DISCLAIMER: Women's Murder Club and its characters are the property of James Patterson, 20th Century Fox Television and ABC. No infringement intended.
SERIES: First in a series of six loosely related WMC stories.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Charge of the Lite Brigade
By Liz Estrada


Cindy Thomas had never understood the 'bathroom quickie' phenomenon. Germs, odors, slippery floors - not her ideal setting for a romantic interlude. Two of her co-workers at the Register, however, didn't seem to mind the milieu. Cindy was exiting the last stall when the high-heeled newcomers blindly slammed through the ladies room door and locked it behind them as they kissed and argued and kissed, crashing against sinks, tampon dispensers and hand dryers before finally tottering into their own private Idaho two potties down.

She had instinctively ducked out of sight, and should have fled as soon as they were behind a closed door, but her escape was tripped up by good hygiene habits: I have to wash my hands! I used all my Purell at the shelter this morning… I have no backup system! That hesitation had cost her, and now it was too late to sneak past without enduring a torturously awkward moment. Consequently, half-frozen with embarrassment (and a dash of prurient curiosity), she tucked her shoes up onto the seat and put herself on mute. After all, knowledge is power, and she was certain she recognized one of the lovers' voices.

"Can't we do this tonight? Have a few drinks, go dancing…"

Margot Dillard. New art department intern from Pepperdine. Tall, skinny, kinda goth. And not a little bossy, Cindy thought.

"I doubt I'll be able to get away. My in-laws are flying in from London this afternoon, so I'm stranded on Nob Hill for three agonizing days of boozy chit-chat, dinner theatre and sublimated rage."

"Aww, poor baby," cooed Margot.

"Don't mock my situation. His family is no laughing matter," snapped the other woman, whose brittle, cultured pearl voice Cindy did not recognize. "I thought you understood that."

"I do, and I'm sorry, it's just that -"

"I'm in no mood for talk therapy. I need something to remind me why I'm putting up with all of this shit. Just do it, right here."

"Really? Won't Baz notice?"

"What occurs below my waistline is of no concern to him, remember?"

"Still… I wasn't expecting you today. If I do this now, it'll be all red."

"I don't care. My car will be back in fifteen minutes, so have at me."

"I'll do my best," promised Margot, just before the scary yicky notsexy buzzing noises started.

They brought personal electrical appliances into the workplace bathroom? Gross, thought Cindy, who stealthily retrieved her iPod from a jacket pocket and blocked sounds of the gadgety assignation with baffled earbuds and Brandi Carlisle. Over the course of four songs, she vowed countless times that this would never happen to her again.

I'm going to Costco tonight and buying a gallon of Purell…

Lindsay and Claire were already tucked into a booth at Papa Joe's by the time Cindy arrived. Claire smiled at her and offered a menu, beckoning the reporter to sit by her, which was fine with Cindy for a number of reasons: Claire Washburn didn't get weird when you mooched off her plate (like Jill would) or grumble when you asked her to pass every condiment on the table (like Jill would), but most importantly, sitting by Claire afforded Cindy an unobstructed view of Lindsay Boxer's remarkably expressive face.

A face which was at that moment sporting a rather affable grin. "Hey, Nellie Bly. How's that homeless shelter piece coming?"

"All wrapped up with a pretty bow," Cindy replied, grinning back two-fold. "I turned it in this morning - seven hours early, thank you very much - and my grateful editor offered to have Maggie professionally detailed as a reward."

Claire's eyebrows lifted sharply. "Who's this Maggie person?" she queried.

"And how much do these professionals charge?" Jill chimed in, swinging around the partition and slotting into the booth's last vacancy. "Maybe we could pool our money and have Lindsay professionally detailed."

Lindsay choked a little on her Diet Coke, and Cindy rushed in to explain. "Maggie is my car. It's a name, a nickname. Because I like her. It's a thing I do."

"Do you have nicknames for us?" Jill asked.

"Not yet," Cindy admitted. "It has to happen naturally."

"Aww. I want a nickname," Jill whined. "I've never had one."

"Sure you have. People just didn't say it to your face," teased Claire.

"I got your nickname right here, Slickback," Lindsay groused, wiping a phantom speck of soda from her chin. "Three more voicemails from prospective suitors? I'm warning you, quit tryin' to pimp me out."

"I mean no harm," Jill told her slightly ruffled best friend. "But you must understand that until you meet that special someone and are happily neck-deep in love, I'm gonna keep trying to score you some hot, nasty action."

"You should have been in the bathroom at the paper today," Cindy murmured, and their table was suddenly under the cone of silence; her offhand, sotto voce remark had secured everyone's attention. Even Lindsay looked as though her curiosity was piqued, but the idea of recounting the bathroom incident in front of her made Cindy literally squirm in her seat.

