DISCLAIMER: Murder in Suburbia and its characters are the property of ITV. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to the wonderful mrswoman for the beta – English and British.
CHALLENGE: Written for the Second Annual Ash/Scribbs ficathon.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Middleford Detective Inspector sat at her impeccably tidy desk with a deep scowl etched on her face and her posture stiff and unyielding. For what seemed like the hundredth time, she glanced up at the clock on the far wall, yet again affirming that her partner was late, very late. In fact, this made the fourth consecutive day that Scribbs had failed to show when their shift had officially begun.
Turning her gaze on a set of tiny figures that were perfectly balanced on the top of her partner's computer monitor, Ash immediately noted the way each doll seemed to be staring back at her in an almost mocking manner. They knew why Scribbs was noticeably absent, but so did Ash. The little buggers didn't have anything on her. Narrowing her eyes, she started to stand, but the sound of running feet, fast approaching, drew Ash's attention to the doorway and saved the miniature action figures from being knocked off their perch.
"Sorry, Ash; I lost track of time." Scribbs slid into her chair and blew out a ragged breath, giving off the appearance she'd just run a marathon. At the very thought of the long endurance race, Ash looked down at her partner's feet and zeroed in on the untied laces. She had no desire to know anything about the type of marathon her partner had engaged in that had more than likely caused Scribbs to forget to tie her shoes.
"You're late." Ash stated the obvious, completely ignoring Scribbs' lamer than usual excuse. "Perhaps you should consider leaving earlier," she continued, making a show of looking up at the clock. "Then maybe you'd only be half an hour late instead of a full hour."
"I'd have been on time if Gordon hadn't misplaced the key," Scribbs replied, a rather smug grin forming on her face. "But don't worry, Ash; it won't happen again. I managed to pinch another pair that has two sets of keys."
"Pair?" Ash's curiosity wouldn't allow her time to make conjectures as to what exactly Scribbs was going on about. Had she waited just a moment longer, she'd have realized what her partner was referring to.
"Handcuffs," said Scribbs, elaborating, "Gordon had to use the hack saw to free me from the bedpost." She settled back comfortably in her chair, crossing her arms over her chest. Ash avoided looking at Scribbs' wrists for fear of spotting signs of chafing. "I never realized how many uses there were," Scribbs added in a teasing tone.
Cringing inwardly, Ash truly believed her outward expression hadn't changed, having no idea that she looked as if she'd just swallowed a very large lemon wedge. "Handcuffs are official police issue; they shouldn't be used for recreational purposes."
Scribbs' grin grew. "Oh, c'mon, Ash, you mean to tell me that you've never used your handcuffs for something other than subduing a suspect?"
"That's precisely what I'm saying," said Ash with conviction. Fantasizing was one thing, but actually following through was something entirely different. Besides, Scribbs hadn't asked if Ash had thought about using the cuffs for purposes not work related; although, the fact that she'd had those particular thoughts about her partner while on the job could technically categorize them as work related. She pushed the technicality aside to concentrate on an aspect slightly more significant than the improper use of handcuffs.
"Gordon? Gordon McAlister? The bloke with the rather bad topper and the horribly crooked teeth?" Ash vividly remembered the man Scribbs had been dating when the two of them had first been partnered together. She'd almost swatted Gordon on the head when Scribbs had first introduced them outside a local pub. Ash had thought a small rat had jumped on top of his head as he and Scribbs had passed an alleyway walking toward her. It was only as she'd prepared to save Scribbs' date from the attacking rodent that she'd realized a rat would have been an improvement over the horrid toupee.
"He's had a hair transplant and dental work. I ran into him last week, and we got chatting."
It wasn't lost on Ash that the pair was apparently now doing a little bit more than talking. She hadn't known that her partner had been playing footsie with an old flame; she'd just figured Scribbs had found someone new and would drop him in a couple of weeks when she'd grown bored with the relationship. This new information was seriously disturbing to hear. Scribbs had been rather fond of Gordon, and if he hadn't been transferred to another field office, there was a distinct possibility that bald little kids with crooked baby teeth just waiting to sprout from underneath tiny gums would be toddling down the streets of Middleford today.
