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

Death and Syntaxes
By Liz Estrada


Tuesday morning, near six.

Though urged by J-school advisors to pursue a career in television or internet news, Cindy Thomas had known the awful truth about herself since sophomore year: she was a print journalist. It didn't matter that the format was steadily losing ground to other media, that ad sales accounted for seventy percent of revenues, or that many Bay Area residents didn't even know they had a paper called The Register. It didn't matter to Cindy because she was not a teleprompter-driven talking head or a hit-and-run blogger – she was a news writer, one of those odd junkies who mainlined archives of Hamill and Halberstam, who thought frauds like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair deserved to spend eternity as personal assistants to Barbara Walters. Cindy took pride in her work, and owned her ambition to someday become a noteworthy investigative reporter.

To anyone who knew her, it would come as no surprise that although she left her apartment around five-thirty that Tuesday morning to fetch good coffee and warm croissants and fresh papers, she came back with nothing more than bundles of newsprint, inky fingers, and a bad attitude.

"They buried me!" she cried, incredulous and totally pissed. Cindy crumpled the early edition of the Register and sat down heavily on the edge of her bed, jarring the sleeping occupant.

On the short list of things that could wake SFPD Inspector Lindsay Boxer from a dead sleep were these: earthquakes, sirens, guilt, mysterious bumps in the night… and angry women. She sat bolt upright, rubbed her eyes, and said, "Whahappen."

"My story on the Bayview Community Watch," Cindy explained. "Page sixteen! Below the Kia ads! Can you believe those jag-offs?"

Once caught up, Lindsay agreed that page sixteen did, indeed, suck the big one. She rubbed Cindy's shoulder and yawned a little before succumbing to self-interest. "Is there coffee?"

Cindy winced and squeezed her eyes shut. "There was coffee. I left it at the news stand."

Dejected for them both, Lindsay softly slammed her forehead against Cindy's back. "Jag-offs."

"I want my beat back," Cindy whined. As junior member of the paper's crime squad, she'd spent the past two weeks on reassignment, covering soft-soap features for a colleague on maternity leave. She hated it; the indifference shown by editorial staff toward positive community stories (no matter how thoughtful and well-written) was demoralizing. Murders and the sexy cops who solved them got much better placement. "Valerie Cruz owes me. Heck, her baby owes me."

"Mmh. All three of you owe me coffee."

"Okay, one-track. I'll go make some," Cindy grumbled, slowly rising from the bed. "Try not to die of a caffeine headache in the next ten minutes."

Mildly panicked at the thought of choking down a cup of Cindy's Good Intentions Java (the taste of which vacillated between Turkish mud and Colombian rainwater), Lindsay snagged the young woman's coat and tugged her backward onto the mattress. Swiftly, she rolled on top, straddled her hips and glared down with mischievous intent. "Oh, no, no. You promised me Peet's. And you know how we deal with welchers around these parts."

As Cindy eyeballed her fetchingly tousled captor, all regret over the lost white chocolate mochas vanished. Out tumbled a theatrical sigh and a baiting, blasé plea for aid. "Help. Please. Somebody, fetch the marshal."

"Don't bother - the law's on my side. Plus, the marshal would just wanna watch." Lindsay plucked off the reporter's knit cap, unraveled her scarf, and set to work on her coat buttons. She felt the outline of Cindy's TASER C2 in the right pocket and was appropriately careful. Though it stung her badly to think of the reason Cindy now needed it, Lindsay was rather proud that she'd remembered to carry it on her spontaneous early morning mission. I'll take precautions and I'll stay alert, but I will not stop living my life because some head case is trying to freak you out, Cindy had told her. More than a few times. Loudly. A lopsided smirk snuck out as she continued to retire the redhead's attire.

"Oh, you dastardly fiend," Cindy hissed, though she shamelessly spread-eagled and smiled as Lindsay's renegade fingers slipped under her shirt to rustle her dogies. "Bartering some paltry coffee debt for my priceless womanly virtue."

The black-eyed cad arched a brow. "I'm starting to think you forgot on purpose."

"And what if I did?" Cindy taunted, a bit too smug for the early hour. When silent Lindsay corralled her wandering hands, the redhead instantly changed her tack. "Wait - you know I didn't really do it on purpose, right?"

Lindsay responded by laying her index finger over Cindy's mouth, then sliding it inside to literally still her tongue.

When her partner's ringtone burst from the police inspector's phone twenty minutes later, she was kneeling on the floor, in the middle of someone very important. Lindsay would not could not stop to take his call just then, though she did unconsciously put the spurs to herself. She leaned into the massaging strokes of her tongue and pumped her curled fingers harder as warning signs began to emerge. She took heed and braced herself the very instant Cindy broke away. The pale, firm legs latched over her shoulders shook and tightened; hips kited skyward and a heel dug into her back, plowing down her spine in search of traction; thighs clenched around her skull, muffling sharp cries while a slow, pulsing effusion slickened her hand.

Gradually, she eased the pace until Cindy was coasting warm, gentling down. Lindsay felt an irresponsible, libertine urge to loiter, and she gave in without a fight. After seamlessly trading fingers for tongue, she experienced a dizzy moment of synaesthesia as her senses were drenched with the inapt smell of burning ozone - the sweet, crackling harbinger of a thunderstorm. It was passing strange, without precedent, and really, really nice. Lindsay, not feeling particularly introspective, was in no hurry to figure it out.