"Nobody's going to talk until you flesh out that lead," Claire finally prompted.

Cindy slumped down and searched for a safe place to rest her eyes. Unfortunately, they lighted on Lindsay's fingertips, two of which were rubbing small, focused circles on the Formica tabletop. Cindy's cheeks went red and she closed her eyes, rubbed her forehead and giggled.

"It's not a big deal, really," she began. "I was trapped in the ladies room while one of our interns hooked up with her older, married girlfriend, and there was kissing and banging around, then some fairly odd conversation followed by a protracted period of… buzzing."

Lindsay looked like she'd bitten a lemon. "Buzzing?"

"Right on," Jill nodded. "Bathroom sex is hot."

"I'd say it depends on the bathroom," Claire qualified. "Light a few candles, play some Maxwell, run a nice bath -"

"If you only do it in your own bathroom, you're missing the point," said Jill. "It's about spontaneity, about the danger of being caught – or overheard -"

"I can't find the sexy in ruptured discs and staph infections," Claire persisted. "It may bore you to tears, but I'm staying home with my no-slip tub strips and my Clorox."

"I could never do it," Cindy added, emboldened by the openness of the others. "Not in a public restroom, anyway. Maybe not even at home. I don't have a tub, and my little shower just feels so cramped."

"Excuses, excuses," Jill dismissed. "Go buy some edible body bars and find yourself a slim hottie in need of a thorough cleaning."

On Jill's pointed suggestion, Cindy simultaneously blushed and looked at Lindsay, only to find the dark-eyed police inspector regarding her benignly, a faint smile on her lips. The eye contact lasted only a couple of seconds, maybe three. Neither said a word, and each quickly found something else to do. Lindsay sipped at her soda and Cindy pretended to peruse the menu. Claire, in the middle of adding just the right amount of Splenda to her coffee, missed the moment.

Jill Bernhardt, possessed of a finely tuned pheromone tracking system, did not. "I. Want. A hamburger," she enunciated, rather loudly. "Will you split some fries with me, Linz?"

"I think I just want a house salad," Lindsay said, absently staring at the laminated sheet of choices. "But I might poach a few, yeah."

"Cool," Jill proclaimed, standing up and tugging on Lindsay's arm. "Come to the ladies room with me. You can keep me from pulling a Larry Craig and ruining my career."

Lindsay huffed a little, but obliged her friend and walked ahead toward the restrooms while Jill feigned rooting through her purse. Once Lindsay was out of earshot, Jill leaned down and whispered, "Order her a burger, too. Medium-rare."

"I was planning to," said a smiling Claire as Jill winked and departed.

Cindy was mildly puzzled by the apparent red meat conspiracy. "Okay, what's that about?"

"Lindsay's anemic," Claire said simply.

The reporter's mouth dropped open in shock, mostly because she wasn't entirely sure what a diagnosis of anemia entailed. "Oh, God. Is she going to be okay?"

"Don't freak out. I think it's just iron deficiency, and I've recommended supplements and dietary changes, but that girl is a creature of habit," Claire said with plain affection. "We all need to pitch in a little, make sure she knows we're watching out for her."

"Gotcha," Cindy confirmed with a sober nod. Claire's confidence meant a great deal to Cindy, and her shoulders gladly squared up to bear even this small share of responsibility for Lindsay's well-being.

Their waiter was headed toward the table when a lanky blur of black hair and leather elbowed past him with a quick apology. Seemingly irritated, Lindsay rubbed at her mouth and reached across the table for her keys and sunglasses while offering a hasty explanation.

"Just got a call. There's a body, a woman. Shot in the head, dumped naked on the sidewalk in front of Grace Cathedral."

Claire gathered her purse and Cindy scooted out of the booth to let her by. She looked back toward the restrooms and spotted Jill finger combing her hair into place as she marched toward the pack. Everyone was readying to mount up and ride out like some all-girl cavalry, but Cindy's trusty mare was still at the groomers.

"Can I catch a ride with someone?" she interjected.

"Right. Maggie's getting the once-over," Lindsay remembered aloud. "I'll drive you. We can talk on the way."

"Okay. Umm. About what?"

"The victim. Jacobi says she had a San Francisco Register employee i.d. card around her neck. Name's Margot Dillard."

Cindy gasped and grabbed at the sleeve of Lindsay's jacket. "That… that's her."

"That's her who?" Lindsay inquired while gently dislodging Cindy's nervous fingers. The stunned reporter, however, didn't let go of her hand.

