DISCLAIMER: Murder in Suburbia and its characters are the property of ITV. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Written for Ralst, Eclecticfan, and thegirl20 who asked for A Christmas Carol, a non-angsty story of some length, and Christmas dinner with the Ashursts, respectively. It'll soon become apparent that I cheated with the first and third prompts. Just pretend I got the 'gifts' at a discounted price. Special thanks to the amazing Debbie for the beta.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Life Imitates Art
Detective Inspector Kate Ashurst strolled purposefully through a festively decorated doorway, her head held high and her focus on her desk and not the sprig of mistletoe that hung precariously from above. She'd made the mistake the day before of hesitating long enough to frown at the poisonous foliage and had been attacked by Harrison from traffic a hit-and-run, horribly sloppy kiss that she'd certainly not been expecting. She'd been less than amused.
"Scribbs?" asked Ash, her steps faltering when she spied another set of miniature figures that had been arranged into something completely different than the day before. She stepped closer and stared down at the unusual grouping. "I thought we decided not to clutter our desks with your . . ." she paused and screwed up her face as she searched for the appropriate terminology for what had become a daily ritual ever since her partner had excitedly ripped the month of November from her calendar.
"Christmas scenes," supplied Scribbs cheerfully as she placed a grumpy-looking figure as close to Ash's desk as possible without actually infringing upon the other woman's workspace. She'd moved the phone and other items that had acted as a barrier to separate their joined desks weeks ago, and although her partner had complained incessantly, Ash hadn't lifted a finger to move any of the things back to their original positions.
"Yes, well, let's settle on tacky re-enactments then, shall we?" said Ash, her thoughts straying to the scene Scribbs had created at the first of the week a nativity scene of all things with Gabrielle and Xena posing as Mary and Joseph.
After she'd finally been able to pry her eyes off a bearded Xena, Scribbs' placement of the animals had caught her attention next. Her partner never haphazardly set out her miniatures; it was always planned. And so, the donkey that had sat prominently in the middle of Ash's desk had been put there on purpose and so had Scribbs' reference to the animal as an ass when Ash had made her remove the plastic toy.
"Whatever you say, Scrooge," mumbled Scribbs, straightening out a paper clip, only to then bend the formally curved parts back and forth until they broke free. She smiled as she used the broken pieces to prop up the Gabrielle figure.
Ash furrowed her brow and took in the newly created scene. The miniatures were scattered everywhere, no rhyme or reason to any of their placements. If Scribbs had had a theme in mind, Ash certainly had no idea what it was. Thankfully, Sullivan strolled into the room with a new case assignment and stopped her from having to ask her partner to explain the hodgepodge of characters strewn from one corner of Scribbs' desk to the periphery of her own.
"Councilor Saunders has just been found in his study murdered," said Sullivan, his gaze moving over the two women's desks and studying Scribbs' latest scene. "I need you to head over there and get everything sorted out. I'd like to have an arrest before Christmas."
Jumping to her feet, Ash grabbed her coat from the back of her chair. "But Boss, Christmas Eve is tomorrow." And how well she should know, she'd been dreading the trip to her parents' for their traditional meal and exchanging of gifts since last Boxing Day.
"Then you'd better hurry," replied Sullivan, a slight smile forming at the corner of his mouth at the realization of just what Scribbs had intended to create. "Nice touch with the paperclip crutches, Scribbs." With an approving nod, he turned and walked toward the stairway that led to his office, leaving a beaming Scribbs behind to admire her Dickens' rendition.
"Crutches?" asked Ash, angling her head to the left and then the right as she focused on Gabrielle and her metal props. Her eyes swept methodically over the area again before settling on the cold, expressionless character at the perimeter of her workspace. She'd not seen that particular figure before today and wondered if Scribbs had bought it especially for this occasion. Turning her inspector's mind on the scene, she studied every single detail.
Slowly, bit by bit and character by character, the proverbial light switched on, casting Scribbs' players in its spotlight. Ash was finally beginning to understand.
"C'mon, Ash; you heard the boss. We need to crack this case before Father Christmas stuffs posh things into your stocking," said Scribbs, scooping up her jacket and heading toward the door with a huge smile on her face. She'd seen her partner's eyes begin to widen in recognition of her recreation and didn't plan to be around when the final piece of the puzzle slid into place.
Ash paused long enough to slip an arm into her coat as she remained focused on the Gabrielle figure's depiction of Tiny Tim. That could only mean that the figure on her desk was . . .
"So, where do we start?" asked Scribbs, staring down at the body of the most despised man in Suburbia. The suspect list would be endless, but first things first. "The knife, the candlestick, the missing gun, or the half-eaten Christmas pudding next to the body?"