Cindy, atypically, was also question-free. Perhaps she was rendered speechless by this delicate denouement, this splendid complement to their earlier, more muscular contact. Or maybe she just had the common sense and good manners to shut-up while her lover's tongue slowly grooved her center like a needle on a Barry White record. Regardless of reason, she became repose itself, all bliss and silence under Lindsay's generous care.

After a bit, righteously awake and feeling pretty spiffy despite the fresh rug burns on her knees, Lindsay crawled back onto the bed and rested her damp face against Cindy's stomach. The younger woman's breath and heart calmed until they matched her own metronomic tempo in easy, cool unison. Lindsay yearned to fall asleep just there, in that Nirvana of position and moment, but duty was calling. Literally. From the nightstand, her indignant mobile blurped for attention too long denied it.

"Wow. You let it go to voicemail," Cindy softly wondered. She sifted her fingers through Lindsay's hair, stroked her scalp; loosely, she wound one dark lock onto the spool of her thumb. "I so completely love… that… you did that."

Before Cindy could even begin to feel mortified, Lindsay smiled up her appreciation for that well-timed tap on the brakes. She needed to ride in the slow lane a while longer, where they could do and feel without getting snarled up in saying, and Cindy seemed to understand that. She kissed her clever, thoughtful girl along the border of belly and rib, and across the southern slope of her breast. "You still owe me coffee," she said, while reaching for her phone.

Just past six that Tuesday morning, a contracting crew returning to their work site (a rehab job on a three-story Innes Avenue shamble in Hunter's Point) made a grisly discovery. They puked up Pepsi and breakfast burritos in the stairwell, and then called the police.

Nearing seven, the sun was rising, and so was Lindsay Boxer's gorge. "That's a lotta blood," she muttered to her partner, Inspector Warren Jacobi.

"It's too much. Almost doesn't seem real," he added, carefully stepping across the squishy black-scarlet carpet on plastic sheets laid down by the Crime Scene Unit. "How much are we looking at, Doc?"

Medical Examiner Claire Washburn hovered in the apartment entryway, scanning crazily spattered walls, floor and ceiling with a trained eye. "Rough estimate? Twenty, twenty-five pints."

"That's what - almost three people's worth? Where are the other bodies?" Lindsay wondered.

The three of them stood silent, staring at the one large, corpse-shaped parcel – wrapped carefully in thick refuse bags and duct tape – lying on the newly tiled kitchen floor.

"That's actually two bodies, right there," said Charlie Plunkett, head of the CSU team. "First officer on scene slit the bag for the EMTs, just to be sure they were finito. And they were."

Lindsay and Claire locked eyes, realizing at the same time that the patchwork bodybag was not large enough to hold two adults. Claire moved first, picking her way to the kitchen just ahead of the inspectors. She knelt on the plastic sheeting and slowly peeled back the slit end of the garbage bag. Peering out in glassy horror were two soft-haired, gray-faced boys, barely older than Claire's own son, Nate.

Her hands were gloved, so Lindsay knelt alongside and laid an arm across Claire's back. She felt the deep draw of breath and the unsteady exhale, like a rattling chain dropping a portcullis between the doctor's head and mother's heart.

"Some days, I wish I were a chiropractor," said Claire.

ADA Jill Bernhardt was swamped with court prep, so her supervisor Denise Kwon came down to the scene. She didn't go inside, but waited in the hallway and brusquely ambushed Lindsay and Jacobi as they exited, barking: "Inspectors. SitRep."

Lindsay blinked at her like she was speaking Klingon. Jacobi mercifully stepped in with the exposition: "Two juvenile black male victims found on scene, dead less than six hours. Evidence says maybe two more victims killed here and removed to lord knows where. No murder weapon found as of yet, but Plunkett and Washburn say we're looking for a very big, very sharp knife. No tell-tale bloody shoeprints. None of the contractors saw anyone suspicious lurking around recently. The security cameras in the hall aren't hooked up yet. Uniforms are out interviewing neighbors and searching the curtilage with CSU techs. We're about to join them." He left out Plunkett's theory about how the blood spray managed to touch nearly every surface in the front room – something about spinning the victims in a swivel chair – because the mid-renovation apartment had no furniture at all.

Denise soaked it all in and gave a quick nod. "Okay. I'll make a brief statement to the media and head back to the office. Call me if anything breaks."

Lindsay waited until Kwon was out of earshot. "SitRep? The hell?"

Jacobi shrugged. "She's been all business since that wedding mess. Safer that way, I guess."

Tom's wedding, Denise's drunken bitchout, Jill losing Luke as a result… all that seemed like it happened in another lifetime, in a more whimsical universe where romantic jealousy and insecurity made the planets tilt. Gravity had muscled up since then. Lindsay mirrored Jacobi's shrug. "Suits me. Let's go find a witness."

Down the stairs and out onto the street they went, glancing sideways to catch Denise schmoozing the newsies. Jacobi noted the absence of a familiar face in their number. "Hey. Thomas get canned or something?"

"Nah. She's on features."

"Ooh. Tough break, champ. Now who's gonna write your fan club newsletter?" he teased.

"It's temporary," Lindsay snippily corrected. "Besides, I could do with a lower profile these days, dontcha think?"

Jacobi stopped walking, eyed her with middling scrutiny. "You heard anything more outta that nut?"