"The bathroom sex intern," Cindy clarified. "She's dead?"

Claire tossed a smug frown toward Jill. "I told you it was a bad idea," she said.

The blonde D.A. slyly noted the continued hand holding and canted an eyebrow. "I'm rethinking it myself."

To Cindy's disappointment, Inspector Boxer didn't fire up the siren and lights on the ride over, but she did drive with the aggression of someone who feared no traffic ticket.

"Tell me about Margot Dillard," she asked almost as soon as they were underway.

Cindy didn't want to bury the lead, but she started with the basics and gradually moved into the more interesting facts on file. "White female, twenty-three, tall and skinny, pale with bottle black hair – like Angelina in her brother-kissing phase. Art department intern, Pepperdine grad. Little bit lazy and sorta bossy, but not in a mean way. Just kind of…"

"Entitled?" Lindsay supplied.

"Yes, exactly," Cindy agreed. "How did you know?"

"Lot of that going around." Lindsay suddenly laid on the horn and shouted at a poky motorist. "The light's green, Magoo! Move your ass!"

"Umm. Yeah. So, I worked with Margot a few times getting stat charts and maps for my stories. She never dropped any clues about her personal life, but she was obviously messing around with a married woman, so she was either gay or bisexual." Cindy watched Lindsay's face for any reaction to her assertion, but there was nary a twitch. She was just driving, nodding, listening. Cindy fell briefly silent, unsure what she was expecting, and feeling a little silly for expecting anything.

"What did Margot and Mrs. Downlow talk about? You said it was odd," Lindsay prompted.

Cindy snorted at the nickname. "That's pretty good. I'm impressed."

"Thanks. See, people think I'm not funny," Lindsay complained. "I'm funny."

"Fools. They just don't know," Cindy agreed, throwing in a sassy head shake when she caught Lindsay smiling. "Anyway, it sounded like Margot wanted a real date more than a quickie in the stalls, but Mrs. Downlow didn't think she could get away tonight. She said her in-laws were coming in from London today, and she was not happy. Actually, she seemed a little afraid of them."

"'kay. Anything else?"

"Oh! Mr. Downlow's name is Baz - like short for Barry, maybe? And they live on Nob Hill. And they don't have sex. Not with each other, anyway."

"God, your brain is like a lint brush," Lindsay marveled. "You pick up everything."

Cindy tapped herself on the temple. "Near eidetic memory. Don't tell me something if you don't want me to remember it forever."

Lindsay paused thoughtfully, then nodded. "Okay."

Cindy winced and squinted, as if something horrible had just occurred to her. "You're never going to tell me anything again, are you?"

"Nope," Lindsay confirmed. She slowed the car and parked a block down from the crime scene. "Gimme a little head start before you come down. Wouldn't look good for the SFPD to give special treatment to certain members of the press."

"But I am special," Cindy insisted. "I'm in the club."

"It's not a club! Stop saying that or we'll take back your decoder ring."

Cindy smirked as Lindsay slammed the car door and stalked off toward the clusters of flashing blue and red lights, fluttering yellow tape, groups of people pointing and chatting. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was a block party, Cindy thought.

She watched Lindsay walk (because she always watched Lindsay walk - the woman alternately swaggered and cantered along like the bastard child of Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn) toward the scene, flash her badge at the crowd control officers and vanish into the throng.

At that moment, Cindy felt a melancholic pinch in her chest. No. Stop. No fake deep thoughts about how quickly people disappear from our lives, how we need to say things while we have the chance, blah blah blah. Don't be dumb. Don't screw everything up.

After a discreet interval of time had passed, Cindy Thomas mustered her courage, secured her gear, and lit out to join the charge like a professional hussar of the Fourth Estate… one with an increasingly distracting and decidedly unprofessional crush on the alpha dragoon in the leather jacket.

"The crime scene was a bust," Lindsay was saying to Jill and Cindy as they made their way down to the morgue. "No prints on the i.d. card. No witnesses, no tracks or casings. To sum up – we have no leads."

"Someone dumped a dead body on the lawn of a busy church around lunchtime, and no one saw anything?" Jill asked, sounding totally incredulous. "And they say I'm self-involved."

"We canvassed the entire area, and units are still out doing interviews, but so far, nobody saw anything unusual."

"Grace Cathedral is pretty close to Casa de Downlow," Cindy chimed in. "Any luck finding Margot's lady friend?"

"We haven't been able to reach Margot's father, but her roommate claims she wasn't seeing anyone," Lindsay explained, "which only means she was good at keeping secrets. Jacobi's down at the Register pulling this morning's lobby security footage and sign-in sheets. We'll find her."

