DISCLAIMER: Women's Murder Club and its characters are the property of James Patterson, 20th Century Fox Television and ABC. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I did up an outline and started pecking away on this before learning that WMC would get three more episodes this spring, so this near 22k word rambler was originally conceived as a show-wrapper tailored to my peculiar, self-indulgent predilections. No plot spoilers here, just fannish speculation.
SERIES: Last in a series of six loosely related WMC stories. (six? cripes.)
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

In the Weeds
By Liz Estrada


Claire Washburn stood on her front porch, watching Tom Hogan's car slink toward the dark end of the street, the faint red glow of taillights like an echo of his embarrassment. She turned to her husband, Ed, watching beside her from his wheelchair. "Was the chicken that bad?" she asked.

Ed smiled and laid his broad hand across the small of her back. As a wave of low spirits broke at knee-level, Claire closed her eyes and unconsciously leaned into his steady, supportive touch.

The only witness to this moment, the only remaining guest from the Washburn's busted dinner party, was Cindy Thomas. Leaned against the far porch railing, the fascinated young reporter watched a happily married couple in their natural habitat. The display of trust seemed especially rare and lovely, in light of the evening's events. Cindy stared off into the dark and assembled a highlight reel in her memory:

- The New Mrs. Hogan joyfully informs everyone that she's seeing a fertility specialist, that the Hogans will soon be a real family and she can't believe that you guys never tried again to have kids after that miscarriage because won't Tom just be the best father ever? Lindsay? Won't he?

- Lindsay Boxer smiles sadly at her shamefaced ex-husband and agrees, yeah, he'll be great.

- A phone call prompts Lindsay's departure - and Tom's peculiar, troublesome assumption that he will leave with her.

- Tom's face hardens when she says, no thanks, Lieutenant, I already have a partner.

- Lindsay calls Warren Jacobi, then bids Claire and Ed goodnight.

- Kisses Cindy, whispers a request for pineapple cake, and leaves just as the argument starts.

- Fifteen minutes later, after pelting her husband with rocky words like unfaithful and codependent, sobbing Heather dashes off in a taxi and Tom stammers through apologies.

- Claire and Ed keep Tom there a while longer, until he calms enough to drive home and broker peace with his sweet yet spasmodically insecure bride.

"Did Lindsay fake that call to ditch out?" Claire crisply asked, cutting her eyes toward Cindy.

The redhead swallowed hard. Quite without cause, she felt guilty – the 'Doctor Washburn' voice sometimes had that effect on her. "Nope. I felt the phone vibrate. And I heard the caller talking about a hot tip."

"Tom was right to say she shouldn't go alone, but all the rest of that mess…" Ed rumbled. "I wouldn't have pegged Heather as a cusser. Hadn't heard some of those words since I walked a beat."

"Well, I don't care what drugs and hormones Heather's taking. It's no excuse for rubbing salt in that old wound," said Claire.

Cindy agreed, yet found that she had nothing to add. If Lindsay wanted to let it slide as a gaffe, Cindy wouldn't waste energy on ill will.

Behind them, the front door creaked open and sleepy-eyed Derek Washburn asked his parents what was up. Ed took point and ushered his youngest boy back inside, while Claire settled in a rocker and quietly laughed at her own folly. "I keep forgetting that my dining room is not Switzerland."

"It was a nice idea." Cindy moved to stand by her and spoke softly. "You weren't wrong to try."

Claire managed a weak, thankful smile. "Maybe. I guess I was hoping that, in spite of everything, we could all still be friends."

"Hey, don't give up. It could still happen, when things settle down."

They looked at each other, both wondering if that day would ever come. "I won't hold my breath. Life keeps changing, for better and worse. I just hate to think that after all those good years, we can't even have dinner together," Claire disclosed. "You know, this is when gracious friends usually change the subject."

Cindy, who had waited all day for this moment, leapt at the opening. "This morning, I got a call from Tony Kipp, Edison Media's west coast head of publishing. He really liked my Hunter's Point articles, and he wants to submit them for the Farfel Prize – which I don't stand a chance of winning, but it's ten kinds of awesome to even be considered."

"Hot damn!" Claire clapped her hands. "Is there money involved?"

"Twenty-five thousand and a trophy, but that's not the half of it." Cindy's heart palpitated; she paused, took a breath, and soldiered on. "Kipp offered me a slot at the Los Angeles Sentry. Second chair at the crime desk, a guaranteed feature every month, bump to senior reporter when Ira Gillies retires next year."

Several emotions flitted over Claire's face, whipping together an emulsion of shock and pleasure and woe. With her words similarly jumbled, all she managed to say was, "Honey. You're only twenty-seven."

"Gillies was twenty-nine when he took over," Cindy reasoned. "Plus, the Sentry is reorganizing. They're buying out the contracts of older employees, closing bureaus overseas – everything's changing. Mr. Kipp's in town tomorrow and he wants to take me to lunch. Me! Can you believe it?"

"I'm not sure what you're telling me." Claire's voice turned spiky. Her previously mixed expression congealed to apprehension. "Are you leaving?"

Wide brown eyes nearly bugged out as Cindy scrambled for a word stronger than 'no' and settled for a fierce shake of her head.

Confused and growing agitated, Claire didn't give the reporter a chance to elaborate. "Well, you're obviously thinking about it or you wouldn't have brought it up. Have you told Lindsay?"

"Not yet. I didn't want to make tonight any weirder," Cindy blurted. "No offense."

Claire frowned at first, then lifted the corner of her mouth in acknowledgment. "Hindsight being twenty-twenty, I can't disagree. Now that you've seen my poor judgment in action, I wouldn't blame you for rejecting my advice, but - "

"Never. Never, okay? I have faith in your good intentions and remain receptive to your wisdom."

Even as Cindy beamed at her with the earnest sincerity of a thousand Charlie Browns, Claire maintained an air of gravity. "Unless you plan to take the job, don't even tell her about it. If Lindsay thinks you're looking for a way out, believe me, she will help you find one."

Cindy kneeled beside Claire's chair; her fingers anxiously white-knuckled the armrest. "I'm not running out on her. I'm no quitter."

"Good." Claire squeezed one of the young woman's hands and lowered her voice, as if confiding a secret. "You've got her thinking it's okay to need you."

"Because it is," Cindy maintained. "I don't intend to leave San Francisco unless she comes with me."

Claire smiled and narrowed her eyes. "So you are thinking about this job."

"I… I don't know. Maybe just in the abstract sense, like how it means I'm being taken seriously." Cindy shrugged, turning bashful. "That's kind of a new feeling."

"Oh, sweetheart… listen. My entire family adores you, and one of the dearest friends I have ever known is head over heels for you. That's why I don't want you to go anywhere," Claire explained. "However, apart from my self-interest, know that I am very, very proud of you – that you deserve this - and that I love and support you no matter what you decide to do."

Cindy bit her lip and looked down, embarrassed by her transparent need for a little semi-parental approbation. She glanced up at Claire and flashed a squinty, cautious grin. "It's pretty cool, right?"

"No doubt. The Sentry's a big paper. And L.A. is - "


"Hmm." Claire smoothed a few stray red strands away from Cindy's crinkled brow. "How about we go inside and have some cocoa, talk about this some more?"

With no small amount of relief, Cindy agreed. They stood, and Claire looped an arm around Cindy's shoulders, giving her a little sideways hug. Something flickered in the doctor's sharp peripheral vision, some small movement interrupting the dim safety lights along her neighbor's front walk. Claire eased Cindy into the house, but stopped herself at the door and took a long, slow survey of the side yard.

"Something wrong?" Cindy inquired.

After a tight, quiet pause, Claire told herself she was seeing things. "Nothing new," she admitted, then went inside and locked the door.

Skeeter Litvak peeled himself off of the Guerrero Street tenement's grimy front steps and stuffed a nearly full bottle of booze into his coat pocket. "You look nice, Inspector," he said, as a lanky dark beauty swathed in black and dove gray approached. "Sorry if I broke up something good."

"Naah. You kinda did me a favor," Lindsay Boxer assured the man, one of her best (and oddest) street informants. "Just tell me you didn't pick up another severed head. I don't have the stomach for that tonight."

The curly-haired, sixty-ish homeless man turned toward the tenement building, a five-story eyesore now girded with scaffolding, plastic sheeting and Pelham Rehabilitation signs. He pointed at the steps leading down to a garden apartment. "I've been cooping down there on and off a couple weeks. Few nights ago, way over in the morning, I hear noises above. I sneak a look and there's a big guy, all covered up like a burglar, dragging stuff up and down the stairs. Heavy things, lots of thumping and bumping, so I bugged out. Place was empty tonight, so I go up and have a gander."

"Was one of these heavy things a corpse?" Lindsay hastened. "Because stolen construction equipment is not my bailiwick."

Skeeter, accustomed to her impatience, simply turned and mounted the steps. "No bodies. Much more weirder. You gotta see."

She looked up the street and saw no sign of Jacobi, who was still at least ten minutes away. This was probably a fool's errand, and Lindsay felt stupid for calling her partner in, but these were his new rules: always let me know where you are, and never go in alone. Technically, she rationalized, she wasn't alone – she had Skeeter. From the folds of her dark coat emerged a flashlight and a Beretta M9. Lindsay jerked her chin at the door. "Lead on."

He levered open a loose sheet of plywood near the padlocked entrance and they slipped silently inside. The dank, piss-stinking lobby was stripped of carpet and furnishings and it echoed like a lecture hall, magnifying their every step and breath. Lindsay shined light on the central staircase and urged Skeeter to pick up the pace. They crept up four creaking flights and emerged onto the broken checkerboard tiles of the third floor landing.

"Left. Last door," whispered Skeeter. Lindsay nodded and followed, keeping the light several paces ahead of his feet, sweeping her eyes sideways and listening keenly for the sounds of others. Skeeter kicked lightly at the unmarked apartment door; slowly, soundlessly, it swung open. In the threshold, Lindsay leaned close to the quiet hinges and sniffed, catching a strong whiff of WD40 spray lubricant. She adjusted her flashlight beam to cast a wider illumining circle. As she took in the odd array of items laid out neatly on the front room's peeling orange Linoleum, the skin on her forearms turned to gooseflesh.

"You told me to call about weird stuff. This what you meant?"

"Yes, indeed. Here, hold this." Lindsay handed over the flashlight, readied her phone camera, and flashed through a careful photographic inventory.

One Honda EU1000i portable generator. One red plastic gasoline jug, one-gallon size, apparently full. Four unmarked coiled electrical extension cords. One roll of flexible, copper-colored sheet metal, approximately four feet long. One thirty-yard bale of soft-metal barbed wire, wrapped in thick plastic. One pair boltcutters. One box steel tenpenny nails. One Black Rhino fiberglass hammer. Plastic bag containing a dozen screw thread eye bolts.

Lindsay already had a strong sense that Skeeter had stumbled onto something major, but she wasn't ready to name it… not until he led her into the oddly fragrant bathroom and lit up the tub.

"Lookit. Flowers," he said.

"Roses," Lindsay specified, staring into the multi-colored mass of mixed, torn petals, the scores of long-stems studded with ripping thorns. Something shiny caught her eye and she took the flashlight back, ducking down for a closer look at a smear of silver on the edge of the tub. Lindsay thought it smelled like motor oil, and a small thumbnail scrape revealed the consistency of axle grease between her fingertips. Again, she handed Skeeter the light and took a picture. Her phone vibrated just as she finished, and she answered on first buzz.


"I'm running late. Got stuck behind some - "

"Don't worry about it. Meet me at the diner, about three blocks up from here."

He sent a bullish snort through the phone. "You went in already, didn't you?"

"Spank me later, okay? Right now, I wanna give this building some breathing room."

Jacobi didn't question her further, just hung up angry and hit the gas. Lindsay's skin prickled from head to toe, stimulated by excitement and a healthy dose of fear. She smiled at Skeeter Litvak and decided to give him every bit of folding money she carried. "Let's get the hell out of here. You're staying in a motel tonight."

They left everything as they found it, and moused for the exit. Down on the street, as they walked toward Lindsay's Jeep, Skeeter's nerves got the better of him and he stopped to take a drink. The neck on his unmarked bottle was so slender, he had to tip it up high and suckle to get a decent swig.

"Dammit, Skeet! Cut that out!" Lindsay reached for the booze, and he jerked it away from her.

"I know it ain't good for me," he said, "but I don't feel right. Just gimme one more - "

Lindsay lunged at him with purpose and snatched the bottle from his grasp. The absence of labels intrigued her and she examined it by streetlight. The antique-looking, scrollworked bottle with the abnormally narrow neck was half-filled with tobacco-colored liquid and floating brown trash. "What did you put in here? Cigarillos?"

"I didn't put nothin'." Skeeter groaned pitifully and clutched at his stomach. "I don't feel right," he said again, and vomited proof all down the side of Lindsay's black duster.

She squeezed shut her eyes and tried not to flinch as Skeeter fell against her. He instinctively reached for the bottle and clumsily knocked it loose to shatter on the sidewalk. Lindsay nearly gagged as a sugary sick odor rose from the spilled mystery alcohol and combined with the lingering aroma of drunk puke. Everything's a trade-off, she thought, while kicking the glass aside and helping Skeeter stagger to her car.

Driving away from what she believed was a future crime scene, Lindsay opened the passenger window to let Skeeter hang his head in the breeze. When he threw up again, she saw blood on his mouth and her sympathy turned to alarm. She called Warren Jacobi and asked him to change course again for the Mission Cross North ER.

Then she took a pre-paid cell from the console and placed a second call - this one to the home of Georgia P. Folsom, Special Agent in Charge of the San Francisco FBI Field Office.

"Hey, it's me. Can I come by tonight? There's something I want to show you."

