Lauren stepped out into the living room to meet two pairs of inquisitive eyes. She grinned as she walked over and flopped down on the couch.
"So spill," Rachel demanded, playfully nudging her knee with her socked toe.
"That was Benson as you probably know," Lauren began, eyeing her friend knowingly. "He just wanted to let us know that they caught one of the guys responsible for the break-in at the Gallery. He thinks that it's only a matter of time before they get the others."
"How did he sound?" Sheila asked concerned.
"Oh he sounded a bit frazzled, but I think that has more to do with Louis going bonkers than the break in," Lauren said with a laugh.
"Ben didn't think it was related to this other crap?" Rachel asked, getting to the meat of the matter.
"No." Lauren shook her head. "He thinks it was just some punks looking for money, and the police agree."
"Well, that's a relief," Sheila said with a heartfelt sigh.
"So… what are we going to do tonight?" Rachel asked, looking between her two friends, a glint of mischief in her eyes.
"Rachel, you know we can't go out," Lauren warned, shaking a finger at her.
"Yes, yes, I know. You won't let me forget," Rachel said, waving her hands dramatically.
Sheila giggled. "Well, there's no reason why we can't have fun here is there?"
"No, I guess not. I'm just so sick of staring at this place," Rachel replied grumpily.
"Sorry, Rach," Lauren apologized, her eyes downcast.
Rachel noted her friend's distress and inwardly slapped herself. "Hey, it's not your fault, Laur. No worries. I'm sure we can come up with something," Rachel assured her, giving Lauren a gentle shove.
"Didn't you say something about a party on Saturday, and that you needed to come up with a costume?" Sheila asked them.
"Oh shit! That's right!" Lauren exclaimed, falling back in mock despair. "I don' t have a clue what I'm going to wear! Knowing my sister, she's going to wear something bizarre, and do her best to embarrass me."
"Probably," Rachel agreed with a smirk. "I guess we better brainstorm and come up with something outrageous for you. Any idea what Ash is going to be wearing?"
Lauren closed her eyes and covered them with her arms. "No clue, but I have a feeling it will be awesome. Damn! What am I going to do?"
Rachel rocked back and rubbed her chin in thought. "Hmmm, well I say we order a pizza, raid my closet, and see what we can come up with."
Lauren peeked from beneath her arms, her eyes shining with hope. "You think you can help me come up with something great?"
"Do you doubt?" Rachel asked in mock outrage. "I happen to be the best damn costume designer this side of the Mississippi. Trust me, if I can make Greta Newton look like a million bucks you'll be snap," she enthused referring to a rather homely girl that lived on their dorm floor when they were freshman.
Lauren laughed. "Can't argue with that. You did make Greta look fantastic! I still can't believe that Bobby Wilson asked her out, and now they're married!" Lauren said, still amazed that the gorgeous football player had fallen head over heels for the shy, plain girl from Iowa.
"I have great power," Rachel admitted haughtily. "Just be happy I use it for good."
Sheila chuckled, as Lauren threw a pillow at Rachel. "Okay, sounds like we have a plan then. Why don't I order the pizza, while you two raid the closet?" Sheila suggested as she stood.
Lauren and Rachel looked up at her and nodded enthusiastically. They climbed to their feet and dashed down the hall laughing and teasing one another over what they were going to wear.
Sheila shook her head and smiled fondly after them. It's so good to see Lauren happy again. As she headed towards the kitchen and the stack of pizza coupons next to the phone, her thoughts darkened. Now, where the hell are Lu and Ash? I thought for sure they'd be back by now. It's after 8; I swear Lu said they'd be home by dinnertime. Sheila sighed as she began sorting through various coupons. If something came up, why hasn't Lu called me? As a myriad of reasons flitted across her consciousness, her heart clenched. No, NO! I won't think like that. Lu's fine. Ash is fine. They just got caught up in some damn paperwork or something and lost track of time.
Sheila stared at the phone for a moment, debating whether or not she should try Lu's cell. Couldn't hurt. I mean if she's in the middle of something she probably has it turned off. I could at least leave a voice message. Decision made she reached for the phone, dialing Lu's number before she could lose her nerve.
This is ridiculous! I'm calling my wife for Pete's sake! Not calling some tart to make a clandestine meet, so why the hell am I so nervous? Her mind continued in this vein as she listened to the phone ring, drumming her fingers impatiently. By the third ring her nervousness had begun to mutate into irritation. By the fourth the irritation had swirled into anger. When the phone beeped and went to voice mail Sheila had worked into a fury.
"Lu. This is your wife. Remember me? The one pregnant with our child? It would be so nice if you got around to letting me know if you're dead or alive," Sheila said into the phone, her tone venomous and clipped. "So when you're done playing cops and robbers, put your toys away and call me!" Sheila slammed down the phone, taking a deep breath trying to quell the anger that had overtaken her. She closed her eyes, and ordered herself to calm down. The last thing the girls needed was for her to fall apart, but she wanted this to be over and for Lu to come home. "Oh, Lu," she moaned, a pang of guilt hitting her for the message she had left.
She picked up the phone and dialed Lu's cell number again before she could talk herself out of it. It rang four times and clicked over to voice mail. "Lu, honey, I'm sorry. I was just expecting you home by now and you haven't called. I'm worried, okay? So please call me when you get this. I love you."
She hung up the phone and stared blankly at the coupons. She shook herself and reached for them. "Now to find something at least minutely nutritious," she said aloud as she sorted through them, picking up the phone once more.
"Rachel! Why the hell do you have a cheerleading outfit in here?" Lauren demanded, holding up the outfit a mischievous twinkle in her green eyes.
Rachel straightened from where she had been burrowing through the bottom of her closet, glancing over her shoulder to see what Lauren was talking about. "Oh that old thing?" she asked nonchalantly.
"Yeah, this old thing. Care to explain?" Lauren asked, as she flopped down on the bed and shook the offending garment in her best friend's direction.
"What can I say? I like uniforms," Rachel said with a sly grin.
Lauren rolled her eyes and laughed. "Oh come on! There has to be a story behind why you'd have a cheerleading outfit for UCLA in here."
Sheila grinned as she watched the byplay between the two friends. Things seemed so normal on the surface, but her inner thoughts were still dark, since it was after ten and Lu still hadn't called. "Please, tell us, Rachel," Sheila said, trying to get into the spirit of things.
Rachel sighed dramatically, leaning back against the wall next to the closet. "Oh very well," she said as if they were pulling deep dark secrets from her. "I dated this cute cheerleader from UCLA. She bequeathed me the outfit to remember her by when she left."
Lauren skeptically eyed her friend. "Uh huh, sure. Now what really happened?" she asked, smelling bologna.
Rachel giggled. "Okay, okay, you caught me," she replied holding up her hands in defeat. "I really liked the outfit and I asked Ginny if I could have it. She said, 'Sure' since they were changing uniforms for the following year anyway."
"Well that sounds more plausible," Lauren replied, as she strolled back over to the closet and peered inside. "Holy crap, Rach! Do you think you have enough shit in here?"
Rachel shrugged. "You never know when something is going to come back into style, or when you might need a…" She paused, tapping her chin, trying to come up with the perfect word. "Umm… particular unique outfit."
"I see," Lauren said seriously, pulling yet another treasure from the depths of Rachel's closet. "And what particular situation would you say you would need this for?" she asked innocently, as she shook out another costume and Rachel groaned.
Sheila looked up from sorting through a box of costume jewelry to see what all the drama was about. Rachel had her hand over her eyes and looked to be actually blushing. Sheila frowned at her, then turned her attention to what Lauren held in her hand, and burst out laughing.
