Vegas of Bust
The scalding steel fused with Nick’s flesh and he let out a scream so loud, he was sure it’d bring the building crumbling down. He could feel his skin bubbling and bursting and evaporating away as the blood vessels that ran just beneath it sizzled and the capillaries popped, obliterated altogether.
The woman inflicting this damage ripped the iron away from his skin almost as quickly as she had applied it and set it back on the ironing board, seizing an ointment off of the bedside table and tending to the wound she’d just inflicted. The liquid provided another startling shock to Nick’s reeling system and it hissed as the cool liquid came in contact with the crackling skin. He arched his back and felt the ointment drizzle down his sides in rivulets as he gasped for air. He battled his bonds again, his ankles and wrists aching from the strain and the bruises he was sure he was making worse. She straddled his hips. She worked soundlessly, or perhaps Nick had gone deaf. She gave him two pills and a glass of water. He didn’t care anymore if they would kill him, he just wanted the pain to stop. She wrapped his chest in heavy bandages, which was difficult to do with Nick lying on his back. But she managed, and he raised his back for her to allow the bandages to go through. Slowly, the pain slithered away, draining out of him into numbness. His breathing returned to normal and he watched her delicate fingers work. Her eyes were set, sadness somewhere in those soft green hues that reminded Nick of a tropical forest canopy, with varying shadows of sunlit leaves. And then, like the beginning of a monsoon, he saw a single drop leak from the corner of those eyes.
It didn’t take long before she was bawling, clutching the unused bandages to her chest, bending her head over him, her hair falling like a veil around her face. Nick watched her back heave up and down as she gasped and sobbed and grappled with some invisible force. He was so tired, but so lightheaded. In his dazed and amenable state, he empathized. He wanted to reach out and stroke her hair, but when he tried he was greeted with the harsh reminder that he was restrained.
He felt her clutch his shoulders and closed his eyes, making her whisper all the easier to hear. “I don’t want to hurt you anymore.”
Without opening his eyes, Nick uttered, “Then don’t.”
“If only it were that simple…”
“And why isn’t it?” Nick breathed. The burn on his chest began to tingle like wind chimes. He tried to ignore it.
“I’m damaged…” she whispered. “Broken. Ruined beyond repair.”
“I can fix you.”
She was quiet a moment. “Tell me about your life.”
“Born in Dallas…” Nick began, slowly. “Raised in Austin. Kid brother to five sisters and one brother. We used to be close. None of us really talk anymore.”
“That’s too bad…” Alexa muttered.
“My parents…” Nick continued. “They… call me. A lot. We… we’re close. Love ‘em with every cell that I have in me.”
Alexa leaned her forehead against his, and Nick found he didn’t mind. He felt her tears spill onto his cheeks, or perhaps they were his own. He couldn’t tell. “Do you love your mother?”
“She still calls me her favorite,” Nick confessed, smiling at the memory of her voice. “Old joke was that she kept trying for the perfect child, and she could finally stop when she had me.”
“Are you, really?” Alexa asked. “Her favorite?”
“Dunno,” Nick muttered, turning his head to the side. “But I have a sneaking suspicion she says the same thing to all her kids. Still… thought that counts and all.”
“And your father?” Alexa pressed. “What do you think of him?”
“Cisco…” Nick breathed, his smile turning slightly goofy.
Alexa straightened. “I didn’t give you that many pills.” Her hand cupped his cheek. It wasn’t desperate, or forceful, or sexual, but delicate and tender.
Nick laughed. “The Cisco Kid,” he explained. “Probably… before your time.”
She brushed the hair away from his sweat-drenched forehead. “I don’t understand the connection.”
“It was his favorite,” Nick explained. “My first day of school, I didn’t wanna go. I asked him why I needed to leave Mom at home all by herself when she needed me to help her. I was scared, of the teacher, and the students, and… yeah, you know. Dad said I needed to learn everything the world had to offer, so I asked him to name one thing I should learn and why. That’s when he showed me his old comics. He said I needed to go to school so that I could learn how to read them. I read every last one of them by the end of first grade. Just because I knew… they were his favorite.” Nick felt his throat constrict. He coughed to open it. “I wanted to make him… proud of me.”
