DISCLAIMER: Murder in Suburbia and its characters are the property of ITV. Spooks belongs to Kudos and the BBC. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Set some time back in the Series 5 world of Spooks, or MI:5 here in the States.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Ruth surveyed the assembled team for a moment, her face its usual serious mask, before deciding she had sufficient attention from them to begin.
"Right," she said, and a picture of a man caught in the act of walking across an array of white lines marking a pedestrian crossing appeared onscreen. "This is Tariq Qureddi, formerly and reluctantly of Al Badr, a Pakistani terrorist group based in Kashmir. Their main objective is the liberation of Muslims in India, but they've been known to dabble in a few side projects."
As she paused to take a breath, Adam jumped in with an urgent, "Do we think he's set up shop here? Started building up a satellite cell?"
Ruth frowned in irritation before answering calmly. "No. He's working for us. He wanted out, so we brought him over and he's been providing us with information for the past five years. His Al Badr colleagues think he's here as a sleeper."
Adam edged closer to the table, head cocked to the side as he stared intently at the static picture. "Are they planning to move?"
Ruth shot Adam a muted glare and, this time, waited a full, punishing beat before she answered. "No. Qureddi usually passes along information via a dead drop. This morning, he was intercepted before he could deliver the package."
"Al Badr's figured it out? They've snapped him up?"
"No, Adam," Ruth snapped, then reigned herself back in, offering him a tight smile. "He's been picked up on suspicion of murder. He's being held by the local police."
This time, the questioning, "Murder?" came from Jo.
Ruth nodded. "I don't know the circumstances, but it is imperative that his cover remain intact. You remember that thing in Lahore last year? He's the one who gave us the heads up. He's also provided us with a great deal of information about persons of interest entering the UK."
"So what's our move?" Ros asked coolly.
"Qureddi owns a jewelers. Local police have been notified that he is of interest in an ongoing investigation concerning diamond smuggling. He is thought to have information only, and that this matter might provide the leverage needed to get it. At no time are local police to infer that he is considered a serious suspect. Qureddi must emerge from both investigations with his innocence unquestioned. It is also of utmost importance to find whatever it was he was planning to leave at the dead drop. Local police cannot, under any circumstances, become aware of his activities for us."
Ruth paused for a second to catch her breath, leaving Harry a break into which to jump. "Ros, you're DI Helen Wolf with the Metropolitan police."
"Jo, you're on as backup."
Jo nodded. "And just where are we going?"
"We're waiting on what?"
"Someone from the Met. Sullivan's orders."
"But we could talk to him at least."
"Scribbs," Ash murmured tartly, "when Sullivan asked us to wait, I assume he meant it."
"But he's just sitting there," Scribbs said, pouting. "And we're just sitting here, like lumps on a log, being useless."
"For a reason."
"You can't be useless for a reason," Scribbs scoffed. "They're opposites."
Drawn into the conversation despite herself, Ash frowned. "Many people have very valid reasons for doing all sorts of useless things."
Scribbs considered the prospect for a moment, then shrugged. "Can't be a valid reason if it's useless."
"It's a valid reason to them, and that's the perspective that matters in this situation. One can't impose that sort of order from the outside."
"Oh, that's rich, Ash, coming from you."
Ash's brows lowered threateningly.
"Meaning you go about flinging order everywhere you go."
"You can't fling order," Ash said, voice tight with affronted horror. "Flinging is inherently messy. Not that what you said makes sense regardless."
Warming to the argument, Scribbs' eyes began to glint. "Now that's where you're wrong. What I'm saying, yeah, is that "
"Ah, there you are."
Sullivan's booming voice broke into her explanation, and Scribbs trailed off with a frown in his direction. She was about to point out that yes, they were, indeed, where Sullivan had left them nearly an hour earlier, standing outside of the interrogation room while they waited for their mysterious visitor from the Met to arrive, but Ash's subtle, warning glare cut her off.
"DI Helen Wolf, this is DI Kate Ashurst and her DS, Emma Scribbins."
"Pleased," Ash said frostily, extending her hand.
Much to Scribbs' surprise, the new arrival's reply was possibly even icier than Ash's greeting. "Likewise," she said, offering the briefest and possibly stiffest of smiles as she gripped Ash's hand in a briskly professional handshake.
"Right, then," Sullivan said with a clap of the hands and a tight smile. "I'll leave you to get on with it."
"You can call me Scribbs," Scribbs interjected brightly, extending her hand. She tried not to wince at the strength of the other woman's grip, keeping her smile sunny and hiding her hand behind her back to shake some feeling into it once it had been released. "We waited on you, but our fellow's getting a bit antsy in there."
"So perhaps you'll want to fill us in quickly," Ash said through clenched teeth, the expression stretching across her face resembling a grimace more so than a conciliatory smile, and Scribbs winced in sympathy. It looked painful.
"You understand that we're in the middle of an active investigation," Ros said coolly. "I'm not authorized to release unnecessary details."
"Then perhaps you'll release enough detail to convince me that it's necessary for you to be here," Ash snapped, then blinked twice, as if surprised by her own fervor.
There was a moment of tense standoff between the two. Scribbs hovered around at the edges of it, contemplating the validity of jumping into the middle and trying to diffuse the situation and balancing any chance for success against the likelihood that her chances of emerging unscathed were next to nil, when Helen spoke.
"Tariq Qureddi is a department asset. We've been tracking a group of diamond smugglers we think is based out of Aleppo. So far, they've proven remarkably slippery. Qureddi came to our attention as a possible ally through a confidential informant and has been working with us to set up a meeting. The outcome of six months' worth of investigation is sitting in that room, currently under suspicion for murder." Ros paused, arching a single brow Ash's way. "You can understand why we're keen to see this matter resolved."
Ash met the eyebrow raise with one of her own. "If by resolved you mean you want us to let your man go without thoroughly and legitimately investigating this case, then I'm afraid our definitions of the word are in direct contradiction."
Scribbs looked on with a skittish sort of interest, waiting for the next volley in the war of words and, truth be told, posturing to be launched. The showdown promised to be both explosive and entertaining, and as much as she knew there was a job to be done, what with the murder suspect in custody, she was truthfully much more interested in seeing just how Ash and the London interloper were going to resolve things.
