Nick spotted a piece of fabric fluttering in the light night breeze. He crouched, setting his kit beside him and shined his flashlight on it. It looked unimportant, but he wasn’t going to take a chance that it was important. He dropped his flashlight in the grass to shine on the area and then pulled a marker out. He carefully placed it on the ground next to the fabric before lifting his camera and snapping off pictures.
He was unaware of a shadow behind him coming to life. It moved stealthily along the deep shadow the privacy fence created. The steps it took were nearly silent, hidden by the soft breeze and low hum of the freeway half a mile away. Slowly it took human form as it separated from the shadows, directly behind Nick where it was hidden from his peripheral vision. The arms slowly lifted, fingers outstretched and moved as if they were already killing the soon-to-be victim, Nick Stokes.
With a powerful lunge, the shadow grabbed Nick by the throat and shoved him to the ground.
Nick’s realization he had misjudged the killer confused him at first, momentarily giving the killer the advantage. He quickly realized that being outside didn’t make him or Greg any safer than it had the EMS or police who had been killed inside houses.
He reached for his kit, determined to get it out of the killer’s reach. He had a dozen different ways to murder someone in that kit and all of them would end his life very painful.
However, the murderer wasn’t interested in the kit. That was Nick’s ultimate undoing because as he reached to tip or push the kit away, the killer grabbed the strap of his most used tool: his camera. It was a struggle for the killer to get it looped around Nick’s throat before he realized, too late, what the killer’s intent was. He grabbed at the strap to pull it away, but the killer did not intend to let him win this struggle. The person jammed their knee in between his shoulder blades, shoving him flat to the ground. The killer grabbed the strap with both hands and hauled back, as if riding a powerful mustang into submission. Nick tried to turn, tried to fight back, but when the killer had shoved him down, his hand had also been trapped under him at a useless angle. The killer knew just how to drive a knee in between his shoulders to keep his free arm just as useless. He tried to scream for Greg, but the strap was so tight he could only manage a squeaky whisper.
He felt his hand brush against warm skin that wasn’t his. Maybe it was anger, or maybe it was years as a C.S.I., but something made him realize that if he was going to die, he was going to take this killer down with him. Tensing his fingers into claws, he flung his hand back and when his fingertips touched skin, he pushed as hard as he could and scraped his fingernails along the skin. He felt the skin build under his fingernails and warm liquid wet his fingertips. The killer leaned forward with a grunt and he caught the scent of – perfume?
He didn’t have time to think about that or his successful scratch. His brain was unable to cope with the loss of oxygen to it. With every strained breath, he wanted a deeper, fuller breath and as his throat was unable to give it to him, the numbness of asphyxiation began to settle into his nerves. A dull, persistent ring was steadily growing louder in his ears. The grass under his face was lit by his flashlight – a silent witness to his murder. For a few more minutes, he could see every single blade before him. His eyes began to tingle and slowly the green faded to black.
Greg came around the corner of the house. Five full seconds passed before he comprehended what he was seeing. There was a person dressed completely in black kneeling on Nick’s back. Then he realized the person, the EMS Killer, Petra O’Connor, was killing Nick. Greg dropped everything and charged the killer. Petra looked up, through the holes of her ski mask. Greg was about to tackle her when she leapt up and with a roundhouse kick, knocked him off his feet. Greg landed on his back, seeing the killer lunging at him.
Greg quickly rolled, but not quick enough. He was as determined to live as she was to kill him, and she was far more athletic and agile than he was. The killer caught him as he rolled onto his back, pinning his arms to his sides with her legs. Greg struggled and started screaming. The killer punched his throat, silencing him with pain. He felt the person grab his hands and pull off his gloves. Greg struggled and screamed for help – but the killer was anticipating this scream. She shoved his gloves in his mouth as far as they could before he snapped his teeth on her fingers. He almost swallowed but realized that would only lodge the latex deeper into his throat. The killer pulled tape from her clothes and slapped it over his mouth. She pulled another piece off and lowered it to tape his nose closed. Realizing the killer’s intent Greg struggled, tossing his head. She punched his ear so hard it sent white light into his eyes. The daze was long enough for her to tape his nose shut.
