DISCLAIMER: Murder in Suburbia and its characters are the property of ITV. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Very special thanks to the wonderful FlyingPeanuts for her superb beta and continued support throughout this writing endeavor and to the ever gracious and extremely patient Ralst for making certain that I stayed true to these two lovely Brits.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Murder Most Foul
Thursday, October 29, 2009
In a room bathed in semi-darkness and littered with unoccupied desks, Detective Inspector Kate Ashurst ran her fingers lightly across her forehead, her usually ramrod straight posture slumped forward. She rested an elbow on the arm of her chair and stared down at a white sheet of paper that was encased inside of a clear plastic evidence bag near the edge of her desk. The killer continued to taunt her with words he'd left behind at his last crime scene:
A pleasing land of drowsy head it was,
Of dreams that wave before the half-shut eye;
And of gay castles in the clouds that pass,
Forever flushing round a summer sky.
Castle of Indolence.
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Ash whispered to herself as she once again turned her mind to the now familiar excerpt. Why had the killer made such a clear reference to an American classic when all the other murders had come directly from British mystery novels? Was it just a red herring? What had they missed?
Four Weeks Earlier - Sunday, October 4, 2009
"This had better be good," Detective Sergeant Emma Scribbins muttered under her breath as she walked alongside her partner, keeping in perfect stride with Ash's longer legs. Her frustration at being dragged from her bed on a Sunday morning provided the perfect equalizer.
"Murder is never good, Scribbs," Ash said, pushing her hands deeper into her coat pockets. It was an unusually chilly morning for this time of year, and she'd have preferred to have stayed in bed, too, although she'd have never admitted it to her partner. "And Wilkins didn't intentionally drive into a brick wall. He was trying to avoid hitting a dog."
"He was probably talking on his mobile and didn't see the dog until it was too late," Scribbs grumbled, still clearly unhappy that because of their colleague's bad habits and less than stellar driving skills she was trudging through a light misting rain instead of snuggling under the dry, warm covers of her duvet.
"Yes, well, that's probably true, too, but it doesn't discount the fact that he certainly didn't injure himself on purpose," Ash replied, picking up her pace when she spied familiar white police tape surrounding the perimeter of a dilapidated house. She yanked a pair of latex gloves from her pockets and began to stuff her hands inside.
Scribbs followed suit as she scanned the scene and the house that stood in the center of the cordoned-off area. Keen brown eyes immediately noted chipped and peeling paint, missing tiles, boarded up windows, and a gaping hole where the front door used to be. "Someone actually lives here?"
"I'm not sure," said Ash, crinkling up her nose in distaste at the thought of anyone inhabiting the ratty-looking house. "Sullivan just said there'd been a murder, and he gave me the address." She angled toward a police officer who stood near the front of the house.
"Morning, Ladies," the officer looked up from his small notebook and greeted the two detectives with a slight tip of his hat. "Or should I say strange morning?"
Scribbs grimaced. Strange mornings meant long, tedious hours and stacks of paperwork. "Don't tell me that, Stevens," she groaned. "Tell me that the killer is on scene and has already confessed."
"Sorry, Scribbs, no can do, but if you'll follow me, I'll let you decide on the strangeness factor," Stevens said, starting toward the empty facing where the front door once stood. "As best we can tell, the body's in the dining room."
A pair of dark brows narrowed into a deep frown. "As best you can tell? Is there something wrong with the body?" Ash really hoped Stevens wasn't referring to any type of dismemberment. If so, DS Wilkins was in extreme danger of further bodily harm.
"We're not actually sure it's the dining room. There's no furniture in the house, and it doesn't look as if anyone has lived there for a while," Stevens reported with a shrug. "From the scuff marks on the wooden floor, it appears as if there'd been a table and chairs in the center of the room at one time."
Ash nodded her understanding and followed behind Stevens, taking extreme care in her foot placement as the front step was almost entirely hidden by leaves. She glanced over to warn Scribbs of the potentially dangerous situation just as her partner stepped on a rotten For Sale sign, one that had been carelessly tossed onto the step long ago and forgotten by time. Damp, slick leaves clung to its surface, adding to an already precarious and slippery condition and causing Scribbs's booted heel to shoot forward and slide well ahead of the rest of her body.
Reacting immediately, Ash reached out and pulled a floundering Scribbs toward her. She tried not to notice how good it felt to have Scribbs pressed so closely against her.
"Careful, Scribbs, or you'll end up on a gurney in the A&E beside Wilkins," Ash cautioned as she eased away from her partner, the immediate loss of welcomed warmth causing her to feel more chilled than before. "Sullivan needs you in one piece; he's already down a DS." She swallowed the rest of her words. Scribbs didn't need to know how much Ash needed her to be in one piece, too.
Scribbs uncharacteristically blushed in embarrassment at nearly falling ass over tea kettle; however, her cheeks remained heated for an entirely different reason once Ash had released her. She explained the wonderful, spine-tingling sensation away as not having had so much as a snog in weeks.
"Sorry, Ash, I was focused on the doorway. It looks so odd for a door not be there, doncha think?"
Stevens spoke up before Ash could form a reply. "Think that's odd, wait until you see the body." He continued down a narrow hallway and ducked into a room halfway down the corridor. Ash and Scribbs carefully navigated their way to the wide-open entry and moved into the house. Both detectives came to a full stop, side by side, in the doorway that led into the room where Stevens had disappeared.
"Well, there's something you don't see everyday," said Scribbs, inching into the room. There, near the far wall, lay a well-dressed man, his hands clenched tightly together and his arms stretched out to the sides. A black, shiny top hat sat on the floor next to the body.
Ash noted drops of blood dotting the floor, walls stained with yellow, weathered wallpaper that was torn and tattered, and windows so dirty she could scarcely see outside. She shivered. She knew exactly what Stevens was about to report.
"There aren't any marks on the body, are there, Stevens?"
Stevens's head snapped up in surprise at Ash's very accurate assumption. "No, not a single mark."
Ash nodded her head and moved closer to the body. The victim stared up lifelessly at the dilapidated ceiling with an expression of fear frozen on his features. Moving her gaze lower, she found the man's legs interlocked as if he had struggled mightily against his attacker. She slowly lifted her head and took a deep breath as she focused on an unlit corner of the room that stood in shadows. Blood-red letters, spelling out a single word, were scrawled across a yellowed area of coarse plaster where a large piece of wallpaper had been torn away.
"Rache?" Scribbs said as she followed Ash's line of sight. She crossed over to the corner to get a better look. "Rachel?"
"No, Scribbs: revenge, 'Rache' is German for revenge," Ash replied with certainty as she turned back to the officer on scene. "Stevens, have his pockets been searched?"
Stevens shook his head. "No, we were waiting for you or SOCO, whoever showed first."
Ash returned her gaze to the letters on the wall and stared intently, almost as if she were willing them to disappear. "I think we should wait; SOCO should be here any minute. Besides, I already know what they'll find."
"So you can suddenly speak German and you're psychic, too?" Scribbs asked in a teasing tone, although she was a little spooked by her partner's odd behavior.
"A study in scarlet," Ash said in her typical matter-of-fact tone as she pulled her focus away from red letters that simply wouldn't go away. "The victim will have all his belongings in his pockets, along with a business card that will bear his name. And the cause of death will more likely be from poisoning rather than a blow to the head or other internal trauma."
Scribbs stole a quick glance at the officers who were milling around the room. Broad smiles and shaking heads seemed to be very popular responses to Ash's outlandish statements. She gestured to Stevens with a jerk of her head toward the door.
"Hey Stevens, why don't you and the others wait outside for SOCO to arrive? We don't want to contaminate any of the evidence," Scribbs suggested casually. "Maybe see if you can turn up anything on the outer perimeter."
Stevens understood the DS's intentions perfectly. "Good idea, Scribbs. Just give a shout if you need anything." He made a broad sweep with his arm toward the hallway. "C'mon you blokes, let's see if the killer left any evidence outside." The others didn't hesitate to hurry after Stevens, gladly leaving Scribbs to deal with their usually level-headed DI.
