Sara and Nick had been searching for Greg all day. The sun was low in the west, getting ready to set behind the mountains in the far distance. When they started back over areas already searched, Sara almost pointed this out but stopped herself. She knew Nick’s guilt was eating at him and it was better to let him search.
“We’re going to have to head back soon, Nick.”
Nick nodded. He glanced at a mailbox as he drove past – he’d driven by it earlier in the day also. This time, however, something clicked. Nick slammed on the brakes, bringing the Denali to a fishtail stop. Sara’s seatbelt was the only thing that kept her from flying forward, but everything on her lap slid off onto the floor. Nick threw the Denali in reverse and stomped on the gas. Rocks flew forward as it began to speed backwards.
“What? Did you see him? Where is he?” Sara asked, looking around behind them.
“I didn’t see him. What’s the correct address again?”
“43634 County Road 121.”
Nick stomped on the brake again, sending the Denali into a sliding stop again. Sara stared ahead, seeing the mailbox, although to her nothing was clicking like it had in Nick's head. The number on the mailbox read: 43634.
“What road are we on?” Nick asked her.
“43634 County Road 211,” Nick told her, as if that was the ultimate answer to everything.
She gave her head a little shake, letting him know she didn’t get it. Not at first.
“You think Greg is at this place?” she asked. Of course Nick did, otherwise he wouldn’t be staring so hard at the mailbox. She had also been told that the dispatcher may have given the wrong road number, or that the officer transposed the numbers when he called in the address - either way, there was a very strong possibility Greg had been given the wrong address. And what Nick said did make sense, if that were the case. However, all of that didn't answer the real question, so she asked, “You think Greg has been here for four days, Nick? Why wouldn’t he have called anyone in four days if he was here?”
Nick turned onto the road, driving onto the property. In the distance, the road dropped down and out of sight. “I don’t know,” he admitted, “but a lead is a lead, right? And if he is here, he’d better have one helluva reason for not contacting anyone for four days.”
Nick drove as fast as he dared on the dirt road, swerving around the occasional bovine obstacle that stood or laid in the way. The road dropped down over a hill and they could see a farm in the valley below.
Before they even reached the second cattle guard, Nick sensed something was wrong. In a corral, he saw dead, bloated horses. There were some chickens lying dead in the road that he had to pass - all of them had bled where they fell and had been baking in the desert sun for several days. As he passed a pigpen, Nick stared at the seven dead, bloated pigs. Even though he was several feet away, he could see they had wounds that looked like they'd been shot with several different bullets.
“NICK!” Sara cried.
He whipped his head around and he slammed his foot on the brake. The Denali slid to a stop inches from two burned out vehicles. He and Sara both stared at the one that looked like it may have been a Denali, a C.S.I. Denali.
“I’ve got a really bad feeling about this,” Sara muttered. “Please don’t let us find Greg...”
Nick was grateful she didn't finish that thought. He turned off the engine and the only thing in the following silence was the engine softly ticking. Both C.S.I. stepped out.
“Hello?” Nick called.
A Great Dane mutt climbed out from under the porch and ran toward them, barking like he was the meanest creature on Earth.
“Hey there. Hey there fella. How are you buddy?” Nick called out.
The dog stopped barking and started wagging his tail. Nick crouched to pet him
“Good boy. Good old boy. Have you seen Greg?
“Nick… Are you looking at this place? There are bullet holes in everything! And… Are those dead horses and pigs over there?”
Sara walked forward and crouched. She used a pen to pick up a couple casings on the ground. “I’ve got casings from 9 millimeters and .45s.”
Nick circled the burned out vehicles and then stopped at the larger one to look through the driver’s side. He saw melted items melted, including the remaining metal parts of a gun. Behind the seat, he spotted a warped metal box that used to have a handle. It looked a lot like a C.S.I. field kit.
Nick pulled on gloves and with several forceful tugs, pulled the door open. Sara joined him, the two staring at the box. She pulled on gloves and carefully opened the box. The metal had protected enough of the items inside to tell this used to be a C.S.I. field kit, and there were a couple personal items in that they both knew were Greg's.
“Maybe it wasn’t Greg’s,” she said.
