DISCLAIMER: Women's Murder Club and its characters are the property of James Patterson, 20th Century Fox Television and ABC. No infringement intended.
SERIES: Fifth in a series of six loosely related WMC stories.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

By Liz Estrada


After ten days on paid administrative leave, mandatory after an officer-involved fatal shooting, San Francisco Police Inspector Lindsay Boxer was well past stir-crazy and ready to go back to work. During a recent interview with a suspect, she and her partner Warren Jacobi were set upon by said suspect's murderous bodyguard - a gigantic Indian national who swatted Jacobi's head with a cricket bat and rammed a large knife through Lindsay's foot. Five bullets, two from her service weapon and three from her backup, finally took him down. Behind some nifty shoe-leather investigation and paper-trailing by their squadmates came a major seizure of uncut heroin. With the case officially closed and her injury healing, Lindsay was set to resume work the next day, though Jacobi still awaited medical clearance.

"It's just gonna be desk duty, seeing how I'm off wind sprints for the time being." Lindsay hoisted up her clunky, adjustable steel cane. "Foot doc says I'm stuck with this for at least another week, or, you know… until the seeping stops."

Jacobi shuddered as he laid down on his couch and carefully pillowed his bandaged head. "I could happily live my whole life without hearing the word 'seeping' again."

"Fair enough. Draining, then?" Lindsay never could resist needling him. "I dunno - is draining really any better than seeping? How about oooozing?"

He closed his eyes and sighed. "Somewhere in this great wide world, there's a ten year-old boy with a grown woman's sophisticated wit."

"Hmm. Could be. The universe does like to balance itself out," she agreed.




She affably buttoned her lips and kicked back in Jacobi's battered recliner as Percy Sledge's 1967 version of "Cover Me" wept from the stereo speakers. Jacobi had spent much of his down time listening to favorite records, since he bitterly missed his collection while stuck in the hospital, surrounded by a nightmare sound circle of blaring televisions and intercoms. Those first few days were a nervous time, until his doctors deigned to inform there was likely no permanent damage from the severe concussion. He remembered his partner's thankful smile, and her tears.

It bothered him knowing that tomorrow morning, she would clip on gun and badge and return to the Hall without him, that he wouldn't be there to watch her back. Trouble seemed to follow the woman around lately, and words of warning, exhortations to take care, didn't help much. Last time Lindsay explicitly promised to be careful, she wound up getting stabbed. Jacobi didn't know what to do for her - or himself. And so, this morning, after a delectably unhealthy diner breakfast, they sat in his den and listened to music in companionable silence, grooving on Sledge's melancholy soul until the last track bled out.

Eventually, Jacobi broke the quiet with a listless declaration. "Captain Rand's gonna get your hop-along ass a valor medal. Just wait and see."

"Never gonna happen. Rand hates me. Also, my ass doesn't deserve a valor medal," Lindsay glibly responded. "A blue ribbon, maybe."

The older inspector didn't quip back - he wasn't teasing. By tacit agreement, they hadn't really discussed how close they came to the end of their watch. While Lindsay was quite happy to keep it that way, Jacobi needed to clear it out, get it said at least once. "The facts are the facts. You took down a man who murdered four children, and that led to the city's biggest heroin bust in a decade, and that ties in to the mayor's high-tone waterfront reclamation project. The department needs to recognize where it started."

"Please. All I did was try not to die. Everything else was pretty much an accident."

"You saved your partner's life." Jacobi's deliberate words briefly floated in midair, like a delicate smoke ring. "Chew on that, Modesty Blaise."

Lindsay stared at the ceiling with her eyes burning. She thought too much about loss and vulnerability lately, and the knowledge that this strong, essential man was nearly knocked off the world with a single blow was too painful to dwell on. She puffed up a silly posture, cleared the raw, thick emotion from her throat. "Sorry – I tuned out after you promised me free coffee until the end of time."

Jacobi took all that in, rubbed his eyes and grudgingly gave way. A clean exchange of 'Thank you' and 'You're welcome' was apparently beyond them. "Should have kept my mouth shut. There'll be no living with you now."

During the ten day layoff, lunchtime meant playing catch-up with her friends, medical examiner Claire Washburn and Assistant DA Jill Bernhardt, who kept Lindsay au courant with Hall of Justice happenings. Little things, mostly. Claire hired a new morgue assistant, a twenty-something Brazilian man whose name was spelled R-a-l-p-h and pronounced Howph. Jill continued slouching toward civility with her supervisor, Deputy DA Denise Kwon, at a cordial breakfast meeting. On this particular afternoon, the doctor and lawyer ganged up on Lindsay to tease her about a Hall rumor gone viral.

"Denise says you're up for a commendaaaationnn," Jill sing-songed.

"I heard mention of a silver valor medal," Claire chimed in. "Promise you'll remember the little people once you're a big time, decorated heroine."

Lindsay gripped her salad fork in a menacing manner. "I promise that the next person to say the word 'medal' is getting forked-up. Seriously."

"Ooh – she's so sensitive," whispered Jill.

"You know how these celebrities are, all ego and temper," Claire explained. "She's probably offended that they're talking silver and not gold."

Jill sported a placating smirk. "It's like getting a Golden Globe instead of an Oscar, huh?"

After muttering something about how a slow-healing puncture wound annoyed less than all this award hooloo, Lindsay stuffed her mouth with kale and quinoa (penance for a greasy breakfast) and eschewed further discussion. Jill and Claire showed mercy and let her off the hook; the playful teasing comforted them as much as it nettled their stoic friend. They, too, spent a lot of time thinking about loss and vulnerability lately, and the knowledge that Lindsay had been seconds away from a violent end wasn't something they could afford to dwell on.

Memories of that night, in the ambulance, at the hospital, of splattering blood and grinding teeth as Lindsay struggled not to scream, still provoked anger in the gentle doctor. Claire Washburn had daydreamed more than once about being there when it happened, in the heat of that sham yoga studio, aiming Ed's old service .38 at the giant's head... and that's usually where it stopped. She couldn't imagine killing anyone without a clear and present mortal threat, though it was a shot she could now reliably make from thirty feet. Claire had been practicing since Christmas. Her need to protect herself from the amorphous threat of the Kiss-Me-Not killer had dovetailed with a desire to protect those she loved, manifesting as a disciplined effort to improve her marksmanship. If the time came for Claire to take a shot, she would make it count.

Jill Bernhardt's coping methods were markedly different, more of an ongoing, internal process. Her first task was coming to terms with iron-boned Lindsay's freshly evident mortality. Jill's second objective was acceptance of her own role as platonic friend and confidante, which meant putting the kibosh on those recurring inappropriate daydreams of falling asleep against Lindsay's bare back, ear over beating heart. Third priority was to put this incident in proper context against the larger, lurking danger of an active serial killer. Jill hadn't quite managed to complete any of these tasks, though she gave number three a diligent effort.

Notably absent from most of these recent, informal club meetings was the reason behind Jill's second goal – the very busy Cindy Thomas, crime reporter for the Register and Lindsay's current… well, they hadn't really settled their relationship taxonomy issues. Cindy was partial to the classic "girlfriend" or the more elegant "inamorata," while the pragmatic Texan still clung to the safety of proper name usage, despite over three months of high-quality monogamy.

"Where's your girl today?" Jill inquired, carefully choosing the possessive pronoun.

"In the morgue." Lindsay noted Claire's quizzical look and elaborated. "At the Register, dissecting really old, dead editions. She's been down there for days, exhuming context, she calls it. Comes home every night smelling like Pine-Sol and fifty year-old paper."

Claire and Jill smiled at each other, amused that their solitary friend didn't catch the reek of domesticity on those last words. Such slips happened on the regular lately: a we in place of an I, the grocery lists and dog-care arrangements, the occasional hint that Cindy's apartment had become superfluous. Both knew that calling Lindsay out on the matter would only spook her, so they let it keep on sliding. The little redhead certainly kept things running smoothly, and without friction, who knew how far romantic inertia would carry them? Maybe Lindsay wouldn't snap-to and freak out for years yet.

"Pine Sol is not so bad. There are worse odors to carry home," Claire asserted, re-priming the conversation. "Formaldehyde has a pretty harsh top note."

"And, really? Dumpster-diving cops should be more understanding about workplace funk," Jill added.

Lindsay huffed up a scowl. "That was one time – and I found the knife, didn't I? Cracked the 'Dinner Rush Murders' and made your case, counselor."

Jill nodded agreeably, but couldn't quell the giggles. "The dashing detective with linguini stuck to her butt and tiramisu in her hair - oh, how I wished for a camera that night."

"Ingrate," Lindsay accused. "Half the squad wouldn't have climbed in there, and the other half wouldn't have found anything. Come to think of it, this stinking commendation might be overdue."

"Now professional citations rankle you, too?" Jill persisted. "Your nose has gotten really judgy lately."