The Kiss-Me-Not killer, silent since before Christmas, was always in the back of her mind. He murdered three women, sewed their mouths shut and displayed them in macabre, pseudo-romantic settings from classic fairy tales. Lindsay Boxer chased him for five years, failed to catch him, and lost her marriage during the pursuit. Last fall, when the killer resurfaced and claimed his third victim, he issued two threats: one disfigured newspaper photo of Lindsay sent to the FBI, and a more elaborate declaration of hostility, sent via e-mail, targeting Lindsay's three closest friends.

"Not lately. Ashe and his guys haven't made any headway," Lindsay replied. "Neither have we. We understand the why a little better now, for what little that's worth."

"Lindsay…" Jacobi edged closer, lowered his voice. "I know I haven't dealt with this very well, but if you need me – for anything - I'm with you."

Lindsay held his gaze, tried to convey gratitude and respect and affection, all in silence. Jacobi understood; when not in the grip of angry concern, he knew a kind of concord with his partner where they shared a common, wordless language.

A woman's low voice yanked them back to the here and now, where people sometimes talked out loud. "Hey, cop lady."

Squatting behind shrubbery in front of a crumbling blue craftsman house was a teenager unseasonably clad in a mini-skirt and tank top. Even with the ten-degree bump from the Point's microclimate, it was too cold to dress like that. Lindsay discreetly made eye contact and tapped herself on the chest.

"Yeah, you. Cop lady. I seen you in the paper," the girl said. She didn't stand up and Lindsay didn't approach; both were aware that talking to police out in the open could be bad for the girl's health. "You lookin' for the man killed them boys?"

"Yeah. You see anything?"

"Four of 'em go in there last night with that big ay-rab. I ain't seen him come out."

"Do you know the man? The big Arab?"

"Not by name. I know he deal up in the Basin. Drive a green Benz," the girl said.

"What about the boys?"

"They ball in the park sometime. I don't know where they stay or if they got people. They all the time on they own," she droned, ready for the conversation to be over. "You gone help me out?"

Lindsay cast her eyes sideways again, taking in the girl's tracked arms, burned lips. "What do you need?"

"Fifty be good."

She frowned, hesitated. Jacobi, who had stood there all along pretending to talk on his cell as cover for Lindsay and the girl, got his partner's attention. He let her know without saying a word that this was a necessary evil, that, yes, giving the girl money was tantamount to helping her fix, but they needed to keep her on line. Lindsay dug in her jacket and came up with thirty-six dollars. "What's your name?"

"Nisha," the girl answered. "Anybody ask, you don't know that."

Lindsay wadded up the money and idly tossed it into the bushes. As they walked away, Lindsay gave Jacobi a nudge with her elbow. "My fan club newsletter just got us a lead, chump."

Mid-morning rolled up and found Cindy Thomas at her desk, sipping break room coffee and quietly beaming. Her profile of the District 10 Supervisor was written and currently in the hands of Vikram Roy, Register copy editor, jack-of-all-trades, and Cindy's Will Truman analogue number one. After the morning's turbulent launch sequence, she was happy just to sit a spell, to let her mind float around in a loose orbit; though at each periapsis, her thoughts sank into the irresistible gravity well of bed and sex and that woman. She of the edacious mouth and sentient hands, who laughed like whiskey and smiled like a whiteout… even through Cindy's near-detonation of the L-bomb. Easy. No rush, she soothed herself. It's just a word. You know lots of words. Don't dwell on that one.

"Cease and desist. Right bloody now," Vikram Roy ordered, tramping toward her desk.

Befuddled, Cindy looked around her workspace to find the source of affront. "What, exactly?"

"Sitting there having sexxee-time thoughts about your supercop," he clarified. "It's unseemly to mentally wank in one's place of business."

Cindy saw right through him and clucked her upbraiding tongue. "Thou shalt not covet, Vik."

"Don't throw bible verses at me, you switch-hitting heathen," he sneered. "I am not jealous, merely sickened by your happiness."

She leaned back in her swivel chair and swiveled a little. Vik was nursing a six month heartache after being cruelly dumped by a slutty radiologist named Jorge. "So you're dating again?" Cindy asked hopefully.

He rolled his sculpted shoulders and slapped her largely unaltered pages down on the desktop. "I'm not ready."

"But you're such a catch!" Cindy crowed. "You're smart and smokin' hot and funny and you can bench press me and make cranberry jam. You're depriving the world, Vik."

Though he smiled through the flattery, ultimately he shook his head. "If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve."

Cindy narrowed her eyes at the craven coward and drew her sword. "Sarmassaphobe."

Vikram took a combat stance and flashed his own steel in like fashion. "Psycholagny freak."

Like two goofball noetic samurai, they would occasionally whip out their pointy words and wave them around, although they had never actually struck one another. Most confrontations ended with winks and smiles and a giddy truce that reminded them both of hair-pulling grammar school romance. He was an odd, wonderful guy, and Cindy felt quite lucky to have a playmate at work.

"Was the piece okay?" she asked.

"Satisfactory. Though you're still playing fast and loose with the syntax," Vik noted. "Grammaticality is not your long suit, ma petite seour."

"Go blow Chomsky, you nerd. I just wanna know if my commas were in the right places."

"Yes, comma, they were. Period. And it's deathly dull. Consider befriending the semicolon."

"I don't like semicolons. They're so precious," she griped. "They're like the doilies of punctuation."

"They are supercommas," he bellowed, staring down intently. "Do not fear them, small one; they come in peace."

