Nick knelt next to the loosened box lid and carefully lifted it off, turning it so it slid gently onto the ground. Dead fire ants clung to the particle wood, dripping off like blood. Inside were the partial remains of a woman. The ants had eaten away most of her, in some places down to the bone. Part of her left eye remained; she had been blue eyed. The sight brought on a light wave of quickly passing nausea.
Nick tugged his heavy work gloves out of his back pocket and pulled them on. He snapped off some more photographs, and then grabbed the garden spade and clean paint can sitting next to his kit. He crouched down and started scooping dead fire ants – and a few still struggling between life and death – into the paint can.
The tip of the spade brushed the corpse’s left hand, turning her wedding ring. His eyes moved to her curled fingers, something expected as rigor mortis had set in. What he hadn’t expected to see was the tips of her fingers. Nick picked up her hand, turning it as far as he could. His keen observation tripped a sinister catalyst that was about to send Nick’s world into a kamikaze tailspin.
“Hey, Nick, I’m going to head back with my body,” Catherine said as she walked up behind him.
Nick didn’t hear her but it wasn’t meandering thoughts or a mental mind map of the crime scene that made him stonewall her. It was memories of a two horrifying days from his past that sabotaged his mental stability.
Her next question was distorted and unintelligible to him, “What did you find?”
The skin on the corpse’s fingers was torn and shredded, worn to the bone by her scraping them against something. Several fingernails had been ripped out of the nail beds. Nick slowly stood, moving the shaking light of his Maglite to the coffin’s lid. The fingernails were embedded in the wood. Trails of blood and long scratches had chewed up the inside of the lid, and the sight caused broken, razor-edged shards of memories to rip through Nick.
“Nicky, why are you shaking?” Catherine asked, but it sounded more like the sound of Plexiglas slowly cracking. “Why are you breathing like that? Were you bit by the fire ants? Do you need an Epi? Nick? Nick, answer me!”
Nick stepped back from the coffin, his eyes going to the woman’s face. What he saw in the box ran away with his emotions and caused his body to react on instinct. That wasn’t an unidentified woman in the coffin. That was him. He was the one that died in the coffin, eaten alive by fire ants. He was the one that screamed and tried to claw his way out.
“Help you? Nick, look at me. What is going on?” Catherine’s voice may as well be the wind for as much as distant as she sounded. “Help you how? What is wrong?”
He retreated from the box. He wanted to run, to back away faster, but his mind and body had separated. He was a helpless passenger doomed to travel where his body took him.
“Nick you're backing toward the grave. Stop walking. Talk to me. What is wrong?” Catherine frantically yelled, “Nick, stop! Stop walking. Nick, snap out of it! Nicholas, look at me! What is wrong? What do you need help with?”
Her hands grabbing for his arm was the grim reaper come to wait for Nick’s last breath. He fought back, retreating faster. Suddenly he was falling. Nick landed hard at the bottom of a grave full of fire ants.
Nick screamed, but not from the millions of biting insects. His mind showed him a malicious but fake memory; he was helpless to watch Walter Gordon bury him.
“PANCHO, GRAB MY HAND!”
The name was a life preserver dragging him out of
He saw Catherine and a hazmat man kneeling at the edge, both holding their hands out to help him from the grave. He wasn’t buried, but each breath became harder to draw than the last one. Nick lunged forward, grabbing each of their hands in his. They pulled him out of the hole. He fell to the ground, gasping for air that just wouldn't fill his lungs. Someone came at him with a fire extinguisher. Catherine wrapped her body around his head to prevent the CO2 from suffocating him, but he was already suffocating as his throat continued to swell from the fire ant venom. All he could inhale were shallow breaths that made him panic and struggle to break free from her hold. He couldn’t speak or scream, words came out as guttural, gurgling noises.
“Just a few seconds, Nicky. You’ll be breathing in a few seconds here,” Catherine promised him.
“OUT OF MY WAY!” he heard Doc Robbins bellow, and then quieter, next to him, he told him, “Hold on, Nick.”
Nick didn't feel the first needle of an Epipen plunge into his thigh. He closed his eyes, losing consciousness...
Nick held his breath, and then slowly let it out. He’d developed the involuntary habit during childhood. Every time he had been stung by a bee or wasp, and it had come down to the last few seconds before death, after the epinephrine opened his lungs again, he would sit and breathe in long, deep, full breaths. It was as if his brain had forgotten how and his body was retraining it. Tonight, however, he did it for entirely different reasons.
“The crime scene is covered,” Catherine said, her voice coming closer with the sound of her shoes crunching gravel.
Nick slowly opened his eyes, looking down the road at his crime scene.
“Let’s get you to the hospital.”