Lindsay waved her fork again, this time just for emphasis. "Hey, I never said I don't like the way Cindy smells, you just assumed… "

"I know, I know. Take it easy." Jill's tone became soft, sincere. "I'm sure Pine Sol can be very sexy on someone you're crazy about."

Mollified, but unsure how to follow up without embarrassing herself, Lindsay smiled crookedly and resumed mining her high-iron salad.

Jill stared a moment longer, adding that quiet smile to the flushed skin, shifty eyes and shallow breath. Her mouth formed a silent Oh as she ciphered up symptoms and found the sum total: Lindsay Boxer was (almost definitely) in love. With someone who, Jill already knew for certain, loved her right back rather fiercely. After an initial spasm of envy, she felt her blues mellow to a jazzy, vicarious pleasure. Though she said a hundred times, to herself and others, that all she really wanted was Lindsay's happiness, Jill was quite delighted to realize she hadn't been lying.

Before the silence stretched too thin, Claire thumped a nail against her raised glass. "At the risk of getting forked, I just wanna say… the hypothetical valor medal is overdue. You're a hellacious police officer, a virtuoso human being, and I'm proud to call you my friend."

Jill lifted her Pellegrino in a toast to those sentiments. "Ditto, babe. Ditto."

The hellacious police officer and virtuoso human being wanted to pull the tablecloth over her head and hide; nearly crying twice before two p.m. was simply unacceptable. She really, really needed to get back to work.

Industrious by nature, Cindy Thomas was on overdrive lately, packing twelve hours of work into ten so she could get loose from the Register by seven and spend evenings with Lindsay the Unencumbered – a mythical creature so rarely sighted, it was almost like dating a unicorn.

These free evenings were the only time Inspector Boxer was purely glad to be on leave. With no responsibilities, no phone calls or case-related interruptions, she rediscovered the wonderful world of low-stress dating. They had unhurried dinners in good restaurants, took in a couple of Mel Brooks movies at the Bijoux, wasted a few hours in tourist traps, squandered several more hours on meandering chatter, and spent a significant portion of the remainder lolling in bed.

Tonight, following Cindy's experimental salmon pesto fettuccine, which turned out pretty great, came the reporter's usual round of pre-sacktime questions.


"Took 'em. Four more days on the prescription," Lindsay dutifully revealed.


"Done. Can you not smell it?" Lindsay asked while wrinkling her nose. "Martha won't come near me."

Cindy patiently rose above these petty complaints and pressed on. "Supplements?"

"Ugh. Yes on all counts: C, E, iron, multi-vitamin horse pill, various and sundry herbs," Lindsay grumbled. "Have I mentioned how I believe that stuff is snake oil, and you're working out some loopy witch doctor fantasy on me?"

"Only too many times," said Cindy, sanguine as ever. "Suspend your disbelief and trust Nurse Thomas."

Lindsay's responsive imagination stirred a naughty grin. "She'd be more credible with a little white hat and stockings."

Cindy paused, appeared to think that over. "You know, I was a candy striper in high school. Maybe I still have my smock somewhere… "

"Really?" Lindsay straightened up against the headboard, her smile now wider than the sea.

"Uhh – No? Reprobate!" Cindy started cackling and slapped Lindsay's thigh, just below the hem of her shorts. "I mean, nurses and candy stripers? Come on!"

"What's wrong with that?" Lindsay honestly wanted to know. "Sponge baths, ice chips, peppermint sticks… it's good, clean fun."

"There's nothing wrong with it, per se. It's just really porndictable."

"You are," Lindsay muttered. Bitterly disappointed, she sank back into the pillows and pouted. "Fine. In the interest of fair play, I'm throwing that stupid black Stetson in the garbage."

The sniggering instantly ceased as a nervous Cindy pondered the premature demise of Wild West playtime. "Now let's not be hasty. Perhaps I rushed to judgment, but I'm willing to negotiate. Hey – I can make a little nurse's hat out of a dinner napkin. I totally know origami."

Lindsay snorted. "No, you don't."

"Give me five minutes on the internet and I will!" Cindy insisted. "Just, please don't disband the cavalry?"

Dark eyes narrowed as the shrewd cop considered pressing for additional concessions. "Stockings?"

The redhead chewed her plump bottom lip while mentally conducting a wardrobe inventory. "I have running tights in my bag."

"Are they white?"


"Gesundheit." Lindsay grinned and waggled her brows, quite proud of herself.

Cindy issued a pitiful groan. "Must you torture my libido and my sense of humor?"

"Fine. Ecru will do," Lindsay generously allowed. "The Stetson may live."

Cindy pumped a fist and bounded off to procure and mangle an innocent white cloth. Lindsay closed her eyes and reflected that it was mostly due to Nurse Thomas, with her relentless nagging about medication and vitamins and regular application of stinky herbal dilutions, that her foot was healing at all.

Puncture wounds naturally want to seal themselves, to close up and keep any contaminants borne by the piercing object trapped inside – this from her consulting foot surgeon. Lindsay's wound undoubtedly contained bits of sock and leather boot and wood floor, despite the thorough cleaning Luke Bowen gave it in the ER. Add that to the exaggerated breadth of the gap incurred by the stabbing, which widened during the struggle and compounded when Lindsay rashly pried the knife out, and she had the perfect recipe for a slow-healing puncture.

That blown wheel, barely throbbing and wrapped in loose gauze after a Ledum tincture, rested on a towel-covered pillow. Her belly was full of good food, her friends safe and well, and her partner healing. When last seen, sweet Martha was fully asnooze in her doggie bed, having been walked and spoiled with fresh salmon. Inspector Boxer could return to her beloved, consuming job in the morning. On this evening, despite the persistent pains and omnipresent dangers, despite the churning fear in her gut that hadn't completely let up in months, Lindsay felt like a pretty fortunate individual.

That feeling only intensified when she felt pressure on the mattress and opened her eyes to find her own personal Florence Nightingale – clad in ecru running tights and a Vassar sweatshirt– kneeling beside her. Atop Cindy's fiery hair perched a linen dinner napkin, folded and Scotch taped into the shape of a nurse's hat. Lindsay didn't know whether to laugh or cry; nearly crying three times in a day was inconceivable, and she would sooner die than risk hurting Cindy with mistaken derision, so she stayed quiet. She wondered instead how this beautiful girl, such a recent arrival in her world, innately knew how to take care of her, keeping her so balanced and content that she often forgot to resist or be afraid.

"In case you're wondering – yes, I am aware that I look ridiculous," Cindy dryly commented. "Your hat is way hotter."

Lindsay again declined comment. She moved closer, ran her palms along smooth fabric, finger-traced softly sculpted quads. She eased her face into Cindy's hair and nuzzled along her neck, detecting faint traces of pine and paper. That lingering aroma vined into Lindsay's subconscious, crawled beneath the barred doors of two forgotten rooms: a freshly scrubbed kitchen and a bedroom filled with stacks of aging paperbacks. The shotgun house in Dallas, before her father left and her mother died, back when love still meant forever and home was a solid place of board and shingle, with a door like open arms.

Gradually, she came to believe that since Love often walked out just when you needed it most, the best policy was to renounce the need entirely. And without Love, Home was best defined as an affordable mortgage payment on a sovereign patch of earth. So went her isolated nation, unchanged through month and year, prosperous in lukewarm comfort… until the coup. Stealthy came the revolution - she barely heard the drumbeats before the girl attacked. She took and held whatever ground Lindsay gave until, having breached the citadel, the little bolshevik simply curled up by the hearth and took a nap, daring the foiled autocrat to throw her out.

Like that would ever happen. Formal declarations of truce remained undrafted and unspoken, but that, too, was subject to sudden change.

"You know I'm crazy 'bout you," Lindsay helplessly admitted. "You should know that."

Cindy's breath swerved a little, her heart double-clutched. Close, she thought, almost home. She pulled back, cradled Lindsay's face in both hands, and rubbed a tracing onto her memory – a nearly perfect picture to accompany that nearly perfect caption. The only blemishes were due to lingering wounds, within and without, and they would heal. Sooner rather than later, if Cindy had her way.

"I know," she said. "Same goes."

On hearing, on believing, Lindsay tried to smile and blink dry her welling eyes. Cindy drew near, then, and kissed her mouth. There wasn't much else to say.

Inspector Boxer wasn't due to officially report to Lieutenant Tom Hogan until 9:00 a.m., but she hopped upstairs and ducked her head in several minutes early, just to say hi. Her ex-husband wasn't alone in his office; the imposing, white-bearded Captain Harvey Rand sat opposite Tom's desk, and an unknown young woman sat beside Rand. The instant Lindsay's face appeared in the doorway, their conversation halted and they stood as one.

