Sit Vis Tecum
Highway 95 – Clark County, Nevada
Approximately Five Miles Southeast of Indian Springs
Warrick Brown rolled to a stop behind the Indian Springs Sheriff's sedan on the left shoulder of Highway 95 and cut the engine on the county SUV. Before he killed the lights, he happened to glance at his partner for this case, then did a double-take at the eerily cast green glow from the dash combined with an unnatural inner light that brightened Greg Sander's eyes. Warrick just shook his head and grasped the handle on the driver's door; he knew what had the junior CSI so excited.
It was this place.
"Man, do you realize that we're just a stone's throw from Area 51?" Greg said.
Warrick merely groaned.
To Warrick, it was just the middle of BFE, in the middle of the night, and was most likely an unremarkable DB. Drunk, probably. Or stoned. Or the victim of someone who was drunk or stoned. Either way, it would be routine. Do the walk-through, grid the scene, take the pictures, collect the evidence, get the statements, and then wait around for the county to get a chopper out there to air-lift the body out of the ravine and back to the morgue. If he was lucky, he might make it back to the lab before the sun rose, but he wasn't holding his breath.
The acrid smell of singed electrical wiring, gasoline and fried rubber smacked him in the face the instant he opened the driver's door. The report had mentioned that the vehicle was in flames when the Deputy on duty had first arrived on the scene, and Warrick caught glimpses of thin smoke tendrils in the red and blue strobes of the cruiser's lights.
As he and Greg pulled their kits from the back of the SUV, Warrick took in everything within his line of sight. The flares on the blacktop to direct what little traffic that might come through here this time of night around the scene, the Sheriff's sedan and the Deputy's directly in front of it, both left of center on the sandy shoulder. The smoking remains of a Hummer sat sideways in the middle of the south-bound lane, and one spot light was trained on it, while the spot from the Sheriff's car was aimed down the shoulder, into a rocky ravine. Someone was sitting at the passenger side of the Deputy's car, head between his knees, and Warrick grimaced when he could see light reflect off of a puddle between his feet. "Great," he said as the person in the passenger seat coughed wetly and then added to the puddle. "What do you wanna bet the scene's been contaminated?"
Greg's annoyance reflected Warrick's. There was always a chance that the average civvie would stumble upon a gruesome DB and blow their chow all over the scene. It's happened often enough that none of the CSIs expected any less when they knew it was a jogger or hiker or someone vacationing from Podunkville, but they expected local law enforcement to have stronger stomachs. If nothing else, have enough sense to puke away from the body. Preferably far away. Warrick hoped that was the case tonight.
"I'll let you collect that sample," Greg quipped and Warrick bit back a smart-assed response because the Sheriff was striding up to them.
The back-light distorted the shape somewhat, but Warrick didn't miss the feminine curves or the fact that she was on the short side. He was still stunned when she stopped directly in front of him, and he had to look down. She couldn't have been more than 5'3", with an intensity of gaze in her light eyes and a firmness in her freckled face that told Warrick immediately that she was former military. That might make things a little easier, he thought.
She nodded stiffly and said, "Sheriff Ang Branaugh."
Warrick made the introductions for himself and Greg, then with a firm handshake that he was sure was going to leave a bruise on his hand later, the formalities and stiffness melted away. With a tired look and a jerk of her head, she led Warrick and Greg toward the ravine where the spot was trained.
The Deputy gagged again, and Branaugh shot the two CSIs an apologetic look over her shoulder. "If it's any consolation, Deputy Smith did make it about ten feet from the body before he lost his lunch."
"Well, that's good," Greg said as they stopped at the edge of a ten foot drop.
"Not so good, CSI Sanders," Branaugh said. "He was going uphill when he did."
The steep incline was mostly rock, and the easiest path within the lighted zone to get down to the body laying at the bottom in a twisted heap. Warrick turned on his Maglite, shined it along the path and suppressed a sigh. Wetness was splattered all over the rocks and from the looks of it, it was vomit all right… and it was mixed with the victim's blood.
He shined his light further down, and illuminated the victim better. He was a large man and even from that distance, Warrick could see he was in excellent physical condition. He was twisted at an odd angle, so it was likely he was dead before he hit the bottom. Aiming his light at the victim's face and bald head, he got a good look at what caused the Deputy to lose it.
"Whoah. Looks like his head broke open like an overripe melon," Greg said, and the three of them were rewarded with another distressed sound from the Deputy.
Sheriff Branaugh coughed and tried to suppress a smile, and Warrick shot a 'was-that-really-necessary' look at Greg, who merely shrugged, smirked and started snapping photographs.
"DB or Hummer?" Warrick asked.
Greg let his camera hang loose around his neck as he balled a fist into the palm of his hand. "Two out of three?"
Three rounds of paper, rocks, scissors later, Greg was gingerly threading his way down the embankment, and Warrick was walking the blacktop with a flashlight, following the skid-marks the Hummer had left. When he found the end, he made a note of the distance from the vehicle, took photos, and measured the width of the tread and the pattern.
He ran the scenario through his mind; the victim was driving about 65 mph -the speed limit- headed northwest. There wasn't much traffic along this highway at night, but the driver had been surprised enough to slam hard on the brakes and over-correct, coming to a sideways stop in the southbound lane. There was wildlife in the area, so Warrick didn't rule out the possibility that a deer or coyote ran across the road and startled the driver.
