It was the perfect day. Joanna, along with her parents, was on her way to a fancy restaurant to celebrate her mother’s thirtieth birthday. Joanna and her father sang “Happy Birthday” while her mother laughed, begging them to stop. Everyone was having such a good time until her father cried out for God and slammed on the brakes. In that instant, her mother let out the most chilling scream Joanna had ever heard.
     She had no time to react. The next thing Joanna heard was the horrifying groan of bending metal and the terrifying sound of shattering glass. Dazed and confused, she tried to shake off the deafening sounds that swam around her as a pain shot through her chest.
     “Mommy, it hurts,” Joanna screamed. “Help me, Mommy!"
     But her mother didn’t answer.
    Joanna gagged on the smoke that began to fill the car, and her chest hurt every time she coughed, but still her mother did nothing to comfort her. Struggling to free herself, Joanna pulled on the seatbelt wrapped around her but it was no use. When she realized her legs were pinned behind her father’s seat, she became hysterical.
     “Daddy! I can’t get out!” Joanna cried. “My legs are stuck! Help me Daddy!”
     But he too was incredibly silent.
     Joanna looked past the front seat to see the hood of their car crushed and smoking. The windshield was pushed in and pieces of twisted metal hung from the roof of the car like angry claws.
     Petrified, Joanna tried again to free herself, but the safety belt pressed against her chest and the door was crushed against her shoulder, making it hard for her to move. Joanna cried again and again for her parents but they didn’t answer. She could see them through the smoke that began to fill the car, but still they did nothing to help her.
     It’s a nightmare. That’s what it is.
    Quickly, Joanna squeezed her eyes shut and waited. But when she opened her eyes, the nightmare had not gone away. Closing her eyes again, she tried to wish it all away. That’s when she felt a hand take hold of hers.
     “It’s all right. I’ve got you now. You’re going to be okay.”
    The voice was deep and kind. Joanna looked to see a policeman staring at her. He smiled and squeezed her hand. “I’m going to stay right here with you, Sweetie, until the firemen can get you out, okay?”
     She nodded timidly.
    Smoke continued to fill the car. Loud voices yelled and hollered around her−scaring her even more. A fireman in a bright yellow suit spoke to the policeman holding her hand and told him he needed to back away. Joanna clutched his fingers even harder, afraid he would leave, but he smiled and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
     “Work around me,” he said to the fireman. “I’m staying right here.”
     “Then get this blanket around her,” the fireman instructed. “We need to get the jaws-of-life in here, and we’re running out of time.”
     The policeman turned to her and smiled. “What’s your name, Sweetheart?”
     “Joanna,” she said through sniffles and tears.
    “Hi, Joanna, my name’s Matthew. I’m going to put this blanket around us, okay? That way the firemen can help to get you out.” Matthew gingerly laid the heavy blanket across her and pulled it over both of their heads.
     “It’s so dark,” she whimpered.
    “I’m sure a big girl like you isn’t afraid of the dark,” Matthew said to her in a kind voice. “But I’ll tell you a secret that helps me when I’m scared. If you close your eyes and sing your favorite song, the darkness doesn’t seem so scary. Can you do that for me, Joanna?” he asked while squeezing her hand. “Can you sing a song while the firemen work around us?”
     She nodded her head slowly, and quietly began to sing “Happy Birthday”. It wasn’t her favorite song, but it was the only one she could remember.
     “You’re doing great, Joanna. We’re almost done.”
     “Is someone helping my mommy and daddy?” she asked, when she got to the end of the song.
     “The firemen are going to get them out too, Sweetheart. I just need you to be brave right now. Okay?”
     A loud noise filled the air as the car began to whine and the door pulled away from her side. Joanna could smell smoke through the blanket, but continued to sing as tears streamed down her face. She was trying so hard to be brave−like Matthew had asked her−but she was afraid. More afraid than she’d ever been in her life. She wanted to believe everything was going to be okay.
     But somehow she knew something was terribly wrong.
     “Okay. We got the door free,” the fireman yelled over the noise and the chaos.
     Matthew squeezed her hand. “Joanna, I’m going to have to let go of your hand for just a moment while the firemen move the door. But I’ll be right here. “I promise.”