"Oh, man…" Cindy breathed, pulling up short as they entered the morgue to find the remains of Margot Dillard laid bare under harsh fluorescent light. She had seen dead bodies here before, but those were strangers. There was something acutely uncomfortable about seeing this young woman, alive and hungry just hours ago, reduced to an inanimate husk.

"Just finishing up," Claire said, tugging a crisp sheet over the corpse's feet -

Blue toenail polish, Cindy noted, trying to master her fear by logging every detail.

- up over her calves and knees -

Scraped skin… were you kneeling? Did they drag you?

- to her hips and belly and breasts -

A little red and white tattoo. Wait. Wait!

"Wait. The tattoo," Cindy said, impelled by a hazy instinct, unsure why it was important. "Is that a flower?"

"On the upper left breast. It's an orchid," Claire confirmed as she tucked the sheet under Margot's chin. "Barely half an inch in diameter. Very fine detail, and possibly of some importance."

"Lots of people have little tattoos in interesting places," Jill said, walking behind Lindsay, who widened her eyes and flinched faintly. "Why does that matter?"

"Because she had the exact same kind of flower - wait for it," Claire teased, "in her stomach."

"You have my attention, Doctor Washburn," Lindsay urged. "Please, do elaborate."

"Dendrobium lawesii, red and white striation. Grown in quantity in Oceania, Australasia or anywhere with a greenhouse. Sorry, but it's pretty common," Claire explained. "She washed it down with a fair amount of alcohol. Three ginger martinis, I'd say."

"Liquid lunch," Jill noted. "At least she had something."

"Any evidence recovered from the exterior of the body?" Lindsay asked.

"No signs of sexual assault, no flashing arrows pointing to foreign hairs or fibers, but we're still testing the trace samples. She died from a single shot to the left temple at very close range - there's heavy scorching - and the wound was through and through."

Lindsay furrowed her brows in frustration. "So, no slug."

"No," Claire confirmed. "But the entry wound reads like a .22 caliber."

Jill's phone buzzed, and her eyes rolled as she read the incoming text. "I have been summoned by the great and terrible Denise. She wants an update."

"Stay close in case we need you," Lindsay reminded her.

"I'll have warrants of every size and shape at the ready," Jill promised as she ambled away.

"I need to check on the trace tests," Claire said. "It's probably all from the churchyard, but you never know."

"Indeed," Lindsay agreed. She noticed that Cindy had been unusually quiet, which she attributed to the general weirdness of seeing an acquaintance on the slab. Instinctively, she reached out to the girl and laid a hand on her shoulder - which caused Cindy to yip and jump like she'd been Tasered.

"Whoa. You okay?"

"Yeah! Sorry! Ha. Sorry." Cindy's eyes darted around the too-empty room. "Where'd everybody go?"

"Neverland Ranch," Lindsay deadpanned. "Michael's having an open house."

"Oh. Okay," Cindy said, only half hearing. "What do you think a battery powered tattoo needle would sound like?"

Lindsay squinted a little at the non-sequitur, though it only threw her for an instant. She was getting accustomed to the way Cindy's mind worked, the way intuitive leaps just jumped out of her mouth without warning, like deer crossing a highway. "Probably more buzzy and high-pitched than an AC powered unit. Maybe like -"

"A vibrator," Cindy finished, nodding. "Maybe Margot was giving Mrs. Downlow a matching orchid, and she was complaining because all she had was red ink! God, I just assumed they were… you know."

"The perils of having a dirty mind," Lindsay joked, smiling kindly. "It makes sense, though. Suggestive talk leads to kissing, and kissing leads to… you know."

"That is the normal pattern, yes." Cindy smiled back. Nodded. Realized she was staring at Lindsay Boxer and talking about girl sex, then promptly retreated back to safer ground. "I never had lunch. Did you have lunch?"

Lindsay tilted herself toward the door, indicating she was ready to go back upstairs. "Vending machine chips," she admitted as they headed for the elevator. "No time for much else."

Cindy dug into her purse and unearthed a South Beach bar. "Here. Take this."

Lindsay held her hands up in protest. "I'm not looting your emergency food supply."

"Please. I've got, like, a dozen in my desk and maybe a gross at home," Cindy confessed.


Cindy nodded and pressed the bar into Lindsay's hands. "Probably more. I'm a Costco survivalist. In fact, I'm planning to go there tonight and buy out their stock of hand sanitizer."

"Rock and roll," Lindsay gently mocked. "Honestly, I'm jealous. You get to spend an evening at Costco and don't have to take any crap for it, but if I'm not dating every night of the week, Jill treats me like I'm some sort of aberrant, subhuman weirdo."

