Morgan trotted into the layout room, making the occupants: Russell, Sara, and Finlay look up.
“Raylene just received a text, but I couldn’t triangulate it. And I found she owns a cabin at Walker Lake. It was purchased two weeks ago, after the first assassination attempt on Nick.” Morgan threw down a printed out typographical map with an X where the cabin was located. “She also owns property in Pennsylvania and France, but I’m going out on a limb to say I doubt she would have had him taken that far away. Maybe.”
“Walker Lake,” Sara said, “is five hours from here.” She looked at Russell, hoping he was willing to make the drive. It was out of their jurisdiction – well out of their jurisdiction, in fact, but it was the first solid lead to where Nick was being hidden.
“Morgan, keep looking and make sure there is nowhere else near Las Vegas. If you find anything, I want you and Greg to check it out. Julie, confiscate her phone. Find out what the text message says, who sent it, and try to triangulate where that person’s phone is now.” The two women left the room. “Sara, let’s go see what’s at Walker Lake.”
They headed for the parking garage.
Russell slowed his SUV to a stop at the back of an impromptu parking lot in front of the Walker Lake cabin. There were two dozen Mineral County Sheriff cars, two coroner vans, a dozen hearses, and two C.S.I. vans. The only thing missing was the media, but the remote location was probably the reason.
Russell asked the question on both his and Sara’s mind. “What happened here?”
Sara voice their mutual follow-up thought, “This cannot be good.”
He and Sara climbed out of the SUV, with Russell leading toward a man that looked like he was in charge. He was barking orders to Sheriff Deputies, C.S.I., and the six people with CORONER printed across the back of their jackets.
“Are you in charge?” Russell asked.
The man turned. He was up in his years. His brown hair peppered with white stuck out from under his Sheriff’s hat. He looked hard and weathered, a real-life Tommy Lee Jones and probably with a temper that wasn’t safe to get on the wrong side.
“Who are you?” the man demanded.
Russell stuck out his hand. “I’m D.B. Russell from the Las Vegas Crime Lab, this is C.S.I. Sara Sidle.”
“You two are out of your jurisdiction by a few counties. Get back in your vehicle, and if we need you, we’ll let you know.” After a short pause, he added, “We won’t need you.”
“We aren’t here because of… Whatever happened here—”
“We hope,” Sara quietly interjected.
Russell nodded in agreement with that comment. “We’re came out here looking for one of our people. He was kidnapped from a parking lot in Las Vegas three days ago.”
“You know, I may not be as familiar with the ways of big time kidnappings,” he started, his voice rich with condescendence, “but I can count how many times a kidnapper in my county took their victim so far away, on one hand. So why would you think your guy would be here? Unless he wasn’t really kidnapped, and you aren’t really C.S.I.”
Both were fair questions, ones Russell would have asked someone himself. It was the only reason he was able to remain patient with the man. So the first thing Russell did was present his I.D. badge to prove he was a C.S.I., which prompted Sara to show hers. “We are C.S.I.”
The man looked at the badges carefully before handing them back.
Then Russell continued, “The person who planned his kidnapping owns this land. We thought that maybe we might find him here. Have you found…” Russell watched two coroner pass. Their gurney had a body bag on it. “His name is Nick Stokes. The kidnapper left his phone and wallet at the scene in Las Vegas, but he could still have his I.D. badge or C.S.I. vest on. Has anyone found… Found him?”
The man’s hard expression softened as much as his weathered face could let it. “Sheriff Jenkins.” He and Russell shook hands. “So far no one we’ve found has had any I.D. on them. Where is this person that had your man kidnapped? Where was he around two this afternoon?”
“She is in custody. She didn’t actually kidnap him, she had someone else do that.”
“Is your man a good shoot?”
“He’s fair. Why?”
“The men we’ve found that were shot had one or two bullets between the eyes or close enough to the heart it killed them. He might have gotten loose and shot his way out.” Jenkins heaved a sigh, looking around the scene. “Although, I can’t say that’s a likely scenario.” He turned his attention back to Russell “Why don’t you two check the bodies over there at the tent? If you see your guy, let me know. We’ll try to process the body as fast as we can to get him back to you.”
“It sounds like not every victim was shot,” Sara said, “What happened to the rest?”
“Two were ran over, four were hit by a car we think, and what killed the bodies inside the cabin is undetermined.”
