Well, Kathleen and I moved in three weeks ago. We now have, after much work, a home instead of a place full of boxes. And I can now get back to doing some writing. I hope. Here's a quick stopgap in lieu of the next chapter of The Terran Jedi. That chapter is coming, I swear! Ok, disclaimer - I don't own any of the characters. Sniff. And this story is a one-off, something that's been tickling the back of mind for a !
"I didn't know that was a rail line through Vegas," muttered Nick as he lifted the field kit from the back of the car.
"Mostly used for freight these days," replied Grissom with a small smile. "There used to be an Amtrak connection with LA, but it was shut down years ago. They're talking about starting it up again, along with getting that monorail project off the ground."
"They've been talking about the monorail for years. Never. Going. To. Happen." He looked around and then joined Grissom as they walked down the brown scrubby embankment down towards the railway tracks. Ahead a long train was sitting on the tracks, motionless apart from the handful of people scattered around one of the wagons.
As they passed one of the wagons Nick jerked a thumb at it curiously. "This freight?"
"Certainly looks like it," said Grissom. He flickered his eyes at the wagon that they were passing. "Tungsten ore, based on the deposits of dust."
This earned him a quizzical glance. "How can you tell?"
"I know everything. I thought you knew that."
Nick laughed. "You know, one day someone's going to ask you a question that you don't have an answer to, and the world will stop spinning on its axis."
"Never. Going. To . Happen," said Grissom with raised eyebrows and a look of mock-piety. Then he frowned slightly. "I thought that Brass was going to be here. I don't see him."
Looking down the tracks at the now very close group Nick could see several cops, a guy who looked like the driver and another guy with a suit, a clipboard and a very prim but angry expression. But no Brass. And why was the guy from the coroner's office looking so freaked out? The guy was standing off to one side, talking animatedly down his cell phone. As they approached he could hear a few snatches. "…joke? No, I'm just calling it in as a you-know-what." He looked up the train, caught sight of Nick and Grissom staring at him and then turned his back on them, walking off to one side and lowering his voice.
The two CSIs exchanged a puzzled glance and then looked around. "Captain Brass around?" asked Grissom.
"Other side of the train," came a voice. "Come on over."
Ducking under the buffers and the linkages and lifting their feet carefully so as not to trip on the rails, they both threaded their way between the two wagons. Jim Brass was looking at the side of the wagon with a thoughtful, almost abstracted air. He also looked rather shaken. And he was holding a lit cigarette.
Turning around at the sound of their feet on the sleepers he nodded sombrely. "Good, you're here. We need to get this processed before the line controller has a coronary." He caught Grissom's quizzical look at the smoking item in his hand. "What?"
"I've never seen you smoke before. I've even heard you express strong feelings, shall we say, against smokers."
"Old habit. Comes out sometimes under certain extreme circumstances. Tension. I'll beat it one day." He took a hurried drag, made to throw it away, paused, looking for a safe place to dispose of it and then gave up, walking up the track and grinding it out under a heel. When he came back he found Grissom glaring at him.
"Have you quite finished compromising my crime scene? And what is it anyway? Your call was a little short on specifics."
"Relax, crime scene is in the wagon. As for where it was, it happened somewhere else." Brass took a deep breath. "Ok, this is the freight train from LA to Houston. Takes a meandering route because of customers. It was passing through here – about one or two miles back down the track actually – at 5.36am this morning. Moving slowly, there was congestion on the line. Maintenance gang was working on one of the rails on another track, when one of them saw that hole in the roof of the wagon."
Grissom turned his head to look at the roof, but had to walk back quite a way to even catch a glimpse of the side of the hole. He and Nick had to walk up the bank to get a full look at it.
"Whoa," said Nick, looking impressed. "Big hole!"
It was indeed a big hole, with splintered sides, as if something heavy had fallen into it. Something very heavy.
"How large is the victim?" Grissom mused as they rejoined Brass. "That hole must taken quite a large weight to punch through the roof of a freight wagon."
