The two older Charmed Ones approached the revolving doors of the BAY-MIRROR building, chatting. They had just spent a pleasant lunch together at one of San Francisco' popular restaurants in the downtown area.
"Thanks for the lunch, Phoebe," Piper said to her younger sister. "It was nice. You know, I just realized that this is the first time you've ever treated me for lunch. Or am I exaggerating?"
Phoebe allowed herself a genuine smile. "Not quite. I mean, I know I've been working for the paper for about a year. But this is probably the first time that both of us have been available to have lunch together for a long time."
"And Jason wasn't available for lunch, today," Piper teased. "Or was he?"
A pink flush crept up Phoebe's face. "Piper! This has nothing to do with Jason. Even if he had been available for lun . . . I mean . . ."
Phoebe glared half-heartedly at her sister. "Ah-ha, nothing! Yes, Jason was busy, today. But I had already invited you to lunch, before I found out about his overseas phone conference."
Piper assumed an innocent expression. Sometimes, teasing Phoebe could be such fun. "Sure you did, Pheebs." Ignoring the other woman's dark look, she continued, "So, Jason was on some overseas phone call, today?"
"Yeah. To Hong Kong," Phoebe replied. "At least that's what his secretary told me."
A dark blue Jaguar pulled up to the curb, in front of the building. From the corner of her eye, Piper spotted the owner of the car - Bruce McNeill. Beside him sat a beautiful woman who definitely was not his fiancée. "Talk about surprise," Piper muttered.
Phoebe frowned. "Huh?"
"To your left. Check out the dark-blue Jag." Piper briefly nodded toward the curb. "Look who's inside. Bruce McNeill. And another woman."
The middle Halliwell stared at the car in question. "I know her," she said. "That's our new food columnist - Portia Something Italian. She had an interview with Bruce, today."
"Oh." Disappointment sagged Piper's shoulders. And she had so been looking forward to a juicy bit of scandal.
Phoebe continued, "Strange, I've never really met her, yet. Maybe I should introduce myself." She strode toward the car. Piper heaved a sigh and mentally cursed the younger woman's extroverted nature.
* * * *
"Here we are," Bruce announced after guiding his Jaguar, next to the curb. "The BAY-MIRROR building."
Portia glanced out of the window. With great reluctance, it seemed. "Yes," she murmured. "Here." She sighed. Then her gaze fell upon Bruce. To his surprise, every nerve in his body tingled with anticipation. And his body grew warm. And hard.
"Is there something wrong?" Bruce asked his companion. He regarded her with a mixture of concern and desire. Desire? Why would he feel . . .?
Cutting in, the journalist said, "I am fine. It is just . . ." Again, she sighed. Bruce almost found it erotic. She glanced at her watch. "Oh no! It is one-twenty. And my doctor's appointment was for one-thirty. It is too late. I will have to cancel."
"Oh no," Bruce began. "I mean . . . well, if you must. Perhaps I should have dropped you off, first."
Portia shook her head. Long dark hair bounced alluringly from side to side. For a moment, Bruce blinked. What the hell was wrong with him? Why did he seemed to have a hard-on for a strange woman's hair? "No, no, no, no," Portia argued. "Your fiancée's shop was closer. It was better that we took her to her shop, first. As for my doctor's appointment, I can re-schedule." The pink tip of her tongue flickered briefly between her full lips.
Bruce continued to stare at her, mesmerized. "Re-schedule? Oh. Yeah. Re-schedule." He paused momentarily. It was difficult to think, with the scent of gardenias filling his nostrils. "Speaking of re-schedule . . . what about our interview?"
"We can complete the interview, tomorrow." Portia leaned forward, her lips tantalizingly close to Bruce's. "At my apart . . ."
Knuckles rapped against the window on Portia's side. Bruce shook his head, as if he had awaken from a dream. Then he glanced at the window and saw Paige's two older sisters. A slightly irritated Portia rolled down the window. "May I help you?" she asked sharply.
"Sorry to interrupt," a smiling Phoebe Halliwell said. Her eyes focused on the driver. "Bruce? Hey, it's good to see you!"
Bruce gave the Charmed One a weak smile. "Hi . . . uh, Phoebe. Out to lunch?" Then he spotted her older siser approach Phoebe from behind, and a groan nearly left his mouth. Piper. Great!