Scribbs waited until the last officer had left the room before turning her attention back on her partner. Ash had walked over to the bloody inscription left by the killer and seemed to be intently studying the distance from the base of the wall to the bottom of the letters.
"Um, Ash? You okay?" Scribbs asked softly as she eased her way over to stand next to her partner. "You're acting a bit strange."
"Strange?" Ash finally turned and faced Scribbs. "What's strange, Scribbs, is the way this murder so closely resembles one of Sherlock Holmes's cases, his first in fact, or rather, his first in print."
"Sherlock Holmes?" Scribbs's voice scaled much higher than the requisite rise in tone typical for asking a question. "Ash, have you got a fever?"
Ash stared at her partner for a long moment before asking a question of her own. "Scribbs, how long have you wanted to be involved in law enforcement?"
Scribbs shrugged, not sure of the answer and certainly not sure where the question had come from. "What has that got to do with you being so weird today?"
"I've always wanted to be a DI, Scribbs, and hopefully one day, a DCI," Ash said, her voice softening in memory. "I used to sneak into my brother's room and read his detective novels. I wasn't allowed to own such rubbish, but my parents let him have them all. I read everything I could get my hands on."
Scribbs smiled at the image of a younger Ash nicking one of her brother's books and running off to hide somewhere so that she could read in peace. Scribbs had done the same thing, only her books were purely romantic in nature and usually held a picture of some muscled man leaning over a woman with large breasts that strained mightily against the threads of a low cut dress on its cover.
Ash took her partner's change in expression as a signal to continue.
"I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes," she paused briefly. "Or Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple or even Lord Peter Wimsey."
"Ash," Scribbs dared to take a step closer to her partner. "Those are all fictional characters. Surely you realize that now, right?"
"Don't be daft, Scribbs," Ash admonished. "Of course, I know." She turned her focus back on the word that had been purposely left behind as a clue. "But this crime scene is real the lettering, the drops of blood, the placement of the body, the dilapidated old house, the top hat, all of it. And it's straight out of Conan Doyle's novel, A Study in Scarlet, introducing Sherlock Holmes."
Scribbs's eyes grew large as she once again swept a gaze over the room before settling her focus back on the writing. "You're joshing."
Ash shook her head back and forth. "I wish I were, Scribbs. I really wish I were." The two detectives stood silently staring at blood red letters; both secretly wishing Wilkins had taken a different route into work today.
The arrival of SOCO had turned up more clues, all of them just as Ash had predicted. The motive had clearly not been robbery as jewelry and money had been found in the victim's pockets, and his name had indeed been revealed both on a business card and a driver's license Harold James. But from that point on in the investigation, everything began to deviate drastically from Doyle's script.
James wasn't Mormon nor was he an American. He was a well-to-do businessman from London. And when the body had been moved, it was immediately discovered that the killer hadn't left behind a woman's wedding ring beneath the victim as was found in A Study in Scarlet. Instead, a plain letter-size envelope was revealed. Its stark whiteness had shown brightly against the drab, dirty flooring of the abandoned house.
Now, hours later, Ash sat at her desk and stared down at a small wooden peg, the sole item inside the envelope and the only tangible piece of evidence linking James's killer to the crime. All the other evidence had been a manufactured reproduction of a fictional murder, and even though the killer had been entirely responsible for every scrap of evidence collected by SOCO, the envelope and its contents were the only items Ash was interested in. Both could be attributed to James's killer and his killer alone. He'd left it behind for a reason, and Ash was determined to uncover his motive.
"Think this has something to do with a golf game gone bad? Some bloke didn't take kindly to losing?" Scribbs asked, more in an attempt to pull her partner from the quiet mood Ash had slipped into rather than to be seriously considered as an actual motive for the crime. The killer had gone to too far of an extreme for just settling a score. She swiveled her chair to fully face Ash. "Assuming the killer is a he."
Ash maintained her focus on the pointed tip of the white tee, its rounded end providing a solid base that kept it upright. "Harold James looked to be healthy and strong, so I think we can safely assume that the killer is male, although I'm sure there are some females who possess the necessary strength to subdue someone of James's size."
"Yeah, I've seen a few of those in my day," Scribbs said, the makings of a grin forming at a fairly recent memory. "Remember that woman we questioned a couple of month ago at the equestrian center?"
Ash literally cringed, bringing a bright smile to Scribbs's face. She'd finally found something to draw her partner's attention away from the golf tee. She pushed on. "The one we'd both been so sure had strangled the horse trainer?"
"Lillian Gordon-Moore," Ash groaned, adding a pained frown for effect. "How could I ever forget her?"
"I think she rather fancied you, Ash," Scribbs teased. "If you hadn't accused her of murder, she may have asked you out."
"Not funny, Scribbs," Ash replied, her gaze drawn back to the integral piece of her latest murder puzzle, one that didn't seem to fit anywhere. "Besides, she'd probably have a solid alibi just like last time."
"Ah, fast work, Ash," DCI Sullivan complimented his DI, having walked up to overhear Ash's last few words. He'd had no idea that Ash and Scribbs had found a suspect in their case, much less have had time to question the woman.
Ash jumped in her seat and turned toward her boss. The tips of her ears pinkened at the thought of Sullivan overhearing Scribbs's ridiculous statements. "Scribbs was mistaken, Boss. Lillian Gordon-Moore never once came on to me."
Sullivan glanced over at a grinning Scribbs before turning his attention back to Ash. "I was actually referring to you finding a suspect so quickly. Are you sure this Gordon-Moore woman's alibi is ironclad?"
"Um..." started Ash, clearly flustered by Sullivan's change in direction. He'd skipped right over the bit about some woman being romantically interested in her, as if he hadn't been surprised by the knowledge, and had gone directly to an outlandish misunderstanding of their former suspect's role in this new murder.
"Lillian was actually a suspect in another case, Boss," Scribbs said, coming to her partner's rescue. "We were just talking about her physical attributes. James's killer would have to possess a great deal of strength. We were trying to decide whether to discard any female suspects."
"Exactly!" Ash chimed in, finally finding her voice. She pointed animatedly at the golf tee for more proof that their interest in women had been purely investigative in nature. "And I'd think there are considerably more men golfers than women."
Sullivan nodded. "I agree, but I'm afraid you've got another problem entirely." He gestured toward the pointy, white piece of evidence. "I was able to call a friend to do some checking on Harold James. It seems he never took up the game." Reaching into his pocket, he removed a folded Post-it note. "Here's my friend's name and number. He's expecting your call."
Scribbs pushed to her feet and crossed over to where Sullivan was standing. "Thanks, Boss, we'll ring him straight away." She took the small yellow paper and smiled.
"Okay then, I'll let you two get back to it." With a nod to each of his detectives, he turned and walked away. Ash waited until he'd started up the stairs to his office before she turned and bounced her head off the edge of her desk.
Scribbs chuckled and moved back to her chair, patting her partner on the shoulder as she passed. "Well at least we know Sullivan has an open mind to same sex relationships." She laughed at the pitiful groan coming from Ash but decided now wasn't the time to get Ash's perspective on just such a relationship. "Okay, you want to ring Sullivan's contact or should I?"
Ash's head popped up and she reached over to snatch the paper from Scribbs's dangling fingers. "I'll do it." Grabbing for the phone's receiver, she began to punch in a series of numbers, her posture becoming more erect with each push of a button. "DCI Hollingsworth, please. This is DI Kate Ashurst from Middleford CID. I believe he's expecting my call."
Resting her elbows on the arms of her chair, Scribbs folded her hands across her middle and leaned back to observe professional Ash in action. They'd have the murder solved in no time.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
"I should've figured it out," Ash said softly as she and Scribbs stood next to a bunker on the tenth hole of a local golf course and watched the SOCO team gently dig around a hand that had been spotted by the first group of golfers on the course for the day. Little did the men know there was a body attached to the limb.