"You'll see in a moment," came the reply. "Work crew called it in, the driver put the brakes on at once, but the train took a while to come to a complete stop. Walked the train down and found the hole, then the vic." He paused again. "Gil, this is a weird one."
"Weird?" asked Grissom, raising an eyebrow.
"As in not a hoax. You two will have to see for yourself."
"Okay," said the CSI chief after a long moment of bemusement. "Let's take a look."
Entering the wagon the first thing that they noticed was the smell. The atmosphere stank of old blood and decay, with something else added in. Flies were orbiting a dark form that lay in a pool of shadow in one corner, under the hole. Pieces of wood and metal were scattered around and under the body, apparently proving that the arrival of the body had created the void in the roof.
"Let's see what we can see," said Grissom, frowning at the shape. It seemed large but incomplete. For one thing it lacked legs. Then Nick snapped his flashlight on and they both stopped dead.
"What the hell?" muttered Nick incredulously. "Are those horns?" Grissom snapped his own torch on and the two beams played up and down the torso of a large man, painted a deep red, with long tattered black hair and what appeared to be horns mounted out of the side of his head. His legs were missing below the waist and there was a look of possibly terminal surprise on his face. One hand was tightly clenched by his side while another was flat on the floor.
"Must have been going to a costume party," said Nick as he came a bit closer. Then he stopped. "Grissom, take a look at this." One rubber-gloved finger indicated a deep cut on the side of the dead man, just level with his chest. "That has to be painted on. Who bleeds black blood?" He moved his torch and stopped again. "More wounds down his back I think."
Grissom didn't reply. Instead he walked around the body, directing the light from the torch here and there. Several times he walked up close and once he paused to sniff the air carefully, before pulling a face. Then he straightened up. "Brass!"
"Yes?" said the detective tersely as he looked into the wagon.
"Is this some kind of joke?"
"Does it smell like a joke?"
"I'll tell you what it looks like – this man has no nipples, he bled black blood before he was sliced in half, he has horns that appear to attach straight into his skull, some kind of post-mortem mucus appears to be extruding from his skin and he looks far too light to crash through the roof. Is this some kind of elaborate prank?"
"No," replied Brass.
"Oh and by the flies that appear to be landing on him and then dropping dead, his skin has some insecticide qualities. Can you tell me how that's possible?"
A complicated expression crossed Brass's face, a combination of reluctance, indecision and resignation. "You tell me. Examine the body."
The two men exchanged a long stare before Grissom tilted his head in thought. "You're serious."
"God-damn, you're right," said Nick, who was looking at the body carefully. "Every fly that lands on this thing keeps keeling over like a drunk."
"Process the scene," said Brass quietly, "And then I'll tell you a story."
Harsh blue-white light filled the enclosed space for a split second, illuminating the truncated body. Nick lowered the camera thoughtfully. "You're right, there's something in that closed hand. Metal by the look of it. You want me to open it up?"
"Yes, please," said Grissom, who was running a finger along one horn. "You know, this thing isn't glued on, it really is a part of his skull."
"You sure that it isn't just superglued on?"
"No, if that was the case then it would move slightly, giving with the skin. This is actually joined to his skull." He looked down at the skin. "I have no idea what kind of pigmentation this is. The skin really does look red."
"C'mon, you're starting to believe this bullshit," groused Nick, reaching down to open the hand.
"No, I'm starting to believe the evidence. Unless my eyes are giving out on me that is. You opened that hand yet?"
"Not… yet…" grunted the younger man as he tried to force the fingers apart. "Rigor Mortis seems to have… set in damn… hard here…" After a long moment he was finally able to pry it open slightly. "Well damn," he muttered, reaching for his camera again. "That's an odd one."
"What is it?"
"Hilt of a sword. A little hilt, Japanese that is. Pommel thing is here." He snapped a picture and then looked around the wagon. "Where's the rest of it?" Something was puzzling him and he looked back down at the piece of cloth-wrapped metal.
"The break is incredibly clean. Something sliced through the metal like it was made of butter."
"Might be the same thing that cut him in half. I've never seen a cut like that."
