further embarrassment. She knew the real reason behind his visit. Love – plain and simple. Or more likely a crush. Poor Nick. It seemed pathetic that a man in his thirties would be acting like an adolescent boy in the throes of an unrequited crush. “Maybe I can help,” Paige offered.

Nick opened his mouth to speak, when the shop’s door swung open. In walked Barbara, Bruce and a woman who practically resembled a super model. Paige briefly shifted her attention to Nick, whose face expressed a dazzling array of emotions. From desperate longing at the sight of Barbara, to envy and dislike toward Bruce, and finally apprehension toward the stranger. Paige frowned. Why would Nick be afraid of some unknown woman?

Barbara greeted her regular customer with a bright smile. “Nick! Back for more herbs?”

An uneasy smile quirked Nick’s lips. “Uh . . . yeah. I still haven’t got that po . . . uh, sauce down pat.” He chuckled nervously. And yet, he continued to shoot nervous glances at the woman.

Paige was not the only one who noticed. “Oh!” Barbara said. “I’m sorry. Nick, Paige, this is Ms. Portia Della Scalla, the new food columnist at the BAY-MIRROR. Ms. Della Scalla, this is Nick Manusco, one of my regular customers, and quite an expert on Italian cuisine. And this,” she indicated Paige with a nod, “is Paige Matthews, my assistant. I have another assistant, but apparently, she’s out to lunch.”

Ms. Della Scalla smiled politely at Paige and Nick. Her attention remained focused upon Nick. “So, you are a chef?” she asked in a bell-like voice.

“No,” Nick answered in what seemed to Paige, like a choked voice. “I, uh . . . I work at an investment firm. I just . . . like to cook. Mainly my grandmother’s Italian dishes.”

A bright smile illuminated Ms. Della Scalla’s face. Paige overheard Bruce take a deep breath. “You’re Italian? But of course you are! What part of Italy does your . . .?”

“I hate to interrupt,” Barbara stated, “but what about your doctor’s appointment?”

The two women stared at each other. Paige could sense the mutual dislike and distrust between the pair in waves. Interesting. Then Portia Della Scalla gave Barbara what seemed to Paige, an insincere smile. “Of course. Thank you for reminding me.” She turned to Bruce. “Signor? If you would please?”

To Paige’s astonishment, Bruce offered the Italian woman his arm. “Sure thing,” he said. Then he bid everyone good-bye and led Ms. Della Scalla out of the shop.

The moment the door closed behind the couple, Barbara growled in a rare display of anger, “Bitch!”

END OF PART 11

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