After examining the job issue from every conceivable angle, and downing a significant amount of cocoa, Claire drove Cindy to Lindsay's place and saw her safely through the front door before heading home. Upon entering the apartment, Cindy was immediately assailed by three unusual noises: the washing machine, the stereo (Pat Benatar rocking 'You Better Run' at middling volume), and Lindsay Boxer's scratchy, measured singing voice. Cindy carefully threw all the locks and lingered by the door, listening. For a cop, Lindsay didn't sound half bad.

Martha trotted up and sniffed at the plates of leftovers and dessert. "Sorry. Not for you, pretty girl." Cindy gave the frustrated pooch a scratch behind the ears and a Milk Bone, then set out to find the black-crested Bay Area warbler…

…who happened to be lounging in her clawfoot porcelain bathtub, submerged in bubbles and sipping a glass of Riesling. Much to the reporter's delight, she didn't clam up on discovery, rather pointed a sudsy finger at Cindy and spat the angry bridge lyrics in her direction – though Lindsay wisely backed down to harmony as Pat's crystalline high notes kicked in. After a bit of air guitar, the song blitzed to a halt and Lindsay leaned out of the tub and pressed STOP on the stereo remote. "Hiya," she said, flinging a dazzling smile at her one-woman audience. "You just missed 'Freebird.'"

"Somebody's in a shockingly good mood," Cindy observed. The bathroom felt sauna-steamy, so she doffed her favorite stripy sweater and leaned against the doorjamb in her snug, faded 49ers tee.

Lindsay's grin took a lascivious turn. "You want to see a good mood, keep undressing."

Tongue firmly tucked in cheek, Cindy pried off her shoes and socks and flashed a bit of ankle, prompting Lindsay's slow, sarcastic wolf-whistle. Cindy then noticed the showerhead was dripping, indicating the fastidious cop had cleaned up again before settling in the tub. "Two showers and a bath in one day. Is your OCD flaring up again?"

"I got barfed on by a 90-proof vagabond," Lindsay sedately explained.

"Whoa. Grody." Cindy wrinkled her nose in sympathy. "Sorry."

"Ehh. My coat took the brunt of it. It's soaking in a washer full of Woolite Dark." Lindsay drained her wineglass and set it on the floor near her towel-covered gun. "I think Skeeter binged too hard on somebody's homemade hooch - he was throwing up blood. I checked him in at the hospital, they're keeping him overnight."

The journalist scrunched out a quizzical frown. "And your merry disposition grows ever more puzzling."

"I have my reasons. C'mere." Lindsay crooked a finger and summoned her closer. Cindy eagerly approached and squatted beside the tub, near enough for Lindsay to lean out and press one wine-sweetened kiss onto her mouth. Cindy craned after her, seeking a bit more than a peck, but Lindsay forestalled the pursuit with a wet hand on her cheek and a whisper. "We may finally be a step ahead of that sonofabitch."

That sonofabitch, used in this context, could only mean one very specific person, so Cindy broadened the scope of her inquiry. "Huh?"

"Skeet found the next staging area - maybe. Folsom's setting up on it tonight."

For a few seconds, Cindy could do no more than gape like a fish tossed on the banks. "Holy frak."

"Yeah. Yeah, that's about right."

They stared at each other while their comprehension equalized, as Lindsay nodded and smiled and Cindy twinned her expression. For more than five years, the Kiss-Me-Not killer had murdered and threatened, had eluded all pursuers, and the hope that his capture could be imminent was cause enough for celebration, for singing and drinking - hell, for a midnight Maenad romp through Inverness woods, if you asked Cindy. Since leaving home just then was out of the question, she reached out and led Lindsay into the deep wilds of a probing, lucullan kiss.

The knowing sweep of tongues soon inspired fingers to wander, to grasp and tweak and pet until Lindsay, nearly fit to burst, broke it off. Ecstatic and starry-eyed, she lifted from the water and folded onto her knees. Her wet hands insistently tugged up Cindy's shirt and skimmed sticky-hot down her sides. "Take off your clothes. Now. Now."

An ardent lover on any given Wednesday, Cindy had a knack for upping her game when the stakes climbed; she stood, whipped off her tee and unsnapped her brassiere in the space of a heartbeat. Lindsay, no slouch herself, worked open the button fly on tight jeans, tugging down pants and panties in one clean sweep. Long arms encircled Cindy's hips and pulled her knees against the tub's edge, her breast into Lindsay's grasping mouth. Lips and tongue suckled roughly and tripped down her skin, moving lower until humid breath rushed through her curls. Cindy's eyelids slammed shut. It took every bit of restraint she could muster to push Lindsay away, even for the five seconds it took to step out of her pants and into the tub.

She sank into the water and laid fully onto Lindsay, who wrapped her tight with legs and arms and kissed her desperately hard. Cindy raised her hips to create a fissure of space inside the smooth crush of their bodies, tucked her hand through and slid low to cup her lover's sex. Lindsay flexed into her palm, lush and urgent, wet as oceans.

Cindy asked, "What do you need?"

"You. Anything," Lindsay pleaded, kissing her still. "Just hurry."

With her hand's range of movement restricted by position, Cindy worked with what she had. Her fingers formed a pinching scissor along the stiff, nervy clitoral shaft, and she introduced a circular rhythmic pressure by rolling her shoulder, building steadily by flexing the bunched muscles of upper arm. Lindsay twisted her legs, canting her pelvis further into the needful touch. They moved well together, and easily; like every time since the first time, they found a cadence and fell into natural lockstep. Quick or slow, tender or tough, it didn't seem to matter. Real sexual simpatico doesn't discriminate between making sweet love down by the fire and a solid, fast fuck in the bath.

Short minutes later, Lindsay's head lolled backward, and her breath dwindled to tiny, irregular bursts. Cindy felt her tensing, twitching, knew she was close and so sped her efforts, working with burning triceps until their hidden, feral shakings churned the bathwater like an outboard motor.

When she came, Lindsay didn't flag her peak with a scream, merely went rigid and slowly relaxed under a thick, strangled groan - an utterance of profound relief that left Cindy feeling oddly satisfied herself. She slowed her motion to an easy vertical stroke, felt the prickles of lactic acid stinging her muscles, and soothed the ache by moving her fingers lower. The silky tremble of the one she loved, melting gently around her touch, was worth more than a little pain. She lifted up and stole a kiss, then another, content to hover and taste Lindsay's tranquil smile while the woman roused again.

Damp tendrils of ginger hair canopied their faces until gathered and swept back, leaving her cheek bared to Lindsay's straying, lazy kisses, her ear open to an unexpected question.

"When does your apartment lease expire?"

The corners of Cindy's mouth twitched happily. "End of next month."

Shortly, Lindsay's chest swelled with a fortifying breath. "You don't have to renew. If you don't want to."

"I don't want to," Cindy said straight away, the words neatly by-passing her brain. She pulled back, saw Lindsay's uncertainty, and clarified her response. "Renew, I mean. I don't want to renew. I'm good with lapsing."

Lindsay finally exhaled, and her face visibly relaxed. "The attic makes a good office," she said, hoping it was nearly time to dismantle the secret shrine to her greatest professional failing and make way for more a productive workspace. "Needs a cleaning, though."

"I can help with that," Cindy cheerily offered. "We can knock it out in a weekend."

"Thanks, but… I need to do it myself." Lindsay took Cindy's hand and held it to her breast. "When everything's cleared away, you should take a hard look, make sure you really want this."

Cindy squinted into the conversational horizon and saw where talk of co-habitation could easily bleed into discussion of further commitment, but she didn't follow up. They were both pretty emotional, with good reason, and she didn't want this nervy leap forward tainted by some sort of Catch-22 misunderstanding about jobs and futures. "I don't do second thoughts," she said offhandedly. "You've sealed your fate, sucker. This time next month, you'll be neck-deep in Star Wars crap and back issues of Harper's."

Lindsay tipped her head back and laughed, quite unaware that the hoarder-slash-reporter wasn't joking. Cindy took advantage of her lover's ignorant mirth by scattering sloppy kisses down neck and chest, then suddenly boosting up onto her feet. She reached for a towel and blotted her hair while Lindsay ran fingernails up the backs of her thighs, muttering something about reciprocation. Cindy reluctantly slapped her hands away and disembarked the tub. "Dry off and meet me in bed. We'll work something out."

"Aww, come on." Lindsay splashed around and flicked suds at her spoilsport girlfriend. "The water's still hot."

"True, but, in your bed - in addition to the easy, nice-smelling Irish girl who loves you - there will be pineapple cake," Cindy revealed. She tossed her t-shirt at Lindsay's face, where it stubbornly hugged on like a cotton-blend alien. "Don't dawdle."

Lindsay inhaled deeply before peeling the shirt away, lingering in one of those world-at-bay moments where her life was all good wine and better sex and the promise of cake. There was indeed a light at the end of the tunnel, and Lindsay Boxer was sick to death of laying on the tracks, waiting for the impact of a train. Kiss-Me-Not was nearing the end of the line, and it was almost safe enough to make plans for the future, plans she'd been delaying forever. She draped Cindy's shirt over the shower curtain rod, picked up her gun and towel, and headed straight for bed, trailing bathwater and soap bubbles across the floor and not giving a good goddamn.

Tom called her upstairs to his office first thing the following morning. He was unshaven and looked as though he hadn't slept. Lindsay braced herself for an awkward wade into make-nice conversation, but Tom jumped right for the deep end.

"Heather didn't come home last night, and the school says she didn't show up for work this morning." He stiffened his jaw, rubbed his bloodshot eyes. "I think she left me."

"What?" Lindsay couldn't imagine it, even after factoring in Cindy's blow-by-blow recap of their post-dinner scrap. "I believe you're jumping the gun, here."

"I just talked to her mother. She said Heather called last night from some hotel, crying, saying she didn't know who I was anymore, that I lied to her and - "

"Tom, stop." Lindsay took him by the shoulders and nearly shook him. She wanted to be supportive, but preferred to remain ignorant regarding certain details of her ex-husband's marriage. "Trying to have a baby is a big deal. If they're shooting her up with hormones, Heather is chemically altered, stressed out and probably scared, but she's a good person and she loves you. Let her get it together. Then she'll come home."

He looked away, finding that Lindsay's compassion only made him feel guilty. He cleared his throat and backed away, edging behind his desk. "Pregnancy would be dangerous for her. The doctors all said so, but she won't listen. She actually had a living will drawn up, so if something happened, I wouldn't have to choose between her and the baby."

This was news to Lindsay, though Heather's determination was hardly a surprise. "I guess she believes it's worth the risk."

"I know, but the thought of losing her… it scares the shit out of me," Tom confided. "Maybe she's right, that I'm backing out on some of the promises I made. God knows, I've done it before."

Lindsay wished for a phone call, a knock at the door, an earthquake – anything to halt this conversation. They'd been doing so well not talking about their break-up. "That was different. I did everything but pack your suitcases."

"No, Linz, not on purpose. Thing is, I knew I was losing you. The way you vanished into that case – it made me think you were never really there. Still, I shouldn't have walked out," he said, staring holes into his desk. "We had something good and I should have fought for it. I won't make that mistake again."

A year ago, maybe even six months ago, Tom's words would have evoked a nostalgic agony in Lindsay, triggered a deafening chorus of what-ifs, but no more. As time passed and she learned how to solidly inhabit her own life, rehashing history had lost its lure. "Tell you what," she began, intending to exit the confessional as gracefully as possible, "if she hasn't called by this afternoon, I'll help you look for her, on the QT."

"Yeah. Okay." Finally, Tom met her eyes, and it didn't hurt nearly so much as he'd feared. "Thanks."

"We won't need to look, though." Lindsay backed through the door, cracking an optimistic grin. "She'll turn up."

The phone calls Lindsay prayed for in Lieutenant Hogan's office started coming before she even reached the bottom of the squad room stairs. The first was good and fairly tidy: her friend, ADA Jill Bernhardt, called to confirm a lunch meeting at her office. The second was neutral and more complicated: SAIC Georgia Folsom rang the inspector's disposable phone to inform her of 'no substantive activity' at the Guerrero Street tenement.

"We have surveillance, live in front and a static camera on the alley. Should he show, we'll send backup and box him in," the career fed explained, still sounding as cool and formal as at their first meeting two weeks before, that clear morning when Lindsay Boxer showed up unannounced at Georgia Folsom's office and laid out her concerns regarding the Kiss-Me-Not case – more specifically, concerns about the FBI agent assigned to investigate those murders, John Ashe. Folsom listened, found merit in the inspector's suspicions, and agreed to conduct a private inquiry.

That inquiry had progressed from a perusal of Ashe's personnel file to careful reviews of his casework, then on to troubling interviews with his D.C. supervisors and a college girlfriend turned restraining order petitioner. Although Ashe's vacations and west coast work trips loosely lined up with the three previous murders, the link was purely circumstantial – but worth pursuing. Within ten days, the low-key examination had grown to a two agent mini task force devoted to discovering whether one of their own could be responsible for three ritualistic murders and, possibly, the death last month of Hollywood actress Griffin Paar – an alleged murderer herself.

Alleged because Paar gave only a sketchy confession to a bound and unwell (drugged) Lindsay Boxer while preparing to kill her. John Ashe, the last person to see Paar alive, claimed she spoke not a word before feigning illness to escape him and leaping from the eighth floor of a parking tower. No evidence linked Paar to any open cases, therefore, no allegations regarding her crimes were made public. Paar's past remained under clandestine investigation by several law enforcement entities across the country, but until they were ready to make an official statement, everyone involved remained under a gag order.

Lindsay never fully bought Agent Ashe's story, and the more she thought about it, the more it worried her. Griffin Paar was an egoist who admittedly craved the discovery of her true, homicidal self; the idea that she would commit suicide with her dream so close at hand was, to Lindsay, absurd. Her unease grew after returning from a week in Hawaii to find Ashe trailing her closer than ever, calling periodically to 'make sure she was safe,' and finding excuses to drop by at all hours to discuss his complete and total lack of progress in the Kiss-Me-Not case. She confronted him, nearly accused him of stalking, and he backed off… somewhat. He parked a little further down the street, called only with valid excuses, and the unwelcome visits diminished.

