As he walked through the quiet hotel halls of the Bellagio, it was always hard for Nick to imagine that twelve floors down was a noisy casino. He passed an occasional window that looked out on a dry, hot night in Las Vegas. His kit bounced in his hand, as if it were laughing about how Call Roulette had turned out. Without anyone around to see it, he could smile and gloat. He’d lost that toss enough times that he didn’t feel the least bit sorry that Greg got stuck with the pasture call.
Nick finally reached the room with the police officer standing outside. The man was watching his cell phone. He only glanced up to watch Nick walk past.
“Don’t fall asleep,” Nick said.
He wasn’t amused.
Inside Nick found David crouched over a young man in his late teens to early twenties, with severe acne. Foam had dried around his nose and mouth. The armpits and chest of his shirt where wet, likely from sweat.
Brass stood nearby, scribbling in his notebook. Nick stopped behind Brass.
“Hey Greg,” Brass said.
“I’m not Greg. And hey back.”
Brass glanced at him. “I was told Greg was taking this.”
“He lost the coin toss.”
Brass just smiled, looking away. He knew what that meant.
“Who’s this?” Nick motioned at the dead man.
“We don’t know yet. The room is registered to a Stephanie Foster. Front desk said there were supposed to be three people in this room.”
Nick looked around the room. The two double beds had been used and were unmade. Between them were a pillow and a couple of blankets where someone had slept on the floor. There were two suitcases and a girl’s duffel bag – Nick deduced it was probably a pre-teen girl since it was pink with the various Disney princesses printed on it.
“Huh. His pupils are blown out,” David told him.
Nick leaned over the body. The color was almost lost to the enlarged pupils.
“I’d guess that too from the foam around his nose and mouth.”
David and his assistant moved the body onto the gurney and headed for the door.
“Who are— What— Why are there people in my room? What’s going on here?” the group heard a woman say.
Nick and Brass turned. The officer at the door was blocking a woman and a twelve-year-old from entering. The woman looked at the gurney going out.
“Is that… Who is that?”
“Ma’am calm down. We—”
“My son was supposed to be here! Where the hell is my son!?”
“Uh-oh,” Brass said under his breath.
Nick nodded. David had likely just wheeled the son out. Nick’s phone started ringing but he ignored it. Brass walked up to the woman and Nick trailed behind.
“Ma’am, the maid came in to clean your room and she found something,” Brass said.
Nick’s phone started ringing again. He quickly silenced it.
“Something? That person they just took out? I don’t… Where is my boy?”
“Can you describe him, ma’am?” Nick asked. “Or do you have a photograph?”
She dug her wallet out of her purse and presented a family photograph that included the man David had just taken.
“Ma’am, let’s go down the hall here and talk for a moment.”
Nick decided to let Brass handle this. He went back to where the body had been and crouched down. Nick pulled out a UV light and shined it around the area. The area illuminated in a blue tinted white.
“NO!” he heard the woman scream and looked back.
She ran through the door before the officer could grab her. Nick dropped his light and leapt up, grabbing her arms. She struggled with him, trying to get into the room. The officer came up behind her, trying to pull her away. For as small as she was, she was surprisingly strong and determined to get what she’d come in after.
To add to the confusion, Nick’s phone started ringing again.
“Cuffs! Get your damned cuffs!” Nick snapped at the officer.
The two wrestled her to the floor. After several minutes, and four ignored calls on Nick’s cell phone, they had her in cuffs. Nick sat back, looking up at Brass. He and the daughter stood in the door, watching the scene. The girl looked up at Brass.
Quietly she asked, “I’m going to have to live with my dad for a while, aren’t I?”
Brass nodded. “I think you will, kiddo.”
She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest angrily. “Stupid stickers.”
Everyone looked at the girl.
The woman snarled at the child, “You keep your God damned mouth shut or you will regret it, Tamara!”
Nick got to his feet. His phone began ringing again. It made him want to rip it out of the holster and throw it through the window. Instead, he silenced the phone.
“Tell who what, Mom? You didn’t even tell me why you drug me out of bed to come to Las Vegas. All I know is I hate Las Vegas more every time you drag me here.”
“Tamara, do not—”
“Get her out of here,” Brass ordered.
As she was led away, the woman continued to threaten her daughter if she told them anything. Tamara mouthed the threats back with a dozen eye rolls. Finally, Brass and Nick were alone with the girl. Nick crouched down on one knee in front of her.
“Hi. My name is Nick Stokes.” He held out his hand. “What’s your name?”
She gave his hand one, limp pump. “Tamara.”
“It’s nice to meet you. I’m sorry to hear you have to live with your dad.”
“He’s really boring. We don’t do just pack up and go on random trips like mom does. Except I hate going to Vegas and Phoenix. They suck. They’re always hot.”
“They can be. You said something about stickers. What was that about?”
“They’re my mom and Derek’s.”
“What kind of stickers are they?”
“Do you like the stickers?”
“I’m too old for stickers.”
“I guess you are. Did anyone ever give your mom or brother money for the stickers?”
