DISCLAIMER: Women's Murder Club and its characters are the property of James Patterson, 20th Century Fox Television and ABC. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To Demeter94[at]yahoo.de

Closure By Degrees
By Demeter


1st Degree

"Lindsay, come on in. Close the door, please."

That isn't Tom's 'boss' voice. It's the 'I've-got-news-which-aren't-necessarily-bad-but-could-be-for-you' voice, the same when he told me that he was going to get married. I give him what I hope is an encouraging smile. He doesn't really have to worry about me these days. I'm not sure if he knows about Cindy and I, but I imagine it must be plain for everybody to see, because I'm happy and lovestruck. It's just about as perfect as I could have ever hoped.

"I didn't want you to hear it from the office grapevine," he continues, "and it's bound to be going around soon. Heather..." Tom doesn't look at me as he says, "Heather is pregnant."

I'm - winded, and he is waiting for me to say something, so for long, awkward seconds, there is silence.

"Really?" I say and wince. It sounds silly. "I mean... Good news, right? Congratulations to both of you."

"Thanks," he says with a relieved smile. "I just thought you deserved to know."

Before everyone else, that is, so when they start cheering, I won't be blindsided. It's considerate of him, right, but I'm pretty blindsided now. Stupid; it was to be expected. Of course they'd want to have children. None of my business anyway. Not anymore.

"Okay. I think I'm just--" The ringing of my cell phone saves me before I can embarrass myself further.

Then it's back to the job.

About ten minutes later, I'm in the room of a fourteen-year-old girl, crouching by the futon bed.

The walls are decorated with pictures of pop stars I don't recognize, but look awfully young to me. There are a few plush animals on one shelf, leftovers from childhood that their owner hadn't wanted to part with yet. The computer on the desk is still on; the doors of the wardrobe are open, giving sight to a huge collection of clothes.

The girl whose name is Laura, is lying on the bed with the wooden frames that's in the center of the room, looking like she is sleeping - but she is not. Laura is dead; this is how her parents have found her this morning.

Yellow curtains are wafting in the soft breeze. The window's open, and probably has been all night. It's where he came in on this warm summer night.

There is no obvious cause of death; the autopsy will have to determine that.

Laura is the Ingrams' only child. It makes me think of missed chances and unexpected dead end streets in life. Claire, ever observant, picks up on that. "You look tired," she says. "Long night?"

I know it's silly, but my face heats. "I've been working," I say with enough of a hint of indignation it makes her smile.

"Didn't mean to suggest otherwise."

I look at the computer, wondering if anything on that hard drive will give us a hint as to why the girl died. "Long day. And it's going to be another one."

When I wearily trudge up the stairs that night, I can hear from the sounds inside that Cindy is there, cooking. It makes me smile. We hardly manage to spend a big part of the week together, but in the time we do, we've become pretty domestic within a short frame of time.

I open up the door with my keys, toss them onto the small table and walk further inside.

Cindy is wearing comfort clothes, jeans and a red shirt, her hair bound up in a pony tail. She's humming. I stand leaning against the door frame, watching her with a smile.

In the past, relationships have always been this complicated puzzle I couldn't seem to figure out to save my life, so I wasn't prepared for this. With Cindy, everything is easy. I can't describe it. I'm just glad about the way it is.

"Hi there. I hope you're hungry," she says, turning around. I pull her close to me and whisper, "Very much," sliding my hands under her shirt. Cindy rolls her eyes at me, but doesn't voice any objection, as I remove her bra, cupping her breasts gently in my hands. Her nipples harden at my touch, her breath quickens - no, she's not objecting at all, on the contrary.

She takes a step backwards to lean against the kitchen counter while I move forward, pressing up against her while I take her mouth, the taste and feel of her rapidly washing away all dire thoughts of dead teenagers and newly-wed women's pregnancies.

I tug her thick soft hair free from the hairtie, and it falls to her shoulders, sliding over my fingers like silk. The shirt gets pushed up just enough to be out of the way for what I want to do with my tongue.

When I straighten up again, the sight of her, flushed, somewhat disheveled, is all I need for inspiration. Making quick work of button and zipper, I slide my hand inside the front of her panties, watching her eyes darken.

"Good evening to you, too," she gasps.

I can also read the curiosity, the questions, bad day today?, but I know she won't ask until later.

My fingers slide over soft, damp skin, and I egde closer, crowding her against the counter, never ceasing the motion that soon has her slumping backwards slightly, her soft moan echoing mine.

It's more urgency than finesse, but at the moment, it doesn't really matter. At random moments some time in the future, I will probably stop and think about how it happened that I got so much power over her, but not now.

Now, all I want is for us to be like this, together, hot, sweaty, and more than just a little naughty. Whatever she's cooked for tonight, she used honey for it, that's why the open pot is still sitting on the counter, and the thought crosses my mind...

Cindy's eyes go really wide as I dip two fingers of my other hand into the pot, holding them out to her.

"Well, tonight," I say, "I feel like something sweet." She plays along, taking a lick, and the touch of her tongue against my fingertips is enough to make me very aware of the warm pulse between my own legs. It'll have to wait.

"God, Lindsay," she pants. "How about a little warning before you go all spontaneous and kinky on me?"

With the rest of it, I smear a sticky line between her breasts and down to her belly, a little revenge for insinuating I hardly ever go spontaneous and kinky on her, and she shivers. I don't really know what's up with me tonight, but sure as hell, we both enjoy it.

A little more of the smearing and tasting. Cindy giggles as I find a tickly spot.

I pause for a moment, watching her catch her breath, all disheveled and sticky and utterly beautiful.

"I love you so much." I pull her closer to me, uncaring that I'm still relatively dressed and the honey gets on my clothes, too. My other hand, still down her panties, returns to its earlier rhythm.

Her eyelids flutter shut as she gives herself over to the play of my fingers, her body straining for release I'm finally granting her, holding her through it.

"I love you, too," she whispers.

Later, she's lying beside me, still wearing the fluffy white bathrobe she had donned after the shower that was long enough so we haven't had dinner yet. Eyes closed, Cindy smiles as I seem unable to keep my hands off her, except now it's just holding.

I let my mind wander, back to some minutes ago, to the dual sensation of cold tiles against my back, and warm water cascading over my body, still filled with a tension I couldn't explain.

'What do you need?' she'd asked.

'You. Any way."

I'm taking a moment to enjoy my private slide show of images from the time between then and now, finally able to relax and acknowledge how lucky I am. She's truly the best that happened to me since - forever. It almost makes me mad at Tom to think I could be upset - but damn it, in some way, somehow, I am.

Cindy's eyes snap open as if she's sensing the turn of my thoughts.

"So... Not that I'm complaining, but are you going to share why you had me out of my pants less than five minutes after you've walked through the door?"

I look away, abashed all of a sudden.

Cindy realizes that I didn't quite get the humor. "I'm sorry," she sighs, cuddling closer against me.

"No, I'm sorry. I practically--"

Cindy lays a finger on my lips to halt the sentence. "Don't you dare. I loved every minute of it. I'm just curious - which should come as no surprise to you."

She's managed to make me smile again, but putting all of this into context, I also feel very stupid. Hell, I don't have anything to prove, right? "Tough case. Heather is pregnant. Take a pick."

"Sounds like the day could only get better," she says empathically, but there's more worry in her voice than just for me.

I understand. This, between us, is still fairly new. It took me by surprise. And I have to admit, I never really considered all the implications. I honestly don't want Tom back anymore. I just didn't - think...

"You know, Linds, it isn't completely unheard of that a child grows up with two moms," Cindy says very softly.

I know all that, and can accept it very easily in theory. Still, I need more time to handle all these changes - and no doubt about it, having a child is a little easier when you're in an old-fashioned het marriage.

Or sometimes, it's not. Okay, I so don't need those memories now.

"I know. I do take a look around every now and then."

But what about her? Cindy's career is just barely taking off. There'll be other opportunities and challenges than the Register's crime desk. There may come a time when hanging around a jaded - not to mention female - cop won't be all she wants from life.

"And if you really wanted a child, we could make it happen. I could get pregnant."

I sit up very abruptly, staring at her. "Now, whatever you smoked before I got here, it can't be legal."

Cindy, however, is only just warming to the subject. "I know there'd be a lot of planning involved, but it's not impossible. Just think about it."

Somehow, I find it hard to wrap my mind around the concept. "I didn't think you were planning to have a family yet."

Cindy has got an explanation ready, or maybe she wasn't ready for that question as all, because it doesn't seem to occur to her that we're walking through a minefield.

"Well, a lot has changed for me. I've never been with anyone I wanted to have a family with. You want a baby that badly, I'd do it. I'm younger, and you've had the miscarriage before."

"Well, thanks for reminding me!"


As I'm grabbing my clothes, I'm aware of Cindy's look, near terrified, but I can't care now. Whatever she'll say or do, there's no way to take those words back, no way to make that cut un-bleed.

