(Author’s Note: I owe an unpayable debt to the late Roald Dahl for many things in this story. Do yourselves a favor; find a copy of his book, My Uncle Oswald and you’ll see what I mean!)
The sun was just going down on the far edge of the desert, bleeding light across the sand and across the asphalt. Multicolored Casino lights vied with the red flare as traffic rolled on down the highways crisscrossing Las Vegas.
Warrick watched Lydia out of the corner of his eye, waiting until she was done, intensely curious but unwilling to admit it. She pocketed her pen and glanced over at him.
“Why do you DO that? I’m willing to bet you’ve got paper of SOME kind in your purse, so why do you write on your HAND? And not even full words, just initials? It’s weird.”
Lydia glanced down at her palm, where she’d scrawled TP in green ink and then looked again at Warrick, who was pulling into the parking lot. She shrugged, her long gold braids wrapped around the crown of her head.
“I don’t ALWAYS have paper, and this way I don’t forget to pick up stuff—every time I look at my hand tonight I’ll remember exactly what I need to buy on the way home. It’s the quickest, easiest way to keep it with me.”
“But it looks crazy. Do you really want people knowing you’re going to be picking up toilet paper when your shift’s over?”
“It’s not toilet paper—“ Lydia smiled, climbing out of the car and fishing out her purse. Warrick shot her a cynical look as he climbed out and locked the vehicle.
“Sure it is. TP—toilet paper.”
“Nope. This is something completely unrelated.”
They walked down the hall together, Warrick mulling over possibilities as Lydia signed them in.
“Warrick! No!” Lydia laughed, herding him into the break room and fishing in her jeans pocket for a few quarters. He scowled, rubbing his chin.
“Want me to tell you?” she offered over her shoulder.
“Nope, I can figure this out—two words, something from the grocery store, right?”
Lydia collected her Mountain Dew and came over to him, relishing the sight of him sprawled in the chair, concentrating hard, green eyes ablaze. Two months into her transfer to the night shift and Lydia already felt an affection for the quirky dedicated bunch who worked under Grissom. Warrick in particular made her smile; despite his world-weary gruffness he had a mind as sharp as a tungsten blade.
“—Bragging about yourself again?” Nick sauntered in, shooting a smile at Lydia. Warrick rolled his eyes.
“Now if it was about Nick here it’d be total putz.”
“Both wrong, but thanks for playing—“ Lydia waggled her palm at him. Nick casually took her hand and stared for a moment at the letters.
“Nope—something OTHER than that—and before this goes any further I need an incentive, Lydia. I will NOT wrack my brains on this just for the intellectual satisfaction,” Warrick gruffly announced, annoyed at Nick’s easy flirtatious manner with her.
Ever since his return from sick leave, Nick had been working his good ole boy charms on Lydia and try as he might not to care; Warrick admitted to himself he did. Lydia laughed and sipped her soda as Nick waggled his eyebrows at her.
“Incentive huh? I could think of a few things worth winning from our transplanted beauty—“
“Harassment, harassment!” Sara teased, slipping into the room, a sheaf of papers in her hand. Warrick noticed Lydia hide her flinch and sat up, keeping his gaze on her as Nick held his hands up to Sara submissively.
“Oh hey, not ME—I RESPECT the women I work with.”
“And is that only because all of us are more than capable of kicking your butt professionally as well as personally?” came the throaty challenge.
“Ouchie—who’s the harasser now, Sara?”
“All right guys, settle down—“ Gris muttered vaguely, wandering in, shifting through the night’s assignments. “Where’s Catherine?”
“Said she was running late and would get here in an hour or so—“ Sara volunteered. Grissom nodded.
“Good—just for that she can do lab follow-ups. Nick, you wait for her since you’ve got more paperwork sitting on your desk than anyone.”
The look on the younger man’s face was slightly rebellious, but he nodded, resigned. Gris handed a sheet to Warrick.
“The four of us are going to the Jade Dragon hotel. We’ve got a possible multiple poisoning.”
*** *** ***
Brass met them at the door of the suite, and the first notable factor was his expression. Normally Jim Brass’s demeanor ranged from mildly amused to profoundly sad or bleakly resigned. At this particular moment he looked curiously strained, as if he was holding something in. Curious, Gris moved closer to him, studying the man.
“I’m only going to be able to say this once, Gris, so listen up—we’ve got three bodies in there, triplets. They’re all seventy-one years old—the Yuan brothers. Ming, Shing and---“ Brass tightened his jaw, “—Wang. The coroner declared them about ten minutes ago and we’re about to bring them out.”
“You’re disturbing my crime scene!” Gil protested, eyes going stormy at this violation.
“Trust me, we HAVE to move them out, pronto—“ Brass muttered, grimacing.
“Bad?” Gris asked, concerned. Brass sucked his cheeks in, and squeezed his eyes closed.
“Never seen anything like it before. They’re definitely—stiffs.”
Unnerved by this description, Gris glanced at his team and then at the doorway. An EMT was beginning to back out through the door of the suite, guiding a gurney. Normally a sheet-covered body was no cause for concern, but as this one began to pass, Gris blinked.
And blinked again.
The sheet lay draped over the body in natural contours everywhere except the crotch. There, in the finest tradition of tenting, the sheet rose up in an impressive peak of cotton fabric.
“Oh dear God—“ Lydia gulped, cheeks burning. Warrick snorted as the body rolled past, followed by a second and third gurney, each bearing another draped corpse with the same prominent erection at groin point.
“Viagra overdose?” Sara ventured after twitching a little, her gaze following the parade.
“Damn! Talk about getting a rise out of a dead guy—“ Warrick muttered. Gris looked back at Brass, finally clueing in.
“You’re going to go out to your car, roll up your windows and laugh yourself SICK—“ he predicted darkly. Brass struggled with his composure and drew in a deep breath before answering.
“Maybe later—all I DO know is that with a trio of geriatrics looking like THAT we’d have more superfluous personnel wandering around the crime scene, Gris. Let the Lookie Lou’s go down and bother Robbins at the morgue.”
“You have—“ Gris winced as he said it, “—A point. All right, let’s go see what’s what.”
Gingerly the team stepped into the hotel suite, looking around, donning gloves and taking a quiet moment to survey the site. Gris cocked his head and his team instantly took their cues from him.