Russell glanced at the cabin. Now he noticed officers milled around the closed front door, but none of them were on the porch or close to the front door. That was a strange way to process a crime scene, even by his standards.
“Why are they undetermined?” Russell asked Jenkins.
“There is some kind of gas inside. We’re waiting for Hazmat to show up so they can figure it out.”
“He could be inside,” Russell said at the same time Sara asked, “How do you know a gas was released?”
He drew a deep breath, a clear sign their questions were not sitting well with the sliver of patience he’d already shown them.
“When two of my guys opened the front door, there were two bodies at the door, and almost immediately the Deputies just dropped and started breaking out in a rash just like those bodies, they couldn’t breathe, said their eyes were burning. That’s a pretty clear indication something toxic is in there. Wouldn’t you agree?” He looked right at Sara, but didn’t wait for an answer. “And then we noticed that around all the windows were small metal containers with tubes going inside, and all of them had wires that went down to a fake woodpile on the side and under the cabin. The button to release the gas is probably under there somewhere, but that’s all we know so far.”
“The canisters didn’t have anything on them about the gas they contained?” Sara asked.
His lips thinned. She was really pushing Jenkins’ patience. Russell suspected that another question or two and they’d be asked to leave again, but he wasn’t going to make Sara stop. She was in investigation mode, and nothing she was asking relevant questions.
“The labels are not in English, or Spanish, or German – the only languages anyone here knows. Which is why we’re waiting for Hazmat.”
Sara smiled in the face of his impatience. “I can read seven languages. May I look at them? Maybe I can read the labels.”
He stared at her. Was he willing to let two people who didn’t even have jurisdiction help?
“Knock yourself out,” he said, hiking a thumb at the cabin. “Just don’t try to go inside. None of us are going in there to save you.”
She nodded as she passed between the two men. Jenkins watched her leave, and then looked back at Russell
“Unless you have something useful to contribute here, how about looking at bodies for me?”
“I can do that.” Russell really did want to look at the bodies because he was afraid he might find Nick among them. It was a blow his already frazzled nerves weren’t prepared to handle.
Jenkins pointed over at a tent set up near the tree line. Russell turned around and marched in that direction, not allowing his reluctance to stop him from this grisly task.
Nick opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling. This one was different. In the center of the room an old, dusty fan squeaked as it rotated and moved hot air across around the room without cooling it. He could see beams of the house frame through the holes in the plaster overhead, along with brown spots where flies had done their business. Slowly Nick’s memories came back. After at least two days at the cabin – he counted sunrises and sunsets – he and the woman were attacked. The last thing he remembered was a bee stinging him, accounting for his shoulder and thigh that were now hurt more than the rest of his battered, bruised body. He had no idea how long he’d been in this new location, lying under a fan that blew hot air over him.
He sat up and closed his eyes as he waited out a dizzy spell. He was lucky it had been only one bee – he still remembered the agony from when he’d been buried alive and stung by fire ants, and the following week of unimaginable pain and struggling for every breath.
Slowly the dipping and swirling feeling subsided, and some of the pain followed. When he felt like he could safely open his eyes again without vomiting, Nick started working on getting his bearings and figuring out where in the hell he was.
The house was not in good shape and had very little furniture. He was sitting on a shabby rag throw rug with holes. From where he sat he could see the kitchen with a battered linoleum table and one dining chair. In the corner of the room he was in was very old tube style television on a rickety TV stand. A set of stairs led up to the second floor, and they looked like the only thing not about to fall apart. Looks were deceiving in these old houses.
Nick climbed onto his feet and turned. The room had a faded yellow velvet chair and matching faded yellow couch. The woman lay unconscious on the couch. One hand rested on a bloody rag right above her right hip, while the other hung limp in the air off the couch. She wore only her underwear, probably so she could get to the injury. A dining chair had been sat next to the couch with a pile of bloody rags, a bowl of bloody water, and a kit for surgical stitches. Nick walked over to her and lifted the rag. She had stitched the wound herself as he suspected and the bleeding had stopped. His eyes followed a network of old scars that worked their way across her stomach to her other hip. She had been injured enough times that she had learned how to sew herself up. It was a skill that Nick considered a sure sign people in her professional likely lived short lives.
“Hey,” Nick said to her.
He laid his hand on her shoulder to shake her and felt her fever. Nick crouched down next to the couch.