“You know it is, Sara. That’s his grandfather’s magnify glass - or it used to be - and that stupid Batman flashlight we always tease him about.”
“Okay, then where is he?” She turned, staring at Nick before looking around at the shot up farmyard, barn, walls, dead animals. “Or anyone else for that matter?”
“Judging from what this place looks like, I… I hope it’s not the answer I think it is. Let’s search the place. I can take the house if you take the barn and garage.”
She headed for the barn.
Nick walked up to the house, seeing a shotgun and pistol on the porch. Bullets littered the front porch and bullet holes riddled the wall. Carefully making his way through the evidence, Nick entered the house. The door opened into a living room, but there was no sign of Greg. Nick walked through a hall to the back, looking in each of the three bedrooms and bathroom. Still, no sign of Greg. He walked into the kitchen and noticed a plate and glass in the drying rack. He passed the refrigerator on his way out the back door when something from the corner of his eye caught his attention.
Nick turned. Under a magnet on the refrigerator was a note with TO: LVPD C.S.I. scrawled across the front in Greg’s handwriting. He snatched the note off the refrigerator and read it. After four stressful days and bad news after bad news, the note was a wave of relief.
Sara came through the back door and he turned, grinning.
“Is he here?” she asked hopefully.
“He was.” Nick held up the note for a second, and then read it to her. “He said he was sent to the wrong address, the couple here mistook him for their daughter’s gangster boyfriend, and then the daughter with her boyfriend and his friends showed up. There was a shoot-out and he ran. He fell into a ravine and he was knocked out. He found his Denali burned and couldn’t find another vehicle. So he secured the crime scene and waited for someone to show up. When he realized no one knew he was here, he saddled the last horse and is going to try finding a house with a phone, or ride back to Las Vegas.”
“That explains the bodies in the barn with tarps over them. Should…” Sara suddenly caught the last part of the note. “Greg is riding in the desert on a horse with no name?”
The unintentional joke made both of them laugh.
“Apparently,” Nick answered.
“That’s different. Look, I’ll stay here and radio this in. You go find him.”
“I can stay.”
She placed her hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eye. “Nick, you know how well Greg can hold a grudge. He did not want to play Call Roulette to start with. It sounds like he’s had a pretty rough last few days and he’s riding a horse – Greg hates horses. And because you wanted, and won, his call at the Bellagio, you know he’s blaming you for everything that happened. If he gets back to Vegas before you, suspension and a demotion will be the least of your worries. Nick, you need to find him, apologize like you have never apologized before and make nice, before he can get to Russell or Ecklie first.”
It was true that Greg never would have been in this situation if Nick hadn’t pressured him into Call Roulette, but Nick did not want to face Greg right now. In all the years Nick had known him, Greg just got grumpy with him, but he’d never been angry with Nick, which was actually a good thing because Nick knew Greg had a well-hidden rage of the God’s inside him. It took a lot to get Greg to go there, but when he did, he honed in on the person who brought it out, and they quickly found themselves wishing they had never lured out Greg’s dark side. He didn’t scream or yell. Instead he was very articulate with an acidic tongue and he knew just where to hit someone with that acidic tongue. Anyone stupid enough to taunt him while he was that angry soon found out just how vindictive he could be – the two co-workers and the several criminals stupid enough to go there with him had been deserving of Greg’s epic temper, and Nick never felt sorry for them. Which said a lot about himself right now if Greg was that mad at him.
Then there was Greg’s well-known grudges. That man could hold onto grudges longer than anyone Nick knew, but usually they were harmless. His typical grudge just meant he avoided, ignored, or was less-than-helpful to anyone he held a grudge against. Nick had suffered a couple of those but with time and a few free lunches, Greg usually let them go. But the grudge he held against the people who had caused him to lose his infamous temper were grudges he held onto forever. The people on the receiving end of those grudges quickly discovered that Greg’s ability to find even their slightest mistake or legal infraction was practically mythical, and his obsession to use those mistakes and infractions to slowly destroy someone was aberrant. Nick had managed to never trigger that horrendous temper of Greg’s, and the following life-long grudge – until now. He had to find a way through to Greg to calm down his temper, and that meant he had to, as Sara put it, apologize like he had never apologized to anyone in his life. Otherwise Greg may easily, meticulously, and mercilessly, wipe the forensic career Nick loved so much right out from under him.
