“You can pull over here,” she said.
It was not lost on Nick that they were stopping just across the street from Finley Park. He turned to her with concerned eyes. “Please, let me drive you all the way home. I know you’re nervous, but I don’t feel right about leaving you on the corner in front of an auto shop.”
She smiled at him. “This is my garage,” she told him. “I own it. I feel safe here. Sometimes, I sleep here when I’m too scared to go home.”
Nick couldn’t say he wasn’t surprised. His lips twitched into a proud smirk. “I would have never pegged you as a mechanic,” he said.
“Cars are simple,” she replied. “You diagnose the problem and you fix it, and you can always count on it to work. It’s something that I can control.”
Nick understood that desire. When something shakes up your life so completely, it’s hard not to believe in fate, and that fate, for some reason, has it in for you. Finding something that you can be in complete control over is part of the process of taking your life back into your own hands again. “At least let me walk you to the door,” he insisted.
She blushed, and her shoulders came up to her ears. “Such a gentleman,” she whispered.
“Well, someone has to be,” Nick said as he unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the door.
By the time he got to the other side of the car, she was standing there waiting for him. He offered her his arm. She looked at it, as if she wasn’t sure what he was doing, then ever so cautiously wrapped her own arm around it, gripping it with her other hand as well as they walked to the door of the garage.
“This is me,” she said. “You can go home now.”
“Please, Alexa,” Nick implored. “Tell me what happened to you.”
Her green eyes were unfocussed and far away. “Good night, Nick Stokes,” she said.
He knew a dismissal when he saw one. He sighed, but nodded. You can’t save everyone, he told himself. “Good night.”
She slipped inside of the garage and he went back to his car and suddenly remembered Greg’s pizza. DelFino’s wasn’t far from the crime lab, he could probably pick it up on the way and it would still be warm. He looked out across Finley Park, the trees looking foreboding in the morning darkness. He wondered why the city didn’t get lights installed along the bike trail, considering the number of crimes that took place there.
He slid into his car and put the key in the ignition, but when he tried to start the car, the engine faltered. It continuously made the revving sound, but beyond that…
“Great,” Nick muttered, popping the hood of his car to take a look at the problem. He got out and tried to check the engine. There seemed to be no obvious damage to anything, so he assumed it was just a dead battery. Although, it should have been charging on the way over, so why it would give out now, Nick wasn’t sure. Out of his depth, he looked at the garage of which he was conveniently parked outside. Glitter Gulch Auto Shop. He figured that even if it was a just a dead battery, he would need someone to help him jump it.
Reluctantly, he approached the door of the garage. He held his fist by the door, then hesitated. Realizing he had no other choice, he knocked three times.
It only took a minute for her to come to the door. Her face warmed at the sight of him, but she shook her head. “I told you, I don’t have any crime to report,” she said.
“I… I know, Alexa, but…” He sighed. “Look, I hate to ask but my car won’t start. I’m thinking it might be the battery, but that doesn’t really make sense as I only turned it off five minutes ago, and it should have been charging on the way over.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Did you check the alternator?” She strode right on past him. “I see it a lot. A short in a diode can cause a drain on your battery, which means it won’t recharge when you drive.”
He followed her back out to his car. “Really? But I just had it checked out last month and they didn’t say anything was wrong with the alternator.”
“They won’t check it, unless you ask,” Alexa said, opening up the hood. “They’re supposed to with a routine maintenance, but people in this town are lazy. All they do is change the oil, rotate the tires, and glance under the hood… It could also be a parasitic electrical drain on the battery because the relay is sticking. They don’t check that either.” And then, she turned her head and smiled at him, her blonde hair falling in a curtain towards the engine. “Should have come to me last month. Probably wouldn’t be having this problem now.”
“I guess so,” said Nick, thoroughly impressed.
He watched her tinker around under the hood for a moment, covering all her bases. After about five minutes she said, “All right, well… it doesn’t seem to be the diodes. But it’s late. So I’m just going to give her a jump and take her into my garage to check her out in the morning. I have a Chevy inside that we can use for the job. Here, come with me.”
She headed back toward the garage and beckoned Nick to follow her inside. She led him through the office, and then the main garage area, which appeared to be empty tonight. She then took him into the back, where there was a much smaller garage, more like one belonging to a house. In the middle of it, an old Chevy pickup truck was idling. Alexa held the door for him and he went in first. He was just about to ask why the truck was already running when he heard the door close and a click behind him, drowning him in darkness except for the headlights of the truck. His first reaction was confusion. Where had she gone? And why had she closed the door? He gripped the handle and tried to turn it, but it wouldn’t budge. He knocked on it.