She deflated a little when DI Helen Wolf lapsed into stony silence, her face as blank and hard as a mask. It wasn't the kind of silence that insinuated that Ash had somehow bested her. Instead it was more the type of silence a mother gave to an unruly child, letting the child know they'd only be tolerated for so long before the real authority in the situation took control, and the more it stretched on, the redder the tips of Ash's ears got. The hint of excitement Scribbs had been feeling morphed into anxiety, and a worried look had just settled firmly on her brow when DI Wolf finally spoke again.
"Of course you'll want to investigate fully. Your DCI has been kind enough to agree that I should be on hand throughout the course of this investigation, so I'm sure we'll see the matter resolved shortly."
Ash frowned. When she spoke, her voice was sharp enough to make Scribbs wince. "I don't recall requesting assistance."
DI Wolf's smile was razor sharp. It reminded Scribbs of a shark. A big one great white, maybe. "I don't recall you being given a choice. Now, shall we?"
"This is all we've got from the security cam," Scribbs offered, using the remote control to start the recording. "Qureddi goes to the back. The customer looks around a bit, glances at his watch, wanders out of frame and then back in it, and then bam, he's down."
"Thanks so very much for the narration," Ros murmured smoothly, deftly plucking the remote from Scribbs' hand. "You see the shadow here?"
She rewound the tape to the appropriate place, slowing down the motion to a crawl as she pointed out the barely visible hint of thin, razor sharp shading that appeared in the corner of the tape for a split-second preceding the gun shot.
Frustrated that she'd missed it, Ash's voice was irritated when she spoke. "It doesn't clear Qureddi. The shop has a back entrance. He could have gone round the back and ducked in from the front. Given the trajectory of the gunshot wound, it seems most likely, actually."
"Maybe he's thinking he avoids suspicion that way," Scribbs postulated. "This way, the security camera's running the whole time, and he's got the alibi of being back in the safe-room documented on tape."
"It's a possibility," Ros allowed, "but I don't understand the motive."
"Robbery?" Ash offered
"Was the victim's wallet missing when you arrived?"
Taking pity on Ash, it was Scribbs who offered a slightly chagrined, "No."
"Then maybe robbery wasn't the motive."
"Maybe," Scribbs riposted, "we might want to question Mr. Qureddi about his motive before he dies of old age waiting for us to join him in the interrogation room."
For some reason, the smugly amused smile DI Wolf sent her way felt like some sort of victory.
Though the room was actually a bit chilly, Tariq Qureddi was sweating.
"I had nothing to do with this," he said as soon as they entered, his hands held out in front of him and spread wide. "I know nothing about this."
Ash nodded understandingly as she pulled out a chair. She flipped on the recorder, made the proper notations, and then turned to him with a smile. "The man was shot in your establishment, Mr. Qureddi."
"Yes, but I didn't know him. I'd never seen him before today."
"Had he threatened you? Was he attempting to rob you?"
"No. There was nothing," Tariq protested, leaning forward, an earnest look on his face. "He came in and asked to see the twelve karat diamond necklace. It's a special purchase. Platinum. High end customers only. I keep the key to the case in the safe in the back. No chances on this one."
"Twelve karats," Scribbs murmured, impressed. "That's a bit fancy for Middleford, don't you think?"
"There are many rich wives around here," Tariq offered with a shrug. "They have their charities and their foundations. They do not work. They get bored. They spend their husband's money."
"They spend £200,000 of it?"
Tariq shrugged again. "And sometimes a husband has reason to feel they owe their wife a nice diamond necklace."
Ash again nodded her head as if in understanding, then asked nonchalantly, "And was Mr. Chamberlain a philandering husband?"
"The victim," Scribbs clarified.
"This I do not know." Tariq paused, his eyes flicking up nervously.
"Did he tell you why he wanted to see the necklace?" she asked smoothly, offering him a smile that was meant to be reassuring.
"No, he said nothing of his purpose. He asked to see it, I went to get the key, and then there was a gunshot."
"So you didn't see him get shot?"
"No, I heard it. I stayed in back and called the police."
"You didn't go out to see what had happened?" Scribbs prompted.
"I stayed in back," Tariq reiterated. "I do not investigate gunshots. I leave that to the police."
"Right," Ash said sharply, then paused, deliberately softening her expression. "There was no one else in the shop?"
"When I went to the back, it was just him. I have a bell on the door, but I didn't hear it ring so there was no one else."
"Electronic bell. It rings when the door is opened."
Scribbs straightened slightly. Ash caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, but when no question was forthcoming, she hesitated, uncertain.
"With your security camera, you've only got the one camera angle," Ash noted idly. "Why do you only film the counter and not the front door?"
Qureddi shrugged. "I had both, but something has malfunctioned and so now, I have only the one. I know I need to fix it, but you know how it is. Times are tough. You put off repairs thinking that things will be okay as they are, and then you are punished for your assumptions."
"For how long had the camera focusing on the door been malfunctioning?"
"A week, maybe. At least, that is when I noticed it. I don't check the footage regularly. It's not an especially entertaining activity."
Scribbs nodded, taking notes. Ash perused Mr. Qureddi closely, lips pursed as if puzzling through something, and Ros stared coolly.
"I need to go," Tariq said finally, urgently, breaking through the moment of silence. "I have a family. I have a business. I need to return to them. I did not do this."
"Well, you're a suspect, Mr. Qureddi," Ash said firmly, shaking her head as if coming out of a trance. "As of now, you're our prime suspect."
Face tight with tension, he insisted, "There had to have been someone else."
"We'll be making further inquiries. In the meantime, I trust that you'll stay close," Ash noted, a hint of threat in her voice.
"I will stay here," Tariq promised. "I didn't do this. You will find the real murderer. It is not me. You will see."
"Well, for your sake, I hope so, Mr. Qureddi," Scribbs said brightly. "But, if you did happen to do it, know that we'll catch you out. It's kind of what we do."
"I didn't do it, so I don't worry about these things," Tariq said firmly, his expression once again earnest. "Can I go now?"