Even so, Lindsay remembered Griffin Paar's words – "Monsters pass for normal, trustworthy people everyday" - and couldn't shake the feeling that they might apply to John Ashe. After discussions with Cindy, Claire, Jill and Jacobi, she found herself in Folsom's office, laying out a murder case against a federal agent. Now, two weeks in and close to a breakthrough, Lindsay was certain she'd done the right thing.

"What do you need from me?" she asked Agent Folsom, like always.

"You're doing fine. As far as he's concerned, nothing has changed, so keep to the median. Ashe doesn't always follow you, but when he does, rest assured that we're following him," Folsom promised. "As of last night, I have eyes on him full time."

"You brought in a third agent?"

"A temporary reassignment, working off-book like the others. There's still no direct link I can use to make this official, so if we don't smoke him out quickly, my spit-and-bubblegum detail falls apart."

"He must be planning something soon," Lindsay opined. "All that equipment. The flowers."

"I pulled Pelham Rehab's permits. They're starting interior demo on that tenement in three days, so I agree, he's on the verge." Folsom's crisp voice took on a darker, heavier timbre. "We are watching John Ashe, and we'll stay on the Guerrero site. One way or the other, this will end soon."

"From your lips," said Lindsay, just as Georgia Folsom clicked off. The woman never said goodbye.

The third call was straight-up bad news: ER doctor Luke Bowen phoned from Mission Cross to inform her of the death of Stepan "Skeeter" Litvak.

"We thought alcohol poisoning at first, then he started convulsing and he couldn't breathe. We used activated charcoal, trying to soak up whatever was in his system," Luke explained. "For a while there, he improved, started breathing better. A couple of hours later, the convulsions started again – much worse – and his heart gave out."

Lindsay propped her elbows on her desk and released a heavy sigh. Across from her, Warren Jacobi lifted curious brows. She nodded, a promise of forthcoming explanation, and he silently resumed his paperwork. "If it wasn't alcohol poisoning, then what?"

"You'd need blood tests and an autopsy to be certain, but the symptoms read like strychnine exposure," said Luke. "Maybe from dumpster food contaminated with rat poison."

"Skeeter didn't eat trash – he went to shelters for food." But not for booze, she thought, recalling the polluted bottle he was nursing. Although she couldn't see its importance last night, Lindsay kicked herself for not picking up the shattered glass and saving it. By now, even if the street crews hadn't swept it away, the evidentiary chain of custody was completely broken. "Luke, will you do a blood test and get back to me if you find something? I don't want him cut up if it's not necessary."

"I already put in the lab order. Did he have any family that we should notify?"

"No," Lindsay recalled, "he said they passed a long time back."

"I kind of figured that. Your card was the only thing in his wallet." Luke paused then, with the next question stuck in his throat. "So, are you guys doing okay at the Hall?"

Lindsay understood when he said 'you guys,' he really meant his old flame, Jill Bernhardt. Although they split several months earlier over Jill's indiscretion with unctuous Public Defender Hanson North, it seemed nice guy Luke still held a few warm feelings for the blonde attorney. Lindsay understood that, too; Jill was easier to forgive than forget. "Not bad, all things considered," she answered. "You should drop by sometime. Bring a chai latte."

He snorted a quick laugh, recognizing Jill's coffee order. "We're so short-staffed these days, I practically live in the on-call room. But I'll, uh… I'll think about it. And I'm sorry about your friend. I'll call when I get his blood work. Take care, Lindsay."

"You too, doc. Thanks."

Jacobi gave her a few seconds, then cleared his throat. "Skeeter cashed out?"

"Mmm-hmm." Lindsay had known this day was coming. Homeless binge drinkers don't often survive to retirement age, but the idea that someone may have hurried Skeeter's death made it all the worse. "He had a bottle last night, unmarked, thin neck. It busted on the sidewalk and the booze reeked like syrup. Isn't strychnine supposed to taste sweet?"

"If I recall correctly," Jacobi concurred. "You think our friend knew Skeeter was lurking around and left out a mickey to shut him up?"

"It makes sense. If that neck had been a little wider, Skeet might have sucked down enough to get sick before he called me." She made a fist and tapped it against her mouth. "Christ. Even when we think he's hamstrung, the bastard still manages to kill people."

"Don't get drawn in too far - we don't know for sure. Meanwhile, we need witness statements from twenty-two frat boys in the Coolbaugh shooting." Jacobi slid a folder across their partnered desks. "Here's your half. Make some calls, and slather on that Texas accent. That always gets the young fools talking."

Lindsay sneered at the underhanded suggestion, but picked up the phone and got to dialing, grateful for the distraction of genuine, boring policework. "Fiddle dee-dee. Tomorrah is anothah day…"

Jacobi glared disapproval of her cloying Scarlett impression. "I said Texas, not Georgia."

"Are you gonna eat that pickle?" Jill asked through a mouthful of turkey sub. "If not, send it my way."

Fascinated by the unusual show of appetite, Lindsay dropped the dill spear onto her friend's deli wrapper, already laden with chip crumbs, the doomed second half of a foot-long sandwich, and an empty cup of white bean soup . "I think 'Reggie' is a good name."

Jill stopped chewing. "Fo' pickle?"

"For your tapeworm," said Lindsay. "I've seen farmboys eat slower."

"I can eat slow when it counts." Jill winked and took a sip of water. "Right now, I need the calories. My metabolism is friggin' turbocharged today."

"Ahh. Is that why you didn't come to Claire's last night – somebody give you a tune-up?"

"Crude," Jill accused, then thought better of it. "Yet accurate. I am a proponent of regular maintenance, as you well know."

Lindsay snickered into her lemonade.

"That's not why I didn't show, though," Jill continued. "It was a couples dinner and I am not a couple. I mean, being the third wheel is nothing new, but I refuse to play seventh wheel. That's nearly two and a half times more pathetic."

"Baloney. You could have gone stag, or brought your new mechanic."

After a moment's thought, Jill shook off that suggestion. "No. It's not even like that. Vertical dating is a non-starter."

"Why?" Lindsay asked, strenuously projecting innocence and non-judgment.

"Oh, you think you're so smart, with your little twinkling eyes and your open questions," Jill grumbled. "I'm not telling you anything else because there's no more else. I'm out of else." She picked at her sandwich, set it aside and crunched down on the dill spear. "I fully expect to get dumped tonight, anyway."

Lindsay couldn't tell whether Jill was resigned or relieved at the prospect, so she moved on to a steadier, more shopworn topic. "Well, just so you know - when Luke called about Skeeter, he also asked about you. Again."

The lawyer waved an index finger in warning. "Don't. Just don't. I can't hope for that anymore."

"But – "

"No buts. Even if Luke is lonely and having second thoughts, he'll never trust me again. It won't be like it was before." Jill slumped in her desk chair. "All the other good ones are married, or gay. Or half-gay and moving in with redheaded sex maniacs." Lindsay blushed, and Jill managed a mostly happy smile. "Does Cindy have a sister? Brother? Weird uncle who raises minks?"

"Sorry," said Lindsay, with genuine regret. "Thomases are kinda thin on the ground."

"Naturally. You know, I just want somebody to be crazy about me without literally being crazy. That's not too much to ask." Jill wracked her brain for possibilities and found those rather thin as well. Twelve to fourteen hour workdays meant a limited menu of contacts, most of them crooks or public servants or both, though factoring in another degree of separation would broaden the board of fare. "Hey - how about FBI Lady?"

Lindsay, who was crunching lemony ice chips, nearly choked. She rapped hard on her chest and wheezed out the name, "Folsom?"

"Yeah. What's her deal?"

"I have no idea," Lindsay moaned. "I don't want an idea."

Jill pitched a screwball eye roll. "Is she too old for me? Does she wear a ring? Did you see pictures of husbands or partners or kids?"

The inspector rolled her eyes right back, but searched through her memory of the fed's spartan quarters, both work and home. "No, on all counts."

"Goody. So, what does she look like? Give me some point of reference."

She hesitated; Lindsay didn't want to encourage Jill's odd tangent, but neither would she lie to her. "Angela Bassett, maybe."

"Ha! Now we're cooking with gas!" Jill shook her fist and tallied up the pros on her fingers. "Compatible job, sane, single, and hot. Tell her if she catches our friend before spring, I'll take her to Whistler for a ski weekend. She can leave her skis at home."

"I'm not telling her that." Lindsay sounded resolute until Jill's darling pout compelled her to expound more kindly. "Partly because she's got work to do, and the thought of you drinking brandy on a bearskin rug could've made Eliot Ness forget about Capone."

"Aww." Jill blew her a dilly kiss for the flattery.

"And partly because a thumbs-up from me won't get you too far. Georgia Folsom already knows I ride the short bus."

"Shut-up. You're not stupid, you idiot," Jill grumped. "If she thinks so, she can kiss that ski trip goodbye."

"Five years of nothing on a serial case, three months with him shadowing me, Griffin Paar nearly punching my ticket without a fight… she's got cause."

The prosecutor opened her mouth, but muted her rebuttal as Lindsay's legit cell lit up and buzzed atop the desk. They both saw the caller ID readout: J. ASHE, in stark black letters. "Speak of the devil," said Jill.

Lindsay answered the call and fell quiet, listening intently for nearly a minute. Her healthy complexion, still bearing trace evidence of a Hana suntan, paled several shades. "Yeah, I heard you – third floor. I'll be there." She clicked off and stared out Jill's window, toward the azure March sky struck through with clean white clouds. It seemed especially wrong to Lindsay that anyone should crave horror on such a beautiful day. Her voice, when it came, was the rustle of dry leaves. "A sculptor in the Richmond swung by his studio for a lunchtime showing and found a dead body. Unidentified white female, posed naked. Mouth sewn shut."

Jill's blue eyes darkened with fear; she gave a tight nod. "Get Warren and go. I'll tell the girls."

Claire Washburn held the phone for a long time after Jill hung up. There really wasn't much she could do; the FBI had their own medical examiner, and their forensics team would process the crime scene. Lindsay and Jacobi wouldn't call with any details for perhaps another half-hour, maybe more. Just then, there really wasn't anything Claire could do, and that made it all so, so much worse. She felt feverish and hostile. She decided to take a walk. It was either that, or go scream in the freezer.

On her way out of the morgue, Claire slammed the heel of her hand against a metal filing cabinet.

Her assistant, the muscular Brazilian whose name was pronounced Howph, examined the cabinet's new, deep divot. Ralph Almeida, who had once snapped a man's femur in a Jiu-Jitsu match, decided right then and there to never, ever fuck with his boss.

Since Tony Kipp was the west coast head of publishing for a media conglomerate and Cindy Thomas was, in comparison, lint in his pocket, he chose the place for their schmoozathon, come-work-for-the-Sentry lunch meeting. He picked Zuma, the four-star restaurant where, one month earlier, Cindy's taller half was ambushed and nearly done in by a psychotic blonde ingénue.

Cindy presciently deemed this a bad omen. When her phone rang as they were seated, Kipp and the maître d' gave her the stink-eye. When she recognized Jill's office extension, answered, and shortly told Tony Kipp she needed to leave because Kiss-Me-Not had killed again - well, that was pretty much the end of the courtship.

"You know, this situation is not unique," Kipp ventured. "There are plenty of lunatics in Los Angeles."

"Yeah, but none of them asked me to move in," Cindy added, well under her breath.

"How's that?"

"Nothing. Mr. Kipp, thank you very much for the opportunity, but – honestly – this is my town." Cindy gathered her things and stood up. "This is my story. I need to see how it ends."

Tony Kipp had dealt with reporters for nearly twenty years, and he understood they sometimes formed intense attachments to certain cities, telling the stories and working the sources until that posting became home. He nodded at the promising young journalist, shook her hand, and watched as she walked away without looking back. He ordered a double Jameson, neat, and some lobster bisque, then erased Cindy Thomas from his iPhone. It would be quite a while before Edison Media called on her again, though Kipp didn't honestly believe she would care. He knew a lifer when he saw one.

SFPD barricades blocked Ninth Avenue between Anza and Balboa, keeping the growing crowds of onlookers and media away from the building entrance. Lindsay and Jacobi met Agent John Ashe in the rear parking lot and accompanied him into the freight elevator, where they stood rather pointedly side by side, and well behind him. On the ride up, no one spoke but Ashe, who stared rigidly ahead.

"The tenant, an artist named Willy To, returned this morning from a week in Mexico. The killer didn't find this empty loft by accident, but To says only friends and family knew he was gone. We're assembling a list for interviews. The forensics team are working right now, so I'll need you to hang back for a few. Okay?"

The elevator stopped and Ashe reached for the canvas strap to raise the door. He turned slightly, tried to catch Lindsay's downcast eyes. "Okay?" he repeated.

"We understand," said Warren Jacobi. "Open the door."

Ashe regarded them strangely, as if offended, then went ahead. The inspectors surveyed the wide, bright loft space then looked to each other. Both were nonplussed; it was as if they had entered some sort of alien greenhouse. Willy To worked in sculpture and mixed media, and his current passion was the creation of metal and glass flora, both great and small. Fragile - yet razor sharp - peonies and hyacinth flashed on tables, their leaves glossy with sun from open skylights. There were ten-foot palms with welded trunks and prismatic fronds, and bamboo trees with shimmering green glass armor. Similar gardens and groves covered nearly all of To's workspace, but these copulations of the scientific and the organic held no allure for Lindsay Boxer.

In To's bedroom, behind a caster-mounted moveable display wall, cameras flashed and low voices chanted direction. Lindsay stepped away from her partner, still gorging his eyes on the otherworldly modern art, and got closer to the action. Evidence techs pulled fingerprints from To's bureau and night table, and Lindsay longed to shout that it was pointless. They ran a vacuum over the rugs, and she bit her jaw. Jacobi approached and laid a hand on her shoulder, tense as petrified oak.