"Oh, is he back in town on business?" Ash tried to keep her tone light despite the gnawing that had begun in the pit of her stomach. This was really bad news.
"He's been given another promotion; he's the new managing director at the office here in Middleford." Scribbs wore a smile as she relayed the bombshell that almost knocked Ash from her chair. The brunette DI covered smoothly by pushing to her feet and starting for the door, making sure to keep her back to her partner. She certainly didn't need Scribbs to see how bothered Gordon's sudden reappearance had made her.
"Sullivan is waiting for us in his office. I managed to come up with an excuse for your tardiness again." Ash started for the stairs, knowing that Scribbs would soon follow. Somehow, she needed to figure out how to get rid of Scribbs' old flame before it was too late. As long as Scribbs remained unattached, Ash held on to the belief that there was still a chance for the two of them.
"So, William Barrows comes back to his office for some reason or other and what? Surprises a thief?" Scribbs looked around the small room, noting the window behind the desk. "Why didn't the burglar leave through the window?"
"Perhaps he didn't hear Barrows come in." Ash moved to sit behind the desk, tilting an ear toward the door to try to pick up any movement outside. She could easily make out the footsteps of the other officers as they moved around the outer offices. "Okay, so let's assume he did hear. Would there be enough time to slip out the window?"
"Want to give it a try?" Scribbs grinned as she walked toward the door and swung it fully open. She loved recreating crime scenes. "Let me lock the door and go retrace his steps. I'll send the others outside for a few minutes so we can recreate the scene as closely as possible. I'll just get the key from the evidence bag and then head outside. Give me a few minutes."
Ash nodded her head and pretended to be rifling through the same drawers someone else had gone through the night before. She frowned at Scribbs' next words; she'd thought her partner had already left.
"Gordon and I once played a game of catching the thief in the act. I can promise you that murder never crossed our minds." The door closed on Scribbs' revelation.
"It's definitely crossed mine this past week," muttered Ash as she glanced up at the window behind her. She really wished Scribbs didn't feel the need to relay tidbits about her sexual escapades. Returning her concentration to the task at hand, Ash turned her attention to the door. When Scribbs finally entered the room, she was sitting in the same spot Scribbs had last seen her.
"Didn't you at least hear the key in the door?" Scribbs crossed the room, clearly disappointed that Ash hadn't moved an inch from her chair.
"I heard you the minute you stepped into the building," said Ash, a grin forming on her face. Their little recreation had shed quite a bit of light on the investigation.
"Then why didn't you try to escape?"
"I did; the window wouldn't budge. It's painted shut." Ash gestured at the door her partner had just come through. "Whoever killed William Barrows came in after he did."
Scribbs wrinkled her brow in confusion and turned back toward the door. Finally, she looked at the inside lock and noted the double cylinder. "But, what if the thief had a key to the office and let himself in?"
"It's possible, but I really don't think he or she would've taken the time to re-lock the door after entering. There'd be no reason to suspect there'd be any interruptions, and we know that Barrows unlocked the door because he left the key in the lock."
"So, the thief was already in one of the other offices or Barrows was followed into the building."
"Precisely, Scribbs, but my instincts tell me that this wasn't a simple theft. I think someone followed Barrows with the intention of killing him."
"I'll go get a list of Barrows' clients ..." Scribbs once again headed toward the door, but turned to face her partner just before she exited. " and a list of disgruntled co-workers." Briefly focusing on the very large office desk, a look of envy filled her eyes. "Sure wish I had had that desk at home." With a sigh, she walked from the room.
Ash grimaced and pushed away from the desk, knowing exactly why Scribbs had made the parting comment, but being the consummate professional, she forced herself to continue to process the desk as a look of disgust marred her features.
An hour later, the two detectives relayed their suspicions to their superior. "We're not certain at this particular time if the murder was premeditated by someone Mr. Barrows knew or one that occurred due to circumstances out of Mr. Barrows' control." Ash hated not being able to give a definitive reason for the murder, but they'd simply not had enough time to properly investigate.
Scribbs glanced at her watch and shrugged. If she left in the next five minutes, she wouldn't be late for her dinner reservation. "Could have been a thief caught in the act," Scribbs began, a smug smile suddenly crossing her lips. Ash narrowed her eyes, immediately realizing the exact path her partner's thoughts had taken. She jumped in to finish Scribbs' line of thought, or rather, what should have been her line of thought.
