House of Spirits
Greg and Riley sat in uncomfortable silence, each on opposite ends of the backseat of the cab, each staring out their respective window. Though he wanted to do more to help find Nick, Greg was frustrated that he would have to return to the lab empty-handed. He felt as if he’d just wasted twelve hours, not to mention money out of the lab’s budget on a bogus trip to St. Louis. It was why he hadn’t called them yet to let them know that they were back in town. He watched as the cab drove down the familiar streets from the airport, counting the cars that drove by for lack of anything better to do. Once in a while, he would try to make words out of the license plates he’d see.
They came to a stoplight, and Greg’s heart lurched as they drew level with a black Tahoe. That’s Nick’s car… he thought to himself, sadly, before he realized, Wait… That’s Nick’s car!
He put both hands and his nose to the window, a slow grin playing across his features. Then he rolled down the window as far as it would go and leaned out of it.
“What are you doing?”
“SH!” Greg hissed at Riley. It couldn’t be seen unless one knew what to look for, but if Greg squinted, he could just make out the outline of a woman and a dollar bill on the passenger’s side door, just under the fresh paint job. He threw open the car door.
“Hey, buddy, this is a stop light, not a parking space!” he heard the cabbie scream after him. Following his lead, Riley hopped out too and watched as Greg rapped on the window of the driver’s side. The driver was young, couldn’t have been older than eighteen, and he gawked at Greg, who would not cease his knocking.
Finally, the boy rolled his window down. “Dude, I don’t have any change,” he said. “Go wash someone else’s car.”
“Do I look like I need to eat more to you?” Greg returned.
At that point, Riley joined him. “What’s going on, Greg?”
“This is Nick’s car,” he told her. “I’m one hundred percent certain of that.”
“Dude, what?” the teenager gaped.
Riley showed him her badge. “Would you please step out of the car, sir?”
At that point, people were honking at them. Though the light was green, no one could pass, because the cabbie refused to move in his lane as well. “Hey, ma’am!” the cabbie yelled. “This gonna take all day?”
“Out of the car, sir,” Riley repeated to the teen.
“Dude, I don’t know any Nick,” the teenager insisted. “This is my Dad’s car.”
“Like hell it is!” Greg cried. He pointed at the side. “Look, Riley, there – see that silhouette? That used to be a blonde in a bikini, until Nick had his paintjob redone – poorly! And thank God, too, or else I wouldn’t have noticed!”
Riley tilted her head to try to make it out, then returned to the driver. “He’s got you there, kid.”
“C’mon, you two, what’s this all about?” the cab driver called again.
“Yo, move!” a driver stranded behind the Tahoe yelled.
The teenager was getting out of his car, looking anxious. Riley looked at Greg. “Hang on a sec,” she said, then turned to the cabbie, waving her badge in the air.
“It’s all right, everyone, I’ll have you going where you need to go in no time!” she called. She opened up her wallet when she reached the cab driver. “OK, so how much do I owe you?”
With Riley distracted, the teenager chose that moment to make a break for it on foot. He dashed to the left and tried to run around the front of the car.
“Oh no you don’t!” Greg roared, seizing the teen by his arm and pushed him up against the car, pulling the arm hard behind his back.
“Ow! Police brutality!” the boy yelled.
“I’m not a cop, I can be as brutal as I want,” Greg hissed in his ear. “Now where the hell did you get this car?”
“OK, OK, OK!” the teenager whined. “I took one of my Dad’s cars out last night and it broke down, OK, so I went to his mechanic and she said she could give this to me as a loaner while she fixed it, you know, so he wouldn’t know it was missing! Said she’d keep it quiet for me, promised even!”
“Wait!” he heard Riley yell, and then she was jogging over. The cab sped off, and cars began to pass the stranded Tahoe. She pushed Greg aside and forced the boy to spin around and face her. “Are you Mike Larson?”
The boy nodded, then shook his head. “I mean, that’s my Dad, yeah.”
“The used car salesman?”
“Uh huh. You know him?”
Riley gave Greg a fearfully guilty look. “I know his mechanic.”
Sara stared at the woman who sat across from her at the conference table. She seemed to be in her mid-fifties, and she had not aged gracefully. Layers of foundation were caked over the worry lines in her brow, and she tried to disguise her age with eyeliner and lip gloss. Neither woman said a word. Sara continued to try and decipher Joanna, who simply stared at her lap, as if ashamed.