"I can't stand this." Lindsay moved in, peered around the wall just as two men pulled a thick, striped horse blanket off the bed, revealing yet another dead woman. Naked and pale, posed on her back with arms spread wide, her face distorted and blue, lips marred by thick stitches. Something shiny glinted in one hand, then departing agents passed between, and Lindsay couldn't see more.

"Mr. To covered her with the blanket," said Ashe, coming around the wall. "He found it by the foot of the bed, sort of cast off, discarded. There's a glass flower in her right hand – a blue crocus – and an empty willow cradle by the window. She's twelve hours dead, at most." He drew a slow breath and motioned them forward. "I would have called you, regardless, but… once I realized… I just thought you'd want to see. I haven't told anyone yet."

Lindsay snarled at him as they entered the bedroom, "Haven't told anyone what?" And then she saw the dead woman up close. The honey-blonde hair, the smile lines around closed eyes she knew to be bright blue. The empty, whiter span of skin on Heather Hogan's left ring finger, where her wedding band should be.

"Dear Lord." Jacobi stayed close, but faced away. With one careful look, he had seen enough.

Beside him, Lindsay stared on, blankly at first, then thinking of offenses and apologies, of kindergartners and cookies, of bathroom stall confessions, and how that's all there would ever be. Heather, who only wanted a love of her own and a child and a future - but was willing to risk all and fight hard for these simple things - was dead. Not in a delivery room, trying to make her dream of motherhood a reality, but murdered by someone who degraded and terrified her for sport, who mutilated and sealed her ready smile. She was over, gone, and it was too soon and it was never right for anyone to die like that, not ever.

Lindsay's sorrow built toward dread and on to anger. Anger then, and even hatred, going nowhere, round and round for years with no end and no exit - until she looked at the back of John Ashe's head and it suddenly made perfect sense to reach for her gun.

Only Jacobi's iron grip on her wrist kept her from drawing. "Lindsay, this isn't our case," he said. "We're leaving. We have to tell Tom."

Ashe turned toward them and wavered, apparently unsettled by Lindsay's distress. His nervous hands extended toward her as if on strings, then haltingly retreated to his waist. "I could handle that for you. It might be easier for everyone."

"No." Lindsay didn't speak so much as grunt. She couldn't look at him, or Heather's cold, naked body. She focused on the glass flower, the blue crocus, and found she didn't care what it signified. The parable, the lesson, the why of this murder meant nothing just then; the mere fact of it was bad enough. "It should come from us."

"Well... please give the Lieutenant my condolences, and my sincere apologies."

That was a little too much to take. Lindsay yanked her arm away from Jacobi and got up in Ashe's face. "Just what do you have to be sorry for? You're doing top-notch work here." She wanted and needed to point at the bed, to let him know that she knew… only she didn't really know.

He didn't back away, and he didn't engage. Ashe looked around the room, evading her nailhead eyes. "Mrs. Hogan wasn't considered a likely target."

"Likely target?" Lindsay stepped back and opened her arms. "I'm right here. What kinda coward threatens a cop, then kills a schoolteacher? I'm right fucking here!"

"Thank you, Agent." Jacobi took his partner by the arm and nearly yanked her off her feet - they were leaving whether Boxer was ready or not. Enough damage had been done today. "Please keep us apprised."

They departed quickly and didn't speak on the way down. In the car, in the quiet, they cooled and came solid again.

"I don't understand. Folsom told me they had him last night." Lindsay spoke calmly, as if she hadn't nearly shot an FBI agent five minutes before.

"Slim coverage. He could have slipped it. Maybe he knows they're watching." Jacobi paused, stilled the keys swinging below the ignition. "Or maybe it's not him."

"If it isn't him, then how do we stop this?" Lindsay asked the only man she invariably trusted. "If there's a way, anything at all… "

Jacobi had no answers, no anodyne counsel. Police solved cases with physical and circumstantial evidence, with witness statements and, ideally, confessions. He knew Lindsay had looked at this from every angle, in every light, 'til it drove her half-blind. The straining was for naught; this killer left only sick tableaus devoid of practical clues, murdering in a storybook vacuum. Until Kiss-Me-Not decided to show them something, there was simply nothing to see.

Sitting there delaying their only clear task wouldn't make the news kinder, or the telling easier. He started the car and headed back to the Hall.

In the press line, Cindy Thomas jotted down notes. Some were relevant to her article, like details of the street and the loft building, the names of officers and EMTs on scene (for future interviews), and some were more relevant to the investigation, like descriptions of odd or familiar faces in the spectating crowd, license plate numbers of cars parked in the area, and so on. Even though she scarcely needed the notebook, being graced with near-perfect recall, she knew that memories were not facts, and nothing could legitimize a memory like careful, concise note taking.

After writing for the third time Ofc. Cho watching me, she moved clear of the crowd, waved over the young uniformed officer and asked him why.

"Inspector Boxer radioed a few minutes ago and said that if I let you out of my sight, she would, umm…"


"Throw my punk ass off the bridge," Cho mumbled. "Since I can't fly, or swim, I'm your new shadow."

Cindy half expected something like this. She imagined that, across town at the Hall, Jill Bernhardt and Claire Washburn were getting similar treatment - hovering, armed Boxer-proxies to prevent Kiss-Me-Not from doubling down. "Are these official orders?"

"Official enough for now. She's clearing it with Captain Rand."

Not Lieutenant Hogan, Cindy thought, knowing that meant Tom was either out of the loop, or cinched in the middle. "Off the record. Have you heard anything about the victim?"

"No ID yet. The first guy on scene, that new kid from Bakersfield? He said she was young, pretty, with long blonde hair. Then the feds swooped in and dragged him off before he could say more," Cho recalled. "So this is Kiss-Me-Not, for sure?"

Despite a nagging sense of dismay regarding the victim's description, Cindy found his question amusing. "You're asking me."

He shrugged. "I figured if Boxer knew, you'd know, since you guys are... you know."

"Nuh-unh. It doesn't work like that," Cindy corrected, still a little tetchy over how nosy the SFPD was about Lindsay Boxer's social life. She saw a flash of red over Cho's shoulder and craned her head around just in time to see an ambulance creeping through the barricade, followed by the dark Ford Crown Victoria of Agent John Ashe. "So much for an on-scene statement. Listen, I need to get cracking, and today my schedule includes committing a few misdemeanors."

Cho looked lost, and not a little alarmed. "What should I do?"

"Since you're my shadow, I guess you should come with." Cindy gave him a wink and started walking. "Being seen with the man might cramp my style, so you'll have to wait outside."

"Not too far outside." Cho glanced back to make certain another officer had taken his place, then jogged after her. "Where we going?"

"The beautiful downtown offices of Pelham Rehabilitation."

"For what?"

Cindy looked him up and down, and decided to play it honest. "Undercover journalism. I intend to tell some big, fat lies in order to obtain information that may or may not prove relevant to this story."

"If it helps your story, could it maybe help solve this case?" he asked, hopping a bit from excitement.

She gave him a sidewinding smirk. "I didn't say that. I'm a reporter, not a cop."

Cho didn't completely buy that. Cindy Thomas had a knack for looking innocent and guilty at the same time. "You're onto something. I can help."

"Nope. You can't."

"Yes, I can! If the uniform's a problem, I've got some civvies back in my patrol unit. You can say I'm your - "

"No, no, young Padawan," Cindy chastised. "I don't want you getting in trouble. You must resist the lure of the dark side."

His eyes went all wide and shiny; Michael Cho had a serious weakness for bold, cute girls who liked Star Wars. So, apparently, did Inspector Boxer. In light of this new information, her bridge-tossing threat seemed almost justifiable.

By sundown, everyone in the Hall knew Heather Hogan was dead. Word spread fast after the Lieutenant destroyed his office, after Boxer and Jacobi left to take the broken man home. Even the janitor sweeping shattered glass from the squad room stairs knew, and called his own wife to commiserate. It's just terrible, he said. I'll be here all night cleaning this up.

Jill Bernhardt sat in the medical examiner's office, sipping coffee and waiting for Claire Washburn to finish some paperwork. Their armed escorts, Officers Rankin and Bass, waited within earshot of the morgue doors. She tried Lindsay's cell again and got routed straight to voicemail.

"I don't understand why she hasn't called me back." Jill sounded irate. Claire decided to hear it as 'worried' instead.

"Jacobi said she didn't want to leave Tom alone, so leave her alone. She's probably trying to keep him busy."

In theory, that seemed kind and protective. In reality, Jill felt it was a bad choice. If Tom, in blind grief, reached out to ease the pain, would Lindsay's outsized sense of responsibility and guilt allow her to reject him? "That's what I'm afraid of," she confessed.

Claire raised her brows and her glasses slipped halfway down her nose. She gave Jill a rather prim stare. "Are you always thinking about sex?"

"It wouldn't even be about sex, and you know it!"

"Don't tell me what I know. And don't try to predict how Tom or Lindsay will deal with this."

"As a friend, I'm thinking about potential repercussions and how best to minimize them, thank you," Jill sourly explained. "Providing we all survive this nightmare intact, Lindsay will carve herself up for years if she loses Cindy."

"Not gonna happen," said Cindy Thomas, breezing into the office and throwing eye-daggers at Claire. "Cindy didn't take the L.A. job – the one she told Claire about in confidence."

"What L.A. job?" Jill flicked her attention from one woman to the other. "Are you looking to leave town?"

It took a second for Cindy to grasp the misunderstanding. She shifted her feet, softly laid her bag and a sheaf of files on Claire's couch. "You weren't talking about the job."

"The one Cindy told Claire about in confidence? No," Claire sharply noted. She moved on quickly, before Cindy could ask what they were talking about. "So you turned him down, officially."

"I did. At lunch. Right after Jill called. I went to the scene for a while, then left to raid Pelham Rehab."

"Turned who down officially?" Jill persisted. "Raided what?"

"It was way, way too easy. The turn-down more than the raid – Mr. Kipp was really nice," Cindy continued. "I'm sorry for assuming you squealed."

"Would someone please answer me?"

Claire waved a hand of grace at the young reporter. "Today, I forgive all petty offenses. I'm just glad you're here and safe."

"Fine. Ignore me." Jill stood and dramatically twirled her coat over her shoulders. "Keep discussing your secret Dharma Initiative job raid whatevers. I'm going home."

That got their attention, and both Claire and Cindy proceeded to state the obvious, that it wasn't safe for any of them to be alone tonight. "You could stay with us," Cindy offered, "if you don't mind the couch."

"Last time I tried to sleep on that couch, we all wound up in bed together and, frankly, I don't need that particular confusion right now. I'll just pack a few things and have Officer Bass drive me to Claire's," Jill reasonably countered. "Is your guest room still available?"

Claire nodded. "For as long as you want."

"Good deal. See you in a bit."

"Be quick."

"Be careful."

Jill smiled at her friends, giving a little wave as she backed through the morgue double doors. "Love you guys."

"We love you too, sweetie." As the doors snicked shut, Claire said to Cindy Thomas: "Three in a bed, huh?"

Despite the fact that nothing nakey happened on that winter night, when Kiss-Me-Not's yuletide threat compressed the three women into a warm, anxious knot, Cindy colored and shrugged. "It was Christmas," she said, like that explained everything.

"Quite a gift, Cindy Claus." Grinning, Claire signed another form and shook her cramping wrist. "I didn't think Lindsay was that good last year."

"Claire!" the redhead squeaked, blushing brighter still. "God! It so wasn't like that!"

In the hallway, Officers Rankin and Cho heard sounds of merriment from inside the morgue and looked to each other, one amused, one puzzled. The Lieutenant's wife was dead, Washburn and Thomas were under guard because of threats from the same serial killer… and they were laughing?

"Is it a woman thing?" young Cho asked Stella Rankin, a handsome, thirty-ish member of the distaff set.

Rankin shook her head at the kid. "It's a sanity thing."

At dusk, Lindsay Boxer gasped herself awake. She opened her eyes and felt an awful flash of panic, unsure where she was. The dark room and the too-soft mattress were strange; the presence of Tom Hogan, passed out and breathing shallow beside her, was too familiar. The notion of time slipping five years backward might have played, had everything not felt so scraped and raw, so deathly wrong. She raised up and her head did an ugly, emotional hangover swim. Her legs eased over the bed's edge and she tiptoed away.

The Hogan house was quiet, empty, and so foreign to her that she couldn't find a bathroom. She went to the kitchen instead and splashed cold water over her face, rinsed her sour, swollen mouth. Dim light from the range hood gave up a few details, like granite counters and stainless steel appliances, all the mod cons for the modern homemaker. In the refrigerator, she found a bottle of orange juice and drank greedily with the door open. The cold air and brighter light braced her further awake. When she noticed the family photos and the drawings by Heather's adoring students, magnet-pinned to the freezer door, she looked guiltily away, looked higher.

And saw the bottles. At first, the fact of them did not register and her eyes simply bounced off, like they couldn't gain purchase. Second time, she tried harder and they became real. Plump bottles filled with floating lemon circles and svelte ones packed with cayenne peppers lined the front row, with less attractive others behind. Lindsay reached up for one of these ugly sisters and examined it by the icebox light. The slim body, narrow neck, the scrollwork - all the same as Skeeter's bottle, even the brown liquid swirling with dark bits of flotsam. She pried out the cork and drew in a sweet, potent hit of vanilla - milder and cleaner than Skeeter's, likely due to the absence of strychnine.

He was here, she realized, as a chill pushed through her veins. A theory quickly formed: He came here scouting Heather, stole the bottle, dosed it with rat poison, left it at Guererro Street for Skeeter.

The two murders were linked – and Skeeter's death was definitely murder. The last call before Lindsay shut her ringer off came from Dr. Luke Bowen, who confirmed strychnine in the blood and sent Stepan Litvak's body to the M.E. for autopsy. There was no way to know whether Kiss-Me-Not had killed before simply to cover his tracks, but this was the first non-pattern murder they could possibly tie to the serials. It made sense, except for the part where the crimes linked so obviously. It read like a whimsical mistake, perhaps his first. Why would he risk stealing that specific bottle of booze from Heather and Tom's house when any old rotgut fifth would do to poison a homeless alcoholic?