Nick sighed and told her, “Get your stuff out of the Denali. I have a lot of desert to cover.”
The ride to the highway had been a long, arduous one. Greg and the horse reached the fence and he found a gate. When Greg got on again, the horse decided it had enough spunk to try taking off again. Greg wasn’t having it a second time and hauled back on the reins so hard it hurt his shoulder, but it seemed to express his desire to keep the ride at a walk. There were several roads with mailboxes between the gate and paved road, but all of them had cattle guards. He didn’t feel like getting off to open gates that would let them past the cattle guards, and then fighting with the horse to get back on, so he decided he’d keep riding until he could flag down a car or found a house he could ride up to without getting off.
At the paved road, flagging down a car sounded a whole lot easier than it turned out to be. First, there were hardly any cars on the road. Then the horse had a meltdown every time one approached. Despite the shoulders of the road being wide, it still took all of Greg’s attention to keep from being thrown and he hadn’t been able to flag down any vehicles. And apparently no one thought that maybe a Caucasian man dressed like a gangster-landscaper-Latino riding a Palomino with expensive tack in the middle of the desert with temperatures well over a hundred degrees might actually need help - so the three that passed hadn't even slowed down as they sped past.
A fourth car approached and sped past, the horse flipped out again.
Greg finally got it under control and walking again, but snarled to it, for the hundredth time, “I really hate you,” Greg told the horse.
The horse snorted, as if to say, ‘Back at’cha, jerk!’
In the distance, Greg heard another vehicle approaching. He prepared for battle by grabbing the saddle horn with one hand and tightening his other hand around the reins. The horse reared as the car passed and tried to lunge into a run. Greg pulled back, getting the horse under control a little quicker than the last time.
He looked up when the vehicle came to a halt with screeching tires, but the horse didn’t give him enough time to see much. The sound of the squealing tires made the horse reared, buck, and toss its head. Greg struggled to stay on and get the animal back under his control. When he finally did, he heard an engine quietly idling on the road behind him, and looked back.
A Denali sat on the road with the passenger window down. Nick in the driver’s seat, grinning at him.
“Hey, Greggo,” Nick said.
Greg’s surprise oozed into nail-spitting anger. “Hey, Greggo? All you have to say is Hey, Greggo? After seeing me looking like this, you can only say HEY, GREGGO!?” Greg circled his finger at the jittery horse and his sunburned face. The horse tried to buck and bolt, but Greg quickly got it back under control again. Gritting his teeth, Greg snarled, “Do you have any idea what I have been through? I’ve fallen in cactus, I’ve been shot at, I was knocked out, I had to sleep in a God damned barn with dead animals and people, I am thirsty, I am hungry, and I’m onna HORSE! All because of YOU!
“I’m sorry, Greg. I am. But if you’d just answered your phone or turned up your radio—”
“Are you stupid? Oh, wait. What the fuck am I talking about? You’re the great Nick Stokes. You’re never stupid! Everybody loves you! You can do no fucking wrong!” Greg turned the horse and planted his heels in its sides. The horse tried to burst into a run but Greg held it at a walk.
Angry with being called stupid and cussed at, Nick drove off with squealing tires. Twenty feet away, he brought the Denali to a sliding stop. He reminded himself that he was the reason Greg was angry like this, and although he didn’t agree with everything Greg had to say (because that would be admitting he usually did get away with things he shouldn't, and knew he did), this was his fault. Greg had justifiable cause to be seething with anger like he was.
Nick heaved a sigh, and then backed the Denali until he was even with Greg. The approaching car made the horse outburst again, but Nick patiently waited for Greg to get it under control. Greg started the animal walking again, ignoring Nick. Greg’s rarely seen but infamous temper had also tripped his stubborn streak. It was going to take all of his charm and tact to bring Greg around to forgiving him.
“What did I say that was stupid, Greg?” Nick asked.