"Ash, we're not sure it's the same killer," Scribbs tried to reassure her partner, although she was absolutely certain it had to be the same man. What else could the golf tee had meant? They'd both discarded the idea of golf being the killer's message when they'd found out Harold James held a loathing for the game. That discovery had actually been the most progress they'd made on the case or so they'd thought. Nothing else had shed even a glimmer of light on the murder.
Ash swung a not so subtle glance over each shoulder to make certain no one was within earshot, and satisfied that the forensics personnel were too preoccupied with their digging to pay attention to her observations, she explained to Scribbs exactly why she knew James's killer had more than a hand in this new murder as well.
"He's choosing different books and recreating the murder scene as closely as he's able." She freed a hand from her coat pocket and gestured toward the well-manicured green of the nearby fairway. "Murder on the Links. Agatha Christie this time. My guess is that he couldn't find a golf course under construction so he made do with this one."
Scribbs frowned at both Ash's revelation and her own ignorance of yet another book. "And we were supposed to make that connection from a measly little golf tee?"
"It wasn't just the tee, Scribbs. He purposely chose Harold James as his first victim because of his position in life. Granted, he wasn't a millionaire like Renauld, the victim in Christie's book, but he was very well-off. The killer wanted us to connect the tee with James's wealth and tie them both to another murder mystery James's status to represent the next victim and the tee to name the venue. The tenth hole, of course, represents the date of the intended murder October 10, last night's date," Ash explained quietly, while keeping an eye on the forensic team's progress. An arm and shoulder had been exposed and the outline of the victim's neck and head had begun to take shape.
"So, we're dealing with a literate serial killer with a passion for murder mysteries?"
"It's not uncommon, Scribbs. In fact, just this past May, officials in Iran arrested a woman for killing at least six people. She admitted to taking her patterns from Agatha Christie novels."
"Yes, but our killer isn't sticking to just one writer and apparently he has a PDA to schedule his murders," Scribbs replied, scratching the tip of her nose to hide the grimace that had suddenly formed at seeing the victim's face unearthed. "Jeez, Ash, you could've warned me about the bludgeoning."
"Bludgeoning?" Ash asked, her tone fraught with confusion. She'd taken a moment to look over at Scribbs during their verbal exchange and had then scanned the area, again, looking for anything that might be out of place. She'd not noticed when the team had uncovered the face of the victim, but her focus was now fully on the bloodied and completely destroyed features. They'd need the world's most renowned forensic artist if they intended to recreate the victim's face. "Something's wrong."
Scribbs completely misunderstood Ash's concern. "No kidding. It's going to be very hard to identify a victim without a face." She no longer tried to hide her discomfort at having to look at a face that, for all intents and purposes, resembled raw hamburger. Her hurriedly consumed Sugar Puff drink that she'd had for breakfast began to curdle in her stomach, and she was forced to look away.
"No, that's not what I meant," Ash replied as she eased a few steps forward to get a better look at the rest of the bunker, taking care not to damage the area around the crime scene. She slowly panned from one side of the sand to the other until she finally spotted what she'd been searching for a lead pipe, only it was stained with red, not at all like the one in the book that had remained unused. "I don't understand."
"What's not to understand, Ash? The killer beat the victim to death," Scribbs tried to explain, her focus on Ash's confused expression and not on the bunker and especially not on the body. She'd seen enough of the damage to surmise the blows to the head had to have been the cause of death. No one could survive such a vicious attack.
"The victim in Murder on the Links was stabbed. He was killed before he could use the lead pipe to destroy the decoy's face. In fact, he was stabbed before he could even retrieve the body of the other..." Ash abruptly cut off her words and snapped her head to the right toward the direction of a small shed she'd spotted earlier on their walk to the tenth hole. Without another word, she hurried off across the green, her strides lengthening with each step.
"Ash!" Scribbs called out, scrambling after her partner. "Where are you going?" Not bothering to try to explain their sudden departure to SOCO and other officers on scene, Scribbs went after Ash. She had no idea what to tell them anyway.
Standing outside the door to Ash's flat, Scribbs raised her hand to knock and then hesitated before slowly lowering her closed fist to her side. She glanced down at her clothing and sighed: a worn t-shirt, loose fitting sweats, and a beat-up pair of trainers her favorite and most comfortable outfit. Ash had told her to dress comfortably as they'd be up all night working on the case, but Scribbs couldn't help but wonder what type of message she'd send with her current attire.
She and Ash had once had a conversation about clothing, and although Scribbs was certain that the outfit she'd chosen for today was far from projecting the wedding slut image Ash had steered her clear of months ago, her partner going so far as to offer one of her own suits for Scribbs to wear to the wedding of an ex, Scribbs didn't want to appear like a slob. She just needed to find an in-between message to the two Ash had alluded to that day, not quite 'see what you're missing' but well short of 'this is something you can never have.' She didn't have many opportunities to spend time alone with Ash outside of a police setting, and she wanted to make the most of it, even if nothing would probably come from it. They were in the middle of a serial killer investigation, after all.
The flat door suddenly swung inward and pulled Scribbs from her thoughts of proper and improper clothing and the many messages each might send. She jumped back slightly and snapped her head up. Ash stared back at her.
"Good, you're here," Ash said enthusiastically, stepping forward to retrieve the bags Scribbs had placed on the floor to free her hand to knock. "Let's get started." Turning on a bare heel, Ash disappeared into the flat, leaving Scribbs standing open-mouthed just outside.
"Well, hello to you, too," Scribbs muttered quietly as she eased back into reality. Stepping inside, she closed the door and moved further into the room, coming to a halt when she spied a mountain of books on the coffee table. "Please tell me those are the books you've ruled out."
Ash placed a bag of crisps on the counter and reached inside a second bag. She grinned at finding a tube of Smarties. "Those are the ones I'll skim through since I've already read them all. Yours are on the sofa."
Scribbs looked down to spy two books on the far cushion and angled her head to read the titles. "A Study in Scarlet and Murder on the Links." She frowned. "Why do you want me to read those? The killer has already used scenes from those books."
"Precisely, Scribbs," Ash said, crossing the room to take the other two bags from her partner. "You need to acquaint yourself with the murders that have already been committed. Get a feel for the way the killer is creating one murder scene, while alluding to another." She peeked inside both bags. "No toffee?"
Scribbs watched curiously as Ash sighed dejectedly and turned to head back toward her kitchen, presumably to unload groceries from the last of the bags. Her partner seemed... off. Had, in fact, seemed that way since the day before when Scribbs had followed Ash from the bunker where the victim had been buried to a small storage shed near the ninth hole. Ash had appeared almost disappointed at not finding an expected second body, and the pair of pince-nez they'd found prominently displayed on a shelf inside the storage facility had only served to make Ash more frustrated. Apparently, the clue wasn't at all helpful as Ash couldn't recall a single murder mystery where the old style eyeglasses had played a prominent role, which was precisely why Scribbs was standing in her partner's flat for the start of an all-night reading session.
"So, do you think the pince-nez is the only clue the killer intends to carry over?" Scribbs asked as she plopped down on the couch and mentally counted the books Ash intended to 'skim.' They'd have to work well into the next day if Ash planned to seriously consider all of the novels she'd accumulated.
"Good question, Scribbs," Ash said, popping a handful of Smarties into her mouth. She washed them down with a sip of wine and headed toward her partner with two filled glasses in hand. "According to the pathologist, the victim died from a stab wound before being beaten about the head, and he'd already been dead 48 hours before being buried in the bunker. I'm beginning to think the killer played it out that way on purpose to have Conneau's original plan of planting a decoy body in his stead to come to full fruition. I just can't figure out why."
Scribbs frowned as she took a wine glass from Ash. "Conneau? Who's Conneau?"
"Renauld. Conneau is Renauld. He wrote a letter to the police confessing to a murder - a murder very similar to the one he'd plotted for his own supposed demise and then he fled to Canada and next to South America where he gained a fortune and a new name Paul Renauld."