Alexa rolled off of Nick and lay next to him on the bed. Nick turned his head and opened his eyes to look at her. She was staring up at the bed’s canopy. “On my first day of school, I hid under the teacher’s desk all morning. They had to call my mother back in to coax me out of there. She was angry, because she would be late for work, but I remember when she saw my face, all she did was smile. And she said to me… ‘There’s nothing fun to do under that desk, baby. And I know my little explorer. Why don’t you come out from under there and discover new worlds?’” Alexa sighed. “She had my stuffed rabbit, Alfie. She told me that Alfie had secret powers, and that if anything bad or scary ever happened, just to tell him, and he would tell her instantly, and she would know, and she would come running…” Alexa rolled over onto her side, so that her back was to Nick as she spoke to the wall. “When my father… When it started… I ran into my room, and I locked my door, and I found Alfie and curled up with him under my covers, and I told him everything, whispered it into his long ears. But when my mother came home that night, she didn’t do… anything. It never occurred to me that she didn’t get Alfie’s message. So I always thought… she just didn’t care.”
Nick was quiet as her words sank into his brain, triggering his own memories, his own nightmares, and he swallowed. “Alexa…” He wasn’t sure what to say. A part of him wanted to comfort her, but he didn’t know how. A part of him wanted to slap her, bring her to her senses, scream at her to let him go. And another part of him was afraid that she would slip away, and he would lose this side of her again, and she would kill him.
“Do you have friends, Nick?”
Nick didn’t answer. He turned his head to the side. He felt as if his torso wasn’t attached to his body. He could feel his arms and legs, but he was missing his middle, his stomach, his lungs, his heart…
“Do you?” he replied.
He heard her turn again, falling onto her back. He turned his head to look at her, only to find her head turned, looking at him. “No… not really.”
Nick closed his eyes. “I have friends.”
“They’ll… be upset?” Alexa asked, turning her body fully towards Nick and propping herself up on her elbow. “When they find out what I did to you?”
Nick nodded. “I reckon so… They’ll be out for blood, Alexa. Bad idea, taking a guy with cops for friends.”
She nodded, as if she expected this. “I deserve to go to prison.”
“You deserve to go to a psychiatric center,” Nick returned.
“A nuthouse,” Alexa said, flatly.
Nick smiled. “Funny farm.”
And then, she smiled, too. “Loony bin.”
“A mental health facility.” Nick offered her a toothy grin, and she laughed. It was more of a bark than a giggle, loud and unabashed. It was the first time Nick had heard her make such a noise. When she was done, she curled her fingers and brought her hands close to her chest as she watched him with pursed lips.
“Why couldn’t I have met you before Dean?” she asked.
Nick tried to shrug, but the act of trying only reminded him that he was bound, that he wasn’t here of his own free will, that he wasn’t talking to a normal girl. “Why did you kill him? I mean… You said you were OK before. What changed?”
He saw her eyes glaze over, and he tensed. He knew what that meant. The little frightened little girl was chasing the jaded woman away.
But when she spoke, it was with a woman’s voice. “Dean was a whole world,” she said. “The first one I’d found after my father destroyed my own.”
“That’s not a reason to kill someone,” Nick pointed out.
“On its own?” Alexa said. “Maybe not. But I don’t think you can ever forgive someone for making you fall in love with them…” Her voice grew smaller. She brought her knees up and closed her eyes. She slowly smiled, and when she opened them, she looked at him with different, hungrier eyes.
Riley spent the majority of the evening at her desk, crosschecking names on the list provided to her by Dean Rogan’s girlfriend with passenger manifests on flights to and from Las Vegas, as well as following up on each and every other lead they could think of. The playful, jovial atmosphere in the precinct slowly dissipated as the detectives grew quieter and quieter, their ideas becoming few and far between. When Riley snapped her fingers, waiting for an instantaneous idea from one of her peers, more often than not she was greeted with silence.
As it turned out, Greg had been the perfect ambassador to the St. Louis Crime Lab. While they had refused to deal with the detectives, Greg had managed to build a bridge between the two divisions and was able to get hands-on immediate access to any piece of evidence and results that he wanted. Unfortunately, he was also coming up empty.
He dragged his feet into the St. Louis precinct at four in the morning to find everyone gone except Riley, who had fallen asleep on her arm at her desk. Greg smiled sadly, though his stomach was twisting, his mind trying to figure out where in the world Nick could possibly be and what he might be going through. He approached her desk and put a hand on her shoulder. She awoke with a jolt, blinking repeatedly before stretching.
“Oh…” she said, when she caught sight of Greg. Her face flushed. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t slacking off, I swear, I was—”
“Up for almost twenty-four hours straight,” Greg finished for her, “and straining your eyes looking for connections that aren’t there. Let’s go home, Riley.”
She nodded. “What time is it?”
Greg told her.
She sighed. “I have a flight scheduled to leave in two and a half hours. I just hate to go back there empty handed, you know?”
She ran a hand through her hair. “OK. So, have you called Brass and them?”