It was a luxurious room, done in opulent red and gold Chinese décor: brocade curtains, overstuffed sofas, and thick carpet. Off to one side stood a room service cart, the food on it untouched. Gris winced, seeing a vague outline on the carpet and another one on the sofa.
“One here—“ Brass motioned to the floor near the coffee table, “Another on the couch, and the other one in the bedroom on the bed. No obvious signs of trauma or struggle.”
On the black lacquer coffee table sat a small mortar and pestle of green jade, the sides carved with intricate designs. Gris moved carefully over to it and stared into the depths of the palm-sized bowl. He waved behind him for a camera; Warrick supplied it silently.
“Lydia, note the mortar is half full and sitting on a square of black silk. Warrick, I want this whole table brought back to the lab, and call Matt LaDoux in chem. analysis, tell him to get set up for every screening we can do ASAP. Sara, envelopes—“
She was already at his elbow, ready, her attention focused on the other items on the table.
“Gris, correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t those—bugs?”
“Those are dried beetles, not bugs—“ he responded automatically, fishing for his tweezers and gently picked up one of the desiccated insects. He peered at it thoughtfully, taking the magnifying glass Sara handed him.
Warrick had begun a careful inspection of the room’s perimeter, his gaze scanning carefully. He stopped, dropping to one knee as he gingerly fished up a pair of green silk panties from behind the sofa.
“Our victims had company,” He announced confidently, “Friendly company.”
From the other side of the suite, Lydia made an affirming noise, jotting a note on her legal pad.
“One cigarette in the ashtray, lipstick on it.”
Gil gave a nod, only part of him listening to the others. He bent closer, examining the items on the coffee table with an all-consuming intensity, and Sara smiled to herself.
Simple fact: If the crime combined death and bugs, her boss was a goner.
*** *** ***
“No. Just admit you don’t KNOW, Warrick and leave it at that. I mean honestly, you haven’t even told me what PRIZE you want if you guess right—“
“Something better than a stuffed bear, that’s for sure—“ he snorted. They were passing Circus Circus as they drove down the strip, heading for a dinner break. While both of them were intrigued by the Jade Dragon case, Warrick was still caught up in the letters on Lydia’s palm as well.
“No. So what do you want from me if you figure it out?”
Warrick bit back his first impulsive reply, letting the brief image of Lydia sprawled under him sleek and naked drift though his mind and out again. Something in his grin intrigued his partner; Lydia’s mouth twitched.
“Did I ever tell you I’m a lesbian?”
“Say WHAT?” it was enough to startle him out of his reverie and Lydia laughed, lightly punching his arm.
“God men are so predictable! Offer a man a prize and if he’s between the ages of sixteen and forty-six he wants it to be sex. After forty-seven, he’s more interested in food.”
Warrick’s face was in shadow, but he was still grateful for the lack of light. No need to broadcast his blush; he cleared his throat instead.
“You seem pretty sure of your statistics—”
“I read it in Human Sexuality Forum Quarterly, Spring 2003. The article was called Gender-Based Motivational Factors.”
In the pause, Warrick snorted.
“You’re making that crap UP.”
“Tell me I was wrong then,” she challenged, her expression slightly pink herself.
“Listen, you want fast food or deli?” Unsubtly he tried to change the subject. Lydia frowned and rubbed her nose, conceding defeat for the moment.
“Deli I guess.”
As they pulled into the parking lot, Warrick shot Lydia a speculative look and smiled.
“Okay, here’s the bet. I figure out what the letters TP stand for before the end of the shift and you make me dinner.”
Lydia climbed out of the car, turning to look up at him, unsurprised and pleased. She chuffed her bangs out of her eyes, cocking her head.
“Did I hear an implied compliment to my cooking somewhere in there?”
“You cook good,” Warrick acknowledged easily, leading the way into the deli. Lydia laughed, following him.
“And what do I win if you DON’T figure it out, Warrick?”
“Dunno—what floats your boat, Petrowski?” he meant it as a jibe, but there was a tingle of heat to his words, and Lydia sucked in a breath when he waggled his eyebrows at her.
“What have you got?”
And the look she got in return made her curl her toes in her loafers even as she giggled.
*** *** ***
“Striped blister beetle, also known as the Epicauta vittata—“ Gris muttered, using a glass rod to stir through the ashy-grey powder in the petrie dish. Grabbing a magnifying glass, he studied a few of the flakes clinging to the rod. Amid the grey, a few microscopic sparkles of green winked at him. Magnified beyond that, Sara’s roguish brown eye winked at him. Startled, Gil pulled back and stared at her.
“Cantharidin poisoning, right?”
“No. Not according to Robbins. The Yuan brothers died of heart and respiratory failure. Their—condition—at the time of death was a complicating factor, and we don’t have the toxicology results back, but the initial screening didn’t show ANY cantharidin at all.”
Sara’s elegant brows went up; Gil nodded in confirmation.
“Wow—so what was the point of using blister beetles?”
“Oh I have no doubt it was for the supposed aphrodisiac effect. A lot of Chinese herbal remedies rely on dried and powdered elements in unprocessed form.”
“Viagra au naturale—“
Gil smiled briefly, and then turned his gaze back to the powder.
“In a way—what interests me is that there’s something in this that isn’t striped blister beetle. Something green.”
Sara thought a moment and looked at the other evidence Gil had been sorting through. She pursed her lips.
“Another type of bug?”
“Bingo—“ Gil praised lightly. With a pair of tweezers he picked up a single leg from a slide, holding it up with reverent fascination almost waving it at her.
“Judging from this, it’s another beetle, but I haven’t figured out which one, which is annoying the hell out of me.”
Sara laughed. Coming around to lean over his broad shoulder, she watched him drop the single leg back onto the glass and return it under the microscope in deft movements. Her glance took in the guides and textbooks piled on the desk.
“Gil Grissom, entomologist extraordinaire, stumped—I never thought I’d see the day.”
“I’m not admitting to defeat yet—fortunately I’ve got a colleague I can check with after I centrifuge enough of the green carapace for a chemical analysis.”
Gil forced his words to be calm and matter-of-fact, but in truth he was savoring the feel of Sara’s chest against his back, her kitten warmth seeping into his shirt. Little moments like this were sensory photos, sensations trapped in his memory to be savored later.