“I’m not going.”
Catherine had already disappeared behind him, probably even opened the driver’s side of their SUV.
“What?” she asked from behind him.
“I am not going. I have a crime scene to process.” Nick leaned over, grabbed the handle of his kit, and started down the road toward his crime scene.
Catherine jogged around in front of him, holding out her hands. He walked around her.
“Nick, no. You need to go to the hospital.”
He didn’t argue or agree. His mind
was made up and no one was changing it.
She grabbed his arm and his anger flared. He spun, flinging his arm to rip it free from her grip and almost hitting her. She fell back, wincing as if she were expecting him to hit her.
He saw Robbins, the hazmat men, and uniformed officers turn to watch them. Nick turned away, continuing down the road. Catherine followed him.
Catherine battered him with questions as she trailed behind him. “What happened? Why did you panic? Why were you begging for help?”
Nick didn’t answer her.
“Nick, you almost died. You need to go to the hospital!”
He didn’t stop.
“NICK!” Catherine snapped.
He ignored her.
“Nicholas Stokes, stop!”
He didn’t, and she didn’t call after him again.
Robbins and David stopped working on Nick’s victim when the doors were shoved open. Greg came in pushing a cart cluttered with items. He stopped, looking around the morgue.
“Where’s my vic?”
“The tarred and feathered corpse?” David asked.
“Over there.” Robins pointed to the exam room in an alcove off the morgue.
Greg looked in the direction Robbins had pointed. His corpse sat in a rarely used alcove on an autopsy table, still in a body bag.
“Why is it still in the body bag?”
“Did you really think we were going to get tar all over the morgue?” Robbins asked. “And if you get tar anywhere in my morgue, you’re cleaning it up.”
“We don’t know if its tar,” Greg corrected him.
“And I’m the Queen Sheba.”
Robbins and David chuckled about the joke. Greg frowned at them, but decided it wasn’t worth arguing about. He headed for the alcove.
“What are you doing with that cart of stuff, anyway?” David asked.
“Everyone I asked had an idea about how to get the tar off. I’ve never had to remove tar from anything, so I figured I’d try them until I found one that worked.”
“Greg,” Robbins stopped working. He pulled off his gloves and followed Greg. “You can’t just try things haphazardly.”
Greg stopped, turning to him. With hope he asked, “Do you know how to get this stuff off?”
Robbins stopped walking, sighing. “No. I don’t know how to get the tar off.”
“Doctor Robbins,” David called.
“Just a minute, David. Why don’t you call Grissom before you dive in and see if he has any ideas?”
“I don’t want him to think I can’t handle this.”
“Uhm… Doctor Robbins,” David said, his voice raising a couple of octaves.
“Just a minute, David. Greg, he won’t think that. If you really don’t know what you’re doing, call him. He’d rather you call him than try to do it yourself and ruin any evidence that might be on the corpse.”
“Doctor Robbins, we have a serious problem here!”
Robbins turned. Greg looked around him. Fire ants were pouring out of the corpse that David had just finished cutting the Y incision across. He was slowly backing away from the body, staring at the body with widening eyes.
“Damnit! David, grab fire extinguishers.”
Robbins hobbled back to David, taking the fire extinguisher he handed him. The two started spraying the corpse with CO2. Greg turned and pushed his cart over to the alcove. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and dialed Grissom.
“Hey, Grissom. I have a question. I can’t move on my case until I can get to the corpse. No, I mean yes. It’s here in the morgue, but—”
“OW!” David screeched. “Get ‘em off! Get ‘em off!”
Greg looked back at the two. David was dancing around the room, batting at ants that had climbed on him. Greg quickly looked away before he started laughing.
“Nothing. Robbins and David are having issues with a corpse. Anyway, my corpse is covered in—”
Something crashed and he looked back again. The ants were starting to make their way off the autopsy table.
“Call hazmat, David. Tell them to get down here now!” Robbins ordered.
“My corpse is covered in tar,” Greg finished, turning his attention back to his corpse. “No. I… Yes. I’m assuming it’s tar. It looks like tar, it’s sticky like tar. Grissom… Grissom… Grissom. Can we roll with the assumption this is tar for the moment? Great. So if it is, how do I get it off? No, I don’t know how much. How would I know that? You realize that if I stick a ruler in this stuff I will probably never get it out, don’t you? Where? Okay, I’ll—”
Something else crashed and he turned. Robbins was now fending off ants climbing him. David had climbed onto the desk and was making a phone call.
“Grissom, I gotta help these two. You said an hour for every quarter inch, right? Got it. Bye.”
Greg hung up and jogged over to a fire extinguisher on the wall. He yanked it off and started spraying ants with Robbins.