"All four until the cause of death is determined," said Ash, holding up a blood-stained knife by its hilt. With latex-covered fingers, she slid the potential murder weapon into an evidence bag. "My bet is on the knife though." She pitied the person responsible for counting all the wounds inflicted by the weapon she held.
Scribbs walked around the body once again and studied the numerous stab wounds, before her focus shifted to the hole in the center of the councilor's forehead. "So, the gunshot came before or after the killer violently stabbed him to death? And was that before he fed him the pudding, possibly causing him to choke, or perhaps, it was after he hit him in the head with the candlestick?"
Her eyes swept across the room, pausing on a jagged hole in the center of a large picture window that overlooked the garden. If the councilor had been sitting in his chair, as it appeared that he had been from his body's current position, the bullet should have struck him in the temple, not the forehead. She followed the approximate trajectory of the bullet with her gaze and frowned.
"Um, Ash, look..." Scribbs pointed to a portrait of the councilor that hung on the far wall. A perfectly shaped bullet hole mirrored the one in the victim's head. "Think the boss will be happy with our Christmas gift to him this year an unsolved murder."
Ash looked from the window to the portrait and then back to the window again. "Wonder which shot came first? The practice one to the portrait," she gestured toward the wall hanging, "or the real one to the councilor?" Walking over to stand next to her partner, she stared down at the bullet wound in the victim's head.
"There's only one bullet hole in the window, Ash."
"I know, Scribbs; I know."
"Got any suspects?" asked Sullivan, looking over Ash's shoulder and holding back a grin at spotting the Scrooge character. Scribbs had somehow managed to move him closer to her partner.
"It may be easier to go door to door to narrow down the list," grumbled Ash, using the edge of a file to push Scrooge back toward Scribbs' desk. "Although, the other members of the council have the most to gain at the moment; I think we should speak to them first. According to Councilor Stevens, who just happened to show up at the scene when we were leaving, Councilor Saunders was quite stingy with the city's money when it came to improvements."
"And it wasn't like the council was spending his money either, but even if they had, he could certainly have afforded it. He was rich enough," said Scribbs, adjusting Tiny Tim's makeshift crutches and setting 'him' back into his circle of family.
Sullivan nodded in agreement. Councilor Saunders probably still had the first pound he'd ever made. "I was at a dinner gathering once and the councilor was there as well. Someone actually made a remark about his abundant wealth, and he said, 'There is no such thing as rich enough; only poor enough.' I think he believed it, too."
"We need to get a look at his will. It may very well have been his wealth that killed him," said Ash, the ringing of her phone interrupting her train of thought. She stared at the ringing annoyance, before snatching the receiver from its cradle. "DI Ashurst." Her irritated expression melted from her face, replaced with one that, to an onlooker, suspiciously resembled fear. "What? Please tell me you did not say that to mum."
Scribbs exchanged a grin with her boss and leaned closer, while Sullivan actually perched on the edge of Ash's desk and folded his arms over his chest, settling in to listen to his DI's conversation. Ash rarely talked of her family, and he wasn't about to miss the opportunity to learn something about them.
"Phillip, call her back immediately and retract your statement," whispered Ash, still able to project the utmost urgency of her request despite her low tone. Swiveling her chair around so that her back was to her partner and boss, she said, "Stop laughing and do it now! This is serious, Phillip. Call her back, right this instant!" A final chuckle, followed by a dial tone, sounded in Ash's ear and left her unsure as to whether her brother would follow through on her request.
With as much dignity as she could muster, she swiveled her chair around and eased the phone back into its cradle. Red-faced, she offered her apologies.
"Sorry, Boss; just a small family problem." Her smile looked painful and forced and reminded Scribbs of someone whose corset had been strung too tightly. "Scribbs and I will check with Saunders' solicitor to see who's listed to inherit his fortune."
Not wanting to embarrass Ash further, Sullivan stood and said, "Sounds like a good place to start then. Keep me informed." He spared one final glance at the figures. "Scribbs, Tiny Tim needs a new crutch." He pointed at the leaning Gabrielle and turned to walk away, a ghost of a smile on his face.
"They certainly don't make paperclips like they used to," growled Scribbs, tossing the broken metal into the bin. "I think it may be a problem with their length, too." She studied the remaining crutch. "Got a pair of wire cutters, Ash?"
"Focus, Scribbs, we've got a killer to catch," admonished Ash, exceedingly grateful that her partner had been too concerned with her Christmas scene to question her about her phone call. She pushed to her feet and grabbed the Saunders' files as she started toward the door. "Besides, metal crutches hadn't been invented in Dickens' time. I'd think a toothpick would be more realistic and much easier to work with."
Scribbs lifted Gabrielle up to eye level and grinned. "Toothpicks . . . now why didn't I think of that?"