“A lot of professionals seem to think so—“ he replied in a self-deprecating voice, but he turned his head and gave a nod. Sara flashed a grin at him and pulled on a pair of gloves.
“Hey, you know me—always ready to lend you a hand with those nasty repetitive chores.”
Her tone of voice held a hint of heat, and Gil couldn’t help responding to it, rising to the bait on a few diverse levels, playing the game of one upsmanship.
“Well I wouldn’t want you to put yourself out—“ Gil blurted, feeling a tingle of triumph as Sara flushed pink. She set her jaw, but her eyes sparkled as she gently took the petrie dish from the table.
“No problem—I’m more than just lip service, Boss—“ came her soft, husky retort. Gil felt his thighs clench, hard. Sara moved away, humming, and carried the dish over to the counter, leaving him to struggle for some sense of emotional balance and wondering why it was getting more and more difficult to pretend things could ever merely be platonic between them.
The word was all that kept coming to Nick’s lips even after repeated viewings. Catherine, no innocent to the strange and bizarre events of CSI herself, was nodding her agreement.
“Oh yeah definitely a rigor mortis for the books—“ she added, looking down the body of Shing Yuan. The little old corpse looked frail and pale on the steel table, thin and wasted, unremarkable except for the prominent erection that stood up in perpendicular contrast to it. Dr. Robbins sighed heavily.
“It IS the damndest thing—We’ve drained the bodies so there’s no blood in them, but it hasn’t affected their erections in the least. Here, take a look at the tissue sample—“ he indicated a microscope and Catherine stepped up to it, peering in. A lattice of cells in a brilliant red met her eye and she looked up again at Robbins, who shrugged.
“Ossification of the penile tissue, cause undetermined. The closest guess I can make is that they ingested whatever that powder was in the mortar and it caused a biochemical reaction that makes Viagra look like a placebo.”
“Did they get any—function—out of their monuments here?” Nick managed. Robbins shook his head.
“No, poor devils. Examination of their testes and vas deferens shows that NONE of them ejaculated before death. Considering the amount of blood we drained out of their erections I suspect the three of them started having heart trouble before they could appreciate their—developments.”
“High and dry—“ Catherine tried not to snicker, but both Nick and Robbins shot her looks. Robbins limped around the table.
“Well if you can spare the sympathy, it might be worth noting that an ejaculation would probably have SAVED their lives.”
“How?” Nick demanded curiously. Robbins motioned to the slide again. He picked up a pipette full of milky white fluid and let a single drop hit the slide. The lattice of cells changed instantly from red to pink, and the fluids separated to the edges of the slide. Fascinated, Catherine yielded the eyepiece to Nick and looked at Robbins.
“Semen. The further biochemical reaction that completes a closed circuit of Darwinistic simplicity don’t you think?”
“So—the powder made them erect, and the ejaculation flushed the system clean?”
“As far as I can guess, yes—however there are a lot of factors we know nothing about--the chemical composition of the powder, the toxicity, the mitigating factors of the Yuan brother’s health and genetics, the outside influence of alcohol or any other stimulants—“ Robbins rambled on, discouraged. “And the hell of it is, unless the family opts for cremation, we may have to take their sequoias here down here manually.”
Nick cringed; Catherine winced.
“Either that, or open caskets—“ she gulped, “Propped open ones.”
*** *** ***
“No—“ exasperated by now, Lydia finished writing up the coroner’s commentary as Warrick’s beeper went off. He glanced at it and nodded, his expression pleased.
“Got a hit on the prints off the cigarette—“ he crowed. “Shall we go see?”
Down in the Trace lab, Greg handed them the sheet, his smirk more than just amused.
“I love this town and her many many quirks. She IS so very off the wall—“ he announced. Lydia peered around Warrick’s shoulder.
“Oh come ON—that’s got to be an alias!”
“Ya think? Although it can’t be too common to have a Chinese-American prostitute named Sue Manchu—“ Warrick rolled his eyes.
“So we notify Brass and see if he can pick her up?” Lydia guessed. Warrick glanced down at the paper, his attention focused on something else.
“Something like that, although I’m curious—any luck with the panties?”
Greg gave a little shrug, his eyes rolling dramatically.
“Not in yet, but I’ll page you when I have something.”
*** *** ***
The Tahoe slowly pulled up to chain link fence gate lit up by floodlights, and when Sara climbed out she whistled at the dim sight of the house beyond it sitting alone in the desert.
“That’s a bunker. Out in the middle of nowhere.”
“Technically, yes. Doctor Clowderbock bought it from the Army along with about three acres of land out here back in the sixties. Remote but self-contained, an excellent location for his work,” Gil remarked with an envious smile.
Sara glanced at him indulgently; the entire car trip out had been one long enthusiastic monologue about Doctor Matt Clowderbock’s fifty years of achievements in entomology particularly in controlling the Arkansas boll weevil. Sara had been charmed by this little peek into Gil’s psyche; seeing him almost boyishly caught up in hero worship fueled her own, although she’d kept a bland expression as he rambled on.
“So you’re hoping he can identify your beetle from a single leg and some powdered shell?”
“Elytra. And yes, I have reasonable faith he can do just that.” So saying, Gil tugged open the rusty gate and strode towards the bunker.
More floodlights lit the way, and the sound of animal feet made both CSIs look over to where a large and dignified Great Dane slowly loped towards them.
“Hey boy—“ Sara muttered holding out a hand. The dog wagged his tail. Behind him came slower footsteps.
“Gilbert lad, is that you?” boomed a deep voice with a strong West Virginia inflection.
Gil winced; Sara dropped her head in a valiant effort not to laugh out loud.
“Yes, GIL Grissom, Matt—“ he called chidingly into the darkness. Slowly, a man stepped into the light carrying a large pickle jar and a net in his big callused hands. Sara blinked.
She’d expected a small dry fussy little octogenarian with glasses perhaps, and a bald spot, but the figure in front of her banished those preconceived notions.
In jeans and heavy work boots, Matt Clowderbock loomed over six feet tall. A curly ponytail of white hair that nearly reached his waist framed his lean weathered face, and his half-moon glasses rode low on his long pointed nose. Seeing Sara, he smiled, his mustache twitching.
“A lovely night for a Pale Beauty, and in perfect form too—“ he commented, shooting a glance at the jar he held. Sara, who knew an oblique compliment when she heard one, smiled up at him while the Dane licked her fingers.