And then, Sara spoke. “Your daughter?”
Joanna nodded, then looked up at Sara. “You have to understand… What she does, it’s not her fault.”
Sara felt something burn deep inside her, like acid, and it rose up to her heart. “I really hate it when people say that,” she sighed, leaning back in her chair.
“But it’s true,” Joanna insisted. “She doesn’t know what she’s—”
“She’s killed three men!” Sara roared through gritted teeth. “Maybe four.”
“She wouldn’t have done it if—”
“If what?” Sara interjected. “If she’d never met them? If she wasn’t in a bad mood? If she’d eaten all her vegetables? I’m sorry, but there is no excuse good enough to—”
“If I had been a better mother,” Joanna finished, insistently. “This isn’t Alexa’s fault, it’s mine.”
Sara, still fuming, found that she had nothing more to say. She began to grind her teeth, and was relieved when Catherine opened the door, and entered with Grissom and Warrick.
Warrick pushed his way to the table and slammed his hands down, glaring at Joanna. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” Joanna said.
“Would she be at her apartment?” Grissom inquired, his voice deceptively even.
“Maybe, I don’t know…” Joanna shrugged. “Where does she live?”
Catherine showed Joanna the print outs of Alexa King’s driver’s and business licenses. “She also owns a garage by Finley Park.” She looked at Grissom. “I’m betting there.”
Warrick immediately left the room. The others watched him leave.
“Brass and armed officers are already on their way,” Catherine told Grissom.
Sara pushed her chair back. “I think we should follow Warrick’s lead and get over there. Now.”
Greg wrapped his fingers possessively around the wheel of the Tahoe, as if claiming it for his own. “You know, this would be much easier with a siren.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” Riley articulated sarcastically, “but I don’t carry my siren with me everywhere I go.”
Greg ran a yellow light just as it turned red.
“Dude, watch it!” the teenager complained from the back seat.
“Shut up, this isn’t your car,” Greg threw over his shoulder.
“It’s my body, and I’d kinda like to keep it, OK, man?”
Greg ignored a four-way stop and someone honked at him. But he didn’t care; he was only a few blocks away from Finley. They pulled up outside of the autoshop, and Greg could hear sirens in the distance. It reminded him, as he hopped out of the car.
“Riley – call Brass, tell him what’s happening.”
“Where are you going?” Riley called as he sprinted to the shop.
“Where do you think?” Greg shouted back, just before he ran inside. He knew that she was shouting something else at him, but he didn’t care. He had to get to Nick.
Riley watched as Greg vanished into the building, throwing curses at his back.
“Damn you, Greg Sanders!” she hissed. “We need to wait for backup!”
The teenager leaned his head out the window. “So, like, can I have my car back now?”
“It’s not your car!” Riley snapped.
He pointed at the garage. “Nah, but my car’s in there.”
“Just… shut up,” Riley said, pulling out her phone. “And stay in the car.” But just as she hit Brass’s number, she saw three police cars pull up outside of the garage.
“Welcome back to Vegas, Detective,” was the greeting she received on her phone.
Riley looked at the cop cars around her. “I take it you sent a few black and whites to Finley?”
“Did one better,” Brass said, and Riley watched as the passenger door to a squad car opened. She saw Jim Brass step outside, a phone to his ear. “I came with them.”
Riley hung up her phone and jogged over to Brass, who was looking at her vehicle. He pointed at it, with a curious frown. “Is that—”
“Greg ran inside,” Riley said.
Brass cursed, turning his head to the entrance before looking back at Riley. “And you let him?”
“I don’t let Greg do anything, he just…” she made a frantic gesture at the door, “does!”
“Faber, Garcia, go keep Sanders out of trouble,” Brass ordered.
Riley watched as two officers went into the building. She looked at Brass. “How did you know to come here?”
“How did you?” Brass returned.
“Uh…” Riley said, as she watched two more officers enter the building. “Let’s discuss this later, kay?”
“Agreed,” said Brass, and they entered the building themselves.