Cindy tried glaring back at him, but couldn't match his dark, eyelashy energy. Had Lindsay Boxer been a muscular gay Indobrit dude… well, she'd still be nothing like Vik. But they were both achingly beautiful, and Cindy always squirmed nervously under the gaze of the gorgeous. As was becoming custom, she gave in. "I'll try."

He bent at the waist in a courtly bow. "This is all I ask."

She waved him away from her desk. "Leave me now, peculiar brown man. I have important work and you distract me with your swarthy animal magnetism."

"Important work, she says. Deviant fantasizing, says I."

"This from a gay man who writes slash fiction about Hillary Clinton and Ann Coulter."

"What can I say? I'm a broken boy," Vik admitted as he took his leave.

Alone then with her empty coffee cup and light workload, Cindy headed to the break room to get a refill and kill a few minutes in front of the television. KGO-7 stuffed a local news break into a Regis and Kelly stop set, and Cindy felt her heart rev up. An update on the multiple murder in Hunter's Point. Police investigating. Deputy DA Kwon showboating for the media. And just there, creeping out of camera range like two kids ditching study hall, Warren Jacobi and Lindsay Boxer setting off to find the bad guys. The game was afoot and Cindy felt like a bloodhound leashed and fenced in the back yard.

"Stupid Valerie Cruz. Stupid baby." She growled and slammed her cup against the counter, sloshing hot coffee over her hand. Cindy yelped pitifully and sucked at her scalded knuckles. It wasn't her story, and she had promised to keep her nose out of Lindsay's investigations unless she had professional cover, otherwise she was no more than an unlicensed P.I., a meddler, a snoop.

Hey, news flash – Cindy Thomas is a meddling snoop. That wouldn't even make page sixteen, she thought. I gotta be me. And me is a crimedog. God… my syntax really does suck.

Quick as a whistle, she slipped the leash and set about digging a hole under the fence.

Tom Hogan, Lieutenant of the Homicide Division (and former Mr. Lindsay Boxer) was on the verge of sweating. Denise Kwon had a knack for enforcing the law of fecal gravity – making sure the shit rolled downhill – and Tom knew he was in for a pelting unless the Hunter's Point case shaped up in a hurry. Most homicides that get solved at all are cracked within the first forty-eight hours, and those little boys were more than half a day dead.

"So we haven't identified the boys, haven't found the other two possible victims, and we still don't know anything about this Arab who may sell drugs out of India Basin?" he summed up, directing his anxiety toward his ex-wife and her partner.

Lindsay pushed the heel of her hand against her throbbing forehead; she had spent the last few hours sifting through computerized data and was secretly afraid she might soon need reading glasses. "Vice sent over everything they had on middle-eastern slingers and Basin dealers. We found zero crossovers. And DMV reports no green Mercedes registered in that area."

"If our one and only cooperating witness told us the truth, this guy is either new to the game, or he keeps his head low," Jacobi added, while dunking two bags of Earl Gray in his coffee cup.

Tom perched on the outer corner of Lindsay's desk and gave it a think, searching for a way around the roadblock. "Okay. Question: who's the first to notice when Burger King opens a restaurant in a new area?"

Lindsay contorted her mouth and crossed her eyes behind his back. Jacobi issued a weary sigh and motioned for her to answer on their behalf. "I dunno. The health department?" she guessed.

"McDonalds," Tom said, casting a grin over his shoulder. "Successful businesses keep track of their competition. If our Arab is dealing in their backyard, the HP Niners might know him."

The Inspectors made impressed faces. "Score one for the 'loot," said Jacobi. "Which Niner shall we visit on this fine winter's day?"

"Keith Scoville's their brain trust. His street name is Burn."

Recalling something Claire once told her about Scoville Heat Units and peppers, Lindsay gave a skeptical snort. "Foodie word play from a gang-banger."

"Listen, Burn's nearing thirty. He's never been shot and he's never done time - not your typical thug. And since he took over, the Niners haven't made the news or the police blotter," Tom expounded. "He used to live on Marlin Court. I'll reach out to gang crimes and see if that still jibes." He rapped on the desktop and jogged upstairs, happy to have contributed something more than running interference with the brass.

"Man, I am so glad I don't have his job," Lindsay declared.

Jacobi sipped his tea and muttered through the steam. "Not half as glad as the rest of us."

A truth Lindsay had learned her first year in homicide - sometimes when a case starts coming together, it comes together fast, so let the pieces click into place and take a step back, just so you know what you're looking at. Claire Washburn was steadily handing her square pegs for square holes and things were starting to make sense. There were four distinct blood samples taken in volume from the apartment, confirming their estimates and partially legitimizing Nisha's tip. The post-mortem exam of the two recovered victims revealed their cause of death as a series of cuts, escalating in intensity until they exsanguinated. Each boy also suffered severe bruising and joint damage, with shoulders, wrists and ankles either broken or separated. The methodical nature of these injuries suggested two possibilities: sadism or interrogation. After Claire said she found no signs of sexual assault, Lindsay was leaning toward the latter motive.

"Their hearts also suffered trauma, though toxicology showed no drug in their systems to explain major tachycardia," Claire continued. "The irregular lividity patterns support Charlie's spatter theory, but the blood pressure would have to be tremendous to open a vein, spin them around and get a spirograph of blood all over the room." She set aside her clipboard of test results and pointed toward a stack of clear plastic bags stuffed with gory clothing. "On a different note, they were wearing all green and black."

"Niners colors," Lindsay said, nodding. "Any marks or tattoos?"