"Henry Howard Jones, address 22 Bedford Row," said Ash, reading the solicitor's name from the file that listed Saunders contacts. "I've never trusted a man with three names."
"I've never trusted a solicitor," replied Scribbs, checking in her rearview mirror before changing lanes. "Ever date a solicitor, Ash? I bet they'd be stiff and boring, always talking about the law."
Ash stared out the passenger window and suppressed a grin. Sarah Cummings had been far from stiff and never boring. And as far as talking went, there'd been actually very little. It had been the best sex Ash had ever had, but she lied anyway. "No, Scribbs; I haven't."
"So, what was that phone call about back at the station?" asked Scribbs as she switched on her signal indicator and took the next left, changing the topic as smoothly as the turn she'd made.
"Just a slight misunderstanding between my brother and me." Ash had known it would only be a matter of time before Scribbs questioned her. She'd just wished it hadn't been so close on the heels of her pleasant memories of Sarah Cummings.
"Sounded more serious, if you ask me," said Scribbs nonchalantly, as if she wasn't the least bit interested and was only making conversation. "Involving your mum like that," she tsked. "What did he tell her?"
"It's nothing, Scribbs, really," said Ash, scanning the addresses of the buildings they'd passed. "There, Scribbs, it's the one with the hanging name plate."
Expertly pulling next to the curb, Scribbs grinned mischievously and hit the automatic door locks. "What did your brother tell your mum, Ash?"
Ash pushed the button on her side, but Scribbs countered with another locking tactic. The two went back and forth several times, before Ash had had enough.
"We've got a case to solve by tomorrow evening, Scribbs. We don't have time for childish games." Ash narrowed her brow, showcasing the tiny vein near her temple that had begun to throb. She reached for the door handle, but her partner had chosen to continue the game of 'lock tag,' the ploy having proven successful in gaining information from Ash in the past.
"Tell me, and I'll stop," Scribbs poised her finger over the button, looking every bit like a cowboy in an old western, her finger itching to draw her gun.
Ash glared at her partner to no avail. If she intended to ever leave the confines of the vehicle, she'd have to tell Scribbs something. The other woman was tenacious when she set her mind.
"Fine, if you must know. Phillip is bringing his fiancée to Christmas dinner a woman my parents have yet to meet and he's chosen to distract them from his news. He's always used that ploy: find something that will take all our parents' focus and then drop his bit of news on them, hoping they're too distracted to notice."
Scribbs frowned, not understanding the problem. "Why would your parents be upset that he's engaged?"
"She's an ex-stripper, Scribbs," informed Ash, not able to keep her nose from turning up at the thought of becoming a sister-in-law to someone who took her clothes off for money.
"So, don't tell them."
"Apparently, Ginger her name is Ginger still dresses the part."
"Ah, I see," said Scribbs, really not seeing at all. She couldn't understand why the fiancée stripper didn't just put on some regular clothes and pretend she wore them all the time. "So, what's the news that's supposed to distract your parents?"
"Me; I'm the news," informed Ash with a nervous sigh. She turned her gaze back to the shingle that proclaimed 'Solicitor Henry Howard Jones' dwelled within. "I'm supposed to bring along my lover."
"Lover?" said Scribbs, her heart sinking into her stomach. "You've got a lover?"
"Of course not; Phillip wants me to bring along a 'pretend' lover, one that will, according to him, 'knock our mum's socks off. '" She pretended to remove invisible lint from her black trousers, hoping that half the truth would satisfy her partner.
"DS Garcia would certainly do that; your mum would faint at all that chest hair," giggled Scribbs. Ash should have never told her about dating him just so she could indulge in her Salsa fantasy.
"I couldn't if I wanted to," said Ash, noticeably fidgeting in her seat.
"Why not? He'd be perfect."
"He's a he, Scribbs; Phillip's told mum I'm bringing a she."
Not having a proper comeback or a comeback at all for that matter, Scribbs immediately hit the door locks and watched as Ash shot out of the car and started up the pavement. She paused as she reached for the door handle and wondered why Ash had suddenly become so nervous when the subject of a female lover had come up. Filing the thought away for later, she climbed from the car and hurried to catch up with her partner.
"You see that toothpick?" Scribbs deepened her voice dramatically as she pushed the small sliver of wood through its protective plastic covering. She eyed its length and raised her voice an octave.
"I do." She chuckled slightly and eased back into her deeper tone so as to not lose continuity in her one-woman play.
"But you're not looking at it!"
Ash finally looked up from her file and glared across at her partner, however, it didn't seem to deter Scribbs in the least. She broke off one end of the toothpick and eased it under Gabrielle's right armpit.
