Lied Library was nestled in the center of the UNLV campus. Nick had used the resources at the library a couple times for personal use, but this was the first time he’d ever used them for a case. Looking at the different physical appearance between Natalie from a year ago and the one found barely breathing in the trash dump, caused him to form a new hypothesis about the killer and his motive.
The hypothesis led him to a study room and piles of newspapers, stacks of student thesis, several collections from the Special Collections, and pages upon pages of notes he paused every so often to add to the Word doc on his laptop. Nick had left Russell a message to tell him where he was as soon as he got to the library. Then he obeyed the signs around the library and turned his phone off, resulting in him losing track of time.
Engrossed in what he was reading, Nick heard the door open and close, but didn’t realize he wasn’t in the room alone anymore. Not until someone cleared his or her throat right next to him. Nick’s head jerked up and he stared at Russell. He couldn’t tell if his supervisor was angry with him or just thinking. Russell sat down in a chair next to Nick, looking over the pile on the table.
“It’s quiet in here. I like it,” Russell said, looking around the room.
“Where’s your phone, Nick?”
Nick checked the holder on his belt and found it gone. He looked at the pile of books, papers, and newspapers. He started digging until he found it at the very bottom and held it up. Russell chuckled.
“Phone stays in the holder from now on, okay?” Russell asked.
“I have been trying to reach you. I couldn’t find you and I noticed you had a note on your board to call the Missoula chief of police. I made that call. He is a nice guy, laid back, but don’t get him started talking about his grandchildren. Anyway, he’s going to ship all the cases Natalie consulted on where that consultation resulted in an arrest. He did know about the stalker, but he didn’t know the details. She worked with only two detectives. One quit and the other is on vacation. He said as soon as he can get us more information, he’ll forward that too. Hey, did you know she’s friends with Montana’s governor’s wife? The more I find out about this woman, the more I—”
“Am I in trouble?”
“No. Should you be?”
“It’s just… You’ve invited yourself onto my case and I don’t know why.”
“Oh. Well… Sometimes two sets of eyes are better than one, but this is still your case Nick. Besides, from what Henry’s told me, she’s really bonded with you. It’s in her best interest that you stay on this case.”
“Did your search for owners of the Brazilian Wandering Spider turn up anything?” Russell asked.
“No. The only registered owner was Natalie, but I asked Archie to compile a list of exotic pet owners with the first, middle, or nickname John. Maybe I’ll get lucky.”
“Luck and science don’t usually make good bedfellows, Nick.”
“It’s worked so far on this case.”
The joke amused Russell.
“Well, maybe a little luck. I saw the new composites of the women. Do you really think this man is targeting obese women?”
Russell looked around the study again. “While this is a nice quiet room, let me ask you a question that might have an obvious answer I’m not seeing. Why are you at the university? You could have done this research at work on the Internet, couldn’t you?”
Nick smiled at his inside knowledge. “The Internet does have a lot of information about starvation, but what I needed isn’t on the Internet. Remember that I mentioned Natalie’s stomach contents was different from the other women?”
“That was the lock to the evidence, but I just hadn’t found the key yet. I was talking to Robbins earlier about my theory and David overheard. He told me to come here and check out a book from the Special Collections. It was the key.”
Nick fished a thick bound manuscript out from under others titled The Biology of Human Starvation.
“Starvation?” Russell asked. “I mean, I know they died of starvation, but you think the killer is doing it intentionally.”
“Oh yes. Listen to this.” Nick opened to a page marked with a Post-it note and skimmed the pages as he delivered the information. “This details a clinical study that was conducted during World War II and was called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. The Department of Defense funded this experiment, which was intended to help Allied forces rehabilitate famine stricken victims. Unfortunately, the war ended before the information got out there and hundreds of people were accidently killed from the Allied troops’ kindness. See, when the troops arrived in famine stricken occupied countries or concentration camps where they had been starved, the troops were sympathetic and handed out their K-rations and candy bars. However, these people’s systems had become acclimated to their sparse diet. When they ate these foods that were high in calories, carbohydrates, and proteins, it sent their bodies into shock and they suffered painful deaths.” Nick closed the book with a soft slam. “The other girls had eaten foods that were high in calories, carbohydrates, and proteins before they died. Natalie survived because she hadn’t. My conclusion is that either this guy knows that by allowing the women to eat these foods it will kill them or he thinks he’s being nice and doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“You forgot door number three.”