Cindy follows me out in the hallway, talking nervously. "Please, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it that way! I was just trying to-- hell, you know how I meant it," she says helplessly, tears glistening in her eyes.

"Can we be done with the subject?" I ask coldly.

"Don't go. Let's talk about this, okay? I'm so sorry, I--"

"No! I've had all the talk I can stand for today, so would you just leave me alone?"

I shrug off her touch and flee; it's all I can do not to slam the door in her face. I'm not even halfway down the stairs when it sinks in that I just might have screwed up another relationship, but I can't help it, I can't be there right now.

Maybe, though, our Chief Medical Examiner will give me asylum.

And that sounds quite a bit morbid, if you think about it.

Claire has a fresh white chocolate cream cheese cake and a bottle of vodka, but she says I won't get my hands on either of that until I've told her what's up.

"And here I thought we could talk about the case." I try, at least.

She raises her eyebrows. "We could, when we're through with whatever is eating at you right now, because unless we have, I don't think you'll be able to focus much."

Claire listens patiently while I tell her about the fight Cindy and I had, leaving out some certain details of tonight, though I can tell by the slightly amused expression during one part of my narrative that she can guess. I'm also reluctant to share what exactly lead to that fight, because it makes me feel foolish all of a sudden. I finish by saying, "I'm wondering if I haven't thought this through enough."

She smiles. "Thinking it through rarely happens when people fall in love. Tell me again, why you're mad at Cindy?"

Okay, Claire, you asked for it. "She wants to get pregant, so we can have a family."

"So you got mad and walked out on her?"

"It sounds very silly when you put it like that."

Claire finally opens the bottle and pours a shot for both of us in response, when the door opens.

Jill's face lights up with a delighted smile when she takes in the scenery, but her expression turns serious when she looks at me. Figures. I'm really good at killing the mood tonight - anybody's.

She sits beside me, placing a warm, comforting hand at the small of my back. "Hey, Linds. What happened?"

"Cindy wants to have a baby," Claire reveals and places a glass, plate and fork in front of Jill.

"Really? Wow, that's great. It's great, isn't it?"

"Not you, too", I moan. "It won't happen, because it's crazy. End of story. Maybe," I help myself from the bottle again, "maybe very literally."

Claire exchanges a look with Jill and then asks, "Honey, why did you want Cindy to move in with you?"

"Because it's a good solution? We share the bills, less costs for both of us?"

"Redirect," Jill mumbles.

"Cindy does work from home a lot. Which means, Martha isn't alone that much."

Claire is relentless. "You can do better than that."

"Because..." I look at my hands as I say, "I love her?"

This time, Claire is clearly pleased with my answer.

"That's right. And I really hope that when you're telling her later, you do it without that little question mark I've just been hearing. You two will get through this, regardless of Tom's and Heather's family planning." When I don't object, she continues, "Now we talk about the case."

There were traces of a yet unidentified substance in Laura Ingram's bloodstream. Claire can't say for sure yet, but she suspects it meant to subdue Laura, while she was being suffocated. Who came through the open window at night?

Was she asleep, not noticing the presence until it was too late, and he had drugged her?

Or was it someone she knew and trusted, someone she had left the window open for?

The Ingrams claim that she was much too young to see anyone. I wonder if Laura shared that assessment. Someone older... Someone who didn't want to be found out? It's all speculation at the moment.

The techs at the department are occupied with taking her computer apart, trying to find any hint as to the murderer. It was probably no coincidence that it was still on. It wouldn't have been the first time an unsuspecting teenager had found less than well-meaning people on the internet.

I'm pondering all this as I'm sitting in the cab.

I'd like to talk this through with Cindy, as she's bound to have some ideas - but Jill and Claire are right, there are other things we have to talk about first. Like I'm sorry. And like she maybe gets an idea of why I reacted like I did when I tell her that I hardly ever took the time to grieve... that time.

And I definitely will have to face my own demons, if I want to do this girl justice.

Laura Ingram was twelve weeks along.

As I walk up the stairs the second time that night, the house is silent. So Cindy has gone to bed already... I feel cowardly relieved. It's late, so I'm quite partial to the idea of just snuggling up beside her and - sleep.

Martha at least is happy to see me. "Shh, Sweetie," I say, "You'll wake Cindy."

Martha trots into the bedroom, which is empty. She gives me a sad look as if she understands that it's wrong. I pick up the note that's left on the nightstand, and read it twice, before the words register with me.

"I'm so sorry I hurt you. I guess we both need to think some things through, and it will work better if I'm not here. I'm not bailing on you."

"Then what exactly it is you're doing?" I ask aloud, still not wanting to believe it.

"A little distance will be good for us."

Somebody has told me that before. A little distance translated into 'divorce' not much later.



"Can we just pretend this day has never happened?" I ask Martha who gives me a soft whine in answer.

"Yeah, I know."With a sigh, I stretch out on the bed. I think about the night at Papa Joe's, after Tom's wedding, when I rambled about my unwilling respect for Heather, the girls were much too nice to me, and Cindy shared her Grandma's wisdom.

I wonder if this particular door has just closed, or if I've just been caught in it slamming, and damn it, I am not going to cry.

2nd Degree

I'm once again conferring behind closed doors with Tom, and thank God that this time, he only wants to know about the progress in the case. That's easy. I can do this even considering the fact I probably slept for two hours last night. At the most.

"No sign of a forced entry; she could have even left the window open for someone she knew. I'm worried about the drug, though. That doesn't look like she was killed in the course of an argument. Somebody planned it."

"Any news from the lab?"

I shrug. "They're still on it. And her computer, of course. I'm going to check and then go to her school, see some of her friends. They're bound to give us a hint as to who the father is."

He shakes his head. "A 14-year-old mother."

"Well, yeah. I better go visit the lab now." Before this conversation strays into any direction that is not related to the case. The faster it's done, the better.

He looks like he want to say something, but then thinks better of it. Good, very good. I really appreciate him telling me about Heather first, but between the two of us, we better not deepen the subject any more than the case requires us to.

Just let me do my job, and we'll all be fine.

Let's hope.

"I hope you found something on that computer, because I--"

I stop in mid-sentence, which makes both Beth, the tech, and her companion, look up, all of us frozen in an uncomfortably silent moment, because it's Cindy with her.

"Do you have to bother everybody in this department?" The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them.

I can see they hit home, but Cindy quickly puts on a smile, explaining, "Actually, Beth and I know each other from college, and we were meeting for lunch."

"About that computer," Beth says hesitantly, obviously sensing the tension. Then again, she'd have to be deaf and blind to not notice it. "Laura Ingram spent a lot of time on the internet. I'd say somebody tried to cover it up, but they weren't very proficient with it. We can still determine which sites she visited most often recently. The official Backstreet Boys site..."

I return her smile because it gives me an excuse not to look at Cindy.

"But this is more interesting: The World Wide Web of Help For You."

"What the hell is this?"

"Online counseling," Cindy chimes in. "It's a growing market. Everybody's got DSL today, and it's much cheaper than setting up a practice."

"So the counseling's much cheaper, too?" I ask suspiciously. Too many people spill too many secrets on the internet as it is. I can't see how this is an improvement for anybody.

"They've got arrangements with the phone companies, like when you set up a hotline. It's free for those who need it."

Just for a test, I'd like to see what those online shrinks would suggest for my situation. Not.

"All right, is that all? I'll take this to Jill and see if there's some possibility to get access to her files - Ingram was definitely in a situation where she needed counseling, so it's most likely related. Thanks." I take the printouts from Beth and turn to flee.

While talking to Tom was just awkward, especially regarding recent history, this is - painful. I need to focus. Laura's parents won't care much for my personal screw-ups.

They want to know who killed their child.

Jill gives me a solemn look over her coffee. "I think we're going to have the same problem as with that LoveSpace thing. Maybe even worse, because these people consider themselves serious, academic service providers."

"Just great."

She looks tired, and I feel very responsible. Keeping your friends up all night on a weekday is probably not the nicest idea. Jill reads me perfectly, as usual.

"You can make it up to me," she says with a mischievous smile. "You make up with Cindy, she does her magic again, and we get to see what Laura needed the counseling for. I can't fight this feeling that we'll find something they should have reported and didn't."

"I agree..." I say, and her smile widens. "On your theory regarding those online shrinks, that is. Don't you think our techs are skilled enough?"

She leans forward to touch my arm. "Come on, Linds. You've got to talk to her some time."

"Some time, right. Thanks for the coffee, I need to go now." I make a face. "To High School."

Now, her expression is sympathetic. "Can't say I'd like to trade places. All right then. See you tonight. No more vodka on a workday."

I'm smiling when I leave her office, but with all that talk that lies ahead, the sentiment doesn't last long.

Next, I'm meeting Jacobi outside the Laura's school. I still regret the way this morning went, and yes, I admit that, I'm still pissed off.