"Yet I see it, notwithstanding," continued Scribbs, her tone subdued, right before she snatched the grumpy-looking character from the edge of Ash's desk and burst into a loud rant as she flew the figure over her makeshift set of A Christmas Carol.
"Well, then, I'll just swallow this and be tortured by a legion of hobgoblins, all of my own creation! It's all HUMBUG, I tell you, HUMBUG!"
"Scribbs!" exclaimed Ash, rubbing her fingers soothingly across her forehead. "Can you stop playing with your toys long enough to help catch Scrooge's killer? It's Christmas Eve and we're running out of time."
"You mean Saunders," corrected Scribbs, holding back a chuckle as she fitted 'Tiny Tim' with his second crutch. "You said Scrooge."
Ash closed her eyes and pinched her fingers together, changing the soothing motion to a repeated thumping one against the middle of her forehead. "Yes, Saunders, the modern-day miser."
Pleased with the more realistic crutch-look, Scribbs finally turned her full attention on her partner. "It's eerie how close Saunders' life mirrored ol' Ebeneezer's here." She raised the figure to make her point. "Too bad he was murdered before he could be redeemed."
"I'm surprised someone hadn't killed him sooner, but with this last act of selfishness, he may as well have drawn a bullseye on his chest," said Ash disgustedly as she flipped through the list of foreclosures Henry Howard Jones had provided: a block of flats, several out of town shops that had been in business for over fifty years, two restaurants, and even a church.
Ash's attention was drawn away from the cold-hearted dead man to her phone which had begun to ring. She stared down at the offending object, scared to answer, but knowing that odds were in her favor that the call pertained to her work, she reached for the receiver.
"DI Ashurst," she answered, immediately screwing up her face in regret. With her luck, especially as of late, she shouldn't have played the odds and let Scribbs answer instead. "Yes, Mum?"
Scribbs bit down on the edge of her lip as she pretended to be distracted by rearranging the town's people. As she listened to her partner's conversation, it soon became apparent that Ash wasn't going to be able to use the murder case to get out of the Ashurst traditional Christmas dinner.
"But, you see . . . Mum, I've got to . . . No, that's not . . . Yes, Mum, we'll see you tomorrow at eleven." Ash hung up the phone but continued to stare at the receiver as if she could magically wave a wand over the phone and erase her mum's call as if it had never happened.
The silence grew thicker and thicker until Scribbs could no longer stand it. Ash looked terribly lost.
"Um, anything I can do, Ash?"
Ash eased her gaze from the black phone to rest on her partner. She studied the other woman carefully, taking in an expression that was filled with obvious concern. Deep down, Ash knew Scribbs would do anything for her, just as she would for Scribbs. She sucked in a deep breath and then took a giant leap, hoping that she was right.
"Scribbs, would you accompany me to Christmas dinner with my family?"
"There's something I need to tell you, Scribbs," said Ash as the pair walked up the pavement to the tastefully decorated Ashurst house. "I may have . . ."
The front door swung open wide, interrupting Ash and revealing a warm, inviting, and equally tastefully decorated foyer. Mrs. Ashurst smiled widely as she stepped outside to offer her greeting.
"Emma, it's so nice to finally meet you. Kate has told us so much about you." She tucked her arm around Scribbs' elbow and ushered her toward the door. "I'm Elizabeth. Come, I want to introduce you to John."
Taken aback at the greeting a veritable surprise attack in Scribbs' mind she looked back over her shoulder at Ash, who'd suddenly found the buttons on her coat fascinating, and wondered what she should be more surprised at: the fact that Ash's mum was apparently very accepting of her daughter's supposed sexuality or that Mrs. Ashurst already knew her name, and quite possibly, much more.
The day before, following the phone call from her mother, Ash hadn't left Scribbs' side as they'd followed a few leads before they'd come to a brick wall, but instead of calling it a day, the two detectives had spent the entire night at the station pouring over files in hopes of solving the case by Sullivan's requested Christmas Day. So, unless Ash had called her mother and paved the way for their visit in the short hour they'd gone their separate ways to shower and change for their journey to the Ashursts', it appeared that Scribbs had been her partner's make believe 'lover' for much longer than she'd realized.
"Oh look," said a smiling Mrs. Ashurst, "mistletoe." She paused in the doorway and gestured to the greenery above their heads and just inside the front door. Scribbs eyed the other woman's cheek and pasted on a smile as she leaned forward, but a hand to her shoulder stopped her progress.
"Oh, not me, Emma, although I'm quite flattered." Elizabeth neatly stepped to the side and motioned her daughter to take her place. "Kate, darling, you wouldn't want to waste the perfect opportunity to kiss your girlfriend in front of your ol' mum, now would you?"