"She wants you to be happy. Plus - if you ask me - there's a little self-preservation at work there," Cindy theorized on the fly. "She probably wants you tucked away in a steady relationship so she won't feel entitled to run her hands over your ass in the morgue, or drag you off into Papa Joe's bathroom for some impromptu necking."

Cindy's words blew through the hallway like a concussion grenade, leaving a ringing quiet in their wake. The red-faced reporter and paling cop stared at each other, shell-shocked at the clumsy revelation of a secret which, as it turned out, was baldly apparent when viewed from certain angles.

"I'm sorry," Cindy chirped, desperate to make amends. "I don't know why I felt compelled to say that out loud. I am the queen of all idiots. The indiscreet worship me as a goddess."

"No. Hey. Don't worry about it," Lindsay demurred, eager to soothe her friend's raging embarrassment and regain her own equilibrium. "It's not like we ever - there's nothing between - aww, hell. Just don't worry about it, okay?"

The elevator doors dinged open and Cindy managed to overcome her stupor and step across the threshold, but Lindsay was frozen in place. "I forgot to ask Claire something. I'll get the next one," she said, her voice mechanical and cool. "Thanks for this." She waved the meal bar at Cindy as the car doors slid shut.

Alone in the hall, Lindsay muttered to herself: "She really does pick up everything."

Alone in the elevator, Cindy Thomas put one hand on the balance rail to ride out a sudden head rush. It wasn't an entirely bad feeling; there was something exhilarating about taking that first step toward speaking the truth, something empowering and freeing.

Once this subject has been raised, you can't just tuck it away again. It's like opening Pandora's Box, she reasoned, which Lindsay would never have done on her own. I'm forcing the issue. I'm getting it out there in the open, where she'll have to deal with it and maybe consider why she's settling for lousy blind dates and secret quickies with a not-single girlfriend when she could have… well, me. Am I not a better option?

"Yes," Cindy said aloud. "Definitely, undeniably, yes. I am secure in this knowledge and require no additional affirmation."

With a soft jolt, the elevator stopped and the doors slid open again. Cindy turned to the first person she saw - a uniformed police officer - and flashed her most winning smile.

"Hey. I'm cute, right?" she asked.

The officer first looked at Cindy like she was crazy, then gave her a quick once over. "Yeah, you're alright. But I prefer Latin women."

Cindy gave the cop a thumbs-up and a wink. "Can't fault you for that."

She walked through the Hall lobby with a purposeful stride, newly confident that her lint brush brain and geyser mouth may have actually worked in her favor this time.

Margot Dillard's computer was gone and her desk empty by the time Cindy got back to the paper, all taken as potential evidence by Lindsay's partner, Warren Jacobi, and the SFPD. Still, she couldn't resist nosing around, just to see if they'd left anything interesting.

In one of the older work rooms, dominated by large manual cutting and drafting tables, she found a few scattered pieces from Margot's recent projects. Among the graphs and charts was a sketch of red and white orchids, laid out in singles, then in pairs. The flowers were almost identical to the tattoo on Margot's breast. In the top corner of the page, Cindy found a phone number, which she took back to her desk and looked up in the reverse directory.

"Petals?" she read aloud while dialing the number. "One-Thirteen Sullivan Ave."

On the fifth ring, a woman answered, sounding out of both breath and patience. "Yeah? What now?"

"Umm, I'm sorry? Petals?"

"Oh. Yes. Sorry, hon. I thought you were yet another distributor calling to eff-up my day," the woman explained. "How can I help you?"

"I'm looking for a friend," Cindy ventured. "Margot Dillard."

The woman breathed out a long, grinding sigh. "Margot, huh? Right place, wrong time. She was here earlier today. Her and Princess Di might be back tonight after nine."

With that, the woman unceremoniously hung up on Cindy, who hesitated only a moment before calling Lindsay. While the phone rang, she breathed deeply and slowly, determined to sound calm and rational as she conveyed this new information. The ringing continued until finally Cindy was routed to Inspector Boxer's voicemail. At the beep, she got right to the point.

"Hey. I know where Margot Dillard and Mrs. D. hung out, and it's the same place where she got flowered up today. Meet me at One-Thirteen Sullivan Avenue as soon as you can… and even though you said it was okay, I'm still so, so sorry. I really hope you're not mad at me. Umm. Bye."

She'll come, Cindy thought. Even if she's not ready to see me, Lindsay will come just to follow up on the lead. After swinging by her editor's desk to reclaim the keys to her newly detailed chariot, she was more than ready to roll across town and make with the snooping, because delving into other people's messed up love lives is so much easier than getting one's own house in order.

