A Fistful of Skeletons
Nick had been on the stand for almost two hours. Through the D.A.’s questions and Nick’s carefully chosen answers, he felt confident he had proven to the jury how the DNA test, trace, and ligature marks linked the defendant to the rape of seven women and attempted murder of four. He believed the man’s lawyer, Nicola Corbet (the C.S.I. had lovingly nicknamed her Satan’s Daughter), would never be able to find a hole in his testimony.
The D.A., satisfied with his line of questioning, gave Nick a nod, and returned to his chair.
“Your witness,” he told Nicola.
Despite his confidence, Nick braced himself. The woman got more criminals out of trouble than anyone he knew. Nick wasn’t inclined to hate people, but Nicola Corbet had made it to that short list.
“Nick Stokes,” she said, as if she’d never met him before. She picked up something from her table. “You said you processed the DNA samples?”
“And why is that? Don’t you have a DNA technician in the lab?”
“We do. She was backed up, so I processed them myself. I have processed DNA samples before.”
“How many DNA samples do you process in a month?”
“I don’t know. Thirty or so.”
“And of those thirty or so, how many have led to inadmissible evidence?”
“I don’t know.”
“I do.” She sat the paper down in front of him. “Can you read the highlighted number?”
Nick wanted to snap at her, but instead picked up the paper. “Twelve.”
“That’s the number of results this month that were determined inadmissible.” She took the paper and returned to her table, picking up another sheet and delivering it to him. “These are the number of cases that your DNA specialist, Wendy Simms, has processed DNA material. How many of her results were determined inadmissible this month?”
Nick glanced at the number. “Four.”
“Four in one month? Compared to your twelve?”
“There were circumstances surrounding why the results were considered inadmissible.”
She pulled the paper from his hand. “I’m sure there was.” She strolled back to her table, asking. “When was the last time, Mister Stokes, that you had a full eight hours of sleep?”
Nick wanted to groan. She was pulling this card again. How many cases had she won with this cheap blow?
“I don’t know.”
She picked up another piece of paper. She turned to face him and then leaned against the table.
She is so smug, Nick snarled in his mind.
“You don’t know when you’ve slept?”
“I’ve slept enough.”
“In the last seven days, how much is enough?”
“How is this relevant?” the D.A. demanded, rising to his feet.
The judge thought about the situation. “I’ll allow it, but only briefly, Ms. Corbet.”
Nick resisted letting out his sigh of irritation. It would help turn the jury toward her if they began to suspect he might be hiding something.
“Answer the question,” the judge told Nick.
“I guess… I don’t know.” He did some mental math and the number wasn’t good. “Maybe sixteen hours.”
“I’d bet more like twelve, judging from your time card. You have worked four doubles, and two days you never clocked out. So unless you’re cheating these fine tax payers out of money by claiming to be working when you’re not,” she motioned to the jury, “you never went home to get any sleep.”
Nick didn’t agree or deny the remark. He knew exactly where she was going with this.
Nicola sat the paper down and walked toward the jury, telling them. “I bet a lot of you have driven when you’re tired. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to stay focused on the road? Accidents occur because of things like that.” She turned to Nick. “And DNA samples are destroyed due to that fatigue, meaning that no matter how they’ve been run, they are inconclusive.” She walked up to the stand, holding Nick’s glare. “You said yourself earlier, Mister Stokes, that you couldn’t recall how long you had the samples in the centrifuge. It makes me wonder… What else can’t you recall doing with the evidence of this case?” She walked back to her table and sat down.
Nick looked at the D.A. He could see it in his face – she’d just cooked them.
Nick considered taking the steps as he walked down the hall to the elevator and tapped the button. But it was just a consideration. He hadn’t had much sleep in the last seven days. Greg was gone, and this week had been fight night everywhere in Las Vegas. With his civil duty behind him, Nick was dreaming of his bed.
The doors opened and he stepped into the car.