"This is all very confusing, Ash," admitted Scribbs, taking a healthy sip of her wine and hoping the alcohol would somehow clear up the perplexing explanation or, at the very least, make her befuddlement more bearable.
Ash walked to the end of the couch and picked up the Agatha Christie novel she'd set aside for Scribbs. "Here, read this. You can read Sherlock Holmes afterward."
Scribbs just shrugged as she took the book and settled back against the couch. Taking another sip of wine, she opened the cover and began to read. She never felt the dip of the cushion as Ash settled in next to her.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
A claw-foot tub sat nestled against a yellow tiled wall on one side of an otherwise ordinary-looking toilet. From a corner window, light streamed directly onto the cast iron enclosure, highlighting its antique taps, its glossy finish, and the body of a man wearing only a pair of pince-nez.
"You were right, Ash. This murder scene is straight out of a Dorothy L. Sayers's novel. Now we just have to figure out whose body it is," Scribbs remarked, the last bit said with a lilt of humor in an attempt to lighten the dark mood of the situation by cheekily referring to the title of the book the killer had used to stage his latest murder.
Ash didn't reply straight away as she continued to study the tub and its surroundings, finally settling her gaze on the body and expelling a frustrated sigh at not noticing anything out of context with this crime scene and the one depicted in Sayers's book.
"Being right certainly didn't help this victim," she chastised herself for not being able to figure out the entire puzzle in time to stop the crime. Concentrating solely on the use of pince-nez in the various mystery novels, she'd narrowed down the list of possibilities for the next murder significantly during their all-night reading session, but when it had been discovered the following day that the victim from the golf course had been stolen from a medical school's anatomy lab, Sayers's Whose Body? sprinted across the finish line as the definite winner.
"Ash, we've only known for 72 hours what the killer had planned for his next murder. There was no way we could have staked out every flat in Middleford, even if we'd had more time. He never intended for us to use his clues to catch him; otherwise, he'd had given better clues. He's playing with us."
Ash nodded in agreement despite her utter frustration at the way they'd been unable to mount any kind of effective investigation. With the killer following a written prescription for murder, he'd made no mistakes and had paid close attention to detail.
"He's definitely meticulous and is very good at research. I imagine his line of work must integrate both of these qualities. I do wonder how he chose this particular flat to display the body."
"Well," Scribbs began as she moved toward the window to peer outside. A narrow cobblestone lane ran between the building and another. Several windows of the other building appeared to have a fairly decent view of the flat's toilet. "The owner is away on business most of the year, so I imagine that was a huge draw to the killer." She glanced back at Ash. "We should probably try to track the owner down, even though he's probably just a pawn in all of this."
"True, another victim of circumstance. Hmm, I wonder if he's an architect like the flat owner in the book," Ash muttered softly, her thoughts turning inward as she continued to scan the room for signs of clues outside the realm of Sayers's mystery but foreign to the flat's usual items. "I don't see anything unusual or different."
Scribbs looked down at the body in the tub. "Other than a naked dead man wearing antique glasses, you mean?" She readied to ask if Ash thought that perhaps the killer had already grown bored and that the murders had come to an end, but a voice from the doorway dashed her unspoken hopes before they could be voiced.
"We found something," Stevens reported, motioning over his shoulder. "It's in the kitchen."
Ash just nodded and gestured for Stevens to lead the way. She and Scribbs followed silently behind the officer but brushed past Stevens when they entered the kitchen and spotted a small dining table against the far wall.
Two places had been set, complete with fine china, forks, spoons, and cloth napkins. Scribbs immediately noted that Sugar Puffs had been poured into one of the bowls and frowned at its intended message.
"Cereal killer," she said, lacking her usual enthusiasm at finding a clue. She wasn't one bit happy that he'd chosen her cereal of choice for his sadistic communiqué.
Ash grimaced at the killer's sick attempt at humor and focused on the other place setting. There was no cereal, no food of any kind. Just an empty plate with a single place card in its center. Moving around behind a chair for a better view, Ash stared down at the card. She wasn't able to stifle the light gasp that escaped.
The card had been emblazoned with a single name: Kate Ashurst.
"So, what's the significance of the place card? Do you think that you're his next intended target?" Sullivan asked his DI as he rocked back in his chair and tried to appear unconcerned that some psycho had specifically named one of his detectives at the latest crime scene. The Chief Superintendent hadn't been happy to hear about it either.
Ash glanced over at Scribbs, who could only shrug at their boss's question. They'd both wondered the same thing when the place card had been discovered, and they still weren't one hundred percent certain what the killer had intended with his mock table setting. The specific use of Sugar Puffs had been equally disturbing to Ash.
"Um, the victim in Bentley's book was a business tycoon and male. I don't fit the profile," she explained, her voice not sounding very convincing. Seeing her name printed in Copperplate script calligraphy had unnerved her, its elegant strokes even more derisive than if a simple print had been used. Of course, she'd originally had no idea what the actual style had been called, but their research department had quickly been able to differentiate among the various types of scripts, citing that the style chosen by the killer was one easily learned by a beginner.
Sullivan stilled his motion, his mind churning with possible motives. "Why do you think he made a specific reference to you then? Just to taunt you?"
"Perhaps," Ash started hesitantly as she ordered her thoughts around the specifics of this newest murder mystery reference that had been left behind for them to unravel. "In the matter of Trent's Last Case, the sleuth, Trent, made the grave mistake of falling in love with one of the primary suspects and he ended up drawing all the wrong conclusions following his collection of evidence. It was only when he'd had dinner with the actual perpetrator of the crime that he discovered his errors. Marlowe methodically detailed every single mistake Trent had made in the investigation and then went on to prove that the murder wasn't a murder at all. It was a suicide, carried out exclusively to frame Marlowe for the crime. After the revelation, Trent vowed never to dabble in crime detection again." Ash shifted her weight and folded her left hand over her right wrist to keep from fidgeting. "I believe our killer set up the kitchen scene as a message to me: he sees me as Trent and he's telling me that I'm mucking up this case."
"And don't forget about the cereal," Scribbs muttered, adding a gentle nudge in Ash's side for good measure. She shot a forced, painful-looking smile in Sullivan's direction.
"Yes, very ingenious of him to set himself up as a serial killer at the table," Sullivan said facetiously, having already read the report about the crime scene and the cereal in question. "Don't suppose we could have expected him to leave his own name at his place setting."
Ash swallowed the almost paralyzing terror that had been plaguing her ever since she'd made her own connection to the 'unwritten' message the killer had created in the kitchen and finally spoke her true fears.
"Actually, Boss, it's Scribbs we need to be concerned about." Her voice wavered noticeably, but she soldiered on. "It's common knowledge that this is our case and that I'm the senior detective, so the reference to me isn't a far stretch for the killer; however, his obvious choice of Sugar Puffs indicates that he has personal knowledge of Scribbs. I fear he may have set his sights on her for his next victim."
Sunday, October 25, 2009
"I gotta say, Ash," Scribbs said softly so as to avoid being overheard by the swarm of police personnel milling around the crime scene. She'd never get used to having practically the entire force working alongside her and Ash. "I'm not terribly disappointed that you were wrong. I'd much rather be standing here beside you, looking down at the victim, than having you stare down at me lying there with a hole in my head." She also wasn't terribly disappointed that Ash had insisted that she move in with her until the killer was apprehended, and if it hadn't meant more dead bodies, Scribbs would be quite ecstatic to have the killing spree continue for a while longer.
"I'm glad I was wrong, too, Scribbs," Ash replied in what she hoped sounded like a calm, sincere tone. When she'd been roughly yanked from sleep by the ringing of her phone and reports of yet another murder, she'd practically leapt out of bed and raced to go check her sofa. She'd never been so happy to see rumpled covers strewn everywhere and, more specifically, ends of blonde hair sticking out at odd angles from beneath ivory-colored sheets. She'd stood there, quietly, allowing time for her racing heart to slow to a more normal beat, and watched Scribbs sleep. Warmth had spread through her body like the first rays of sunshine on a cold, damp, rainy morning, and instead of bottling up the wonderful sensation as she'd usually do, she'd embraced it and let it have free rein. She'd even gone so far as to briefly consider expressing her guarded feelings when Scribbs was actually awake.