Claire took a slow breath and stepped to the exam tables. She lifted the sheet over one boy and carefully cradled his hand. In the crook between thumb and forefinger was a small, black 9; she smoothed her gloved finger over the number and the edges smeared. "Magic marker," Claire explained. "Same as the other boy."

"Wannabees," Lindsay surmised.

"They wanted in bad enough to get their hands dirty," Claire agreed. "I tested their nail scrapings, just in case they got in a scratch or two on their killer – no go. I did, however, find trace amounts of pure, unprocessed heroin. Very high grade."

"Really? And they both handled it?"

"Mmm-hmm. Recently, I'd say. The samples were pretty clean."

Lindsay worked up a theory out loud, so Claire could add or subtract as needed. "Four boys living on their own, in need of a family…"

"Gangs are a surrogate for a lot of kids."

"They play ball in the Niners' park, wear their colors, fake their ink, but nobody tries to reel them in - "

"Because they have no bait," Claire finished. "A donation of stolen, uncut heroin would get them some attention."

"The Arab wanted his smack back, so he waylaid them in an empty building and cut them up until they told him."

"If they told him. You don't think there's a chance that the other two… " Try as she might, Claire couldn't summon any real hope. She knew better, knew there was too much blood. Four samples, four dead boys. "Nevermind, don't answer that. Keep going."

Lindsay grimaced and resumed spitballing. "Maybe the Arab isn't on our radar 'cause he's not a street dealer. If he had pure heroin in quantity, he could be an importer, a distributor. Everybody knows the Point shipyard isn't exactly watertight."

"DEA might have something useful."

"We called them to see if they had any open investigations with overlap, but that was three hours ago. By the time they call back, our guy could be halfway to Tangier."

Claire pulled a face. "Tangier?"

"Whatever. It's a place," Lindsay dismissed. "Jacobi's getting a primer on this Scoville guy. Tom can deal with the DEA."

"That's why he gets the big bucks," Claire tiredly quipped. She lowered her head, braced her hands against the exam table, let her eyes slip shut. She was consummately professional and she did her best to help find the truth for every victim who ended up in her care, but the brutalization of these wasted children was heavy on her mind.

"Have you called home?" Lindsay gently inquired.

Claire shook her head. "It wouldn't do me any good to lay this on Ed. But my poor sons are in for about a hundred hugs tonight."

Lindsay squeezed her friend's arm. "Give them ten or so from me, along with my thanks for dogsitting."

"Well, they love Martha and you, so neither request poses a problem," Claire confirmed. "But… Linz?"


"Every cut is very deep and very precise. You're looking for a torturer who is strong, certain, and skilled. He may not be Kiss-Me-Not, but I'm asking you to take care with this one. Please." Claire's voice was a forlorn ache. She never complained about the serial killer's threat to her life, never blamed Lindsay for the fact that she now had to carry a gun and check over her shoulder every time she heard footsteps. Claire Washburn was a towerblock, a keystone in the lives of all who knew her, and Lindsay wilted a little inside when she asked for a simple assurance that her friend would still be around tomorrow.

"Claire, I'm gonna get this guy," Lindsay promised.

The doctor's eyes flashed with temper. "Honey, that is not what I said."

Cowed, and feeling like an idiot for picking that moment to talk tough, Lindsay offered a solemn nod. "Okay. I'll be careful."

Since San Francisco was a notoriously expensive place to live, the Marlin Court Apartments never had vacancies. The rent-controlled general lease units were legacies - sublet from one friend or family member to another in order to keep the rent at outdated levels. Most of the other units were government subsidized and those low-income tenants, who should be paying less rent, were actually shelling out more for new leases than their more moneyed neighbors. To defray the cost, they often violated the Section 8 leasing rules and housed several people in units only approved for one or two. This rather tame open secret proved to be SFPD's only leverage with Keith Scoville.

"What kind of man lets his grandmother get evicted just to spite the police?" Inspector Jacobi asked.

Burn leaned back against his kitchen counter, stretched his legs out. "What kind of man threatens a granny for the purposes of extortion?"

"Extortion's a strong word," Lindsay interjected.

"No. Unassailable is a strong word," Burn replied. "Extortion is merely an appropriate one."

Lindsay crossed her arms and cocked a grin. She couldn't help thinking that Cindy would like this guy. He was handsome, smart, slippery – like someone Jill would date, had he gone to law school instead of joining a violent street gang.

Jacobi, not charmed in the least, brought things back around to the point. "Four young boys are dead because they wanted to get your attention, Burn. Now you may not feel any responsibility for that, but you do bear some share of the blame. So either you point us toward this Arab or you can help grandma and half the people in this complex start packing their things, because I promise you that deputies will be here by week's end to enforce eviction notices."

Burn looked to Lindsay. "See? Extortion."

"I'm not your peanut gallery," she warned him. "I'll call the housing authority myself, every hour like clockwork, until those eviction orders get to a judge."

Scoville sniffed, tried to shrug off his anger over being cornered. "So y'all want to play it like that. Fine, but stop calling him an Arab – that's an ignorant generalization, like calling all South Asians Pakis. Should know better, my brother." He turned from Jacobi to Lindsay, gave her the once-over. "You too, caramel."

The inspectors checked with each other on that one. Even Jacobi had to smile a little. "Okay. What should we call him?"

"I don't know his proper name, but the dude is Indian. Works for a man they call Bhajev. Word is, they move bricks through the shipyard pretty regular. Been pretty busy lately."