That weirded her out a little. "Sorry. I can come back - "

Tom belayed Lindsay's apology and invited her in. "No, we were talking about you, anyway. You remember Captain Rand?"

He offered his hand and Lindsay noticeably blanched. "Yeah. We met a few years ago, on the Truett case."

"I understand he's no longer an issue," said the captain, who had once threatened the inspector's career for pursuing a murder case against Jeff Truett – a crooked police informant who recently fell to foul play himself. Rand did not retract his hand. Tom shifted his feet and cleared his throat until Lindsay finally gave in and shook the brass ape's leathery mitt.

"How are your wounds, Inspector?" Rand asked, bearing down on the plural while eyeing his female guest - a pretty, athletic, blue-eyed blonde in her late twenties, wearing a long-sleeved tee and jeans. No make-up, long hair tied back in a ponytail. She stared at Lindsay without appearing to stare, focused but removed, unassuming. It was a neat trick. Also, a tad creepy.

Lindsay answered the captain in a hale voice. "On the mend, sir. The eyebrow nick is nothing, and the foot… well, it's getting there. I'll be up to speed soon enough."

"We'll have you back on case work when it becomes feasible," Rand promised, though to Lindsay it sounded like dissembling. "In the meantime, the department needs you for a special assignment."

A special assignment that didn't involve case work. Whatever it was, she already wanted no part of it and was about to say as much.

"Inspector Lindsay Boxer, meet Griffin Paar." Rand swept an arm behind the blonde woman and gentled her forward. "Ms. Paar is an award-winning actress – surely you've seen some of her work. Golgo 19 or Kistler Arms, perhaps?"

The face was unfamiliar, but that name rang like a distant bell. Lindsay gave no indication and met Rand's inquiry with a blank stare. "I watched Young Frankenstein last week."

"Madeline Kahn was so genius in that," Griffin Paar offered, her voice both bubbly and reverent.

"I know, right?" Lindsay agreed. "Did you see High Anxiety?"

"With the plaid car that matched her suit? And – 'I'm just SO close to my menstrual cycle that I could SCREAM,'" Paar quoted. "God. She's one of the reasons I tried to make a comedy, dismal failure that it was. Oh, and don't even get me started on Cloris Leachman."

Rand impatiently raised a shushing hand, and the gabbing women graciously gave him the floor. "Well, yes. Now, in any case, Ms. Paar is a good friend of Mayor Newsom. She'll be with us today, doing research for a film about… what was it again?"

"A homicide cop in a dysfunctional romance with a pattern killer. Murder, sex, chase, sex, justice, the end. Eszterhas throwback thriller spooge."

"Uh-huh." Lindsay blinked quickly, still confused, yet amused by the starlet's blunt assessment. "Sorry, but what does her crappy formula movie have to do with me?"

Paar smiled, but Rand's face immediately clouded over with incipient hypertension. "Boxer, you're being detailed out," he rumbled. "You will escort Ms. Paar around town and familiarize her with the city. You will go over select closed cases with her and elucidate the proper investigative procedures. You will answer her questions and generally be a pleasant and helpful representative of the San Francisco Police Department. You will do these things because clearing you for case work is ultimately my decision. Do we understand each other?"

"You've always been an excellent communicator, sir," Lindsay said, with a hint of truculence. You want me to not do my job. Again, was the post-script she wisely kept to herself.

Tom swiftly stepped in and handed Lindsay several folders – closed case files deemed safe for civilian perusal – and informed her that Inspector Fong was available for chauffeur duty. Rand said his goodbyes, pressed a bristly kiss to Ms. Paar's hand, and stalked out. Lindsay barely held her tongue until the door was closed.

"What did I do to piss you off this bad?" she demanded of her Lieutenant. "I haven't even been here lately!"

He presented open palms in a plea for tolerance as an answer came not from Tom, but Griffin Paar. "This is totally and completely my fault," the actress admitted, as she wiped the back of her hand against her jeans. "I'm researching my part, I'm reading about the Hunter's Point thing in the papers last week and BANG! There you are - hot hero murder police, made to order. I called Gavin, like, thirty times before he set me up with Harvey and Tom and they set me up with you. And now, here we are! It's like kismet… with unfortunate undertones of political cronyism."

Lindsay shrank back and gave Tom the stink-eye. "I'm confused - is this a homicide squad or a dating service?"

"It's only for a day," Tom assured her. "You're on light duty, Linz, and this is better than riding a desk the whole time."

"I promise I'll be less boring," Paar added. Her smile, skillfully calibrated to be ingratiating, was very effective. "I've been around law enforcement before, so I won't be a nuisance."

The memory bell sounded clearly at last. Lindsay snapped her fingers and pointed. "That's where I read your name. Back in '98, the kidnapped girls in Kansas City."

"Jefferson City," Paar corrected, nodding. "Yeah. That was… wow. Nobody really asks me about that anymore."

Tom signaled that he was lost, and Lindsay wasn't surprised; Rand probably hadn't told him anything outside of 'VIP with City Hall friends.' She tried to fill in the blanks as quickly as possible. "Three teenaged girls went missing inside of a month, all eventually found bludgeoned to death, dumped in ditches. No clues, no suspects, no leads. She put up a hundred-K in reward money to shake loose information. I'm not sure what happened after that."

"Not much. The FBI came in to consult, but it didn't help. The case is still open, though the media stopped paying attention after a year or so." Paar shifted uneasily, rubbed a thumb over her smooth cowrie shell necklace. "The only people who haven't forgotten are the families, the cops, and… the guy who got away with it."

"And you, apparently," Lindsay observed. "The reward was a nice gesture."

"It was a mistake. All I did was muddy the waters with a bunch of greedy liars," Paar recalled. "I was nineteen and already three seasons deep on a network show. Those girls were almost my age, from my hometown. I just kept thinking, if things were different, that could have been me."

"So now you're catching bad guys on screen," Tom sympathetically chipped in.

"It's a compulsion of sorts. This is my fifth film with some sort of law enforcement tie. I've been a U.S. Marshal, a CIA analyst, FBI agent three times. They stuck me with the Behavioral Science Unit so much, I've nearly worn out my welcome at Quantico."

"Aww, I've been there," said Tom. "Those guys are awesome."

"Well. They're supposed to be the best at what they do, right? Anyway, what I'm working on now - this is my first straight-up homicide flick, and the role is finally one I can relate to," she detailed. "I still need to figure out my background, get some context for my behaviors."

"Don't we all," Lindsay snipped. "Look, you seem like a nice enough person, but I make a lousy tour guide."

"If I wanted a tour, I'd take the trolley. Like I told your captain, I need the real deal - I need you."

Lindsay turned to whine at Tom once more, for good measure. "Do I have any say in the matter?"

Tom grimaced and shook his head. Lindsay childishly slapped the tip of her cane against the floor, startling everybody with the rude, outsized noise. Paar flinched and took a step back.

"My bad," Lindsay murmured. "Still not used to this thing."

Moments after they clomped downstairs, Griffin Paar's demeanor underwent a sudden shift. While girlish and polite with Rand and Tom as an audience, she cut loose once alone with Lindsay. Her posture loosened, as did her tongue.

"Okay, first up, I don't want any fucking chauffeur, especially that Fong turd," she declared. "He asked thirteen stupid questions while blatantly staring at my tits. That, I don't need. I'm here to work."

"No, I'm here to work. You're here to learn how to act like you work here," Lindsay screwily reminded her charge, even as she felt keen relief over the removal of Kenny Fong from this annoying equation. "Blatantly, huh?"

"Charlie Sheen is subtler." Paar sneered then, with a high degree of charm. "Look, no snot – you don't want to do this, and I know I won't have you for long, so forget the paper chase. I need to see you to do what you do."

"My turn to get thirteen stupid questions?" Lindsay sneered back, forgoing the charm.

"Nice. Facile. I like that in a woman," Paar said. "But that's not what I had in mind. Although I might blatantly stare a little, rest assured it's not a sex thing, it's just how I work."

"I'll try not to take it personally. So what do you have in mind?"

"Something free-form – like, I'll pitch you my case and we'll go investigate. Or you'll explain how you would investigate while I watch and ask thirteen stupid questions."

Lindsay hesitated; she wanted back on case work ASAP, and the shortest route seemingly ran through Griffin Paar's little parlor game. Her first day back wasn't going like she'd expected. Wasn't Captain Rand supposed to give her a medal or something?

"Fine. Whatever. I'm a pleasant and helpful representative of the department." Lindsay plastered on a transparent smile. "Game on, Ms. Paar."

"Brilliant! And you can just call me Griffin."

"And you may call me Inspector Boxer."

"Whatever you want. Let's get out of here, right now." Paar jumped up, threw on a dark denim jacket and palmed her keys. "We can take my car. I just bought a '68 Mustang - and I get to break it in cruising San Francisco! Like Steve Goddamned McQueen!"