“Hold the elevator. Hold the elevator please,” he heard a woman call.
His weary brain reacted and he caught the door. He almost groaned when Nicola appeared. He reacted by trying to block her from getting on.
“This one’s full,” Nick snarled.
As she pushed through the narrow gap, he snapped, “Grow up!”
Nick pulled back. She leaned in front of him and tapped the button for the first floor.
“You always take these so personally,” she commented. “It’s just a job.”
“No, Nicola, it isn’t just a job. I work hard to prove these criminals you defend are criminals, and then you pull stunts like that and let them walk. What if that guy had raped you? You’d probably defend him anyway, wouldn’t you?”
She glanced at him. “Geeze, Stokes. Let it go.”
The door opened and she walked off. Nick followed her.
“Let it go? You are cold-hearted woman! It’s no wonder you can’t stay married. You divorced what, husband number four, last week?”
People around them stopped what they were doing to watch the two fight.
She stopped so fast he ran into her and turned, snapping a finger in his face. “That is none of your business. And for you information, I take these cases because I don’t think C.S.I. do as thorough of a job as they claim. You collect your evidence, do your tests, and then you claim you know they did it. If it weren’t for me, people like my clients, and my brother, would be sitting behind bars when they did nothing wrong!”
That only goaded Nick into taunting her. “Oh, I can’t dig around in your marital life, but you can rip to shreds my career? I work hard to make sure I don’t put innocent people in jail. But at least we know one thing now: you’re doing this job as a vendetta for you supposedly wrongfully accused brother – who probably did everything the police say he did!”
Her face flushed. Nick resisted his smile of satisfaction – after ten years, he’d finally gotten under Satan’s Daughter’s skin.
She promptly disappointed him. “This is why you lose, Stokes. You take everything personal. You need to be objective. Take some time off and get a grip. And next time you try to win an argument with me, leave out things you know nothing about.”
She spun around and walked off.
“One day you’re going to help the wrong criminal, Nicola,” Nick warned her under his breath.
It was a pleasant evening in Las Vegas. A cold front had pushed down between the mountains and cooled the desert off for a mild evening. Nick was enjoying having the windows down for a change. Beside him, Sara was finishing off a Subway sandwich. She balled up the paper and then threw it his head.
“What’s this I hear you and Nicola got into it in the middle of the courthouse?” Sara asked.
Nick groaned. “No, no. No. That made it to the lab? No wonder Catherine was so cool tonight.”
She smiled. “Everyone is talking about it. Some even wish you’d slugged her.”
“That would have landed me in jail.”
“It would have been funny.”
“Funny in what respect? Me in jail? Or her slugged?”
She sipped her soda. “That’s a draw.”
“You do know you have to go up against her tomorrow, don’t you?” Nick asked.
“Yeah. A marathon match too. Three trials in one day. She must be desperate for work. Before you know it, she’ll be chasing ambulances.”
Nick smirked. “At least she’d be leaving us alone.”
“We can only hope,” Sara replied.
Nick turned a corner and saw the rotating lights a block down. The neighborhood had become a buffer between the upper middle-class neighborhoods and the derelict poverty-stricken ones. The houses were modest, old, but still well kept. Most of them had torn out the lawns and replaced them with rock, sand, or some cross between desert landscape and xeroscaping.
Police cars and an ambulance were in front of was a single story, square whitewashed house with narrow steps leading up to the door. Nick parked the Denali; they collected their kits, and headed toward the front door. The officer at the door spotted them and quickly jogged to the bottom step. He held out his arms, stopping them.
“We were called here, Lance,” Nick told him.
“I know, but you have to wait out here.”
“Is it a drug house?” Sara asked.
“Is there a bomb?” Nick glanced back, looking for the bomb squad van.
“No. It’s… Just wait out here. Brass will be out in a second.”
“Lance, what’s going on?