When Greg darted into the building, his first stop after the main office was the garage next door. He called out Nick’s name, but all it did was echo off of the concrete walls. He saw Mike Larson’s Tahoe sitting in the middle of it. Greg’s eyes fell on a metal door at the back of the garage and ran to it. It was locked. He banged on it, again screaming Nick’s name. He listened for any response at all.
“Wasting time, Sanders…” he muttered to himself, before jogging out of the garage. He looked for another path and saw the Employees Only door. Without a second thought, he opened it so fast he nearly ripped it off its hinges. He encountered a narrow staircase with room for only one person to ascend at a time and walls on either side. With nowhere to go but up, he followed it.
When he was eleven, Greg had somehow got it into his head that he wanted to be an architect. After months of begging, he finally managed to convince his mother to plan a family road trip to San Jose to visit the Winchester Mansion. The whole six hours, Greg bounced up and down in the back seat, spouting facts about Sarah Winchester to his parents and grandparents. The more Greg told her about the lore and ghost stories surrounding the house, the more his grandmother grew apprehensive. She warned Greg about setting foot on such a spiritually dangerous property, but Greg paid her no mind. When they finally arrived, Greg bounded out of the car with glee. During the tour, a staircase caught his eye.
Sarah Winchester had been a terrified, highly superstitious woman, who spent her vast fortune building and rebuilding her massive estate, upon the advice of a psychic who told her she needed to confuse the spirits. While perusing the house, Greg marveled at the peculiar architectural design, making note of the windows that looked upside down, the floor panels on the ceiling, and the doors that opened to walls. But Greg was most fascinated by the staircases. Staircases that seemed to climb up to the ceiling and abruptly end, staircases that descended before changing their minds and ascending again, and the switchback staircase that had seven flights, forty steps, but only rose nine feet high. It was by making the mistake of climbing this last staircase before the tour guide that got the young Greg Sanders lost in the mystery house. The tour was moving on below, but Greg was curious. He tried finding a new way down, but only ended up down a hallway that returned onto itself. He fell into a secret, musty passage in the wall and then panicked when he couldn’t find his way back out again, crying out for his parents.
He’d only been lost about twenty minutes before the tour found him, but something had changed in him. He rode home with his family in absolute silence, and never discussed dreams of being an architect ever again.
As Greg climbed the dark staircase in the back room of the garage, he began to feel his lungs expanding in his chest, then slowly deflating. The air was dusty and heavy and he found it difficult to access the oxygen. He extended both his hands outward so they were touching both walls as he went up the staircase, half wondering if this woman was as crazy as Sarah Winchester, and if she’d built a staircase to nowhere just for the sake of confusing the spirits, or maybe any law officers that came calling. He could hear his own, open-mouthed breathing, feel the bead of sweat slide from his hairline down his temple. He took one hand away from the wall and it hovered over the place where his holster used to be.
Greg stopped and looked down at his belt, where he carried no gun. The hand that had reached for it clenched into a fist before opening again, and he stopped climbing the stairs about halfway up. He looked to the landing above, and as his eyes adjusted, he could just barely make out the outline of a door and the glint off of a metal doorknob. He looked back down the stairs. He heard sounds coming from the ground floor, and hoped that he would have backup. He continued forward, moving slightly faster, if only to get out of the constricting, haunted staircase. He heard shouting from the floor below, people calling his name and Nick’s. He reached for the brass doorknob, his mouth dry, but before he could grip it, the door flew inward.
Greg fell backwards in shock. His foot took a step back to help maintain his balance, but he wasn’t on level ground, and one arm banged against the wall, fingers grasping at anything to keep from tumbling down the stairs. Something else reached out and grabbed his other hand, pulling him forward and into a room flooded with a soft orange light.
The momentum of the pull caused Greg to stumble forward and his hands landed on a pair of broad shoulders, which he gripped tightly, first because he needed to steady himself again, and then, because he recognized whose shoulders they were.
Nick was holding Greg’s elbows and staring at him with quiet brown eyes. For a moment, Greg wasn’t sure what to say. He hadn’t expected Nick to be conscious, let alone unbound. A part of him wasn’t even sure if Nick would still be alive when they found him, but there he was, standing tall, looking a little worse for wear, but more or less alive and kicking.
