Nick Stokes left Smith’s grocery store with a plastic sack dangling from his fingers. He greedily munched through a bag of potato chips, sating his grumbling stomach. It had been complaining about the lack of food since his last meal almost twenty-one hours ago, before he had been shot at – again. This time the unknown shooter had come uncomfortably close to killing Nick. He remembered hearing the shot as soon as he stepped out of his Denali, and the feeling of something burning across his temple, and then black. When he woke up in the emergency room, there was a bandage across his forehead concealing six stitches closing the bullet graze that had come dangerously close to penetrating bone and killing him. The bandage didn’t hide how swollen the wound was, or the bruising that continued to darken and turn a sickly green.
Nick’s phone beeped to alert him to a text message. He shuffled items around to retrieve the device. He smiled at the text message and replied to the sender. The person’s response was instantaneous.
He muttered to the person, “Not hiding, girl. Not doing it.” Nick texted a response before shoving the phone in the grocery sack where it began blowing up with text message after text message.
As he approached his car, a tall, leggy, red-head stepped around a flower delivery van. She angrily smacked the metal of her van, followed by a solid kick to the tailpipe from her rose patterned Doc Martins. She started muttering tersely as she went back around the van. He heard another couple whomps on metal and the muttering turned to angry snarling that included her less than lady-like opinion of the van.
He walked to the driver side of his car, glancing at the van as he unlocked the door. The van’s hood was up and the woman stood in front of it, glaring down at the engine. Nick dropped the grocery sack with the constant beeping phone on the front seat and walked over to the woman. He didn’t let himself admit it was her looks that made him want to help her. He preferred to insist to himself he was just being a Good Samaritan – a story he later planned on sticking to when he told his girlfriend about the event.
“Hi,” Nick said.
The woman jumped, turning to face him. She looked a little terrified.
“Hi. I’m Nick.” He held out his hand.
She reached out, bending so she didn’t get too close to him. “Rachel.”
“Are you have trouble with your van?” Nick asked. He could hear his phone ringing in his car – Russell’s ringtone.
“Yeah. It won’t start.”
The phone stopped and then started again.
“I’ll take a look. Give me one second.” Nick trotted back and grabbed his phone. He answered it as he walked back to her van. “Stokes.”
“Where are you?” Russell demanded.
“I’m helping a young lady with her van.”
“Call her a tow truck. I want you inside where you’re safe. I told you to stay with Sara, Nick.”
Nick frowned. “Okay.”
“D.B., I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“This is the fifth night someone has tried to shoot your head off! Get back to this lab now!”
Nick frowned. “Okay. Okay. Just… If I can’t help her in five minutes, I’ll call a tow truck. I’ll be back there in ten.”
“One minute later and I’m sending patrol to your location.”
“I haven’t told you my location.”
“You’re down the street at Smiths.”
“Are you tracking me?”
“Yes! You refuse to take this threat on your life serious, so I don’t really have a choice. Not only did you lie to Sara that I said she didn’t need to wait for you, but you told the patrol I had watching you to give you five minutes. Whoever it is that wants you dead knows your every move, Nick, and you are not safe by yourself!”
“I needed some Advil and food.”
“Then you should have asked one of us to get it.”
“How long are you going to be mad at me?”
“Until I see your face, in my office, tonight.”
“You’ll see it ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes or I’m having you hauled back here in a patrol car. Understand me?”
“Yes, sir.” Nick disconnected the call and smiled at Gabrielle.
“You said your name was Nick,” she said without masking her suspicion. “You told someone your name was Stokes.”
“It’s Nick Stokes. Sorry for the confusion. Why don’t you get in and try to start it?”
She moved around him and got in the van. He heard the starter click when she turned the key, but the engine didn’t come to life.
“Okay,” Nick called. He leaned to the side, watching her step out. “Gotta flashlight?”
“Yeah. Inside the van.”
He waited, expecting her to get it. However, her distrust of him kept her right where she was.
“Where in the van?”
“In the back, in a tool box.”
Nick walked around to the side and pushed the side door open. He saw a black plastic toolbox on the other side of the van, tucked under a bench with covered flowers in vases. Nick got in on one knee and reached to pull it to him. He grunted when something sharp stabbed him in the butt. Nick turned, finding the woman standing behind him.
The scared, uncertain, and convincing actress had been replaced by a woman who knew exactly what she was doing with cold confidence. And she held an empty syringe that she had just stabbed him with.
Nick attempted to lunge at her, but found he was too weak to move more than a few inches. The world began to swim around him.
“Are you…” Nick forgot what he was saying. He lost consciousness, collapsing to the floor of the van.
Russell leaned against the light table in the center of the layout room, staring at a board in front of him. There were five separate cases on it, each showing a scene, close-ups of bullets recovered, and various diagrams to show an angle of shooting and where a shooter had been. He was hoping that by looking over the cases again he could figure out who was trying to put a bullet in Nick.
“Are they talking to you yet?” Finlay asked as she entered the room and came to stand next to him.