"For the moment," Ash said with a sharp smile.
"Actually," Ros interjected, the words her first, "a moment, if you will."
Tariq paused in the act of standing, hesitating in a half crouch.
"You can sit, Mr. Qureddi. This won't take a moment. DI Ashurst, DS Scribbins, if you could give us a bit of privacy."
Scribbs could almost see Ash bristle under the presumption. "I do need a word with you, Ash," she said quickly, rushing to cut off whatever Ash had been planning to say.
She thought that Ash was going to protest, that she was going to insist on staying and then there would be another battle brewing, this time in front of a suspect, but Ash's professionalism won out after the briefest of slips and she nodded, spinning on her heel. "Very well. Scribbs?"
"Yeah, coming," the other woman assured her, bustling out behind Ash's stiff form.
Ros waited until they were gone and the door was firmly closed before very deliberately pulling out the chair across from Qureddi and lowering herself into it primly. "You have something I want," she said in Urdu, cocking her head to the side with a hollow yet expectant smile.
Qureddi's head snapped up in surprise, suspicion darkening his face. "Who are you?" he replied in kind, inching his chair back from the table as if preparing to run.
"MI-5. I believe you were planning on leaving something for us today."
Relief flooded Qureddi's features. "Yes. I didn't know. I thought maybe you were one of them "
"Al-Badr. It is hard to know, sometimes, who is working for whom."
"Indeed," Ros agreed shortly. "Now, the information "
"It was a chip. A memory chip. Names. All the details I know."
"I don't need the specifics. Do you have it on you?"
"No. I was going to leave for the drop when the customer came into the shop. I had it on me when the police came. In the confusion, I forgot."
Ros frowned. "Then where is it?"
"I remembered on the way here. I knew they would take it and put it in evidence if they found it."
"So you destroyed it?"
"No. I hid it."
"The detective, the blonde one," Tariq said, motioning with his head as if Scribbs was standing just beside him. "I pretended to trip. I slipped it into the pocket of her jacket. It's white, puffy."
Ros' glare was sharp. She didn't need to voice her disdain for the plan for it to be evident. "And how were you planning on retrieving it?"
Qureddi spoke quickly, his dark skin hiding a blush. "I don't know. I didn't think. I just panicked. I knew they couldn't find it on me. I knew that I'd be compromised."
"You're already rather compromised," Ros noted dryly, looking around at their surroundings. "Suspected of murder. Did you do it, Tariq?"
"No," he said firmly, looking her straight in the eyes. "I didn't do it."
"If you did, we need to know now. We can cover you, but only if we know what we're dealing with."
"I swear it," he insisted again. "It wasn't me."
"If I find out later that you're lying to me, my ability to help will be greatly constrained."
His face was open and honest when he said pleadingly, "I swear it."
Ash waited until Tariq was out of earshot before confronting Ros.
"I don't appreciate being kept in the dark."
"It was nothing to do with your investigation," Ros said calmly, scanning the squad room. "Where is your partner?"
Ash paused, thrown off balance. "She said she had a hunch she wanted to check. Why?"
"Hmm? Oh, I had a question for her."
"A question? For Scribbs? Something I can't answer?"
Patience growing thin, Ros said sharply, "If it were, I'd ask you, wouldn't I?"
Shocked into silence, Ash could only stare. Her brows drew together, as if facing a puzzle she couldn't quite solve, and the anger in her eyes grew until it was a hard glint.
"Until tomorrow, DI Ashurst," Ros said shortly, offering a cool, almost mocking nod of the head. "Bright and early, I imagine. It's best we solve this one as quickly as possible, wouldn't you agree?"
Teeth gritting, Ash managed a terse, "Until tomorrow."
Inside, she was screaming with thwarted fury.
"I thought you might have a theory."
The disembodied voice floated up from the darkness, and, startled, Scribbs nearly fell off of the small step ladder upon which she was standing.
"Who's there," she demanded, eyes narrowing as she scanned the pavement from under the shelter of the door frame.
"Helen," Ros said smoothly, stepping forward so that she was clearly in the other woman's line of sight. "At the station, I thought I saw the glimpse of a theory in your eyes."
"Oh," Scribbs murmured, stepping down off of the step ladder as gracefully as possible, still trying to calm her racing heart. "Well, Qureddi said that he didn't hear the bell on his door. He assumed that meant that no one had entered the shop, but when I thought about it, I realized I hadn't heard a bell either. Ash and I were in and out of here a few times at least, and not one ding that I could recall."
Ros nodded thoughtfully. "Interesting," she murmured. "And your little climbing expedition?"
"The wire's been cut," Scribbs said brightly, smile bright with self-satisfaction. "Qureddi said he heard it when Chamberlain came into the shop, but he didn't hear it after. We didn't hear it either."
Catching on to Scribbs' line of thought, Ros said, "And Chamberlain disappeared out of frame."
"Conveniently out of sight since the camera focusing on the door was non-operational."
"So earlier in the week he disabled the camera and then took advantage of the fact to slice the wire out of sight," Ros concluded, a small smile teasing at the corners of her lips. "Good work."
"I don't know if I'd go that far," Scribbs demurred, giving Ros a faux sheepish grin. "All that tells us is that our dearly departed Mr. Chamberlain was likely up to something nefarious."
"And it was that something nefarious that got him killed." Ros paused for a moment, thoughts chasing through an algorithm that ended at only one conclusion. "Has your pathologist run Chamberlain's fingerprints?"
"You think he's not who he purported to be?"
This time, Ros allowed herself a full grin, razor sharp as it was. "I think you think that, too."
This time, Scribbs' grin was neither faux nor sheepish. "It looks like we make a good team, DI Wolf."
"Helen, please. And if I were you, I wouldn't mention our successful collaboration to your DI. I don't think she has a terribly high opinion of me."
"Who, Ash? She's just a bit reserved," Ash said quietly, conspiratorially. "It's the posh girl upbringing." She paused a beat, then added, "I think you can probably sympathize Helen."