“I had no cell service out here, and I didn’t have time to use my radio before I WAS SHOT AT! When I got back to the Denali, it was burned up, along with my cell phone and radio! So why not use the house phone, Nick is going to ask me next. Oh. I don’t know. Maybe because that crazy family DIDN’T HAVE ONE! Not that you really care because you got the nice, cushy Bellagio call, didn’t you? You just had to make me play Call Roulette for it! Was that call fun, Nick? Did you enjoy your case at the Bellagio?” Nick started to answer but Greg, still in full tirade mode, cut him off. “Course, knowing how things normally work at the lab, I’ll get my chops busted for everything that went wrong on that farm, while you’ll get a slap on the wrist and a ‘don’t do it again, Nicky,’ like you always do! You are the most spoiled C.S.I. on the team! Everyone has done everything for you for so long that you think that’s how everyone should treat you. Well, fuck you! I’m not going to do that. You are going down and I don’t care if I have to go down with you!”
Nick’s temper threatened to flare and he almost drove off. But he repeated Sara’s words in his mind until he was calm enough to remain civil.
“The Bellagio case wasn’t as easy for me as it would have been for you. And you won’t get in trouble; you did a good job securing the farm and protecting the evidence. And as for me, I… I am demoted and starting tomorrow, I’m suspended for two weeks, without pay.”
“You’re suspended and demoted?”
“GOOD! You deserved it!”
Nick had to inhale a deep breath to keep his anger in check. He decided to try changing the subject.
“Does it count that I’m proud of you?”
“Why are you proud of me?”
“The crime scene looks good considering you had no supplies or backup. And that filly you’re riding is a year, maybe two, and probably never had a person on her back. So for someone who has never ridden a horse a day in his life, you’re handling her really well.”
“It let me saddle and bridle it. It’s just spooky.”
“I know a spooky horse from a green horse.”
“Whatever! I’m going to go find a phone and call in the crime scene. Leave me alone!”
“Sara radioed it in and I came looking for you. You’ve done your job, Greg, now let me help you.”
“You’re more likely to help me into a grave! If the scene is called in, I’m going home.”
“Really? You’re going to ride all the way to your condo? And when you get there, where are you putting the horse? In your living room?”
Greg turned a dark glare Nick had not seen in some time, one that was usually reserved for the worst criminals and reporters getting a little too personal with Greg. It was the look he’d give them right before he tore their alibi to shreds, or ripped apart a journalist’s career with their darkest, and usually illegal, secrets. And this look was aimed at him. Nick had watched those unlucky enough to get this look try to laugh it off, only to find Greg was just getting warmed up – so Nick knew better than to make light of the dark glare.
“Do you really think now, Nicky, is the best time to make fun of me?” Greg asked in a saccharine tone.
“No, Greg, it isn’t. I was just trying to lighten the situation.”
“Try a fucking flashlight!”
Greg snarled. “Maybe you’ll be able to see the other side of your own fucking head with it, asshole.”
Nick didn’t speak right away. He chose his next words carefully. “We could take her back to the farm for now. It is a lot closer than your condo.”
“Absolutely not!” Nick let out a soft breath. At least Greg’s change of tone hinted changing the subject was keeping him from getting deeper into his rage against Nick. “I’m not putting him in that pen with all those dead horses. I was traumatized just looking at it.”
“He is a her, Greg. If not the pen, then I’ll call animal control and—”
“They don’t take horses.”
“They take everything.”
“He’s not going to the pound. He’s a good horse.”
“It is a she and I thought you hated horses.”
“I hate you!”
Nick smiled at the comment, but quickly straightened the smile when Greg looked at him. “Fair enough,” Nick told him. “Then why don’t I call one of the guys on the Sheriff’s Posse and see if we can put her up at the barn until we clear her from the crime scene. And then you can find your pony a good home.”
“He’s not a pony! He’s almost fifteen hands.”
“I didn’t mean pony, literally. Are you really going to make me drive five miles an hour all the way back to Las Vegas while we argue about stupid stuff or are you going to let me help you?”
“You are not here to help me!”
“I am too! Greg, I swear, I swear on my career, on my life, that I had no intention of the last four days being this rough on you. Please, man, stop being so mad and let me help you! All I want to do is help my friend. Please?”