Greg struggled harder as his lungs slowly began burning from carbon dioxide filling them. Greg suddenly had an idea and let his eyes slide shut as he stopped struggling. He waited, focusing his senses on the person that had him pinned down. She slowly moved away. As soon as he felt freedom, he lunged to the left, knocking the killer off her feet. The person’s hand grabbed his shoulder and he tried to resist being pulled back. He swung a punch and felt hair brush his hand. He quickly opened and closed his fingers around strands, ripping a handful of hair out.
She growled, pushing him onto his back. He looked up, in horror, finding her knee falling toward his chest. He didn’t have to be a master sensei to know what that was going to do. Her knee landed on his sternum, knocking the wind out of him and the asphyxiation was sped up. Greg tried to pull away, unaware that his movements had become sluggish and shaky. The killer grabbed his face, covering his mouth and nose with their gloved hand, and pulled him back against their shoulder.
Noises were fading to his numbing ears. He couldn’t make out the wind from the sirens. The killer’s clothes felt strangely like grass and he could feel every blade of fiber.
In his subconscious, he saw Grissom’s worried face. He heard him say, “Greg, breathe. Greg, breathe! I NEED A MEDIC OVER HERE!”
Then he saw the stars fade away into black.
Nick heard people talking before he was conscious of them. He’d felt this way only once before, when he was pulled from the ground after being buried alive. Someone took his hand and instantly he panicked and tried to pull away. He tried to scream at them, but all that came out of his sore was a very soft whimper.
Quietly Grissom’s voice commanded, “No, Nicky, no. Hold still. It’s me, it’s Grissom. I’m collecting the skin and blood under your fingernails. You collected a lot from your attacker. Good job, Nicky.”
His voice was all it took for him to relax, for his breathing to calm, and his heart to stop racing.
“Greg?” Nick meant for it to come out louder than the whisper it did, but to speak hurt. “Dead?”
“No. He almost outwitted the killer, but I think he surprised Greg.”
He? Nick’s mind tried to remember why he thought that was wrong. The memory came back as his eyes slowly opened.
“The killer is a woman,” Nick whispered. “She was wearing perfume. It’s on my shirt, Grissom. Ya gotta bag my shirt.”
It was hard for him to find Grissom, even though he quickly recognized the confines of the ambulance, but when he did, Grissom was staring at him.
“And could you put a rush on the DNA comparisons?”
“Yes. I’ll make sure to put a rush on it, Nick.” Grissom turned. “Warrick!”
He heard Warrick’s faint reply. “Yeah?”
“Bag Greg’s shirt. It may have odor trace.”
Nick closed his eyes again. Finally, there was a promising end to this string of murders.
In a penthouse apartment of The Crescent Cove Apartments, a party had started around six that night. No one questioned Petra O’Connor about why she was wearing a hat, one that concealed a bald spot where Greg ripped out a handful of hair. She wore vinyl, thigh high boots that hid the deep scratch mark Nick had raked down her thigh. Her high-end label mid riff shirt concealed the bruises she’d gotten from Greg tackling her. She had expertly obscured the bruises on her face and looked flawless to her guests. She walked out onto the balcony when the penthouse elevator doors opened and Brass, along with Grissom, Nick, Greg, and five police officers, walked off. Brass spotted her on the balcony and led his entourage. None of them acknowledged the people that stopped and stared, because tonight, Petra was all any of them could see. Brass motioned the CSI to hang back and continued walking with two officers. He stopped behind her.
“Petra O’Connor?” Brass said.
Smiling, she turned. Her smile held in the face of the police.
“You’re under arrest,” Brass finished. “For murder and attempted murder.”
All around her guests started whispering. Someone turned off the music.
“And everyone is to remain where you are until we have questioned you,” Brass told her.
She almost responded but Nick coming through the people stopped her. Greg and Grissom followed him. Nick crossed his arm, smirking.