"Actually, Piper and I had just came back from lunch." Phoebe stuck her hand through the window. "Hi," she said to Portia. "We've haven't met, but I know who you are. I'm Phoebe Halliwell."
Portia coolly glanced at the offered hand, but did not take it. "Oh? How do you know . . .?"
"The BAY-MIRROR. I'm a columnist there. You know, the 'Ask Phoebe' column?" Phoebe removed her hand.
"I'm sorry, but I am not familiar with your writing," the Italian woman replied. "I have not been with the newspaper very long. Or in San Francisco." She fished inside her purse, removed a card and handed it to Bruce. "Please Signor, give me a call, so that we can complete the interview. That is the number to my office. As for my private number," Portia's shoulders lifted charmingly, "I'm afraid that I have not installed a telephone in my apartment, yet." A sigh left her mouth. "Well, I guess I should . . ." She climbed out of the car - very reluctantly.
At the moment, the strangest sensation struck Bruce. Just as Portia Della Scalla climbed out of the car, the fog that seemed to have filled his mind, disappeared. He was so amazed by the phenomenon that he barely noticed Phoebe approaching the other columnist.
"There's a coffee shop inside the building that makes a nice cappuccino," the middle Halliwell was saying. "Why don't we go there and get acquainted?" She indicated the building's entrance to a hapless-looking Portia, while Piper followed. Smirking. Realizing that hanging around seemed useless, Bruce left the curb and went on his merry way.
* * * *
"I'm really beginning to think that Cole was right about her," Phoebe said to her family, later that afternoon. "About that Portia Della Scalla."
Piper, who sat in one of the chairs, around the kitchen table, was busy feeding Wyatt with a bottle. "I see that you finally remembered her name." Phoebe shot her a dark look. "And as for Miss Della Scalla, you might be right about her being odd. The woman looks like something out of a European fashion magazine. You know, ridiculously beautiful . . . and thin." She glanced down at her son with great affection. "Made me feel like a twelve year-old."
"Well, you're not alone," Phoebe agreed. "But there's something else. Like there's something unreal about her. And did you notice how Bruce was acting around her? Like he was in some kind of trance, or something."
A sigh left Piper's mouth. "Phoebe, has this something to do with the fact that Ms. Della Scalla had turned down your offer for a friendly cup of cappuccino?"
Phoebe glared at her older sister. "You know, if you weren't so busy gloating over the possibility that Bruce might be fooling around, you might have noticed something."
"Yeah, I noticed something all right. Bruce and Miss Italy were seconds away from kissing each other," Piper retorted.
Paige's eyes grew wide. "They were? Geez! No wonder Barbara looked as if she wanted to commit murder." Her two sisters stared at her, as she related the tension between her boss and the Italian columnist. She also included Bruce's odd behavior. "It was just as Phoebe had said . . . he seemed to be in a trance. Or like he really didn't care how Barbara was feeling."
A gurgle from Wyatt distracted the three sisters. Piper gently removed the bottle from his mouth. She then patted his back and he belched.
"Or maybe he really was under a spell," Phoebe suggested
Piper pooh-poohed the idea. "That's ridiculous, Pheebs! Unless this Della Scalla woman is a warlock, a witch or a demon. And if she's after Bruce, why kill DeWolfe Mann?"
Silence followed, before Paige finally answered, "To get close to Bruce?" Again, all eyes fell upon her. "Well, how else could she get close to him? She could have used the interview as an excuse, or get a job at the Golden Horn."
Patiently, Piper explained that Miss Della Scalla could have simply appeared at the McNeills' house and kill Bruce. "But she didn't, Paige."
"Okay Piper, then explain why Cole, Olivia and Darryl are all suspicious of her?" Phoebe demanded.
The oldest Halliwell shrugged. "I don't know, Phoebe! But weren't you the one who claimed that a man must have killed your friend, Wolfie? You said that you saw a man's hand slit his throat."
Phoebe sighed. "I know! It's just . . . I don't know. I've got a bad feeling about her."
"You and me, both," Paige added.
Piper stood up and helped a drowsy Wyatt rest his head on her shoulder. "Okay, so what do we do?"