“Oh yes, she’s a stunning specimen—“ Gil replied, his gaze reluctantly leaving Sara’s back to take in the jar, where a small snowy moth fluttered against the glass. Dr. Clowderbock shifted his prize to one hand and held out the other.
“Matthew Clowderbock, and this beast is Cicero. Let’s go inside and you can wash his enthusiasm off your fingers, Miss--?”
“—Sara Sidle,” Sara promptly responded, her fingers disappearing in his large grip. Dr. Clowderbock nodded and smiled over her shoulder at Gil.
“Well lad, you mentioned a coleoptera fragment—what’s so damned important it couldn’t wait until morning?”
Sara trailed behind them with Cicero bumping against her hip while the two men spoke in low tones; the concept of anyone getting away with calling Grissom ‘lad’ tickled her immensely.
Gil laid out the particulars of the case as Matt quietly listened.
“Tumescent you say?” he commented dryly. Gil’s mouth twitched.
“Well into post-mortem.”
Matt guided them through a book-filled living room and kitchen into a long lab and dropped into a well-worn easy chair, sighing.
“All right—I have a theory, but I’d like to see the appendage.”
He set the moth jar down and took the small vial Gil handed him gently, bringing it up almost to his nose.
“Left foreleg, well-developed coax, rounded trochanter, bottom tarsus missing—brilliant green—“ Matt muttered; Sara watched his expression shift from speculation to wary concern. Matt carefully opened the vial and using tweezers, set the leg segment on a slide, gliding it under the microscope.
“Definitely coleoptera—probably less than three quarters of an inch at maturity. Is this all you have of the little bugger?”
“No, we were able to shift part of the pulverized elytra free of the striped blister beetle it had been mixed with. Here—“
Gil fished another vial out of his breast pocket and Matt took it gingerly. In the light of the lab the tiny residue, no more than a fingernail’s worth, sparkled like glitter. Quickly Matt donned gloves and dipped a swab in the powder, then smeared it on a prepared slide. He set his eye to the microscope, and Sara found she was holding her breath, waiting for his pronouncement.
“Ohhhhhhhhh crap. It is. Jigajig.”
That certainly hadn’t been what she was expecting, and judging by the look on Gil’s face—
“Excuse me, but--Jigajig?” he echoed faintly. Matt pulled away from the eyepiece and turned a keen stare at Gil.
“In nineteen fifty-two I was part of a government engineering survey team sent to Lac Doungon, Sudan. Long story, one of my team, Tilton, mistreated a local girl and things got ugly. There was talk of revenge.”
“And your point?” Gil asked softly. Matt, lost in memory for a moment sighed harshly, rubbing his mustache.
“They dosed the bastard with Jigajig—dried Sudanese blister beetle. It’s extinct now, so you won’t find much more than a footnote about it here and there in older reference guides—but I got to see the stuff in action first hand, and let me tell you Gil, it’s relentless. Natives used it in fertility rituals—the standard dose was to pour it on the head of a pin. The amount that stayed on the pinhead WAS the dose.”
“Ohhh—“ at a loss for words, Gil stared at the tiny vial of green powder for a moment, his mind racing furiously, but Sara beat him to the punch.
“Then the Yuan brothers must have ended up with easily several hundred TIMES over the safe dosage—“
Matt nodded soberly. “And how old were these victims?”
“—Holy crap! It must have well and truly scrambled their withered old gonads—“ Matt chuckled mirthlessly. “They didn’t ejaculate either, did they?”
“Actually, no,” Gil confessed, looking in the microscope as much to hide his burning face as anything else. Matt gave a slow nod, reaching to pet Cicero.
“Yeah, that’s how Tilton died too—engorged and enraged, in a priapsmic panic,” Matt drawled out. “If he’d managed to ejaculate he might have lived—at least for a while.”
“For a while?” fascinated, Sara leaned on the counter and peered at the vial. Matt blinked.
“Simple matter of biology and hormones—ejaculation triggers chemical changes that counteract the meta-cantharinds in the desiccated beetles. A single dose might be flushed with two or three good—encounters—but Tilton was too terrified to focus. He died within a few hours of absorption, poor damned man, and given his dosage, it would have taken at LEAST ten or more orgasms to counteract his poisoning. A challenge even for a young man, so as for your geriatrics, well—I’d call it murder, pure and simple, Gil Grissom.”
For a moment no one spoke; the three of them lost in contemplations too bizarre to vocalize. Finally Gil shook himself out his reverie and picked up the vial of green powder.
“So by definition it was a poisoning. We have the means--It will be up to Brass to find a motive.”
Matt rose out of his chair, groaning a little as his joints creaked.
“As I mentioned, the Jigajig beetle is extinct—at least we’ve always thought so. Part of that engineering project I was on flooded the valley and destroyed the habitat—this was before anyone thought about the ecological consequences of such things—so your murderer must have had access to someone’s ancient supply.”
*** *** ***
Brass stared at the young woman sitting opposite him at the interrogation room table. She blinked and smiled at him, obviously well versed in her Sharon Stone imitation. Brass sighed.
“You were at Suite 217 at the Jade Dragon hotel earlier today, Miss Manchu.”
“That’s right. The Yuan brothers engaged me. We had a regular gig, every month.”
“All three of them?”
Miss Manchu gave a little snort and looked down at the tabletop. She was an elegant woman with a sleek China bob hairstyle and heavily made up eyes. Catherine took note of her excellent manicure.
“Think of it like a game of Rock, Paper Scissors—you know, the best two out of three? And that was in a good month. Most of the time only a third of the trio was up for anything at all.”
“So they had limited functionality—“ Catherine asked gently. The other woman laughed, a dry chuckle.
“You could say that—but who am I to turn down easy money? I got paid regardless of who I—entertained.”
“Fair enough—but your monthly engagement’s been terminated. The Yuan brothers are dead, and we’ve got evidence that puts you at the scene,” Brass told her. For a moment Miss Manchu looked slightly startled, but she recovered quickly.
“Dead? All three of them?”
“Very. Seems to have been heart trouble, among other complications. So, we’d like to hear your version of tonight’s events—“
The woman sighed, fidgeting. Recognizing the signs, Catherine pushed a pack of cigarettes towards her and Miss Manchu gratefully lit up, sucking in the smoke before speaking.