“You were about to say something?” Brass asked.
“You have to have a warrant and evidence to arrest me.”
Brass produced the warrant.
“As for evidence, you were sloppy on your last murder attempt, Petra O’Connor. Or is it Petra Toomey? Wasn’t the clinic bomber your stepfather once? Doesn’t matter. What does is that you were stupid enough to attempt killing CSI. And when they’ve finished thoroughly searching your apartment, I’m sure we’ll have a rock solid case to put you away for a couple lifetimes, minimum.”
“Uhm… Sir… We found something,” a policeman said behind them.
Nick and Grissom followed the officer. Greg stepped back a couple steps, still staring at her, before he followed too. He was having a hard time trying to figure out how someone this beautiful and with so much ahead of her, had allowed her anger to destroy her life. They walked through a silent apartment, ignoring the whispers humming around them.
The officer led them into the master bedroom’s walk-in closet, and motioned to a display cabinet that had been pulled out.
“I noticed a wear pattern on the rug. You need to see what’s in there, sir,” the policeman told Grissom.
The three walked into the hidden room beyond. The walls are covered with newspaper clippings and photographs of the bombed clinic. Several hundred faces of EMS that were identifiable were circled.
Greg walked over to the photograph with his face that had been X’d out. He and Nick had come close to dying and now that really sunk in. He didn’t hear Grissom tell Nick to start processing the kitchen, leaving the two alone in the room. Grissom walked up to him, also staring at the photo.
“I owe you an apology,” Grissom told him.
Greg offered a slight shrug. “You couldn’t have known.”
“Perhaps I should have. I’m glad you stuck with your theory even after everyone dismissed it. Your persistence caught her.”
Greg wasn’t so sure congratulations were in order. Something about this ending was nagging; something about it was completely off. Distracted by that, he answered, “Thanks.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Okay. We’ll work this room first.”
Greg nodded. Grissom went to one end and began photographing. Greg sat his case down and started at the other end of the room. He lifted his camera to photograph a shelf and through it saw a family photo. He slowly lowered his camera, staring at it. A teenage Petra, Craig Toomey, his ex-wife, and a young boy smiled at the world.
Greg reached out for the photo; unaware he was about to touch potential evidence without gloves. It wasn’t something his mind could grasp. All it could grasp was how wrong everything was right now. If this was a family photo, if Toomey and his ex-wife were dead, if Petra was in jail, then who was this boy?
Greg’s hand started trembling. Had he grown into the adult that had left a cryptic message on Greg’s phone before they left for work tonight, stating only one thing: two-fifteen a.m. Greg understood the simple message. It was a promise that this person was going to do something to him at that time of the day, but what day? How much time did Greg have to figure out who the caller was? Or who this boy was?
The photo slipped from Greg’s shaking hand and hit the floor, shattering the glass. Grissom turned, but Greg didn’t notice.
“Greg? What’s wrong?”
“I need some fresh air.”
Greg almost ran from the room before Grissom could ask anything. He’d learned many things during this case, including keeping his unsupported theories to himself until he had evidence to back them. A cold stone formed in his stomach as realization sank in – he may not live long enough to find supporting evidence for this theory.
Greg stared into the dark brown liquid in his coffee cup. The liquid had been in there for hours, but he didn’t notice. He wondered, briefly, if it was possible to build a resistance to caffeine, because it didn’t seem to keep him awake and away from his nightmares anymore. When Grissom had started prying why he’d fallen asleep at the centrifuge, Greg requested a vacation. Grissom didn’t ask questions, he just signed the paperwork and gave him the number of a good therapist.
Greg recalled his thought even now, ‘Too bad your therapist isn’t psychic and can tell me who the accomplice is.’
Resting in his hand was a silver iPod Nano. He slid his thumb across the face for the millionth time, slightly depressing the play button. The recordings on it began playing again.
“Hey,” someone said.
Greg looked at the floor, at the cowboy boots standing next to his table. He slowly looked up at Nick’s smiling face.