Scribbs smiled at Ash's concession of error but more so at the obvious attempt by her partner not to appear overly concerned, while still projecting enough emotion to show that she did indeed care about Scribbs's welfare. The last few days, spent entirely in the company of Ash, had been quite illuminating. Several times during the week, Scribbs had glimpsed a side of Ash she'd always suspected had existed.
"So, what do you think we'll find today? Think the killer will change mystery novel detectives again or return to one of the others?" Scribbs asked as she surveyed the surrounding area for clues of the next murder. She'd wait until after they'd solved the crimes before addressing the not so subtle change in their relationship.
The dinners they'd shared some take away and others a light fare, prepared together in the small confines of Ash's kitchen and late nights spent, side-by-side on the sofa, their heads bent close together as they sipped wine and poured over the various crime novels, had felt so comfortable, so right, but Ash was wound so tightly at the moment, Scribbs was certain her partner couldn't handle such a discussion, and if she were totally honest with herself, Scribbs would readily admit she really wasn't, either.
Focusing on grass still damp from the morning dew, Ash shifted her gaze to the single gunshot that had penetrated the victim's left eye. Other than the bullet hole, the man's face was scarcely disfigured. The killer had managed to recreate Trent's murder scene exactly as it had happened in print.
"Everything seems in order, although I imagine this victim wasn't the one who put a bullet in his own head. I guess we'll have to wait to find out his identity before we can make any conjectures as to what novel will follow," Ash replied as she reached into her pocket for her latex gloves. Her head snapped up at the sound of Wilkins's voice.
"Hey Scribbs! We found a car parked around the corner. I think it may belong to the victim."
"What makes you think it's his?" Scribbs asked curiously, crossing over a small patch of worn grass and starting toward her fellow DS.
"There's a sheet of paper stuck under one of the wiper blades. The wording is strange," Wilkins reported. "I think it's from a book I've read. I just can't remember which one."
The body forgotten, Ash stuffed her gloves back into her pocket and hurried after the pair.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
"Figure out who's gonna lose his head?" Scribbs asked jokingly as she walked toward her desk. With the lights turned down low and the room empty except for her partner, she'd stood in the doorway for several minutes and watched Ash intently study the words the killer had left behind on the windscreen of his latest victim's car. If they didn't find him soon, the case would certainly be taken from them and that was something neither she nor Ash could live with.
Keeping her focus on the cursive writing, Ash shared her thoughts. "He's come full circle, Scribbs. The first and last victims in the novels were American and now he's referencing an American novel, one specific to this Saturday's date: Halloween. I'm just not seeing the connection."
Scribbs settled into her chair and looked across the top of her desk at her partner. "You really think he's going to run down someone on horseback and chop off his head?"
"Her head, Scribbs. I believe the next victim will be female," Ash said, pausing slightly before continuing. "He really is focusing entirely on you and me. I think he always has been, too. I should've realized it after he'd set up the crime scene from Whose Body. The killer in Sayers's book actually attempted to murder both Inspector Parker and Lord Peter Wimsey, although I believe our killer is fixated on only one of us and the other has been pulled into his elaborate scheme by association."
"You're saying he's been obsessed with one of us from the start?" Scribbs unconsciously ran her hand along the base of her neck, following the path the killer would more than likely take with his next victim. She'd figured he'd only named Ash on the place card because it was a necessity to reference the next murder mystery, and she'd begun to believe the use of Sugar Puffs had been purely accidental. "Why would he go to such extremes? Why didn't he just stalk you or me like a normal stalker?"
Ash glanced up to respond but was distracted by the motion of Scribbs's fingers tracing along smooth, silky skin. She swallowed hard and ignored her desire to do the same as she forced herself to concentrate on the seriousness of their situation. She chose not to ask exactly what constituted a normal stalker in Scribbs's mind.
"I haven't figured that part out yet," Ash replied as she carefully placed the plastic evidence bag containing the Sleepy Hollow reference on her desk and leaned back in her chair. "The timing for his first murder bothered me, but then I realized earlier today that you and I had been originally scheduled to work the first weekend in October. It was just blind luck that we ended up at the scene."
"We had?" Scribbs asked, a tiny crease forming between her brows. She hadn't remembered switching weekends with Wilkins; however, her memory was starting to improve. "Didn't we..." she began but was interrupted by Ash who seemed, as always, to be able to read her partner's mind.
"We switched weekends with Perkins because his wife was nearing her due date, but then his wife went into labor earlier than expected and he swapped with Wilkins. For some reason, I'd been thinking it had been mid-September."
Scribbs's head bobbed up and down; her memory was crystal clear now. "Yeah, me, too. I was so tired of listening to Perkins drone on and on about his wife's pregnancy and weird cravings that I lost track of time. It seemed like it took forever for her to pop out that kid."
Ash grimaced at a memory of one rather disgusting craving Perkins had mentioned. "Ugh, don't remind me," she said, her face screwing into a frown as if she'd bitten into the sourest of lemons. "I still occasionally have nightmares involving an onion, banana, and mayonnaise sarnie."
The expression on Scribbs's face morphed into one that mirrored Ash's, but the thought of food, even Mrs. Perkins's strange cravings, reminded her that neither of them had eaten since they'd each grabbed a biscuit on the way out of Ash's flat that morning. At least Scribbs could now remedy that particular oversight. She slowly stood and grabbed her jacket from the back of her chair.
"C'mon, Ash, I'll buy you dinner." She slipped her arms into her coat and quickly quashed the protest Ash was obviously formulating, judging by her partner's narrowed brows and pursed lips. "We'll hit the books when we get back to your flat."
Scribbs's concession that they'd return their focus back to mystery novels after their meal seemed to pacify Ash, although the low grumbling sounds emanating from her stomach may have been the deciding factor for the DI. Pushing to her feet, she reached over and switched off her desk lamp.
"Okay, but let's get a take away. We don't have a minute to spare."
"Fine by me," Scribbs said, gesturing for Ash to lead the way. Her partner nodded curtly and started for the door.
Time was running out yet again.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
"Where's Scribbs?" Sullivan looked up from the pages of his paperback when he spotted his DI loitering outside the doorway of his office. Dog-earring his place in the book, he closed its cover and laid it down on his desk as he motioned Ash inside.
With a stride more determined than she felt, Ash crossed the room and moved to stand in front of her superior's desk. She couldn't stop a wince from forming when she glanced down at the book's cover and caught sight of a cowering man astride a white horse, frantically fleeing a black steed that was obviously gaining ground, its rider minus an important and very necessary feature: his head.
"She's gone to check on something," Ash answered distractedly, her gaze still on the book's cover. It would be dusk soon and, other than beefing up patrols in and around the more wooded areas of Middleford and stationing personnel at local stables, they still hadn't found that one clue that would successfully stop the killer from carrying out his next self-appointed task, a clue that would identify him by name.
"Good, so she's still in the building," Sullivan said, pleased that Scribbs was still following orders and hadn't gone off on her own to check out a theory that she'd come up with at the last minute. He'd known Ash would follow his instructions, whether she liked it or not. "Any news from the stables?"
Ash shook her head dejectedly. She hated being stuck at the station while her colleagues were out combing the city for a lunatic on horseback, but Sullivan had been very clear in his demands that she and Scribbs not leave the building until the sun rose on the following day.
She could actually understand his decision to keep her and her partner under 'lock and key' given that the killer had deviated slightly from his purely novel-oriented clues to send a plain brown envelope to the station addressed to Sullivan and containing a photo of two headless women dining at a restaurant. He'd immediately suspected that the women in question were his detectives by their dress alone, but their identities were positively confirmed when he'd turned the envelope upside down and had shaken it over his desk. The heads of Ash and Scribbs had landed face-up.