“Perhaps at first he believed he was helping them, but now he’s gotten a taste for murder.”
“True. Either way, my girls didn’t deserve to die like this, D.B. Not for any reason.”
“Your girls…” Russell started. He smiled when Nick looked at him. “No, your girls didn’t, Nick.”
Nick’s phone vibrated with an incoming text message. “Archie has my list.” Nick started picking up his mess.
“I’d like to read through some of this. I’ll put everything away.”
Russell nodded. Nick packed up his laptop and left Russell to go over his research.
Seven players at a roped off poker table had drawn a crowd: two poker pros, a millionaire, and three actors, including America’s sweetheart actor, Jonathan Massie. Despite the warm room, Jonathan wore a long sleeved shirt with wide cuffs that partially covered his hands. His manager, Gabriel Gaveston, hovered nearby.
The Casino Manager approached Gaveston with Nick and an officer trailing behind.
“Mr. Gaveston,” the manager said and he turned. “This is Nick Stokes of the Las Vegas Crime Lab. He asked to speak to Jonathan Massie about an investigation.”
Nick answered, “I need to ask him some questions about his pets. It will only take a few minutes.”
At the table, Jonathan went all in.
Someone called and the remaining players revealed their hands. Jonathan lost, but he was a good sport about it.
“Good game, guys. Thank you,” Jonathan said, offering his award-winning smile.
“He’s busy now. You’ll have to schedule an appointment.”
Jonathan walked toward them, pausing to sign autographs.
“This will only take a few minutes,” Nick insisted.
Jonathan joined them. “Why are the police here?”
“I’m from the Crime Lab,” Nick told him. “I wanted to ask a couple questions about your pets.”
“Jon, you should wait for Lehman to be here. Don’t talk to this guy without him here.”
“I don’t see any harm in talking about my pets. Let’s talk in the VIP lounge.”
Four teenagers ran up to Jonathan. Three were small, petite, in tight tank tops and very short shorts. The fourth was an obese girl in a loose tank top and Capri pants. All four girls were giddy to be in the presence of their idol.
“Excuse me, Mister Massie. Can you sign these for us?” one of them asked.
He turned and smiled. He took large teenager’s book and pen first, and flirted with her as he signed her autograph book. When Jonathan placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder, his sleeve rode up a little and Nick’s keen eye noticed a healing rash across his hand and wrist. It looked familiar but like a word that he’d forgotten at the very moment he planned to speak, Nick couldn’t quite place where he’d seen it before. His subconscious became single minded in drudging up the memory.
Jonathan moved quickly through the other autographs and led the way to the VIP lounge.
“Did you attend the premiere and backstage party of the Sweetheart Diaries?”
“It was my movie, of course. Is this about that missing woman again? I answered questions about her already.”
Jonathan stopped to sign more autographs. Again, Nick’s attention was drawn to Jonathan’s hand. Like a whip snap, Nick recalled why the rash looked so familiar.
He remembered the first day he saw Natalie when he had lumbered into her room in a HAZMAT suit. She lay unconscious and looked helpless and frail. Nick picked up her hand to scan her fingerprints. The scabie mite sores and tunnels on her hand, wrist, and arm looked just like Jonathan’s rash.
On the heels of the memory, Nick lifted his hand to look at it. The scabie mite tunnels and scabs were gone now, but Nick vividly remembered when he had been infected by them. It was identical to the sores on Jonathan.
Nick jerked his head up, glaring at Jonathan’s back. He had not proof, no evidence, but he was absolute in his certainty that Jonathan Massie was the man who had tortured his girls. Nick’s blood boiled but he remained calm. He had to, or he could spook his suspect.