Because Ros could read a situation the setting, the tone, the players, the motivations as well as, if not better, than she could do most things (and she could do most things well), she let her voice drop half an octave, lowered her chin, and let a hint of beguilement seep into her grin. "Well I certainly don't feel too posh at the moment."
Scribbs took a step closer to the other blonde, inextricably drawn to her. "Oh?" she murmured, canting her head to the side. She could almost literally feel the softness, the almost welcoming glow, in Helen's eyes. "And why is that?"
"Because I'm afraid I'm going to have to beg a ride."
"You could come in for a drink," Ros suggested slyly. They were parked across the road from her hotel. The car idled as heat blew onto her feet, keeping her bottom half considerably warmer than her top half. She could feel Scribbs sneaking glances at her, could, in fact, almost feel the confusion swirling through the other woman, and a satisfying sense of victory rushed over her.
Ros knew a number of things, but the one thing she perhaps knew best was this attraction. She could spot it and she could use it, and since any bit of conscience she might have had about the fact had long since been packed neatly away and jettisoned into the ether, she felt no real remorse over doing so.
"I don't know," Scribbs said slowly, something in her voice indicating that only the slightest bit of persuasion would be needed to tip her over from unsure to absolutely sure. "It'll be an early morning tomorrow."
"Just one, then," Ros pressed gently, making sure that Scribbs caught her reassuring smile. "Or will I be drinking alone?"
Scribbs seemed to visibly waver before shrugging her shoulders. "Ah, why not. It's only neighborly."
"There it is, the famed suburban hospitality."
Scribbs cocked a challenging brow. "Is implying that I'm provincial supposed to be helping your cause?"
"What cause is that?" Ros asked innocently.
Snorting softly and shaking her head in amusement at the other woman's act, Scribbs said dryly, "The not drinking alone cause."
"Any such implication was strictly incidental," Ros murmured. "I'd never dream of insulting a local."
"A local?" Scribbs parroted, her outrage only half kidding.
"Yes," Ros confirmed succinctly. "You have my word. I'm nothing if not determined to promote a strong, very close, interdepartmental bond between us."
"Do you make these kinds of promises to all of the provincial, local police you meet?"
"This is the first time I've liaised, DS Scribbins," Ros said primly. "The Metropolitan Police doesn't partner indiscriminately. We collaborate sparingly, and only when it looks like it'll be mutually advantageous."
Scribbs felt her smirk deepen. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been wooed with words, and particularly not with banter delivered in a smooth, crisp, undeniably posh voice. It was both flattering and intriguing, and she felt a definite pull to let the evening continue to develop.
"I thought you promised me a drink," she said finally, her voice a little more throaty than she'd intended.
"So maybe we should go inside and order, then, before they close the bar."
"There's always room service."
Scribbs paused for a beat and leveled the other woman with a stare. "I think we should take our chances with the bar first."
"It's probably wise."
"So, back to the going "
Ros resolved the awkwardly lengthening conversation by cracking open her door and stepping out into the crisp, cold night.
"Right, then," Scribbs murmured, following her lead. When she'd closed her door, she paused, looking at Ros over the top of the car, shivering slightly. She crossed her arms over her chest tightly, hands wrapping around the opposite bicep as the wind bit through her shirt.
"Aren't you cold?" Ros asked, her voice packed full of gentle concern, offering Scribbs the slightest quirk of a smile.
Scribbs paused, as if only just then realizing that she was. "Oh, yeah. It is chilly, isn't it?"
"Don't you have a jacket?"
"In the boot, but I'd just as well rather get inside and warm up."
Ros frowned as her hastily, though well, constructed plan hit a snag. "I'll grab it for you. Here, just toss me the keys."
It was an argument Scribbs could tell she was going to lose. "Why not," she muttered, tossing the other woman her keys, watching idly as Ros snatched them out of the air handily. "Though I swear you're as bossy as Ash."
Ros popped the boot to find a thick white parka nestled inside, and just like that, she'd recovered their lost intel.
"Not bossy," she said, slipping the memory chip into her own pocket smoothly. She approached Scribbs from behind, holding the jacket out so the other woman could slip into it easily, and resting her hands lightly on Scribbs' shoulders as she leaned forward, lips just beside the curve of the other woman's ear. "Contentious," she murmured in a voice that evoked a feeling within Scribbs wholly at odds with its actual meaning.
Scribbs was midway through her third drink when she realized she'd been talking about Ash for the past 15 minutes.
"It's just that you remind me a lot of her. That's probably why you had that little flare up at the station. You're too much alike for your own good."
"And is that a good or a bad thing?"
"Oh, definitely good," Scribbs said, adding a definitive nod of the head for good measure then, after a moment, another. "Don't get me wrong. It can be trying, sometimes. She has rules about everything, tons of them, and expects me to remember and follow every single one of them. If she didn't let me get away with breaking most of them, I'd probably be locked up in hospital in one of those wards they only let you into with a key."
Ros' voice was droll. "I remain unconvinced that this comparison is a flattering one."
"No," Scribbs protested, her reply not quite squared with Ros', the way that alcohol sometimes directed conversations sending her argument slightly askew. "It's having high standards. I can see how some people might be of the impression that she's too particular, fussy even, but the thing you have to remember about Ash is that she's got systems. The systems part is important, because she uses her systems to make everything fit into them, only that's a problem when there's an odd bit that doesn't fit into the system. That's when she doesn't know what to do."
"I don't have any systems to fit things into," Scribbs replied, confused. Her brow scrunched as she tried to picture it, laying her life out in planned grids, timetables, and schedules the way Ash did.
"I meant you," Ros corrected, dryly amused. "You're the odd bit, aren't you? The piece Ash can't quite fit into place."
"What? No. We have an excellent working relationship."
Ros nodded sagely. It wasn't what she'd meant at all, but she had absolutely no desire to clarify. Regardless, the motion prompted within Scribbs the urge to reassure.
"We do. We've got the highest clearance rate in Middleford, if that's not proof enough. It's probably one of those opposites things, where I play off her strengths and she plays off mine, kind of like oil and water."
Ros was quite sure she didn't follow the analogy. "I'm not attacking your partnership," she said smoothly. "I'm sure you're quite compatible, professionally speaking."