"Hey, it's not funny! You never know when you might need to break into a convent!" Rachel said defensively, as she tried to grab the black and white outfit from Lauren.
Lauren leapt back, holding the outfit out of reach. "You sullying nuns now?" She laughed, dancing away from her.
Sheila held her side as she laughed. "Oh, Rachel! That is too much!"
"Hey some of those poor girls really want to break the habit," Rachel deadpanned as she finally seized the outfit from Lauren.
Lauren rolled her eyes at the bad pun. "That was really bad."
Rachel winked. "Heh, heh."
"Now tell us why you really have that," Sheila gasped between giggle attacks.
"Okay, I got it for a costume party a few years back. A bunch of us went as pregnant nuns, as a joke," Rachel explained, as she reached to the top shelf of the closet and pulled down the headgear for the outfit. "I've used it a couple of other times when I needed a quick costume for someone and it's pretty much one size fits all." She shook out the outfit, smiling at it.
"Hey, Sheila, why don't you wear it and go with us to the party on Saturday?" Lauren asked, giving Sheila her best puppy dog eyes.
"Yeah, you'd have a blast! Not to mention I think we all need a good party to help forget about this last week," Rachel remarked, coming over to hold the costume up against Sheila.
Sheila held up her hands and pushed the costume away. "Oh please! That's just tacky! Besides I don't even know if we'll be here over the weekend."
The statement seemed to hang in the air between them, casting a dark shadow. Lauren looked down and fidgeted with the bolo in her lap. Rachel paused with the habit half raised, while Sheila nervously sorted through costume jewelry in her lap, wishing she'd never spoken.
"Well, I think you deserve to do what you want, Lu can just come along or not," Rachel announced.
Sheila glanced up and saw the stubborn set to Rachel's jaw. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that you've put up with a lot of shit this week. You should be able to go out and have some fun, Sheila. Lu owes you some party time. So there," Rachel said, as she stepped forward, handing a stunned Sheila the outfit. "Now try it on and let's see how it fits."
Sheila glanced over at Lauren. Grinning, Lauren nodded her head in agreement. "Rachel does have a point. She may not say it in the most diplomatic way, but she definitely has a point."
Sheila shook her head and grinned. "You're right. I do deserve a night out that's all about fun," she agreed, setting the jewelry aside and standing with the habit in hand.
"You got that right," Rachel agreed with a smug smile.
As Rachel worked with Sheila to get her decked out as a naughty nun, Lauren turned back to the closet with a grimace. What the heck am I going to wear? I don't think my for-all-occasions toga is going to be enough. She sifted through the closet as she tried to think of something-anything-that would knock Ash's socks off. Well, if she even bothers to show up, her mind supplied darkly. No! She said she'd be there! And I believe her. Things are just crazy right now, she argued back.
"Earth to Lauren. Come in Lauren."
Lauren turned from the closet to see Rachel standing behind her. She attempted to smile, but knew it had fallen flat by the look on Rachel's face. "Hey. What do you think I should wear?"
Rachel studied her for a moment, deciding to let whatever was bothering her friend rest. She had a pretty good idea what it was anyway and talking about it would just bring it more to the forefront. "Well, what are you trying to accomplish?" she asked stepping back and eyeing her friend up and down.
Sheila walked over decked out as a nun, and looked Lauren over. "I think you could pull off just about anything."
"You look great, Sheila," Lauren remarked, as she tried not to feel totally exposed by her friends' calculating looks.
"Thanks, but I'm not out to impress anyone. I'm an old married woman," Sheila said with a smile, looking down at her outfit. "We need to find you something that will blow a certain blue eyed, dark-haired, stubborn, pigheaded woman off her feet."
Lauren giggled at the description. "What do you suggest? You've known her longer than we have."
Sheila laughed ruefully. "Known her? Well I wouldn't go that far, but I'm sure we can think of something."
"Do you have any idea what Katie is going to do?" Rachel asked out of the blue.
Lauren stared at her nonplussed. "Katie? Ummm, well knowing her it will be outlandish and probably not easily forgotten. Why?"
Rachel shrugged trying to seem nonchalant. "Oh, no reason. I just didn't want to end up in the same costume is all."
Lauren laughed. "You know that isn't as farfetched as it sounds. You two are way too much alike."
Rachel smirked. "But enough about me, what are we going to do for you?"
"Well I don't think I can get away with my usual toga, huh?" Lauren asked chagrined.
"Hell, no! You've been wearing that ratty old thing to every costume party for the past four years!" Rachel bellowed, shocked that Lauren would even consider it. "The only sheets I want to see you in are the ones on Ash's bed!"
Lauren blushed scarlet, mortified. "Rachel!"
Rachel cackled. "Gotcha!"
"Enough you two. Now we have to find something in this plethora of chaos for our dear Lauren," Sheila said, trying to alleviate some of Lauren's discomfiture. Though she silently agreed with Rachel.
"I think it's hopeless," Lauren moaned flopping back on the bed.
"Nonsense! I'm sure I can come up with something," Rachel said, as she dove into the closet with enthusiasm.
"Did Ash give you any idea about what she was planning on wearing?" Sheila asked delicately, afraid bringing up Ash might be a mistake.
"Nope. She said it was a surprise," Lauren said, covering her eyes with her arm.
"Well, knowing her it will be unique if nothing else," Sheila remarked thoughtfully, as she tried to think of something for Lauren to wear.
"I got it!" Rachel exclaimed, as she backed out of the closet.
"You got what?" Lauren asked, sitting up and staring at her friend.
"The perfect costume of course," Rachel replied haughtily.
Lauren rolled her eyes. "Okay, so are you going to share, or do we have to guess?"
"Guess," Rachel said, tossing her head back with a laugh.
"Ha ha, very funny. Just tell me or I'm going to have to hurt you," Lauren warned, as she crept across the bed menacingly.
"Okay, don't get your panties in a wad," Rachel said backing up a step. "I decided you needed to do something different and something that would definitely get tall, dark, and dangerous's attention, right?"
"Yeah," Lauren sighed, knowing Rachel had to go through her usual sales pitch before they'd be allowed to know what the hell she'd come up with.
"Well, what's sexier than love?" Rachel asked looking between the two women.
"Love?" Sheila asked her brow furrowing. "Nothing, I guess, but how do you plan on dressing Lauren as love? Not as some fat cherub in a diaper holding a bow and arrow I hope."
Lauren looked at Sheila horror struck at the thought. "Oh gods no! Not that! Please, tell me that's not what you have in mind, Rach."
Rachel laughed. "That would be funny, but no."
"Come on, Rach, spill before I have to get up and make you sorry," Lauren threatened.
"Well there are other personifications of love, right?" Rachel asked rhetorically. The two women nodded impatiently. "There's cupid of course, but he's a guy, and like you said, the whole diaper thing is out."
"Absolutely," Lauren agreed.
"And I doubt dressing you as a big heart would be very sexy," Rachel continued with a smirk.
"Rach, I'm going to make you bleed if you don't hurry up and get to the point," Lauren warned, scowling at her smug friend.
"Okay, okay." Rachel laughed. "So what's sexy and all about love you ask? Why, Aphrodite of course!"
Sheila glanced at Lauren and then to Rachel. "Well, you do have a point, but I thought you wanted to get away from the whole toga thing."
"Who said anything about a toga?" Rachel asked knocked off balance.
"Well as I recall, Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, so wouldn't she wear a toga?" Sheila teased, raising an eyebrow at the irony.
Lauren laughed. "She's got you there, Rach!"