I walked out on Cindy last night, but how could she not know? I know she cares. I'll be able to see that in her suggestion once I manage to see through the hurt, the one I probably never really acknowledged. If I had, I would have told Tom to leave earlier that night.

The lack of sleep really doesn't help my mood either, so my partner gives me this bemused, knowing smile, and before he gets the chance, I say, "Don't ask."

He's not fazed by my grumpy self, in fact just shrugs and makes another attempt at easy conversation. "So how's your girl?"

I roll my eyes at him. "That would include the 'don't ask'. Can we get back to work now?"

"As you wish."

The principal, who has also taught in Laura's class, introduces us to two of her best friends, Alicia Greene and Beverly Mason. I'm temporarily distracted from my own misery, as I can't believe these girls are fourteen. A lot has changed since I was in Junior High.

When we introduce ourselves, though, indicating that we're here about Laura, Beverly all tears up and is suddenly much more of the kid I've expected.

"I can't believe that Laura is gone," she cries. "I didn't know--"

I haven't missed the warning glance that Alicia is giving her.

"I know this is really hard for you, but we need to ask you a few questions about Laura. It might help us find who did this to her."

The girls exchange a look. I'm guessing they know a lot more than Ingram's parents ever did.

"Did you know if Laura had a boyfriend?"

Again, the meaningful looks. Do we get in trouble if we share something that we kept a secret before? And maybe - will someone else get in trouble?

"Not really," Alicia answers finally, after a too long pause. Beverly looks uncomfortable.

I'm not really at my best today, either. Jacobi sits beside me. "You were best friends, right?"

Beverly nods, tears in her eyes again.

"This grumpy lady here and I are friends, too. It means you keep each other's secrets. And you support each other even if you'd think they did something you'd consider quite dumb."

I glare at him, pretty sure he's not just talking about Laura.

Jacobi ignores me and smiles encouragingly at the girls. "But if something happens to them, you wouldn't give up until that person who did it, was caught, would you? You can help Laura now."

"That's crap," Alicia spits. "She's dead."

"But what if..." Beverly starts hesitantly. "Laura was dating this older guy. He's in college, so she didn't want her parents to give him trouble." Her voice gets firmer with each word, despite Alicia's frustrated groan.

"Do you know his name?" I pick up again.

This time, Alicia talks, her fear now coming across clearly behind her all grown-up attitude. "We know him. His name in Matthew Dawson. Do you think he hurt Laura?"

"We don't know yet, but we're going to find out," Jacobi reassures her.

Damn right we will.

My cell phone rings as we're on the way, and the brief flicker of hope dies quickly when I see it's Claire. "It's you."

I don't really know what I want. Other than that last night never happened, the bad part of it, anyway. I want us to work things out. And another, far nastier part of me still wants to shake her. It's not like I'm that old. It's not like I'm predestined to--

"You don't have to sound so happy to hear from me," Claire says dryly, interrupting my dark musings at exactly the right moment. "Cindy might have found something on that online counseling business, and she said Jill also had news. When will you be back?"

"Hard to say yet. We're going to talk to the girl's boyfriend. I'll head back after that."

There's a meaningful pause after which Claire says, "Don't worry too much, okay?"

"Thanks for the advice. I'll try." I hang up and look at Jacobi who holds up his hands in defence.

"I'm not going to ask."

Nothing today really goes as planned today, so there's not much of a surprise that when his teacher points out Dawson to us, he runs.

The day goes downhill quickly from there. He cuts across the campus, clearly dumb or desperate enough to think he can evade us in the long run. For the moment, it doesn't look all that bad for him, because he is quick, someone who's practicising his running a lot. That's why I get this bad feeling when he, about to disappear in a crowd of students, suddenly stops and turns, reaching inside his jacket.

The first shot goes haywire, the next hits a woman right next to him, and screaming erupts. Jacobi checks on the woman; I go after the shooter whose direction is fortunately a less crowded area behind the campus buildings now. I've gained on him; he's not going to get away.

The closer I get, the more pissed off I am - how much more of a proof of guilt do we need anyway? Laura's friends said Dawson was her boyfriend, but with the way he displays himself here, and knowing that Laura is actually dead, I have another, horrible suspicion about how her pregnancy came to pass.

Hell, shooting innocent people and then making me run after him is already enough. I can't wait to have him in the interrogation room. Who cares that it means overtime again - there'll be no one waiting for me at home.

There's a sudden slope; I can see him jump, so it can't be deep. I take a look, gauge the distance to the ground, and well, it's not what I had planned for today, but who cares.

He's gone.

I swear and turn around, weapon drawn, to come face to face with him. He pulls the trigger without warning.

The impact has me stumbling backwards over a rock, the pain of skin and muscle being ripped making me drop the gun. I fumble for it blindly, the blood on my arm a disconcertingly distracting sensation.

It's such a bad cliché moment, my fingers finally connecting with cold steel, and Matthew Dawson raising his weapon again. Talk about seeing your life go by before your eyes --

"And if you really wanted a child, we could make it happen. I could get pregnant."

There's a deafening noise, surprisingly, no more pain, and I think of Cindy and that I shouldn't have run. Then, there's darkness.

"I'm not even sure she wants to hear it. I'm amazed you are still talking to me."

Cindy's attempt at humor fails miserably. They have been here for half an hour; Lindsay and Jill are both late for yet unknown reasons, so Claire gets to hear the other side of her friends' dilemma.

"You know you say the most insensitive things for the most adorable reasons, don't you?" she sums it up, giving the distraught woman across from her a gentle smile. Distraught is almost too weak a word, and that softens the edge that could have been in her words.

"I know, I know, it was stupid. That's because I'm--" Cindy searches for the right word and comes up with a resigned "Scared. I know," she says again, sadly. "It's no excuse."

"Scared, why?" Lindsay's extreme caution after her failed marriage, Claire is used to. While Lindsay has her barriers firmly in place, she never had that impression of Cindy.

Cindy sighs and then downs the rest of her cocktail in one.

"I am so damn happy," she says.

The words and her expression when she says them are such a contrast that Claire has the inappropriate impulse to laugh.

Cindy elaborates. "I want this to last. And I really wouldn't need anything else, but Lindsay, she wanted a family with Tom, and now she might reconsider everything and--"

"And you thought if you found a way to give her a family, she'd stay."

Cindy nods miserably. "I really screwed up, didn't I?"

Claire gives her a sympathetic expression that is enough to say, yeah, you did, but it's not like it can't be fixed. "Tell her how you feel. Didn't you two ever talk?"

That brings an unexpected smile to Cindy's face. "Well, so far, we'd been kind of preoccupied..."

"Too much information." Claire is glad, though, that she got just the information she needed. Not that she minds talking cases over vodka and white chocolate cheese cake, but if it can be done without the heartbreak, that's even better.

Maybe, Cindy's idea wasn't so bad after all if approached at another, better time. But that was for the two of them to figure out. "Just - talk. And stop hiding in that motel room, because--" Her cell phone chirps merrily in her bag, interrupting her. "Excuse me."

It's Tom on the phone, and while he obviously tries to keep the call short and businesslike, she can read various other layers in between the lines, and that scares her. No time to let that fear take over though. "I'll be there in ten minutes," she says, then looking at Cindy, wondering how to do this right.

"That was Tom," she says, annoyed that her voice is shaky. Cindy's eyes widen, as if she already knows even before Claire takes a deep breath and tells her,

"Lindsay was shot. Let's go."

Briefly, the thought crosses her mind that if Lindsay was here to see that expression of utter devastation on Cindy's face, any lingering doubts about their relationship would have been gone in a heartbeat.

3rd Degree

Flashback, 36 days go

I walk into the alley, chilled by much more than the cold night air. The sounds of sirens and the lights of police cars cut through the normal darkness and silence of this place, not making it any less creepy.

Call me silly, but in my job, you develop a certain instinct. An instinct for evil. I can tell that evil has visited recently, and it's almost like an actual touch, making me shudder. It's not fear. It's much darker, much more profound. Black and bottomless.

Somebody just walked over my grave.

As I get closer, I get a glimpse of the white sheet, a tell-tale sign of what happened here tonight.

Please, I think. Not Kiss-Me-Not again, not another woman tortured to death with her mouth sewn shut. I can't take it anymore.

Everybody's there already, Jill, Claire. Jacobi. Tom. I feel oddly left out. I can see the shock etched into their faces; Claire is holding Jill who is crying unabashedly. Then I realize that Cindy is nowhere to be seen. Oh my God --

I nearly run towards the eerie scene. "Why the hell didn't you call me?" No one answers.

Then I get to look at the body under the sheet, and I stagger.

They haven't covered her face. The face... It's mine. Her, my, mouth is sewn shut.

I want to tell them, no, you've got it wrong. She just looks like me, I'm right here, can't you see me?

I realize then that they can't.