There was something in the older woman's tone that set off bells and whistles in Scribbs' head. It had changed from gracious and accepting to teasing, almost condescending in nature, as if she were goading Ash, daring her to kiss her partner. Scribbs turned to face her 'lover.'
Ash stood stiffer than normal, clearly unsettled by the change in events, but just as she'd done at the station all those months ago when Sullivan had overheard her vehement denial that she'd been the one to initiate the infamous 'stakeout' kiss, she marched up to Scribbs, pulled her into her arms, and laid one on her, tongue and all. Scribbs practically melted on the spot. When Ash finally eased away, the two of them were alone.
"Um, sorry about that, Scribbs, but . . ." Ash started, but was stopped by a soft finger against her lips.
"Don't, Ash, don't you dare apologize," said Scribbs in-between uneven breaths, her respiration far from normal. "I think I understand." She offered a reassuring smile with lips that still tasted of Ash's cherry lip gloss.
"I should never have asked you to come," whispered Ash, her head hung low and her tone filled with regret.
"If you ever kiss me like that again, you won't have to ask," said Scribbs teasingly, hoping to inject a bit of levity into an uncomfortable situation, however, when this particular 'scene' had played out, she planned to sit her partner down and have a long talk.
Ash looked up, a ghost of a grin flickering across her face. Pulling the wreath-covered front door closed, she offered her arm to her partner. "Let's just get through dinner first, shall we?"
Scribbs looped her arm though Ash's and said, "What exactly is being served?"
"What is it you do for a living, Ginger?" asked Scribbs, hiding her grin behind the lip of her wine glass and leaning impossibly close to Ash. She almost choked on her wine when she noted the sour expression that had formed on Mrs. Ashurst's face, and she briefly wondered if the woman had accidentally swallowed the lemon wedge that had decorated her water glass. At the other end of the table, Mr. Ashurst failed, once again, to hide his not so subtle glance at Ginger's overflowing bosom.
Had Ginger a stick of gum in her mouth, she'd have popped it. Instead, she loudly slurped on her wine and set her glass down precariously close to the table's edge. Elizabeth's eyes widened, looking every bit as if she planned to leap across the table and save the crystal that had been handed down through three generations.
"I done worked in the entertainment business, I did. I thought Phillip here was off his rocker askin' me to be his personal secretary," said Ginger, beaming with pride. She shifted to kiss her fiancé, and both Ash and Scribbs held their breath and watched closely not quite as closely as Ash's father though - expecting a cosmetically-enhanced breast to pop out of its tight confinement. Ash wore a huge grin; she'd never had so much fun at a family gathering.
Phillip twisted nervously in his chair; his well conceived plan failing badly. "Ginger can type 120 words per minute," he offered quickly, not mentioning the fact that she made just as many errors. He took a gulp of wine and gazed across the table at his sister. He'd never seen her so so content. Damned if she didn't look happy, but damned if he was going to take all the heat this Christmas.
"So, Kate, when do you plan to make an honest woman out of Emma?" He grabbed Ginger's wandering hand and placed it back in her own lap as he waited for Ash to stutter out some made-up excuse, and thus, shifting the pressure where it belonged squarely on his sister's shoulders.
Instead, Ash smiled boldly and turned toward Scribbs, scooping up the other woman's hand from the table's surface and gently taking it into her own. She gave her partner a wink.
"Actually, Emma and I have some news of our own to share. We'd planned to save it until after dinner, but I guess now is as good a time as any. What do you say, Emma?"
Scribbs broke out in a grin and nodded in agreement to whatever Ash had in mind. She loved the way her name rolled off her partner's lips and truly wasn't looking forward to the end of the evening when she'd again be referred to as Scribbs.
"I've asked Emma to be my partner in life," said Ash, glancing around the table and finally settling on her mother. "She's said yes."
The elder Ashurst stared at her daughter for endless moments before she finally spoke.
"Yesterday, I discovered that the butcher and baker who I've used for years are being forced out of business by their landlord along with the owner of the quaint little candlestick shop I occasionally frequent. It was the worst news I could've received, especially during the Christmas season." She suddenly turned her gaze on Phillip. "And then I discover that my only son, the one who've I've always counted on to grace me with a houseful of well-bred grandchildren has chosen to give me a brood of unruly urchins instead."
Proving she was smarter than the rest of them gave her credit for, Ginger reacted immediately. "Hey, I got feelings the same as anyone else!"
Elizabeth Ashurst raised an elegant eyebrow and waited for the ex-stripper to say more to refute her claim, but it seemed Ginger had exhausted her vocabulary. Lifting her chin as if readying for a fight, she turned her attention back on Ash, and just as she expected, her daughter stared back at her, green eyes boring into her own, ready to return the attack if she said a word against her 'fiancée.' Emma Scribbins was the real deal.