"Boss," Ash started, her voice rising slightly as she addressed her superior. "What if Scribbs and I teamed with Wilkins and Johnson for the evening and promised that we wouldn't split up?" She'd grown tired of 'manning' the phone hours ago, especially when the little bugger had refused to ring. Besides, this was her case, hers and Scribbs's, and as long as the case wasn't going to be assigned to someone else, they needed to be in the thick of things, not left behind at the station while the others worked to track down the killer.
Sullivan eased his elbow onto the arm of his chair and rested his chin on his thumb, splaying two fingers across his cheek as he studied his DI. He'd already compromised once, having originally ordered Ash and Scribbs into protective custody, but Ash had balked very vocally and very loudly and so he'd insisted instead that they stay at the station and run things from in-house. There was no way he was allowing either one of them to leave the building tonight.
"No," he said simply, but firmly, his response very unSullivanlike and not at all like his usual diplomatic and explanatory replies. There was really nothing left to say and it was time Ash faced the fact that she and Scribbs truly were in danger. It did, however, have the desired effect.
"Oh," said Ash, unsure how to proceed. Sullivan's entire demeanor projected a 'this isn't up for discussion' attitude, and Ash knew better than to protest his decision, for now anyway. She needed to regroup, she needed to have a sound argument with sound reasons, and she needed Scribbs by her side to distract Sullivan whenever their boss found fault with those very same reasons.
"Um, I'll just find Scribbs so that we can better coordinate things on this end," she stuttered, her words seeming to be actual physical impairments blocks that she'd littered across her path and struggled to keep from stumbling over. She very gingerly made her way to the door as a slight smile made its way onto Sullivan's face.
He'd have to remember that particular strategy the next time Ash and Scribbs tried to pull a fast one.
"Anderson, have you seen Scribbs?" Ash visually scanned the small, windowless room and came up empty, just as she had when she'd returned to her desk from her failed mission to get her and her partner out into the field. Scribbs hadn't been at her desk, either.
Looking up from his computer monitor, a balding, bespectacled man glanced around the room as if he fully expected to spot Scribbs from his seated position. "Huh... she was here a few minutes ago," he offered in explanation and immediately went back to typing on his keyboard. Ash waited only a few seconds before walking closer to his desk.
"Did she happen to say where she was going?"
"Anderson!" Ash raised her voice and resisted reaching over and removing the man's hands from the keyboard.
"Huh?" he asked, splitting his attention between Ash and his computer screen. He was in the middle of important research that was certain to break the recent dog kidnapping ring wide open. In fact, he'd been so obsessed with finding the key link to the individual who'd been stealing pedigree canines in the area, he was totally oblivious to the serial killer who'd been operating in their midst for the past four weeks.
"Scribbs... did Scribbs say where she was going?" Ash asked as calmly as she was able. She'd moved from merely wanting to slap Anderson's hands from the keyboard to having the almost overwhelming urge to strangle the absentminded officer.
He glanced around again and finally settled his gaze on an empty desk on the other side of the room. It seemed to jar his one-track brain into action.
"Oh yeah, she left."
Ash clenched her fists and pushed her words through pearly white teeth. "I know she left, Anderson. Did she say where she was going?"
"To meet you. Harrison said something about your mobile not working properly and that Scribbs was to meet you..." he paused in thought. "Um, he didn't actually say where, he just handed her a piece of paper with the address, and then he started yammering about taking a trip across the pond. I tuned them out to concentrate on the mating habits of Pomeranians."
"Harrison? James Harrison?" Ash's pulse quickened and she suddenly found breathing a chore. "Where is he now?" Her eyes lit on his empty desk and zeroed in on a single sheet of paper near one corner. It stuck out like a sore thumb on the overly tidy desk of the station's most obsessive compulsive employee. Crossing the room in three strides, she snatched it from its edge and brought it closer.
The handwriting, though not written in Calligraphy, flowed across the page in a neat cursive and appeared very familiar. Ash focused on the words that wavered from the shaking of hands that struggled to hold firmly on to the paper. The named location was well outside of the town on a road that was lined with woods on both sides.
Fumbling for her mobile, she managed to hit the speed dial for Scribbs on her first try. It immediately went to voice mail.
Along a winding country road, a beam from the headlights of an approaching car bent around a particularly sharp curve and reflected off the swaying branches of several trees that stood well away from the edge of the concrete. The car appeared to slow as though the driver were unsure of her destination or perhaps spooked by the eerie effect projected in front of her as trees seemed to come to life and stretch out spindly arms menacingly in an attempt to snatch her car from the road.
"Where are you?" Scribbs whispered aloud, craning her neck over the steering wheel to aid in her search for the turnoff that would take her to where she was to meet her partner. The gray of dusk had settled into pitch black a half hour ago, and she was having a difficult time navigating her way. "I can't believe you want me to meet you in a cemetery, Ash," she added as a chill ran down her spine in memory of the last time the pair had traveled through a graveyard. Spotting a black cat atop one of the headstones certainly hadn't helped her nerves that day.
A break in the trees just up ahead became steadily clearer as she got closer and closer until the opening finally grew into a dirt-paved road, barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Scribbs took a deep breath and eased onto the narrow path just as a heavy band of clouds, hidden behind a cloak of darkness, shifted and allowed the full moon it had been holding captive to unleash its bright light on the world below.
Scribbs wasn't certain whether she liked being able to clearly see her current path any better than being blind to her surroundings, but she finally breathed a sigh of relief when she spotted Wilkins's car parked outside a set of tall metal gates which she hoped was the entrance to the cemetery Ash had alluded to in her message to Harrison. Angling her car beside her colleague's, she glanced over and peered through the passenger-side window; however, despite her attempts to squint almost painfully to try to change the view of what she was seeing or rather what she wasn't, the vehicle remained unoccupied. Reflexively, her hand moved into her pocket and pulled out her mobile, flicking it open with a single motion of her wrist.
No signal... Low signal... No signal.
"Bollocks," Scribbs muttered as she watched the display vacillate between the two messages, the no signal script being the more dominate of the pair. She lifted her head and stared up at the metal gates in front of her, the twisted design near its top taking on a macabre look as her imagination began to run away with her.
"Okay, don't panic. Just get out of the car and go find them; they can't be far," Scribbs said as she waged an internal battle against hightailing it away from the cemetery. She gripped the door handle, slowly opened the door, and eased a foot onto a hard dirt-packed surface. Now, more than ever, she wished for a gun, even though she was fairly certain that she'd end up shooting herself in the foot.
The moonlight seemed to soften its glow when Scribbs reached the entrance, making it difficult to clearly make out objects more than thirty feet away but, determined to find Ash, Wilkins, and Johnson, she pressed forward until she came to a dead end in front of a large statue of a guardian angel. Diligently scanning the area, she peered down paths to her left and to her right, each leading further into the graveyard. She looked back up at the angel.
"A little help would be nice," she said softly, but the angel only stared back with its stony eyes. Scribbs opened her mouth to say something sarcastic and witty but instead emitted a slight squeak when she heard something off in the distance.
"Ash, is that you?" she asked in a hopeful tone, her eyes darting across the graveyard and over its sea of headstones. "This isn't funny," she added truthfully, not at all amused by her colleagues' little game of 'scare the shit out of Scribbs.' Just as she felt a virtual tug against her left leg, she finally spotted the culprit of the noise that had caught her full attention. To her left and under the low branches of a small grove of trees stood a figure on horseback, the cloaked individual and his steed both in black and barely visible against their moonlit background.
Scribbs concentrated on the rider's hood, trying to discern if there was a head beneath the material, but her focus was drawn higher to where moonlight cast a bright, almost blinding light above where the rider sat tall in the saddle. She stared at the incandescent glow and soon was able to make out its source: silver metal, very sharp-looking metal, attached to a long wooden rod that looked every bit like the weapon that, in her mind, had chopped off Icabod's head.