“Hey. Lady,” he said. He wished he knew her name; that might bring her back to consciousness.
She didn’t move.
He tried a couple more times, but she didn’t respond.
Nick looked out the window above the couch and saw the shot-up Bronco outside. He went out to check for keys, but they weren’t in the ignition. He checked both visors, under the floor mats, and under all the seats. She hadn’t left the keys there.
He stopped to look around him. For miles all he saw was desert. This house was the only building as far as the eye could see. He couldn’t hear any traffic, air planes, or anything that indicated civilization was nearby. In fact, the silence was so intense that he was struck with loneliness – the cabin was remote, but out here, no one would ever find him. This was probably one of those places that people walked out into and were never seen again.
He pulled himself back to reality. If she’d driven them here, then there had to be keys somewhere. He went back inside and searched her clothes. He paused, staring at her breasts.
“Sorry about this, Lady,” he told her and then patted her breasts to make sure she hadn’t put the keys in her bra.
He didn’t find them. So he tore the house apart, searching every place he could think of to hide keys, including the freezer and stove and under every rock large enough to cover a set of keys. But they were nowhere to be found; he didn’t come across her gun, either.
Nick returned to the couch, staring down at her. “This was a great plan, Lady. Get us in the middle of nowhere, and then die on me without leaving keys to even save you, or me. Great plan. Just… Fantastic!”
Nick walked away, muttering curses at her under his breath.
Russell realized how callous it was that he was relieved none of the bodies in the tent were Nick. What concerned him was they were all armed to the teeth, and he still didn’t know if Nick was inside the cabin.
Sara was still working with Jenkins and the Hazmat director. The three stood under the bright white work lights near the cabin; two dozen had been set up to illuminate the darkness and replaced the noisy human sounds with noisy generator sounds. D.B waited at the SUV, deciding not to find out how patient Jenkins was. The man had asked Sara to leave once, or at least once that she told Russell about when she checked in with him, and that was when Hazmat arrived. But either the director wanted her there, or she had smooth talked her way into staying, because old Sheriff Jenkins hadn’t ordered them to leave again.
Russell looked down at his phone again. He brought up the text from Finlay. He didn’t know why it had taken her so long to confiscate Raylene’s phone, but if he were a betting man, he’d guess her lawyer played a large part in that. Seven hours later, or ten minutes earlier, depending on how he wanted to look at it, Finlay sent him a text. She was able to triangulate the area the message was sent from, which was ten miles in any direction from where he stood now, and then the phone disappeared. The sender probably had destroyed it or took the battery out.
The text Raylene had received read: Safe house discovered, relocate to alternate, contact with all clear.
And not even her lawyer could get Raylene to explain the text or tell them where Nick had been relocated to. Russell went back to his worry spot when he thought about how many dead men he’d just seen. He counted eleven. He overheard someone say that they’d looked through the windows and believed there were six more inside the cabin. Seventeen people to kill one man?
No. Russell closed his eyes. They hadn’t been sent to kill one man; they had been sent to kill one man, and a kidnapper who could kidnap him in plain sight from a busy parking lot. And then practically disappear. Russell shook his head for not seeing it sooner. Raylene had hired someone who was used to doing this kind of work, and that many men had been sent because of who the kidnapper was. Whoever was behind blackmailing Raylene knew who she had hired – he and his C.S.I. didn’t and that worried Russell. It meant that the kidnapper was too good at this kind of work, not an inexperienced stranger, and deadly. Knowing how stubborn and bull-headed Nick became when he was angry meant he would fight this person every step of the way, and someone like that probably didn’t have much patience. It meant Raylene’s promise Nick would be returned safe and alive was an empty promise.
Russell saw Sara shake hands with Sheriff Jenkins and head his direction. He focused on her, dreading what she may have found out.
“He’s not inside the cabin either,” Sara told Russell
That was a relief to both of them, but Russell realized he had expected that outcome.
“What was the gas?”
“Benzene, and the cans were from North Korea,” Sara answered. “They were rigged to a panic button underneath a bathroom at the back. The C.S.I. that went in with Hazmat said this didn’t look like something that had been thrown together, either. Whoever had Nick here was prepared for this kind of trouble.”
Russell nodded. So his revelation was correct after all.