“I got there at around four, four-thirty, as I usually do. The brothers were on their phones doing their deals and handling business—import/export things. I made the tea and took a bath, then got into my geisha dress—you know the kind, tight with all the embroidery and stuff. It’s part of the arrangement.”
“But no underwear?”
It was a shot in the dark; Miss Manchu looked confused, shaking her head.
“No I have underwear—I have to do this whole striptease for them, no shortcuts until the end.”
“Time constraints?” Catherine commiserated with a hint of world-weariness. Miss Manchu smiled faintly.
“What goes up doesn’t always stay up, yeah. And at seventy-one—“
“So you—performed—for them?” Brass interrupted. Miss Manchu wrinkled her nose.
“Yes. I got to slink around while they washed their beetle powder down and watched me—“
“Beetle powder? You mean the stuff in the bowl?”
“Yeah, their herbal pick-me-up. They grind it themselves and wash it down with the tea. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and last night was a no show, BIG time. Three strikes, if you get my drift.”
“No sex or no erections?” Catherine elaborated, sitting on the edge of the table. Miss Manchu took another drag of her cigarette, nodding.
“None of them could defy gravity. I did what I could, but man, when the flesh isn’t willing, there’s not much I or any stupid old beetles can do, you know?”
“So what happened then?”
“I packed up and left. It was around seven or so. They were pretty depressed, but I was glad to get out of there and get home early for once.”
“And they were alive when you left?”
“Yeah. Ming was on the phone, and Wang was watching a rerun the Simpsons.”
“In the can I think—but all of them were alive when I took off. I had my parking validated, went home and caught Sex in the City.”
“And you didn’t see anyone else come into the suite?”
“No, not me. Can I go now?”
Brass waved for an officer to escort Miss Manchu out, then looked at Catherine, who was biting her lip.
“The DNA on the panties isn’t hers, and aside from some cells on the sofa and kitchen, she wasn’t in the bedroom or near the coffee table. By the evidence we’ve got, her version holds up, which means—“
“--Somebody else, probably a woman, came to see the Yuan brothers after Miss Manchu left,” Brass finished.
*** *** ***
“No. Besides, that would be NP, nail polish—they don’t make a polish just for toes, you know.”
“I didn’t know,” Warrick growled. He and Lydia were looking over the prints found on the pestle and coffee table, trying to find a match other than the Yuan brothers in the database and having very little luck. A print on the edge of the table belonged to one of the maids, and while all three brothers’ prints had been on the pestle, nothing else had come up.
“Oh you’re really going out on a limb now—I don’t smoke, Warrick.” Lydia reminded him. He rolled his shoulders in frustration.
“Yeah, yeah, but maybe you’re buying them for someone else.”
“Nope, my housemate’s a neat freak, doesn’t touch cigarettes, booze or drugs.”
“Tangerine pieces, Tamale pie, Turtlewax paste—“ Warrick rattled off in a monotone, suddenly depressed by the thought of Lydia having someone to come home to. She snorted.
“No, no and no. I think I know what I want when I win, Warrick—“
“And what’s that?”
“I want—tokissyourphiltrum,” she blurted in a low fast voice, not looking at him. Warrick pulled up, blinking.
“Girl, that’s some kinky proposition,” he warned, buying time and aware that his stomach was fluttering. Lydia flipped through the pages in her hand trying to sound nonchalant.
“Yeah I know—too weird, huh?”
“Well it’s not the first place that comes to mind for a kiss, to be honest—“ he couldn’t look at her either, but his awareness of exactly where she was cranked up a notch.
“—But we still have two hours and I’M going to win, so get your pots and pans ready.”
*** *** ***
Sara set her empty cup down and waited patiently as Gil and Matt finished off their conversation, both of them well into details of something bug-related and far beyond her comprehension, although she heard a few familiar names bandied about. The chime of a clock broke into the conversation, and looking up, Gil guiltily checked his own watch.
“Lost track of time—Matt, thanks for your insight. If we find any other Sudanese blister beetles I’ll make sure they’re handed with all the proper hazardous material precautions.”
“Starting now— in fact we’d better destroy the slide—“ Matt grunted. He reached for the one under the microscope, holding it gingerly by the edge. As he moved away from the counter he stumbled slightly, bobbling his hold on the tiny rectangle of glass; Gil’s hand shot out to grip the older man’s fingers in a quick cupping gesture and they both looked at the slide.
“Crap! You didn’t get any—“ Matt demanded, alarmed. Gil pulled his hand back, staring carefully at his fingers as Sara crowded over his shoulder.
“A little of the fixative, but no powder—it was in the center of the slide, see? Clear of the edges,” Gil announced slowly, his expression neutral. Matt sighed heavily.
“Wash anyway—right now! Use the Phisohex over the sink in the kitchen, lad—“
Nodding, Gil strode to follow orders; Matt shot a keen look at Sara and shook his head. He motioned for her to come closer.
“This is most likely more than you want to consider, Miss Sidle, however—“ Matt sighed. “He probably didn’t get any of it on him, but you’ve got to be aware that if he did—well, let’s say in about fifteen minutes, your car ride home is going to be a might uncomfortable for the man.”
Sara’s eyebrows shot up; Matt had the grace to look embarrassed.
“He’ll need—well, you know what he’ll need. Don’t let him think he can ignore it. He’ll be too angry at himself for the accident in the first place.”
“But he said he didn’t GET any on himself—“ she blurted, simultaneously horrified and delighted at the prospect of Gil in the throes of beetle powder. Matt put a hand on her shoulder, shaking it lightly.
“Then if he didn’t, you’ll be fine. But that elytra was pulverized into micro fine dust, and even if it can’t be seen, it doesn’t mean it’s not there—“ he warned. Biting her lip, Sara nodded.
Just then they heard the ring of a cell phone, and Gil answering it. Sara quickly packed up the two vials into the carrying case. Matt shot her a compassionate look as Gil came out, folding the phone away.
“All right then—we need to get back—Catherine and Brass just cleared one of the suspects, and Nick says there’s a DNA hit from the Interpol database. Matt, always a pleasure—“
The Tahoe was a few miles down the highway before Sara spoke, her voice low and slow.
“How do you feel?”
Exasperated, Gil shot her a quick glance before turning his attention back to the dark road ahead of them.