Lance made a wistful face. “Trust me, Nick, this is too weird. I can’t even begin to describe to you how weird this is. I mean, seeing her and the guy… And then I was told you were coming, so I knew you weren’t him, this is all weird. I just—”
“Man! You are making no sense. What the hell is going on in there?” Nick demanded.
Brass walked out and joined them.
“This is a weird one, Nick. Really weird,” Brass said.
“For just Nick?” Sara asked.
Brass glanced at her. “No. It’s going to be a really weird case for everybody. Nick, tell me about your brothers.”
“Yeah. Tell me about them. Are they younger, older, twins?”
“No one younger than you? You’re the youngest, huh? No twins?”
“No twins and I’m the youngest. Why are you and Lance acting so strange?
“I’m just making sure we aren’t going to have a conflict of interest.” Brass flicked open his notebook, starting to talk before Nick could. “Neighbors called in about three hours ago after hearing gunshots. First unit arrived on scene. He said the front door was locked, but the back door was wide open. Went in and found the couple in the bedroom.” Brass dug into his jacket pocket and handed Sara a plastic evidence bag with a small clutch handbag inside. “Found this in the hall. Judging from the happy couple photographs, the guy lives here, but the woman he was with in the bedroom, is not his significant other. The content of that purse suggests that one is probably a prostitute: some business cards with just a phone number, condoms, breath mints, no cash or identification.” Brass flicked the notebook shut. “Brace yourselves, guys. This one is really bizarre.”
“Did they die some strange way?” Nick asked.
Brass was already walking back inside. “How they died is not what’s freaking everyone out, Nicholas.”
Nick looked at Sara. “Why’d he use my full name?”
She shrugged, walking inside. “Maybe he doesn’t like you yelling at lawyers.”
Nick followed, groaning, “Aw come on!” He told them, “Nicola is a menace to society! And in my defense, I was exhausted and couldn’t control myself, Jim!”
Brass didn’t reply; he’d already disappeared down the hall and into the last room at the end.
Nick trailed behind Sara, looking at the pictures hanging on the wall of the hallway. What he was seeing didn’t register right away, but when it did, Nick stopped dead in his tracks. He pulled his flashlight from a pocket and shined it on the pictures. The photographs showed a happy couple, or the illusion of one anyway. The tall brunette posed close to the husband, always clutching his arm or shoulder like he was about to get away. The man was slightly shorter than she was, always had crew cut brown hair and a mustache that made him look like a 70s porn actor. In the couple photographs he didn’t wear a shirt, he had a scar across his chest. But that wasn’t what made Nick stare wide-eyed at the man.
“Oh— Oh my God,” Nick stammered. At the same time he heard Sara cry out, “Oh-my-God-Nick-get-in-here-NOW!”
Nick ran down the hall and into the bedroom. He stopped right behind her. All he could do was stare dumbfounded at the victims lying on the floor in front of him..
Lying on the bed, naked and wearing only a condom, was the man from the photograph. Time had passed from the photographs till today. His haircut was similar to Nick’s haircut. The only distinguishing mark between them was a scar from his left shoulder to the middle of his chest. He had been shot to the chest and heart and a second to the jugular, injuries that would have bled him out in minutes.
On the floor at the end of the bed, staring at their shoes with glazed and empty eyes, was a naked woman. Her nude body was fit. Her skin was creamy white. Her dark hair had matted in the blood that ran from the gunshot between her brown eyes. Had it not been for the fact they had both seen Wendy Simms several times before leaving for this call, the C.S.I. would have been frantically trying to determine if the identical looking woman before them was Wendy.
David the coroner came trotting down the hall with his medical bag slung over his shoulder. “Sorry I’m late, busy night. Why is everyone standing right in the door? Is it bad in here?” He pushed in front of Nick and Sara and stopped. David squeaked out, “Oh my God!”
“Oh my God,” Brass unemotionally repeated. “If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard that tonight…”