"This is what I've been telling you," Scribbs intoned firmly. "We're quite compatible professionally, Ash and I, which is probably why you and I have worked so well together in our brief period of professional acquaintance. Because you and Ash are really quite similar, which is the main point."
"When put that way, it does seem quite understandable."
Scribbs nodded again, seemingly satisfied now that Ros had apparently acquiesced to her point. "Imminently understandable." She placed her glass down on the bar with deliberate care, then turned to Ros with a wide smile. "So, now that we've got that out of the way, I think it's time you take me upstairs."
If Ros was surprised, it didn't show. She didn't make a scene out of asking Scribbs if she was sure, either. Instead she stood, gracefully extended her hand, and smiled when Scribbs took it.
Ash scowled at Helen Wolf, sitting there so primly, with her hair pulled back and a file in hand, looking decidedly studious. "I don't like her."
"She seems okay to me," Scribbs replied, giving a laconic shrug. She didn't have the energy to do much more than that. The London DI had taken her proposition quite seriously and, as a consequence, she was exhausted. As soon as they'd entered Helen's suite, she'd found herself pressed back against the door. It had been followed at some point by being pushed back onto the bed, though she couldn't really say how much time had elapsed between the actions.
She could say she'd enjoyed them both, along with the various others that had come in between and those which had followed.
"Well, I don't like her. I think she's rude, condescending, and a bit of a cold fish."
"I think she's quite striking," Scribbs murmured distractedly, snapping to attention only at Ash's outraged, "Striking?"
"She is," Scribbs retorted defiantly, arms crossed over her chest in punctuation. She felt oddly protective of Helen, especially given Ash's unwarranted criticism. "For one, she's got better posture than you even."
"She does not."
"She does not."
"She does " Ash snapped her lips shut, jaw clenching so hard Scribbs could virtually hear the grinding of bone. Her hand fluttered to her face for a moment, thumb and forefinger pinching the bridge of her nose. After a moment she sighed, the exhalation rife with exasperation. Unable to help herself, she found herself shooting a fleeting glance in DI Wolf's direction, slightly self-conscious about the grudging yet unspoken admission that Scribbs might actually be right.
"Excellent," Helen was saying, the mobile phone in her hand sliding shut almost as soon as the word passed her lips. Ash turned to Scribbs, planning to wonder aloud just what might have occurred to warrant the clipped exclamation, but something about the look on Scribbs' face drew her up short. It was vaguely, well dreamy.
"News?" Scribbs prodded.
The truth was that Ros had just ended a conversation with Jo, one that had, in truth, started much earlier that morning. With Scribbs passed out safely on her hotel bed, Ros had snuck into the bathroom and pulled the door shut behind her, ensuring privacy. Then she'd called Jo, though the other agent had been none too happy about being pulled from sleep. It didn't help that Ros had instructed her to break into the morgue to attain a set of fingerprints from the victim all possible caution to be used, of course, as Scribbs was going to request the very same thing from her pathologist in the morning and to get them back to Malcolm as quickly as possible. Jo had muttered something about it being too bloody cold to go about breaking into morgues and Ros had replied with a stony silence that was incredibly clear in its meaning.
Malcolm had discovered quickly that their Mr. Chamberlain wasn't a Chamberlain at all, but was instead a rather renowned jewel thief named Ethan Hathcock. That revelation had been followed by another, that Hathcock was reported to work with a female partner, and a bit of backtracking through the limited footage from the few Middleford CCTV cameras in operation had narrowed Hathcock's last known location before what they could assume to be the deliberately botched robbery attempt.
Needless to say, she couldn't share any of that with the Middleford detectives.
"No news," she said shortly, offering a brief smile to soften the sharpness in her tone. "Have you told your partner about your theory?"
"Our theory, you mean," Scribbs noted, more than willing to share credit where credit was due.
"You're the principle author of it."
Ash, none too pleased that Scribbs had gone about developing theories with anyone other than her, snapped, "What theory?"
"Oh," Scribbs said, only barely managing to tear her eyes away from Helen's. "The theory that Mr. Chamberlain isn't really Mr. Chamberlain."
When nothing else appeared to be forthcoming, Ash raised a brow in irritation and said sharply, "Continue."
"Well, when I went back to the shop, I discovered that the wire to the electronic bell on the door had been cut. Qureddi specifically made mention of it, along with the fact that it hadn't alerted him to anyone entering the shop after the supposed Mr. Chamberlain, which seems to indicate that it was in perfect working order when said supposed Mr. Chamberlain entered. The supposed Mr. Chamberlain, if you'll remember, disappears off-screen for a few seconds, giving him plenty of time to snip the wire."
"And why would he do this?"
"Probably for reasons which would soon have turned illegal had he not been murdered. I called down to the morgue on my way in this morning and had them pull the supposed Mr. Chamberlain's prints. Hopefully we'll discover soon enough whether or not this theory has any merit."
"The implication being, of course," Ash said icily, an unsettling feeling of being left out of the loop filling her with uneasiness, "that if we do find that Mr. Chamberlain isn't who we think he is, then he's probably got a partner."
"A partner we need to find."
"A partner who was probably carrying the key to their hotel room, assuming they had one," Ros broke in smoothly, feeling the need to hasten the proceedings. "I don't believe one was included in his belongings."
Scribbs frowned. "There are a fair few places they could have been staying." She paused, then threw a smirk Ros' way. "As provincial as we may be, Middleford does have more hotels, hostels, bed and breakfasts, and rooms for rent than you'd think."
"Indeed," Ros murmured, amused. "I passed by a rather lovely one this morning. Why don't we start there."
Malcolm had been the one to trace it down through some feat of computer genius, the specifics of which Ros felt absolutely no desire to know. Suffice it to say, she had not only the hotel name but also the room number, and a photo sent to her phone of the woman thought to be Hathcock's partner in crime. She'd pondered having them all chase their tails for a bit before leading them to the correct hotel. After all, it might seem strange, her lucking on to just the place they needed to be on the first try, but she'd quickly disregarded any concerns about appearances. She needed to make sure that the correct villain was caught and that Qureddi was let off the hook, free to continue passing along information to the British government, and she needed to do it as quickly as possible so that she could return to her preferred work meatier missions with clearer connections to safeguarding national security.