Rachel rolled her eyes, sighing. "You two are way too short sighted. Why do I waste my gift on you?" She moaned dramatically, shaking her head.
"Okay, oh wise and all knowing one, what do you see Aphrodite wearing?" Lauren asked half afraid of what her best friend had conjured up.
"This!" Rachel announced, unfolding the outfit in her hands and holding it up.
Lauren's eyes popped out of her head, her mouth falling open in shock. "You have got to be kidding me!"
Sheila studied the simplistic white gown that was cut rather risqué, and then looked at Lauren. "Well, its definitely sexy."
"You're encouraging her!" Lauren said, giving Sheila an evil glare.
Sheila shrugged. "Well, it will definitely make an impression. Why don't you at least try it on before you totally disregard it?"
Lauren stared at Sheila, then at what looked to her to be a very tiny bit of cloth being held by her so-called best friend. "Try it on? Try what on? There's nothing there!"
"Aw come on, Laur! Have I ever steered you wrong?" Rachel lamented holding the outfit out to her.
"Yes," Lauren grumbled, but gamely took the garment.
"That a girl! Now while you do that, Sheila and I will work on accessorizing," Rachel said, as she flopped down on the bed next to Sheila and began sorting through the pile of jewelry.
Lauren glared at her for a moment, but realized that Rachel was blithely ignoring her. She grumbled as she took the outfit and stalked out of the room to the bathroom to try it on.
"Is she gone?" Rachel stage whispered to Sheila, never looking up.
"Phew!" Rachel said wiping her brow. "Well, if nothing else I bet I distracted her from the fact that Lu and Ash haven't called." She looked up and caught the worry in Sheila's eyes before she could hide it. Rachel patted her knee sympathetically. "No word?"
Sheila shook her head. "No. And I'm beginning to really get worried."
"I'm sure everything's fine. Maybe we should turn on the TV, and see if there's any more news," Rachel suggested.
Sheila thought about it for a moment, and then shook her head. "No, I don't think that's such a good idea. I think that might upset Lauren even more. Make her dwell on it. Plus I don't think I really want to know. I think I'll go and try to and call Lu again." She dumped the pile of jewelry back on the bed and stood.
"Okay, I'll keep Lauren occupied and see if I can figure out what to wear for the party," Rachel said looking towards the bedroom door. "Do me a favor?"
"Tell Lu that if Ash doesn't show on Saturday, at the very least I'm going to kill her."
Sheila stared at Rachel and realized that Rachel was deadly serious. She nodded. "Stand in line."
Lu sat back from the laptop, rubbing her burning eyes. She glanced at her watch and swore. It was after three a.m., and they'd been at this nonstop since the afternoon. She sat back and stretched, hearing her back pop. As she glanced around the cramped hotel room, with a frown her eyes came to rest on Ash, who was still bent over her laptop. "You find anything?"
Ash blinked, looking up. "Some. Not enough."
Lu sighed as she stood up and stretched again, trying to work the kinks out of her back. "Find anything out about this Philips guy that's in charge?"
Ash nodded. "Yeah, he's some up and coming. Transferred here about three months ago. I guess the higher ups have faith in him, but it doesn't sound like he plays well with others."
"According to my source, Philips is a politician," Ash said, leaning back from the laptop. "He knows who to sweet talk and who to bully. Most of the other agents see him as a tight ass and not worth their time."
"Oh great. And I suppose he thinks all local police are incompetents and beneath his notice?" Lu asked rhetorically.
"You got it," Ash replied. "Did you check the news sites?"
"Yeah, the murders at the airport are all over it. Though so far, no real information has been leaked. Just that one of the people killed was a cop," Lu informed her. "You think the girls watched the news tonight?"
Ash ran her hands through her disordered hair. "Well, I would think Sheila would've called, chewing your ass, if they had."
"Shit!" Lu swore as she dug in her pocket, pulling out her cell phone. "What?" Ash asked.
"I turned the damn thing off!" Lu replied, as she turned on the power and the telltale beep of voice messages waiting played. "I am so dead. I got so caught up in what we were doing that I didn't even think about it. Shit, shit, shit! I'm going to be sleeping on the couch for months." Lu held the phone up and began to pace as she listened to the messages.
"Well?" Ash asked, seeing Lu's face drain of color. "What did Sheila say?"
"Uh," Lu murmured, as she held the phone limply to her ear looking like someone just walked up and smacked her in the back of the head with a board.
"Lu?" Ash asked, concerned. She stood, striding over to her and shaking her. "Tell me what she said."
Lu blinked and shook herself as she listened to the messages. "Just wait a minute," she said, holding up her hand, closing her eyes so she could focus on the voice coming out of the phone.
Ash studied her and wished once more that Lu would've listened to her and gone home when she had suggested it. The last thing Ash wanted was to mess up Lu's life anymore than she already had.
Lu opened her eyes and met Ash's concerned eyes. "Dodged a bullet that time."
"What?" Ash asked puzzled.
"The first message was Sheila ripping me like you said. Thank God I didn't hang up because the next two were from her too," Lu explained, as she sank down on the end of the nearest bed.
"What did she say?" Ash asked apprehensively.
Lu sighed. "Basically that she was upset that I hadn't called to let her know what was going on. That the three of them had spent the night putting costumes together for that party on Saturday and informed me that we better be there or else."
Ash let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "And Lauren?"
Lu shrugged. "She really didn't say but she didn't sound too upset, other than by me not calling, so I don't think they saw the news. Oh, and I guess the gallery was burglarized."
"What?" Ash shouted in surprise.
Lu jumped and stared at her. "Shit, Ash! You trying to give me a heart attack?"
"Sorry. Now, what was that about the gallery?" Ash asked, beginning to pace with nervous energy.
"Seems some kids broke into the gallery and tore it up, but no one thinks it's related to the rest of this mess. Everyone's fine. The cops already caught one of the kids responsible," Lu explained, as she watched Ash pace like a caged panther.
"Damn. I bet Louis had kittens," Ash said, shaking her head.
"Probably," Lu agreed, "Now, what do you want to do next?"
Ash stopped in mid-stride and stared up at the ceiling deep in thought. "Let's go over what we know."
"Which isn't much."
"True," Ash agreed, as she walked over to the bed and sat down beside Lu. "But I did manage to do some hacking, and after talking to a few of my inside sources, I don't think Judith iced the guy in the parking lot."
"Huh. Why's that?" Lu asked, leaning back on the bed.
"Too messy. Not her style. The blood at the spa and in Judith's car are the same type as the guy's in the Cadillac, so I can believe he was her ride," Ash said thoughtfully. "How his blood got where it was is anyone's guess, but I do have a theory."
"Do tell, Sherlock," Lu said.
Ash smirked. "I think he came up to Judith's car and rapped on the window surprising her. I don't think that was where he was supposed to meet her. I think she told him to come around and get in, and then somehow, I think, he ended up getting a bloody nose, thus the blood in her car."
"Nosebleed? Really?" Lu asked, frowning.
"Yeah, they bleed a lot, but aren't incapacitating," Ash reasoned, "She probably popped him for being a dumbass, and told him to get his ass behind the spa and she'd be right out."
Lu wondered, "Why do you think he met her in the parking lot if that wasn't the plan? Think he wanted more money or something? I mean from what I've read about this guy, he's a pro. Well, maybe not a pro, but he's been around the block a few times, if his mile long rap sheet is anything to go by."
"I think, maybe, he heard all the shit on the radio, put two and two together, and wanted more money," Ash agreed knowingly. "And Judith doesn't like to be questioned, or surprised. So, she probably smacked him, and told him he'd get what was coming to him."