There were several more stops to sign autographs, and twice Jonathan flirted with his obese fans while breezing past the more petite ones. The group of men finally made it to the VIP lounge. Nick let Jonathan and Gaveston sit down first.
“What do you know about starvation, Jonathan?” Nick asked.
“Uhm, well, it’s bad for you.” Jonathan chuckled and Gaveston joined him. Nick only smiled, killing their laughter. “I’ve seen it a lot in third world countries. It’s a global epidemic.”
“I noticed you have scabie mite sores on your hands and wrists. I’ve had a run in with them too.”
“Yeah. I was shooting a film in England and this little hamlet we were filming at had an outbreak. Been fighting them ever since.”
“Where did you get treated for your infection, Mister Massie?”
Jonathan smiled and Nick recognized the smile. The actor was about to set a limit to the questions, even if he didn’t actually say that.
“Didn’t you have some questions about my pets?”
Nick dug out the photograph of Natalie from his vest pocket and showed it to Jonathan. “Do you recognize her?”
Jonathan glanced at it. “No.”
“Look again. Real hard.”
Jonathan took the photograph, stared at it for a few minutes, and handed it back. “No.”
Nick put it back in his pocket. “You purchased a vineyard in Moapa Valley what was it… Six years ago?”
“Moapa is a nice place. Enjoying the peace and quiet out there?”
Jonathan was keeping his answers short, even to conversational questions. He was onto Nick, wasn’t he?
Nick told him a flat out lie. “I have a co-worker that thinks the world of you. She follows your life like some obsessed fan. I bet you get that a lot, don’t you?”
“Sometimes. Are you an obsessed fan? Maybe using your badge to get close?”
“I’m into action flicks. Give me a good Clint Eastwood character any day.”
Jonathan nodded. “Yes, but the women enjoy the sensitive characters, and that’s where the money is.”
“I suppose so. My co-worker told me you haven’t really had a steady girlfriend, in, well… Never.”
“She said that?”
“I think there’s some wishful thinking involved.”
“Really? Maybe you should introduce us.”
“She’s not bad looking. About five four, blond hair, real tight. Weighs in around a hundred twenty, a hundred thirty. But don’t let that fool you. She could kick your ass if you make her mad enough.”
Jonathan’s smile almost faded. “Not really my type.”
“Yeah. I noticed that out there.” With a slight movement of his hand, Nick motioned back into the casino.
“What type do you think I like, Mister Stokes?”
“Robust and squeezable. Is that why you go through girlfriends so fast? To hide your real taste in women?”
“You’re taking my kindness out of context. Most people don’t even notice those women, or view them as blights on society. Men like you make them feel like outcasts. That’s not to say they wouldn’t benefit from losing weight. It’s a strain on their bodies and their health.”
“I guess that might be a reason someone would want by starve them. To maybe help them lose that unhealthy weight.”
“That sounds like some sort of an accusation, Mister Stokes,” Gaveston snapped.
“I’m sorry. Was that taken out of context?”
Jonathan’s smile vanished. Nick had crossed the line but in doing so, he was even more certain he’d stumbled upon the man who had been torturing and murdering his girls.
“I’ve become uncomfortable with these questions. You can see yourself out.”
Nick smiled as he stood. “Just one more question if you’ll indulge me. It’s about your pets.”
“Yeah. I noticed you’ve licensed a few exotic pets – a chimpanzee and a couple monitor lizards.”
“I’ve had them for several years, and it was required while I lived here.”
“Mind if I came out to see them?”
“Yes. I do. Good night, Mister Stokes.”
Nick nodded once and left with the officer at his back. Of the seventy-four John’s he’d questioned, this one felt right in every way.
The picture of Natalie that Nick had shown Jonathan was sealed in an evidence bag and coated with fingerprint dust. It sat near a computer that was searching for matches. Nick sat at a desk nearby, reading through printouts that he also was making notes on.
Russell walked in, grabbed a chair, and sat down so close to Nick that his knees touched Nick’s leg. Nick looked up at him.