Petals, as it turned out, was a cute little bar and grill with cute little waitresses and cute little drinks - like ginger martinis garnished with edible orchids. Just for the hell of it, Cindy ordered one, along with a double order of Asian stuffed mushrooms. While she ate quickly and drank slowly, she visually surveyed the patrons, none of whom fit the grouchy manager's 'Princess Di' description.

When the cute little waitress came over to check on her, Cindy asked about Margot, and the girl instantly frosted over.

"That little bitch stiffed me today. Walked out on a check for three drinks. And no tip!"

"Was she with anyone? Maybe an older woman?" Cindy pressed.

"No, she was drinking alone," the girl remembered. "But she didn't leave alone. Some old white guy in a suit came in and they left in his cheesy rental."

"You saw his car?" Cindy practically yelped, unable to believe her luck.

"Yeah. I mean, god, it was practically parked in the foyer," she sneered. "I was going to tell him to move it, but he and Margot beat out of here pretty fast."

"Can you describe the car?" asked a new voice. Lindsay was there, standing right behind Cindy and clearly displaying her badge. "Make, model?"

"Hellooo, ociffer," the waitress said, brazenly dragging her eyes up and down Lindsay's frame.

"Hey!" Cindy snapped her fingers in front of the smitten girl's face. "Believe me, I know it's difficult, but you need to focus. Make and Model -"

"Color, rental insignia," Lindsay added.

"Yeah, it was a dark red Taurus. And it had the green "e" on the back. But I didn't see a plate or anything," the waitress said, addressing all her answers to Lindsay alone. "Can I get you a drink or something?"

"No, but if you could write down your name and number, I and the rest of the San Francisco Police Department will be eternally grateful," Lindsay explained, making sure the girl understood that their conversation was over.

The waitress scribbled down her information on a sheet from her check pad and slunk away. Lindsay bonelessly dropped into a chair opposite Cindy and popped one of the stuffed mushrooms into her mouth. "Hey. You don't mind, do you?"

"Not at all. I ordered enough for two," Cindy explained. She gestured toward her drink. "Those are really tasty, if you want a sip."

"Can't," Lindsay mumbled, covering her mouth as she chewed. "Still on duty." She punched two buttons on her cell and swallowed hard. "Tom! The victim was seen leaving here with an older white male in a red Taurus, rented from Enterprise. It's gotta be him. Yeah, Jill's got the warrants ready, so just call me when you get a GPS lock."

Cindy was bug-eyed and leaning halfway out of her seat, straining for an explanation, which Lindsay would deliver in her own sweet time. She snapped shut her phone, closed her eyes and slumped like a punchy fighter in the late rounds.

"Older white male, huh? Is it Barry Downlow?" Cindy asked, unable to wait any longer. "Or his scary British gangster dad?"

"You do have an active imagination," Lindsay said quietly. "Actually, we're looking at Margot's father."

"But… the whole 'secret girlfriend with dangerous in-laws' thing -"

"I think all that red orchid business is just a red herring." Lindsay took a deep breath and sat up straight, finally met Cindy's eyes as she laid it all out. "Margot's estranged father, one George Dillard, runs a mortgage company in San Diego, and this whole ARM mess has nearly put him under. Early this year, he emptied out all his accounts, sold all his property, even broke Margot's seven million dollar trust, and it still didn't settle his personal debts. But as it turns out, he's been carrying some heavy duty life insurance policies."

"So he cashed out his daughter?" Cindy asked, vaguely sickened by the apparent dollars and cents simplicity of the truth.

"There were emails from him on Margot's computer," Lindsay revealed. "He said he wanted to see her. She probably called him, arranged a meet, came here early for a few shots of courage."

"And she walked right into an ambush."


"Oh… wow. This is…"

"Messed up," Lindsay suggested. "There's still a few pieces missing, but what we have makes a pretty grim picture. He probably put the i.d. on her and dumped her someplace public so she'd be found and identified quickly."

"Anything to speed along the insurance claim," Cindy remarked. "He must have set up some kind of alibi, right?"

"His assistant swears he's in San Diego right now, although he's terribly busy and she just can't disturb him. Cops down there are checking it out."

Cindy smirked at the transparent ploy. "Girlfriend?"

"Sounded like it to me. She was kinda shrill, panicky," Lindsay noted. "If he's arrested for murder, she'll crack wide open." Her phone buzzed once before she snatched it up and took the call. "Tell me you found the Taurus."

Cindy watched closely as the inspector's eyes blazed; the chase would soon be on. Lindsay Boxer almost visibly heated up at the prospect of catching bad guys, her studied cool melting away. The woman had a seemingly unlimited supply of primal fuels buried under a beautiful, placid surface - an ANWR of adrenaline.