"So why don't you think she's the one who snuffed him at the airport?" Lu asked, intrigued.
"For one he was shot," Ash said, as she envisioned the scene in her mind and added the information she had gleaned from the reports she'd read. "Execution style in the back of the head. I think it's likely he dropped her off, got his money from her, and then, like a dumb shit, was sitting there counting it, and slapping himself on the back for being so damn clever. Someone could've come up to the car and shot him easy. Whether, Judith hired the person to execute him, or the guy's past caught up with him, I don't think we'll ever know, unless, we catch Judith and ask her."
"Makes sense," Lu agreed. "Were you able to figure out where Judith flew off to?"
Ash nodded. "Yeah, I went back through the old flight schedules to see what flights are usually scheduled at that time and to where. One is to Switzerland, which is out."
"Why?" Lu asked.
"Judith doesn't like the cold," Ash replied.
"That leaves two others. One is going to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, which means she'd have to switch planes in Dallas. The other is going to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but she'd have to change planes twice, once in Houston, and then again in Miami," Ash said, tapping her chin in thought.
"Do you think she'd risk changing planes twice?" Lu asked doubtfully.
Ash shrugged. "She thinks she can't be caught, so I doubt that would phase her. Plus she's not going as Judith Sinclair, but as some other persona she's made up."
"True. Do you think she might go to Switzerland, since she must know you're on the case and would suspect her to go somewhere warm?" Lu asked.
"I never thought of that," Ash said ruefully. "Good point. Damn."
"So, I take it the feds have agents waiting at these different airports, and since we haven't seen any reports about her capture that, so far, she's eluded them," Lu surmised.
"That would be my guess," Ash agreed.
Lu frowned. "So what do you want to do?"
Ash sighed and shrugged. "I don't know. I have a feeling the feds are going to have a real problem catching her, especially with Philips in charge. Maybe I should-"
"Stop right there!" Lu demanded, interrupting her. Ash looked at her, blinking in surprise. "You are NOT going after her. This is no longer your problem. She's gone. Lauren is safe. So just stop."
"No buts, Ash. I mean it," Lu ordered forcefully.
Ash stared at her friend chagrined, and then sighed. "You're probably right, Lu, but how can I just go on about my life knowing she's still out there with an agenda?"
"Let the feds do their jobs. Hell, if nothing else, Judith is going to be looking over her shoulder for a long time to come. The police don't take cop killers lightly and you know they never forget. She'll never be able to show her face here in Seattle again that's for sure," Lu reasoned.
"Stop! Okay? Just stop," Lu said holding up a hand.
Ash snapped her mouth shut, coming over to sit on the bed next to her friend. "Thanks for everything, Lu."
Lu looked up at her surprised. "Why you thanking me?"
Ash shrugged embarrassed. "For standing by me, and keeping me from going nuts."
Lu bumped shoulders with her. "Well someone has to watch out for you."
"True," Ash agreed, and a small smile gracing her lips. "I'm just hoping that position will be filled by someone else in the near future."
"Oh really?" Lu asked with a sly grin. "The applicant in question couldn't possible be a strawberry blonde with green eyes could it?"
Ash nodded, a blush crawling up her neck.
Lu laughed. "You're blushing! I can't believe you're actually blushing!"
"Shut up," Ash grumbled good-naturedly. "I still think I need to do something about Judith."
Lu's countenance darkened at the comment. "Ash…"
"Hear me out, okay?" Ash requested, her blue eyes pleading.
Lu sighed, waving her to continue. "Go on then."
"Well, I think you're right that I shouldn't do this personally. I'm too close; I would probably lose sight of the objective. But that doesn't mean I can't hire someone to do it for me," Ash said, her face animating over the idea.
"Hire someone," Lu said, slowly mulling over the idea. "Hmm, that might not be such a bad idea, but who would-"
A sudden pounding on the door interrupted her; they both jumped startled, turning to stare at the closed hotel room door.
"Who the hell could that be?" Ash demanded, glancing at her watch. "No one knows we're here, do they?"
"No, I didn't even tell Sheila where we're staying," Lu replied, as she watched Ash stride over to the door.
"Who is it?" Ash demanded, standing to the side of the door.
"Gray? That you? Open this damn door!"
Ash's eyebrows shot up in surprise. She glanced at Lu to see the same shocked expression reflected back. "What the hell would Morrison be doing here at almost 4 o'clock in the damn morning," Ash asked sharply her face twisting into a murderous scowl.
Lu shrugged. "Why don't you open the door and ask him?"
Ash nodded and quickly unlocked the door and pulled it open. Morrison stood in the hall looking like something the cat dragged in. Ash eyed him up and down, her nose wrinkling at the smell of sour sweat and whiskey that assaulted her. "What the hell is going on, Morrison?"
Morrison's bloodshot eyes came up blearily focusing on Ash's face. "I need to talk to you," he replied, swaying slightly.
"I think you need to go home and sleep it off," Lu said coming up behind Ash and looking at the sorry excuse for a cop standing in the hall.
Morrison stared at her blankly for a moment, then his face darkened in anger. "Listen, my partner is dead. The department has ordered me to take leave and to drop the case. Fuck that! Now let me in!" he roared, staggering forward, attempting to push past Ash.
Ash grabbed his forearms in a viselike grip, stopping him cold. "Calm down, Frank," she said in a low soothing voice.
Morrison's head snapped up, staring at her. "You never called me Frank before," he slurred, as he slumped into her arms.
Ash looked at Lu over his bent head and nodded towards the bed. Nodding, Lu came around to Morrison's other side. The two friends led the inebriated Morrison over to the bed, lowering him onto it. He groaned and immediately began to snore. They stepped back and stared at him.
"Now what?" Lu asked, putting her hands on her hips, not liking the prospect of having to share a room with the sot.
"Now we let him sleep it off a bit, and then, sober his ass up," Ash replied, leaning down and pulling off Morrison's shoes.
"You can't be serious?" Lu asked, watching her friend in disbelief.
"Trust me, Lu. I think I may have an idea on how to solve all our problems, and Morrison here may be the key. Just let me think on it for awhile," Ash replied, as she finished removing his shoes and tossed a blanket over his snoring form.
Lu shook her head. "Well if he keeps up that snoring, none of us are going to get any sleep," she grumbled, stalking around to the far side of the other bed and slipping off her shoes.
"You snore worse," Ash teased, as she sank down on the bed and laid back.
"I do not!" Lu growled, climbing in beside her friend and glaring at her.
"Yes, you do. Ask Sheila." Ash grinned, reaching up and flipping off the lights.
"You are such a bitch."
"So I've been told. Go to sleep. It will be light out soon."
"Yeah, yeah. Well, I'm not the one who kept us up all night," Lu grumbled.
"Gods, you do sound like an old married woman," Ash teased, poking Lu in the ribs.
Lu shoved Ash away from her. "Shut up and go to sleep."
Lu snorted and rolled over on her side, turning her back to her quietly chuckling friend.
Ash awoke and lay with her eyes closed, taking in the sounds of the room, as was her habit. She grinned into the darkness, listening to the dueling sounds of Morrison and Lu's snores. She cocked her head slightly and decided that Morrison definitely won in the volume category, but Lu's were much more dynamic in quality. She knew that the two would probably sleep for hours yet. In fact, she had a feeling Morrison wouldn't awaken until someone shook his ass. Her brow furrowed recalling his disheveled state. She knew grief and anger when she saw it. They were old friends. She just hoped that her plans would keep him from destroying his life and selling his soul to vengeance.