And then, Greg realized, he didn’t need to say anything at all. He threw his arms around Nick’s neck and closed his eyes. Slowly, he felt Nick return the embrace, his arms rising weakly. His fingers slowly unfurled and he laid his palms on Greg’s back. And then, as if Nick were waking up from a dream, he seemed to realize what exactly had just happened, and his grip on Greg’s back intensified, squeezing Greg as hard as Greg was squeezing him.
His eyes closed, Greg relished the contact, inhaling deeply before letting it out again and pulling away from Nick, who didn’t seem to want to let him go. It took some effort, but he finally managed and gripped his friend by his upper arms. Greg tried to catch his eye, but something about those brown orbs seemed far away. It was then that Greg took in the full extent of Nick’s injuries. He was shirtless, with gauze wrapped around his chest. Greg put his fingers to the edge of the bandages, where it met Nick’s skin. He then looked up at the stitched up scar that had been slashed across Nick’s face, and he felt a bitter sting that began in the back of his eyes. Nick’s gaze wandered away from Greg’s, staring at the floor somewhere in the corner of the room. And Greg allowed his own eyes to lose focus, blurring the man that stood in front of him, and then refocusing on the other person in the room, who sat cross-legged on the four poster bed and watched them with inscrutable green eyes.
Greg moved to walk past Nick and determinedly to the bed, not sure exactly what he was going to do when he got there, only knowing what he wanted the results to be, which was to see terror in her eyes, to see regret, to see pain, to see anything but the emptiness that he saw now—
His thoughts were broken by Nick’s touch, as he seized Greg’s arm before he could even start to begin the grueling, messy process of retribution.
“Don’t,” Nick said.
It was the first word either of them had said since Greg’s arrival. The younger man turned to look at Nick with baffled eyes, his mouth half open. Nick didn’t offer any further verbal explanation, but his expression was clear. The girl on the bed was not to be harmed. Greg didn’t understand the words he was reading on his old friend’s face. But before he could ask, there was a crash.
Nick turned and Greg looked up in time to see two officers burst into the room, guns drawn. They scanned it once, before finding the one person that didn’t belong and trained their guns on her.
“Hands where we can see ‘em, lady,” one of them ordered.
Cautiously, and with a slight twitch, the woman’s hands rose into the air. Her face looked panicked, and her eyes darted over to her victim.
Her query looked from the officers to her, and then his hands went up, raking through his hair to the back of his head. “Jesus…” he breathed, as if he wasn’t sure what to do. “Wait,” he said, pointedly, holding up a hand to the officers. “Hold on, there’s been a misunderstanding.”
And then, Greg found his voice. “A misunderstanding?” he spat incredulously.
Nick acted as if he’d just remembered Greg was there. He turned to him and nodded, quickly. “Yeah. I mean…” He seemed conflicted. He glanced at the woman. “Sort of.”
And then, ideas began to fall together in Greg’s mind like soggy puzzle pieces, and an old, self-loathing paranoia tried to shove them together until they fit. “Was this some sort of joke to you?” Greg breathed. “Some way of getting back at me for some stupid pizza errand I made you run?”
Nick blinked. “What?! No – pizza – what are you talking about?”
Greg looked at the blonde on the bed. “Have you just been honeymooning all this time?”
Nick pursed his lips, his eyes piercing. He looked frustrated and disappointed all at once as he put a hand on his hip. “Greg—”
“I-I mean, I walk in here, you’re not tied up, you’re awake, the door was clearly unlocked, because you opened it—”
“Does it look like this has been easy for me?” Nick cut him off, gesturing at the scar on his face.
“Hell, I don’t know what you’re into!” Greg exclaimed, throwing his arms in the air. “Maybe?”
Nick sighed and rubbed his eyes with his hands. “Greg, you don’t—”
The desperate call stopped him in his tracks. Nick looked over to see the two officers pulling Alexa off of the bed and handcuffing her.
“No, don’t hurt her!” Nick called.
“Don’t hurt her?” Greg echoed.
“Alexa King,” came Brass’s booming voice as he strode into the room. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used—”
“Brass!” Nick interjected.
The old detective stopped and looked at Nick with grateful eyes for a moment before slowly continuing. “Used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.”
“Why are you doing this?” Nick asked.
“Is anyone else hearing what I’m hearing?” Greg asked, looking at the two detectives in the doorway and gesturing wildly at Nick.