"I'm on the way," Lindsay nearly growled, ending the call. "Car's at the airport."

"Good hunting," Cindy said, trying to keep it simple. "Be careful."

Warring with Lindsay's desire to bolt for the door and race down the 101 was a gentler requirement, a need to make sure Cindy knew they were okay, or soon would be, if she had her way. "There's some stuff we should talk about. Later," she said. Placing a hand on the girl's shoulder, she leaned down and pressed a quick kiss onto her shiny auburn hair. "Thanks for the help. I hereby deem you an invaluable asset to the club, with all the attendant rights and privileges."

The reporter tilted her head back and grinned. "Entitlements?"

Lindsay, backpedaling toward the exit, said: "Lemme get back to you on that."

And with that, she was gone, leaving Cindy Thomas to deal with a fissioning joy that felt like the world's most awesome heart attack. "It's about damn time," she said.

As the night wore on, Cindy lost hope that Margot's mystery lady would show. It had been a long day (Lindsay still hadn't called), and after fending off advances from several well-meaning Petals denizens, she was nearly ready to call off the stakeout and pack it in… when the door opened and she saw her.

"Diana Spencer," she murmured aloud, unable to believe how much the woman resembled the late, lamented English princess. The woman stood near the entrance for several beats, scanning the crowd, looking for someone Cindy knew she wouldn't find. Her disappointment turned to annoyance when, instead of Margot Dillard, a petite redhead approached her.

"No, thank you, sweetheart," the woman said pre-emptively. "I'm waiting for someone."

Cindy didn't beat around the bush. "I work at the Register - my name's Cindy Thomas - and I'm really sorry, but Margot's not coming."

The lady looked skeptical, bordering on hostile. "What are you on about?"

Cindy bit her lip, then bit the bullet. "Maybe we should sit down."

When shopping in a big box retailer past eleven on a Thursday night, fertile minds have been known to sprout creepy, post-apocalypse fantasies. In the oppressive, echoing emptiness, it's almost inevitable.

"Cindy Thomas isThe Omega Shopper," intoned one such dreamer, as she loaded her cart with Lever 2000 wipes and refill jugs of Purell. "Coming soon to a multiplex near you." Then her phone rang, and the illusion of isolation broke down completely when she saw the caller I.D. readout.

"Hey! Did you get him?"

"Hey," Lindsay replied briskly. "Yeah. We got him."

"Way to go, copper!"

"Not me. Highway Patrol did the run down. They pulled him on the Five near Lost Hills, found a .22 revolver under the front seat. They say he started crying and babbling before the cuffs even clicked shut."

Cindy huffed in disbelief. "So, what? He just confessed?"

"Laid it all out," Lindsay confirmed. "He borrowed the gun from a friend - ostensibly to shoot gophers - drove up, parked at the SFO short term lot, paid someone to rent a car for him, did the deed, drove back to the airport, wiped down the rental and set off for home."

"That's just so... cold," Cindy said. "Such a waste. Margot had a lot to live for, a lot to offer."

Lindsay hesitated only a moment. "Crimedog! You found Mrs. Downlow."

"I did," Cindy said proudly. "I told her Margot had been killed, nothing else."

"Good. Thank you."

"It was so sad, though. They were really in love, I think, and so close to being able to be together."

"She's getting a divorce?"

"Barry - Baz to his friends - is not the son of gangsters," Cindy began, "but the scion of a wealthy family of vintners. He's gay and they know it, but they made him sign an agreement that he would marry and stay married for at least ten years."

"Why?" Lindsay laughed. "Did they think the gay would just wear off over time?"

"It's something about the board of directors wanting to be sure he's stable, I think? Anyway, Fiona - that's her name - agreed to take on the role of faithful, dignified wife for a full decade, after which she gets a chunk of the company and a fat cash settlement. The catch is, nine years into this passionless play, Fiona met Margot."

"Cue the secret bathroom trysts."


Mmm-hmm. Now, Margot wanted them to run away together, but since Mr. Dillard had looted her trust, she couldn't finance anything. Fiona insisted that if they could wait out these last few months, they'd be set for life."

"Jesus," Lindsay breathed. "How close were they?"

"It'll be ten years this Christmas."

The line was so quiet, Cindy had to say something just to make sure the call hadn't been dropped. "Linz?"

"I'm here," came the soft response. "That just… sucks."

"It's a good argument against dragging your heels," Cindy agreed, just before a staticky voice leaked from the store's PA system.

"Would the owner of a silver Lexus please report to the customer service center. Silver Lexus owner to the customer service center."

"Somebody got dinged in the parking lot," Lindsay absently guessed.