Greg stopped the horse and Nick stopped the vehicle.
“It’s only been three days,” Greg argued.
“Uh-uh, Greggo. You’ve been missing for four days.
“I must have been out longer than I thought.
“You’re always out.
“Screw you!” Greg spurred the horse hard and she tried to bolt into a run. He settled her back into a walk, ignoring Nick when he caught up to them.
“Oh come on Greg! You know I make jokes when people are mad at me. Stop taking everything I say so personal.”
Greg didn’t stop the horse from walking. Nick heaved a sigh.
“Greg, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Greg ignored him.
“Greg, quit acting like this.”
Greg kept riding.
“Greg, do you remember when you asked me to tell you when you started acting like a diva? Remember that?”
“No. I don’t.”
“Yes, you do, and Greg, you’re acting like a diva.”
“I want a week off.”
“I am not a supervisor, Greg. I can’t do that.”
Greg stopped the horse and turned her so he could look at Nick. Nick stopped the Denali, staring back at Greg. Why did he get the feeling Greg was about to make his life hell?
“You know people and you have tons of favors across all the shifts. You will do whatever you have to do, and spend whatever favors you have to spend, and you will get me a week off! Paid! And if you don’t, I will do everything in my power to have your job. You will never work in another forensic lab anywhere when I get done with you, Nick. Because you know what, Nick, you always tell me we’re friends, and I believed you, but you aren’t my friend. You never were. Friends don’t make their friends do things they don't want to do, and then they don’t leave them in the middle of the desert for for four days without looking for them. You aren’t a friend, you’re just a fucking asshole!”
Nick caught his breath, realizing they’d just come to the truth behind Greg’s anger. He recalled Russell telling him that everyone still looked up to him as a supervisor, and Greg was one of everyone. When Nick bullied him into playing Call Roulette, he had dealt a damaging blow to Greg’s trust in him. Spending four days dealing with fear, feeling abandoned, and humiliated, and Nick was starting to see a much clearer picture of what Greg was so mad about.
Suddenly losing his job didn’t mean anything to Nick. All that mattered was getting his friend to believe that his apology was sincere and mending the trust Greg had lost in him. Everything else would fall wherever it was meant to be.
Nick put the Denali in park and climbed into the passenger seat so he could lean out the window. Greg noticed and stopped the horse, still glaring at Nick.
“We are friends, Greg, and what happened here was my... My fuck up, you’re right about that,” Nick told him, “I have been looking for you for the last four days, I haven’t stopped, because we are friends. You’re right about the whole Call Roulette, too, Greg. I shouldn’t have pushed you into playing it when you didn’t want to. I am sorry for doing that to you, for being such a shitty friend, and I deserve having you angry with me. I promise that I won’t be like that to you ever again. I am sorry for all of this. I am so sorry.”
Greg’s glare softened, but he was still angry.
“And right now, what I’d really like you to let me do is help you and your horse. Can I please help you?”
Nick smiled a little when Greg looked up, and got a fleeting smile back. He pointed down the road.
“I’m going down to that road there to pull over. Meet me there?”
Greg nodded. Nick climbed back into the driver’s seat and headed down to the road.
Greg guided the horse across the road and stopped her at Nick’s Denali. He climbed off and stroked the horse’s head. She leaned into his touch. A car flew past and she jumped and pranced.
“Easy. Easy girl. Easy.
She calmed down. He looked back when Nick tapped his shoulder with a frosty water bottle. Nick has his radio in the other hand.
“Better watch it. You might start liking horses,” Nick warned.
Greg took the bottle. “Maybe one.
A man’s voice came across the radio. “Nick?”
Nick turned away.
“Hey Chris. I’ve got a favor to ask you or one of your deputies. We have a homeless horse from a crime scene. Can you send a trailer and some water to…” Nick climbed back into the Denali to read his GPS coordinates off.
Greg turned backs to the horse, stroking her face and neck. She nuzzled his shoulder a couple times and then stood still, lazily swishing her tail.
“If I never find out what your name is, I’m calling you Hell’s Belle. What do you think about that?
She was indifferent.