“Alexa? I think the door is stuck!”
There was no reply, and no noise from her side of the door. Nick looked around and began to panic. With the door closed, and the truck taking up a large portion of the room, the space felt much smaller than it had seemed originally. Nick didn’t do well in tight spaces. He pressed himself against the wall and began breathing deeply, starving for oxygen.
“Alexa?! Where are you?!” he called again, this time anxiety rattling his vocal cords. He followed the wall to the metal garage door and banged his fists against it, hoping to make more noise. He dropped to his knees and his fingers tried to find the edge. With help from the adrenaline flooding his system, if he could just get a good grip, he might be able to force it open. But instead, he found that a rubber door stop had been placed along the bottom of the garage door, sealing in the air with him.
Nick jumped up and backed away from the door, raking trembling hands through his hair as he took deeper breaths. He tried to control it, but he was panicking and couldn’t help it. His brain was beginning to push against the front of his skull. His palms flew up to his forehead, as if he could push it back. All the while, he kept breathing. He felt along the wall for a light switch, or another door, until he ended up back where he had started. Fervently, his eyes turned to the Chevy.
His vision was beginning to blur and shake and he stumbled over to the truck, leaning his side against it for support. His eyes fell on the exhaust pipe.
He opened the driver’s side door and crawled into the front seat, blinking and trying to focus his gaze. But his brain was clouding over, and attacking him from the inside out. He stopped as he held his forehead and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep the pain at bay. When he opened his eyes again, he saw fireworks and spots dancing across his vision. He gripped the wheel tightly then hit the gas with all his might.
The truck collided with the garage door, but did not break it. It managed to cause a sizeable dent, though, and this gave Nick courage. He put the truck in reverse until he banged against the back wall, jarring him slightly in his seat. But he was quick to hit the gas again, driving the truck at the door like a battering ram. It still wouldn’t budge, and Nick didn’t have enough space to back up to get much traction or speed. Still, even a dull blade can cut deep if you hack at it enough, so Nick put the car into reverse.
His head was spinning and the metal wall in front of him blurred with the truck. He gave it one last try, before he was too exhausted to continue. He ripped the keys out of the ignition, shutting off the truck. He opened the door and fell onto his hands and knees onto the concrete, bile rising in his throat as the pain in his skull continued to mercilessly assault him. He tried to stand up, but wavered, and leaned his full back against the car, then his knees gave out and he slowly slid to the ground. He coughed and struggled for air, all the while knowing that breathing was not a good thing to do. The car was old, and in an enclosed space, and even though it was finally off, Nick had no way of knowing how long it had been on and contaminating his air supply.
He began to feel warm, then nauseous. He gripped his stomach and pulled his knees to his chest. “Alexa…”
His mouth was dry and his stomach churned like the ocean. The air around him turned to water and through the green haze he could see himself drowning. He lay down on his side, exhaustion overwhelming him as he closed his eyes.
They snapped open again. He couldn’t fall asleep. But when he opened them, the green haze seemed to close in on him. He reached out to slash his way through it when his hand connected with plexiglass. He could see his own, insect bitten reflection in it as the ants crawled across his sallow skin, over his eyelids and into his ears. He couldn’t be back there. He wouldn’t go back there. He groped around on the floor of his coffin, desperately seeking an exit, looking for a window, something, anything…
And then his fingers closed around the gun. Nick closed his eyes and brought it underneath his chin. He pulled the trigger. There was a dull click, and somewhere in the afterlife a door slammed and the rumbling of the earth faded away into silence.
Greg ate his pizza at DelFino’s, unwilling to return to the lab with it. He refused to share with Nick, now that his friend had proven himself to be an unreliable pizza delivery person. And though Carnivore Carnival was his favorite of all DelFino’s had to offer, the pizza tasted bland and cold, and he had a feeling it wasn’t just because it had been sitting under a pizza warmer for an hour. But he tried not to think about it, because in his mind, there was no point in worrying if he wasn’t even sure what he was worrying about.
Greg was certain that Nick was absolutely fine. For Sara to even suggest that he might have fallen victim to some deranged serial killer was not only absurd, but insensitive. She knew very well what the entire team had gone through just the year before. Not to mention the number of people that lived in Las Vegas, several of whom, Greg was certain, could fit that same victim profile. So why even suggest it? Lightning doesn’t strike twice, Greg reminded himself. And then, he looked at the cliché with the eyes of the scientist he was. He couldn’t help it. Actually, there’s no law that says lightning couldn’t strike twice, in fact it often does strike lightning rods and trees and towers multiple times… because they’re the most vulnerable to the attack.