He shook his head. “No. Not yet.”
“Sara and I finished going through Nick’s previous cases; there are a lot of people who have motive to kill him. Sara thought we should start with people who were out of jail and still alive. That should cut down the stack, but I don’t think by very much.”
“I’ll take some of those files. The three of us can get through them faster.”
“Four. Nick is taking the ones that stand out the most to him.”
“That’s about as serious as he’s taking this, so far.” Russell shook his head. “He’s going to get himself killed.”
“I think after tonight Nick’s taking this serious, D.B.”
“You do? Do you know where Nick is right now?”
She shook her head.
“He is in a grocery store parking lot helping a woman with her van.” Russell gave her a level stare. “Does that sound like he’s taking this threat serious?”
She smiled. “That sounds to me like Nick’s still the good guy he always is and he’s helping a woman in trouble. Bet she’s a red-head too.”
That almost made Russell smile. Finlay left and he turned his attention back to the board. He was worried, though, that if his C.S.I. didn’t start taking these murder attempts seriously, a night would come where the bullet didn’t just come close or graze him.
Russell looked at his watch. He picked up his phone from the light table and hit a speed dial number. It rang through to Nick’s voicemail. Russell hung up and tried again.
Under his breath Russell growled, “Ten minutes? I gave you forty and you’ve probably been flirting for the last thirty!”
Russell had just disconnected the call when his phone started ringing, but the caller wasn’t Nick…
Russell hit the brakes, stopping his car at the crime scene tape. He jumped out, ducked under the tape, and jogged over to Nick’s car. Greg was processing the vehicle, and Morgan was searching the area for evidence.
“Who found it?” Russell asked.
“Officer Kennedy.” Greg nodded toward an officer standing at the crime scene tape, preventing the small crowd from entering the area.
“Have you found anything?”
Greg froze and then slowly stood. “Yeah.”
“What? What’s wrong?”
Greg pulled a plastic bag from his kit at his feet and handed it Russell. It held a piece of white paper that had been printed from a printer.
“The kidnapper left this for you.”
“It’s addressed to you.”
Russell took the bag and put on his glasses. He read it out loud, “Mr. Russell, your inability to protect Nick is undesirable. A contact will be in touch with you shortly.”
Russell was speechless. He wanted to believe this was from the person attempting to kill Nick, but why would they accuse him of being unable to protect Nick? Suddenly that question enraged Russell. He had tried to protect Nick, but Nick wouldn’t let him!
Russell glared at Nick’s car. He had to blame something for all of this.
Nick felt like he was in a pit with muddy sides, and every time he tried to wake up he made a few steps up the sides only to slip back to the bottom. He heard a hum in his ears that seemed to be coming from inside his head. His limbs felt weightless and he couldn’t wet his cotton-mouth.
He smelled something. Coffee. Or was it pot roast? Was he home? His mom had coffee warming all day and pot roast was for family gatherings.
“Mom?” Nick muttered.
He heard footsteps come near. He felt a hand take his wrist and fingers pressed against the inside.
Nick’s instincts begun screaming warnings at him. They told him he had to open his eyes, and this person touching him was not his mom, and he was danger. Despite his internal warnings, the heavy grogginess holding him down was strong and unbending to his wants.
The hand let go and a hand was pressed against his forehead. It was checking the wound on his head.
“You’re fever broke,” a woman quietly told him, “You had a slight reaction to the sedative, but you’re getting better.”
“Where…” Nick whispered back, “Where…”
He slowly slid back into the hole, down the smooth sides to the cool bottom where sleep waited.
Returning to the lab empty handed did not improve Russell’s sour mood, or the headache that had begun growing behind his eyes. At his office door he stopped to stare at the stack of files on his desk. For a moment he feared this was somehow related to Nick’s kidnapping, but he remembered he’d told Finlay he’d help her and Sara interview anyone from Nick’s past cases who might want him dead. As Finlay had predicted, there were quite a few.
Yet, for just a moment, he debated if the shooter and kidnapper was even among these. The note said someone would be contacting the police; no, him. The note was written to him, condemning him for not watching out for Nick and keeping him safe, persecuting him like an irresponsible parent who had let their baby play with his service sidearm.
“There’s a woman requesting to speak to you; she’s in the interview room.”
Russell turned. Sara stood in the hall, waiting for him to follow her.
“I don’t know, she hasn’t told me her name. Right after you went to the scene, she came in and was asking for Grissom. When I told her he didn’t work here anymore, she asked for you.”
Russell considered saying he was too busy to talk to her, but he remembered the note. Someone was going to be coming to talk to him on Nick’s kidnapper’s behalf.
Russell followed Sara to the room. She had posted an officer outside and he opened the door for the two C.S.I.
In the room he found a young woman sitting at the table.