The inspector was somewhat less excited. She crawled into her black duster and took up her cane. "There will be no Bullitt re-enactments. You will drive like a model citizen so long as you're in my town."

Griffin Paar shrugged an okay, though she still looked wildly happy. "You call the tune, Inspector."

Even though she was not a 'car person' (having bought her Jeep because it was well-built, comfortable, and she liked silver), Lindsay could appreciate Griffin Paar's carefully restored hot rod – largely because it would have cost the police inspector a year's salary.

"Highland Green with black interior, just like in the movie," the actress cooed. "Matching numbers, all OEM spec."

"Hey – a heater and an AM radio. What else could you want? Just watch your speed," Lindsay noted as the engine rumbled and the needle crept toward fifty MPH in a forty zone. She checked the mirrors and was completely unsurprised to find a ubiquitous, unmarked Crown Vic following behind, two cars back.

Agent John Ashe of the FBI had stepped up his surveillance recently, justifying the extra attention by suggesting that the Kiss-Me-Not killer might try to take advantage of Lindsay's hobbled state. Or, even more disturbing, that he might find the whole 'wounded bird' thing attractive. Lindsay found herself comforted and troubled by her federally-funded shadow, with the ratio dependent on her mood and his distance.

Realizing the Mustang wasn't rolling along aimlessly, she asked her driver for a specific destination.

"Could you investigate a murder in Chinatown?" Paar inquired.

Lindsay set her sarcasm level for stun. "No, they have diplomatic immunity. How about Fisherman's Wharf instead? Death by Spumoni gelato. Happens all the time."

"Sweet way to go, but my character lives in Chinatown. The first victim is her neighbor," Paar explained. "I was thinking we could go down there, find an apartment and do a walk-through like it was my crime scene."

Lindsay could hardly believe the woman's presumption. "You think some stranger's gonna let us waltz into their apartment so you can play amateur detective?"

"It's all in how you look at it - they might let us samba through so I can play professional Hollywood actress," Paar clarified. "Just because you didn't recognize my face doesn't mean nobody will."

The inspector shrugged carelessly. "I don't watch a lot of television."

"I haven't done TV since the nineties." The actor's irate huff projected above the engine revs. "I have an Independent Spirit award, for fuck's sake."

Lindsay, unsure where that ranked on the entertainment industry's smoke-up-bum ladder, asked: "Is that better or worse than a Golden Globe?"

Turned out Griffin was right; a young Mr. Lau answered their third knocked door and nearly tumesced in the hallway when he identified his surprise morning visitor. He was quite gracious, letting them mock up a crime scene in his living room and watching with great interest as Lindsay explained procedures to identify and preserve evidence. He even joyfully consented to play corpse, giggling all the while like a ticklish schoolgirl. When Lindsay finally reached the limits of what could be done at the initial scene, their host asked to be remunerated with autographs. He printed out several glossy photos and Griffin cheerfully signed each of them, complete with cutesy personal inscriptions, while chattering away in Mandarin.

Lindsay didn't look too closely, but she was fairly certain Paar was naked in every one of the pictures. Once in the car, she asked for confirmation. "You signed boobie shots for that perv?"

"It seemed a fair trade. He did let rock all over his house for half the day."

"Because you're in his spank bank," Lindsay dismissed. "You just gave that guy a license to stalk."

"Oh, come on. Not every fan develops an unhealthy obsession," Griffin argued. "He was really nice – way more polite than Fong, the knocker inspector – and guys like Joey Lau are the reason I make a killing from Asian endorsements."

"That's another thing I don't get. How are you so big in China? You're a skinny white girl from Missouri."

"Excuse me. Skinny? Stand me beside Keira Knightley and I look like a steroid case." Griffin raked a glance down Lindsay's bladed frame. "What's your excuse, pork chop?"

Lindsay rolled her eyes. "Point taken. China?"

"Short version. Once upon a time, I did this bike-and-gun film with Tony Leung. A deleted frontal scene mysteriously found its way onto DVD and internet. Ipso facto C-cup, titty girl with machine gun says 'Buy Sexy Zongshen Motorcycles!' Now I have a beach condo in Cape Town."

Lindsay mulled over this new information, which made Paar fractionally more interesting. "Tony Leung. Not a bad name to drop."

"Oh, now she's impressed," Griffin grumbled. "So, where to from here, case-wise?"

"If scene interviews produce no leads, I head back to the Hall and work the evidence until the post is over. Then it's down to the morgue."

"Hells, yeah! That's what I'm talking about," the actress cheered. "Morgue, from the French morguer, meaning to stare at somebody real hard-like."

The bizarre droplet of info spurred Lindsay's double-take. Three languages and counting. "Really?"

Griffin shrugged. "I only know French when I'm drunk at Cannes – it's like I'm speaking in tongues. Let's go to the morgue!"

Lindsay hated the idea of imposing on Claire and let it be known. "Doctor Washburn is too busy working on real things. We will not bother her."

"You don't know that she's too busy. Call her. Please? Tell her I'll buy her lunch. I'll buy her a pony," Griffin wheedled. "Tell her I'll buy her a pony for lunch."

The bribery came as a slight relief; at least she hadn't invoked the idea of tattling to Captain Rand. Plus – free lunch. Lindsay relented and called Claire, who agreed faaar too quickly for Lindsay's comfort. Claire, in turn, suggested calling Jill, whose case recessed early for a juror's health emergency. Jill, too, jumped at the invite and, just that fast, three out of four clubbers had a lunch date with a movie star. Two of them were actually happy about it.

With the morning deadlines past and lunchtime approaching, levels of noise and activity in the offices of the San Francisco Register experienced a lull, which was more than fine with reporter Cindy Thomas. With her required work handed in, she could focus on finishing the passion project that kept her buried in the archives for the past week – a sprawling 6,000+ word think-piece which, she knew, might never get published. Staring at her computer screen, she combed through the final paragraphs one last time, swapping out a purple verb here, changing a tense there and, yes, even linking two sentences via semicolon. She wondered if her friend and copy editor, Vikram Roy, would appreciate the effort.

"Time to find out," she whispered. A few mouse clicks attached the piece to an email and sent it flying across the quiet newsroom to his desktop. She strained to hear the familiar bee-bop new mail sound effect and the clicking of his keyboard. A few minutes later, her office line rang.

"Crime desk. Thomas."

"Stand up and look at me," Vikram's proper British voice commanded. "This requires eye contact."

She stood and peered over the partition. He gazed at her from forty feet out, his expression indistinct, his ropey forearms braced atop the cubicle wall.

"Evelyn Wood herself couldn't have read it that fast," she said. "What's the what?"

"I'm ten paragraphs in and I have a question."

"Everything up to that point is self-evident, therefore I suspect your question is not about my article."

"Only by extension," he admitted. "I must know - are you looking for another job?"

To Cindy, the query stung like a whip. "What?? No! No! Why did you say that? Oh, god - am I getting fired?"

"Don't be stupid. You're young and underpaid and you mush like a Malamute," Vik rudely assured her. "I ask because this isn't your usual seamy, bloody fare. This piece could get you headhunted by corporate."

She snickered nervously. "Don't you be stupid. You're ten paragraphs in."

He pointed one long finger in her direction. "Mark my words. Once I'm done here, I intend to buy you a lovely lunch in some posh bistro."

Her eyes puckered with suspicion. "You've never even bought me a pizza."

"It's never too late to kiss up," he claimed. "If Edison Media calls on you, I intend to grab your coat tails and fly away from this third-tier catbox liner."

"Hey! Not nice. We do good work here."

"I don't mean the writing, babe, I mean the pay. There's a reason I've never bought you a pizza, and it's not lack of affection," Vikram revealed. "My hours were cut twice in the last year, and I have no secret trust fund waiting to cushion my failures."

Had he spoken unkindly, Cindy might have taken offense at the word 'secret,' because it wasn't, really. Vikram knew of her grandmother's guilt money for one simple reason – he caught her off guard. The day after her hiring, the fast friends got drunk and he demanded her life-so-far story. The money wasn't really supposed to be hers, and she didn't normally think of it as such. In fact, Cindy didn't think of it at all unless someone reminded her, someone like an estate lawyer or chafed colleague.

"Edison won't be calling me because the piece won't make it to print," she predicted, neatly ditching that other topic. "It's depressing and thinky and won't help us sell ads."

"I thinky you're wrong, darling heart. Now let me finish reading while you contemplate the gastronomic sins we'll soon commit."

He clicked off and ducked away, leaving Cindy with a dead line and a live worry – what if he was right? Her original career plan called for two years at the Register, minimum, two years of building a name and a clip book to draw the attention of a big, serious paper somewhere, anywhere. Location hadn't been a deciding factor since her Frisco-loving father died, but now… now she loved this city, too.