"It's also possible that one of Mr. Barrows' co-workers could have committed the murder. They had the means and opportunity."
Sullivan spared a quick glance at Scribbs, wondering why his DS had such a dreamy look on her face, before he addressed his DI. "We need a resolution to this case quickly, Ash. William Barrows is the nephew of the Chief Super."
Ash bit down on the smile that threatened to form as an idea suddenly came to her. "Don't worry, Boss; Scribbs and I will work round the clock if necessary to solve this case." She finally turned toward her partner. "Let's go, Scribbs, we need to delve deeper into the other employees of the firm."
Scribbs sighed and slowly followed; she wasn't going to make her dinner reservations after all. In fact, she wouldn't make any of her scheduled trysts for the upcoming week either.
"I don't understand why we have to stake out this area again." Scribbs glanced out the driver's side window and stared at the darkened glass of the victim's place of business. They'd already established that none of the co-workers appeared to be viable suspects.
"Sullivan wants us to be certain of our findings." Ash lied smoothly and pretended to look around the street with interest. So far, she'd managed to keep Scribbs from meeting with Gordon for the past three nights, finding reason after reason related to their new case. "He wants us to take another look at Janice Danvers."
"Well, she certainly isn't here now. How can we possibly get another look at her?" muttered Scribbs, turning her attention to the inside of the vehicle, and specifically, to her partner sitting across from her. "I say we call it a night."
"Just a bit longer, Scribbs, the minute we leave, something may happen that will break the case wide open." Ash kept her focus on the pavement leading up to the building, pretending to believe her own words.
"You said that last night when we sat outside the bar, hoping to spot George Mathers. I really wish the boss would make up his mind. Gordon is very understanding when it comes to my work, but even he doesn't understand why our surveillance is jumping from person to person." Scribbs sighed tiredly. She'd spent more time with Ash than Gordon this past week. There was a time when Scribbs would have thought that was a good thing, but she'd long ago given up on becoming romantically involved with her by-the-book partner. She'd since decided to settle for someone she could have.
"Well, I'm sure he just wants to be certain that we don't overlook something." The words sounded lame even to Ash's ears. In fact, they sounded just as lame as when she'd used them the evening before. She quickly shifted focus before Scribbs could call her on her poor excuse. "Just one more hour and then we'll quit for the night." Ash accompanied her promise with a smile, one she reserved for Scribbs, and for Scribbs alone.
"Okay, Ash, but not one minute longer." Try as she may, Scribbs wasn't able to keep a stern face. When Ash broke out in a genuine smile, it was contagious. Scribbs simply couldn't help herself; she smiled back.
The next evening found the pair in London, following a tip that the victim's wife had a little something going on the side something she'd failed to tell the two detectives when they'd interviewed her. She'd played the devastated widow routine beautifully.
Scribbs looked out the car's side window at the Royal Festival Hall. "Are you certain this is the right place?" She seemed relaxed despite her question. Although, it probably was due to the fact that Gordon had to go out of town on business for the entire weekend, so she had nothing better to do than sit in a car with her partner.
"Yes; the victim's sister was very clear about the tickets she'd seen when she'd stopped by her brother's house yesterday. She said they were sitting in plain sight on the bar." Ash poured a cupful of coffee from Scribbs' thermos and frowned slightly at her first sip. She really preferred tea.
"How do we know the tickets weren't meant for the husband and wife? It's quite possible they were purchased prior to William Barrows' death." Scribbs reached for her mug and held it out for Ash to fill. The other woman briefly thought of handing her own cup to Scribbs, but she really wasn't in the mood for another coffee-versus-tea debate with her partner. Dutifully, she filled Scribbs' mug.
"True, Scribbs, but coupled with the housekeeper's revised statement that she'd seen a strange man leave the premises on several occasions, the tickets at least leave the door open for the possibility of a paramour." Ash forced herself to take another sip. She and Scribbs had quite a wait in store for them before the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played its final note.
"I still can't understand how a husband, or wife for that matter, doesn't have a clue that the other person is carrying on an illicit affair." Scribbs twisted in her seat and faced her partner. "I'd certainly know if my husband was cheating on me. If Gordon ever did anything like that, I'd know."