She opened her eyes and waited for them to adjust to the dim room before silently slipping out of bed. She had things to do before she dealt with Morrison, and she needed to be about them. She found her shoes and slipped them on before padding over to her laptop, quickly packing it up. She glanced around the room and smiled slightly at the sight of Lu sleeping on her stomach with a pillow hugged up tight against her. "I promise to replace that pillow with Sheila by tomorrow," Ash promised in a whisper as she stepped to the door, and let herself out.
Ash stepped out into the overcast day and breathed deeply. She took stock of herself and found much to her surprise that she felt pretty damn good all things considered. She grinned and trotted over to her truck ready to get the ball rolling.
"Would you look at this mess?" Louis demanded, as he kicked aside a broken chair with disgust.
Benson turned from picking up trash. "It could've been worse. At least the sculpture room was locked."
"Oh, yes, you're precious sculptures! Thank heaven they weren't damaged!" Louis barked derisively, flinging another piece of broken furniture across the room. "Let's not worry about the damage to the floor, or the ruin of the furniture, or the broken windows! Oh no… none of that matters, since the sculptures are in tact."
Benson bit back a sharp retort knowing Louis was just striking out in anger and frustration. He turned his back on his lover and returned to his cleaning efforts.
Louis glared at Benson's stooped figure and shame washed over him. He sighed, and picking his way through the wreckage came up beside his lover. "I'm sorry, Ben. I'm glad that your work was spared. I'm just so… so…."
"Pissed?" Benson offered, as he straightened and gazed down at his petite lover.
Louis chuckled ruefully. "I guess that's as good a word as any."
"I'm not exactly happy right now either," Benson soothed, pulling Louis into his arms. Louis leaned against him gratefully. "But I am glad that no one was hurt, and that really, the loss was minimal."
Louis squeezed him, and let Benson's strength flow over him. "True. Thank goodness I took out that extra insurance before the auction."
"That was good thinking. I'm glad you talked me into it," Benson agreed, looking around the ruin of the main room grimly.
"Have to spend money to make money, love," Louis replied, looking up to meet Benson's dazzling blue eyes.
"So you keep telling me," Benson said, leaning down to brush his lips over Louis's. "And the artists were a lot less freaked when they heard we were more than adequately insured. I was worried we'd lose business after this."
"Well then I don't want to hear you complaining any more about the extra cost of the security system," Louis ordered with a sparkle in his eye.
Benson chuckled. "Yes sir."
"Well aren't you two just too darn cute for words?"
Benson and Louis turned at the sound of the voice, staring at the dark figure standing in the open front door of the gallery.
"Ash?" Benson asked incredulously. The dark figure stepped out of the shadows and materialized into his cousin. "What are you doing here?"
"I heard about the break in. I wanted to make sure everything was all right," Ash replied, scanning the ruin of the room with a sharp eye. "Was any of the art damaged?"
"Surprisingly not," Louis replied, stepping away from Benson and surveying the room with a candid eye. "To tell you the truth, I never thought of that. I just saw the damage, but now looking around, I can see that most of the damage really is superficial."
"What did they steal?" Ash asked, walking across the room and giving Benson a hug.
"Just the strong box from the office," Benson managed to say around his surprise at finding his usually
aloof cousin in his arms.
"So they were just after money," Ash said, as she blithely turned away from her stunned cousin and strode over to look at the smashed door of the office.
"Appears that way," Louis replied, watching Ash like she was some kind of exotic animal that had popped off the cover of his National Geographic and come to life.
"Obviously not art connoisseurs," Ash said, dryly giving Benson a playful wink.
Benson blinked and then grinned. "No, just your run of the mill punks looking for drug money."
"So did you finish up that mess with the police?" Louis asked.
Ash shrugged. "Pretty much. Judith is long gone; she's the feds' problem now." She turned and walked across the room, surveying the damage as she went.
The two men looked at one another, until Benson said, "Does that mean you'll be going to see Irish?"
Ash paused and stared up at the hanging remains of the chandelier. "Probably tomorrow. I have a few loose ends I need to wrap up." She turned and met Benson's questioning eyes. "I was going to ask you if you minded if I used your office and fax machine for an hour or so?"
"Umm, sure," Benson replied puzzled.
"Are you driving Lauren to the airport to pick up her sister?" Ash asked.
Benson frowned wondering what Ash's agenda was. "That's the plan. Why?"
"I just thought I'd do something for her," Ash replied, with a chagrined shrug. "I haven't exactly been the best girlfriend recently, and I want to make it up to her a little."
"What do you have in mind?" Louis asked, studying Ash suspiciously.
Ash grinned. "I promise its nothing terrible, Louis. I just want to let her know I've been thinking about her."
"Well you could go see her. That would probably alleviate that situation," Louis remarked disdainfully.
"Louis," Benson hissed warningly, and then said aloud to his cousin. "I think that's a wonderful idea, Ash. Go on up and use whatever you need. Just let me know if you need anything, and if I still need to go pick up the girls, or not."
"Thanks, Benson. I promise to see you tomorrow at the party if not before," Ash replied, turning and making her way to the back door of the gallery that led to the apartments above.
Benson watched her go and laid a restraining arm on his lover to keep him from following her. "Leave her be."
Benson placed a hand over his lover's mouth. "She needs to do this her way, honey. Let her do it."
Louis stared at his lover's face and saw the genuine belief in his cousin's motives regarding Lauren. He gently pried Benson's hand away from his mouth, saying, "If you say so, Ben, but she better pray she doesn't hurt that girl anymore. Lauren has been through enough."
"Believe me, that's the last thing Ash wants to do," Benson replied, glancing at the door where his cousin had so recently disappeared. "In a little while I'll go up and see if she'll give me more details, if that will make you feel better."
"Yes, it would. And I think you should call Lauren too," Louis said, as he grabbed a broom and began vigorously sweeping the floor.
"To let her know you won't be picking her up!" Louis said with annoyance.
Benson chuckled. "Oh I can't do that. I don't want to spoil whatever surprise Ash has up her sleeve."
Louis glanced up and stared at his lover incredulously. "You're going to just leave Lauren hanging?"
"Oh, I don't think it will be an issue, but I'll tell you what," Ben said, as he came over to take the broom from Louis. "We'll drive over there and watch to see what Ash did and, therefore, we'll be on hand if Irish does need a ride to the airport, which I highly doubt. Okay?"
Louis grumbled for a moment and nodded. "Fine. I just hope your cousin lives up to your expectations."
Benson laughed. "I have no doubt."
Louis just shook his head, walking across the room to grab another broom to help Benson sweep up the broken glass that littered his beautiful floor.
"Yes, you need to be there no later than one o'clock." Benson heard Ash say, and figured she must be on the phone with someone. He paused in the hallway and leaned against the wall to listen to the end of the conversation, not wanting to interrupt.
"Yes, that's right." Ash swiveled in the big leather office chair as she listened. "No. That's fine. Yes. You have all the information you need?" Pause. "Good. Okay. Thank you."
Ash hung up the phone; turning to her laptop to finish a few more details, before shutting it down. She swiveled the chair around, pinning Benson to the wall with penetrating blue eyes. "You can stop lurking in the shadows and come in now."
Benson chuckled in surprise as he stepped through the doorway. "I should've known you'd know I was out there."
Ash cocked an eyebrow and waited.
"I didn't want to interrupt," Benson explained, feeling the weight of his cousin's gaze. He stepped over to the desk and began to idly flip through the faxes lying in the bin. "Looks like you've been busy," he said, holding up a stack of faxes.
"Yes," Ash replied, dryly, taking the faxes from Benson, and stuffing them into the pocket of the laptop case.