This has to mean something, there must be a connection. Think, think…

Tom padded into the kitchen, bare-chested and rubbing his bleary eyes. He blanched when he saw the bottle in Lindsay's hands. "What are you doing with that?"

"Tell me about these." Gone was the comforting voice of earlier hours; Lindsay's command bit at his ears, a cop's hostile bark. "Did they have any special meaning?"

"What? No. It's just something she likes to do. Making extracts, stuff like that." He took the bottle and carefully replaced it atop the refrigerator, lining it up just so. "Heather gives them out, like for a hostess gift or thank-you present."

Lindsay reconsidered the idea of breaking and entering, of theft. The other victims trusted their killer, let him get close. Did you trust him, Heather? "Did she give any away recently? Vanilla, like that one."

He caught on that this was no idle inquiry, that Lindsay was in pursuit mode. "I don't know… dammit." Tom pushed hard against his skull, as if trying to squeeze an answer from the tarred, aching brain within. "A week ago, when she showed me that new will, with the thing about the baby. She would've given something to the lawyer, maybe."

"Maybe." This means something. There must be a connection. "Who did she use?"

"I don't know, I didn't read it. Heather said she met him at the Hall, but when she told me what the will was really for, I shut down," Tom admitted. "It's in the unfiled papers drawer, right by you." He pointed and turned on the overhead lights while Lindsay reached for the will.

She shook the papers open and riffled through for a name. In a mercury moment, the connection was made: beside Heather Hogan's own mark was the broad, looping signature of her executing attorney, Hanson North. Christ. Could it really be that simple?

Then came the next quicksilver synaptic spark, linking the lawyer and the liquor and that bizarre Christmastime threat issued by the Kiss-Me-Not killer, where he likened his potential targets to ice cream flavors: strawberry for Cindy Thomas, chocolate for Claire Washburn… and vanilla for Jill Bernhardt.

"The bottle… it's not a coincidence," Lindsay whispered. "It's a message."

Feeling gutshot and praying to be wrong again, Lindsay shouldered past Tom and ran for the bedroom and her phone.

Jill tossed her bulging overnight bag onto the bed. She donned her coat and checked her pockets for cell phone, keys and TASER. When the doorbell rang, she already knew who it was because Officer Bass had instructions to admit only one particular guest. Under the current circumstances, Jill didn't intend to keep her final 'booty call' date, but she was courteous enough the let them break things off in person, in private.

She opened the front door and didn't even get to speak before Hanson North stepped in and kissed her.

He kicked the door shut and pulled her close with one hand; in the other, he held a slim, oblong box. When she finally got her mouth free, Jill said no. Twice.

"It's okay," he assured her, nibbling at her neck. "Denise broke up with me today."

Stunned, Jill forced him back with both hands. "What did you say?"

"Denise Kwon, your bitchy, possessive, domineering boss? She dumped me." North wolfishly licked his lips. "We're free and clear now, baby."

"Free and clear?" Jill retreated until she bumped against the hall table. "Hanson, stop. We're not going down this road again."

"Can't we at least talk about it?"

"I don't have time for this tonight!" She waved her hands and pointed to the door. "You know what? You need to go."

He leaned in, pinning her against the table with his body. "I don't need to go."

Jill's annoyance level rose a couple of notches. "Then I need you to go."

"Ohhh." He nodded, gave her the naughty boy grin that used to push all her buttons. "You've got another date lined up."

"You shouldn't be here. That's all you need to know."

"Come on, who is it? Doctor? Lawyer? Indian chief?" As he took a step back, his smile turned flat, smug. "A Boxer, perhaps."

Her patience dead-ended; Jill's tone became pure disdain. "You're wrong."

North laughed softly. "I know. Just teasing." With a flourish, he presented the slender box. "I brought you a present."

"I don't care. It's not gonna change my mind."

"I think it might." North opened the box. From a tissue paper cocoon, he carefully withdrew a breathtakingly delicate objet d'art – a rose made of patina-green copper and dark crimson glass. "I tried working with real flowers and sizing, but they just didn't hold up. I saw this one and immediately thought of you."

Jill saw it and thought of Jacobi's crime scene description - dead Heather Hogan holding a glass flower. She felt nauseous and her breath wouldn't come, but she skipped right past the disbelief, the feelings of foolishness and betrayal, and thought about surviving. It took all her courage to maintain composure, to keep their eyes locked together while her hand crept into her coat pocket to arm the TASER.

"You should go. Officer Bass will be looking for me."

Her voice trembled and North heard it. Her pupils swelled and North saw it. The fear, the dawning awareness… it was delicious. "No. He won't."

She jerked her knee hard toward his groin and pulled the TASER free. North shifted his hips away from the attack and slapped her wrist aside just as she fired. The probes tore into her trouser leg and grazed Jill's thigh, close enough to deliver a high-voltage overload. She whimpered only once, then clenched her teeth and crumpled to the floor with every nerve blazing.

"You're taking this very well." North stood over her, twirling the flower, appreciating the beauty of gracefully borne anguish. "You expect pain. I always liked that about you." He took a syringe from his pocket and crouched beside his former lover, a woman – one of many – who had once viewed the handsome, crusading attorney as her Prince Charming. After the thirty second stun gun pulse ended, he injected her with a sedative and tenderly stroked her hair. Defiant even then, Jill stared him down while fighting tears and the encroaching fog of sleep.

"When you wake up, I'll tell you the story of Sweetheart Nicholas," he promised. "It's a ripper."

Tom was fast on Lindsay's heels, demanding answers.

"It's a set-up! He found Skeeter cooping at Guerrero Street and he lured me there to show what he was planning, to show me that goddamned bottle! He's been doling out clues, and I just didn't see 'em in time," she explained, despite knowing he wouldn't fully understand. She told Tom she was leaving soon, that if he wanted to come, he should dress quickly and arm himself. The widower's eyes lit with a hard, nasty fire; his jaw firmed and he moved with purpose.

Lindsay opened her phone, saw three missed calls and one text. The first call came from John Ashe, while the text message and the two other calls were from Jill Bernhardt's cell. The second missed call came fifteen short minutes ago. There was a moment or two where she knew relief, believed that Jill was under guard - annoyed at Lindsay and trying hard to tell her so - but fine. She was fine.

Then Lindsay read the text message, sent only three minutes back:

hey, pound-for-pound –

the who and the how are set, but when? and where??

can you come out and play?


A burning backdraft of fright and adrenaline washed over her. Inspector Boxer closed her eyes, breathed deep and counted five, letting it burn. Then she exhaled hard to starve the fire and went straight to work.

In rapid succession:

Lindsay called Jill's cell and home, received no answer.

Called the M.E.'s office; on speaker, Claire and Cindy told of Jill's quick trip home. Lindsay warned them about Hanson North, then begged them to sit tight and got off the line before they asked the terrifying question she couldn't yet answer.

She called dispatch and asked them to raise Officer Bass on the radio – Bass failed to respond. She asked for a patrol unit to check Jill's address, and dispatch confirmed.

Tom Hogan emerged from his dark bedroom wearing jeans and sweatshirt, his lanyard badge, and his gun. "Ready."

Lindsay nodded and threw him her Jeep keys. "We'll head for Jill's place first, but that might change fast." With charging steps and a haze of tire smoke, they were gone.

From the road, she told Warren Jacobi of her working theory, and he made it his mission to locate Hanson North.

On the pre-paid cell, she asked Georgia Folsom to recon the Guererro Street tenement. Folsom's agents confirmed no new activity at the scene, adding that John Ashe was currently in the basement lab going over trace reports with his forensics team.

"I was wrong about Ashe," Lindsay told her.

Folsom generously took a share in the error. "We were wrong on the serials, but Griffin Paar is a different story."

"That doesn't matter right now. If North has Jill, we don't have much time. We need everybody looking."

"Agreed, all else can wait. I'll bring Ashe up to speed for you, get his team mobilized."

"Thank you." This time, Lindsay hung up without saying goodbye.

There was too much ground to cover with too few officers, all working off indirect evidence. What they needed was a police blanket thrown over the whole goddamned city, pronto. In the space of a heartbeat, Lindsay decided to tell a very dangerous lie, because there was no time to explain the truth. She called Captain Harvey Rand and requested an APB for ADA Jill Bernhardt and Public Defender Hanson North, saying she had conclusive proof linking North to the Kiss-Me-Not murders and the possible abduction of Bernhardt.

A small guerilla cell of hope kept blasting her with the idea that North was merely Jill's secret rendezvous – the one she mentioned at lunch - and maybe they were just off screwing somewhere. Maybe the killer only had Jill's phone, he was bluffing or he missed them entirely. Dumbass Boxer could be misinterpreting the text message, the clues, everything. If she was wrong and lost her badge over this… well, fuck it. If Jill turned up safe and sound, Lindsay getting fired and sued would be a small price to pay.

That hope died with a phone call; the SFPD dispatch sergeant advised that responding units found ADA Bernhardt's apartment empty, and found Officer Paul Bass garroted in the building stairwell. She slammed her fist against the console. Another damning link was added to the circumstantial case against North. Paul Bass was a veteran officer and wouldn't have let a stranger get the drop on him, but a known lawyer from the PD's office was hardly a threat. Jill in particular had no reason to distrust him, especially when her best friend the police inspector chanted It's Ashe… it's Ashe… it's Ashe until that suspicion became their club's mantra.

"Have the officers work the hell outta that building," Lindsay ordered. "Tell 'em to move fast, check every unit. Someone saw something." She thought for a second and snapped onto a possible lead. "The security camera at the garage entrance – get the manager and pull the footage. We're on route."

Lights blazing and siren blaring, doing seventy on a city street, the trip across town played like a fever dream.

"He's done," Tom said, his first words since they left the house. "No more."

Lindsay knew he wasn't thinking of arrest and prison for Hanson North. In that moment, neither was she.

Cindy Thomas stood at Claire Washburn's desk, poring over copies of pending work orders for seven properties owned by Pelham Rehab. One was an interior demo order for the Guererro Street tenement, where Skeeter Litvak stumbled onto Kiss-Me-Not's staging area. "If that wasn't a lucky break, it was definitely a decoy," Cindy declared. "My thinking is, maybe he got access to Pelham's scheduling, so he knows exactly when their buildings are empty. If not Guererro, then he might use one of the other sites."

"It's worth a shot." Claire pulled up a city map on her computer. "He'd want privacy, something isolated."

"That knocks out the last three Mission jobs. Jenny said their other buildings are packed full of techie parvenu jerks who complain non-stop about construction noise," Cindy recalled, quoting the gabby, gullible Pelham office manager. "There's two in the Presidio, both single-family homes."

Cindy gave out addresses and Claire looked them up, finding both houses had elbow room, but were set on lively, well-trafficked streets. "Better, but not ideal. Put a tab on those."

The reporter paper clipped the addresses together and set them aside. She and Claire had no real expectation of finding a needle in a city-sized haystack, but in these sick, empty minutes, working eased their sense of helplessness. "Try this one – it's a duplex on Scott Street, across from Alamo Square. "

Claire typed in the new address and zoomed in on a photo of the actual property - a dumpy white two-story in need of a facelift, jammed between two elegant row houses. "I don't know. There's tons of foot traffic for the park, and the next door neighbor is eight feet away."

"Well, then… last one." Cindy lifted the final address slip and wiped her eyes. She wasn't exactly sure how the tears sneaked out, but she hoped Claire hadn't noticed. It was way too soon to cry. "A cottage on Lincoln Boulevard, nearly under Doyle."

"Just ahead of Merchant Road, easy access to 101 and the Golden Gate. Perfect for sinking evidence." Claire checked the property pics and saw no neighbors, no businesses, nothing but sparse woods and overgrown fields. She nodded, getting the feeling someone could do dirt out there and not be heard or seen. "Could be. Now here's the question, Nancy Drew – who do we call?"

Tucking her tongue against her teeth, Cindy thought it over and came up with names of two people who might listen to her: Warren Jacobi and Lindsay Boxer. "They're following their own leads, which are probably way better than mine. The only cops who aren't already looking for Jill and Hanson are guarding your office door." She shut her eyes and prepared to get yelled at. "You know… it's not smart to waste that manpower."

Claire turned around, very slowly. "If you're suggesting we check this place ourselves - "

"Why not?? Cho and Rankin have guns and you have a gun and I know I only have a TASER, but I'm pretty damned good with it, and he just might be there! For god's sake, Jill might be there!" Cindy took a breath and lowered her voice. "We can go look, Claire, we can just look, we don't have to go in."

"You didn't let me finish." Claire stood and checked her purse, made sure Ed's old reliable .38 was present and loaded. "I was gonna say we should take my van. Your little red Maggie can't seat five."

Cindy's face registered shock, then joy, then bewilderment due to Claire's passenger count. "Four. You, me, Cho and Rankin."

"Think positive," said Claire, braving a smile. "Jill might need a ride back, too."

In the office of Jill's building manager, the security camera footage zipped forward at triple speed, blurring images of residents coming and going. The manager identified each car, recognized each driver, until the tape clock hit 19:48. Lindsay hit play and the tape slowed. An unmarked white Chevrolet panel van pulled into the lot, driven by someone in a hooded painter's jumpsuit. The image froze onscreen.

"This, I don't know," said the manager. "No painting or work doing here. Not since Gray Davis go."

"Thank you, Mr. Babajanian." Lindsay prodded the little man until he stood up. "If you'll step outside, Officer Miller will take your statement. Thanks again for coming down." She immediately took his seat and stared into the monitor. Over her shoulder, Tom Hogan squinted at the little screen, trying to discern the face of his wife's killer.

The driver wore large goggles and a dust mask, but enough skin showed to make him as a white male. He sat high in the seat, and his arms were long.

"Big guy," said Tom. "How tall is North?"