Greg suddenly lost his appetite. He looked at the slice of pizza in his hand, then what remained in the box. There was still half a pizza left. He closed the lid and sighed, resolving to save the rest for Nick anyways, despite what a bad delivery person he’d turned out to be. Greg hated that nagging feeling in his gut. So he pulled out his phone and tried Nick’s number again. And again, he just got the voicemail. He raked his hand through his hair and sighed.
The bell above the door chimed as it let in a new customer. Greg was hardly paying attention as he stared at the table. Someone slid into the chair across from him.
“Can I have some of that?” she asked.
He looked up at her and pushed the pizza towards her. “Help yourself.”
“You must be in bad shape,” Riley said as she opened the box. “Jim Brass said you would eat the whole pizza, if left unattended.”
“I’m not hungry,” Greg replied.
Riley nodded. “Yeah, I know. Your friends are worried, too. But do you know what they’re doing right now?”
“Looking for him.”
“Why?” Greg demanded. “It’s not like he’s missing or anything, he’s just somewhere other than the places he’s supposed to be. And anyways, they aren’t allowed to do that! He has to be missing for at least twenty-four hours before we can even report it.” He paused. “Not that I’m saying he’s missing, because he’s not.”
“True, they would have to wait. Unless there’s evidence of foul play,” Riley reminded him. “Which, according to Sara and Dr. Grissom, there is.”
“Well, she’s wrong,” Greg said. “We don’t have evidence of that. The only evidence we have is that Nick is a lousy friend who flakes on his promises and called me fat.”
Riley’s brow furrowed. “You’re not fat.”
“I know, right?” Greg exclaimed. “I have a perfectly healthy body mass index.”
Riley nodded. “So Nick was mad at you when he left?”
Greg’s shoulders slumped. “No. Yes. Maybe…” Every word he said got quieter. “I don’t know.”
“That explains everything,” Riley said.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Greg insisted. “He’s not abducted, he’s playing a cruel practical joke at my expense.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Riley explained. “I meant it explains your attitude.”
Greg leaned back in his chair and folded his arms, closing her off. “I know what you’re thinking. You think I feel guilty. Like him being gone is my fault. It isn’t my fault. It’s his fault. For being a jackass.”
“What were the last words you said to him?” Riley asked.
Greg opened his mouth to tell her, then closed it. “I don’t remember.”
“Fine. But I don’t know you well enough to answer that question.”
She put her forearms on the table and leaned on them. “Something intimate or… personal?”
“Something inappropriate and impersonal,” Greg explained. “And not something that should be said in the presence of ladies.”
She held a self-righteous smirk on her face. “You see? You don’t want it to be true, because if it is, then you’ll never forgive yourself. You think that it’s your fault because you sent Nick out to get pizza, and because you said something you probably didn’t mean in the process.”
Greg rose to his feet and looked at his watch. “My shift is over in an hour. So if you’re done psychoanalyzing me—”
“No, it’s not,” Riley said, standing up as well. “Your shift’s nowhere near over, Greg. We’ve gotta be in this for the long haul. I’ve already lost a friend tonight, I’m not going to stand by and watch you lose one, too.”
“I can’t lose him because he hasn’t gone anywhere!” Greg insisted. “Why are you guys acting like this is such a big deal? He’s going to come back and laugh at us for acting so stupid.”
“Nick’s car is missing,” Riley told him. “And the GPS on his phone is blinking somewhere in Finley Park.”
“So maybe he went for a midnight jog.”
“You know very well what we found in Finley Park not four hours ago,” Riley said coolly. “Nick fits the victim profile to a T. If we can find him within the next seventy-two hours, we can probably save his life.”
This was news to Greg. He sat back down in his chair. “How do you know that?”
Riley pursed her lips. “The scars on our victims’ cheeks all had time to heal. They were only a few days old. That gives us a timeline of three days to find him. Brass has already gotten the go-ahead from the sheriff to use every resource we have available to find him. We already have some black and whites on their way to Finley to find his phone. But Greg, your friends need you. Will you help them?”
Greg didn’t want it to be true. He didn’t want it to happen all over again. He had seen Nick once on a video camera, ready to kill himself, and he wasn’t sure if he could go through something like that again. But if he didn’t face this now, he’d probably have to face something much worse later.
Slowly, he nodded, his eyes on the table. “Yeah. Yeah, OK.”
They both rose to their feet. Riley took the pizza box. “Thanks for coming to your senses.”
Greg blinked, then looked at her. “Yeah. Besides. This isn’t about me.”