Benson leaned against the desk trying to alleviate some of the nervousness he felt. "So, do you want to tell me this big plan of yours, or do I have to guess?"
Ash smirked. "Guess."
Benson looked up and met Ash's eyes, pleased to see the mischievous twinkle within. He grinned in reply. "Well, knowing you as I do," he drawled, stroking his chin thoughtfully, "I'd say you're on a campaign to suck up to Irish so she'll forgive you."
Ash broke eye contact, lowering her head. She ran a hand nervously through her hair sighing. "I haven't exactly been that great to her. So, yeah, I am trying to make it up to her."
Benson studied her with compassion. "Ash, all she wants is to see you. Be with you. None of this other shit matters."
Ash looked up and saw the sincerity in Benson's eyes. "Really?" she asked in a small unsure voice.
"Really," Benson affirmed. "Believe it or not, that girl is crazy about you. So, now that you're done doing whatever," he said, waving his hand dismissively, "get your ass over to Rachel's and see her."
"I can't," Ash replied, shaking her head regretfully.
"Can't or won't?"
"I just need to iron out a few more details. It's for her safety, as well as for my own peace of mind. I swear. I don't want to be apart from her, Ben. It's killing me, but I can't be with her until I finish this," Ash explained, meeting his eyes trying to convey her sincerity.
Benson met her gaze levelly and finally nodded. "I believe you, but I think you're making a mistake." Benson held up a hand to keep her from interrupting. "I know you think you need to do this, but what I think is that you just need to go see Irish and put all this behind you."
Ash shook her head. "I can't do that. Not yet."
Benson sighed. "Well, then when are you going to see her?"
"Saturday night at the party."
Benson's eyebrows shot up, stunned. "You're kidding me. You're going to wait until then? Why?"
Ash dropped her head and shrugged. "I need time, Benson. Just leave it at that okay?" Benson examined his cousin closely, realizing that there was no way he was going to be able to talk her into anything. Her mind was made up. She was going to do it her way, whether he thought it was a mistake, or not. Still have to try though, he thought resignedly. "I think you're making a mistake, a big mistake, but I can see your mind is made up. You want to tell me what makes you think she'll be waiting with open arms for you?"
Ash looked up, shock written across her chiseled features. "You think she won't?" she asked in a tremulous voice.
Benson inwardly kicked himself for causing her to panic, but grimly decided maybe that's what she needed. "Well, you haven't exactly given her any reason to think you'll even show up."
Ash's face relaxed. "Oh yes, I have."
"You have?" Benson asked skeptically.
"Mm-hm," Ash murmured, a slight grin curving her lips.
"Care to share?"
"No. Not right now. Let's just say that I've been busy, and I think she'll at least be willing to speak to me when I show up," Ash replied.
"Okay. Well, how about an early lunch?" Benson asked, standing.
Ash glanced at her watch, and then shook her head. "No, I better not. I need to get back to Lu, tell her what is going on and get things in motion, so that I can be there on Saturday."
"Yeah, but thanks for asking," Ash replied, standing to collect her laptop.
"Oh before I forget, call your dad," Benson said, as they walked out of the office.
"Call my dad?" Ash asked nonplussed.
"Yeah, he called a couple of days ago and ended up speaking with Louis."
"Oh great," Ash grumbled, rolling her eyes.
Benson laughed. "Honestly, it wasn't as bad as you think. Uncle Harrison gave him quite the tongue lashing though." Ash looked at him in surprise and motioned for him to continue. "Seems Louis was being Louis and Harrison pulled him up short and told him to cut you some slack."
"You're kidding?" Ash asked astonished.
"No, you're dad really went to bat for you, so do me a favor, call him and let him know you're all right," Benson replied, halting in front of the front door.
"I'll do that," Ash said, still lost in the idea of her dad's support.
"Do I still need to pick up Lauren and take her to the airport?" Benson asked, eyeing his cousin innocently.
"What?" Ash asked, derailed by the sudden change in topic.
Benson grinned. "I said, do I need to take Lauren to the airport, or have you made other arrangements?" Benson asked knowingly.
Ash grinned sheepishly. "Oh, you can go over to Rachel's if you want, but your services won't be required."
Benson laughed. "I figured as much. I think I may go over there just to watch."
Ash gave him a playful shove. "Well, I have to get out of here, you big oaf. I'll see you tomorrow night, right?"
"Yes, Louis has informed me we will be attending the party."
"Good. I'll see you then," Ash replied with a wave, as she headed down the hallway.
"Take care of yourself!" Benson called after her.
Ash waved a hand in assurance without turning.
Benson watched her go and sighed. I hope you know what you're doing, hon. I really do. He shook himself trying to alleviate the foreboding that had fallen over him. Guess I better get back downstairs, he thought as he turned and put thought into action.
Lu glared at the slumped form of the very hung over detective sitting on the edge of the bed and then glanced at her watch. Damn you, Ash! Where the hell are you? I can't believe you bugged out of here without telling me a damn thing! She scowled as she sat back and reached for her coffee.
"You want some of this?" she asked, holding up her cup to Morrison.
Morrison lifted his head and bloodshot eyes came to rest on the cup. He blanched. "I think I better stick with water for awhile yet," he replied in a hoarse voice.
Lu snorted and took a sip of her coffee.
The sound of a key in the hotel room door snapped Lu upright. She set her coffee down and stood. She shoved her hands in her pockets trying to contain the irritation and anger she felt rising in her.
Ash strode into the room with a smile and held up a bag. "I brought brunch," she announced cheerfully, walking across the room to the small table, and dropping the bag onto it.
Lu scowled. "Where the hell have you been?" she demanded angrily.
Ash looked up with surprise painted across her features. "I had a few things I needed to do and I didn't see any reason to wake you. I left you a note. Didn't you see it?" Ash replied, flopping down in the chair opposite of Lu and began rummaging through the bag she had brought.
"Note? Note! Shit! All you said is you'd be back!" Lu roared, throwing her hands up in disgust as she began to pace. "Not where you were going. Not how long you'd be gone! Just that you had to go do some shit! Damn, Ash!"
Ash looked at her friend and cocked an eyebrow. "I had my cell, Lu. You could've called if you were so worried."
Lu whirled around and glared at her, but couldn't argue with the calm logic. She opened her mouth and then snapped it shut, unable to come up with an argument that didn't sound childish. She snorted and stomped over to the table to take the chair across from her erstwhile friend. "What did you bring me?"
Ash wordlessly handed the bag to her, and turned to meet Morrison's bloodshot gaze. "Feeling any better?"
Morrison studied her for a moment and then nodded. "I'll live."
"Good. Because I have work for you," Ash replied matter of factly.
Lu glanced up in surprise. "Work? What the hell are you talking about?"
Morrison stroked his mustache thoughtfully. "What do you propose?"
Ash leaned back from the table, glancing between her two comrades. "You're on administrative leave, correct?"
"Then I want to hire you," Ash stated leaning forward, meeting Morrison's eyes with a determined air.
"Hire him? What kind of crazy ass shit are you up to, Ash?" Lu demanded.
"Shut up, Lu. This is between me and Frank," Ash warned, her gaze never wavering from the detective's.
Lu scowled, but wisely shut her yap.
Morrison studied Ash through narrowed eyes for a moment. "What do you want me to do?"
"What you already want to do," Ash replied knowingly.
Morrison sat back in surprise, but then comprehension dawned. He motioned her to continue. "You going to bankroll me?"
Ash nodded. "I have a few conditions."
"Those would be?" Morrison asked, sitting up and crossing his arms.
"No revenge. You find her, you turn her ass in," Ash replied sternly.