"Move bricks for who?" Jacobi pressed.

Burn flattened his lips into a tight line. Shook his head.

"I don't suppose the Niners get a gratuity for this studied disinterest?" Lindsay asked.

"That would constitute conspiracy to traffic, Inspector Boxer," Burn dodged. "No, we don't mix with them because they are bonafide freakazoids. When Bhajev wanted to show me how hard they can be, he had the big guy push a blade straight through his own arm. Guy didn't flinch. Didn't even bleed much." He went quiet for a beat, seemed to zone out. Swallowed hard. "Those little men… I should have seen they were on their own."

"It wasn't just you," Lindsay said. "To end up that way, a lot of people must've ignored them. There's only one thing we can do for them now."

Scoville gave them descriptions of the two men and an address, then very politely asked them to get lost. They were closing in on their quarry, and Lindsay's temperature was already rising, her limbs loose and ready. She felt a calm, focused intensity building within and mused that it was probably as close as she would ever get to a zen state when not in bed. On the walk back to the car, she had a strong impulse to touch base with Cindy, and so slipped out her cell and called. After four rings, she left a message on her voicemail, then called to update Tom and Denise while Jacobi leadfooted toward the Basin.

Ironically, Cindy Thomas missed Lindsay's call because she wanted to know what Inspector Boxer was up to. Since she was unable to traipse all over the city, gathering silver platter evidence for a case and a story, she silenced her cell phone and crept toward the desk of Jack Spiers - the senior writer covering the Hunter's Point murders – intending to skim through his notes while he used the men's room. Spiers worked behind one of the old wood and glass partitions in the Register's main newsroom, and the only desk with a view on Cindy's sleuthing belonged to that prima donna slacker Dan Vasser, who was never around anyhow.

She traced her sticky eyes over Jack's words, deciphering his shorthand of facts and loose ends and leads. Once decrypted, she pressed all these into engrams and smuggled them away in her head. She crossed paths with a returning Spiers in the hall, gave him a little smile. He winked at Cindy, suspecting nothing. It was the perfect crime. She was logging in to her computer, ready to crack open a folder full of search tool bookmarks and contacts, when she remembered her quieted phone and checked it for messages. One missed call, one new message…

Hey. Voicemail - not lovin' it right now. Heh. Anyway, since you're probably champing at the bit… we're onto something with the Point murders. I feel like we're close, like it could wrap fast. So I guess I'll talk to you later, hopefully with good news. Oh! Ahh, don't worry about picking Martha up from Claire's. They might need her tonight. Be good, babaloo.

Cindy replayed it once and saved it to the archives, where it joined three other preserved messages. The most recent two were from Lindsay and the third, nearly two years old, was from her father; in his terrible John Madden impression, he asked Cindy to bring chips and salsa for their regular Sunday football date. She only listened to that one when acutely sad or lonely. It played only once in the last three months.

Then, despite Lindsay saying the case might be near solution, the reporter stretched her fingers and attacked her keyboard, quickly falling into the research trance that was Cindy's version of meditation.

The address Burn Scoville gave up was not a residence, but a storefront Bikram Yoga center open for business. Lindsay and Jacobi entered and got smacked in the face by fetid odor and the hot hot heat of a hundred-plus degrees. The tiny front reception area held a desk and folding chair, behind which were posted business licenses and certifications for the owner-slash-instructor, one Jaggi Narayan. Through gauzy curtains, they saw the mirrors and carpets of the main room, where a smallish, fit, gray-bearded man was rolling and stacking mats into neat piles. He perfectly matched Burn's description of Bhajev.

Jacobi pushed aside the curtain and Lindsay strode in with her left hand hovering between badge and gun. "Excuse us, sir? Inspectors Boxer and Jacobi, San Francisco Police Department. Could we speak with you for a moment?"

He laid one last mat on the stack and turned to face them. His friendly smile stopped short of his eyes. "Of course. May I ask what this regards, please?"

"We're investigating the murders down Innes," Jacobi said. "What's your name, sir?"

"Narayan - this is my studio. But I'm afraid I don't understand how I can help you."

Bhajev, Lindsay's gut told her. "For starters, would you tell us where you were last night?"

"I was here until past ten. I spent the remainder of the evening at the home of a female student, working on her breathing techniques."

Lindsay grinned at the euphemism and pulled air into her clingy shirt. "She might breathe better if it wasn't so hot in here. What's that about?"

His smile warmed by a degree or two. "The temperature is a crucial component of our practice, as is breath control. The poses are rigorous, and great pressure builds in the blood. Bikram is not for the faint of heart, miss."

"You don't say." Lindsay looked to Jacobi; he caught it too - a drug-free explanation for the victim's high BP. "So, do a lot of people take these classes?"

"Business is improving," he said. "With the city's planned revitalization of the waterfront, I expect our enrollment will only grow."

"That eighty-two million will go a long way toward changing things down here," Jacobi agreed. "Bad part is, some criminal elements are ramping up, trying to get it while the getting's good, and those murdered boys got caught up."

"Very unfortunate. Again, however, I fail to see what this has to do with me. I am a teacher, a certified practioner - "

"Do you have any photo identification, Mr. Narayan?" Lindsay interrupted. "A passport or something similar."

He wasn't smiling anymore. "Yes, I have a driver's license. I will have my assistant bring up my bag." He clapped his hands together and shouted, "IYAD!!"