She loved the restless weather and the willfully cockeyed streets, the russet bridge, the emerald bay, and the patchwork quilt of variegated faces. She loved her simple amity with Vikram Roy, her intricate alliance with Jill Bernhardt, and her surrogate family of wonderful Washburns. She loved how this city had made a virtue of her curiosity; after rudely prying into the affairs of a murdered co-worker, she was rewarded with entrée into a tight circle of friends who helped her find a sense of professional purpose and personal belonging.

Then, in a fit of largesse, the quaky little Gold Rush town gave her a shot at fortune: a stake on the abandoned Boxer Claim. Some years back, a dilettante treasure hunter gave up the deed, preferring instead to sift fields on the sunny surface. The claim's dark diggings are a challenge, with miles of winding tunnels to disorient and discourage, wrong turns that dead end without warning, and collapsed passages - which should have been cleared long ago - still blocked. The lure of any such mine is belief in a hidden lode, the digger's faith that a golden heart lies buried within, just waiting for a careful hand to pull it free. Should she succeed in this delicate quest, Cindy knew that two years wouldn't be nearly enough time. She would hold to San Francisco and guard her lucky strike until both the city and the woman were done with her.

Don't worry about it. Corporate won't call. It'll never make it to print, she told herself again while fidgeting with her desk toys, though that reassurance was negated several minutes later when she heard Vik's distant cursing. Soon, he stood beside her desk, wiping his teary eyes with a tissue.

"You wee, manipulative wordmonger," he sniffled. "The Hunter's Point murders were already old news. Whatever possessed you to take this angle?"

The why was at once simple and too complicated to explain, so she scraped up some words from the truth's surface. "Lindsay talked about it some, right after it happened, about how often kids just disappear, how most people forget, but some never do. I started digging around for a few equivalents and found way, way too many. People talk about how sad it is for a while, until we're distracted by some shinier tragedy. Like she said – it happens all the time."

"Interesting. You know, if playing porter for Supercop's emotional baggage inspires such as this, I suggest you let her cheat on you," Vikram teased. "You might sick up a pretty decent novel."

Not amused, Cindy threw her rubber band ball at his head.

One area where Griffin Paar's celebrity was no help at all? Parking. By the time they decided on Zuma for lunch and confirmed a table via phone, Financial District crowds clogged the valet lot and they had to board the Mustang on the eighth floor of an open-air parking tower two blocks up the street. Lindsay wouldn't complain, but her foot was yelping ouch well before they were seated – at a very good, central table in the bustling dining room.

She wanted a beer and a steak something terrible, and cursed her prescription meds for depriving her of Zuma's famous Latin-style lagers. Her dining companion felt her pain and decided to take up the slack; Griffin had already downed half a pint when Claire and Jill arrived. Before long, yet another persona shift occurred; while blunt and acerbic when alone with Lindsay, the actress became a flirty, garrulous gossip under direct questioning from Jill Bernhardt.

"Yeah, Matt's gorgeous, but his body odor is deafening… "

"So they're in her trailer, going at it like minks and all the while, their lav mikes are still live… "

"Eventually, he started hanging himself to get off harder. That last day, he was alone and his chair must've slipped. The Chelsea still won't rent out his room… "

"I don't think they're real Scientologists. They still listen to country music and eat corn dogs like regular humans… "

"She doesn't get around as much as people think. Now, Drew Barrymore? Errol Flynn with a pussy… "

Jill laughed and gasped, blushed and urged her on all through the meal, clearly eating up the salacious Hollywood Babylon spiel. Lindsay listened on half-alert for anything of interest, and once shot a withering glance toward Claire, as if to say, Can you believe these two? How very, very silly. The dignified Dr. Claire Washburn totally blew her off, and saucily inquired about a favorite leading man rumored to be in the "tripod club."

Scandalized and snickering, Lindsay shrouded the remains of lunch with a napkin, drained the last of her coffee and excused herself to the restroom. On the way, on a whim, she took out her phone to call Cindy and was astounded when the reporter picked up on the second ring.

"Hey! Betcha didn't think I'd answer."

Lindsay stopped in the hallway just outside the ladies room, where it was almost quiet. She leaned against the wall and plugged her free ear to concentrate on the chipper, welcome voice. "I did not. Does this mean your experiment's over?"

"Yep. My creature is alive - alive! - and will lurch toward the in-boxes of Register editors by nightfall. Mwa-ha-ha."

"Poor bastards won't know what hit 'em," Lindsay predicted. "Are you happy with it?"

Cindy hummed and wobbled a bit. "Define happy."

"Have you actually let another human being read it?"

"No one of consequence. Just Vik." From the background came an affronted cry of objection. "Sorry! God! Take a joke, please?"

"Heh. And what did the rajah say?"

"He must have liked it – he's treating me to half a sandwich at Fickett's. Plus coffee and dessert!"

"Swanky. Gotcha beat, though. Me, Claire and Jill are three blocks down at Zuma, dining gratis courtesy of Griffin Paar. Ever heard of her?"

Cindy laughed lightly. "Becky from Into Each Life - the show I worshipped all through high school - is buying you lunch. Pull the other one."

"Gladly. I'm not kidding, though. She's doing a cop movie and this is one of those method actor ride-alongs, or something."

"Okay, but how did she get stuck with you?" Cindy said, and realized her phrasing error too late.

Boxer the Grouch was feeling benevolent and laughed it off. "I'm sorry, did you ask how I got stuck with her?"

"I did indeed. Your hearing is perfect, as are your legs and hair. And you smell terrific."

Lindsay scanned the restaurant hallway in a quick privacy check. "You should remember – conspicuous flattery gets ya bent over the dishwasher."

"I forget nothing," Cindy avowed. "You were explaining… "

"Mmh. Yeah. Seems she read about my life of high adventure in the funny papers and decided to drop by for a visit," Lindsay summed up. "One good thing leads to another. Just my luck, I guess."

"This is so not fair."

"Is what I'm saying."

"Not you, whine-o," crabbed Cindy. "I meant me – I wanna meet your special guest star, but Vik has an editorial meeting in thirty and he's my ride."

"Pssh. Come down anyway. I'm sure somebody can give you a lift back, although Special Guest Star drives like a Lohan. She has a green '68 Mustang."

"Gah! Just like Bullitt?"

"Exactly. Jill nearly wet herself," Lindsay muttered. "And Claire's asking about celebrity wangs. So embarrassing. Save me?"

Cindy mulled it over, hemmed and hawed, and finally gave in to unkind, grown-up reality. "I would love to rescue you, but I should probably get back and try to look busy. One of my many bosses may have noticed I've been phoning it in lately, and I really want my monster to find some soft, fluffy goodwill."

"Understood. Just… how 'bout five minutes? Come on. Five measly minutes," Lindsay haggled, a last-ditch effort. "Be nice to see you in daylight again."

"I'm still short and pale and dressed funny. You're not missing much."

"Yeah. I am."

Quiet flooded the line as Cindy relished the slantways admission that she was missed, and Lindsay gingerly bit her own tongue. These risky little words kept falling from her mouth lately, unbidden. "Look, it's okay," she said, in retreat. "You take care of business. See you tonight?"

After a small hesitation, Cindy replied. "Yes. Truckloads of yes."

"M'kay, then."

Lindsay snapped her phone shut and straightened up just as Jill rounded the corner, coat on and bag in hand, sparing her from introspection.

"My sick juror made a miraculous recovery. Claire's running me back," she said. "Thank you for the invite – that Griffin's a real sweetheart."

"Talkative, too. You should have enough star poop to fertilize a dozen cocktail parties," Lindsay remarked.

Jill shrugged it off. "My courtroom moves are well-suited for grilling cutie-pie thespians. Who knew?"

"Cutie-pie. Sweetheart." Lindsay smelled a rat. A horny, omnivorous rat with a J.D. "Tell me you didn't slip her your phone number."

Ivory skin blushed rosy. "Just my cell."

"Jill! Jesus."

"I didn't start it! She's had her foot in my lap since they cleared the soup!" The attorney lifted a slim calf and pointed. "See? My stockings are all crooked."

Lindsay gaped for a moment, unable to form an objective argument without confessing the nauseous fear that Jill's high-octane sex drive could someday land her in a Looking for Mr. Goodbar situation. "Still. It's a bad, bad idea. She's an actor – that pretty much guarantees self-absorption."

"So we'd cancel each other out," Jill reckoned. "Besides, I'm not looking for anything serious. Griffin's attractive, in a cheerleader sort of way, and she's funny and bright as hell. Did you know she speaks Latin?"

Four languages and counting, Lindsay thought, somewhat uneasily. "I'm not surprised. Girl's smarter than she looks."

"Listen. It's just passing the time. Until I'm ready for something real again." Jill touched Lindsay's shoulder, brushed down her arm. "Maybe next time I won't take it for granted."