“Jenkins offered to call if anything told him where Nick’s kidnapper went,” she continued, “So what do you want to do?”
“Let’s head back and see if we can dig up anything more on the second mystery woman.”
“You… You want to leave?” Sara asked with unmasked surprise.
“Do you think anything was left here that will help us find him?”
She slowly shook her head.
Russell walked back to the SUV and got in. Sara didn’t follow. She stared at the SUV for several minutes, and then walked over and climbed in. Russell backed the SUV up, turned around, and headed back to Las Vegas. Miles passed that the two didn’t speak. With his mind was working over every aspect of this kidnapping, searching for any clue that might find Nick or who was blackmailing Raylene, Russell didn’t notice Sara’s silence.
“I’m surprised that we’re not going to stay and wait to be sure,” Sara finally admitted.
“Jenkins told me that he hadn’t seen something this bad since he was in Vietnam; I’m confident he’s going to pick this place apart. I’m equally confident he isn’t going to find anything.”
“He needs to work in Las Vegas then,” Sara scoffed. “That scene was tame compared to some of the ones we’ve worked. You know, he could find DNA from the kidnapper.”
“Even if his C.S.I. do, it won’t lead them to anyone. Well, not anyone that is going to be easy to find.”
“You’re starting to believe Raylene.”
“I think she is behind Nick’s kidnapping, and that she hired someone who is very good at it. Now, whether she intends to bring him back once we find whoever is blackmailing her… I don’t believe that, not after seeing that place. He’s not safe with whoever she hired.”
“I think he is safe with the kidnapper and I believe Raylene will bring him back. He’ll probably be mad as hell, but alive and unharmed.”
It took Russell a couple minutes to push past surprise. And then he realized how calm Sara had become about Nick’s kidnapping after they had spoken to Raylene. She was anxious to find who had been shooting at Nick, and who was trying to use him to make Raylene commit treason, but she was much calmer than he’d ever seen her in the midst of a kidnapping investigation. Considering it was Nick, a longtime friend she cared about, that calmness said a lot about how much she believed Raylene.
“Why do you believe her?” Russell asked.
“Raylene likes Nick.”
“That’s all you’re going on?”
Sara smiled at him. “No, I mean, she likes him. Very much likes him.”
“She has a crush on him?”
With an awkward smile she tried to answer the question.
“That makes it worse, Sara. Crushes can turn deadly.”
“No. Not a crush… There were little things she’s said about her and him, and the way she’s responded to certain questions about him. I don’t know how he feels about all this, but she has feelings for him.”
Stunned, Russell drove as his brain tried to wrap around this idea.
“If she has feelings for him, and wanted him to stop putting himself in danger, then why would she have him kidnapped and put him in danger?”
“You aren’t following the logic of Raylene’s mind. You tried to get Nick to stop going out in the field while this was happening. Even when you threatened to throw him in holding or fire him, he still went out. He probably even knew why he was being shot at, yet he still went out. I imagine he was trying to draw the shooter out because he didn’t like the idea that someone was threatening someone he cares about, and using him to do that. Maybe she even tried to convince him not to do this, also, but there is no way he would have listened to her either. You know how Nick gets when his stubborn kicks in, and she probably figured that out too. Since he wasn’t listening to reason and logic – the two biggest pivots in Raylene’s world – she chose the most reasonable and logic way to resolve the situation. She took Nick out of the equation by putting him somewhere she felt or knew he’d be safe and then she came to us because he’s probably told her about us, giving her a reason to trust us.”
“Then why didn’t she come to us sooner?”
“He probably told her he could handle it and he would protect her.”
“So she did this because Nick lied to her?”
“She did this because Nick wasn’t being reasonable or logical.”
Russell suddenly grasped the point. “So the reasonable, logical solution was to kidnap him, believing she was protecting him that way.”
“Yeah. Nick refused to protect himself so she did it for him.”
“Sounds like they both have stubborn streaks.”
Sara chuckled. “I guess so. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing right now.”
Russell sighed. “Bad. Because she won’t tell us where Nick is until we can prove he’s safe.”
Sara looked out the window. “I’m sure that he’s giving his kidnapper hell right now for all of this.”
That made the two of them smile, for a moment. But then the reality came back. He was still kidnapped, her second blackmailer was still out there, and they were no closer to convincing Raylene the man she loved – whether he loved her back or not was still up for debate – was safe.