The staccato sound of heels on the pavement is to be heard. Cindy has arrived, like myself, she is freezing in shock at the sight. "No," she whispers. The next is an outcry. "No!"

I hurry to her side, running into Tom in the progress who steps right through me.

I am dead.

That's why nobody sees or hears me. But if I'm dead, why do I feel myself assaulted with this sadness - anger? I'm not ready. It can't be. Not by his hand. Not before I --

I'm next to Cindy who has fallen to her knees beside the body, Jacobi steps in, a hand on her shoulder. He looks much older all of a sudden. Cindy refuses to get up; she is shaking, arms wrapped around her middle. I reach out to touch her face, and the strangest thing happens; she looks up - looks right at me.

Confused, shocked, her eyes go back to the body, my body, then back to me. She understands.

"I want to go with you," she whispers.

I want to tell her, no way, but I can't get the words out over the storm that is picking up the moment the body is loaded into the coroner's car, rain coming down in sheets like a wall that separates me from the living, as I am drawn into--

-- nothing.

I come awake slowly, sitting upright in my bed, now shaking myself with the aftereffects of this intense nightmare, annoyed, because he can do this to me - but very much alive. There's a thunderstorm right over the city. The next time lightning illuminates my bedroom, I also see the figure standing in the doorway. In about a second, I'm out of my bed, gun drawn.

"Police! Freeze!"

"Why do you always say that?" Her voice doesn't sound half as frightened as it should be.

I put my gun back onto the nightstand, switching on the light. "What the hell are you doing here?" Oh yes, she should be afraid. I'm pissed off. I'm going to show her reason by reason. My voice rises with every word. Because I am. Frightened, of what could have been. "I could have shot you!"

"I trust you. I knew you wouldn't," Cindy says with more conviction than common sense.

I look her up and down and start to wonder if I have missed something. She's wearing pajamas. We didn't drink at Claire's, right? "Why are you even here?"

When she starts to explain, the noise of the thunder drowns out her voice. Cindy makes another attempt. "Don't you remember? It got pretty late when we were sitting over those fairy tale books, and when Maggie wouldn't start, you said I could crash at your place, because it would be too dangerous to drive across the city and risk that --"

I hold up a hand, and she stops, but looks quite worried. "Don't look at me that way. I remember it now. Just don't do anything like that, ever again."

"Coming into your bedroom at night?" Now she sounds fairly amused.

I'm not angry anymore, but for some reason, my heart doesn't slow down to its normal rhythm. Maybe because of this implication I've always known is there, right from the start, but wasn't ready to acknowledge. Maybe I am ready, now. Or simply desperate, who knows.

"For starters. Not sneaking into my bedroom at night when you and the others have done one hell of a job to convince me there's this nutjob after me."

"Got it. Any more?"

Not, I don't want to smile. I am not going to. It's damn hard, because she is so... well, Cindy. It's hard not to be taken with this woman. I am, more than I've admitted to myself so far. You get to the point, though, when it's hard to ignore the obvious.

"You're staring at me."

She keeps doing so, not even flinching. "By now, that should come as no surprise to you."

She's right, but I didn't quite catch on. The truth is, I'm not used to getting that kind of looks from a woman. Then again, living in San Francisco, how much have I been kidding myself? Come to think of it... There's one secretary at the precinct who might have. Looked. Only much more subtle.

She hasn't seen me in a black nightgown, though. Cindy - subtle - that's not her.

Which is good, so I won't have to pretend with her.

As my friends haven't hesitated to remind me, I have made some crappy choices lately. They were right. But in the aftermath of these very draining days, I need something to make me forget. A little human touch, the warmth of another - person's - body next to mine would do that.

"Look, you need to know I'm not looking for a relationship." I care about her, so I guess she deserves that much truth from me. Even if it's a little brutal.

Cindy doesn't even flinch, so I step closer, laying a finger under her chin, making her look at me. Her breath catches. "And I like you," I continue. "Very much, so I want us to be on the same page here. If we're not, you should go back to sleeping on the couch."

She holds my gaze. "Would it sound very desperate and pathetic if I told you that I'd take whatever I can get from you?"


Cindy nods.

"Pretty much."

"Like you expect me to care," she says, stepping forward to embrace me, so I finally get to kiss her, no chaste, careful exploration, but a deep, messy, take-no-prisoners kiss. The next roll of thunder seems to make the house vibrate as we all but stumble back onto the bed, fools drunk on an emotion, feeling no pain.

I pull her on top of me, between more kisses fumbling with the buttons of her pajamas, finally touching the bare skin of her shoulders. Cindy smiles down at me, illluminated by lightening, as she removes the top, then the bottom part, finally hovering over me in nothing else than a touch of white lace. She leans down to kiss me, and I run my hands over her back, reveling in the feel of soft skin, urging her further down.

Pushing the shoulderstrap of my nightgown aside, she touches her lips, then tongue against my skin, and I shiver, even before she moves the fabric further aside. I could lose myself in the feeling, could just take what I need and move on, except - it's not going to be that easy.

She might not know it, or do it intentionally, but that open, guileless smile, her eagerness to please, all that goes way beyond what we agreed to, knocking on doors I don't want to open. Especially not now. I stroke her hair as her lips close around a nipple, making me gasp with pleasure.

That tenderness inside is a blatant contradiction to what I've claimed this would be, potentially dangerous - I just don't want to care at the moment.

Cindy slips the nightgown down my body, tossing it aside; I let my thighs fall open reflexively for her to settle between them again. More kisses, drunk-like fumbling, and she wedges her hand between our bodies, her touch a shock of pleasure. I stop arguing in my head as she finds just the right rhythm to bring me to the edge, keeping me there not quite until I beg, but almost - and then tumbling over it.

She wraps her arms around me, holding on tight. I'm sure she hasn't meant for the words to tumble out, the whispered 'I love you', because I can feel her freeze against me. "I'm sorry." What is she afraid of anyway? That I kick her out in the middle of the night?

"Shh. It's okay." There are probably better words to say, but they do for the moment.

Cindy sighs, and the whisper of her breath ghosting over my skin creates another shiver. "I know that's not what you're looking for. But I can't help it."

Just coming down from the high of an incredible orgasm, I'm feeling very much forgiving. Hell, with her in my arms, I'm feeling much more alive that I have in quite some time. I reach up to carress her face, drop a soft kiss on the corner of her mouth. "It's okay," I say again. "I've got exactly what I'm looking for."

It's not bound to last though. It cannot. For that, I'll eventually owe her more than an apology, but there's something else I can give her now. "Whatever you can get?" I remind her of her earlier words. She leans back against the pillow with a smile. Expectantly. I don't plan to disappoint.

I let my fingertips dance across her skin, following the curves of her breasts, down her side, unhurried. "Would that be okay?"

Cindy's eyes darken, and that's enough of an answer. "Or is this better?" I follow the trace I set up with my tongue, another 'yes', according to the soft sounds above me. I smile against her stomach, feeling the muscles quiver beneath. Relationship or not, she won't be sorry tomorrow. I'll make sure of that.

Slowly. There's a lot of time. "If it isn't, there's something else I can think of," I say, drawing my finger along warm wet folds, but not yet sliding in. I'm rewarded with a wordless moan.

I keep teasing her until she's trembling hard. "Actually, I've got some more ideas left." My fingers find her clit, administering a massage that is too slow and gentle for her to come.

"You're... killing me," she gasps, and I shake my head, smiling somewhat evilly.

"You're young, you'll survive... I think." Thus being said, I push her thighs further open and put my tongue where my fingers have been. It's almost enough, I can feel it in the way her body stiffens, if her near scream hadn't been a dead giveaway. I pull back, take a deep breath and then finish what I've started.

I'm holding her, kissing tears off her face as the bodily overload recedes, but the emotional one is just beginning. I'm feeling guilty. Maybe I've made a mistake, giving in so easily, to her fantasy, to my weakness.

Seems like I'm better at taking than at giving.

The thunder is now nothing more than a distant rumble, lightning bolts flashing in the sky, but far away. This storm is gone - how we're going to deal with the other one, is yet unsure.

The next morning though, I find Cindy in my kitchen, making breakfast. Wearing my shirt and sweatpants. Her hair is still damp. How long have I slept anyway?

Martha is at her feet, wagging her tail approvingly. She doesn't usually like overnight guests too much, so this is - surprising.

What's more surpring, this wasn't in the unwritten contract at all, but already I have the irrational fear it could be taken away from me in a heartbeat.

Or maybe not so irrational. The nightmare springs to mind.

"Hey. Good morning. I didn't really know what you like, so I made a bit of everything, and oh, I hope you don't mind, but I didn't have anything to wear, so--"

"It's fine," I assure her, stepping close enough to pull her to me.

Somewhere along the line, I've started to wonder if she'd mind me reconsidering the not-relationship thing.

There's still a sadistic killer to consider who'd prey on anything and anyone who is dear to me. Then again, if I keep pushing them away, he has already won. I can't let that happen.