Waking up was Nick’s least favorite part of the day. Were it up to him, he’d curl up beneath the covers and stay there for as long as he wanted, without work or other responsibilities pulling him out of bed. But waking up with a hangover was by far the worst. The throbbing ache behind his skull, the nausea that writhed in his stomach like a sidewinder, and the stale taste of hops at the back of his throat, or even sometimes stomach acid, depending on exactly how the night before had gone. Yes, waking up with a hangover had to be the worst, or at least, that’s what Nick used to believe. That was before he woke up after acute carbon monoxide poisoning.
He was groggier than he had ever been, and yet his body ached all over and refused to let him fall asleep. But the thing that really killed him was the continuous pain in the front of his skull. He felt like someone was drilling straight through his forehead and into his brain. He let out a grunt and turned his head to the side. With great effort, he forced his eyelids to move and took in his surroundings.
He was laying on a four poster bed in a windowless room with a dresser on the left covered in children’s books. Children’s drawings hung on the walls and a purple music box rested on the vanity in front of the bed. Each limb was tied to one of the four pillars that held up a purple canopy. Turning his head slightly, he noticed that the sheets he lay on were also a faded purple, with little pink butterflies. Glow in the dark stars clung to the ceiling. All in all, it appeared as though he was trapped in the bedroom of a little girl.
A door opened and Alexa entered, carrying a tray. She smiled. “You’re awake.”
“Alexa…” He coughed. His voice was hoarse and his throat constricted. He continued to wheeze as she set the tray down on the bedside table and hushed him. She gently touched his shoulder and pushed him back down again.
“Don’t try to speak, you’ve just been poisoned. But I’m going to take care of you.” She crouched down and pulled a gas tank out from under the bed, with a mask. She put the mask over his nose and mouth. He weakly protested, trying to turn away from her, but the carbon monoxide had left him drained and exhausted. She turned the valve on the tank and Nick looked up at her, his eyes asking what his voice could not.
“Don’t worry,” she assured him. “It’s just oxygen. Carbon monoxide can be a real shock to your system, and I’ve seen it do horrible things to people. But you seem to have come out OK. I think I got the balance just right this time. I can knock you out without causing any permanent damage.” He groaned and she straightened out the creases in the bedspread. “Now, don’t be mad at me. I had to do something drastic to get you to listen to me. I know you’d just go back to her, and I don’t want you to do that. We don’t have to pretend anymore. We can be free of her, you and me. Together, here, in the room you made me.”
Alexa crawled up onto the bed and nestled herself beneath Nick’s outstretched arm, laying her head on his shoulder. “I missed you so much.”
Nick could feel the weight of her head on his chest like a boulder, crushing him to death. He turned his head away from her.
She propped herself up on her elbow, noticing his detachment. “What’s wrong? Isn’t this what you wanted?”
Nick closed his eyes. He couldn’t believe it had happened again, and this time he had walked right into it. What was it about traps set by psychopaths that never failed to trick him? Was he gullible, or just naïve? He kicked himself for believing she was a victim. Even with his head about to explode, and the fatigue brought on by the carbon monoxide, Nick could see everything now, clear as day. This was the woman who had killed Lincoln Meyer and James Sherman. They had assumed it was a man, but that’s only because so few serial killers are women. He should have known it the second he saw the scar on her face, but he had stupidly thought that meant she was a victim, even though she didn’t fit the victim profile at all. But he did. He fit the profile perfectly. And now, he had launched a kamikaze mission and flown directly into her web, where he all but wrapped himself up in it and said “Special Delivery!”
Delivery… Greg’s pizza. Nick’s eyes scrunched up as he felt the sharp sting of bitterness leaking out of them. Greg would be so mad at him for being late with his pizza! He’d probably have to go pick it up himself, grumbling about how unreliable and untrustworthy Nick was.
Nick felt a finger wipe away one of his tears. “Why are you crying? Is it because you’re so happy?”
He opened his eyes and looked up at this girl, this woman, who was looking down at him with wide, innocent, child’s eyes. Her hair fell softly around her sunken face as she watched him with concern, with… love. He didn’t know who she thought he was, and a part of him didn’t care. He just wanted to use it to get out of there.
So he nodded, painfully, his neck stiff.
She leaned forward and kissed his sweaty forehead. “I’m happy, too. You rest now. When you’re ready, you can eat your breakfast, and then we’ll talk.”He thought that meant she was leaving, but she only returned her head to his chest, one arm sprawling across it possessively. After about five minutes, he could hear her heavy breathing. He wished he could fall asleep so easily.