"I've never liked showing around the autopsy photo," Scribbs was saying, squinting down at the rectangular image of Hathcock-cum-Chamberlain. He looked like he was engaging in an unusually deep sleep, though the washed out, too pale skin and visible uppermost parts of the Y-incision which had bisected his chest betrayed the illusion. "It seems like an invasion of privacy."
Ash, who had her own reasons for wanting to move the case at hand to resolution as quickly as possible, leveled Scribbs with a flat stare and an even flatter, "Focus."
With a sigh, Scribbs turned over the autopsy photo to Ash, who promptly handed it to the hotel clerk.
"This guy?" the clerk questioned, and Ash fought back the impulse to roll her eyes. He was well groomed and unnaturally handsome for a hotel desk clerk, though obviously a bit short in the brains department. "I've seen him. He checked in a few days ago with his lady friend. He's dead?"
Ros smiled. "Unfortunately."
The clerk shook his head. "That's so strange. She didn't say a word about it. She seemed fine when she checked out this morning."
"When was that?" Scribbs asked.
"Maybe 20 minutes ago."
"What did she look like?"
The clerk's face scrunched up in concentration. "She was maybe this tall," he said, raising his hand to shoulder height. "Slight. Rather bird-like. Well into her 60s, I'd say. Gray hair. Typical pearls and clutch pensioner."
"And her room "
When Jo had shown up at Ros' room that morning, scant minutes after Scribbs had left it, to retrieve the memory chip, she'd pressed a small earwig into Ros' hand.
"At Malcolm's insistence," she'd said. "He's a little frustrated with the delay in acquiring and dispatching information."
Though there had been no incoming voices that morning to distract her from their task, Ros found herself almost startled by the gentle urgency of Malcolm's tone suddenly bouncing off her ear drum.
"The partner's been spotted on CCTV in the vicinity of Qureddi's shop."
" then tell the cleaning staff to stop with what they're doing so we can see the room before all the evidence has been vacuumed away."
Ros snapped back into the conversation going on in front of her in time to see Ash leaning forward across the front desk ominously. The desk clerk was cowering slightly, a telephone receiver clutched tightly in his hand, and his eyes were wide.
"You'll need to clear and seal the room," Ros interjected, offering him a small smile that was as far from comforting as any he'd seen. "We'll be back later to process it for evidence."
"Back?" Ash questioned, her voice almost a squawk as her outrage continued to mount.
"Back," Ros confirmed firmly. "It strikes me that our fugitive hasn't finished the job."
"The heist, you mean?" Scribbs questioned.
As infuriating as it was, Ash couldn't help but admit that what DI Wolf was inferring was correct. "And now she's on her way out of town."
Scribbs, catching on to the train of thought with ease, murmured, "You're thinking she might make a quick stop off at our jeweler's."
"I'm thinking we may want to pay Mr. Qureddi a follow-up visit."
"Right," Ash conceded, then whirled so that she was facing the desk clerk once again. "And you," she snapped, finger outstretched accusingly, "will clear everyone out of that room and make sure that no one goes in it until we return."
The clearly overwhelmed clerk could do nothing more than nod.
"Just because you feel the need to get us there in a hurry doesn't mean we should arrive with whiplash," Ash muttered, bracing herself as Scribbs took yet another turn at speed. She could almost feel the tyres lifting off of the road beneath her, and had fleeting visions of the car flipping end over end until it landed squarely in the shrubbery of a dowager's cottage.
Scribbs spared only a second to shoot a glare at Ash. "She does have a 20 minute head start."
"And we do have backup on the way. I'd prefer they not have to be diverted to take us to casualty."
"I'm a very skillful driver."
"They impose speed limits for a reason."
Ros sat calmly in the backseat of the car, almost oblivious to the catty drama being enacted in the front.
"She's at Qureddi's." Malcolm's voice breeched her calm, and she stirred slightly, blinking herself into awareness. "I can't believe they've already let the man re-open."
"No reason not to," Ros muttered beneath her breath.
"What was that?" Ash's voice was sharp, a combination of her fear of imminent death and her irritation with Scribbs.
Ros deflected the inquiry with ease. "How much longer?"
Scribbs jerked the wheel to the side, sending them careening around another curve. The tyres bounced off of the kerb, sending them all jostling violently around the inside of the car. "Five minutes."
"If we manage to make it there with our skulls intact," Ash muttered, pinning Scribbs with a glare furious enough to burn.
"Have I ever crashed a car?"
"I mean, one with you in it."
"There's always a first time."
"There's not always a first time. Some things never happen. Alien invasion, for example."
"Real things, not imaginary ones."
"It's just like you to discount the possible existence of extraterrestrial beings," Scribbs huffed.
"Could you pay attention to what you're doing instead of engaging in flights of fancy?"
"She may already be there," Ros interrupted smoothly, leaning forward slightly to physically insert herself into the verbal altercation. "I think I should go into the shop to see. You two should wait outside in case she tries to escape."
"You?" Twin voices echoed in outrage.
"Me," Ros repeated firmly. "Or need I remind you of the promise of cooperation your DCI extended."
As the car skidded to a stop across the street from Qureddi's shop, even it seemed disgruntled.
Tariq Qureddi was sweating again, no matter that the air conditioning in his shop was working perfectly.
"There's no need to do this," he was saying, his eyes focused unwaveringly on the gun being aimed in his direction from underneath the folds of the shawl the elderly woman in front of him was wearing draped around her body.
"He ruined everything," the woman muttered, and Tariq noted a fevered hint of rapidly encroaching madness in her eyes that did little to reassure him. "All these years together, and he's going to throw me over for some tart he met at bridge club? One last job and he's going to go straight?"
"You can have it," Tariq insisted, pushing the necklace further across the counter, closer to the woman with the gun.
"All of these years, I've been the one there for him at every turn, always propping up that massive ego. I've been the one who does all of the planning, but who gets the credit? Hmm? He does."
"Really," Tariq reiterated, "it's yours."