These images and others are chasing one another in my head, the sound of the ambulance's horn slightly distracting. It's ridiculously true, that you see the moments of your life passing you by in a brush with death, a disjointed movie reminding you of all the things why you shouldn't have been so stupid to get yourself there in the first place.

Kiss Me Not is still out there.

Another monster has killed a pregnant teenager to cover his tracks.

Cindy... We not have started out very romantic, but got there soon enough. Still, so much I need to tell her. Most important, that I am ready to leave our silly fight behind and move on from there.

But I'm so very tired...

4th Degree

I'd thought he'd go straight for the heart, but to my utmost luck, the kid isn't that good a shot. It still hurts like hell and required stitches, and I also lost a few minutes there. I'm currently at the hospital and mentally preparing for the battle with the doctor where I'll have to make him understand that I will go home tonight.

And then the one reason for me to want to be home, arrives.

"You can't go in there!" the nurse snaps, but she has no idea what kind of force she's up against. If I had the energy, I would laugh at the image of Cindy bodily pushing aside the woman who's a good head taller and quite a few pounds heavier than her, rushing into the room.

As it is, her utter determination to get to me makes my eyes prickle with tears. I can be a sentimental fool at the best of times, but nearly dying definitely makes it worse.

"Lindsay, oh my God, I thought you were--" She sinks to her knees in front of me, resting her head in my lap, and I lean forward to stroke her hair, even though the movement is painful. I'm happy to touch her. Happy I'm still able to.

The nurse steps inside, her expression halfway between a frown and a smile.

"Next of kin," I tell her. "As next as it gets."

She smiles. "I'll be back in five minutes."

I flash her a grateful look. "Could you bring the doctor, too? No offense, but I'd rather sleep in my own bed than this one."

When she's gone, I pull Cindy up and into my arms, and I don't care about the pain, but simply hold her as close as I can.

Luke gives me a thoughtful look. "I am not happy with this," he states. That was to be expected.

"Do you have at least someone to stay with you?"

"She does," Cindy says firmly, and I breathe a sigh of relief. That solves two problems at the same time. I won't be stuck here any longer, and Cindy is going to come home with me. That's more than I could have expected to com out of this day.

We don't talk much that night. Cindy drives by the motel to get her things back, and then straight home. It's still early, but she insists that we go to bed, and I don't think it's worth an argument. In fact I'm tired, and hurting, and nearly crying with the relief that she's back here with me. Life is looking up, even if it didn't look that way at some point today.

I won't be able to sleep anyway; too many things on my mind.

Is Dawson really the killer? He probably has it in him, but my mind screams at me that it's all too easy. He's off, that's for sure. Dangerous. But is he our man?

Have the girls told us everything they know? I doubt that.

And then there's a question that's a whole lot more burning. What about the woman I love, and I?

Cindy sleeps, her arms around me tight as if she knows I'd be up and pacing in the living room otherwise, trying to solve the too many riddles, if it wasn't for the fact that I don't want to wake her.

I sigh, futilely trying to relax in her embrace. I have yet to tell her that I'd never expect her to get pregnant for me, whatever put that idea into her head in the first place. We need to talk... We need time we don't really have.

And then the phone rings. I untangle one arm from Cindy's hold and reach for it. "Boxer."

"Lindsay! I'm so sorry to disturb you. I heard what happened today."

"I... um, Heather. It's okay." Tom's wife calls me late in the evening to ask about me? That's... weird.

"But this is not why I'm calling."


"Tom is still in a meeting, and I can't reach him, and I think you should know this. Beverly Mason's little sister Mandy is in my class, that's how I've gotten to know Beverly pretty well. She told me something that might be related to your case."

I sit upright and then wince in pain. Cindy stirs, but doesn't wake up.

"Are you okay?" Heather asks worriedly.

"I'm fine. Go on.."

"Beverly used that same internet help service as Laura Ingram did. It was when she found out she'd been adopted." She hesitates. "I feel kind of bad about telling you this, but it could be important, right?"

"Yes, it could." I'm having a headache. Everything leads us back to this internet service, and young girls in trouble. Is there someone out there who wants to punish them, and how does Dawson fit into the picture?

"They had the same counselor," Heather says.

While I'm still processing this, there's a crash at the other end of the line. "Heather?" I say, alarmed.

"Oh, I'm sorry. The doorbell startled me, and I dropped the phone. Hang on a second."

I roll my eyes a little at that, wait for her to get back to me. She doesn't. After a couple of minutes, the alarm within me is rising. "Are you there? Hello? Heather?"

There's only silence.

I consider my options. Cindy is blinking at me sleepily. Oh, she won't like this. But it can't be helped. And then all doubts about what to do are lost when a male voice says, "Hello, Lindsay Boxer. Have you figured out my M.O. yet?"

"Who's there?"


I might be losing my mind, because he sounded too much like Dawson, but that can't be, right? He's in a holding cell for attempted murder of a police officer. It can't be him.

I'm already out of bed, grabbing my clothes. Unfortunately, Cindy is now wide awake, too.

"Excuse me? What do you think you're doing?"

"I've got to go," I say. "Something happened to Heather."

"That is your problem why? You were shot today!"

"A flesh wound. And it's my problem since I'm a cop. Sorry, Cindy. I'll make sure you'll get an exclusive."

"That was cheap," she murmured. "Let me come with you at least?"

"It could be dangerous," I say softly.


"Cindy, this is not the moment."

"Oh yes, it is," she retorts angrily. "I almost lost you today. Lindsay, do you ever waste a single moment to stop and think about how I feel?"

Her words strike me harder that I can let on. I can't do this now, not when a life is at stake. "You stay in the car. Something happens to you, I'm going to lose my job."

On the way out, Cindy grabs her jacket. "Something happens to you, I'm going to lose everything."

There's nothing I can say to that, because we both know, she meant that. Maybe it's exactly that what makes me push her at times. I have a hard time accepting that somebody could love me this much.

To my credit, I call Tom on the way. I don't get through to him and leave a message and hand Cindy the phone, tell her to keep trying. Then I get ready to enter the home of my ex-husband and his new wife. It's dark inside, but that doesn't have to mean anything. Whoever it was that answered the phone could still be here. If that's the case... I don't to think of the possibilities.

I search every room, feeling strangely like an intruder.

Heather isn't here. Which means he must have taken her with him, a pregnant woman like Laura Ingram was. But there's nothing else connecting the two of them, or is there?

I get dizzy all of a sudden, clutching the doorframe. Whoa, Cindy's going to be mad at me. Tom is going to kill me after the girls have collectively kicked my ass. At least I can already hear sirens in the distance.

As my knees give way, I have the uncomfortable feeling that I'm going to have to answer to Luke, too.

Damn it.

"Tom. Is there anything new about Dawson? It sure sounded like him on the phone, but that's impossible."

"What the hell are you doing here?"

Cindy comes in after him, giving me a shrug that clearly says 'Told you so'. Not much support from her this time.

"Last time I checked, you were in the hospital?" Tom is furious. I guess it hasn't completely sunk in what has happened here.


"Lindsay, I don't understand you. There's the job, and then there's foolishly risking your life. Be sure that this is going to have consequences."

"Tom. Heather called me tonight. That's why I'm here."

The pain that crosses his features at that makes me wonder. Was he ever that scared for me? I'm not sure why this even matters now. It shouldn't. "We'll find her," I say, meaning it. He just nods, turning to say something to Jacobi, but all of a sudden, the room once again vanishes into a blur, making me stagger slightly.

Cindy rushes to my side, steering me to the next chair. I shrug off her touch, embarrassed.

Tom sighs. "Tell me everything, and then you go home. That's an order, Lindsay."

"Don't you worry," Cindy tells him. "I'll make sure she follows that order."

I make a face at both of them.

At five am, I'm still contemplating what Tom told me about Dawson. Turns out he has some serious problems; he's got an internet blog in which he says he's going to run amok someday. Seems like 'someday' has come sooner than everybody thought.

Why did he spare me? Or didn't he, and it was just a lucky coincidence that I'm still around? He hasn't answered any of those questions; just that he hates the world, and wanted to let it know that. In my opinion, he's much too self-centered to think the way Ingram's murderer obviously did. Dawson denies being the father of the baby, but the DNA test is still pending.

Then I sit upright again.

"Sheesh, Linds," Cindy complains. "I would have loved to spend the remaining hours sleeping. And something tells me that you should, too."

"What if he used the same internet service? And somebody there thought they'd not only find their victim, but also a scapegoat? That is probable cause if I've ever seen one. We need that warrant now. And the name of that counselor."

I reach for the phone again.

"Jill will be so happy."

I ignore Cindy's sarcastic comment and dial. I have the feeling this is going to get us closer to finding Heather. More than that, I feel like it's partly my responsibility. I should have gotten there sooner, and maybe this case would already be closed.