“Yeah. They do all the time.”
“Like, a couple bucks or more?”
“More. I don’t know why. They’re just stupid stickers.”
“So you never touched them?”
She shook her head. “That gets me grounded.”
“It’s probably—” Nick hesitated when his phone started ringing again. He pulled it out and turned it off. “It’s probably good that you don’t touch them then. Do you know if they brought stickers on this trip to Las Vegas?”
“Yeah. A couple.”
“Just a couple stickers?”
“A couple sheets.”
“Where are they now? Do you know?”
“Mom sold most of them this morning but the rest are in a bag in my suitcase. Even though they always put them in my suitcase, I still get in trouble if I touch them.”
Nick nodded. “Do you know when you guys got here?”
“Six this morning.”
“Did you come straight here from the airport?”
“You didn’t stop anywhere?”
She shook her head.
“Okay. Do you know if your brother, Derek, was in the room when you left?”
“Do you think he stayed here when you two were gone?”
“No. He promised to go check out the pool for me. He sent me a text message and said it was nice, but we’d have to go tomorrow before we left. He said it was hot out there this afternoon. I told him to stop flirting – he likes to flirt but girls get really mean when he does.”
Nick smiled. “Girls can be like that sometimes. Tamara, thank you for talking to me. Jim will stay with you until your dad gets here,” Nick pointed at him.
“When can I go to my dad’s? I’m really hungry.”
“Does your dad live here?”
“No. He lives in Reno.”
Brass told her, “Well, let’s you and me get something to eat, and then we’ll call your dad. I bet he’ll be surprised to find out you’re going to be visiting.”
She gave Brass a ‘no shit’ glare. Brass just smiled and guided her away. Nick stood and walked over to Tamara’s suitcase. He dug through it until he found the bag of stickers. He held them up and smiled, shaking his head.
He bagged the stickers. Nick grabbed a marker from his kit and began marking the outline of the blue tinted white.
The road to the landfill had streetlights, but most were burned or shot out. It wasn’t exactly a road someone would want to get stranded on but that’s because it looked spooky. In reality it was the safest road in Las Vegas. Finlay drove the SUV down it, glancing at Morgan as she drove. They passed a sign: North Las Vegas Landfill.
“I thought our call was human remains in the desert.”
“I could have sworn it was.”
Finlay knew she was right. “So who took that call?”
“He willingly agreed to go stumbling around a pasture, alone, in the dark?”
Finlay drove through the gates of the landfill. “He what?”
Morgan didn’t answer. Finlay started to say something but they were driving into the landfill now. She tabled the conversation for later. She spots an officer with two workers and stops near them. The two get out and join the men.
“I’m C.S.I. Finlay, this is C.S.I. Brody. Where are the body parts?”
Suddenly one of the workers rushed behind some barrels to vomit.
“There’s just a head,” the remaining worker told her. “You’ve gotta go back out the gate and down to the access road. It’s just sitting there, right by the fence, just staring at us.” He visibly shuddered.
The women got back in the SUV and followed his directions to the access road. Morgan rolled the window down and pulled her flashlight from her vest, switching it on. She sat in the seat with her knees and shined it into the weeds along the road while Finlay drove at a crawl.
“Got it,” Morgan told her.
Finlay stopped and the women get out. They waded through the hip high weeds to where the head was. Blood, weeds, and dirt had mixed into the hair. The milky eyes watched the landfill, as if seeing trash spread into the land was the most interesting thing in the world.
Morgan crouched down to look at it. “I can’t see the bottom of the neck. I can’t tell if the cut is clean or jagged.”
Finlay turned and then turned again.
“Huh,” Finlay commented.
Morgan looked up at her, and then in the direction she was staring. The landfill backed up to a steep hill, and at the top of the hill was a busy road. Morgan stood up.
“Do you think someone threw it out from up there?”
“Oh I don’t think; I know.”
“We’ll never find the body if they did.”
“Let’s make sure the evidence tells us that before we lose all hope.”
Greg slowed his Denali as he came in sight of the road sign for Road 211 and turned onto the dirt road. He slowed at the first three mailboxes to make sure he’d turned the right direction, and then sped up. He rolled the windows down, letting in tepid, fragrant air. Greg slowed at each mailbox until his headlights showed him 43634.
He turned onto the drive next to it and was forced to slow down on the rutted road. The road crossed a cattle crossing and the ruts smoothed out. Greg almost picked up the speed until a black cow appeared out of the dark, forcing him to swerve off the road, into the pasture, to avoid it. He slowed enough so he could dodge the occasional bovine road hazard. The road dove into a valley and made a sudden left hand turn. He slid a little on the turn, but it made him smile.
According to his trip odometer, the road led him fifteen miles before his headlights flashed on signs of civilization.
Greg slowed as he crossed a cattle guard and stopped in the open yard. Right away, he sensed something was wrong. There were no police cars, no lights on anywhere except for the two yard lights. He took his foot off the brake, letting the Denali roll slowly forward until the house came into sight. His headlights swung across the front, stopping on the front door. Greg put it in park and stepped out. He heard something solid clanking against metal. Animals moved in the corrals around him. Somewhere to his left he heard grunts that he hoped were pigs.