She smiled then, a little sad of eye, just enough for Lindsay to realize she wasn't strictly referring to Luke Bowen. "I don't want you to get hurt," Lindsay deflected. "You deserve to be happy."

Jill cocked a brow at the familiar phrase. "You're stepping on my lines."

"Your lines? Sheesh. Paar's rubbing off on you already."

"Not yet. Tonight, with any luck… "

Lindsay squinted and recoiled. She felt slightly dizzy and played it off with a joke. "Use protection. Claire can get you a HAZMAT suit."

Jill simultaneously sighed, rolled her eyes, and flipped Lindsay off.

"Don't take this the wrong way, but you're an idiot."

Vikram's insult took her by surprise. Cindy nearly choked on her vanilla bean sundae. "Is there a right way to take that?"

"Pop quiz!" he chirped. "What is the appropriate response when a normally taciturn lover says they miss you? A: Glee, B: Gobsmackedness, or C: Gloating?"

"Gosh, aren't you gnosy," she snitted.

"Hint – it is not a combination of all three."

"Eavesdropping. Is that how you kids get your kicks nowadays?"

"You're at arm's length and your mobile volume setting is louder than my gran's, so dismount the high horse," Vik protested. "And what's this about bending over the dishwasher?"

She turned bright red and improvised a catapult with a spoonful of ice cream. "Drop it, or suffer the consequences."

"Stand down. Let's not lose the thread. Lisa Cagefighter nearly begged to see you and you declined – why?"

Cindy frowned so nastily over the new nickname, she couldn't summon a snappy answer. Out came the truth. "Because we're in a delicate place. She got hurt, and I'm fighting all these overprotective, scary-clingy urges. Lindsay can dish that stuff, but she can't take it, so I'm downplaying everything. I gotta stay cool."

"Oh, valentine, no. Cool is crap. Be sincere, even when it's a bit pathetic," he said clutching his heart. "You can't make love to your dignity. Believe me, I've tried."

"Well, yeah - two bottoms. Never works out."

"Piss off. I'm in earnest." Vik laid his keys on the table. "Here. I'll take a cab back and tell the eddies you're with a source. If you leave the tip, I may even drop a bug in their ears about Frankenstory."

"Really? You don't mind?"

"Of course I mind, but I'm kissing up to you, remember? My offer stands for another ten seconds… "

A grin rushed across her face. Cindy dug out a five and tossed it on the table. "Deal."

"Too right. Now it's off your ass, run three ruddy blocks, get a coffee with Inspector Have-it-off."

"Okay. Nickname moratorium, as of right now," she demanded, while shrugging on her jacket. "God. Worse and worse."

Vikram offered a placating smile as Cindy rushed from the restaurant on winged feet.

Lindsay's hallway dizziness had ebbed away for several minutes, then flooded back with a vengeance, only to recede again. At the table, in a period of relative calm, she sipped a caramel latte and tried breathing slow and deep, hoping it was over. Griffin Paar seemed to take no notice as she chattered on merrily.

"Doctor Washburn – Claire – said it's okay to drop by this afternoon. She's a peach. Isn't it funny how so many coroners are happy and well-adjusted? I mean, considering their environment."

"You were hitting on Jill."

Griffin froze. Lindsay did, too, shocked that those words came out of her mouth. She didn't recall having the thought, let alone the urge to vocalize it.

"Whuh. Yeah. Is that a problem?" Griffin asked. "You two aren't - "

"No. That's not… I don't know why I said that." Her foggy, unwell feeling returned, strengthened.

"Hey, I understand. She's your bud. I just got the feeling she needed some attention, which I'm more than happy to offer. Sorry if I overstepped."

Lindsay's strangely loose tongue struck again. "You're pretty good at that. Giving people what they need. Change it up a little, depending who you're with."

A warm, receptive smile met the accusation. Griffin briefly touched her necklace. "No argument there. That's why I'm an actor; it's reflexive."

"Don't call her. I don't want you to call her," Lindsay said, her mind pirouetting slowly inside her skull. She wondered if the anemia had changed, intensified to this dizzy brain-quake and damaged her inner censor.

The blonde woman pushed up her shirtsleeves, baring strong forearms. Elbows on the table, she leaned forward and quieted her voice. "Tell me why, Lindsay."

"I don't owe you a why, Griffin." Lindsay slumped a bit, rubbed her eyes. Her hands tingled; she clutched them into fists. "Sorry. I'm not feeling so hot right now."

"Do you want to call a doctor? Maybe Claire could come back and - "

"No, it'll pass."

"Hmm. You call the tune, Inspector."

"Yeah." Lindsay wasn't so sure about that; the words now sounded facetious, taunting. "Just do m'a favor and lose Jill's nummer."

"Right. You know, this is a very interesting reaction. We've been getting along fine all day and now – suddenly - you have a problem with me." Griffin paused, chewed her thumb a little. "Your instincts are completely geared toward protecting others."

"Thas'why I'm a cop. Reflexive." Lindsay cast a peeved look at the actress, as if she were to blame for all this woozy slurring. "Hey, you sh'write that down. You wanted insight on how play murder police? There ya go."

Griffin chuckled, shook her head. "I never actually said I was playing the cop."

Lindsay tried leaning forward and found her body unresponsive, her limbs rubbery and numb. "Whu thell's goin' on?"

"I know I don't look the part, but the truth is… " Griffin lowered her voice to a whisper. "Lindsay - I'm the bad guy."

"Yes, I understand Ms. Paar and her guest are gone." Cindy crowded the Zuma maître d' back against his podium. "But how long ago did they leave?"

His beady eyes locked on the steel cane gripped in her fist. "A few minutes. Five, perhaps."

"Did anything seem wrong? You know – strange?"

"I know strange," he said. "This was not strange. They seemed very… close. Physically."

Cindy tried to imagine such a thing, but the picture wouldn't coalesce. "That. Is not possible."

The maître d' looked on her with pity. "Few things are impossible for those who pay with Amex Black. Please, I have patrons to attend."

Cindy clenched her teeth and backed toward the door. She tried calling Lindsay's cell; for the second time, the call went straight to voicemail. After adding that to the cane forgotten at their table, and the witness accounts of two waiters who saw a rangy brunette drunkenly leaning all over the pretty blonde actress as they exited, Cindy Thomas got a spooky, sick feeling. Hoping they'd gone back to the Hall, she lit out of the restaurant toward Vikram Roy's car, parked two blocks away.

It felt like dancing on a conveyor belt, all the walking, with Griffin's arms around her. Laughing over nothing. Whispering foreign words into her ear. Wetly kissing her neck.

To a casual observer, they must have looked like lovers, joined at the hip. Lindsay understood the ruse, and wanted to shout, to bite, to fall down – anything to attract some attention and disrupt whatever bad thing was happening. Her traitorous body would not comply. She moved where Griffin moved her, and was mostly quiet, her voice barely audible. She wanted her gun, now tucked down the back of Griffin's jeans, but suspected she wouldn't be able to hold it. Her hands felt alien and indistinct, like flippers grafted onto her wrists.

"What'd you give me?" Lindsay whispered, as they entered the garage elevator. It took a long time to get the words formed and out.

"It's a custom time-release I cribbed from a German chemist. Think roofies fused with ecstasy, but vegan. Tastes great in coffee." Griffin pressed her against the car's back wall by her shoulders and grinned broadly, happy to elucidate. "It all breaks down to natural compounds in a few hours, so there's no red light on a tox screen. Act One: The Marionette. Disorientation and extremity dissociation, lasting eight to fifteen minutes. Just enough time to set position."

The elevator clunked its doors shut and began to climb.

Special Agent John Ashe, double-parked on the street, waited for the Mustang to exit the parking garage. He was at the tail-end of several unhappy minutes, which began after Lindsay Boxer crossed the street with an interloping blonde actress wrapped around her waist.

A recognizable redhead cutting through sidewalk crowds caught his notice. He cranked the engine and thought to follow. Boxer hated it when he got too close, but he couldn't risk anything happening to her or her friends. A lover's quarrel, pedestrian as it might be, could churn this peaceful day into a mess. He nosed the Crown Vic into the automated garage entry lane, took his ticket, and waited for the gate arm to rise.

Ding. Open doors, stumbling through the garage, belted down in the Mustang… Lindsay swept along like a branch in a flood. It was happening too fast - and to someone else - while she floated above and watched, helpless.

Griffin zip-cuffed Lindsay's hands and feet. She took her badge and handcuffs, pulled up her pants leg and snatched out the .22 Magnum backup piece, popped the battery out of her phone, and dropped everything into a mesh bag on the floormat. Bound and stripped bare of all defense in twenty seconds flat, Lindsay was rightfully alarmed. Paar's economy of movement signaled practice and expertise. She had done this sort of thing before, and gotten away with it.