     The blanket slipped from around her shoulders as Matthew’s hand pulled away from hers. She cried out for him, scared of being left by herself. But as soon as the firemen removed the door, Matthew reached inside the car, unbuckled her seatbelt, and carefully lifted her into his arms. He pulled her to his chest, and she could feel his heart beating just as fast as hers. Slowly, he laid her on a funny mattress with wheels, but never let go of her hand. When two men in blue shirts began to touch her, she pulled away; clinging to Matthew’s arm.
     “It’s okay, Joanna, these men are here to help you. They’re doctors and they want to make sure you’re okay.”
     As soon as she lay back down, she began to cough. But it wasn’t like when she had a cold or choked on a potato chip. It hurt more than that. One of the men in the blue shirts tried to put a funny mask over her face, but she pushed it away.
     “It’s okay, Joanna. It’s just a mask, like at Halloween. It will help you breathe and make your coughing go away.”
     “Is it going to hurt?”
     “No, Joanna. I promise.”
     After the mask was back in place, one of the doctors looked at her and smiled. “Joanna, my name is Jacob, and this is Steve.” He pointed to the other man standing beside her. “We’re going to listen to your heart and look into your eyes, okay?”
     She nodded bashfully.
     Joanna tried to lie still as one doctor pressed the funny heart tube thing against her chest and the other flashed a light in her eyes. They talked about the cuts on her arms and the gash on her knee, but didn’t say anything about her mommy or daddy.
     “Where does it hurt, Joanna?” Matthew asked, while stroking her hair back from her face.
     With her eyes closed, she pointed to her chest with a shaky finger and then to her tummy. She pulled at the mask the doctor had put on her face and asked in a quivery voice, “Where’s my mommy? I want to see my mommy.”
     “She can’t come here right now, Joanna, but I promise I will stay with you all the way to the hospital.” Matthew stroked the side of her face just like her daddy did when he tucked her in at night.
     Suddenly, Joanna felt very tired and no longer had the strength to keep her eyes open. The last thing she remembered was the policeman’s reassuring smile as he held her hand.

                                                                                     CHAPTER ONE

     Officer Joanna Anderson sat at a desk by herself as she listened to the morning briefing. Sgt. Blackstone paced at the front of the room as he informed the day shift officers of a few fires that appeared to be arson, another death of a prostitute in the downtown district, and the continual rise of gang activity.
     “We’re still hearing murmurs of tension on the west side,” the sergeant said. “The Outlaws are trying to expand their boundaries but the Lost Boys and the Compadres are beginning to push back. Tensions are high, so keep your ears to the street and your presence known. Watch yourselves out there; it could get ugly.”
     “No uglier than it is in here,” Officer Brewster said from behind Joanna as he gave her chair a shove with his foot.
     Joanna ignored him, or at least she tried to. She had expected to take some heat regarding her recent actions, but she’d never expected the harassment to get this bad.
     She blocked out the caustic remarks and whispered threats. She sat in her seat with her head down, eyes closed. She relived for the hundredth time her partner pushing the teenage kid through the plate glass window; and the threats he’d aimed at her if she didn’t keep her mouth shut.
     I did the right thing. He was out of control. I had no choice.
   The noise level rose around her. She looked up to see the sergeant had finished with roll call. The briefing was over and the other officers were beginning to disperse. Sgt. Blackstone approached the desk she was sitting at and stopped.
     “Anderson, Captain Armstrong wants to see you in his office.”
    Immediately, everyone stopped moving and looked in her direction. “Maybe the snitch is going to get a taste of her own medicine,” someone mumbled.
     Without acknowledging the comment, Joanna got to her feet and headed down the hall, preparing herself for what might happen. She had done the unthinkable just a month prior, and now she was going to pay for it.
     She took a deep breath as she stood outside the door to the captain’s office and said a quick prayer before knocking.
     “Enter!” the captain barked.
     Joanna swallowed hard but refused to allow his commanding voice to intimidate her. She walked into the captain’s office and shut the door behind her, then stepped forward.
     “Sit down, Anderson.” His tone was firm.
     She did her best not to look threatened by his stare or his rank. She took a seat in one of the two worn upholstered chairs across from his desk.