"A wire over the train tracks maybe? If this thing was moving fast then it could have sliced him in two."
"Nick this is a freight train, not the Japanese bullet train. The kind of speed you'd need to get a cut like that would be several hundred miles an hour. Plus whatever it was cauterised the wound. Nothing I know of could do that. The only blood in here is from his wounds." He paused. "Let's check something else."
Reaching down into his bag he pulled out a swab and a blood test, running the former along the pooled and clotted blood and then dabbing it delicately in the hole on the panel. Then he raised both eyebrows. Putting the test to one side he pulled out another one and repeated the process.
"What colour is it?"
"Black? That's nuts. It's not human but it's not synthetic or animal. So what is it?"
"I have… no idea," mused Grissom, frowning at the test and then at the body. "We've done all the tests we can in here. Let's check the hole out."
"Judging by the state of the splinters he must have hit this damn hard," said Nick as he peered at the new entrance to the wagon.
"And from an angle… this direction," Grissom said as he looked down towards the rear of the train. Then he stood up and carefully walked along the roof, before something caught his eye and he knelt down. "Nick, take a look at this."
Nick hurried over and knelt next to his boss. "Is that a claw mark?" he asked incredulously.
"One over there too – a clearer one. Looks like someone with claws attached to their feet was running on top of this thing, towards the front." Grissom straightened up and walked to the end of the wagon, where he leant over again, before pulling out a pair of tweezers and digging into a scuff mark in the roof. After a short struggle he pulled out a small dark red object. "It's a claw. Or rather part of one."
"This is just nuts," Nick said flatly. "We have a not-human body at the end of a not-human chase sequence. We have a lot of evidence but nothing adds up." When he looked at Grissom he could see that his superior's attention was distracted.
"Nick, can you take a look at that hole over there? The one at the end of the next wagon."
"Okay," came the reply, "Anything for a weird life." He walked to the end, grabbed the rail-ladder that was flush with the side and swung himself over to its' twin on the next part of the train. "Right, what we have here is a…" He paused and then raised his sunglasses so that he could take another look at the surface of the roof. "That's odd. How many times have I said that today? What we have here is what looks like a cut. Something sliced straight through here. No splinters, no melting, no nothing. Just a cut. I've never seen anything like this. Wait a minute-"
"Let me guess, it's like the hilt and the cut on the body?"
"Yup." He looked up at Grissom. "What the hell are we dealing with here?"
"I don't know. I'll tell them to move the body. You see if there are any more claw prints on the roof. And I'll get someone to cut that part of the roof out. Let's get moving."
"You're the boss."
"I'm currently a very puzzled boss," came the reply.
"Yo, Nicky, you up for some lunch?" asked Warrick Brown as he popped his head around the door to the room where Nick was busy peering intently into a microscope. There was no response. "Hello, Earth to Mr Stokes, come in Mr Stokes?"
Nick's head shot up and then he finally noticed his friend. "Oh hi Warrick. Yeah, lunch in a bit. I just need to work this out."
"What're you working on that would make you delay the finest Mexican food that we can get in Vegas?" he asked as he wandered into the room.
"This," muttered Nick as he relinquished his place at the microscope. "Take a look."
"Ok, what am I looking at?" asked his friend as he slipped behind the instrument and peered into it.
"It's a cross section of an odd cut in the roof of a freight wagon Grissom and I checked out this morning. Weird one. The whole thing was… wacky."
"How wacky? Wait a minute…" Warrick leant back and changed to a higher power lens, before looking in again. "What the hell caused this cut? No striations in the wood, no splinters, nothing. It looks like marble – cleanest cut I've ever seen. Nothing I know of is that sharp!"
"I told you it was odd. The body was just as odd. It was red. With horns. And its legs had been cut off at the waist by something just as sharp."
"You're kidding me," said Warrick, looking up with a wry look on his face. "Red? Horns?"