"About six-foot-five. Skeeter said the guy at Guererro was pretty big." Lindsay pressed play and the van rolled out of frame. She forwarded to the vehicle's exit, ten minutes later. The driver was again well-covered, and the passenger seat remained empty; she inferred that if he had company, they didn't leave with him willingly. As the van pulled away, the license plate's right edge just barely came into view. "5B? Is that a B?"

Tom leaned closer, nodded. "Looks like it to me."

For an instant, in her mind's eye, Lindsay saw Jill bound and gagged on the van floor. In that instant, a strangely cold feeling came over her, made her want to curl into a ball and wait for rescue. Recognizing the crippling impulse as fear, and knowing the only cure was action, she bolted up and out of the manager's office. In the hallway, the first face she saw was that of Inspector Kenny Fong.

"Kenny, bag that tape and get it to the Hall. Tell Technical Services to blow up and enhance the footage of the van and driver, see if they can get a full plate number or any usable details." Fong hesitated, looking from Inspector Boxer to Lieutenant Hogan, until Lindsay slapped him on the arm - really, really hard. "Go, dammit! Go!" Fong stepped-to, and Lindsay summoned the nearest uniformed officer. She took his radio and called in the van description and partial plate, adding them to the APB. The uni stepped outside and left them alone in the quiet hall.

Tom, just shy of falling down, leaned against the painted brick wall. "You're good at this," he said.

Lindsay thought he was joking, until she saw at his watery eyes and foundering grin, and was brought up short. "What?"

"Running things. Keeping your head straight." He gazed down at nothing, laughed from his spleen. "I've never felt so useless."

"You're not useless. You're hurt." She remembered walking into his bedroom, after Jacobi had gone, to find Tom training a gun on his heart. Despite her best efforts, Lindsay knew her intervention merely splinted his shattered bones; this manhunt was the only thing keeping him upright. "You gotta cowboy up, now. Jill needs us."

"I won't quit, boss. Not tonight." He nodded, but kept his eyes low. "When it's all finished, you should think about moving upstairs."

"Hey. Look at me." Lindsay stared hard until he finally lifted his head. "I already have a Lieutenant."

"Linz… " he said, and couldn't finish, had no more words. Tom's expression was practically a written resignation – from the job, the town, the second chance life that barely got started.

The hall doors burst open and Officer Miller ran toward them, waving his notepad. "Highway Patrol spotted the van! They're in pursuit down 280 near Ingleside!"

Jill Bernhardt woke inside a nightmare - standing in darkness, trapped within a knot of cold, unyielding ropes. The bare metal floor chilled her naked feet. She tried to move a leg, an arm, and cried out as needle-like fangs bit her skin at various points, from ankles to scalp.

Barbed wire, she realized, carefully exploring her bonds with a fingertip. He wrapped me in barbed wire.

There was no light in the world, no sound but her ragged breathing, and no respite from pain without perfect stillness.

Stillness is hard when you're shaking. When you're cold and alone, standing nude in a bramble of steel thorns, when you're waiting to die… stillness is very hard.

She decided to cry then, while she was alone, to cry herself dry and leave the son of a bitch thirsty. Warmth freely trailed down her face, dripped onto her chest; whether tears or blood, she wasn't sure. Taking stock, she felt other sticky trickles along her legs and back, running freely from the worst barb stings. Running… it's not clotting. I'm bleeding too fast. Oh, god… Hyperventilation wouldn't help, so Jill made a conscious effort to breathe slow and shallow. She had no choice but to hold on, be strong.

I know they're looking for me… please… please be looking for me.

Out in the darkness, she heard a door open, then the soft putter of a small engine, and the door closed. A single set of footsteps descended creaking wooden stairs. A tinny click sounded, like the cord pull on an hanging light bulb, then a weak wash of yellow illuminated the sad, filthy basement where she would die, and revealed the twisted shitpile who would kill her.

"How about that. You're already awake." Hanson North wore a white jumpsuit, a hood and dust mask cowling his neck. "I miscalculated your dose."

"That's comforting," Jill said, her tears already drying. "You do make mistakes."

"Not enough to get a conviction, madam prosecutor." He uncoiled a long orange power cord and linked it through a black converter box to an outlet strip, which in turn coupled to another orange line snaking up the stairs. To a generator, Jill guessed, recalling the briefly heard small engine. A third cord ran from the strip to the overhead bulb, hung from a moldering floor joist.

Jill gritted her teeth and tried to make sense of his actions, her surroundings. Underfoot was a square of copper-colored metal, nailed to the wooden floor. The thick knots of barbed wire, woven around and between her limbs, were eye bolted to a triangle of basement support posts. The metal and glass flower Hanson taunted her with earlier hung inside her wire cocoon, about two feet from her left hand. Strangely, it was suspended from a length of bare copper wire, which tied to a large plumbing pipe overhead – the house's main service line. Whatever he was planning, she knew it wouldn't go quickly. As her body trembled at the thought of deeper pain, her mind saw the silver lining: They're looking for me… every minute I last, they get closer… she's getting closer. Get him talking.

"You're right. You won't be convicted." Jill tried hard to wring the tremors from her voice. "Because Lindsay's gonna kill you."

North gave a derisive snort. "She won't find you." With a wire stripper, he clipped the female end from the dropcord and stripped away six inches of insulation, then plugged the cord into the strip. "I feel confident saying this because I've been waiting five years for that bitch to find me." He squatted down by one of the basement supports and waved the shiny copper wire side to side. "I debated for a while, you know. It had to be either you or the reporter. Who makes for a better victim - the plucky new puppy, or the slut with a heart of gold?"

She closed her eyes. Keep him talking. "Shut up."

"Fact is, I think losing you will hurt more. You're a far more tragic figure, Jilly-bean, what with the foster homes, the hard knocks, the empty sex with strangers. A couple of shallow, not-quite relationships with me and Doctor Boring." North snickered a bit. "By the way, I knew Denise was in her office that day, listening while I fucked you on your desk. It surprised me how long she waited to tell the poor bastard."

Jill found her fear easier to manage with a little hatred to grip onto. "Evil and petty. You're a real catch."

North shrugged it off. "You never really tried to catch me. Or the doctor, truth be told. You've made one genuine emotional connection your whole life, yet you remain too cowardly to claim it. And that. Is. Revolting." Almost casually, he brushed the live wire against the modestly insulated metal below her feet, sending a searing jolt of electricity into her body. She cried out only once, when her knee spasmed against the barbs, then set to loudly cursing him while new blood flowed. North waved the wire closer, in warning, and shushed her. "The current is dampened to about a dozen milliamperes, so it's not lethal, just painful. Like chronic indecision."

Hanson North sat back on his heels and cleared his throat. "Story time. Listen closely, there may be a quiz after."

"I'll be home as soon as I finish approving these reports." Claire Washburn hated lying to her husband, but there were times when the truth was simply too much to lay on the man. "I love you, too. Kiss the boys for me – and make sure Nate brushes his teeth for real. Sometimes he just runs water over the toothbrush… how? Gosh, I don't know, Ed. Check his breath; if it stinks like Doritos, that's a tip-off." She pulled a face for Cindy Thomas, seated beside her in the van's front. "Yes, honey, home soon."

Claire hung up and kept driving, carefully picking her way through cross-town traffic, toward the cottage on Lincoln. The van's four occupants remained silent for long moments, until everyone defaulted to a state of disquiet. Uncomfortable being so uncomfortable, Officer Michael Cho piped up from the backseat.

"This house is supposed to be empty, right? So, if we see a light on or hear anything - "

"Then we call for backup and go in," said Officer Stella Rankin, who had voiced numerous objections to this so-called "recon mission" – the last of which resulted in Thomas and Washburn offering to drop their police escort at the nearest Krispy Kreme. "You two are gonna stay in the car with the engine running."

"No way!" Cindy yelped; Claire only made a 'hmph' sound.

"That's not up for debate," Rankin firmly declared. "If Mike and I go up there and find trouble, you hit the gas and get to safety. Let the other responding officers worry about helping your friend."

"This is bull," muttered Cindy. "You wouldn't even have a lead to pursue if not for me."

"Yeah, but you're a reporter, not a cop." Cho parroted Cindy's words back to her, complete with sly inflections.

"Shut-up, you." She slumped down in her seat, intending to sulk… then her phone buzzed and Lindsay blazed on the ID screen. She almost finished the word "Hello?" before the dulcet vox of her beloved exploded from the tiny speaker.

"Where the friggin' hell are you?!?"

Cindy decided to inveigle first, then wiggle her way toward the truth. "Taking a drive, with Claire and Cho and Rankin."

"Taking a drive!? I thought I told you to stay at the morgue!"

Knowing Lindsay's nerves were taut as piano wire, she let the I told you slide. "I know, but we were going crazy in there, Linz. You gotta understand that."

The inspector gathered the shreds of her patience and exhaled her stress through the phone. Yelling never worked with Cindy; bartering produced better results. "Yeah, well… We thought we had something. We're looking for a white Chevy panel van with plate partial of 5B. Troopers stopped one on 280, but it didn't pan out. Ashe and the feds are checking vacants near the Mission tenement and the Richmond loft. Jacobi and I talked, and we're starting to check other vacant Pelham properties, in case there's a link with the Guererro site. Maybe we'll get lucky." Lindsay fell silent for a beat. "Now that you know what we're doing, please, tell me what you're up to."

The pale redhead paled further, stunned by this proof of their synchronized instincts. Huh. Great minds, and all that… which doesn't mean she won't yell at me. She stared out the window as the dark landscape of woods and fields whizzed by. "What makes you think I'm up to something?"

"Because you're you," Lindsay plainly stated, sounding almost affectionate. "You can't not look for Jill, no more than I could. Just tell me where you are."

The phrasing was so calm and rational, it lulled Cindy into spilling the whole story, including the cottage address. "It's probably nothing," she said, downplaying too late.

"It's worth checking. Tonight, everything's worth checking," Lindsay said, her tone perceptibly tenser. "I can get there in ten, maybe eight minutes. I want you to break off and go home with Claire. Please."

The van pulled onto the road shoulder and parked beneath the overpass. They sat roughly a football field away from the innocent little white house with broken cement steps, set deep in a heavily weeded lot. Claire cut her headlights and the van passengers went quiet as stones. On the phone, miles away and losing her cool, Lindsay Boxer called for an answer.

"Lindsay, now don't freak out," Cindy meekly requested. "We're already here."

"You – no. No! Stay in the car. Cindy? Are you listening to me? Stay in the car! I'll be right there!"

The line went dead and Cindy turned toward Claire. "I guess you heard that."

Claire nodded, and Michael Cho chimed in, adding, "We all did, but she didn't say anything about me and Stella."

Rankin caught a whiff of insubordination. She hoped to make Inspector this year, and didn't want to make an enemy of Boxer. "I think it was implied, Mike."

"I'm not a mind-reader," Cho said, opening his door, stepping out, "I'm just a cop following a lead."

"No, come on!" Rankin's hissed words were smothered by the soft click of the closing van door. "Dammit." She made eye contact with Claire and Cindy, reminding them of their deal to stay put, then Stella Rankin sped off after Cho.

"In a village by the river lived a maiden of surpassing beauty. She had two suitors: one jolly and blithe, the other reserved and shy. Both loved her well and equal, and she could not decide which to marry. She went to the witch's cave at the foot of the mountain and asked the wise woman to prove which love was stronger, and would last her whole life through. Saying that no real love is without pain, and love cannot long survive in a fearful heart, the witch devised a test for each.

"The jolly suitor, a strong and hale fellow called Nicholas, was fishing on the banks one late afternoon when he saw the world's most beautiful rose, trapped in an eddying pool. He thought of his love and reached down for the flower, which pricked his palm with its thorns. He held tight to the stem and was suddenly pulled into the cold, rushing river, which carried him away from home and dashed him against sharp rocks – yet he held the rose ever more tightly. Thinking only to see his love again, and unashamed to be thought helpless or foolish, he raised the flower high and called out for help. A fellow fisherman downstream heard his cries and pulled him ashore.

"The shy suitor, fair-faced and given to dreaming, watched the sunset from his garden, when the world's most beautiful rose found his eye. It grew far from reach, trapped inside a thicket of thorns. Thinking of his love, he forged into the briars, which ripped his clothes and set him to bleeding. Soon, his mind turned from the hope of pleasing his love, and he thought of his own torn garments and scraped skin. He nearly decided to abandon the rose, to leave such pain – and beauty - to others. Then he thought of how the flower would please and inspire the fair maiden, and he turned back. Again came his fear of the painful trap, then again his desire, rushing him to and fro in a panic until he was hopelessly ensnared. Struggling blindly amid the knifing thorns, he bled out his heart by nightfall.

"The cheerful suitor returned to the village, shivering and battered, but holding the rose in his bleeding hand. The maiden found him and walked him home. She cleaned his wounds and reached for the lovely flower he offered. Although her hand, too, was pierced by thorns, she held the rose ever more tightly, knowing this to be her true love. As they held the pain and beauty of love in their joined hands, she kissed him. Before the season turned, they were wed."

Hanson North waited a beat, and looked up at Jill Bernhardt to make sure she was listening. "And they lived happily ever after."

Jill cast her eyes sideways at the dangling copper and glass rose, trapped, like her, within a thicket of barbed wire. Not precisely literal, she thought, but it'll do. With every passing minute, she lost more blood from small wounds that failed to clot, and her hope of rescue lessened. The combined result seemed to be a lightheaded fatalism; as North eagerly waited for her response to his story, she gave him a patronizing smile. "I don't get it."

He smiled right back, even laughed a little as he brushed the live wire across the sheet metal. Jill tensed and jumped as the current bit and the barbs dug in again. Her muscles twitched and heart raced, even after the shock faded. New runs of red coursed down her back. She swallowed hard, determined to play out the hand. "Aren't your crime scenes supposed to be all perfect and anal? You're making a real mess this time."