"You're not married to Gordon, Scribbs." Ash was ever so thankful that her statement was true. It certainly made her feel less guilty about 'accidentally' losing Gordon's message the other day. She'd apologized to Scribbs numerous times for forgetting to tell her that Gordon planned to cut his day short so that he could spend time with Scribbs before her stakeout. Ash had blamed it on the case, citing how her mind had been focused solely on solving the murder.
"It's the same thing. We've even talked of making a verbal commitment to each other." Scribbs moved her gaze back to the entrance of the hall, wishing the orchestra would just get on with it. She couldn't really understand why her heart sunk with her words. It wasn't like she was getting any younger, and Gordon was a nice man.
"Verbal commitment?" Ash's heart plummeted. "What exactly does that mean?" She was feeling less and less guilty about redirecting the flowers Gordon had sent Scribbs to the local hospital, explaining to the deliveryman that her partner always kept just the card and then donated the flowers to brighten up some poor old soul's day. Ash had discretely pocketed the card as the deliveryman drove away. At the thought, her hand slipped into the side pocket of her jacket. The card felt cold in her fingers.
"I'm not sure if that's the proper term. We've just decided not to date anyone else." Scribbs shrugged and glanced back at Ash, the darkness of the car shielding the guilty look that had taken up residence on her partner's face. Ash swallowed hard. Maybe, it was time to come clean about her deception, and then, depending on Scribbs' reaction, perhaps explain her reasoning as well.
"Scribbs, I need to tell you something. I . . ." her words were cut off as Scribbs abruptly sat up in her seat and gestured toward the hall.
"Look, Ash; the crowd is leaving. Let's see if we can find Mrs. Barrows." Scribbs stared at the different patrons as they slowly exited the building. If the victim's wife was with another man, just a week after her husband's funeral, she would move to the top of the suspect list. Ash shifted in her seat so that she could better see the Royal Hall's exit over Scribbs shoulder, knowing full well that Mrs. Barrows wouldn't be among the departing audience. This was one of the worst ideas she'd ever had.
"Ash? Does that look like Gordon to you?" Scribbs squinted and pressed her forehead against the glass as she watched a man who could very well be Gordon's twin escorting a tall brunette away from the building.
"Um, Scribbs, I . . ." began Ash, her words jumbled together.
"It is him!" Scribbs reached for the keys and turned on the ignition, her eyes glued to the couple headed for the car park. She eased the car into drive and waited, pulling behind the dark sedan she knew belonged to Gordon. Ash didn't bother to point out that they should stay behind and look for Mrs. Barrows. How could she possibly enforce her rules about leaving a stakeout when said stakeout wasn't really a stakeout in the first place? Ash rubbed her forehead to try to clear her confusing thoughts.
"That woman better damned well be a business associate," said Scribbs as she expertly maneuvered the car through the line of traffic. She wasn't about to lose sight of Gordon's car. "Let's not see anyone else, Emma," mimicked Scribbs as she deepened her voice and swerved sharply around the next corner.
Ash held on tightly to the seatbelt's shoulder strap. She was going to die, and it would be her own fault. "Scribbs?"
"Not now, Ash," said Scribbs as she kept her focus on the black sedan. Ash reached out for the dashboard and squeezed hard. She should have told Scribbs about Gordon instead of setting up the elaborate scheme for her partner to see his infidelity with her own eyes. She'd just figured Scribbs wouldn't have believed her. Another hard swerve had Ash closing her eyes and praying that she'd have the chance to somehow make it up to her partner.
Fifteen minutes later, they'd pulled across the street from a modern block of flats, one that was gated and where every resident had their dedicated two car spaces. Scribbs turned off the engine and watched through the bars as Gordon wheeled his car next to its twin. She frowned. "Their cars look alike." She reached for the door handle with every intention of confronting her cheating boyfriend, but Ash reacted immediately, quickly hitting the button for the door locks and keeping her hand at the ready near the controls. Scribbs glared at her partner and pushed the driver's side button. By the time they'd finished playing their game of 'lock-unlock,' Gordon and his mistress had disappeared into the building.