"He was probably going to try and give it to her, the sentimental old fool."
Tariq's voice shook as he offered her a watery, hopefully supportive, smile. "And now it can be yours."
The slight whoosh of air that blew through the shop was the only indication that one of the parameters of the situation had changed, as Tariq had yet to repair the electronic bell on the door. It fluttered the fringe lining the edges of the woman's shawl, and she spun, gun outstretched in anticipation of dealing with whoever had interrupted her moment of grand triumph, only to have it neatly snatched from her hand.
"Really," Ros murmured disapprovingly, "not even the slightest bit of a challenge. I'm disappointed."
"How dare you "
Because she had absolutely no compunction about what needed to be done, Ros did it without hesitation. A second later and the woman was spun around and pressed hard against the counter, and Ros had gathered her hands behind her and was midway through snapping on a pair of cuffs.
"Seriously," Ros muttered, shaking her head, "this has all been appallingly below my skill level."
Glancing up at Tariq, she said dryly, "The others are waiting outside. Go and fetch them."
He scrambled out from behind the counter with surprising quickness.
When the door opened again, heralded by both a blast of cold air and by the sound of bickering, Ros called back over her shoulder, "I believe we'll find that this gun matches the one that shot Mr. Chamberlain."
"Mr. Hathcock," Scribbs corrected. "The call came just a few seconds ago. Our victim's real name is Ethan Hathcock, and he's one half of a rather infamous pair of jewel thieves."
"The lesser half," the elderly perpetrator huffed angrily. "I taught that man everything he knew, not that he'd ever admit it. Somehow things always got turned around when he was telling the story to his friends."
"She's very upset that the dead gentleman was going to leave her for his bridge partner," Tariq observed solemnly, his heart beat still not quite back to normal.
"She wasn't even his partner," the woman continued, irritation growing. "She was absolutely atrocious at the game. Her assets weren't so much mental as they were physical."
"He was going to leave her after this," Tariq continued, relaying the story as it had been told to him. "He was going to dissolve their partnership."
"The fool," the woman spat. "After 40 years."
"I can see why you'd want to kill him," Scribbs observed empathetically.
"It was surprisingly satisfying," the woman confided.
Ros sighed. So, so far below her skill level.
"I wanted to apologize."
The words were said stiffly, and when Ros looked up, it was to see Ash standing beside her, back so straight it looked to be on the verge of cracking.
Unwilling to be deterred, Ash continued on stubbornly. "I didn't exactly extend a gracious welcome."
Straightening herself, aware that she was going to have to have this conversation, Ros said, "I was far more interested in safeguarding my source than I was in your hospitality."
"And now that we've done that, I'll return to London and leave you to police Middleford in peace."
A hint of uneasiness flitted over Ash's face, slightly undermining the compliment she'd been intending to deliver. "Your skills as a detective are remarkably uncanny."
Vaguely surprised at the sentiment, Ros blinked. "I'm just very lucky."
"I'm sure you're an invaluable asset to your team."
There was a moment of awkward silence, and then Ros extended her hand. "You have quite a team here yourself, DI Ashurst."
Firmly grasping the hand which had been extended to her, Ash responded primly, "Thank you."
"You're quite welcome."
There was another moment of awkward silence before Ash tried to extract her hand from DI Wolf's firm grip. She found she couldn't.
Holding tight to make sure she had Ash's attention, Ros said, voice devoid of inflection, "You should consider the possibility that if you wait too long, she'll finally give up. She'll move on and find someone else. Maybe even someone remarkably like you, if she can't have you."
Ash stiffened. Her voice was as glacial as an iceberg when she spoke. "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean."
Letting go of her grip, Ros paused, held Ash's gaze for a long second, and gave her a knowing smile. "Of course you do," she said with cool amusement, then turned and walked away.
"Don't ask questions. Just do as I say. I want you to bring the car and pick me up. When you get here, make a big show out of it. Act as if being separated from me has made you desperate to see me again. Kiss me passionately."
"I thought this operation was finished," Jo said, clearly confused. "Is there something I don't know about?"
"I don't need any of these people to come searching for DI Helen Wolf," Ros said tersely.
"And what does me playing the long suffering lover have to do with that?"
Her question was met with stony silence, and Jo could imagine Ros on the other end of the connection, scowling coldly. The picture didn't stop her from making the connection, though.
"Struck up a romance, did you?" Jo teased, tucking the phone between her chin and her shoulder as she dug in her pocket for the keys to the Peugeot. "Have you got an admirer?"
The uncomfortable silence stretched out for a moment longer before Ros bit out, "Something like that. I thought I told you not to ask any questions."
"That was before I knew you were going to be leaving a trail of broken hearts after you when we pulled out of Middleford."
"If you just do as I asked, then this particular broken heart might find itself appropriately comforted."
Jo laughed, the sound light and pure. "And you're playing matchmaker now?" There was a moment when the call was nothing but a collection of beeps and slamming doors, and Ros' frown deepened. "Oh, shit," Jo murmured, shifting the car into gear, her voice a mixture of confused and amazed. "You've really left a broken heart behind you, haven't you? Did you have an affair with one of the natives?"
Ros' answer was a curt, "I did what needed to be done."
"Bollocks," Jo accused, laughing again. "I've never met anyone more slippery than you. You did what you wanted to do."
"That's enough," Ros said, voice cold and stern. "I've got to go. Just do as I've asked."
Scribbs caught her just as she was about to make her escape from the police station.
"So " she began, tense in that way that let Ros know she was anxious about the conversation she'd nevertheless psyched herself up to have.
"DS Scribbins," Ros acknowledged, smiling. "It's been a pleasure working with you."
"Likewise," Scribbs replied distractedly, slightly thrown, then plowed ahead with her original purpose. "I've been thinking, London's not really that far away. Maybe I could come up and visit some time."
The suggestion was not entirely unexpected, though still unsettling.
"I don't think that's a good idea," Ros said firmly, though with understanding.
Taken aback, Scribbs asked tartly, "And do you have a reason for that line of thinking?"
Ros decided to be direct, in an oblique sort of way. "That's not what you want."