Her old, tattered, red sweater that was buttoned wrong by two buttons. Her fingers tugged at the end of it, trying to straighten it, as if she didn’t understand what the problem was. Under her sweater she wore a silk blouse, a tweed blue skirt, matching blue silk stockings and leather high heels. Russell suspected that if he looked at the labels, he’d find they were either designer or tailor made, so why was she wearing that old sweater over her clothes.
His suspected the answer was in the other clues he noticed that suggested there was something wrong with her. A few tendrils of her naturally curly dark auburn hair framed her face, with its red hues catching light as her head moved. She kept trying to push the hair from her face, but couldn’t seem to accomplish that. Her rich brown eyes were captivating and mysterious, but they didn’t fixate on any one spot for very long. They kept darting around the room, as if she were watching ghosts only she saw.
The woman muttered softly to herself and the bits he could hear sounded like mathematic formulas or some kind of science he didn’t quite understand. She grew still, for just a moment, when she looked at the two, and then her abnormal behavior began again. This time she added her fingers moving in the air as if she were typing something on a tablet.
Russell looked down at Sara. She knew time was critical in kidnapping cases, and more so since it was Nick – her friend and co-worker – who was missing. Why on Earth did she pull him away to talk to a woman who didn’t appear to even know what day it was or where she was?
“Sara, handle this. I have to—”
“I think you need to speak to her,” Sara insisted.
“I have a feeling she knows something about Nick’s kidnapping. She didn’t say anything, I just… The timing was too convenient and Greg told me about the note left for you. You really should at least talk to her.”
Russell slid into a chair across from the woman. He waited until Sara was seated before he spoke to the woman.
“I’m D.B. Russell. I was told you wanted to speak with me.”
“Yes.” She turned her head sideways so she could look at him from the corner of her eye. She quickly looked away. “Yes. Russell. He said Russell is good. Good.”
She didn’t answer. She began typing in the air again.
Russell did not have time for this. “Ma’am, you asked for me. So if you’re not going to speak with me, then Sara will—”
“Sara! Sara Sidle – no – Grissom. Grissom, Sidle. Gil. Can’t forget…” She trailed off into mutterings.
Sara turned her head slowly and quietly told him, “I did not tell her my maiden name, or his name.”
Russell watched Sara’s face for a moment before turning his attention back to the woman. “Do you know my name?”
“Yes, but do you know my whole name?”
“D.B. Russell. Diebenkorn Russell. Strange for an American. Shouldn’t have that name. No. No…” She trailed off into a mutter.
The door burst open and the officer tried stopping a blond woman from walking in. She pushed him out of her way, her heels clicking on the linoleum with each sure step taken. She was dressed in an expensive red, business suit and despite the early morning hour, she looked fresh and beautiful. On one shoulder hung an Italian leather briefcase and laptop bag. With her other hand, she flicked a card out to Russell.
“Stephanie Rogers, Raylene’s attorney. You may leave the room while I consult with my client.”
Russell rose and took the card, looking at the information on it. He was not impressed. “Ms. Rogers, she came in here asking for me.”
“I’m sure she did. Now please leave and let me sort this out.”
“Has she done something wrong?” Sara asked.
Stephanie didn’t answer the question.
“I take that as a yes,” Russell said as he stood. “Sara is handling whatever she’s done.”
He hadn’t even taken two steps when Stephanie sighed and quietly told them, “She arranged the kidnapping of Nicholas Parker Stokes.”
Russell spun around. Sara froze halfway standing up.
“What?” Russell asked as he came back to Stephanie. “She’s the one that’s been trying to kill him?”
Stephanie looked at him. “No. Raylene would never hurt him or anyone else. Please leave while I consult with my client.”
“This woman kidnapped my C.S.I.!” Russell bellowed. “I do not have time for you and your client to figure out how she’s getting out of this. I want to know where he is right now!”
“Stephanie,” Raylene whimpered, “I have to… He told me to… I have—”
The hardened, tough lawyer dropped her luggage and crouched next to Raylene. She held Raylene’s hands in her own, focusing the woman’s eyes on her.
“Shhh. Calm down, Ray. We’ll sort this out and things will get back to normal.”
“I told you not to come. I told you. I told you!”
Stephanie pushed Raylene’s hair back with both hands, smiling at her. “I know, but I had to come. I have to know why you did this.”
“I did it because—”
Stephanie pushed a finger to her lips. “Shhh. Not yet. Don’t speak yet.”
Raylene nodded, but she held onto Stephanie’s hand when the lawyer stood. Stephanie faced the C.S.I.
“I have to talk to her in private, and then we will talk.”
“To get her a plea bargain?” Russell growled.
“We’ll see.” Stephanie motioned to the door with her free hand.
Russell left with Sara. He stopped in the hallway, glaring at the two through the window in the door.
Stephanie moved a chair next to Raylene and sat her briefcase on the table. The two leaned with their foreheads against each other’s, and Stephanie looked like she was talking, or maybe signing. Whatever she was doing, Raylene was noticeably calming down.
“Do you believe her?” Russell asked Sara.
“I don’t know.”
He didn’t either. There was too many questions, and not enough evidence to find the answers.