Taking a stuttered step backward, Scribbs tripped but managed to catch herself on the edge of the statue. She stared up at the angel. "Help?" she softly pleaded as she righted herself and glanced back at the tree line. The rider gripped his staff and Scribbs frantically searched for a place to hide. A chirping sound from her pocket set her in motion and she left the path, heading for a small grouping of headstones. She dove behind the largest of the markers and reached inside her pocket for her mobile, almost shouting out the location of her hiding place to the rider when she spotted Ash's name on her mobile's display.
"Ash! Ash!" she yelled in a whispered but frantic tone as she peered around a gray headstone, searching for the headless horseman. The area under the trees was vacant with no sign of horse or rider anywhere. Scribbs's eyes widened and she jumped to her feet, keeping low and using the grave markers as her shield. She ducked behind thick black marble and looked back down at her phone's display.
"Shit!" Scribbs cursed as her pulse and heart rate neared all-time highs. She stuffed her phone back into her pocket and focused on the path that would lead her back to her car. Figuring it was her only chance of survival, she mentally calculated the distance and prepared to make a run for it. On the count of three, she leapt to her feet and sprinted as fast as her legs would take her. She'd just stepped onto the dirt path when she heard the sound of horse hooves behind her and quickly picking up speed.
Glancing over her shoulder, she spotted horse and rider bearing down on her and, right when she felt the hot breath of the horse against the nape of her neck, she closed her eyes and dove to her left.
Ash wheeled her car next to Scribbs's and tossed her dead mobile on the passenger seat. Jumping from the vehicle, she hurried through the gates of the cemetery and scanned the graveyard for any sign of her partner. If anything happened to Scribbs, she'd not be able to bear it.
The thought had scarcely entered her mind when she spied Scribbs, still with her head attached and looking relatively unharmed, ducking behind a large black headstone. Ash released a breath in relief and started forward, stopping in her tracks when she caught sight of movement out of the corner of her eye. She focused on a tall stone angel in the distance and then a black horse that sidestepped into the middle of the path.
At that exact moment, Scribbs ran directly into the horse's path and Ash watched in horror as her partner began to sprint toward her, the large black steed literally right on Scribbs's heel. The rider confidently lifted his weapon high overhead and started a downward motion but wasn't able to complete his follow-through before he fell from his horse. Ash raced toward her partner and slid to her knees next to Scribbs.
"You okay, Scribbs?" she asked breathlessly, reaching out shaky hands to grasp her partner's shoulders and gently attempt to pull Scribbs from her 'balled-up' position. She was met with rigid resistance.
"Run, Ash! Save yourself," Scribbs cried as she tried to keep her head hidden from the killer's sharp blade.
"It's okay, Scribbs," Ash assured, her voice full of emotion. "The headless horseman has been apprehended."
Slowly lifting into a sitting position, Scribbs rolled open an eye to see a hooded figure face down on the ground and another figure standing over him with a booted foot in his back and a hand holding the man's weapon upright with its wooden end resting on the ground. She followed the dark shaft upward until she saw the glint of shiny metal. Swallowing hard, Scribbs moved her gaze to a second person, a shapely blonde, who had a gun trained on the man and looked to be enjoying the experience just a bit too much.
Two horses stood nearby one, a tall black creature that snorted loudly and the other, a stark white one that seemed content to nibble on the grass. Scribbs squinted and again stared at the figure that stood over the horseman, the person's features slowly coming into focus.
"Yes, Lillian; I figured we needed help to be on equal footing with the killer," Ash explained, her composure clearly shaken at nearly seeing her partner decapitated. Her scream had caught in her throat when she'd watched the horse chase Scribbs down. She hadn't even been able to call out her partner's name as the sharp-looking blade had descended toward Scribbs's head. A strangled cry of relief had sprung from her lips as she'd watched the blade stop at the last moment when Lillian and her horse had crossed the other horse's path. The stocky woman had swung a cricket bat across the rider's midsection and knocked him from his saddle.
"I rang her from my mobile when I left the station. Little Stempington is about the same distance to the cemetery as Middleford," Ash continued as she stood and held out her hand to help Scribbs to her feet. Interlacing their fingers, she refused to let go as she led her partner toward the killer and the two women who kept guard. Scribbs didn't seem to mind one bit.
"Detectives," Lillian greeted with a smirk. "Fancy meeting you here." She winked at Ash and nodded casually at Scribbs as if she'd knocked hooded men, yielding archaic bladed weapons, off their horses every day. "Hope you don't mind that I called for backup, too," she said, gesturing toward the blonde at her side. "This is Hilary."
Hilary Davenport took one look at the two Middleford detectives, the way they stood so close to each other, and how their hands were so comfortably intertwined, and she instantly knew Lillian didn't have a prayer of snaring the stern-looking brunette. Her friend stood a better chance of nailing Little Stempington's police superintendent's wife, Joyce Hazledine.
Scribbs hadn't noticed the blonde's scrutiny as she was too focused on the hooded man who was pinned to the ground. Her curiosity winning out, she reluctantly released Ash's hand and bent over to remove the killer's hood.
"Harrison?" she asked stunned. "What did I ever do to you?"
"You turned me down twelve times for dinner!" he spat, glaring up at Scribbs with fire in his eyes. He grimaced when a booted heel dug into his spine.
"Yeah, but Ash turned you down, too. How come you didn't try to chop off her head?"
"She turns everyone down! But you... you'll go out with anyone!"
"Except for you," Ash returned quickly, staring down at the man with disdain in her eyes. "I'd say Scribbs's tastes have drastically improved, especially if she refused the likes of you."
The faint sound of sirens silenced any retort Harrison might have as a procession of flashing blue lights made its way down the narrow dirt road.
Hilary smiled and lowered her weapon, discretely sliding it behind her back as the cavalry drew nearer.
"He was after Scribbs, Boss, not me. I don't see why I have to be excluded from Harrison 's interview," Ash said as professionally as possible given the circumstances that had her actually asking permission to close her own case, hers and Scribbs's. Standing in front of her superior for the second time in less than twenty-four hours to make yet another request to stay directly involved in her case, she ignored the intense feeling of déjà vu and also disregarded the fact that she had an overwhelming desire to strangle James Harrison. She'd allowed this case to crawl under skin like no other.
Of course, none of her other cases had been centered on one man's obsession with her partner and certainly none of them had Scribbs nearly losing her head. Literally, anyway. There was that time Scribbs had stood in the path of a vicious dog, actually coercing the animal to attack. The dangerous tactic by her partner had been one the few times Ash had acknowledged to herself that she had true feelings for Scribbs, feelings she'd force herself to hide and bury away from everyone, including Scribbs, until something else came along that would push them bubbling to the surface, only to last long enough for her to repeat the cycle once again. This time, however, that hadn't happened. Instead, she'd let them grow stronger and stronger, her heart refusing to allow her to ignore them any longer.
"I believe he was just as focused on you, Ash, but even if he weren't, there's still the matter of you enlisting the help of non-departmental personnel. Not only do I have to explain to the Chief Superintendent that the killer had been right under our noses all this time, but I also have to detail how Harrison was apprehended, not to mention how easily Harrison had tampered with Wilkins's car so that he could use the vehicle to trick Scribbs. The Chief Superintendent's not going to be happy with any part of this case," Sullivan explained, dreading the meeting with his supervisor that had been scheduled for later in the day. He hadn't been particularly happy with the way Wilkins had been duped or with the manner in which the arrest had been made, either. He was, however, extremely grateful to the two ladies of Little Stempington that Scribbs had remained unharmed.
Ash stood silent; she had no answer for her superior. The rule-oriented, by the book detective wouldn't hesitate to repeat her actions to ask for assistance should the situation call for it, especially when Scribbs's life depended on it. She simply conceded to Sullivan instead without further discussion.
"I'll just leave you to it," she said with a slight nod. "I'd appreciate being kept informed, Boss." Not waiting for a reply, she started for the office door with a purposeful stride. It had been at least a half of an hour since she'd last rung Scribbs to check on her.