The inspectors were instantly on high alert. The man who was likely Bhajev flicked his fierce little eyes sideways, toward one of the mirrors. They made the mistake of following his eyeline and found themselves looking at a reflection of a rapidly closing barefoot giant, wielding a tanto knife and a cricket bat.

They spun toward the moving mountain and their situation deteriorated very, very quickly.

He smashed the bat against Warren Jacobi's turning head, and it sounded like a gunshot. The impact sent him off his feet and flying forward, onto the floor with a sickening crunch.

Before her partner's body touched down, Lindsay Boxer drew her Beretta and pulled a double tap, center mass. At such close range, the giant was hard to miss.

Iyad the child-torturer didn't even slow down. He lunged toward Lindsay, tandemly clubbing the gun from her hand and swinging the blade for her throat.

Her eyes bulged, knees crooked as she jerked away, down and back and nearly free of the razored arc – the blade tip dug a slender trench along her right eyebrow. Her left palm collided with the floor and she let her weight fall onto it. As his roundhouse knife arm swing terminated, her booted right foot kicked for his knee with everything she had.

There was a snapping sound as stacked heel met bone, but no scream. He dropped onto his other knee and let go the bat. He fastened one enormous free hand around Lindsay's ankle, slammed the sole of her offending boot against the floor and punched the knife straight through, pinning her foot to the hardwood. Splitting agony and giddy rage roared from her throat as she lost strength and fell back flat. In that instant, it hurt so much and she was so scared that it didn't seem real. She almost laughed; Kiss-Me-Not would be so disappointed…

Iyad's white robe showed only dime-sized splotches of blood. With two hollow point nine-mils in his chest, he should have been pouring like a fountain. He took a deep breath and smiled at her.

Lindsay raised up on her elbows and lefty kicked him in the nose, splattering soft tissue and cartilage. She latched onto her pant leg and hiked it up, hands scrabbling for salvation through the fog of panic and pain.

The giant issued a grunt as he reached for the cricket bat with one hand and crushingly captured Lindsay's free ankle in the other. When he got hold of that bat, he was going to beat her to death. This she knew with unassailable certainty. His fingers closed around the handle.

Six feet away, Warren Jacobi lay motionless in a pond of blood. Bhajev had long since fled. Lindsay was alone with a seven-foot, two-hundred-eighty pound man who could take two slugs to the chest and keep fighting.

She freed the backup .22 Mag from her calf holster and shakily fired three shots toward his face.

He wavered and swayed for a few eternal seconds, with three little black dots on his cheeks. Soon, bloodstains appeared on the chest of his robe and spread fast, his previously disciplined heart now spewing like a cut firehose.

Lindsay kicked him once more, in the ribs, felling the beast at long last. She laid back, convinced herself it was okay to breathe, to move. She opened her phone and called for help.

Pulling the knife out hurt exactly as much as she feared it would, but she needed to get free. Through a blinding veil of blood and fresh tears, she crawled toward Jacobi and told him to hold on.

The time immediately after was all jump cuts, a jerky, flittering film edited by hummingbirds. There were medics and stretchers. Tom looked stricken and helpless. Claire touched Lindsay's face and smoothed back her matted hair in the ambulance. Jacobi was rushed into surgery. Luke Bowen warned off some other ER doctor and took Lindsay and Claire into a private treatment room.

Her right boot was full of blood. She remembered that clearly. The amount that poured out shocked the nurses. Claire balled her fists and fought tears while her friend suffered.

"I was careful," Lindsay insisted through gritted teeth. Claire told her to shut-up.

Her foot was cleaned, numbed and stitched. Luke offered to get a plastic surgeon down to suture her eyebrow and Lindsay refused, saying she would rather not have any strangers near her face with sharp objects just yet, thanks very much. Doctor Bowen did it himself, and it was fine. Jacobi was still in the O.R.

Lindsay was semi-clean and down to bra and panties, sitting on the bed's edge so Claire could help her into a hospital gown, when Jill Bernhardt crashed and skidded through the door.

Jill didn't wait and she didn't ask permission. The red-eyed attorney slipped between doctor and patient and wrapped her arms around three people – the brave, idiotic cop who nearly got herself killed today, the best friend she'd ever had, and the erstwhile lover that got away – all at once. Her damp cheek snug against Lindsay's ear, she whispered blame and blessing. She tipped up her chin and looked closely at that cover girl face, visibly dismayed over the split and stitched skin.

"Luke did it," Lindsay informed her. "The sutures, not the - "

"I know. I saw him outside," said Jill.

Lindsay seemed very pleased by this. "Did you talk?"

Jill sighed and shook her head. "I'm sick of apologizing. I just wanted to see you." She touched above the wound with her thumb, traced the knitted line. "Will it scar?"

"Yeah. Sexy, huh?" Lindsay tried to arch her eyebrow, but it wouldn't budge. She made a mental note to never get Botoxed, convinced that facial mobility was key to her charm.

They smiled weakly, sweetly, into each other's eyes. Jill loosened her arms and, unconsciously, her fingers smoothed lower to grip bare, tawny flanks. Lindsay's hands rested in a natural perch on Jill's waist. This thoughtless kinetic intimacy they sporadically exhibited had always made Claire nervous. She harbored a fear that any genuine romance between the two would be akin to an oil well fire - a bright, toxic, hot mess, nearly impossible to extinguish. This nascent fear of catastrophe was one of the many reasons she was glad Lindsay had taken a chance on Cindy Thomas.