Greg shook his head slowly and weakly shrugged. “And… it’s cold. Like ice.”
“Brass said you guys went through this before…” Riley began, carefully. “How did you find him last year?”
“We had the guy that did it,” Greg said. “Stronger leads… and he wanted something from us. Just made it… easier. This woman… if she even is a woman… She just wants Nick. And she has him, and now, she’s disappeared off the face of the earth and taken him with her.” His hand flew up to cover his mouth as he shook his head. “I just… I wish I knew what to do.”
Sighing, Riley rose to her feet and put a kind hand on Greg’s shoulder. “Remember. It’s only day two. We have time. We can’t give up.”
A door closed and Greg saw Riley look up at something over his shoulder. She didn’t say anything, but footsteps stopped behind him.
“You going back?” It was Noemi’s voice. Greg turned to look at her. She was standing before them with her arms folded.
Riley stepped forward to stand next to Greg. “I need to see this through, Noemi. For Link.”
Noemi nodded, seeming to understand. “You keep taking these out of state assignments, Riley. Can’t help but take it personally.”
Riley’s hands came up to rub her eyes. “Noems… Now’s really not a good time.” She turned back to her desk and started gathering up all her files, photos and evidence.
“OK,” Noemi said. “Just promise me you’ll call me when you get back?”
Riley looked up. Her eyes were tired. She just nodded. “Mm hm,” she said quickly, then walked past her partner. “Come on, Greg. We have a plane to catch.”
“Ash wants a t-shirt,” Noemi called at their retreating backs. “Make it something girly, would you?”
Riley was the one who sat in silence on the plane ride back. After everything, Greg was curious at her behavior. When they had first met, he’d had her pegged as a hard-nosed detective who wanted to get the facts and solve her case and deal with as few people in between those two things as possible. But in St. Louis, she seemed almost social as she slid back into the machine, working and joking with colleagues she must have known for years.
“Why are you coming back with me, Riley?” Greg asked.
She raised her eyebrows and shrugged. “I have to finish the—”
“No,” Greg interrupted. “That’s just what you told your friends.”
Riley turned to him and smiled. “No, it’s true.”
“Maybe,” Greg conceded. “But there’s something else.”
Riley sighed. “It’s just Noemi. She gets possessive, that’s all. I just need my breathing room.”
“She’s your partner, right?” Greg said. “Maybe she just… feels protective over you.”
Riley rolled her eyes. “Hm. Yeah. Maybe. She’s hard to explain, if you don’t know her. One of those people that burns so brightly... but if you stare at her too long, you’ll go blind.” She turned to Greg. “You OK?”
Greg sighed and nodded when he said, “Nope.”
Riley leaned back in her seat. “Me neither.” Her hand came up to cover his on the armrest. He looked down at her soft, ivory fingers, which so fully seemed to encompass his.
“You have big hands,” he remarked.
“That’s hot,” she returned.
He looked up to see the skeptical sarcasm all over her face, and he loved it much better than her faraway quiet. “Don’t worry about it. Apparently, I’m fat.”
“Whoever told you that must be anorexic,” Riley whispered. Greg pulled his hand away. Riley shifted. “Oh. Right… sorry. I forgot.”
Greg shrugged, then slowly turned to look at her again. “So you don’t think I’m fat?”
“What are you, a teenage girl?”
“Would you like me to be a teenage girl?”
Riley snorted. “You are really bad at flirting.”
“Wasn’t flirting,” Greg said. “Just trying to make you laugh.”
“Oh…” said Riley, puckering her lips. “Well… that’s too bad. Because I was flirting.” She took his hand in hers again.
Greg was suddenly reluctant. “Riley…” He watched her unbuckle her seatbelt.
“We have two hours until we land,” she said. “And I… need something to keep me focused.” She got up and entered into the aisle, glancing up and down it and holding up her hands. She then leaned on the armrest. “If you decide to join me? Knock four times. Not three, not five.”
“You can’t be serious,” Greg said, eying her up and down.
She shrugged. “Maybe see you in three minutes?” she said, before heading towards the lavatory.
Greg watched her go, his mouth hanging open. He looked around at the other passengers on the plane. They all seemed oblivious, perfectly content as they watched the on flight movie, tended to their children, or did the crossword in the newspaper. Greg licked his lip, noticing how dry his mouth was as he drummed his fingers on the armrest, trying to decide what to do. Had she been kidding? Greg found it difficult to follow some of her jokes. That’s it. This must be some sort of practical joke. Greg tried to decide if he wanted to fall for it or not. He thought about it for four minutes before unbuckling his seatbelt and following Riley’s path up the aisle.