     “Do you know why you’re here, Anderson?” he questioned.
     “No, sir.” But I can guess.
     She assumed she was there once again to be interrogated about the grievance she had filed against her partner. But Cummings had given her no choice. His use of excessive force when dealing with arrests or even in the questioning of delinquents had gotten out of hand. The final straw came when he pushed a teenage boy through a plate glass window. Yes, the kid had run, and yes, they had chased him for blocks; but when Cummings had finally caught up with the teen, he wasn’t satisfied with an arrest. He was angry and wanted the kid to pay.
    Everyone cleared out of the laundromat where Cummings had the boy cornered. When Joanna caught up with them, Cummings was clearly assaulting the kid. She yelled for him to stop, but he was out of control. The altercation ended with Cummings pushing the kid through a large plate glass window at the front of the store. She was the only witness to the assault, and he assumed she would keep her mouth shut like she had so many times before. This time he was wrong.
     That evening, Joanna had filed a grievance, stating multiple incidents where she felt Cummings had used excessive force. He was assigned a desk job until the disciplinary board could review her allegations. When they convened two weeks later, Cummings was suspended a month without pay, and Joanna had become the outcast of the department.
     She was horrified when the majority of the officers−the same officers who had sworn to uphold the law and serve the community−were siding with a man who clearly abused his power. She was being ostracized and harassed for doing the right thing.
     No one came to her defense. Not one person. While some expressed their hatred for her openly; others just ignored her. She couldn’t believe after being in the department for three years, friends she had made since day one would so easily turn against her. She’d thought about transferring to another department, maybe even somewhere out of state. But she refused to be bullied. She had done the right thing and wasn’t going to let intimidation win.             Now she sat before Captain Armstrong for the second time, and wondered what kind of reprimand she was in for this time.
     The captain cleared his throat before speaking.
     “What I’m about to tell you, Anderson, is coming from my superiors. I don’t agree with the decision and want you to know that up front. Despite what people say, affirmative action is alive and well, and breathing down our necks regarding the ratio of females in the upper divisions. You were the female that tested highest for the open detective’s slot, so we have no choice. You are being promoted to detective. Effective immediately.”
      Joanna was shocked.
    “This is not going to be a popular decision among the ranks,” the captain continued. “I tried explaining this to my superiors, but they thought my concerns were unfounded. It will look as if you’re being rewarded for your latest actions, but let me assure you, Anderson, you’re not.” His look fell just short of contempt. “This is a political move, a quota that has to be met.” The captain eyed her, clearly looking for a reaction.
     Joanna was so excited she wanted to scream and shout. But since the captain was making it very clear he didn’t think she was deserving of the promotion, she kept her revelry to herself.
     “I’m going to warn you,” he went on. “You have a squad room of detectives to win over. They’re not going to be to accepting of someone with your reputation. In fact, I doubt you’ll even last the month.”
      He was clearly challenging her, but Joanna didn’t take the bait. He might not think she was capable, but she would prove him wrong.
     “Who will be my partner?” she asked, trying to invoke the sound of confidence in her voice.
    Inwardly, Joanna cringed. Owens was one of the detectives she had already gone rounds with. Unfortunately, the captain picked up on her displeasure.
     “Is there a problem, Anderson?” he asked pointedly.
     “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with Owens, sir.”
     He laughed out loud. “Oh. I wasn’t aware of the fact that I was here to make you feel comfortable. Do you want to tell me why you have a problem with Owens?”
     Joanna knew the question wasn’t optional.
     She cleared her throat. “He’s made advances towards me in the past, and I’m afraid being partnered with him might become awkward.”
    “Oh really?” The captain’s words were laced with sarcasm as he reached for the button on his intercom. “Rose, send Detective Owens in here right away.”
    Joanna realized too late she was only making matters worse. She sat in silence as the captain shuffled papers around on his desk. When the door opened behind her, she sat up a little taller. Detective T.J. Owens stepped into the room and stood directly in front of the captain’s desk. She chanced a glance at him while he focused on the captain.
     T.J. looked like he had just stepped out of the pages of Surf Rider magazine. From his tousled sun-bleached hair, to his tanned complexion and baggy jeans, he looked nothing like a cop. That’s why he was so good at what he did. Of course, that didn’t stop him from being arrogant and obnoxious, as well.