A knock sounded and the door opened again. Lieutenant Tom Hogan stepped in and immediately shifted his eyes and apologized. Claire tapped Jill out of the way and got Lindsay gowned up for visitors who were no longer allowed to see her undressed.

"Jacobi?" she asked.

"He's in recovery," Tom answered. "Your partner's head is nearly as hard as yours. Also, the APB worked – Bhajev was arrested at the airport, boarding a flight for Morocco."

Lindsay was far more relieved by the first news than the second, but it was all good. She looked to Claire and said, "See? Tangier."

"Don't play like you knew that," Claire warned, as she noticed Tom nervously tapping a rolled paper against his thigh. "Something you'd care to share with the class?"

"Yeah, we, uh… we found the other two boys." He uncurled the paper and showed what appeared to be scaled down blueprints. "In the renovation plans, the Innes Street crime scene showed no basement or crawlspace and the contractors didn't know any different. We got this anonymous fax from some Kinko's – it showed the original specs for the house. We found a hatch hidden under a stairwell and the missing bodies were down there, with four sacks of lime and a shovel."

Claire closed her eyes, let her shoulders slump. "Do you need me?"

Tom said no, that the boys were being taken care of. Assured that Lindsay was okay, and that Jacobi would recover, Claire Washburn wanted nothing more than to go home and squeeze her sons to the limits of their tolerance. She gave Lindsay a careful hug and vowed to check in first thing tomorrow morning. Tom lingered for a few wordless, awkward moments until Lindsay reminded him that she was fine and not alone, and that Claire would probably appreciate an escort to her car. He touched his wedding band, nodded, and walked away.

Jill plopped down on the little couch opposite the bed. "An anonymous fax from Kinko's? Three guesses who's responsible for that."

Lindsay shrugged and smiled. "The girl can't help it."

"Hmm. Where is the girl, anyway?"

"Claire called her a little while ago. I made her wait 'til the bad part was over." Lindsay remembered a fast phone convo, only ten or fifteen minutes back. "It's too soon to worry."

In the parking lot, Cindy Thomas sat in Vikram Roy's car and tried to pull herself together. Claire's phone call had, frankly, knocked her on her ass.

Sweetheart, I want you to listen because I'm going to tell you everything you need to know. Lindsay and Jacobi went to question a suspect and they were attacked. Lindsay was cut twice, once above the right eye and once through the right foot. Jacobi took a blow to the head and they're operating to relieve cranial pressure. The attacker is dead. Lindsay shot him. We're at the hospital, in room...

She left no room for questions, only action. Cindy ran for her car, but Maggie let her down; the little red car that could, couldn't start. She charged back up to the newsroom and shanghaied Vikram Roy, begging and threatening until he agreed to abandon his work and give her a lift to the hospital. Not until they were parked in the visitor's lot did Cindy realize that she'd been steadily leaking from the eyes since Claire hung up. Fortunately, Vik had tissues and Visine aplenty in the car's console.

"These are necessary supplies when dating a heartbreaker," he explained, dropping the handy solution into his friend's puffy, bloodshot eyes.

"Lindsay is no Jorge – she's a good person. She's not going to break my heart," Cindy insisted, sniffling.

He tucked the Visine and a travel pack of Kleenex into Cindy's purse. "Maybe not intentionally."

By the time she found the room, Cindy's eyes were clear and she didn't look devastated anymore. She peered through the narrow window and saw that Lindsay was asleep. Jill kept watch from a stiff-looking loveseat, while idly leafing through a magazine and sipping coffee. Cindy eased the door open and tiptoed inside.

"No need to be quiet – she's in Rip Van Winkle mode." Jill looked up and gave her half a grin. "I was telling her about my day in court, and she just stopped talking. Out like a light."


Cindy felt petty and selfish for wanting to wake her up, to shake her and blow angry words across her wounded face, to kiss her and climb onto the bed and kiss her and hold on and kiss her…

"It's okay to be mad," Jill ventured. "If you weren't a little afraid of losing her, you wouldn't be human."

She patted the empty spot on the loveseat. Cindy hesitated only a moment before accepting. "I nearly told her I love her. This morning. But I backed down."

Jill's stomach dropped. It took her a second to steel herself and respond as she should. "I think that - if you mean it - you should go ahead and say it."

Cindy wrinkled her nose in doubt. "Really?"

"Mmm-hmm. Don't take on her fear; if this is something you honestly feel, you can't just set it aside and wait until everything slows down," Jill advised. "Unless you move to Mayberry, your life will never be safe and perfect."

"Loaded goats and pickle thieves," the redhead snickered. "Today, I see the appeal. Tomorrow…"

"We're not those people. Our work is sometimes dangerous, and that's part of the attraction. Tomorrow is not guaranteed."

They shared a look, a moment where they both felt the crosshairs of a murderer over their hearts. Jill set aside her coffee and magazine. She wrapped an arm around Cindy's shoulders and leaned them back against the cushions. "It's just a word," Jill reminded her. "There are far scarier things in the world."

Cindy wasn't so sure about that. From where she sat, love appeared as a looming terror… or maybe that was only a shadow, cast by the black thought of losing it. She leaned her head against Jill's shoulder and they watched Lindsay sleep until they drifted off themselves.

Just past midnight, FBI Agent John Ashe stood outside the hospital room door. He angled his view through the glass until the other two women in the room vanished, until he saw only Inspector Lindsay Boxer. Injured by a monster, helpless in slumber, in need of a hero…

The End

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