"It seems likely I wouldn't have suggested it if it wasn't what I wanted," Scribbs huffed, affronted.
"Well, I don't really care what you think I think about the matter."
"Perhaps, but it's still an important component."
"Of your plan to continue to try and trick yourself into believing that certain things are beyond your reach."
"Does it amuse you to talk in riddles?"
"I don't know why everyone in this town is so hard-headed," Ros sighed, shaking her head in bemused consternation. "It's unbelievably trying."
"I think I might be insulted."
After a second, Ros softened. She reached out, taking one of Scribbs' hands in hers, and lowered her voice to a more intimate level. "Look," she began softly, "we had a lovely time together, you and I, but I think you need to keep things in perspective."
"You're giving me the brush-off," Scribbs murmured, somewhat amazed that it was happening.
"I'm simply trying to point out that you should go searching for romance much closer to home."
"Now I know for sure I'm insulted."
Two things happened simultaneously to save Ros from further drama. Ash approached from down the hall just as Jo pulled the car up in front of the station, and she let go of Scribbs' hand with a sense of relief. "I've got to go," she said, still keeping the same hint of caring in her voice, partly because she was actually fond of the little blonde DS. "Keep what I've said in mind."
Because she was so infuriatingly angry, Scribbs said perversely, "I'll do no such thing."
Ros simply shrugged, as if to indicate that it was, after all, Scribbs' choice to do what she wanted.
Jo, well aware of her orders, had already opened up the door for Ros' imminent arrival, and was leaning back against the car with her arms crossed over her chest, waiting. She stayed that way until Ros was a few feet away, and then she pounced.
Ros was slightly startled by the intensity of the kiss though, well aware that the most believable ruses required active participation from both parties, she met the other woman's enthusiasm with equal fervor. Jo laid a hand on each of her cheeks, holding her still as she kissed her as if nothing could have pleased her more than the sight of Ros, and so Ros did her very best to match her. Despite that, the kiss kept going long after the point when Ros would have pulled away, and she realized with no little surprise that the hand now slowly drifting down her back was soon going to trace over the curve of her left buttock and grab hold tight.
Feeling a hint of panic, she pulled away.
"Was that acceptable?" Jo questioned archly, ignoring Ros' silent directive to stop. Her hand completed its journey, and the startled jerk of Ros' body against her own when she dug her fingers into tight muscle somehow began to make up for the fact that she'd had to break into a morgue.
"Perhaps just slightly over the top," Ros drawled dryly.
Letting her other hand slip down to join its mate, using her tight grip to pull Ros against her firmly, Jo murmured, "You said I should be happy to see you."
"I didn't say you should virtually shag me in the car park."
Jo considered that for a moment. "After that kiss, I'm actually inclined to try it."
"Oh, you liked that, did you?"
Rolling her eyes, Jo muttered, "Don't get cocky."
"Then don't tempt me. It's my week for seducing young, impressionable blondes."
Ros stared her down for a second before sighing. "Let's go, shall we."
Both Ash and Scribbs watched the spectacle taking place just outside the front door with matching expressions of amazement.
"Well, that's a surprise," Ash said dryly, unable to tear her eyes away.
"It certainly is."
"I never would have guessed."
"That she's a cheating, lying, womanizing hussy?" Scribbs hissed, eyes flashing angrily.
There was a beat of confusion before Ash ventured a tentative, "Cheating?"
"I have half a mind to go out there. That other girl looks nice enough. She deserves to know what an adulterous doxy she's dating."
Confusion mounting, Ash echoed, "Adulterous?"
"That's the real reason why she didn't want me coming to London."
At that, Ash's voice rose considerably. "London?"
Suddenly aware that she'd said more than she'd intended, Scribbs was instantly contrite. It was, unfortunately, a little too late.
"Oh, Scribbs," Ash said with remarkable tenderness, reaching out to brush a lock of blonde hair behind the other woman's ear. "Did you really sleep with her?"
Scribbs' reply was a meek, apologetic smile.
Ash slipped her hand into Scribbs' comfortingly and tried desperately to forget what DI Wolf had said to her the last time they spoke.
Unfortunately, she couldn't. And so, even though actually addressing the issue was the last thing she wanted to do, she found herself saying, "You can't go around shagging everyone who reminds you of me."
Though the words came out as calm and self-assured, internally Ash felt like she was going to melt into a puddle of mortified goo.
For once, Scribbs was stunned into silence.
When no reply was forthcoming no cutting rejection or passionate declaration of undying love Ash took a deep breath. She braced herself, squaring her shoulders as she turned to face Scribbs fully, then leapt from firm ground into the great abyss. "Especially not when we'd both rather you be shagging me."
Scribbs remained locked in silence, though her brows drew together as if she was engaged in intense thought.
"Do you understand what I'm saying?" Ash felt compelled to ask.
"If you're saying that you and I "
Unable to let Scribbs finish, her anxiety prompting her to bring the moment to a close as soon as possible, Ash broke in with a worried, "Yes. That's exactly what I'm saying."
"And by that, I assume you mean "
Again, an overanxious Ash interrupted. "That is what I mean."
When Scribbs lapsed into silence again, Ash felt her anxiety edge over into dread. It grew the longer that look of confusion remained on Scribbs' face, so much so that when the confusion was replaced with a brilliant smile, she didn't even notice.
"I think we should take the rest of the day off, Ash."
Her immediate reply was a staccato, worried, "Why?"
"Because there's going to be shagging, right?"
Comprehension finally dawning, Ash barely held back a grin. "Absolutely not," she said primly, though the giddiness rushing through her made it difficult to get out words of any kind. "You're still going to have to woo me."
"A pint at the pub after work, then, and then back to mine?"
"A quick sandwich at the deli to help us build up our strength?"
"I think not."
"An actual date, then? Is that what I'm going to have to offer?"
Ash smiled so beautifully that Scribbs almost melted. "That sounds lovely."
"And we'll have to get all dressed up," she offered, throat suddenly dry.
"Okay," Scribbs agreed, squeezing Ash's hand affectionately, "but then it's back to mine."
"Perfect," Ash murmured again, returning Scribbs' squeeze with one of her own.
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