Riley appeared to be the only one who shared Greg’s concern. She walked briskly to Nick and put a delicate hand on his bicep. Nick pulled away with a flinch.
“Please…” he said. “Just… I’m sorry, but don’t touch me.”
Slowly, her mouth partially open, Riley nodded. “Nick Stokes, do you understand what happened to you?”
“Yes,” Nick said. He looked at Greg. “I do.”
“Can you tell me what you understand about what happened to you?”
“I thought you were a detective,” Nick said, “not a condescending therapist.”
“Nick, this is really important,” Riley said slowly.
Nick looked at Alexa as Brass and two officers led her out of the room. “I was abducted…”
“By Alexa King.”
“And who is Alexa King?”
Nick looked at her as if she were stupid. “You just arrested her.”
“So, you understand why we’ve put her under arrest.”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“But what, Nick?” Greg cried. “It’s pretty black and white. She took you, she hurt you, she gets a needle in her arm, end of story.”
Nick went white. He gaped at Greg a moment, then turned desperately to Riley. “Oh, no, you’ve got to promise me you won’t kill her. Please. She needs help.”
“You need help.”
“Greg, you’re not helping,” Riley snapped.
Greg roared with exasperation. “Whatever, I can’t do this.” And he marched outside, slamming the door behind him. He was left in darkness in the stairway again, but there was a light from the open door on the bottom. He could hear people milling about, sirens just beyond, and loud voices. Greg stomped down the stairs, his mind reeling, unsure of how to take all of this. In the middle of the stairs, something frozen and silky moved through him and he stopped. His mind had flashes of endless hallways, indoor windows, and hollow walls and he had to sit down, his head was spinning so much.
When he had returned from the Winchester House, Greg was convinced that a ghost had followed him home. He asked his Nana for her advice, and she said that she did sense a presence around him. She explained that this one was latched on tight, and would not let go. She said it was because the ghost was drawn to the brightness that dwelled in Greg. She said it missed being alive, and was trying to suck that joy and warmth from his body. Greg said that it explained why he felt so cold all of the time. Nana Olaf offered to perform an exorcism, but Greg’s mother subsequently forbade it. She told Nana Olaf that she was scaring Greg and to tell him that there were no such things as ghosts. Nana Olaf said the words her daughter had wanted her to say, but when Greg’s mother had gone, Nana gave Greg a serious look. She later told him that he needed to find a way to escape his ghost, but she never told him how.
Greg clung to the edge of the stair upon which he sat as icy tendrils unfolded across his skin from his head down. He knew, without a doubt, that he was haunted this time, only now he knew exactly why. When he was running red lights to get to this garage, he’d had a vision. And it was one that he hadn’t wanted to dwell on too much, because he knew it made him look selfish, but also because it made him look naive. In his mind, he’d seen himself bursting into the garage, drawing his gun, arresting the kidnapper, untying a potentially unconscious Nick, and saving the day. And in this vision, Nick looked at him with the sincerest gratitude that ever existed, and he thanked Greg, said that if Greg hadn’t come when he did, then Nick would have been dead. In his head, Greg was a hero. In reality, he was a witless CSI without a gun, who walked into what looked suspiciously more like a tryst than someone being held against his will.
But the worst part was, this wasn’t what bothered Greg the most. What bothered Greg the most was that he was dwelling more on this failed fantasy than the fact that Nick was alive. Nick was alive, and where was Greg? In the middle of a stairway in the dark, halfway between up and down, angry and bitter that he’d missed his chance to prove himself, that Nick had somehow stolen it away from him by being conscious and mobile. Greg tried to bury his face in his knees.
He looked up at the inquiry and saw Sara standing in the doorway.
“Is he up there?”
Greg wasn’t sure how to answer. Someone was up there, talking with Riley, but who it was, he couldn’t tell her. “Yeah, he’s up there.”
Sara was soon joined by Warrick, but it was difficult for two people to stand in the narrow corridor. “Anyone else up there with him?” Warrick demanded.
Greg shook his head. “No… Well… Riley’s trying to figure out if his brain’s been scrambled.”
“What do you mean?” The panic in Sara’s voice was palpable.
Greg shook his head, feeling helpless. “I don’t know. Look, I just…” He rose to his feet and trudged down the rest of the stairs. “I need to get out of here.”