Morrison frowned, rubbing his mustache as he considered the proposition. "What about the feds?"
"What about them? They'll do their jobs, and we'll do ours. You shouldn't have any contact with them," Ash answered, watching Morrison closely. She knew she had him; she just had to convince him not to go off halfcocked.
"Any other conditions?" Morrison asked.
"I want you to report directly to me or Lu," Ash replied, nodding towards a stunned Lu. "I'll continue to send you information, as it becomes available, and money when you need it. For your part, you'll keep me informed of your movements and whatever leads you have."
Morrison nodded. "Let me think about it," he said, as he stood and walked across the room to the far corner.
"What the hell are you doing?" Lu hissed, leaning forward.
Ash turned and met angry hazel eyes. "I'm doing what has to be done. You and I both know the feds aren't going to find Judith. Neither you, nor I can go after her. Morrison has motivation, and the training needed to find her." Ash shrugged. "It's a win-win situation."
Lu pondered it for a moment, and then reluctantly had to agree. "So, what role exactly do you expect me to play in all this?"
Ash smiled. "Just an information liaison, Lu. You'll pass on any information we dig up, and receive information from Morrison in the field. We'll work together to correlate it, and that's that."
"Uh-huh," Lu replied, unconvinced.
"Honest, Lu. I can't-" Ash paused, reconsidering her words. "No, I won't go after Judith myself, but I can't leave it up to the feds to find her either. I figured this was the best alternative."
Lu studied her friend for a moment, seeing the sincerity in her eyes. "Okay, so, what else have you been doing this morning? Somehow, I doubt it took you the last 6 hours to put this plan in motion."
Ash laughed. "I was working on a little surprise for Lauren, if you must know."
Lu grinned. "Good to hear. So when do we get to get out of this pit and go be with our ladies?"
"Soon, I promise," Ash replied.
"What is soon?" Lu asked.
Ash ignored the question, as Morrison chose that moment to return. "So?"
"I'll do it," Morrison replied, offering his hand.
Ash grinned and shook it. "Good. Now sit down, so we can hammer out some details."
Morrison pulled up a chair and sat. "I have some information, but I have to admit I don't know what significance it may have."
Ash's eyebrows rose. "Oh? What?"
Morrison rubbed his face, trying to shake off the effects of his alcohol binge the night before. "Lu, I think I'll take that coffee now." Lu mutely passed a cup towards him. "Thanks. Okay, before I left the department I swung by the Trace Lab to see what they had come up with."
"And?" Ash prompted.
"Well, that's just it. It's odd, and I'm not sure it has any significance," Morrison said, taking a sip of his coffee. "But, do you know if Miss Reid or Sinclair own a dog?"
"A dog?" Lu asked nonplussed.
"I didn't see any signs of one at the condo, why?" Ash asked, with a slight frown as she thought about it.
"Well, blonde dog hair was found in both the backseat of Sinclair's Lexus and the Cadillac. None was found on the driver of the Caddy though," Morrison informed them. "The dog hair was found only in the backseats, and has everyone baffled as to how it got there."
Ash frowned. "That's odd. Did you question Alexi about a dog?"
"Not yet. I wasn't really thinking straight yesterday. I don't know if the new detectives on the case have questioned her, or not," Morrison replied with a touch of anger.
"Are you going to be able to go after Judith without letting your emotions get in the way?" Lu probed, eying him critically for any sign of vigilantism.
Morrison met her gaze levelly and nodded. "I want her brought to justice. I've worked for 25 years to put people like her away. I can't say that I haven't had moments where I'd love to just blow some asshole away, but I've never given into the temptation."
Satisfied, Lu took his response at face value. "Okay."
"I did a little research," Ash said, changing the subject. Grabbing her laptop case, she pulled out a sheaf of paper. "Here's all the information on the different flights she might have taken, what the feds have found out so far, and a profile of Judith."
Morrison took the proffered papers. "Guess you have been busy," he said dryly as he thumbed through the reports.
"Do you have a passport?" Ash asked.
"Yeah, I took a trip to the Bahamas a few years back trying to save my marriage," Morrison replied.
"Good," Ash replied. "Here's the rest of what you'll need." Ash held out a large manila envelope to him.
Morrison eyed it warily and then took it. "What's all this?" he asked, as he opened the flap and peered within.
"Contact list, a bankcard, cell phone, beeper, and when you're ready, we'll go out and get you a laptop," Ash replied, watching Morrison closely.
Morrison chuckled. "You going to teach me how to us the damn thing?" He waved it off as rhetorical before continuing, "I'll figure it out. Hell, I'll buy one of those Idiot guides if I have to. You think of everything don't you?"
"Mmm, do you have a license to carry concealed?" Ash asked.
Morrison eyed her thoughtfully before nodding. "Of course."
"Good. Then I take it you have a personal weapon?"
"Yeah, I do."
"Wait, wait just a damn minute here!" Lu demanded, holding up a hand. "What the hell does he need a weapon for if all you want him to do is find her?"
Ash, her eyes unrelenting and cold as blued steel, pierced her friend as one eyebrow rose in challenge. Lu defiantly glared back.
"In case I get too close and need to defend myself," Morrison said trying to defuse the situation. Lu's head snapped around to glare at him. Morrison shrugged. "Dodd underestimated her. I won't."
"Some of the places she might be aren't going to let you walk around with a gun," Lu challenged.
"I'll deal with it," Morrison replied.
"Lu, please. Frank is a professional. He knows how to handle this. Let's let it go and focus on what needs to be done, okay? The longer we sit here, the colder the trail gets," Ash soothed.
Lu glared at her friend, but finally nodded, disgruntled. "Fine, but we're going to revisit this little issue."
Ash grinned tolerantly at Lu. "She's such a worry wart," she said, aside to Morrison.
Morrison chuckled. "I promise to put all your fears to rest, Lu."
"I doubt it, but I guess I'll live," Lu grumbled.
"Let's get this show on the road. I have a date to keep tomorrow night," Ash said, as she stood.
"First thing I need to do is request an extended leave, and go take a shower," Morrison said, as he too stood.
"I'd recommend taking the shower first," Lu quipped.
"Rachel! Come on! Benson's going to be here any minute!" Lauren bellowed down the hall, as she paced with nervous energy.
"Keep your pants on! I'm coming!" Rachel shouted back.
Lauren threw up her hands in frustration and glanced at her watch once more.
"Calm down, honey. We have plenty of time," Sheila said calmly, as she watched Lauren try to wear a hole in the carpet.
"I know. I just hate being late. I'm so nervous," Lauren said, as she turned and gave Sheila a tremulous smile.
Before Sheila could reply a knock came at the door. Lauren swerved, heading towards the door. She peered through the peephole and frowned.
"Who is it?" she called through the door.
"Delivery for Lauren O'Shea," a muffled male voice replied.
"Maybe I should answer it," Sheila said, coming up beside Lauren, and gently steering her away from the door.
"You don't think…?" Lauren asked, her face paling.
"No! Of course not! This is a secure building, so, whoever is out there had to go through the security ringer in the lobby," Sheila quickly assured her. "You know no one is going to get past Officer Lewis."
Lauren nodded nervously, as she stepped back from the door allowing Sheila to take her place.
Sheila unlocked the door; pulling it open only to be met by the sight of a pair of legs topped by a very large arrangement of roses, which obscured the rest of the deliveryman. "Oh! That must be heavy!" she said, stepping forward to gently guide the man into the apartment. She led him over to an end table where he set the flowers down with a sigh of relief.
"Thanks, ma'am. That baby was a killer," the young man said, straightening with a groan. "I need someone to sign for this."