"I've been studying you all morning," Griffin explained, "and I have to say I'm disappointed. All those write-ups about the intrepid Inspector Boxer versus the depraved Kiss-Me-Not killer, then you win a throwdown with a seven-foot beast man? I thought you might be the one, that maybe you'd take a hard look at me and know that I was just… wrong. Shit, I had to drug you before you even let yourself think it."

From the console came a gleaming Spyderco knife, half-smooth, half serrated. A brutal little instrument with a sideview like a gator's head. Griffin fingered the serrations with the pad of a thumb, while her other hand smoothed over the cowrie shell necklace.

"I'm so tired of carrying this around. Hiding. My ego is such that I can't just give myself up, you know? That would play like some wretched plea for attention. I need someone to dig me out, to see me, but it's taking for-fucking-ever. Profilers, spies, marshals, cops... for ten years, I've put myself squarely beneath the law's collective nose and no one smells eight rotting bodies on me? God, that's depressing."

"I think I'm finally ready to accept the why – see, there's no such thing as a real-life Sherlock Holmes. You're mostly just ordinary people, with personal issues compelling you toward this shitty line of work. It's not your fault you don't see me," she mused, with a pensive smile. "Evil doesn't cock around in bright plumage, either; evil looks like a youth minister. It looks like everyone. Monsters pass for average, trustworthy people, every day."

"Now, in the quest to get caught, my basal failing is passivity – I'll grow old and croak waiting for someone to link Missouri crowbars, New York hangings and California overdoses. In order for my luck to give out, I need to push it harder. A lot harder." She pointed the knife, gestured back and forth as if it were merely a pen. "I mean, after you vanish, they'll have to put me under a microscope. Maybe after a while, when they back away, they'll finally distinguish a pattern beneath the noise. Like a stereogram."

Lindsay's head lolled impotently sideways. She felt intensely feverish and knew it for more than anger or fear. Sweat broke out under her arms, down her back, along her hairline. Griffin noticed. She untucked the hem of Lindsay's shirt and laid a palm on her belly; heat pooled beneath her hand as if summoned.

"Act Two: The Human Plasma Ball," she said. Her fingers tented and wandered, sparking spidery trails of acid warmth under Lindsay's skin. "It gets so, so much better. You're not even close to peaking. We need to leave soon, find some privacy for the really good part."

Her hand retreated and rose to stroke Lindsay's cheek, then steadied her head so their eyes met. "Look, you're a decent person. You have great friends and, from what Jill and Claire said, a pretty solid new relationship. You still get along with your ex. You adopted an orphaned dog. You probably would have been a great mom. This is nothing personal."

The grateful tears Lindsay Boxer fought down three times yesterday rolled free, now sour and hot. She knew all her recent good fortune came at a price, though she had not imagined payment coming due so quickly, or that the collector would take such innocuous form. No gunshot, no pursuit collision, no theatrical, fractured fairy-tale ending at the hands of a faceless ghoul. This was low-key and sneaky and so fucking pointless it made her want to explode; dying to foment the self-destruction of a gutless, hollow lunatic.

"I promise, there won't be any pain – I don't need that from you." Griffin turned away and started the engine. "I really do wish you'd been the one."

Just after hanging up with Claire, who nervously confirmed she hadn't talked with Lindsay since they left the restaurant, Cindy heard an angry, throaty rumble echoing off concrete. The hair stood up on her forearms, up the back of her neck.

"Can't be," she said aloud.

The engine revved again and her mind's eye conjured up Steve McQueen in a black turtleneck sweater. She threw Vik's Subaru into park, opened the sunroof and stood up on the seat. Wind whipped through the garage, blowing hair across her eyes. Brake lights. There, just down and around the corner.

"Green Mustang. Jackpot." She squealed the tires in reverse, and again in drive, lunging forward to block the Mustang's rear exit path with the Subaru's passenger door. She parked it and yanked up the emergency brake.

If nothing's wrong, give Lindsay the cane and go back to work, she told herself. And if something is wrong?

As Cindy exited the car, her left hand clutched the cane and the right crept into her coat pocket. The Mustang's horn blared once, like a warning shot, and Cindy spasmed like an exploding popcorn kernel. By that point, she was nearly hyperventilating.

"Stupid this is stupid I'm being stupid," she whispered. She cleared her throat and tried to project her voice above the car engines. "Excuse me? Could you help me? Maybe? Please?"

Seconds ticked eternal as the Mustang growled and the brake lights glared. Cindy didn't move. She tried to see inside the car, but couldn't make out details in the gray shadows, only the familiar silhouette of Lindsay's profile. She took a step forward and the brake lights blinked off; the driver's door opened.

Out stepped Becky Huston from Into Each Life. Cindy knew a single, starstruck moment as Griffin Paar smiled at her… and she smiled back.

"Something wrong?" asked her high school idol, who carefully blocked Cindy's view of the passenger seat, one hand behind her back.

Cindy's heart rate rocketed. Something was very wrong. She took another step forward and held out Lindsay's cane. "The maître d' at Zuma said you left this."

Paar took a step forward as well. "Did he?" She looked around the deserted garage floor. "How did you find me? Way up here."

"I was parked right up there," Cindy pointed, working the doe-eyed innocent thing for all she was worth. "I saw you go in the restaurant and I went down… to get a picture? For my Facebook? But he said I missed you. And then… well, that's pretty much everything up to now."

Sharp blue eyes skimmed Cindy up and down, peeled the skin off her words. Paar smirked, cocked a hip; the hand behind her back shifted. "You must be the girlfriend."

Busted. Just that fast. Cindy heard Jill Bernhardt's voice in her head - worst. liar. ever. - and gulped down her nerves. If the Bambi routine wasn't going to fly…

"Fuck it. Whatever! I have HAD IT with you, Lindsay!" she railed, yelling toward the silent, unmoving passenger. "Like it's not bad enough you're FUCKING JILL behind my back! This? Kissing some Hollywood whore in the MIDDLE of the goddamned street? LAST STRAW, BITCH!" She advanced on Griffin, edged just far enough around to catch a glimpse of Lindsay's frantic, darting eyes, and it nearly broke her. Cindy dropped the cane at Griffin's feet. "Last straw. Take her. Good riddance."

Cindy spun back toward the Subaru. In her peripheral vision, she saw Griffin stoop to retrieve the cane, and she made her move.

The range is only fifteen feet, so gauge your distance best as you can, Lindsay had instructed just before Christmas, when the Kiss-Me-Not threats emerged.

She stopped twelve feet away. Pulled the TASER C2 from her coat pocket, aimed it at Griffin Paar, and fired.

If the probes get within two inches of skin, they make a circuit and zappo! Instant incapacitation.

Paar screeched and fell over, twitching. Her empty hands flailed and clenched. Lindsay's 9mm pistol lay on the concrete near the back tire.

The cartridge only fires one set of probes, and the continuous charge lasts for thirty seconds. If you discharge this thing, you drop it and run like hell for help. Promise me. Run.

Cindy had promised, but she didn't run. Her hands trembled as she held the TASER tight and picked up the pistol. Distantly, she heard the approaching shriek of tires on concrete.

She looked into the car and saw Lindsay bound hand and foot, clearly in an altered state. On the driver's seat lay a folding knife; she picked it up and carefully cut off the zip cuffs. Time was running out fast. Thirty seconds for the continuous charge…

Worst case scenario. You discharge the probes at an attacker, but you can't get away. If you can touch them with the leads on the C2, it works like a regular contact stun gun. Pops maybe fifty more times. Go for the head, the neck. Cook 'em good.

Cindy laid the pistol in Lindsay's lap. She took out her cell phone and dialed 911. Griffin Paar stopped thrashing around, groaned softly. Cindy knelt down and stabbed the stun gun toward her ass, delivering another scream-inducing shock. The 911 operator came on the line and asked what her emergency was.

She didn't really know what to say. It was all a bit too surreal, and the words weren't coming. Fortunately, Agent John Ashe of the FBI leaped from his car about then, surveyed the situation and slapped some cuffs on Griffin Paar. Cindy silently handed him her phone; he could deal with the bleating operator. She ducked back into the Mustang, sat down and cut the engine. She stared straight ahead, numb and vibrating at once.

Lindsay's fingers uncurled from the butt of her gun. She flexed her hands a little; some small measure of control had returned, proving out Griffin's efficacy timetable. She laid her left hand, palm up, on Cindy's leg.

"Better late than never," she breathed.

Cindy took her hand and crumbled into tears.

With resurgent muscle control came the slow return of her voice. Lindsay explained as much as she could to Agent Ashe, relaying all Paar had told her about previous crimes and locations, her desire for discovery, everything.

"You should go to the hospital," he advised. "God only knows what she gave you."

"She didn't give me anything," Lindsay insisted. "Because if she did, then anything she said to me would be written off as delusional bullshit. I have this anemia thing and it made me dizzy for a few minutes. She took advantage."