“What are you doing here, man? I thought you were on vacation.” Uninvited, Nick sat down on the other side of the booth.
Greg stopped the recording and looked back into his cup. “I am.”
A waitress walked up with a cup and coffee pot and poured Nick a cup. Greg held out his cup and she topped it off. He pulled it back in front of him, watching the steam rise.
“You don’t look any better than you did on that last case we were working. You feeling okay?”
“I haven’t slept in a while.”
“I’m guessing you mean more than just tonight.”
Greg nodded again. Nick didn’t say anything. Was he expecting a reply beyond that?
“What’s going on, Greg? Talk to me, man.”
Greg sipped his coffee. He was surprised by the tone Nick used. He heard him use that tone when he was concerned about a victim. It was a sincere interest in the person’s welfare. Greg decided to share his problems with someone because he didn’t have any idea of how to solve them on his own.
“Did you sleep much after you were kidnapped and buried?”
Nick leaned back, stretching his arms across the back of the booth.
“It’ll get better.”
Greg shook his head. Nick made it sound so simple. A ‘time heals all wounds’ kind of thing, but it wasn’t so simple. Greg had set things in motion that wouldn’t keep the resolution so simple.
He told Nick, “Not until this is over.”
Nick leaned forward on the table. “Until what’s over? What are you talking about?”
Greg looked up, looking him in the eyes. He had to make sure he understood what he was about to tell him, understand why the nightmares weren’t going away anytime soon, why the nightmares stayed with him whenever he shut his eyes.
“I compared the dispatch recordings that sent EMS responders to the EMS Killer. It’s the same person. Here. Listen.”
Greg pulled his earbuds out and handed them to Nick. Nick slid them into his ears. Nick’s eyes enlarged as he listened to the voice of the so-called dispatcher sending EMS responders to their deaths. Suddenly Nick yanked the earbuds out and threw them on the table. He stared at them as if they had turned into snakes about to strike him. The response told Greg that Nick shared his discovery somehow. Nick knew something about this, something that had left him ashen from hearing the voice.
“What’s wrong?” Greg asked.
In a low, angry voice, Nick told him, “That’s the asshole that pretended to be dispatch the night she attacked us! He set us up, Greg! He sent us into that trap! Are you telling me this man’s her accomplice?”
Greg wasn’t surprised. “He was also the person that pretended to be Petra’s manager. And he calls me all the time, hangs up if I answer. If I let it go to voicemail, he leaves the same message, a time of day. Nothing else. This isn’t over. We’re not safe. You know that, right?”
Nick nodded. “I thought I was the only one getting that phone call.”
“Is the number always blocked for you too?”
He nodded again. “I’ve tried tracing it too, but it always comes back to a disposable cell phone.”
“What are we gonna do, Nick?”
“I don’t know. But... We’re gonna have to think of something before he does.”
Greg nodded. Both men stared into the dark liquid of the coffee cups.
Outside the dark morning hid many things from people. A dirty, scruffy vagrant saw them frequently. He saw prostitutes dead in the street before CSI ever did. He found evidence tossed out before it could be recovered. He pushed his overfilled grocery cart down the alley, passing a car. He glanced inside and met eyes with the driver before quickly looking away. Years had taught him to know when someone was sitting in a car and plotting something wicked. This man was. The vagrant looked around, trying to figure out who the evil could be aimed at, but he didn’t see anyone as he rounded the corner onto the sidewalk.
He didn’t observe two CSI sitting in the diner across the street, oblivious that their soon-to-be killer was watching them. Years of practice, and his sister, had taught the killer that to commit a perfect crime, patience and planning were crucial. This killer would patiently stalk his prey and taunt them until they made a fatal mistake.
As he sat watching the two, wearing a malevolent smile wrought from his immoral desires, he wondered how they would die. Which of the two men would die crying and which would die begging for his life – because in the end, before he allowed his victims to die, after he’d tortured them in ways not even a horror movie writer could dream of, they always did one or the other.