As I'm talking to Jill who is not amused, I'm silently plotting what to do next. Sick leave is not an option. This annoying dizziness will be gone after a couple of hours of sleep. And it was only a flesh wound, after all.

In the darkened room, Heather Hogan flinches when he is shining the flashlight into her eyes.

"Why are you doing it?" she asks, hating that her voice sounds very much like a frightened little girl. Well, she is frightened. For herself just as much as for the life growing within her. It terrifies her to think of what happened to Lindsay; she knows, though Tom has never told her in detail, and it could happen to her, too.

The man behind the blinding light just laughs at her. "You'd never understand."

Tears spring to her eyes, as she's more convinced that he is going to kill her.

If only she was more like Lindsay. She wouldn't be so scared.

She'd find a way to get herself out of this.

Fifth Degree

Cindy turns out to be a little slave driver nursemaid. She lets me sleep through the alarm, and insists I can't leave the house without breakfast. I roll my eyes at her, but I can't deny that the sleep helped. Over coffee, we discuss the new development, before I'm going to see Beverly Mason.

"Off the record--" I begin.

Cindy gives me an indulgent, loving smile.

"She had the same counselor as Laura. That person is bound to have lots of answers for us."

"You're sure Dawson isn't the killer? What if the one who took Heather isn't related to this at all?"

Her questions are legit. It sounded like Dawson's voice over the phone, but it couldn't have been him, because at that time, Matthew Dawson already sat in a holding cell at the P.D.

If we, for a moment, assume, that he hasn't murdered Laura Ingram, then who asked me if I'd figured out his M.O.? A cold shiver winds its way down my spine as I consider the alternatives, and one in particular. No. No way. Ashe has made me and everyone around me paranoid.

Kiss Me Not kills, in a brutal, horrible way, but the women he killed weren't related to me in any way. There's no reason to suggest --

"One step at a time," I decide. "We'll see what Beverly and Dawson have to tell us. The data on Laura's computer hasn't been completely accessed yet. There were some encrypted files."

"A diary?"

Cindy's enthusiasm in the face of a riddle to be solved is alleviating. If it makes her forget and not worry so much for a while, even better.

"No idea. Maybe Beverly knows something about that, too."

A few minutes later, I'm ready to leave the house, when she follows me out in the hallway. I only turn and give her a quizzical look, but somehow, that used to work better.

"About that I'm driving while you're on pain meds? I mean it's an interview with a 14-year-old. It's not dangerous."

I open my mouth to protest, and Cindy wags her index finger at me. "Or do you want me to tell Tom that you did not stay at home like your boss ordered you to?"

I just throw up my hands in surrender.

Beverly Mason's room is not much different from Laura's. For all the bright colors and smiling boygroups, they shared a lot of pain between the two of them.

She sits on her bed, hugging a pillow to her chest, squeezing it nervously.

"You think Mrs. Hogan will be okay?"

Here's the chance to tell her a complete and utter lie. "I don't know," I say honestly. "We're trying really hard to find her, though." She doesn't need to know the finer details about how I'm supposed to be staying at home, possibly in bed at the moment.

"Your sister Mandy is in her class, right?"

She sighs. "She told you, right? That's why you're here."

"Told me what?"

Beverly gives me a long, suspicious look.

"Look, Mrs. Hogan did not have the chance to tell me much, but I'm sure whatever it is she wanted to let me know, it had to do with why the man took her. So what do you mean? You and Laura both used the same counseling service. Do you know what Laura needed it for?"

"She didn't share everything with us, you know? It's like sometimes, with your friends, you love and trust them, but some things are just too painful to talk about."

"I understand," I say. Beverly holds my gaze for a long moment, gauging the truth of my words, and then she nods. I do.

"I don't think Matt knew anything. I-- it's all my fault!"

I'm startled when she starts sobbing. "I'm sure that's not the case, but why don't you start at the beginning. Tell me everything you know, and I'll do my best to help Mrs. Hogan."

It sounds still weird to me to refer to her like that. It reminds me of the surreal conversation Heather and I had at the station's restroom, and then of a much more unpleasant conversation with Tom's mother. Not a good moment for that.

"Beverly, please."

She looks up at me with desperate eyes. "Laura was so depressed, I was afraid. In the school I was before, a girl had killed herself, and I was worried that... That it could happen again."

There's another flood of tears, but I'm beginning to sympathize. Everything she tried to help, in the end it was futile, because Laura is dead after all. "I'd been talking to that counselor online, and I'd been asking him for help. That was before I met him. I'd never think he'd--"

She breaks off, but that cold feeling of a dreadful suspicion has already gotten hold of me. "You met him in person."

She nods, looking incredibly young with her tear-streaked face. "I'd just never thought he'd do it to Laura, too."

The surge of anger is almost enough to cause a headrush. "Beverly," I say softly, "I really need the name of that counselor now."

She nods somberly.

After many assurances that Beverly did the right thing indeed, I call Jacobi from the car. "Shouldn't you be in bed?" he asks, and I roll my eyes. Next to me in the driver's seat, Cindy smirks, but doesn't say anything.

I tell him about the shrink, Jonathan Hoffs. He works out of an office in Half Moon Bay, together with three others who have set up the hotline together. With what Beverly has told me, he shouldn't be near another client, ever. Jill has pushed the warrant in the meantime.

"Where are you going?" I ask somewhat irritably, as Cindy takes the next turn left. I have a suspicion, and I do not like it.

"Home? Remember how you're on sick leave which means, you should trust your colleagues to make the arrest this time?" She sounds a bit exasperated, too.

I hate this, to be on the sidelines of a case that's so important. It's personal to all of us. I can't be idle.

At a red light, she turns to me with an apologetic expression, laying a hand on my arm. I sigh, not quite ready to give in, though my body soaks up the warmth of her touch. I am still tired. In the end, I'd rather step back from a case than screw it up. Still, I can't imagine resting, while that killer is out there somewhere. With Heather.

"I know," Cindy says softly. "I'll make you a deal; there's something I forgot to ask Beth. I'd like to drop by, and you can go talk to Jill and Jacobi and see how far they are."

I finally relax a little, and she smiles back at me before turning her attention back to traffic.

"It's got to be hell for Tom, though," she continues. "I can't begin to imagine how he must feel."

I stare out into the rain that comes down in heavy sheets. "I can."

At the bullpen, there's rather frantic activity. No one has expected this turn to worse. Both Tom and Jacobi are out at Half Moon Bay right now, and logically, I get looks that range from curious to sympathetic.

I flee to Jill's office while Cindy goes down the the lab the find Beth.

"If you ask me if I should be in bed, I might be doing something ill-considered," I warn her as a greeting.

The amused expression doesn't last long, as she pushes the coffee into my direction with a sigh. "It's a nuthouse here today. And like it or not, you shouldn't be here. Have you heard from the hospital?"

"About what?" I frown when I realize she's not talking about the case anymore. "Why should I? I was getting a little dizzy. Getting shot does that to you."

Jill rolls her eyes at me, though her gaze is concerned. "I'm glad you actually remember that. Look, I know you are worried about Heather... but you shouldn't be involved in this before you're back to hundred percent."

I open my mouth to protest, but she's quicker. "You're not right now, and don't even try to pretend."

A knock on the door interupted the conversation, and Cindy slips inside.

"Oh, good, just the woman for the job."

Cindy looks a little startled at that.

"Will you try and get her in bed now?"

Instantly red-faced, Cindy coughs, and Jill chuckles. "You two are beyond adorable. I was talking about doctor's orders here."

"Sure you were," I say. Banter's over now, as we're all reminded of the matter at hand. "You keep me updated?"

"Of course."

I leave her office, Cindy at my back, with a bad feeling.

Cindy has left for her own work when the call comes in.

Jonathan Hoffs is in custody now, his house and office rooms being turned upside down literally. He's married with two adult kids who are in college, and he denies ever having seen Laura Ingram or Bevery Mason.

I curse as Jill tells me over the phone. Time is running out for Heather, while we're running around in circles. I just know it. The brief exchange I had with him, the man who was in the house minutes before I arrived, is still very vivid on my mind.

My instincts are rarely wrong. This was someone who enjoys creating terror in others with a passion, on a level far beyond Dawson's private Armageddon scenario.

"What now?"

"Lab is working overtime again... they're trying to find something in his files. If he was clever, he hasn't kept any record of either Beverly or Laura."

"Get Beverly."

"She's on the way here as we speak."

"Good. I'll need twenty."

I hang up on her before she can share her assessment of my plan.

He listens to the young woman's story, indifferent at first, but holding her gaze with his patented interested expression as she chatters on. A college student, trouble with the boyfriend, doesn't seem to be suicidal. She's at that age when every change seems to be such a big drama, but she'll move on. His thoughts are already with the next patient, until she pauses, chewing on her lower lip before she says, "But now I don't know what to do. I'm pregnant."