"Here let me," Sheila said, taking the small clipboard from the man and quickly signing the form.
"Thanks. I'll be back in a moment with the rest," the man replied, as he headed for the door.
"The rest?" Lauren squeaked, her eyes as big as saucers, staring at the largest bouquet she'd ever seen in her life.
The deliveryman laughed. "Yes, ma'am. I left the rest in the lobby with that really intense police officer."
Lauren nodded numbly.
Sheila closed the door and came over to inspect the flowers. "Oh look, there's a card," she said, pulling the card from the arrangement and holding it up. "Why don't you see who they're from."
Staring blankly at the card, Lauren managed a small nod. She reached for the card, noting that her hands were shaking.
"Whoa! Did a flower shop explode in here?"
Sheila turned to see Rachel stride into the living room, making a beeline for the flowers. "I think Lauren has an admirer," Sheila explained.
"What? You mean flowers finally get delivered to my place and they're not for me?" Rachel pouted dramatically.
"Afraid not," Sheila replied with a smile.
"So? Who're they from, Laur?" Rachel asked, her eyes twinkling with barely suppressed excitement.
"Wh-what?" Lauren asked looking up with a dazed expression.
"Earth to Lauren. Who are they from?" Rachel prompted. "As if we don't already know," she stage whispered to Sheila out of the side of her mouth.
"Oh, umm, they're from Ash," Lauren said, in a distracted voice, as her eyes once more fell to the card in her hand.
"What did she say?" Rachel asked, coming over to Lauren, trying to read the card in her hand.
A soft knocked sounded at the door.
"That can't possibly be the deliveryman back already," Sheila remarked, as she approached the door. She opened it to see a uniformed woman standing on the threshold. "Yes?"
"Lauren O'Shea?" the woman asked.
"No, that would be her," Sheila replied, pointing over her shoulder. "May I ask what this is about?"
The woman glanced inside and then nodded. "I'm here to take you to the airport."
Sheila's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Excuse me?"
"I'm with the limo company. I'm here to drive you to the airport?" the woman replied with a slight frown.
"Limo? We didn't-"
"Oh no, ma'am! I was given this address, informed to pick up a Lauren O'Shea and company, and take them to the airport," the chauffeur explained enthusiastically. "I believe it was to be a surprise."
Sheila laughed. "Well, you got that right!"
"Are you ready to go?" the woman asked deferentially.
Sheila glanced at Lauren and Rachel, and made a decision. "Give us 10 minutes and we'll be down."
"I'll be parked out front," the chauffeur replied, "Can't miss it."
"Thank you," Sheila said, and spotting the deliveryman returning, left the door open.
"Wow, Laur! This is really beautiful!" Rachel exclaimed, as she circled the arrangement. "I have to say one thing for tall, dark, and dangerous, she's got fantastic taste."
Lauren blushed and fought back the tears that threatened to fall.
"Girls, we need to get going," Sheila reminded them.
Lauren looked up and nodded. "Right. I wonder where the hell Benson is?"
"Oh, I don't think you need to worry about that," Sheila said, realizing that Lauren had been too caught up in the flowers to have seen the chauffeur.
The deliveryman entered the apartment once more with another large arrangement of roses. "Where do you want these?"
"Wherever you can find room, I guess," Rachel replied with a touch of envy.
The young man deposited the roses on the kitchen table and turned. "Just a few more trips."
"There's more?" Lauren asked, shocked.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied heading out the door once more.
"Oh my god! What did she do buy out the store?" Lauren asked overwhelmed.
Rachel laughed. "Guess we'll find out when we get back from the airport. We may not be able to find a place to sit!"
"Come on, let's get going," Sheila said, as she herded the girls towards the door.
"But what about the deliveryman?" Lauren asked, as she meekly followed Rachel out into the hall.
"I'll tell officer Lewis to secure the apartment. I'm sure he won't mind," Sheila assured her as she gently pushed them towards the elevator.
"Oh, Okay," Lauren replied, still in a daze.
"What does the card say?" Rachel asked, as they stepped into the elevator.
"Card?" Lauren asked blankly.
Rachel rolled her eyes indulgently. "Yeah, that little piece of paper in your hand? The one that came with the flowers?"
"Oh," Lauren murmured glancing down at her hand and the card within. She read the simple inscription once more before holding it out to Rachel. "Here."
Rachel took it eagerly and read it. Her eyes widened and she sighed. "Wow."
"Wow what?" Sheila asked trying to see the card.
"Here," Rachel replied handing her the card.
Sheila took it, glancing down to read what had caused such a reaction.
Time with you is a priceless treasure, and I have squandered a king's ransom. For each moment I spent thinking of you during our time apart I send a rose, a sweet, and tokens of my love. Promising all my tomorrows-
Sheila swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat and silently handed the note back to Lauren. She had to give Ash one thing-she had one hell of a way of making amends to a girl.
The elevator dinged, and the doors slid open to reveal the Cheshire grin on Officer Lewis's face as he waited for them in the lobby. "You're ride is here," he announced pulling the front door open for them.
Lauren glanced around the lobby and saw it was full of flower arrangements, baskets full of mystery, and assorted packages. "Is this all for me?" she asked weakly.
Officer Lewis laughed. "Yes, ma'am. As soon as I see you on your way, I'll help young Alex there," he said, pointing at the deliveryman who was sorting through the items, "a hand getting them all upstairs."
Speechless, Lauren stood staring at Officer Lewis. She couldn't believe all this was for her! What did she do? Buy out every flower and gift shop for a 20-mile radius? Her mind tried in vain to make sense of it all, while her heart beat wildly in her chest.
"Come on, honey. We better get going," Sheila prompted, gently taking Lauren's arm and guided her towards the door.
"What? Oh right. Airport. Sister. Got it," Lauren mumbled, falling into step between Sheila and Rachel.
Rachel glanced over Lauren's head at Sheila, and gave her a wink. "Some girls have all the luck, huh?"
Sheila grinned. "You haven't seen anything yet."
Rachel looked at her questioningly, but Sheila just smiled wider as they led Lauren out the door.
They stopped short when their eyes fell upon a sleek, black, stretch limousine parked at the curb. A uniformed chauffeur stepped forward, opening the back door with a smile.
"Oh my god," Lauren breathed wide-eyed.
"You can say that again," Rachel remarked, shaking her head in disbelief.
"Oh my god," Lauren repeated, as she drifted forward, as if in a dream.
Rachel giggled, as she followed in her friend's wake. "Wow! This thing has everything," she commented, peaking inside the interior. "Television, VCR, wet bar- damn!"
Sheila poked Rachel in the side to get her to move out of the way. "Get in, so we can get going."
Rachel grinned sheepishly, and ducked inside. Sheila smiled graciously at the chauffeur, and they shared a conspiratorial wink, as Sheila helped the glassy-eyed Lauren into the back of the limousine. "In you go," Sheila said, as she placed her hand on top of Lauren's head to keep her from hitting it. Lauren slid into the car safely, and Sheila turned to the chauffeur. "I'm sorry, but I didn't get your name?"
The woman smiled. "Linda."
"Linda," Sheila repeated, offering her hand. Linda grinned and shook it firmly. "Do you know where we're going?"
"Yes, ma'am, I was given all the information," Linda assured her with a nod.
"Please, call me Sheila and thank you," Sheila replied, and saw Benson and Louis sitting in their car over Linda's shoulder. She noted the huge grin on Benson's face, and the dumbfounded one on Louis's. She laughed lightly and waved, before sliding into the extravagant confines of the limousine.
Linda closed the door behind her, and headed to the driver's seat to get this show on the road.
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