North sneered, losing his tolerance for her mouth, longing to close it with a surgeon's knot. "I'll clean up. When it's quiet." He lowered the wire again, and she scrambled for something to say, something to delay what now seemed inevitable.

"So you got me - I'm an indecisive coward. But why make an object lesson of Heather? She wasn't afraid to be happy."

He hesitated, thought to answer with a screed against desperate housewives and their lab-engineered spawn, then he remembered who he was dealing with. Jill, the lawyer, was stalling for time, hoping for a reprieve. North gave her a 'nice try' smile, and a partial explanation. "You can't will yourself into happily ever after."

A beeper sounded from somewhere behind him, and Jill's focus zipped toward the source. On a work bench in the corner, bracketed by a hammer and bolt cutters, lay a small white plastic square with a flashing red light; it chirped a few more times, and was silent. North's eyes widened in surprise.

"Perimeter alarm," he said, standing up. "Don't get excited. It's probably a dog." He looked Jill over carefully, appraising her wounds and accelerated blood loss. "I may have botched the sedative, but I think I got the Heparin just about perfect."

From behind a wide support post, he produced a twelve-gauge pump shotgun and racked a shell into the chamber. "If you're dead before I get back… well. That's probably for the best. Thanks for the memories." With that, he dropped the live wire onto the metal sheet and ran upstairs.

With no one left to defy, Jill gave in and let out a scream that was half agony and half rage. The unceasing current jerked her body into tremors, her hands into fists, and her teeth clenched like a vise. She looked at the metal-crafted flower, wired to the plumbing; if true to the story, it was a ground and might disperse the current. If a trap, it might feed her a fatal dose. From the only sliver of her fine mind unoccupied by primal howls, came a peaceful realization: Try. There's nothing to be afraid of anymore.

Jill pushed her shaking arm through the vines, across the thorns, and grabbed for the rose.

Behind the cottage was a rickety wooden garage which housed a white Chevrolet panel van. On the garage door, unseen, was a hardware store driveway alarm sensor, radio linked to a receiver in the cottage basement.

Officers Cho and Rankin saw the van plates by flashlight and confirmed the 5B partial. Michael Cho nearly pissed himself with terrified glee. Stella Rankin keyed her radio and called it in. "Dispatch, please advise responding units to approach silent. Suspect is likely unaware of our presence."

Rankin still had her finger on the call button when the first shotgun blast hit her square in the back and sent her flying.

Cho went for his sidearm and didn't even clear the holster before the second shell tore him down.

Claire heard the awful booming noise and jumped clear out of her seat. Cindy heard it, and saw it; behind the house, on an angle, a flash broke through the dark and died, like a torch doused in a barrel. Then it happened again – another booming flash, then silence.

"That was a shotgun." Claire gave Cindy a look that conveyed what they both knew – neither Cho nor Rankin had a shotgun.

Cindy raised her shaking hands, pressed them to her face. "Oh, god. Oh my god, what do we do? He's out there."

"And Jill's inside." In what condition, Claire didn't know. She stiffened her jaw, and a tear got loose down her cheek. "We can't do anything. Not now."

Through the quiet night came the sound of an engine starting. Cindy had a better view of the garage, and saw the red backing lights first. "Claire… he's leaving."

The cool-headed doctor said nothing; she pinched the ignition key between two fingers and prepared to flee, should they be seen. Both women held their breath as the great white van crept across the field, onto Lincoln, and eased away like a shark ignoring prey. They waited until his taillights slipped around the curve.

Claire palmed her keys and grabbed her .38. "Okay, baby girl. Get the flashlight and the zapper. Let's move."

Lindsay Boxer was doing ninety MPH west on Lincoln Boulevard, closing fast when her phone rang. Tom Hogan answered the call and put it on speaker.

"He just left! North just shot Rankin and Cho and drove away! He's heading east on Lincoln right now!" Cindy Thomas shouted. "Claire's calling for an ambulance, then we're going in the house to look for Jill!"

"Be careful!" Lindsay cut her flashers and siren, hoping to get the drop on North, and slowed for the upcoming right-hand intersection with Vista.

"I love you!" Cindy yelled, breathless from running scared.

"God knows, I love you too," Lindsay choked out, just as a white panel van careened around the uphill curve, dead ahead, flashing a left turn signal. Instinct kicked in; her nostrils flared and she smelled blood. Lindsay eased off the gas slightly to give the van some leeway, to let him turn across her path. "No matter what."

She glanced at Tom, belted in and bracing himself. He dropped the phone and gave a go-ahead nod. Lindsay punched the gas hard and the Jeep charged forward, smashing the van broadside in an orgy of crushed metal and sprayed glass. The dazzling impact set the Jeep flying tail over nose toward a copse of corner lot dogwoods, and the Chevy van into a violent sideways death roll across asphalt and grass. In seconds, both vehicles tumbled to a stop in the deep shrubs.

Quiet healed over the noise-rent night. All was silent, save the hiss of a ruptured radiator, and the snaky whisper of one man crawling through thick grass.

Claire ran at the cottage's flimsy back door and slammed home with her shoulder, busting it open in a shower of splinters. Cindy stayed right on her heels, shining a path of light through the dark kitchen. On the melting vinyl tiles, they saw a little generator, thrumming away and sending power down an orange dropcord which disappeared beneath a kitchen-adjacent door. The bottom of that doorframe held a weak line of yellow light.

"Basement." Claire tried the knob first this time and the door surrendered without a fight. Cindy zipped ahead of her, tripping down the stairs three at a time. When she hit the bottom, when she saw, she froze in place and nearly screamed. Claire gasped and covered her mouth.

Jill Bernhardt, bloodied and insanely pissed off, but very much alive, stood on tiptoe inside a patch of barbed wire. Her left hand held tight to the ground-wired salvation of a copper and glass rose.

Through clenched teeth, she made a simple, direct request: "Would somebody please move that motherfucking wire."

Lindsay woke upside-down, choking on blood and seeing only a puffy white cloud. Hit the airbag, she realized, due to the stark pain and smelted iron streaming up her sinus from a thoroughly broken nose. She coughed her throat clear, and looked to the empty passenger seat. Either Tom was thrown out or he went to check on North. She reached up to her pants pocket for her clasp knife and punched a deflation hole in the airbag, then sawed through her jammed seatbelt. Falling against the Jeep's convex ceiling was not fun; her right shoulder shrieked on impact, and Lindsay reckoned something was torn in the crash.

From the near distance came shouting. Her ears rang, marring the words to noise, but she recognized Tom's voice. Lindsay crawled one-handed through a pool of shattered safety glass, toward escape through the missing passenger window. Quickly, two pops ripped loose, followed by two thunderous, sickening booms.

She froze in place, praying that Tom had somehow gotten hold of a shotgun. As the ringing died away, she heard someone wading through deep weeds.

"Boxer?" North's voice, close enough to be clear, calling from behind the Jeep. He tapped three times against the bumper with warm, heavy steel. "You alive in there?"

Lindsay reached for her pistol and found an empty holster; the Beretta was nowhere in sight. On her knees, she held still and clutched her knife, waiting for North to pick a side, hoping he wouldn't simply blast through the tailgate window. Mercifully, his steps carried him to the driver's side door. Lindsay coiled and launched herself through the passenger window gap, scrambled onto her feet and ran full-tilt toward the demolished panel van, toward the cover of clustered trees beyond. She veered left, and another twelve-gauge detonation sent a clump of steel pellets tearing into a dogwood barely three feet right.

"I guess that's a yes." North racked another round and limped after her. His white coveralls showed two dark rips over his sternum - where bullets tore through and snared in a Kevlar vest - and liberal flecks of blackish-red.

She would have kept running, planned, in fact, to head toward the closed visitor's center on Vista and fend North off with her secondary .22 revolver until help arrived. Backup was likely three to five minutes away. That was the plan, and it probably would have worked, had she not tripped over Tom Hogan's outstretched legs.

Lindsay hit the ground, lost her knife and breath. Coughing out blood and dust, and angrily assuming her toes snagged on a root, she propped up on one elbow and nearly sprinted away. With no reason but petulant curiosity, like Lot's wife leaving Sodom, she turned back for a look.

Not a yard behind, Tom sat leaning against a laurel trunk, his hands prayerfully folded on his lap. In the moonlight, his grey sweatshirt glistened black, his torso punched open like a sieve and steadily leaking. Their eyes met; the horror must have shown on Lindsay's face, because Tom gave her a frail smile. His mouth trembled, lips forming silent words.

"It's okay. Go."

She scrabbled across the dirt and pressed both hands against his stomach, trying again to force life on a dead man. "Don't." Tears came up like a flash fire. "Don't go."

"Linz." His voice floated out on a dying breath. As the light faded from his eyes, he glanced to his right. Lindsay followed the line and saw Tom's pistol wedged under his thigh.

When she looked at him again, he wasn't there.

In Claire Washburn's adept hands, the boltcutters made quick work of the barbed wire trap. Jill kept her feet, but leaned heavily on Cindy Thomas as she staggered toward the corner bench seat. Cindy shucked her long coat and chivalrously wrapped it around the lawyer's red-streaked, shivering body.

"Gonna ruin the lining," Jill warned her friend, even as she gratefully eased her arms into the warm sleeves. "The blood won't stop. He gave me Heparin."

Claire kneeled and took Jill's wrist, checking her pulse. Though bleeding from multiple superficial wounds, her heartbeat remained strong and steady. "You're gonna be just fine. Help's on the way. Every cop and paramedic in the county, I'd bet."

Quietly, Cindy sat down and looped a loose arm around Jill's waist. She laid her swimming head on Cindy's shoulder. "Please tell me they got the bastard."

"When I talked to Lindsay a few minutes ago, she was heading after him. Which means he's probably in cuffs by now." Even as Cindy said this, she wondered why Lindsay hadn't called to check on Jill, and why that last call ended so suddenly. With a moment to think, she began to worry. Cindy tensed up and her arm tightened across Jill's scraped, tender back.

"Easy." Jill took her hand and whispered, "Easy. She'll be okay."

Cindy nodded with a confidence she didn't truly feel. She crinkled her nose at Jill. "You're altogether too cool, you know. No vomiting, no crying - are you in shock?" She immediately turned to Claire. "Is she in shock?"

"Can you stop saying shock?" Jill complained.

"You probably are in early stage hypovolemia," the grinning doctor explained. Claire gingerly patted Jill's unmarked knee. "It'll pass once we get your fluids balanced. As for emotional state, that's a normal stress coping mechanism. It'll pass, too."

Even with the revelation that her former lover was a serial killer, with the kidnapping and the torture, the murdered police officers, and the uneasiness that always came when thinking of Lindsay in danger, Jill Bernhardt felt wonderfully detached. "I actually hope it lasts for a while," she said.

Hanson North took the long way round, skirting the edge of the wooded corner lot in hopes of flanking his last victim – and she would be his last. Once Boxer was down, he intended to tuck the shotgun under his chin and litter the grass with the content of his mysterious mind, returning his aberrant genius to nature. No sir, no psychiatrist would get the chance to pick through the Kiss-Me-Not killer's childhood sexual traumas, his adolescent tortures, the escapes into literary fantasy which eventually led him to the deliverance of self-invention. Good grades and law school and finely-tuned smooth talk – success to hide the abscess, so to speak. No sir, he would rather take his pathology to the grave than become another pathetic case study for –

In the middle of his deep thought, a cheap, toy-like pop rang out and a tiny .22 hollow point bullet entered his thigh. It flattened on impact and tore a nickel-sized exit hole through his hamstring.

North howled and spun one-legged toward the source of the shot. He fired the twelve-gauge blindly into the dark treeline and blew himself off his foot as another bullet snuck beneath the hem of his long Kevlar vest, cracking his pelvis. The shotgun jolted out of his grip, and he roared agony while rolling over to reach for it.

A shadow came between him and the moon. In dreamy silhouette, the night-haired woman with two guns pinned his outstretched hand beneath her boot.

He looked up. Laughed sharp. Tried to find cutting words to remind Lindsay Boxer of his victories and victims, her lost love, and all those years rusted to scrap.

Lindsay brought Tom's service weapon up and fired a 9mm round into North's face.

She crouched down and laid the guns in the grass. She tugged her sleeves over her fingers. She replaced the shotgun in his hands, curled them around the pump and trigger guard.

Hearing sirens in the distance, she gathered her weapons, loped toward the road and didn't look back. Once she caught sight of the little cottage, Lindsay broke into a full run.

A reckless stampede down basement stairs brought the one missing club member back into the fold. Lindsay stopped on the landing. Wide-eyed, she absorbed every dreadful detail of the ignoble cellar where her best friend nearly died. Cindy and Claire rose up fast and held still, shocked at the gruesome sight of her battered face, the two guns welded into her restless crimson hands. Jill moved more slowly, but stood and walked forward under her own steam, hoping to show this frantic creature that she was okay.

Lindsay released a sigh that became a sob; she laid the guns on a stair riser and walked into Jill's arms. Both ached and bled and held on too tight, but the pain was proof of life, and was good. Lindsay wept against Jill's matted hair and told her she was sorry, so sorry, over and over and over. Jill pulled back and evaluated her face, caked with dirt and flaking red, her once honest nose now hopelessly askew.

"Shit. You look worse than me."

Unable to laugh yet, Lindsay shook mutely in the stubborn circle of Jill's arms. Gradually, she steadied, calmed, and met her eyes. "It's over."

Jill swallowed hard, then nodded her understanding. From the grisly state Lindsay was in, she knew it hadn't been easy. Talking about it could wait.

Lindsay looked to Claire and Cindy and repeated the words, the promise that their collective nightmare was ending. Like every time before, she pulled away so carefully, Jill almost didn't feel it happening. With a decisiveness long overdue, Jill stepped back and let go.

Sirens whooped from the yard as ambulances and patrol cars arrived en masse. Claire gripped Lindsay's arm and kissed her cheek. "I think your ride is here," she said to Jill. Then, to Lindsay: "See you at the hospital – and don't you dare try to tell me you're okay."