But that wouldn't explain why there was nothing but a Hummer-shaped cinder smoking in the middle of the highway.
He slowly walked around the vehicle, shining his Maglite over every inch, looking for some clue, and finding none. The Hummer was going to be hauled back to the lab anyway, but it would have been nice if he could have gotten an idea of what had happened while he was at the scene.
Warrick was about to list his first theory as simple electrical fault, when he came around the front of the behemoth and noticed that there was an irregular, oval-shaped spot on the grill that was still chrome. He measured the oval and photographed it, then bent down to take a closer look. Darkened chrome –stained blue and red from heat- spidered out from the edges of the oval before it all blended together into a crispy, burnt mess -but within the untouched spot was something that gave Warrick Brown pause. A subtle pattern in the shape of a large hand, and at least one partial print was visible.
He took the print and swabbed the chrome, and barely registered the sound of the tow-truck arriving. They could wait until he was done processing the Hummer. As far as the CSI was concerned, this had just become a crime scene.
"Find something?" Branaugh asked from near his right shoulder, causing him to start, but he recovered before he dropped the sample.
"Something," he said. "But what, I can't tell for certain yet." Because it's just not possible that a handprint caused the Hummer to catch fire by itself, he thought.
"Your tow is here," Branaugh said.
"I noticed." Warrick sealed up and notated the last envelope, then straightened. He could see the tow-truck driver at the edge of the barrier, leaning against the back of the flat-bed, arms and legs crossed and chewing on an unlit cigarette. He had on grease-stained coveralls, but they were hastily pulled on. Warrick could see a black shirt peeking through the half-zipped front of the coveralls, and the hem of black slacks from the legs. The man was still wearing dress shoes, on top of that. An irritated glare aimed at the CSI through moussed bangs that were currently defying gravity. Warrick felt bad for the guy. He'd obviously had his date interrupted to come out to the middle of nowhere and haul a burnt Hummer back to the crime lab. "Wanna give me a hand sealing the evidence before our unfortunate friend loads it up?" he asked Branaugh.
Thirty minutes later, the Hummer was wrapped in plastic, sealed with evidence tape and ready to go. Warrick gestured to the truck driver, then he and the Sheriff got out of the way.
As the driver passed him, he heard the young man mutter, "Couldn't have got Hughes to take the call. Oh no… I know the Boss will have stolen another one from me before I get back, too."
Warrick winced in sympathy. Some jobs just sucked the life out of any possible romantic pursuits.
As the Hummer was loaded onto the flat-bed, Branaugh handed Warrick the Deputy's statement. "I sent Smith on home," she explained. Compassion softened her features, and she added, "He's just a home-grown, Mr. Brown."
Warrick smiled and glanced at the report. "You know the vic?"
"The General? Yeah."
"General? Wouldn't that make this the jurisdiction of the base?"
Branaugh shook her head. "Retired. Actually, we hadn't seen him around these parts in a couple of years. I didn't think we'd ever see him again, to be honest. And most of the town was glad of it."
"Real nice guy, huh?"
"Oh yeah. Never really knew the story, but there was a lot of speculation of what he and his little elite group did… and none of it was pleasant. They'd come in and treat the townies like their personal servants, though. There was some sort of big shake-up a couple of years back, and that particular group was disbanded, I heard."
The Hummer was loaded, and the tow-truck was aimed south. With a honk and a wave, the driver took off down 95 toward Vegas and the crime lab.
"So you don't know what he might be doing back in the area?"
Branaugh shook her head. "Nope, but he's not the first of that group to show back up over the past few days. About four others passed through town on their way to the base."
Warrick's cellphone beeped, and he flipped it open. "Brown."
Greg's excited voice crackled through the speaker. "Dude, you need to come see this."
Warrick shined his Maglite on the stainless steel cuff around the Vic's right wrist and hand as Greg turned it this way and that. He had to admit it was elegant in design, jointed at the wrist and knuckles, leaving the fingers free. It looked like a modern-day gauntlet… but it was hard to say whether it had a purpose, or was just bizarre jewelry. Not that the guy looked the type.
He also failed to see what it was about it that had Greg so damned excited. "Okay, so what am I looking at, here?"
"This," Greg said and aimed the top of the gauntlet at Warrick with a flourish.
Warrick saw a circle etched into the steel, with some symbols inside of it. An interesting pattern, but didn't ring any bells for him otherwise. "Greg, if you know what it is, would you like to share?"
"Sorry, yeah. I've only seen stuff like this in books. It's an—"
They were interrupted by a deafening roar, blinded by a sudden line of light bright enough to illuminate three football fields, and nearly thrown back by a gale-force wind.
As Warrick staggered to his feet, holding a hand up to shade his eyes from the glare, he saw a shadow emerge from the light to stand at the edge of the embankment. It was unnaturally thin and tall and as it raised its arm, Warrick thought he saw something in its hand.
He had just enough time to tackle Greg back to the ground before a fireball shot through the air, down the embankment and skimmed over them, scorching clothing and leaving the stench of singed hair in its wake.