He was just about to knock on the door when he hesitated, Nick flashing in front of his mind. He closed his eyes. No, he thought. I can’t do this now. It’s not fair. He was about to turn around and go back to his seat when the occupied sign switched to vacant and the door was pulled open. He found himself standing face to face with Riley, who was looking at him with her mouth partially open. Before he could say anything, she seized his arm and pulled him inside, pulling the door closed behind him before pushing him up against it, her lips crashing against his. Her hands were frantic, and he found that, for a man with so much hesitation, so were his. His hands moved beneath her jacket, up her shoulders, and pushed it off down her arms where it fell to the floor. As her leg crept up his thigh he wrapped his hand under her knee and lifted her up over the sink, her head knocking against the mirror as he kissed down her neck.
“Ow…” she said laughing as his lips reached her shoulder blade. But he didn’t stop, and she made no signs that she wanted him to, her hands moving into his hair, her eyes falling closed.
They clung to each other for the sheer sake of distraction, for clearing their minds of clutter. It was contact, for contact’s sake, and in that moment, there was nothing outside of that lavatory. There were no unpredictable partners, no lost friends, no suffocating jobs, no Las Vegas, no St Louis, no universe beyond themselves. They connected, if just for a moment, to forget, and when they succeeded, if only for that moment, they fell back into themselves, and when it was over, the guilt rose in each of them.
As Greg readjusted and zipped his jeans and Riley picked her jacket up off the floor, they looked at each other. In such a tight space, meant only for one person at a time, he could still feel her breath on his skin. Without a word, he slid the door open and slipped out, making his way back to his seat. He waited for her to join him, but Riley didn’t come back for several minutes. Finally, he saw her making her way towards him down the aisle. She sat down and stared at the headrest in front of her. Her eyes darted over to look at him.
“So…” she began with a heavy sigh. “Feel better?”
He looked away from her, not because he didn’t, but because he did. He was grateful for that brief reprieve, that small vacation from the agonizing stress that had become his life, but in a way, that only made it all so much worse.
“Yeah,” he heard her say. “Me neither.”
Sara sat at the break room table with her hand over her mouth, gripping her mug of coffee. She was looking at the lists of names in front of her from everyone in Lincoln Meyer and James Sherman’s lives, including what businesses they frequented, and anything that might be within walking distance of the dump site. But without any actual crime scene, it was difficult to determine who might have been involved. Their best bet was a set of prints that didn’t match anyone in the system.
She heard the door open and watched as Catherine slid inside. She stopped when she saw Sara. “Hey,” she said weakly.
Sara took a deep breath, then let it out. “Hey,” she returned.
Catherine moved over to the coffee pot and smelled it before pouring it. “We back to this old swill?”
“Greg took his coffee home when we kept using it without asking,” Sara replied. “He might be convinced to bring it back. Maybe after we find Nick, we can ask.”
Slowly, Catherine nodded. “You’re working on finding a new angle too, I see. Warrick is back at Finley Park, walking the dump site, trying to… I don’t know.”
“I hate serial killers,” Sara groaned. “I mean… at least, with other murders, there are clear motives, clear suspects, and one piece of evidence leads to another and there’s a string that you can follow. But this… By all accounts, there’s no connection between these victims. Dean Rogan lived and died in St. Louis, James Sherman lived and died here, and Lincoln Meyer lived in St Louis and died here. If that’s some sort of connection, it just seems so…” She slammed the table and looked up at Catherine with exhausted eyes. “And do you know how many people fly between here and St. Louis every day? It’s ridiculous.”
“Vegas is one of those places full of transplants,” Catherine said, sliding into the chair across from Sara. “Rare to find a native. Wouldn’t surprise me if several Missourians up and moved here.”
“Do you think…” Sara began. “Maybe… between Rogan and Sherman’s deaths, our killer might have moved to Vegas? And… maybe Lincoln Meyer did know her…” Sara flipped through the files. “And he was visiting. Where was his ex-wife when he died?”
“Meyer’s ex-wife has lived in Vegas for five years, since their divorce,” Catherine said. “And on top of that, she was at her kid’s ballet recital when he died. One she says he should have attended, too.”
Sara leaned back in her chair. “Well, it’s still a valid theory, isn’t it?”
Catherine smiled. “I’ll check with the moving companies for any suspicious moves from St. Louis to Vegas in the past month. Also, I’ll look for residency applications.” She headed to the door, then stopped in the doorway, turning her head over her shoulder. “Sara… We found him once.”
Sara forced a smile and nodded. “I know, Catherine. I know.”