He shifts in his chair, trying to hide his sudden excitement. "What do you want to do?"

She sighed, flipping a strand of her copper-colored hair behind her ear. "I don't really think I can have a baby right now. But I-- I'm scared."

He nods in acknowledgement, marveling at the wonder or fate that brings them all to his door. An opportunity for the revenge he's long sought.

"Have you told anyone?"

She shakes her head vehemently. "No, just you. I was hoping you could tell me where to go to-- you know."

Anger overshadows the thrill, and he struggles not to let it show, not to jump up and slaps that guileless expression off her face like he wants to. "Why don't I make you a tea and we talk about all of the options you have?"

She gives him a grateful smile. "That would be awesome."

He smiles in return, effectively covering his disgust. How can she ever think it's her decision to make? How can she dare? He thinks of the woman in the basement, the one who thought she could get away having a baby from a married man.

As he prepares the tea in the small kitchen next to his office, he thinks that it's going to be a busy night.

He returns a few minutes later to find her staring at her hands worriedly. Well, she doesn't know it yet, but she had more to worry about than her stupid boyfriend and wrong decisions.

He gives her a friendly smile, though he can't wait for the moment he can let the mask slip. "Milk or sugar, Ms. Thomas?" he asks her.

6th Degree

Fear lodges in her throat like some real object blocking her breathing. She'd kill for something to drink, though somewhere at the back of her mind, she's aware that thirst, or the nagging hunger she feels aren't her worst problems. He'll be back with a little water eventually. She dreads the moment. He doesn't talk much, and that's even worse. She has no angle, no way to start and talk him out of whatever he wants to do with her.

Heather only understands that this is a man who has molested two teenagers, probably more. He knows that she knows, and he won't let her get away with it.

She forces herself to take slow, measured breaths. She has got to calm down, any way. Not just for herself. Heather is startled out of her thoughts and the devastating realization how futile all her hopes have become, when the sound of the key in the lock is to be heard.

Her eyes widen when she recognizes the woman he's carrying.

"You've got company," he announced. "Just don't expect her to talk much... yet."

In the small pause he made, her heart has refused to beat, but then the pulse returns with a force strong enough to hurt.

She is alive; they both are.


Tom shoots me an exasperated look, but doesn't comment on my presence otherwise. In the interrogation room, there's Jacobi with Hoffs. Jill comes inside with Beverly who looks rather frightened.

I give her an encouraging smile. "Hi Beverly."

She looks from me to the man behind the two-way mirror. Walks closer, only to spin around and glare at us. "Is this supposed to be some joke?"

I know it before she says, "This isn't Dr. Hoffs."

"Beverly, that is Dr. Jonathan Hoffs from the World Wide Web of Help For You Service," Jill explains.

"But it isn't the guy who saw me in Half Moon Bay," Beverly insists. "He isn't who--" Breaking off, she glances at me anxiously, and I step closer to her, laying a hand on her shoulder.

"It's okay. Do you think you can describe him to the sketch artist?"

"Really? Like on TV?"

Behind her back, Jill and Tom share a mild, if pained smile.

"Something like that," I confirm, as I guide her out of the room.

"Inspector Boxer?"


"I think he sent Laura a picture once. It might still be on her computer."

The first sensation is instant severe nausea. Still groggy, Cindy barely manages to lean over the bucket by the side of the bed in time. Gasping for air, she tries to sit up properly, her attempt halted by a fit of dizziness.

All of that, however, isn't nearly as bad as the moment the realization sinks in, what happened, where she is now.

"I'm so glad you're awake." The voice sounds very concerned, and Cindy turns her head a fraction, slowly, as to not aggravate the nausea, to meet Heather's gaze.

"Sorry about that," she says miserably.

Heather gives her a small smile. "Don't worry about it. It made me sick, too."

Cindy tries to sit up once more. As her brain is starting to function properly again, she wonders why she isn't tied up. Did he think the drug would last longer? Whatever he did think, it's an advantage she's planning to use. "I'll try to get you loose," she promises, pushing herself off from the bed, but her knees don't quite carry her yet. She topples over and ends up in Heather's lap.

It makes them both crack up despite the fact that their situation, locked up down here by a man who has killed and probably won't hesitate to do it again, is everything but funny. Despite the fact he's most likely already decided that they're going to die.

"I'm sorry," Heather says, though she hasn't really done anything, laughter and tears mingling in her voice.

Cindy pulls herself up and finally manages to stand for long enough to try the knots of the rope that binds Heather to the rackety chair. She crouches down, starting to work on them.

"Are you okay?" she finally asks.

Heather's expression is somewhat wry, telling her, 'as much as anyone can expect to be', which is a relief. "Good. Now let's concentrate on getting us out of here."

I take Beverly who is now a little disappointed that she might not need to see the sketch artist, down to the lab to have her look at the files Beth could extract from Laura's computer. I'm glad no one really pays to much attention to me, because the room keeps swimming every now and then, but I can't back down now. We're close.

Beverly has hardly sat down behind the PC when the door opens again and Jacobi rushes in. "Whoever the guy is who posed as Dr. Hoffs, he also used the calendar on his server. There are a few appointments with patients Hoffs swears he's never seen."

This is making my head hurt, literally. "And he did only just notice that?"

Jacobi doesn't join in on the joke. He looks very serious instead.

"What is it?"

"Linds... you should look at this." He hands me a printout with brightly marked passages; the patients in Hoffs' timer that weren't his. Like the last one.


The letters blur before my eyes. The entry was for today, about half an hour ago. "Damn it!" I swear, the same moment Beverly says hesitantly, "Guys...? I think I've found him."

"Oh my God." Jonathan Hoffs pales visibly when he is confronted with the picture of the imposter.

"You know him?"

"You can say that. His daughter was a client of mine once. A fourteen year old girl, severely traumatized. She was pregnant. The father--" He shook his dead, a flash of fury on his face. "Ryan Farmer. My testimony made sure that he went to prison. He shouldn't be out yet."

"Wait a minute." I share an incredulous look with Jacobi. "You say Farmer was the father--"

"Yes. He went ballistic when it came out and Emma was taken to a foster family."

"What's his deal with pregnant women?"

Hoffs' expression is grim. "In his sick reasoning, the child was rightfully his, and she had no right to take it away from him. I heard he even tried from prison to find her. Damn it, I can't believe he used my practice--"

"That's still pretty vague," Jacobi reminds him. "Why other women when he couldn't find his daughter?"

Hoffs is shaking his head. "He's a total nutcase. Could be women who are remarried, or a teenager like Laura Ingram – he thinks they don't have a right to their children. And from what you've been telling me, I can guess he's escalating."

I take a moment to absorb this, trying to shake this bad feeling. Cindy's name wasn't in the calendar accidentally.

What did she do?

They search the room together, every square meter, frustration rising. Their last attempt, finally, is to push the bed aside, and there it is, some kind of trap door in the wall, leading into a dark tunnel. Inside, the walls are not high enough for either of them to stand, but it's something, and it's leading away from this room. Cindy and Heather share a doubtful look. Somehow that seems too easy. It's not like they have so many alternatives left though.

"Why don't we try?" Heather suggests. "This guy is crazy. I don't want to sit around and wait for him to come back."

Cindy thinks she has a point. "Wait. I've got a little flashlight in my purse." It surprises her a little that it's actually still there. He took her wallet and cell phone though. Figures.

Heather is carefully stepping into the darkness when they hear the sound of footsteps, both of them freezing before the imminent return of their kidnapper jolts them into action. Since she is taking the lead, Cindy hands the flashlight to Heather, then follows her inside the tunnel. Something sharp digs into her leg. Heather spins around at her yelp. "What is it?"

"Nothing. You go."

It's not nothing, she can feel that she's bleeding, and stuck by the fabric of her pants, but she's not going to tell Heather.

"Let's see."


Outside, the man is turning the key in the lock. "You're the one who's pregnant. I am not. Go!"

Heather gives her a desperate look, but she does what Cindy tells her. "I'm going to find a way out of this damn house," she promise. "I'll have someone call the police right away."

Then she is gone. Cindy gives a desperate pull, the pain almost making her faint. There must be some pole sticking out the wall, something with a sharp edge. She just hopes Heather will make do with the small flashlight and not run into any of those on her way.

"You come out of there," a furious voice orders.

"I can't," she gasps.

"We'll see about that." The man she met in Jonathan Hoff's office has a stronger flashlight, and he shines it right into her face. Cindy already feels lightheaded, and she thinks it'll serve him right if she throws up on his feet.

I have no idea how to describe my state of mind, and I don't have the time to try either. All I can think of is that our killer is escalating, taking two women in such a short amount of time. I don't dare think what that could mean for Heather. We need to find both Cindy and her by the end of the day.

There can't be any other outcome.

