Compared to the chaos of the Emergency Room he’d just left, Nick found the route leading to Desert Palms’ CDC ICU blissfully quiet. It gave him time to consider this case. Driving back to the lab, Robbins called him with the news: Red Jane Seven was alive but barely.
After Robbins described her condition when the paramedics took her away, Nick was caught between relief for a potential break in the case and fear that she wouldn’t survive to tell him who he needed to be arrested.
Nick turned into the CDC ICU. Construction of the unit had begun shortly after the swine flu pandemic in 2009. It was meant to handle the worst cases of communicable diseases and give the doctors and nurses direct connections to CDC and WHO. Nick knew why his Red Jane had been transferred here. Like the other Red Jane’s, she was infected with scabie mites, a mite that could be transferred human to human with one touch. Ecklie wouldn’t even let Nick touch the bodies of the deceased victims until the coroners had treated them and killed any remaining mites left behind.
Nick stopped at the windowed wall of room four and rapped his knuckles on the glass. Wearing a HAZMAT suit, Doctor Ian Brown was inside with Red Jane Seven. He looked up and then motioned Nick to wait. It was thirty minutes before Ian went into the airlock and another fifteen minutes before he came out.
“Is she infected with scabie mites?”
Also from Austin, Texas, Ian had the same accent as Nick. “Yes.”
“Since she was alive I’d kind of hoped she wouldn’t be. Hook me up with a suit. I need to talk to her.”
“You can’t talk to her.”
“Ian, she’s the first Red Jane who’s survived. I—”
“She has fluid building in her lungs so I sedated and intubated her. If that wasn’t bad enough, she has a fungus on her esophagus. Your victim isn’t talking for at least four to six weeks.”
“Damnit. When will she wake up? She could write answers.”
“She won’t be doing anything more strenuous than breathing for two, maybe three months. Her muscles have gone into atrophy from malnutrition and disuse. I did do you a favor though – before we intubated her I did get her stomach content because I knew you’d ask.”
“Thanks. Can I get her prints?”
“Are you buying Sunday?”
“You are blackmailing me for prints?”
Ian smiled. “Yeah. Sure.”
Nick laughed. “Fine. I’m buying.”
The two friends went into the clean room to get HAZMAT suits on.
Russell entered the smallest layout room in the lab. The tiny, windowless room made him feel like he was in a closet. There was just enough room for a small light table and a wall white board. Nick was one of nine people who had a key to the door and he’d claimed the room for the Red Dress case. While Nick put the necklaces and dresses in evidence when he’d hit a roadblock on the previous victim, he left everything else in the room. After their first slow night, Russell learned that Nick would disappear to this room to work on the case every chance he could get. With the discovery of Red Jane Seven, he practically was living in here right now. Russell was worried about that; how long could he let Nick neglect his open cases or not take new ones?
He found Nick standing at the light table, staring at the white board. For several minutes, both men just stared. Nick was hoping for an answer. Russell was hoping for the same thing, but more along the lines of why they were just staring at a white board when he didn't see anything helpful on it, even with the new evidence photographs and notes.
Russell finally broke the silence. “So this poor girl survived the Red Dress Killer?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know how in her condition.”
“Probably was a fighter before she was kidnapped, I’d guess. Have you found any other differences with her?”
“Yes. The others had large meals with a lot of expensive food before they died. This woman only had water and a potato.”
“Maybe she isn’t one of your Red Jane’s. Maybe this one was a copycat.”
“No. She’s one of my girls.” Nick didn’t notice the look Russell gave him when he said my girls. “The DNA of the scabie mites she was infected with matches the others. She was held in the same location. Another difference is she had a high concentration of Phoneutria fera venom in her blood. None of the others had that.”
“What kind of reptile does that come from?”
“It’s a Brazilian Wandering Spider and they are not indigenous to Nevada or the U.S.”
“Was it injected? Maybe the killer has changed technique.”
“I thought about that, but Henry said it would have taken a lot more to kill her. This was enough to paralyze her.”
“Maybe it was an accident then. Did she tell you anything about when he injected her?”
“The killer hasn’t changed m.o. It’s the same guy, but something happened this time and he got sloppy. And no, she hasn’t spoken to me because she can’t. Doctor Cooper has her sedated while she’s intubated. She also has a fungus on her esophagus so even without that she couldn’t talk. And her muscles have atrophied, so writing is out for a while.”
“When you say a while, you mean…”
“Four to six weeks.”
“I see. And in those four to six weeks, do you plan on working other cases I’ve assigned to you or just this one?”
The question had a sting. “I still have a lot of evidence to go through, so—”
“That wasn’t the correct answer, Nick.”
An uncomfortable silence followed.
“I condone you for your diligence on this case, but I can’t have you sitting on this case four to six weeks. We have other cases that I will need you to work.”
“I’ve been after this guy for—”
“Seven years. Yes, I know, but you have abandoned the victims of your other cases to follow your obsession.”
“I am trying to catch a killer, D.B.! I’m not obsessed.”
“You called these women your girls.”
“I… I just…”
Russell waited for the explanation to come out. Nick couldn’t find one. He looked away in defeat.
“Unless something new turns up, you work this case for three days, and then you put it aside to work others.”
Nick didn’t like the ultimatum he had just been handed. Seven years was a long time to try finding a serial killer, and he felt his key to do that was lying unconscious in the hospital. Now Russell had tied his hands by setting time limits.
Before Nick had time to think of an answer or angry retort, Greg stepped in with a smile and holding up papers.
“There was a hit from the prints on your Red Jane Seven. Her name is Natalie Emma Greer.”
“She’s the first to have a record.”
“It’s not a criminal record, it’s a work record.” Greg handed a paper to Nick. “She was a consultant with the Missoula Police Department for twelve years before she and her family moved here. She’s been missing for a few weeks shy of a year.”
“Did you get a current address?”
Greg held up a missing person’s report that he hands Nick. “Yes, but the photograph was missing.”
Nick becomes engrossed in the new information.
“Nick,” Russell said.
Nick looked up at him, expecting more scolding. “When Natalie wakes up, take Henry to help you talk to her.” Russell grabbed the door handle. “But between now and then, work the two cases on your desk. If this guy has killed for seven years in this area, he isn’t going anywhere if he thinks his last victim is dead.” Russell walked out.
“How can Henry help?”
Russell didn’t come back to answer.