"I'm not okay." Lindsay managed to smile at Claire, at Jill. "Be there soon."

The doctor and the lawyer trudged up the stairs toward care and safety, toward a future with less fear.

In the basement, the police inspector looked to her lover, the wise young reporter, and terror iced her heart. Lindsay knew that if she didn't speak the truth now, truths would become secrets and beget lies, and that wasn't the way forward. If Cindy didn't know the facts about her, what she was capable of, then the love they were so carefully building stood on shifting sand.

She started with the bedrock, the one fact not open to interpretation. "Tom's dead. North killed him."

Cindy's face opened in genuine sympathy. She took a step closer, and Lindsay stopped her with an outward palm.

"I murdered North. He lost his gun and I shot him in the face."

That brick took a bit longer to situate. "The state would have killed him anyway," Cindy reasoned. "It saves everyone involved the pain of a trial. This is closure."

Lindsay squeezed her eyes shut and smiled bitterly, knowing clemency was about to reach its end. "This afternoon, me and Jacobi took Tom home. I left him alone for maybe five minutes, just to see Warren out. When I came back, Tom was in the bedroom with a gun on his heart. I took it away from him, and he hit me."

"Lindsay! Jesus - "

"No. No." She held up her red palm again, quelling the judgment. "I hit him back. He yelled, I yelled, everything came out – and I mean everything. He blamed me for Heather's death, for losing our baby, and I blamed him for giving up on our marriage, for not helping me catch this fucker before everything went to hell. For once, for real, we weren't polite, we got it all out."

Lindsay paused to rub at the itchy clumps of black around and under her nose - which she forgot was broken - and the sudden gush of pain nearly brought back tears. "I think I probably hit him a few more times, I don't know. Eventually, we just started crying about it all, about what a fuckin' waste it all was… then he kissed me and we… "

Cindy was shaking her head steadily by that point, denying a fact plainly in evidence.

"I'm sorry. That moment felt like nowhere," Lindsay whispered, barely breathing. "Like it wasn't really happening. I am so…" Tears rolled and her voice cracked like paper-thin china. "…so sorry."

In silence, Cindy studied the way regret and fear manifested in Lindsay's shaking body, how her expression cried please forgive me more desperately than sky-writing, even as the body of her nemesis cooled three blocks away, even as Tom Hogan's blood dried on her hands. Cindy believed that, had he lived, it would have gone no further, because this woman loved her now – now and hopefully for a long, long time. That knowledge salved her heartache, if only a little.

"You are aware that emotional chaos is no excuse for infidelity."

Sensing doom, Lindsay nodded slowly. "Yes. I know."

"With the history you two had, I get how it could happen, but on some level I just don't understand, you know?" Cindy's voice broke, though she tried to hide it with a harsh laugh and a shrug. "Maybe I can't understand, because you're the only person I've ever loved like this."

The declaration left Lindsay thunderstruck, and she responded without guile or art. "Maybe what we've got isn't brand new to me, but it's… it's more. I feel more," Lindsay admitted. "I need you. I want a life with you. If we get out of this somehow, I know we can make it good. I know it."

Cindy held her ground and aimed to keep a steady tone, despite having the urge to rush forward and melt against Lindsay's filthy leather jacket. "I may not have a Tom – or a Jill, for that matter – but I have options. Don't forget that. And don't you ever - "

"I won't."

"Not ever again."

"I swear."

Cindy let go a stuttering breath. This was all too much, too fast, and she reserved the right to be angry at length sometime later, after the earth stopped shaking. "I'm really sorry. About Tom." And Heather, and Rankin and Cho, and Bass, and Elaine Lewis and everyone else Hanson North victimized. "We're assholes for even talking about this stuff right now."

"I know," Lindsay agreed. "I just couldn't let it slide. I couldn't take it." She scratched at her nose again, more carefully this time. "What do you want to do?"

"I want to go to the hospital and make sure Jill's okay, maybe have someone fix you up, too." Cindy smiled at the incongruity of a sheepish, hopeful grin floating beneath Lindsay's swelling nose and blackening eyes. "Then I want to take you home, get you cleaned up and in bed, then I want to sleep 'til noon."

"Most of that sounds reasonable." Despite all that had happened, Lindsay was again on the verge of happiness. "Noon might be pushing it. I'm gonna have a lot of explaining to do tonight, tomorrow… for a long stretch."

Cindy finally came near enough to touch, and she hooked her arm around Lindsay's elbow. "How about ten?"


"Nine," Cindy countered. "And you let me help clean out the attic."

Lindsay didn't see the point in refusing. There's nothing to be afraid of anymore. "Deal."


Epilogue – Christmas Eve and the In-Between

Splits of dry oak pop and glow in the fireplace grate. White lights twinkle on a seven-foot Douglas fir skirted with presents.

In the kitchen, a man and woman enjoy a convivial argument over which country produces the best vodka.

On the couch, two brothers play War with a deck of cards, slapping queens over jacks and laughing as a border collie steals their cookies.

In the bedroom, two women sit on the floor, trying to wrap an oddly-shaped box and making a hash of it.

"Let Cindy do it."

"No. I can do this."

"You have Scotch tape in your hair." A beat while the tape is carefully peeled loose. "Claire is an excellent gift-wrapper."

"So am I."

"Phthbt. You're worse than me, cottonhead."

"Fine, suit yourself. They oughta be back soon." Lindsay holds out her hands, wiggles entreating fingers. "Help me up."

Jill groans as if hoisting a sack of bricks. "Whoa. You should think about installing a pulley system in here."

"Get off it, already. I've lost fifteen pounds in two weeks and you're still making fat jokes."

"With you, the novelty never wears off." She notes that Lindsay still holds her wrists, is staring at the faded white specks along both forearms. Jill seeks to reassure her. "Hey. I don't even dream about it anymore."

Glad to know this, Lindsay squeezes her hands and smiles. She is envious. She thinks about the spring and summer past, how a portion of nearly every day was devoted to something regarding Hanson North and the Kiss-Me-Not case. Legally, there were no problems; her account of that night went unquestioned by her superiors, most notably Captain Harvey Rand, who pinned a gold valor medal to her uniform and promoted her to Lieutenant the week after Tom and Heather Hogan were laid to rest.

Agent John Ashe went home to D.C. with suspicions about Griffin Paar's death and a brand new watch order hung around his neck. His profiling unit consigned him to a desk job with low travel requirements, but San Francisco SAIC Georgia Folsom made sure his movements were tracked, just in case he ever decided to visit California again. Last Lindsay heard, Ashe was engaged to the sole surviving victim of a rural Maryland rape-murder cult. Maybe he'd finally found someone he could save.

The media went wild early on, until they realized that all of the surviving Kiss-Me-Not principals comprised an insular clique, well-versed in stonewalling. Then came the book proposal: HarperCollins offered a king's ransom for their first-person accounts. Seeing college funds and early retirement, as well as a definitive end to all the questions, Washburn, Thomas, Boxer and Bernhardt all consented, provided that Thomas serve as sole ghostwriter on the project.

They had control enough to satisfy the public's curiosity while keeping certain elements private – like who Jill was really expecting at her apartment that night (because it certainly wasn't DDA Denise Kwon, despite the nasty rumors), how Boxer and Hogan spent their afternoon before the case keyed up (Talking. Just talking.), how Cindy Thomas managed to get proprietary info from Pelham Rehab (stealing is wrong and actionable), what Hanson North said just before he died ("This is just unacceptable.") – and such as that. The book sold well, and there was talk of a film adaptation, but that was something to worry about next year. Jill Bernhardt decided she wanted Scarlett Johansson to play her, claiming, "I always wanted bigger boobs."

One unforeseen consequence of that eventful day became evident in early May; during her annual visit to the stirrup-and-speculum doctor, Lindsay Boxer learned she was nine weeks pregnant. She spent the rest of the morning numb and quiet, sitting at her desk behind a pile of unsigned forms. Warren Jacobi came upstairs to ask her about trading in his second new partner (Davidovitch smelled like coconut, Juarez chewed with his mouth open), and she stared at him like he'd turned purple.

"The son of a bitch knocked me up," she said, from somewhere in the upper troposphere. "I thought it was stress, throwing my cycle off, but… I'm pregnant. With a baby."

Jacobi shifted his feet, stroked his goatee. "I knew I shouldn't have left you alone with him."

She furrowed her brows. "How did you know I meant Tom?"

"Anybody else, Thomas would have left your dumb ass." He paused and cautiously added, "Lieutenant. Ma'am."

"Aww, shut-up. I haven't even told her yet."

"The hell you waiting for?"

"I just found out this morning!" Lindsay covered her mouth, then touched her stomach, as if afraid the yelling would upset the baby. "Jesus wept. What am I gonna do?"

Warren Jacobi couldn't help it; he laughed at her. Then he told her the blunt truth, like always. "You're going to take vitamins, get fat, squeeze out a healthy, good-looking kid, then spend the next twenty-odd years of your life trying to make sure it loves you a little more than it hates you."

"Oh. Wow." She ruminated on that for a moment, then was seized by a sudden, terrifying realization. "I'm thirty-seven!"

"You're strong as a plowhorse," he said, managing to sound both dismissive and reassuring. "If you want this, if it's the right thing for you, you'll work it out."

Lindsay had fears, yes, but no genuine reservations. She wanted a child, she'd always wanted a child. Her only concern about taking another shot at parenthood was how her partner would react. She waited until bedtime, until they were settled in and reading by lamplight, and said it with such nonchalance that Cindy wasn't sure she'd heard correctly.

"Doctor Juell says you're preferent? As in, your gyno likes you more than his other patients?"

"No - "

"Good, because that's really unsettling."

"Pregnant." Lindsay flattened her lips to an anxious line and said it a third time. "Pregnant. Nine weeks."

Cindy's mouth formed a perfect, astonished circle. "Oh. Wow." She sat there wordless for so long that Lindsay started to fear the worst.

"Are you scared?" Cindy finally asked. Lindsay nodded an emphatic yes, and Cindy set aside her magazine. She peeled back the comforter and straddled Lindsay's legs, then faltered into uncertainty. She tucked her hair behind her ears and looked up, grinning shyly. "Can I touch?"

"What?" Lindsay puzzled over the request, as Cindy had taken unrestricted liberties with her body since somewhere around their third date. It didn't seem terribly odd that she would want sex as a way to connect after the big news, or simply to delay discussion until her thoughts firmed up. "Yeah, if you want." Lindsay dropped her book on the night table and shimmied out of her t-shirt.

She leaned in for a kiss and Cindy gave her a sweet, short peck on the lips, then eased her back to the pillows, alone. Cindy rocked onto her heels, staring at Lindsay's stomach. She laid both hands on the flat, smooth expanse of skin and lowered her mouth, so close that her breath tickled fine golden hairs, and her voice hummed like a lullaby.

"Hello. Baby. Boxer baby." She snickered, feeling silly and unsure, until she looked up and found Lindsay watching her with profuse adoration. Then the words came easily, perfectly, as if she knew them by heart. "You're a lucky kid. You'll be protected. You'll be loved. You'll have a home, and a family. You'll be strong enough to find your own place in the world. You won't be afraid of anything… but if you ever are, just tell mommy and she'll totally kick its ass."

Lindsay shook with laughter and wiped her streaming eyes. "I'm in management now. I can't go around beating people up."

"Fine." Cindy kissed her belly and whispered to the baby, "I'll handle the ass-kicking."

December 10th at two in the morning, Jacob Thomas Boxer came squalling into the world, at a trim fighting weight of seven and a half pounds. By Christmas Eve, the kid had pretty much everyone who knew him wrapped around his pudgy little pinkie finger. He ate like a mule, smiled easily, and rarely got stroppy – essentially, all anyone could ask of a newborn.

"He's gonna be trouble," Jill says, eyeing the gurgling infant, tickling his downy pompadour of smut-black hair. "I foresee a string of broken hearts, stretching from pre-school to the retirement home."

"This boy will not break hearts." Claire bumps Jill aside, claiming the prime Jake-viewing spot. She tenderly chucks his chin. "Look at this face – clearly, he's an angel."

"Oh, please! That's how they get you!" Jill insists. "They smile across the craft table, you share your Gummie Bears, you think you've got something special. Then they give valentines to booger-eating Kelly, and Amanda with the bowl haircut."

"If he decides to woo a booger-eater, we'll have a talk with him," says Cindy, from the foot of the crib. She curls her shoulders and nestles back further into Lindsay's arms. "Bowl haircuts are negotiable."

Lindsay kisses the top of her head. "No, they're not. There's some wiggle room for a Flowbee kid, but bowls are right out."

Claire huffs, amused at her friend's snootery. "This from the woman who couldn't even wrap Georgia's present."

"Jill couldn't do it either!"

"Only because it's a weird-shaped plastic clamshell thingy."

"I still don't see why you're giving a radar detector to an FBI agent."

"It's a joke! She drives worse than Lindsay!"

"Bite me, Bernhardt."

"So that's your Christmas gift? A gag gadget?"

"Whatever else I'm giving her is none of your business, coppertop – though it may still qualify as a gadget."

"Mom?" Derek Washburn peeks around the door. "What are you talking about?"

"Nothing." "Gummie Bears." "Flowbees." "Booger-eaters."

Flooded with information that makes no sense, Derek decides that all grown-up conversations are bizarre and best disregarded. "Dad and Ms. Folsom are fighting about egg nog." He slips in beside Claire and lets baby Jake clutch at his fingers. "Me and Nate are bored. Can we take Martha out?"

"Yes, please and thank you," says Lindsay. "Grab her leash and a baggie, and stay near the house."

The sounds of stomping boys and a very excited dog fade down. From the kitchen comes the laughter of common ground discovered, the forging of a new friendship.

In the bedroom, four very different women quietly stand guard over a child, and each other. Initially drawn together in professional alliance, they find themselves bound together in every way that matters.

It's really not a club; it's a family.

The End

Return to Women's Murder Club Fiction

Return to Main Page