“Are you trying to get fired?” Russell asked.
“Are you sure, Nick?”
“I’m not. Why?”
“I just got chewed on for an hour by the honorable Judge Jameson because you woke her up to get a search warrant for Jonathan Massie’s property and you couldn’t provide supporting evidence.” Russell cut Nick off before he could reply. “You need to understand what you’re dealing with here. Jonathan Massie is a world-renowned philanthropist. He has made things happen in countries no one else has and he has friends in very high places. Everyone loves this man – including my wife and daughter. The man has a team of lawyers on retainer. So tell me honestly, how certain are you that Jonathan Massie is the Red Dress Killer?”
“I’d bet my career on it.”
Russell sighed. “You just may be doing that right now, Nick, because—”
Nick looked Russell in the eye. “His is the Red Dress Killer, D.B. Let’s start with his behavior when I questioned him. He was evasive and he was very interested in the large women. He said he didn’t recognize Natalie when he saw her photograph but he remembered being asked about a lady that went missing from his premiere party eleven months ago.” Nick grabbed a case file with the Missoula P.D. logo on the front of it. “This is the file about her stalker and guess who that was.”
“Massie. Not to mention, the man has healing scabie marks on his hands and wrists, but wouldn’t tell me where he’s been treated.” Nick grabbed a stack of papers clipped together. “And do you want me to tell you about this man’s childhood? It makes the perfect setup for a serial killer. This man is the one who tortured, starved, and killed my girls, D.B.”
Russell considered the information. “You can’t go on gut with this one. You need much more than circumstantial evidence or he will destroy you.”
“I know. He was sloppy with Natalie, which makes me think there is evidence out there, somewhere. I just have to find it.”
Russell picked up a couple of the printouts and read them. “These properties are in other states. What are you looking for here?”
“Since I can’t convince a judge to give me a warrant to search his place here in Nevada, I’m looking into his past property holdings.”
“How do you plan on looking at these places from Nevada?”
“Call the locals first. If they won’t help, go there myself and see what I can find.”
“I’m all for calling the locals and asking for help, but if they refuse, you can check one, maybe two of these addresses. We don’t have the budget to have you check all of these.”
Nick stared at Russell as if he’d just slapped him. He stood up and started putting things in an evidence box.
“Where are you going?”
“To work another case. Those properties were the only way I was ever going to touch Jonathan Massie. Without those, I’ve got nothing.”
Russell sighed, feeling the guilt trip just laid on him. He looked at the properties in his hand again, and noticed something.
“Nick, isn’t your father a judge in Texas? And didn’t you once tell me you have a brother on the Texas State Patrol and a school friend who’s a Texas Ranger?”
Nick stopped, looking at him. He nodded.
“Well, Nick, there’s a property here in Paris, Texas.”
Nick took the paper Russell handed him. “I hadn’t gotten to this stack yet.”
“Before you go throwing in the towel, let’s see what we can do here. See if you can get them to help you on that property. I’ve got some friends on the South Carolina State Patrol, so I can ask if they can help us with that. Let’s first see if our contacts turn up anything on these properties. If they do, you can pick two to investigate. While we’re waiting, it wouldn’t hurt to call the local offices and see if you can’t drum up some help. You’re good at persuading, Nick, so use that skill to get help.”
Nick looked at the list. “But if I have to choose two, how do I do that?”
“You’re a C.S.I. three, Nick. You should be able to answer that yourself.”
Greg stopped in the door holding a sequined dress in a plastic bag and wearing a showgirl headpiece. “Nick, you have some visitors.”
“That better not be evidence, Greg,” Russell pointed at the headpiece.
“The dress is, the headpiece was just fun.” Greg walked away.
“So can we do this?” Russell asked.
Glum, almost pouting, Nick answered, “Okay. Fine.” He grabbed the evidence box, papers, and left the room.
Russell smiled, repeating, “Okay. Fine. You sound like my son when he was fourteen!” The memory made Russell smile.