“Perfectly, although I have to admit I was a little worried there for a moment. It isn’t every day you get exposed to something as potentially dangerous as that.” He replied easily. Sara sighed, relaxing a bit against the car seat. She smiled to herself, and seeing it, Gil thrust his jaw out a bit but said nothing more. They drove in silence for a few minutes and then Sara turned to look at him.
“What would you have done if you HAD been exposed to it?”
“Panicked, then excused myself to Matt’s bathroom and masturbated.”
“Ah. Logical thinking there, Spock.” Sara smothered a chuckle; Gil fought the responding urge to grin himself.
“I always give in to my sense of self-preservation. It’s one of my healthier traits.”
“So what are you going to do with the powder now? It’s evidence, but given the nature of the stuff, I can’t see it sitting in the boxes.”
“It would go into the safe in its own locked strongbox. Given the nature of the crime I agree, it’s going to be too tempting a material to leave in the crate.” He shifted a bit, blinking. Sara sighed.
“See, I don’t see why it should be like that—the whole Viagra thing just irritates the daylights out of me. It’s eliminating the emotional content of sex in favor of the sheer physical component. Sure getting it up is good, but with this stuff you don’t even need to be attracted to your partner. Total turnoff.”
“Pharmacies cater to what the market demands—“ Gil replied distantly. Sara snorted, staring into the darkness ahead of them.
“Then they’d be better off developing a REAL aphrodisiac—something that could encourage the development of an emotional connection between partners rather than just the jigajig as Matt called it.”
“Sara, could you pass me my jacket?”
His quiet words cut through her musings, and in that bright panic-edged moment, Sara sucked in a deep startled breath.
“Okay—“ she fished for it at her feet, shooting an anxious glance over to her left at his lap when she did so. Her fears became reality.
Yep. There it was.
“Yes it looks like I did,” Gil muttered in reply, “Please stop staring.”
Sara turned her head as she blindly handed him the jacket, her face burning, the oddest wave of emotions mingling in her. Embarrassment for looking, for knowing, panic, dear God, and arousal—she rubbed her chin with the back of her hand, fighting off the urge to whimper.
With controlled casualness, Gil draped his jacket over his lap, breathing a small sigh when things were out of sight once more. The silence in the car stretched out like a rubber band, on and on, getting tenser with every minute until Sara swore she could feel the air vibrating with the oddly painful heat of it.
“We’ve got to get you to the hospital—“ she blurted, unable to take the tension anymore, and her words sounded loud and unnatural in the confined space. Gil kept his eyes on the road.
“For an erection? I doubt they’d take it too seriously. No, the wisest course of action would be to find a gas station. You can stay in the car—“
She turned to look at him, catching his profile in the dim light. Sara noted tension along his jaw, a thin sheen of sweat at his curly hairline, and in that moment understood how desperately Gil was holding back his alarm to prevent HER from overreacting. His knuckles where white as he gripped the steering wheel, but his voice was slow and thoughtful.
“I have to admit, it’s pretty powerful stuff. I’m going to have to document this when it’s over, definitely.”
“Does it make you feel—horny?”
“What can I do to help?” she demanded, reaching over to touch his shoulder. Gil tensed.
“Sara honey, do NOT go there—Worst case scenario, I may just pull over and check the rear tire, understand?”
“God I don’t BELIEVE you! You’re driving along with a hellacious BONER, talking like it’s no big DEAL when we’ve already seen three victims KILLED by this stuff!”
“I won’t die—“ he growled, finally turning to look at her, his blue eyes blazing, high color dusting his cheeks, “—Of anything except terminal embarrassment perhaps. THINK, Sara. Whatever dosage I got was minute. Tiny. All I need to do is manage an ejaculation within the hour and I’ll be fine.”
Sara shifted her left leg over his, and swiftly brought her booted foot down on the brake; the Tahoe shuddered, squealing and wobbling as Gil fought to control it.
The car rolled to a stop on the edge of the desert, a strong scent of brakes and oil filling the air around them. Furiously Gil and Sara glared at each other in the dim light.
“Fine! So go DO it, Gris. I won’t sit here and let you risk death because you’re too mortified to get the stuff out of your system. We’re miles from anywhere and anybody, so just go—“ she waved at the window, and the dark desert beyond, “--Spank your monkey.”
He stared at her. It was that curiously detached, scientist gaze, the one that meant he was struggling with some inner puzzle, assembling pieces in his mind. Sara realized she was breathing hard, that her chin was trembling.
“I can’t. Not while you’re around,” came his low confession. It startled her, and Sara shivered at the pain in his voice.
“Oh for God’s sake, you want me to drive up the road and come back in a few minutes?”
“That might be best—“ he conceded. Sara sighed. They both climbed out of the Tahoe awkwardly. Sara folded her arms around her waist, shivering as she walked around to the driver’s side. Gil was leaning with his back against the car door, holding his jacket in front of him like a shield. Involuntarily her glance dropped down; he sighed.
“Does it hurt?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know—that’s why I asked—“
“It’s—distracting. Just like they’ve always been,” Gil snorted, looking a little less tense. “The average man wakes up every day with an erection and experiences them roughly four times or more throughout the day, usually at the most inconvenient moments—“
He nodded. Sara smiled, feeling a sweet giddiness in the pit of her stomach. Being alone with Gil out in the desert, knowing he was within arm’s reach and erect--tempting as hell. She cocked her head.
He looked startled, amazingly young and mortified for a moment. She laughed, reaching out to touch the curls at his temple. He swallowed hard; she could see the struggle in his gaze, the mingling of terror and desire clearly reflected back at her.
“Sara—“ he warned, trying to back up and getting jabbed by the door handle as he did so. He jumped, dropping the jacket and unveiling the prominent ridge straining against his khakis. She drew in a breath.
“That’s all YOU?”
“No, I smuggled parts of Nick and Warrick in there TOO—“ he snapped, flushing red. Sara giggled.
“Okay, fine, I’m just—impressed, that’s all. I’ll never say another word about you being hung like a Clydesdale, all right? It will be our little secret—“
“I am NOT—“ he broke off, closing his eyes and attempting to regain composure. It was a sweetly outrageous moment, and Sara took advantage of it in a recklessly swift move. Stepping close, she pressed her palm against the length of him, feeling heat radiating through the layers of clothing. Her mouth went dry as Gil groaned, his fingers circling her wrist.