"Check the Book of Shadows," Paige suggested. "In case she turns out to be a demon or a warlock. I don't have time, at the moment, because I have to get ready."
Phoebe frowned. "For what?"
"I have a date with Nate," Paige quipped. "To celebrate his birthday. He wants to go to this new club in Palo Alto."
Shaking her head, Phoebe added, "Have fun. Meanwhile, Piper and I will check the Book of Shadows." The oldest Halliwell groaned. Phoebe continued, "And tomorrow, I'll keep an eye on Miss Della Scalla. Maybe . . . borrow something from her office, while she's out to lunch. Hopefully, summon a premonition."
"Pheebs, honey?" a dubious Piper commented, "you're not exactly great at summoning premonitions."
Phoebe heaved a loud sigh. "Well, a girl has to start somewhere."
* * * *
Nick stared at the confident-looking Portia, as she cut into the Veal Piccatta on her plate. "Okay, can you please explain, again, why Bruce McNeill isn't dead?" he demanded. "I mean, you were alone with the guy for . . ."
Portia speared the piece of veal with her fork. ". . . twelve minutes," she said, interrupting. "We were alone for twelve minutes, Nicholas. While he was driving."
"But . . . the interview!" Nick frowned. "Weren't you two alone?"
"Unfortunately, no. You failed to mention that his mother would also be interviewed." Portia popped the veal into her mouth and chewed. "Mind you, meeting the famous Gweneth McNeill was something of a thrill. She has quite a reputation in Europe, you know. However, another visitor decided to join us during the interview." She swallowed the veal. "His fiancée. What a possessive bitch! And I think she's very suspicious."
The derogatory comment about his love angered Nick. "Barbara is not a bitch! Besides, what was she doing there, in the first place?"
Portia shrugged. "How would I know? I am not a mind reader! Bruce must have said something to arouse her suspicions before the interview. She seemed to be seeking me out, when she first arrived." The succubus paused, before scooping a forkful of Risotto alla Milanese. "I did have a chance to cast a spell over Bruce and bring him here. Unfortunately, these two sisters interrupted us. One of them works for the newspaper."
"Phoebe? Phoebe Halliwell?" Nick nearly cried out. "And since when did you start calling him, Bruce?"
The succubus snapped back, "Since he asked me to!" She resumed eating her risotto. "As for this Signorina Halliwell, do you know her and her sister?"
"Her sisters," Nick corrected. "She has two sisters . . . well, she had three, but the oldest was killed by a daemon nearly two years ago. As for Phoebe, she and one of her sisters were outside Mann's apartment that night. Remember me telling you about the Charmed Ones? Three sisters who happened to be the most powerful witches?"
Rolling her eyes, Portia demanded to know about the Charmed Ones. "I believe I had met the third sister at that shop. Her hair was dyed red."
"Oh God, that was Paige." Nick took a deep breath. "The Charmed Ones. The Power of Three. They are supposed to be three sisters descended from the Warren line, destined to be the most powerful witches ever." He paused. "Well, at least in Wiccan circles." Portia gave him a blank stare. "They're the Wiccan counterparts to the Cavalli family. More powerful than the McNeills. Well, just barely."
Portia returned her attention to her meal. "Powerful or not, they are not invincible. Do not worry about these Charmed Ones. I have come across more powerful opponents."
"You just might encounter a more powerful opponent," Nick retorted. "Belthazor."
Sherry brown eyes widened with curiosity. "Who?"
"Belthazor. Otherwise known as Cole Turner. I believe that you had met him at the BAY-MIRROR office, yesterday. He was DeWolfe Mann's attorney, according to Paige."
Portia frowned. "Are you referring to that tall, handsome man with the dark hair and blue eyes? What about him?"
"That tall and handsome man happens to be a very powerful half-daemon. His father was a mortal. He was once married to Phoebe Halliwell. All I can say is that he is extremely powerful and so far, no one knows how to vanquish him. Right now, he is a close friend of the McNeill family. And if he ever finds out . . . "
Portia dismissed Nick's warning with a wave of her hand. "He won't. And I'll also stay out of the way of this Phoebe Halliwell. If she, her sisters, the other McNeills or even this Belthazor try to interfere, I still have a few tricks up my sleeve." She calmly popped another piece of veal into her mouth.
END OF PART 12