"Stop it, Ash!"
"No, Scribbs; there's something you need to know."
"What? That the tart in the slinky black number is actually Gordon's sister? I don't think so. He's cheating on me with that slag!" Scribbs hit the button again, but Ash countered with another 'lock' maneuver. This was definitely one of those times handcuffs would come in handy; although, Ash would've preferred a different setting as well as a different circumstance.
"No he's not, Scribbs." Ash reached across and tried to grab hold of her partner's arm. Scribbs pulled away.
"I'm not bloody blind, Ash!"
"Yes you are!"
Scribbs finally turned in her seat to face her partner, a look of frustration on her face. "What part of 'Gordon is cheating on me' don't you understand, Ash?"
"The part where he's cheating on his wife with you!" blurted Ash, her own frustration at herself and the situation finally too much for her. She released a shaky breath and watched as Scribbs deflated before her very eyes.
Ash reached out and gently touched her partner's hand, and this time Scribbs didn't jerk away. "Yesterday, when you went to check on Jonathon McAlister's alibi and I headed back to Barrows' office, I took a slight detour. I went around to Gordon's office to apologize for monopolizing your time."
"But it wasn't your fault, Ash. Sullivan was the one who insisted we continue our after hours surveillance." Despite her upset, Scribbs instinctively stuck up for her partner.
"Yes, well, that's another subject entirely. Let me finish with this one first." Ash offered a slight smile and continued. "When I arrived, Gordon's secretary was signing for a delivery. I overhead her telling the deliveryman how nervous she'd been that the tickets to Friday's performance of the Philharmonic hadn't yet been delivered. She went on and on about how she wished her husband would take the same initiative her boss did and how he was always making it up to his wife for being gone all week with some surprise or another. She said, 'He's always doing things like that.'"
"Always? He's only been here two weeks." Scribbs furrowed her brow in confusion. "Or was that a lie, too?"
Ash squeezed her partner's hand. "According to the secretary, Gordon's been in Middleford for a month now, and . . ." Ash paused, knowing it was necessary to tell Scribbs everything. "He's only assigned to the Middleford office for another six months. He's here for a special project and then he's off to somewhere else."
Scribbs stared at Ash for the longest time, her scrutiny causing the other woman to shift uncomfortably in her seat. Finally, Scribbs asked the first question to come to mind.
"Why didn't you just say something?"
"I didn't want to look like a jealous cow. I figured you needed to see for yourself. I hadn't realized how close you two had become."
"I told you about the sex," Scribbs said bluntly as if that was explanation enough.
Ash grimaced slightly. 'Yes, but you always tell me about the sex. You've never said anything, ever, about your feelings. Had I known, Scribbs; I'd have told you straight away."
Scribbs just nodded and put the car in gear. The very long drive back to Middleford was made in complete silence. Ash spent most of the time obsessing over whether Scribbs had noticed her jealous cow comment.
Easing the car next to the curb in front of Ash's building, Scribbs turned off the ignition, and wordlessly, stared out the windscreen. Ash sat perfectly still, unsure as to what she should do. Should she go or should she stay? Scribbs took the decision out of her hands.
"Mind if I come up for awhile, Ash? I don't want to go home just yet."
"Certainly, Scribbs, I bought some of that coffee you're so fond of or would you rather have some wine?"
"I think wine would be best." Scribbs offered a tired smile and reached for the door handle. Ash just nodded her head and climbed from the car. She waited on the pavement for Scribbs to join her, and the two slowly started toward the building as Scribbs eased closer and closer to her partner. By the time they'd reached the entrance, Scribbs was leaning heavily against Ash.
"C'mon, Scribbs, there's a bottle upstairs calling our name." Ash placed her arm around her partner and lightly kissed the top of her head before opening the door to the building. Scribbs smiled and allowed Ash to lead the way.
As the door closed behind them, Ash began to make her plans. This time she'd do things right. She'd wine and dine Scribbs properly and make her intentions known instead of keeping them bottled up inside. She couldn't take the chance that another Gordon might come along and sweep Scribbs off her feet, even if it might mean that she'd have to bend her rules every now and then.
Ash smiled. The handcuff rule would definitely be the first to go. Anything to keep Scribbs by her side.
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