"And next, I discover that this fictitious lover of yours is real, and every bit as lovely as you'd described. I have to admit I thought you were playing with us, Kate, bringing home someone to play the part, but it's clear, you're in love with Emma and she with you." Elizabeth lifted her glass. "Brava, Kate. I wish you both the best."
"Bloody hell, what am I going to do now? This is worse than one of your Christmas scenes, only I don't think anyone could possibly imagine this scenario not even you, Scribbs," exclaimed Ash, pacing back and forth in her mother's kitchen. She'd managed to make it through dinner, playing all lovey-dovey with Scribbs, which turned out to be much easier than she'd thought. It had been natural and she'd liked it, but the moment everyone had had their fill, she'd panicked and snatched empty plates from the table, announcing that she and Emma would do the dishes. The others retired to the sitting room for a brief respite before the traditional Christmas pudding would be served.
"I'm rather enjoying being trapped inside this particular Christmas scene," teased Scribbs playfully as she sunk a dirty plate into the dishwater. "Your mum isn't half-bad, Ash."
Ash stopped her steps long enough to shoot a glare at Scribbs. "You aren't serious. Haven't you been paying attention? She thinks we're going to give her grandchildren grandchildren, Scribbs!"
"Your kids would be so cute. Little miniature Ashes organizing their toy boxes, insisting on wearing sensible clothes and shoes, planning their posh education, deciding on
"What? It's true, Ash; all of it," said Scribbs, extending her imagination to wonder what influence she'd have on little Ash. She smiled at the expression big Ash would wear if her daughter ran into the house, her once perfect hair strewn everywhere and her pristine outfit covered in mud.
"Huh? Oh, sorry, Ash. What were you saying?"
This time, Ash didn't bother glaring at her partner. It seemed to have lost its effect when they'd taken on the roles of lovers. "What are we going to do?"
Scribbs rinsed off the last plate and placed it on a tea towel to dry.
"Everyone be sure to enjoy the Christmas pudding. Harold promised his best this year," said Mrs. Ashurst with a touch of sadness in her voice. She was going to miss her baker tremendously.
Scribbs stared at the dessert, noting the perfect texture and coloring. Something niggled at her brain as she listened to Ash's mum go on and on about her loss, and after she had her first taste, she totally understood. It was the best pudding she'd ever eaten.
"I'm sure you'll find another baker, Mum," said Phillip assuredly, hoping his mother would find one before next Christmas. Her Christmas pudding was lacking to say the least.
"I guess," Elizabeth sighed and tried not to focus on Ginger who'd sucked up her pudding and was on her second helping. Instead, she rested her gaze on the lit candles that decorated the table, another reminder that she'd have to shop elsewhere than the quaint specialty shops she'd come to love.
Following the older woman's line of sight, Scribbs allowed her eyes to take in the full view of both the candle and what held it upright, her eyes instantly widening in recognition as the pieces to the puzzle she'd been pondering slid into place. Sitting up straight, she reached for Ash's hand.
"Ash, I know who killed Councilor Saunders!" She gestured to the candlesticks. "Look at the shape of the base. It's exactly the same as the one left behind at the crime scene."
Ash studied the pewter candlesticks carefully, paying particular attention to the footed base. She smiled. "You're right, Scribbs."
"And Saunders' Christmas pudding was perfect, just like this one." Scribbs frowned, despite her excitement, and looked down at her plate. "I hope this one hasn't been poisoned, too."
Just before the two detectives had left for Ash's parents, they'd been informed that the bullet through the frontal lobe had been the actual cause of death; however, it had also been noted that Saunders' pudding showed traces of arsenic and would have killed him had the bullet not done the job, just as would the blow to the head and multiple stab wounds.
"Two people? Accomplices?"
"Three," said Scribbs confidently. "The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker." She grinned widely. They just needed to figure out which one pulled the trigger and then Sullivan would receive a nicely tied up Christmas gift after all.
"Figures the one weapon not left behind at the scene would be the actual murder weapon," said Ash, searching through the bureau of Harold Camden, her mother's baker. A search of the three businesses hadn't turned up anything except for more candlesticks and knives like the ones they'd found at the murder scene. Ash wasn't exactly sure what the charge was for poisoning, bludgeoning, and stabbing an already dead body.
"Wonder why they left the other weapons behind?" asked Scribbs, lifting up the mattress to peer under. "Think they panicked?"
"I'm not exactly . . . hmm, looks like Harold has a lover or he's into cross-dressing." Ash held up a pair of black silky knickers and grinned, her mind still in their earlier role-playing mode of her and Scribbs as lovers as she imagined Scribbs wearing the sexy lingerie, but just as she'd begun to picture herself removing the knickers, the mattress dropped with a thud and startled the image away.