"Hey, you weren't there, so you didn't see it. Heavy as hell too – took seven men to lift the torso out of the crime scene, even though it looked quite light. Explains why it crashed through the roof of the wagon. No idea what it is." He gestured helplessly. "We found claw marks in the roof leading to the hole – and that. Something cut through the vic, the sword he was carrying and nicked the roof, without leaving a single sign of what it was. Sharpest thing I ever saw. So to speak."
Warrick's eyebrows were now threatening to hit the top of his skull. "Sword? The vic was carrying a sword? Come on, you saying that you had some dead Dungeons and Dragons nut running around?"
"On a train? With a hole like that nearby, similar to the cut that sliced him in half? Grissom and I both did blood tests on it. Display window lit up black."
"Black," repeated Warrick, deadpan. "Right. You do know that's not possible, ok? Not human. It has to be a hoax."
There was a perfunctory rap against the door and then Greg bustled in. He was holding a folder and looked bemused.
"Trace came back already?" asked Nick, looking surprised.
"Grissom told me it had priority." He looked hard at them. "What the hell is this thing? Where was it?" He waved the folder at them in exasperation. "These results make… no sense!"
"I mean, the chromosomal count is way off, nothing human has 100, but some of the DNA markers were bang on, while the others were nothing that I've ever seen!"
The man in the lab coat stopped waving his folder and looked at Nick. "What?"
"Can we have a summary without the verbal leaping about? We haven't actually seen what you have in your hand."
"Oh. Right. Ok." He handed it over. "In a nutshell, it's partially human. But not human. It might be something that's been mutated a great deal, although by what process I have no clue. And there's some parts of its DNA that the computer refuses to recognise."
"What?" asked Warrick, grabbing for the folder. After a moment he seemed to remember that he wasn't on the case, as he then sheepishly turned it so that Nick could see it as well. They both stared down at the results, their eyes flickering over the data. Warrick was the first to read the page, his eyebrows going up, but he waited until Nick had finished a few seconds later before he flicked to the next page. When they both finished they looked at each other. Then they stared at Greg, who shifted uneasily.
"That's what I found," said the white-coated man, defensively.
"This is nuts," said Warrick. "Isn't it?"
Nick shook his head slowly. "You didn't see the crime scene, man. That was nuts too." He looked down at the results again. "'Course, seeing it in black and white makes it formal and nuts."
Warrick opened his mouth to say something, but whatever he was going to say was derailed by the sharp beeping that suddenly filled the air. All three frowned and grabbed for their pagers.
"That's odd, what's Grissom doing paging us instructions from here?" mused Nick. Then he saw the message. "Copy everything red abnormal?"
"You get that too?" asked Warrick, holding his pager up.
"Uh… yeah?" said Greg, his pager going up as well.
The three men stared at each other for a long moment, before Warrick snapped into action. "Copy everything guys. Right now."
Grissom held the identification document in his left hand as he felt the comforting weight of his cell phone in his pocket with his right hand. Fortunately his desk hid the latter from the oddly… slimy man who was sitting opposite him. He looked as if the civilian clothes that he was wearing were somewhat uncomfortable, as if he was more used to wearing other garments. Maybe a uniform. Why had he had a very bad feeling about the man the moment that he'd laid eyes on him?
He looked back down at the ID again. "NID…" He looked up. "And what can the Las Vegas CSI do for the National Intelligence Division, Mr… Kiley?"
"I understand that you have an… anomalous corpse here. Found on a train that was passing through Las Vegas." Kiley spoke in a clipped voice that screamed military as much as his demeanour in civilian clothes. "The NID has been given full authority to deal with any such matters."
"Matters?" asked Grissom, feeling his lips purse quizzically. "I wasn't aware that a corpse came under the description of 'matters'."
Kiley looked at him levelly and then reached into an inside pocket for a folded piece of paper. "This will explain it for you," he said with a smile that twisted a little too much as he pushed the paper across Grissom's desk.
Grissom picked it up and looked at it. When he reached the end of the words that dribbled across the page – empty, formal words that stank of empty civil servant minds that were hiding something – he looked up, careful not to let the anger that rippled across his mind show at all. "You're closing down my investigation?" His right hand gripped the cell phone and finally hit the button that he'd been ready to hit for the past few minutes. There. That would do.