He crossed his arms, looked askance. He couldn't dispute her cagey logic. "They'll ask why you didn't take a drug test, just to rule it out."

"I will, officially, in a few hours. Paar said this stuff breaks down fast, doesn't leave a trace. Everything else she predicted is bearing out." Lindsay couldn't help smiling; inside, in secret, she felt absolutely euphoric. "Wanna see if she told the truth about that, too."

Ashe gave her a slow, serious appraisal, then nodded. "I'll back your play. Just let me know what you need."

"Thanks." She casually touched his shoulder and turned away.

He stood rooted to the spot, feeling the warmth of that simple touch all the way to his bones. In the back of his throat was a bitter hint of bile, a lingering resentment over lost opportunity.

In Vik's Subaru, Cindy Thomas was pulling herself together again with tissues and Visine. She did not appreciate the whole déjà vu thing, especially when the turnaround was so ridiculously quick. It seemed universally unfair to schedule one traumatic, violent incident so close to another - padding things out with a little recovery time would be much more sporting.

Lindsay Boxer didn't seem to be holding a grudge. Against the universe in general or anyone in particular. She dropped into the passenger seat, slammed her door and immediately leaned over to kiss Cindy's jaw. Her ear. Her neck.

Cindy shrank away after the third kiss. "What is the matter with you? How are you not totally freaked out?"

"I don't know. I'm tripping?" Lindsay – warm, glowing, and not a little sweaty – cupped the back of Cindy's head. "People still say that, right?"

"Dennis Hopper, maybe. Are you sure you don't want to go to the hospital?"

"Positive. You're too far away." She looked side to side; her right hand fumbled noisily near the door. "Do these seats go all the way back?"

The redhead's cherub face registered high alarm. "I'm calling Claire."

"Tell her to come to my place. With a basic med kit and lots of blood testing supplies."

She made the call and Claire, after a fairly loud articulation of stunned wrath, agreed to Lindsay's terms. She also graciously agreed to play grapevine, relaying the news of the day to Jill and Tom.

That taken care of, Lindsay leaned in again and blindly plowed her face into Cindy's hair. She breathed in deeply, her voice a low, contented purr.

"I love your smell. Makes me feel good. Like it's about to rain and I'm running home."

Cindy turned and kissed her – how could she not? Just once, lightly, then started the car.

"I love you," she said. "Put on your seatbelt."

After Cindy peeled out, John Ashe and Griffin Paar sat quietly in his car until the parking level cleared out. He addressed the rear view mirror, the narrow band of her reflection.

"Were you really going to kill her?"

She laughed, slumped in the backseat. "I want my lawyer."

"No. We're past that point."

"What do you mean, NO? This is bullshit! Boxer came onto me! We were messing around in my car, and her jealous cunt girlfriend caught us and attacked me," Paar improvised. "Anything else they might say is bunk to cover their asses – which will get cut crossways by a lawsuit. The very worst I can expect is community service, probation and rehab, so you and your stupid hair can just fuck off."

Ashe tucked his chin down to hide a smile. "Lindsay said you're ten years deep in the game. Is that true?"

"Did you not hear me say lawyer?"

"I'd like to know when you started killing." His voice was benign, free of judgment. "You've requested counsel and I've continued to interrogate you, so anything you say now is inadmissible. Just between us – why do you do it?"

"In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, fucker. Lawyer. Lawyer. Lawyer."

He chuckled softly and eyed the shiny tiger-stripe shell resting in the hollow of her throat. "I like your necklace. The cowrie is a clever little creature. He creates his shell from the outside in so his camouflage melds perfectly with his feeding grounds. Lives his whole life hiding in plain sight."

"I know," she said. Their eyes met in the mirror. "Keep screwing around with me and I will wreck you. Store security at Target, if you're lucky."

Ashe got the message. He turned halfway round, regarded Paar with undisguised scorn. "We enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire? Ooh. Aren't you something, with your stale, cryptic little palindromes."

She said nothing, gave up only a faint smirk.

"I wish we had more time together," said Ashe. He exited the car, yanked her out and slammed her against the back door. "You were going to kill her. What gives you the right? You're no one to her. You're nothing."

Her eyes widened and focused hard on his contorted face - the roiling reverse image of her own placid madness. In that moment, she knew him, saw him, and felt the obscene urge to kiss his twitching, burst seam of a mouth. "Peek-a-boo," she said, laughing at him.

He spun her around and hammered the back of her head with the side of his fist - a savage, precise blow that knocked her dizzy. He held up her weight by belt and jacket and they were running, toward the front of the car and beyond, toward the four-foot cement coping at the edge of the lot, toward the hundred-foot drop.

Ashe stopped short and gave a mighty heave. Griffin Paar cleared the coping by an inch and flew for a moment, unburdened and free, before the long, silent fall.

Lindsay Boxer knew she was home, in her bed, hugging her mutty border collie. This reassured her the room wasn't actually upside down. Martha was a clever dog, but she had yet to defy gravity. Lindsay had never really been high before, not like this. A few weedy joints in college and the predictable mellowing influence of alcohol were child's play compared to the intermittent swirling trance states brought on by Paar's designer brain twister. Moments of lucidity came now and again, allowing her to take stock of the situation beyond her melted, sliding inner world. Sometimes, she heard voices.

Claire: Her vitals are stable and Ralph says the blood panels keep coming up normal. Whatever that little bitch gave her, there isn't a test for it yet.

Tom: So there's nothing - we just - wait for her to come down?

Claire: I don't know what else we can do.

Tom: If Paar wasn't dead, I swear I'd kill her myself.

Claire: I'd help you sink the body.

Sometimes, the room was quiet, and she could feel things. The pressure of a BP cuff on her arm, a thermometer peeking into her ear, a cool cloth across her forehead. Once, she woke to a familiar weight on her chest. After a ponderous, blind journey, her hand found the nape of a slender neck and combed fingers into pale, feathery hair. It was the best comfort she could offer, that touch, and the sound of her heart beating under Jill's ear.

"She really dead?" Lindsay asked, after a time.

"Suicide. She got away from John and jumped from the parking tower." Jill sat up, sniffed a couple of times. "You? Are not allowed out of the house. Like, ever again. You're frikking jinxed."

"Depends how you look at it." Lindsay's eyelids were heavy as wet sandbags. Prying them open took some doing. "How did she get loose?"

"By faking a seizure. She started thrashing around and John tried to help her."

She raised up on her elbows, glanced around the dim emptiness. Faintly, she heard raised voices in another room. There was a thought, tickling and itching inside her skull, but Lindsay couldn't get her nails into it just yet. "Stop. Using his first name. Please."

Jill looked puzzled. "Why don't you like him? He was totally sweet and concerned for you on the phone. He seems really nice."

"So did Griffin Paar." The itching subsided; Lindsay shut her eyes and her head hit the pillow like a wrecking ball.

When Lindsay woke up sober, the first thing she heard was Cindy's close voice as she lay alongside, still and easy. Blackish twilight filled the bedroom windows.

"Tom tells me you have four months of accrued vacation time. Let's go to Hawaii for a week," she said.

Bleary and aching something ferocious from the neck up, Lindsay took a few seconds to think it over. Two people had tried to kill her inside two weeks, and both of them were now dead - let Kiss-Me-Not suck on that for a while. Riding out of Dodge on a winning streak seemed an excellent idea. "Okay."

Cindy, who had expected at least a token objection, rolled with it. "Cool. I'll rent us a house, someplace private. Hana, maybe."

"A private house. Isn't that kinda expensive?"

"My grandmother gave me some money when I turned twenty-five. It's a lot. A lot of money." Cindy went quiet, let that sink in. "You don't seem hung up on stuff like that. I never mentioned it because it didn't matter."

True - they'd barely discussed their families and they never talked about finances. Lindsay processed the new info pretty quickly. "That's… great? I guess. But you really shouldn't spend it on - "

"Yes, I should. I never touch it. I try to pretend it's not there, but I'm giving myself permission and we're doing this. This will be done," Cindy decreed. "I'll book the house and we'll fly out Friday Your prescriptions run out by then, so we can get blitzed and make it on the beach."

Though her brain nearly ruptured with pain, Lindsay wheezed out a laugh. She smiled up at the ceiling and it didn't cave in. If the universe, tilting her way again, wanted her alive on a Hawaiian beach with a gorgeous, hard-headed rich girl, who was she to argue?

"I never expected you," she said. "I don't deserve you."

"Actually, you deserve better," Cindy corrected. "But you're stuck with me."

Lindsay took her by the hand. "Then it's a good thing I love you."

Gracious in victory, Cindy Thomas did not scream hallelujah. Rather, she entwined her fingers with Lindsay's and grinned at the ceiling, too.

"Well. It's not like I gave you a choice."

The End

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