"I thought your mother said Harold was gay," said Scribbs making her way over to stand next to her partner. She eyed the knickers. "Looks like some guy has good taste though."
Making a face as if she'd just tasted something horribly bitter, Ash immediately let go of the lingerie and watched as they fell back into the drawer, her fantasies of Scribbs in the lingerie completely destroyed. She'd forgotten about her mother's parting comment about Harold when she and Scribbs had had to leave, promising to return for the gift exchange as soon as the case was wrapped up. For selfish reasons, Ash hoped it lasted well into the New Year. She desperately needed time to think, and not about this latest case either.
"Well, other than the knickers, there's nothing else interesting here. Guess we'll have to conduct the interviews without the murder weapon and hope one of them talks. I still can't believe a search of the suspects' businesses and residences didn't turn up anything," said Scribbs, certain that one of the men still had the weapon hidden away. A quick recovery would've meant a quick conviction, which in turn would've meant more role-playing. She'd discovered she much preferred the acting process to her normal set decorating, especially with Ash as her leading lady.
"Let's go back to the station and start the interviews," said Ash, closing the bureau drawer and heading for the door. "I think Harold should be first. He did poison Saunders after all."
"Hey Ash, what if we don't let on that we know about the arsenic? Maybe Harold will think he's being questioned because of guilt by association," suggested Scribbs, hurrying to catch up with her partner. "And if not, I know just the way to make him confess to poisoning the Christmas pudding."
Ash opened her mouth to ask exactly what her partner had in mind when she noted the gleam in Scribbs' eye, coupled with 'a cat that ate the canary' grin. She knew instantly what the other woman planned.
"You are evil, Scribbs, brilliantly evil."
Harold, the baker, sat on one side of the interview table and tried not to look at the evidence laid out before him: the bloody knife, the blood-stained candlestick, and a container that held the Christmas pudding he'd left behind. A life-size portrait of Councilor Saunders stood against the wall across from him, the hole in the councilor's forehead appearing much larger than it actually was. The baker shifted nervously in his chair.
"Harold, we know the knife belongs to George, the butcher, and the candlestick to Tom, the antique shop owner adjacent to your bakery. We also know that Councilor Saunders was about to foreclose on your businesses, and we can imagine and appreciate your anger," said Ash calmly and professionally, setting the stage for Scribbs' performance.
"DI Ashurst is right, Harold, except for you, that is. Your cohorts brought along weapons to confront Councilor Saunders, but you only brought Christmas pudding an offering of peace. So, you see, you're here solely as a witness. We need you to tell us what happened. Who shot the councilor, Harold? George or Tom?"
The baker wrung his hands, clearly unsure what he should say or do. He glanced over at the portrait and gulped loudly. "I'd already left before they arrived. The councilor was sitting at his desk, alive and well, when I left."
Ash set her jaw tightly. Her job was intimidation, and she was very good at it. "Oh c'mon, Harold; you don't expect me to believe you strolled into the study of a man who was about to end a career you spent years to establish, handed him a Christmas pudding, and then quietly walked away. Are you sure you didn't scream and holler and then maybe go out of the room to seethe away your anger? Maybe stand out in the foyer and contemplate how you could get back at the councilor? And that's when you saw George and Tom come in, wasn't it?" Ash had leaned over the table with each accusation, causing Harold to sit up straighter and straighter as he tried to dodge the attacking inspector.
"No! I swear, I didn't see them. I just left my pudding!"
Harold looked over at Scribbs for help and watched in horror as the DS removed a spoon from her pocket and scooped up some of the pudding from the evidence container. He sat frozen, unable to move, until the pudding was inches from Scribbs mouth. Leaping from his chair, he knocked the spoon from her hand before it could touch her lips.
"Don't eat that pudding! It's poisoned!"
Brushing away the pudding that had fallen onto her shirt, Scribbs explained, "Actually, Harold, this pudding came from Elizabeth Ashurst. The pudding you specially made for Councilor Saunders is in our lab; the pudding that would have killed him had he not been shot, then stabbed, and finally, hit over the head with a candlestick. Now, do you want to tell us what really happened?"
The round, bald man sat back in his chair and lowered his head as he began his tale.
"Harold has a son?" asked Elizabeth Ashurst in surprise. She'd been certain that his superior baking skills had come for him being gay. None of the other straight bakers she'd employed in the past had come close to his abilities.
"That's just the tip of the iceberg," said Scribbs, cuddling up next to Ash on the narrow love seat. The two of them had slipped right back into their roles as if the script had been written especially with them in mind.
"So, who did kill the councilor?" asked Phillip, sitting comfortably in a wing chair as he sipped on his hot toddy. He'd broken off his engagement to Ginger and had taken the whiny woman home, no longer content to settle for hot sex. He wanted what Ash had.