“No.” it was a ragged whisper, emphatic.
“Because--?” she replied in the same whisper, meeting his eyes, aware of a single drop of sweat rolling down the side of his face.
“Because it’s—“ he struggled as her fingers lightly pressed, “—Inappropriate! We are coworkers, not lovers, Sara. I’m your supervisor!”
“I know that. But let me lay something out here, Gris. This isn’t love. It’s not even sex, really. All I’m doing is performing a lifesaving procedure.”
As she spoke, Sara brought her other hand up and braced it against the car behind him. She leaned forward, her breath in Gil’s ear, close and hot.
“The evidence says that if you don’t achieve an orgasm within fifty minutes, you’re going to become a fatality, and as your employee and close associate, I CAN’T let that happen if I have the means to prevent it. I’d be liable in a court of law, Gris—“
“Wha-what?” In a daze, shivering slightly, Gil tried to focus on her words, but far too much of his attention was rocketing south and accelerating with every soft squeeze of her fingers.
“Therefore, any assistance I provide here isn’t sexual, per se—it’s like CPR, or sucking the venom out of a snakebite—“ she lied, breathlessly, rubbing her hand in a slow stroke along the straining khaki. Gil’s grip around her wrist spasmed, loosening and tightening sporadically.
“I can do this myself—“ he managed through clenched teeth, not looking at her, his head tipped back. This close, Sara noted his rapid pulse, his feverishly hot skin smelling of aftershave and fear. Shifting, she pressed her nose to his.
“Please let me help—“ she pleaded, fingers finding the tab of his fly, tugging slowly. Torn and indecisive, Gil blinked, gasping a little as her cool fingers slid into the gap.
“Too late—“ she croaked, her grip sliding around his aching erection, lifting it free from the confines of his boxers and into the night air.
Gil made a tiny sound of protest deep in his throat, sweat sliding down the sides of his face freely now. Sara moaned herself, fingers exploring what she didn’t dare look down at. Keeping her eyes locked on his, she licked her lips.
“You’re feverish. And kind of—big,” she informed him, moving to straddle one of his thighs. Gil’s jaw twitched.
“Yeah well that happens when I get poisoned—“ he choked, a hard shudder wracking his big frame. He closed his eyes, drowning in the sensation of Sara’s fingers, sweet and cool along his shaft, a thousand times better than fantasy, more than he could bear--
“Don’t think about that, think about—“ Sara chuffed in his face, her own strained and pale in the dim light.
“—Baseball? Sara, you have your hand wrapped around my erection, it sort of begs the issue. I HAVE to think about—sex.”
“So DO it—naked showgirls, Jell-o wrestling, all those bizarre positions on the poster in Greg’s locker—“ She panted, her hand beginning to move in a slow stroke. Gil grunted, thrusting against her palm.
“I-don’t-think---“ he gasped, unable to string a coherent sentence together as Sara slid herself along his thigh, her breath against his cheek, her hand squeezing him. She lifted her head.
“God, I—LIKE--this—“ she confessed, and it was enough, MORE than enough to make him clumsily push his mouth to hers as his hips thrust forward into her maddeningly teasing grip. He caught her hand in his, tightening his big fingers over hers, pumping with a ferocity that shook both of them.
“Sara, ohhhhoney----“ he moaned into her mouth.
Gasping for breath, Sara glanced down and shuddered, feeling Gil’s slow voluptuous pulses spraying out over her wrist as she sank her teeth into his shirt covered shoulder, her own orgasm fierce and wild.
*** *** ***
“We have a winner!” Nick announced, waving a piece of paper at Warrick and Lydia, who were studiously avoiding each other as they finished cataloging evidence. They looked up simultaneously and Nick took a bow.
“Thank you, thank you—“
“A winner for what?” Warrick demanded, fishing the paper from Nick’s hand and studying it. Nick smiled at Lydia.
“DNA off the panties was in the Interpol database. It belongs to one Lien Cho, a resident of Hong Kong with a slightly shady past. She’s an employee of Green Star Enterprises, which happens to be a major competitor of—“
“--The Yuan Brothers, Inc. Little rivalry in the import/export business—“ Warrick grudgingly nodded, “ Motive big time.”
“Oh yeah. Brass is checking to see if she’s still in Vegas. All we need to do is get her to confess she drugged the trio and it’s a closed case.”
“How would she have gotten the beetle into the country?” Lydia asked. Both men shrugged.
“One more question to ask, providing we can find her,” Nick admitted. He checked his watch and blinked, then wandered out again, muttering something under his breath. Warrick shook his head, laughing softly.
“What’s THAT all about?”
“Ah, Nick’s got a pool going about when gravity finally brings down the three—“
“—That’s sick!” Lydia couldn’t help grinning though, and Warrick flashed her one of his own, their personal awkwardness abating for the moment. He waved his hands expansively giving a shrug of his broad shoulders.
“It’s Vegas, we bet on EVERYTHING here—“
“So I’m learning,” Lydia snorted, “When are Gris and Sara due back?”
“Coming anytime now. Shift’s nearly up—“ Warrick sighed. Lydia blinked.
“Giving up on TP?”
He shot her a sideways glance out of the corner of his green eyes, a smirk playing around his mouth.
“Debating. In this case, the forfeit is almost worth the loss—“ he didn’t finish as Catherine sauntered into the room, sighing.
“Isn’t Gil back from his bug jaunt yet? I’ve got to get him to sign for the locked boxes on the mortar and pestle. Maybe I better call—“
She pulled out her cell phone, but before she could dial, it rang in her hand.
She shot a look at Warrick and Lydia, smiling quickly, listening for a moment.
“Cool, we’ll be there.”
Hanging up, she gave a satisfied nod.
“Brass is bringing in our Mata Hari in twenty minutes, and I think it would be good if you two were both there as well. I for one would REALLY like to know what happened to those men.”
*** *** ***
“Sara—“ Gil tried again. They were back in the Tahoe, driving slowly down the highway, the lights of downtown now in view. Sara had her arms crossed over her chest, her gaze locked straight ahead of her.
“We have to talk.”
“No we don’t. You had a life-threatening situation and I rendered you aid. End of story,” she replied in a low, even tone. He sighed heavily, feeling the urge to beat his head against the steering wheel even as he tried to keep his voice calm.