Warrick and Sara didn’t move. They were standing so close together, it would be impossible to get by if they didn’t.
“What’s wrong with his head, Greg?” Warrick asked. The hallway was dark, but light spilled in from the doorway behind them. It made it really difficult to see either Sara or Warrick’s expressions.
“I don’t know,” Greg reiterated, because it was the absolute truth.
Warrick still wasn’t satisfied, but Sara put a hand on his shoulder. If he was going to say anything else, he didn’t. Instead, he stepped back through the doorway and into the light. Greg saw his face for the first time. It was stony, and somehow older, with lines that Greg swore he hadn’t seen before.
He squeezed by Sara, catching a breath of citrus from her shampoo, and then he was in the office again. He started to move away, when her voice anchored him to the spot.
“Are you OK?”
He closed his eyes and prayed for patience. He wanted to turn around and tell her that he no, he wasn’t OK. He wanted to ask her how she could even ask that question. He wanted to ask her if she was OK, or if she, like him, felt ready to fall into pieces and slip through the cracks in the floor. He wanted to wrap his arms around her, breathe in that sour sweet smell of lemon and orange peel and let her catch him as he crumbled.
But he didn’t even have the strength to lie to her. So he said nothing. Instead, he made a beeline for the front door and burst out into the humid air. The sun was high, and it beat down on him mercilessly. It didn’t care what kind of day he was having. Greg stared at it, trying to go blind.
“So what is it, exactly, that you don’t understand?” Riley said, slowly, after Greg slammed the door.
Nick exhaled an exhausted sigh. “I don’t know… D’you think we could maybe sit down, or something? I’m getting a little dizzy.”
Riley walked Nick over to the four poster bed, then hesitated as she saw the ropes hanging off of the posts. The purple comforter was disturbed, and she saw a variety of stains. She stopped.
“I can take you downstairs…” she offered.
“Are they down there?” Nick asked, looking uneasy.
“Who?” Riley inquired.
Nick swallowed. “Greg and them. Grissom, Sara, Cath, ‘Rick…”
Riley looked over her shoulder at the closed door, then back at Nick. “Um, I’m not sure. Probably.”
“Not yet then,” Nick said. “I need to… I need to work some things out. Mind if we sit on the floor?”
Riley glanced at the hardwood beneath them. “Floor is good.”
So they sat down, legs crossed, knee to knee.
Nick closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Thanks,” he said. “I just… It’s been a long… time. How long has it been?”
Riley looked at her watch. “Thirty-four hours and eighteen minutes,” she said.
Nick seemed mildly surprised. “Really?”
“Too long or too short?”
Nick’s brow furrowed in confusion. “I’m not sure… both?”
“How long does it feel like to you?”
“Years,” Nick answered. “Days. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.”
Riley nodded. “Nick, why are you upset that we arrested Alexa?”
“Because it’s not her fault,” Nick explained, articulating his words forcefully so as to be sure he got his message across. “You have to know that. She doesn’t know what she’s doing half the time, she doesn’t mean it. She’s sick, Riley, not evil.”
Again, Riley nodded. “Nick…” she began slowly. “She beat three people to death. Would have done the same to you.”
“I… don’t think so…” Nick said, though he sounded uncertain. “I mean, she… maybe. But you didn’t see her, this last hour or so, she was… calmer. It was like, she knew what she had done, and she wasn’t going to fall back into that zone again. I think… I think she cares. You know? About what happens to me. She didn’t want to kill me. She didn’t want to kill anyone.”
Link’s face flashed across Riley’s mind. She tried to suppress the surge of grief, but she couldn’t keep herself from saying, a little severely, “She looked like she meant to kill them all.”
“That’s what I mean,” Nick said. “You don’t understand her.”
“And you do?”
“Not entirely. But I understand her better than anyone else ever could.”
And maybe it was the grief, or the stress, or the fact that she had been up for over twenty-four hours now, but Riley could have sworn he sounded like Link in that moment. She shook her head to clear it and swallowed to open her throat, then cleared it.
“You think she cares about you.”
Nick nodded. “Mm hm.”
“And what about you?” Riley asked. “Do you care about her?”Nick didn’t respond. He just looked at her with unwavering eyes.