Cindy was confused. "Wait. You heard that?"

"You heard that?" Lindsay replied. "Where are you?"

"Costco. Shopping in the Adrian Monk section."

"Stay put," Lindsay ordered. Then she hung up.

"Rude," Cindy complained, though she barely had time to sulk before the rude woman herself rounded the end of the aisle and advanced on her position.

"And Jill said I'd never meet anybody hanging around warehouse retail outlets," Lindsay teased, beaming toothily.

"That woman has conflicting priorities," a happily surprised Cindy asserted. "I thought we covered that during my little Tourette's fit in the hallway."

"I remember." Lindsay parked her cart beside Cindy's and leaned rakishly against the push bar. "Just so you know, her behavior today? She had good reason."

Cindy, who had no problem imagining Jill's motivation, simply said, "Duh."

"No, just... let me explain." Lindsay screwed shut her eyes, exhaled slowly. "See, for months now, she's been pushing me to ask you out. On a date. And she knows that I'm absolutely too chicken to do anything unless I knew for certain that that's what you wanted, so - being half Tinkerbell and half Machiavelli - she decided to employ a different tactic."

Her confusion blew away like fog in a stiff wind. "She deliberately molested you to provoke me into saying something," Cindy surmised, with overtones of both wonder and fear. "Jill is scary. Like a mother."

"Yes, but she likes you," Lindsay reassured the young woman. "Be glad of it."

"Oh, have no doubt, I recognize my good fortune." Cindy mimicked Lindsay's cool pose and tried her best not to squeal as she said the next words. "Just in case there's any doubt left in your mind… I would love to go out with you sometime. Anytime. Does right now count?"

"No time like the present." Lindsay arched a brow, smiled crookedly, and furtively licked her bottom lip. Cindy barely had time to understand what was coming before the moment was upon her; Lindsay Boxer leaned in and kissed her. Once. Softly. Sweetly. Almost chastely. Bing.

Though her eyes were wide and her lips were tingling, Cindy felt vaguely disappointed. She was determined that this, whatever this was, would not start out in such a timid, tepid fashion. "You know what? That's not gonna cut it," she said.

Lindsay looked more amused than insulted. "You may have noticed that we are in the middle of a Costco."

"Exactly," Cindy concurred. "This is not the place for little trial-size items. People come here for bulk purchases, baby."

The reporter had thrown down the gauntlet, and Lindsay responded to the challenge in exactly the way Cindy had hoped. The taller woman snaked both arms around Cindy's waist, took the helm of her shopping cart and tugged, effectively trapping her between the rigid metal bar and the unyielding sinews of Lindsay's body. This time her descent matched Cindy's rise, and they met halfway for a kiss that was unquestionably hotter and deeper, longer and darker, yet somehow sweeter than the first. Cindy slid one hand onto Lindsay's shoulder; the other crept under her jacket and clutched a fistful of soft jersey shirt. The shirt grabbing served as a bit of a wake-up call to Lindsay, who reluctantly broke off and pulled back.

"Wow," burbled Cindy, eyes wide shut and smiling like a loon. "So. Ladies room?"

A black humored joke which the inspector appreciated and took in stride. "You and your bulk purchases."

"I'll take the lot, please. Clear off the shelves and check the storage room," Cindy instructed. "I brought my credit card."

"You should keep your receipt," Lindsay advised. "Returns are accepted for thirty days, no questions asked."

"Thirty days? Your optimism is astounding."

"I think my Owner's Manual is written in Sanskrit. Fair warning."

"I aced Ancient Languages at Vassar," Cindy bragged. "I'm just sayin'."

In lieu of more banter about wasted time and dragged feet, Lindsay pulled Cindy close and just hugged her, just delighted in the welcoming curve of her body, the smell of her hair, the mere miraculous fact of her. In her life. In her arms.

Because she was Cindy, the quiet didn't last very long. "You had me worried, you know. That fist kiss was kind of a dud."

"Hmph. Sorry."

"Well, I had been building it up in my mind for a long time, right? But that second one… now that was almost perfect."


"In the most recent mental movies, there was a black bikini," Cindy revealed. "And a matching black Stetson cavalry hat."

Lindsay barked out a harsh, convulsive laugh, but Cindy was already looking up, scanning the overhead aisle markers for guidance.

"I wonder if they sell hats here," she said, giving Lindsay's hip a light slap before galloping off on her quest for perfection.

Bewildered, exhausted, and happier than at any time in recent memory, Lindsay Boxer loaded her items into Cindy's shopping cart and wheeled off after her, muttering under her breath.

"A cavalry hat. Lord, help me."

The End

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