When she first sees the first rays of daylight through the grating, Heather nearly cries with relief, but now, several minutes later, she curses, her fingers are bleeding and she still didn't manage to open it. But she will, and then find the highway. Stop a car, and if she needs to jump right in front of it like a screaming banshee, then so be it.

She is well aware that Cindy Thomas, a woman she barely knows, is putting her life on the line for her and her unborn child. She'll make that chance count.

Heather gives another push, another fingernail breaking, but she doesn't care: the grating finally lifts.

7th Degree

I see the conflicting emotions flicker over Tom's face after he picks up the phone. Alarm, then relief, finally concern. It's driving me crazy. He turns away from our scrutiny, whispering something before he says goodbye and hangs up. When he turns back to us, his eyes are bright.

"Heather is on the way to the hospital," he says. "One of the unis is taking her there... She sounded okay."

"That's... great. What about Cindy?" My heart is beating so loudly I'm almost afraid I'm going to miss what he'll say. "What's going on, Tom?" He said 'her', not 'them'.

He pinches the bridge of his nose tiredly. "I don't know all the details yet, Linds. But Cindy wasn't with her."

"What?" The possible conclusions to this fact nearly make me stagger. Jill lays a hand on my arm in a calming gesture, but I shrug off the touch angrily. "What does that mean? Did she say anything about Cindy at all? Nevermind. I'm going to come to the hospital with you."

Tom holds up a hand. "You are not going to interrogate her."

"I won't. I'm on sick leave, remember?" I shoot back somewhat spiteful.

"I'm sorry. We'll get her back too," he promises, and knowing he means it, I'm the one who has to turn away for a moment. I can't let that emotion get in the way now though; that won't help Cindy. After a few more seconds to get my bearings, I face him again. "Where did the unis find her?"

"No way." He knows me too well. "I've got cops in the field searching the area already. As you've just pointed out, you are on sick leave."

I can't just stay here and wait. "Fine," I huff. "Anything happens, you call me on my cell right away. Jill?"

She looks a little hesitant, knowing that I'm about to make her an accomplice in something that Tom won't like. But for Cindy, she's going to help me.

"You think you're so smart, don't you?"

Both Cindy and the man start at the sound of a third voice. "You walk into my practice and commit crimes in my name."

It's the real Jonathan Hoffs, and he's training a gun on the imposter.


The greeting makes all of Cindy's hopes dissolve into nothing. They know each other.

"Who did you think it was, you dumbass?" the psychiatrist asks. "Now where's the lieutenant's wife? Got away from you, huh? And this one, she's not even pregnant. You've been had."

"No! That is not true!"

"You tell him." Hoffs waves the gun at Cindy who has done her best to become one with the wall, then turns back to the other man. "You were trying to set me up with the cops, but that didn't work. Too bad they're real close now. You know I'm an expert on abnormal brains like yours. It's going to be easy to explain why you shot the girl and then offed yourself."

It takes a moment for the words to sink in, but when they do, the ground crumbles underneath her. This can't be happening. Not when she's been talking for her life, getting Farmer to tell the sickening story about how he'd punished every woman of his choice for the fact that his daughter had chosen to excluse the abusive father from her life.

While Hoffs' attention is still on Farmer, Cindy slowly moves closer to the hole in the wall where Heather hopefully escaped to freedom, biting her lip against the pain that each movement causes. Thank God she never neglected her Tetanus shots, because the deep cut is from a rusty piece of metal. She's going to be more careful.

When Hoffs pulls the trigger, Cindy yanks the trap door shut behind her, plunging herself into pitch black darkness.

"If we do what I'm thinking you want us to do, this is what'll happen," Jill tells me. "First, your boss is going to fire you. Then he's going to make my boss fire me."

"I can handle Tom. Besides, I think Denise has something of a soft spot for you."

At that, Jill flips me the bird and we both laugh. It makes me feel good for a moment, guilty the next. "There aren't many houses in the area, plus there are cops already there. Shouldn't be too hard."

Jill looks at me concernedly for a long moment. "Linds, are you sure you're up to this?"

"I am absolutely sure," I answer without hesitation. I can worry about myself once Cindy is safe. Maybe. The ringing of a cell phone jolts me out of my thoughts, but it's not mine. Jill's.

"This is weird," she says. "It seems like the delivery has been delayed. Cindy sends a dossier on Jonathan Hoffs. The real one. Let's hope he's still in the building. I'm calling Tom."

"You do that," I say, stepping on the gas.

The wood splinters as Hoffs fires another shot at the door. Cindy cowers on the floor, her hands over her head. He must have lost it. No way he can damage the place and then sell off the scene like he's planned to – but as it seems, he doesn't care much.

She really wants the police to be here right now. In fact, she needs Lindsay to be here and hold her, because she's about to lose it, but she's willing to compromise given the fact that Lindsay should be at home and resting.

One more shot has the lock breaking.

I don't get to be the hero. Once we arrive, the cops on the scene lead an angry looking Jonathan Hoffs to the squad car. My heart misses a beat at the sight of a body bag being carried out, and I all but yell at the officer in charge of the scene to tell me who's inside.

When he does, I feel like the ground is giving way under my feet, but I can't indulge myself yet.

Jill and I hurry down the stairs to the basement; it's a good thing when you have a badge and a friend with you who also has business being on a crime scene. Not that I'd let anybody keep me away now.

"You can come out now, Miss. It's safe," the paramedic pleads on one side of the splintered door. Is that how Heather escaped? I take in the scenery, the bed standing askew in the middle of the room, the chair with the rope still wrapped around the back.

The blood on the rough tiled floor. I shudder. It smells of fear and death in here. Hiding seems like a good idea.

"Let me," I tell the guy, and then crouch beside the hole in the wall. "Cindy?"

"Don't be mad at me. I can explain everything."

The pained tone just about breaks my heart. "I'm not mad." Carefully I clear away the wood and scoot closer. "Are you hurt, baby? Can you get out of there?"

I can finally touch her, the relief overwhelming but short-lived, as my hand comes away wet, smelling of copper, and I yell for the paramedic while cradling her in my arms. "It's going to be okay," I promise. It has to be, after everything.

"Lindsay Boxer, where the hell are you?" Tom's angry voice floats over to us. "Can't you follow a simple order?"

Cindy laughs a little, and I kiss her temple.

"That's why you got in here, hiding from the boss?" she asks teasingly, but her voice is shaking.

I need to make room for the paramedic now, much as I hate to let go. "Very funny," I say. "I guess I'll have to face his wrath though."

She holds on a moment longer. I can feel her shaking, or maybe it's me, too. "See you on the other side," I whisper, and then make my way outside.

Tom gives shoots me a furious glance. "That ghostly pale isn't a good look on you, Linds."

"Whatever. I wasn't asking you for fashion tips," I return. Behind him, Jill is biting her lip to stifle a smile, but she gets serious a moment later. "How is Cindy?"

"Hurt, but coherent."

We watch together as the paramedic briefly confers with his partner and then they carry the stretcher into the tunnel to get Cindy out, moving carefully to avoid the cut pipe that had caused the injury in the first place. I squeeze her hand briefly before they carry her upstairs. "I'll see you soon."

Tom opens his mouth to say something, but Jill interrupts him. "I'll drive. And there's no place safer than the hospital, right? Good night, Lieutenant."

When I enter the room, Cindy gives me a lopsided smile, no doubt having been provided with the good stuff already. "I see they doped you well," I tease as I sit in the chair beside her bed. The light tone is only a thin surface. I know there are going to be rusty pipes, wood splinters and blood in the nightmares for a while.

She smiles regretfully. "I was supposed to make you rest. See what a lousy job I've done."

I lean forward to place a kiss on her lips, then take her hand when I settle back in the chair. "I can rest now. Case is closed, and what you sent Jill helped to figure out that Hoffs wasn't so innocent either. Farmer was blackmailing him because of some big time tax dodging."

"How's Heather?"

Tom had actually stopped being mad at me for long enough to tell me. "She and the baby are fine."

Cindy looks as relieved as I am about that fact. It's probably not the right moment to address this, but the subject inevitably brings us back to ther things unspoken. Given the close calls of the past 48 hours, I'm ashamed I let it go that far. She was meaning well. This is not just about me.

"I'm sorry." Her voice is barely above a whisper. "I shouldn't have presumed--"

"It's alright," I say. "It's not always going to be easy to be with me, but you don't have to turn into someone else to do it. If there's a decision to be made, we'll make it together."

She struggles to lean up and I meet her halfway, holding her close to me.

Here's one subject to which I've finally found closure. Tom and the life we've once planned; it's truly in the past now, and it's a good thing for both of us. I tighten my arms around Cindy, marveling at the weird, wonderful coincidences in life.

There was a time when I thought I'd never love again.

But I do, and I'm stronger for it.

There's one thing I don't share with Cindy tonight: Kiss Me Not is still out there, and no chance in hell I'll forget that for just one moment. But I'm back in the game now, and this time, I'm ready to win.

The End

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