“Hello?” Greg called.
No one answered him.
He pulled his cell phone out of his jeans and tapped it. The screen lit up and he pushed the speed dial number for Russell. He held it to his ear for a few moments before he realized it wasn’t dialing. He looked at the face and sighed. The circle slash over the bars told him he had no signal. Frustrated he tossed it on the driver’s seat and grabbed his radio.
Just as he keyed it, he heard the click of a gun hammer, and a low, gravelly voice ordered, “Put that on the seat, boy.”
Greg slowly put his radio on the seat.
“Back up and shut the door.”
Greg slowly obeyed.
“I’m with the crime lab,” Greg told the disembodied voice. “I was called to this address about a body. People know where I am.”
“Just a scared punk, aren’t you?”
“No. I’m a C.S.I. If you’ll let me reach in my Denali, I can show you identification. And my vest is—”
“Walk to the house.”
Greg didn’t move. He closed his eyes instead. “Sir, I am with the Las Vegas police—”
“Move it, boy!”
Greg opened his eyes and started for the front door.
The porch light came on and a woman stepped onto the porch, followed by three large dogs: two German Sheppard and something that resembled a Great Dane. She wore a coat over a full-length floral nightgown. She crossed her arms over her ample breasts, glaring at Greg.
“Where is she?” the woman demanded.
“What?” Greg asked, stopping.
“Up on the porch, boy,” the man ordered, pushing with his gun.
“You tell me where Theresa is. Tell me now,” she commanded.
Greg climbed the steps.
“I know she snuck out with you earlier tonight.” She demanded, “You tell me right now where my daughter is.”
“Ma’am, I’m with the Las Vegas—”
“Tell us where Theresa is. Where’d she have you drop her off? You’ll tell me where the party is, boy.”
Greg realized he’d just stumbled into a big confusion.
“Look, folks, I don’t know where Theresa, or your daughter, is. I’m not the fella she was with. I am from the Las Vegas police and I was told there was someone dead out here.”
“Dead?” The woman’s composure melted. “You killed her?”
“He had a gun, Mary.”
“Did you kill her?”
“No! I didn’t kill anyone. If you would just let me get my identification or make a phone call, we could clear this whole thing up.”
“You teenagers think you can just come here and run the place,” the man began. “You think you know everything and can do anything you want. Uh-uh. This is my place, boy. You’re gang doesn’t mean shit our here, boy. You tell me where my daughter is right now!”
Greg took a long deep sigh and risked turning around to face him. The man he faced had just begun to turn grey. He was dressed in lounge pants with one leg tucked into a cowboy boot and the other leg pulled over the boot. He wore a blue robe and no shirt. He was pale where his hat and glasses normally sat, but a dark brown tan everywhere else. His hands steadily held the double barrel shotgun aimed at Greg’s chest.
“Sir, I am not a teenager and haven’t been for years. I work with the crime lab in Las—”
The man thrust the barrel into Greg’s face. “Where is my daughter?”
The three looked up when a car crept around the barn and stopped next to Greg’s Denali. There wasn’t movement for several minutes and then the passenger door opened. A female teenager came around to the front of the car, glaring at the couple.
“Daddy! What the hell are you doing!?” the girl screamed.
“What are you doing?”
“He took you to that party after we told you that you couldn’t go.”
She thrust her hand back toward the car. “Justin, dad. My boyfriend Justin took me. Who the hell is this?”
The man looked at Greg, then his daughter. “This is Justin.”
“Really? You think Justin would have come home without me? Just admit it! You hate him don’t you?”
For a moment, Greg thought the matter was settled until he looked at the father. Years of reading people told him this man did not take embarrassment well, and whatever was going through his head, was not going to end well for anyone.
The father shot the car, blowing a hole through the radiator and all hell broke loose!
Justin and three of his gang came out of the car shooting back. The mother disappeared inside and returned with pistols. Theresa fell to the ground. Greg hit the floor of the porch and rolled off into a cactus garden. With much pain, he crawled toward the end of the porch.
“Oh the hell you don’t!” he heard and looked back, finding the father charging in his direction and loading his rifle.
Greg took off running. The sound of the shootout faded as he ran through the dark into the scrubland around the farm.
He was at a full tilt run when he found himself running on air, and then falling. He hit the ground so hard it sent his diaphragm into a spasm, knocking the wind out of him. Then his head hit and white sparks erupted behind his eyes. He felt immediately dizzy, but couldn’t tell if it was from the hit on the head or because he was unable to grab for a breath of air.
The breath came in a sudden burst and he inhaled a deep, lung full of air. He started to sit up but only made it up on one elbow before the dizziness drove forward nausea and the sparks behind his eyes became a blinding light. Somewhere beyond the swirl of light and unnatural feeling, he could still hear the shootout.
His consciousness slipped away.