"Ash," Sullivan called out and waited for his DI to turn and acknowledge him. "Tell Scribbs to take it easy for a few days. You, too." He smiled warmly before turning his attention back to the arrest report and his current dilemma. There had to be a way to explain away or, at the very least, sugarcoat Lillian Gordon-Moore and Hilary Davenport's involvement in apprehending Harrison.
Ash paused momentarily in thought before heading away again. A particularly vivid image of Scribbs, looking up at her just moments after Harrison had missed with his weapon, made its way into her mind. Perhaps she should check on Scribbs in person.
With a hand poised to knock on Scribbs's door, Ash pulled back seconds before her knuckles could make contact against the smooth surface. She'd sat in her car close to fifteen minutes before talking herself into getting out and, now that she'd finally made it to the front step of Scribbs's house, she felt as if she were housing a thousand butterflies in her stomach and they'd all suddenly decided to take flight at the same time.
What was wrong with her? It was just Scribbs. There was no reason for her to feel nervous and unsettled.
"This is silly," Ash whispered under her breath as she forced her hand from its frozen, mid-air position to rap sharply on her partner's door. The loud knocking startled her and caused her to glance around uneasily even though she was entirely responsible for the sound. Smoothing her hands down the sides of her trousers to calm her nerves, she quickly slipped them into her pockets in a poorly veiled attempt to appear nonchalant when the door swung open.
"Ash? What are you doing here?" Scribbs asked tiredly, her voice rough from lack of sleep. After spending hours recounting her version of the evening's events and the subsequent attempt on her life, Sullivan had ordered her home with implicit instructions to stay away until the loose ends of the case had been tied up. Her efforts to sleep had failed miserably as every time she'd close her eyes she'd see the razor sharp blade of Harrison 's weapon coming down upon her and neatly removing her head from her shoulders. She'd pop open her eyes and lightly cup her hand around her neck, rubbing the pads of her fingers along its base to ensure that it truly was attached.
"I just thought I'd..." Ash started but stopped abruptly when she noticed a discoloration beneath Scribbs's left eye. Unconsciously easing a hand from her pocket, she stepped closer and gently ran her thumb over the purplish colored skin. "What happened?"
It took Scribbs a full beat to realize what Ash was referring to, the light caress distracting her from her partner's question. She looked into green eyes filled with concern and almost forgot her own name.
"Uh, oh yeah. Um, I must have hit it on something when I dove out of the way. It's gotten worse in the last couple of hours. Guess I'm lucky to come away with just a black eye, huh?" Scribbs joked, hoping the humor would restore a darker contrast to the paper thin line between them. It had slowly been lightened, bit by bit, since the first murder had been discovered and was on the verge of being erased completely. Not that she minded, but Scribbs was certain Ash wanted nothing more than to redraw the line with a permanent Sharpie and keep the barrier firmly in place.
"Have you tried ice?" Ash asked, stepping closer to get a better look at her partner's injury. Her arm brushed against Scribbs's thin shirt and a light shiver coursed through both women at the unexpected touch. Each tried to ignore the spontaneous reaction and rationalize that it was solely due to the thought of icing down bruised and tender skin on a cold and windy morning.
"Hey, what happened at Harrison's interview?" Scribbs questioned suddenly, needing a change of subject before she did something stupid and irreversible. She didn't think Ash would fall for the 'my lips were dry and I needed to borrow some of your lip gloss' excuse, but if Ash persisted in touching her, they'd soon be sharing much more than just flavorful lip gloss.
Ash's expression instantly turned to one of disappointment and she eased her hand away from Scribbs's face and back into her pocket. Scribbs's distraction ploy had worked.
"Sullivan is conducting the interview. He believes I'm too personally involved in the case because of you," she explained, pausing briefly in memory of her meeting with Sullivan and one specific reason he'd mentioned in passing at the onset. "Because we're partners, Scribbs. Um, that is partners... not because we're... um, you know, partners." Her hand flitted back and forth between them to add clarification to her meaning.
Scribbs bit back a grin. Even under what should have been considered a serious circumstance, especially given that she could have easily been Harrison's final victim, Scribbs found Ash's reply utterly cute and beyond charming. She loved seeing this side of Ash.
"I wonder why Harrison didn't just come after me from the start. Why did he develop such an elaborate scheme?" The investigator in Scribbs wouldn't be satisfied until she knew all the reasons behind their psycho colleague's murders.
"I have a theory," Ash said just as a strong gust of wind blew across the front step. She scrunched her neck inside her coat and burrowed her hands deeper into her pockets.
Scribbs reached out and crooked an arm around Ash's elbow.
"Why don't I make us a cup of coffee and you can tell me about it?"
Ash just nodded her assent and allowed Scribbs to pull her through the front door and into the house.
"So?" Scribbs asked as she took her first sip of coffee. She'd been avoiding the high-in-caffeine drink since she'd arrived home after her harrowing evening and extremely long night of filling out reports and answering Sullivan's questions. As it turned out, it wouldn't have mattered if she'd drunk an entire pot of coffee. She'd stayed awake just the same.
Ash leaned forward and set her mug on the coffee table. She'd had way too much coffee during the night. "I spoke briefly to Harrison when we first returned to the station."
Scribbs sat up straighter and angled toward her partner, her knee pressed against the side of Ash's leg on the small sofa. "What did he say?"
Already situated against the sofa's edge, Ash had nowhere else to go. She tried to ignore the warmth that spread from Scribbs's touch. "He wanted to embarrass us professionally before he made it personal."
"By killing innocent people? Couldn't he have just stuck to burglary? I'm sure there are plenty of mystery novel scenarios that he could have recreated if he still wanted to go that route."
"He's a sadist, Scribbs. He got a thrill out of watching us try to solve each case before the next victim was murdered. He knew we'd both become as obsessed with solving the crimes as he was to get back at you and me. It was all a game to him."
"One that would end, I suppose, with my death," Scribbs surmised, returning to her latest habit of running her thumb and forefinger across the base of her neck. "Was he planning to just stop the killings and then continue in his job?"
"He didn't say; however, I found a boarding pass for a flight to the States scheduled for later today. He must've printed it minutes before he left to cut off your head."
Scribbs's hand stilled as her jaw went slack and her eyes got huge. "He lops off my head and then goes on holiday?"
"Yes, I believe that was what he'd planned. After a couple of weeks, he'd have come back to resume his job, knowing he'd gotten away with murdering you and the others."
Scribbs nodded in agreement of her partner's assessment. "And you, Sullivan, and the rest would continue working with the very person you'd been looking for and be none the wiser."
"Yes, but I wouldn't be working with him," Ash said softly, her focus turning to her untouched coffee. She wondered if it was as cold as Harrison seemed to be. "I'd have quit, Scribbs. I'd be lost without you."
Easing a hand to Ash's knee, Scribbs squeezed gently. "You'd get another partner, Ash. Probably someone a lot less irritating, too," she teased to lighten the mood, but when green eyes fastened on to hers, she realized she shouldn't have bothered trying.
"I don't want another partner," Ash whispered and moved her hand to cover Scribbs's. "I want you."
A bright smile lit Scribbs's face. She'd glimpsed a decided change in their relationship, but she didn't think she'd ever hear those words coming from Ash's lips, even if the other woman was only admitting to their working partnership. "I want you, too, Ash, but first, let's nail Harrison's arse to the wall."
Ash chuckled lightly and stretched an arm across the back of the sofa. Scribbs took the less than subtle move as an invitation to settle her head on her partner's shoulder.
"Scribbs," Ash said softly as she eased her hand to the top of her partner's shirt and gently traced her fingers back and forth along the tips of Scribbs's collarbone. "Just so you know, I was referring to more than just work colleagues."
Angling closer, Scribbs looped a hand around Ash's waist and burrowed into her partner's side. The two women sat, nestled together, in comfortable silence.
Like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Philip Trent and Lord Peter Wimsey, Ash and Scribbs had solved their case, but there was one very important difference in the telling of their story.
After all was said and done, they wouldn't be going home alone.
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