"His wife," supplied Ash, unconsciously running her finger over the antique silver band her mother had given Scribbs when they'd exchanged gifts. Her mum had simply said she'd been saving it for Ash's wedding.
"But wouldn't she have been the first one you suspected?" Without Ginger around to distract him, John Ashurst had been able to follow the conversation and had been swept up in the mystery of the councilor's unusual death.
Scribbs nodded her head. "Yes, the spouse is usually the first suspect, but Elaine Saunders had been out of town visiting her sister. She had an ironclad alibi."
"How in the world did Harold, Tom, and George come to be involved then?" Elizabeth was still confused, as was everyone else, as to the order of the events and exactly how they'd transpired.
"It seems that a couple of weeks ago Councilor Saunders finally figured out that Barry wasn't his son," explained Ash, finding it hard to believe that the councilor hadn't wondered before where Barry had gotten his blonde curly locks from. "And he was furious, confronting his wife and threatening to foreclose on the bakery where Barry worked."
"Ah, a baker; like father, like son," said Phillip, glancing over at his own father and noting the many, many similarities. He sighed in relief. "Um, sorry, Ash, please continue."
"Anyway, a distraught Mrs. Saunders stood in the garden and fired a shot through the window, her aim less than true as the bullet flew over the councilor's head and landed in his portrait. Barry took the gun from his mother and then drove her to her sister's. He said he'd talk to his father his real one - and get everything straightened out."
"How exactly did Harold come to be Barry's father?" asked Elizabeth, still holding on to her 'Harold is so gay' theory.
Knowing that the entire explanation could very well take weeks to explain, Ash turned to the one person who could clear up the matter in minutes - Scribbs. "Care to give a quick summary?"
Scribbs grinned and launched into the short version. "Harold and Elaine are old friends, got drunk one night, and had a quick roll in the sheets. Elaine didn't want Harold saddled with a straight life and married Saunders, instead saddling herself with the meanest, greediest man on the planet. Saunders discovered the truth about Barry and went mad. Elaine tried to shoot her husband, Barry came to the rescue. Saunders went ahead with the foreclosure and told Barry good riddance. Barry then added a little something extra to Harold's pudding recipe and served it to his dear ol' dad. Harold found out what Barry had planned and enlisted the help of George and Tom to stop him, but when they got to the house, Saunders had already eaten half of the pudding. Elaine showed up and, not wanting her son to be charged with murder, shot the councilor her aim true this time. Harold told Barry to take his mother back to her sister's, and he and the other two businessmen came up with a convoluted plan to divert the attention away from Elaine."
The three Ashursts, not including Ash who'd already been privy to the wild tale, sat quietly as they processed the whirlwind of information. It was Elizabeth who spoke first.
"So, does this mean Harold's still in business?"
"That was fun, Ash," said Scribbs, smiling from ear to ear as she drove away from the Ashurst home. "Much more fun than my family, that's for sure."
"Oh, Scribbs, how thoughtless of me; I took you away from your family." The bubble of happiness that had surrounded Ash burst at the realization.
"No you didn't. My parents are on a cruise until the New Year."
"What? Why didn't you say something?" Ash couldn't believe Scribbs was going to spend Christmas alone. Scribbs was the life of the party. Isolation from others was more of an Ash-like thing to do.
Scribbs shrugged. "I planned to sleep in and then watch movies all day, and besides, you had your family obligations." The ring that had fit her finger perfectly, suddenly felt tight. "Speaking of which." Resting her hand on the steering column, she eased the fingers of her other hand over the ring, preparing to remove it from her finger, but the motion was halted when Ash leaned over and placed her hand on top of her partner's.
"Don't, please don't," said Ash, her plea whispered, her breath tickling Scribb's ear and causing a warm, tingling sensation to work its way through both women's bodies.
"But . . ." Scribbs started, stopping when Ash gently took her hand, the touch so soft and gentle as if she was made of blown glass.
"Just for tonight, Scribbs; let's pretend for just awhile longer."
Interlacing their fingers together, Scribbs glanced over at Ash and squeezed her partner's hand. "We can pretend for as long as you'd like, Ash."
Ash smiled brightly and nodded, her gaze moving to their joined hands. It reminded her of the scene Scribbs had fashioned on her desk just before the pair had left the station to return to her parents' house. Ash had gone up to Sullivan's office to leave their report and promised to meet her partner in the car afterward. Scribbs had no idea that Ash had stopped by her desk on the way to the car park, immediately noting the Dickens scene had been replaced by one that stole her breath away.
A dark haired Xena stood facing her blonde lover, their hands fitted tightly together. It was the perfect scenario and one that Ash planned to make true, not just this Christmas, but every single day of the year.
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