“If the matter ever comes to light officially, then yes, it could be seen that way,” he agreed carefully. Sara shrugged.
“—However, you and I know it was wasn’t quite CPR.”
“Sure it was—cock pressure relief, right?”
“Sara!” The Tahoe slowed even more, and Gil turned his gimlet gaze towards her. She resolutely met it, her expression bland.
“Look, you don’t have to worry about anything Gris—what happened, happened. It’s over. We don’t ever have to mention it again.”
As he looked at her, Gil noted the little tremble of her chin, the throb of her pulse along her slender neck. Something swelled in his chest, something huge and hot, pushing against his solar plexus. He swerved the Tahoe into the oncoming lane. Sara stiffened.
“God! What the hell are you DOING?”
“We need to talk—“ he repeated. She stared in horror as small pinpricks of light on the horizon began to grow, heading straight towards them.
“Gris, get the car back in the right lane!”
“To do that I need a promise,” he growled.
“Gris!” The lights grew from pinpoints to headlights. Sara grabbed at his arm, “ All right, All right!”
The Tahoe swerved again, back into the right lane and drifted to the shoulder. Sara drew in a shuddering breath and turned furiously to Gil.
“I don’t BELIEVE you! I’m trying to give you an OUT, Gris, a way to save face that doesn’t compromise your high ideals about sex and the workplace and then you go and pull a stunt like th—“
She didn’t get to finish. Gil cupped her face in his two warm hands and pulled her to him, kissing her still moving mouth. Sara floundered for a second or two, then gave in with a whimper, kissing him back, throwing her arms around his shoulders. He managed a smile.
“Thank you. Thank you first of all for doing what you thought you needed to do to save my life. I appreciate that. And—thank you for offering to pretend this didn’t happen. You’ve got a great deal of class, Sara Sidle.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but Gil laid his hand against her lips.
“Shhh, not done. Now that the thank yous are out of the way I’d like to point out that it’s going to be damned hard to pretend this never happened, at least for me. Not only did you masturbate me to a damned glorious orgasm, you had one yourself, which was sort of icing on the cake. And while I still believe that having an intimate relationship with a fellow employee is a potentially dangerous and unethical thing to do, I don’t want you to EVER think it hasn’t crossed my mind.”
“Oh,” Sara murmured, stunned. She gazed at him, arching an eyebrow.
“So it’s only the fact that you’re my supervisor that mitigates our circumstances.”
“At the moment, yes. That and a few other factors we don’t need to go into. But it’s not because of lack of interest, so bear that in mind the next time you wear that green top.”
Sara pinkened, glancing down. Gil sighed.
“Anything you care to add?”
“Just that I had a gloriously mind blowing orgasm and I’ll probably be fantasizing about it AND you for a good long while—“ she monotoned back at him. He blushed, and seeing it, Sara laughed, tossing her head back.
*** *** ***
“I don’t know what you’re talking about—“ The tiny woman sniffed haughtily. She sat studying her fingernails, ignoring Brass. Warrick and Lydia watched her through the two-way mirror.
“I’m talking about your whereabouts on the night the Yuan brothers were at the Jade dragon hotel, Miss Cho. The desk clerk remembers you checking in, just down the hall.”
“So what if I did?”
“And we have a pair of underwear with your DNA from the suite where the brothers were found dead. So far it looks pretty open and shut.”
“Not to me—“ the woman glanced up, bored. Catherine picked up a page and looked it over.
“The clerk described a petite Asian woman in a two-piece grey pants suit with a green scarf and pin checking into room 211. Says you checked out the same night, paid for the room anyway. Not happy with room service?”
Through the glass, Warrick was studying the woman carefully. He motioned Lydia over.
“Scarf and pin are missing—think she ditched them?”
“Maybe—but on a coordinated outfit like that, I wouldn’t think so. What does the report say?”
Warrick glanced over it again, and tensed. He pointed to a line and Lydia blinked. She nodded, and Warrick stepped into the room, talking softly to Brass, who turned his attention back to the woman.
“Miss Cho, you’re awfully well accessorized—could you tell us where your scarf and pin are?”
For the first time, the woman looked wary, she blinked a little.
“The scarf’s in my purse.”
“And the pin?”
“It broke. All I have is the backing.”
“We’d like to see it, please—“ Brass asked with pleasant ruthlessness. The woman carefully fished into her pocket and pulled out the needle pointed backing, handing it over reluctantly.
“I notice you’re holding it by the edges—don’t want to get stuck?”
She made no reply; Warrick fished out a latex glove and took the pin backing. As he stepped out of the room, he smiled at Lydia.
“Easy money bet—we’re going to find traces of a beetle on this thing, the SAME damned bug Gris has been chasing down. And with the coroner’s report confirming the poisoning, we’ve GOT her.”
“So she wore it as a PIN?” Lydia marveled. Warrick nodded.
“Absolutely. Nobody’d think twice about a green beetle pin.”
*** *** ***
Nick sighed heavily. Catherine patted his shoulder and sighed, trying her damndest not to smile.
“It was post mortem, Nick, it’s not as if they’d FEEL anything—“
“I know, but damn! Sawing them OFF like that—it’s enough to give me the creeps for a month!”
“Don’t you mean the willies?”
They passed Lydia and Warrick, heading out into the sunrise of the parking lot. Lydia glanced down at her hand, where the letters had almost faded away. Warrick followed her gaze and grinned.
“Last guess—it actually stood for Torment Partner, right?”
Lydia laughed, and shook her head. She reached her car and moved to open the door, but Warrick leaned against it, blocking her, staring at her intently.
“I guess I do.”
He dipped his head and closed his eyes, amazed that his pulse was climbing. Lydia darted forward and up, pressing a light hot kiss on the sensitive trough just under his nose. He quivered as amazing heat shot through his entire body.
“It’s an overlooked erogenous zone. My housemate April told me men are really sensitive to it, and I wanted to find out for myself.”
Warrick blinked, sucking in a breath, studying Lydia’s blue eyes.
“You gotta tell me what TP was. It’s only fair.”
Lydia smiled and climbed into the car, starting the engine. She leaned out, motioning him to bend down again and whispered into his ear, then drove off as he stood there, laughing to himself.
“I cannot frickin’ believe it—tomato paste---“