     “You wanted to see me, Capt.?”
     “Sit down for a moment, T.J.”
     T.J. took the seat next to Joanna and gave her a sideways glance. He was clearly confused by her presence.
     The captain looked squarely at T.J. and asked, “Have you made sexual advances towards Officer Anderson?”
     “What?” T.J. jumped to his feet.
     “Sit down, Owens.” The captain’s voice boomed.
     Joanna spoke up quickly. “Captain, I never said he made sexual advances. We’ve just had a few awkward exchanges.” She didn’t dare look at T.J. even though she could feel his eyes boring straight through her.
    “Okay, Anderson, let’s get this straight.” The captain folded his hands on his desk and leaned towards her. “What kind of exchanges are we talking about?”
     She swallowed hard and strained to make her words sound business-like, and void of feeling. “He’s asked me out repeatedly after I clearly made it known I wasn’t interested.”
     “Yeah, well,” T.J. chimed in. “I can assure you I lost all interest after you showed your true colors.” He locked eyes with her to make his point.
     “Officer Anderson,” the captain continued, unwilling to let the situation go. “Surely an attractive woman such as yourself has been pursued before.”       The captain had a way of making even a compliment sound like a reprimand. “Did Detective Owens make suggestive comments about your physique?”
     “No, sir.” She looked directly at the captain, trying to hold her ground.
     “Did he ask you to have sex with him?”
     “No, sir.” Joanna’s answer softened as her confidence faltered. Her stare settled somewhere among the paperwork on his desk.
     “Did he touch you inappropriately?”
     “No, sir.” Her shoulders slumped as her focus dropped to her lap; the heat of humiliation rose in her complexion.
     “Good, then there’s no problem, right?” He looked to Joanna for an answer.
     “No problem, sir.”
     “Well, I have a problem.” T.J. shot back. “I want to know why she’s in here making accusations about me."
     “T.J.,” The captain looked directly at him. “Anderson is being promoted to detective. Meet your new partner.”
     “She’s what?” T.J. once again shot to his feet. “No way! No way am I going to get saddled with some broad that screwed over her old partner and now has me in her crosshairs.”
     “Sit down, T.J.!” the captain barked.
     “No freakin’ way!” T.J. continued to rant. “I’m not taking the chance of getting called before the review board because it’s my word against hers.”
     “Relax, T.J.” The captain stood to get his full attention. “I think Anderson can assure us that’s not going to happen. Right, Anderson?” He looked at her directly.
     “Yes, sir.”
    “Good. Then we’re all clear. T.J., you can make the announcement to the rest of the men.” The captain fixed his stare on Owens, daring him to balk. When it was clear T.J. was not going to show further defiance, the captain glanced between them. “That’s all.” He turned his attention back to the paperwork on his desk.
     The matter was settled.
     Joanna got to her feet while T.J. made a beeline for the door. He swung it open wide and walked out. She followed after him, expecting him to stomp off, but as soon as she stepped into the hallway and shut the door, T.J. backed her up against the wall.
     “Look, I’ve worked long and hard to get where I am. I’m not going to let you screw it up, understand?”
     “I have no intentions of screwing anything up.” Her tone was as caustic as his.
     “Oh sure, is that what you told Cummings right before you got him suspended?”
     “Look, he deserved what he got. As long as you don’t push a kid through a plate glass window, you have nothing to worry about. I’m a good cop, but I won’t lie for someone who abuses their authority.”
     T.J.’s complexion turned red. He leaned in closer to Joanna, ready to give her more of the same, when he looked to see Rose−the captain’s secretary−absorbing the whole scene. His actions were harassment, plain and simple. He took a few steps back, giving Joanna some breathing room before he stormed off, expletives punctuating every step. Joanna pushed off the wall she’d been pinned against and slowly walked down the hall. And I thought the last few weeks had been difficult. They’re going to look like a walk in the park after a day in the War Room.
     There were ten other detectives besides Owens. All men. Unfortunately for her, they were all at the station for a special briefing. Nothing like being baptized by fire, she thought to herself as she took a deep breath and walked into the firestorm that surely awaited her.