"We'll take up your investigation, Mr Grissom," purred the man, as he sat back in his chair and openly smirked. "We have… facilities that you lack. We'll do just as good a job as you."
Grissom looked at him. Get the message people, he thought, work it out. Get copies made before this little slime ball walks in and takes all our data away.
By the time that the last of the men dressed in suits that they were obviously not familiar with had left with all the actual evidence, Grissom's quiet rage had crystallised into an icy determination to work out just what the hell was going on. The hard evidence might all be gone – and the NID people had been disturbingly thorough in their endeavours – but they had a lot of other data, he was sure that his people had been able to get copies of all the evidence out. They were just as thorough as the NID people. He wasn't sure if he should be reassured by the fact that they hadn't aroused any NID suspicions.
When he reached his office Brass was sitting there looking at some of the books on one side, his hands flicking a rubber band about, a wry look on his face. At the sound of Grissom's footsteps he looked up. "You look like someone who had a very bad day."
"It started off merely odd, became bizarre, progressed to deeply strange and then became very, very frustrating." He sat down behind his desk. "This morning you mentioned that you'd tell me a story if I examined the body. I'm guessing that there was a connection."
Brass sighed deeply, the rubber band stretching as his fingers moved apart for a moment. "When I started off in New Jersey, the first murder case I dealt with was a nasty one. Thirteen year old girl was found dead in a park. Throat cut, heart torn out. Almost no blood in her. Forensics said that she'd died somewhere else – not enough blood on the scene. Then they found something odd – looked like a talon embedded in her skin. Nasty thing, big and black. And the marks on the chest looked like teeth marks. Something bit into her chest and removed the heart once she was dead. Worst thing I'd ever seen in my life at that time."
He leant back in the chair, his eyes several decades away. "My boss was a guy called Richard Martinez. Kind of cop that you don't see these days – harder than stone. Ex-Marine. Okinawa. Inchon. Chosin Reservoir. By the book most of the time. When I told him about the murder he just sat there for a few minutes. Then he checked his calendar for the phase of the moon, muttered something about no peace for the damned, pulled his gun into his holster and just left. No-one saw him for two days. When he turned up on the morning of the third day he had a wound like a knife cut on his forehead, a hell of a black eye and a bag that never left his side that day. Never. He only left it alone once – when the Commissioner came down in a rage and wanted to know where the hell he'd been. He took the Commissioner off to one side, whispering all the time, and as he talked that man turned white as a sheet."
"Leaving you alone with the bag?" asked Grissom.
"I always was a curious young police officer. Snuck in and opened it up."
"What was inside?"
"A head. With green skin. White eyes. Fangs. Looked real. Certainly was starting to smell real. Fangs looked a lot like the tooth marks on the body of the girl. Gave me a hell of a turn. I had no idea what to make of it." Brass leant forwards. "Two days later the girl's parents stopped by with a priest and some British guy. Thanked Martinez a lot for 'taking care of things' and then left. When I asked him what he had done, he just looked at me, with those hard eyes of his, and he said: 'Kid, never take the world for granted. There's more types of evil out there than you know. Evil that you should hope you never see.' Then he gave me an odd look and told me to get hold of a crucifix to be on the safe side. He never mentioned anything like that again."
The chair creaked as Brass leant back again. "Did the NID take everything?"
"All the evidence, yes."
"Did you make copies?"
Grissom paused and then looked up as Warrick stuck his head in the door, gave him a thumbs up and a wink and then moved off. "Yes," he said with some relief.
Brass looked at the retreating form of Warrick and smiled wryly. "Good. Oh, I did some research. The last time that anyone did a walk-down on the train was just before it went through a place in California called Sunnydale. I've never been there, but I've been told that the Sunnydale PD is incredibly incompetent."
"And the walk-down found no trace of foul play?"
"Sunnydale…" Grissom looked up. "Looks like I have a research project for any spare time I might have."
"Be careful what you find," muttered Brass as he stood up and walked for the door. "Be very careful."