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THE BULLETPROOF WINDOW was his first clue.
It shouldn't have been, but Brent McCurdy was beat. He had driven most of the way from Denver, snatching a couple of quick naps while his wife Charlene took her turn behind the wheel. They only had a week's vacation, and they wanted to spend that week in Las Vegas, playing slots and craps, watching shows and having fun...not staring at the highway between Vegas and Des Moines. So they powered through, Des Moines to Denver in one stretch and there to Vegas in the next, and by the time they reached the Rancho Center Motel at eight-forty that Friday night, Brent was stick-a-fork-in-it done.
A VACANCY sign burned in pink neon, like the legs of a flamingo set afire from within, but the motel office was dark, the door locked. Brent pressed his hands to the glass and stared inside. The place had a threadbare carpet with so many cigarette burns they looked like part of the pattern, and a scarred Formica counter with a big analog clock on the wall behind it. Had there been anyone inside, that person would have looked out and seen a man who was barely describable, of average height and average weight, with the slightest paunch swelling his dark blue polo shirt. His hair was brown, not long but not exceedingly short. His eyes were brown and unremarkable. In the eleventh grade, Brent's history teacher had recommended that he consider a career in the FBI, because he was a person who could blend in. He had decided against it, and now he managed a chain sporting goods store back in Iowa, and sometimes -- but only rarely -- regretted that decision.
Brent noticed a window built into the wall, almost like a drive-up window in a fast food joint, that could be accessed from behind the counter. He left the door and walked over to that window, finding thick, bulletproof plastic, scratched and fogged with age, with a little slot at the bottom to shove money or a credit card under and a small metal grate to speak through. A faint light glowed through the window, coming from a hallway he could barely make out. Looking through the Plexiglas was like trying to see through a blizzard. He'd had that experience a few times, which was why he had scheduled his vacation days for summertime. Driving in whiteout conditions didn't make for a relaxing beginning or end of a trip.
Finding the window tipped him off to the various signals that hadn't registered at first. Those had been, in fact, broken liquor bottles crunching under his feet as he walked from his parking place. Those had been used condoms and an empty syringe mixed in with greasy burger wrappers and lipstick-stained cigarette butts up against the curb. And those women he had barely noticed, coming out of a room at the end of the building? Well, back home he didn't see a lot of women in sparkly, low-cut spandex tops and skirts so short they could almost have qualified as belts, swaying with practiced near steadiness on four-inch heels, but that didn't mean he had never seen hookers before. Once in a while on the streets of Des Moines, but on TV, mostly. He had pay cable, after all. He should have known at a glance what they were.
He looked back toward his Ford Escape, a vehicle that had never before seemed so aptly named. Charlene and the kids were still inside, waiting, every bit as tired as he was, if not more so. They just wanted to get checked in and put their heads down on comfortable pillows. Brent had yet to inspect the pillows so he couldn't have testified to their comfort, but there was a young guy emerging into the hot July night from a room five doors down from that bulletproof window, and he wore an expression of such rapturous bliss that Brent guessed he was either high or he had just gone through a profound religious experience.
The Rancho Center Motel didn't seem to lend itself to the latter.
He should have done more thorough online research. The location had been convenient to both the Strip and Fremont Street, and the price was definitely right. But this joint was no family motel. The pool, surrounded by a chain-link fence out in the middle of the parking lot, didn't even have water in it.
He could tell by a shadow on an inside wall that someone was coming down the interior hallway, toward the bulletproof window. Brent didn't want to have a face-to-face conversation with anyone who worked here. He didn't even care about getting his deposit back. He could call and cancel the reservation later, and he would only lose one night's rent. All he wanted was to flee this dump and find another room somewhere in the city -- a room at a place in which he wouldn't feel that his life and the lives of his family members were in danger at every moment.
He turned away from the oncoming shadow and hurried to the Escape. When he opened the door, the dome light came on and Charlene blinked at him and raised a hand to her cheek. "Is everything okay, honey?"
"Nothing's okay," he said. "We're going somewhere else."
"Somewhere else? You mean a different motel? Why?"
"Because this place is awful," he said. Brent Junior and Carnie were sitting up in back, sleepy-eyed but awake, so he didn't want to go into a lot of detail. There was no sense terrifying the kids on their first night in Las Vegas.
"But I wanna go to bed!" Carnie cried. She was only four and hadn't been looking forward to the trip anyway, except for the promise of a swimming pool at the motel. She shook a stuffed lion at him with animal ferocity. "I'm tired!"
"We're all tired, Carnie." Brent closed his door and clicked his seat belt into place. "We'll find a better place. It won't take long."
"But we have reservations here," Charlene said. "What if there's a convention in town or something and we can't find another place?"
"There's always a convention in Las Vegas, Charlene, but there are something like a million hotel rooms in the city. I read that somewhere." He was probably exaggerating, but there were a lot of them. He had read the precise number, but if he was any good with numbers he probably wouldn't be making his living with bats and balls and racquets and shoes. "We'll drive around all night if we have to, but we're not staying here."
"Aren't most of them more expensive than this one? That's what you said, right? This one was a bargain?"
He put the vehicle in reverse and backed out of the space. "So we'll skip the shows, or cut back on meals. I don't care. This place -- "
Brent Junior had been about to register an objection of his own, his six-year-old whine already gathering steam, when a loud bang sounded from behind them and silenced the boy. Brent thought it was the sound of a door being slammed. He shoved the SUV into drive and stepped on the gas. The engine's growl nearly drowned out screams from the motel. But then he heard shouting and a sharp report, louder than the first bang, and saw a bright spark near the pool that must have been a muzzle flash.
"Somebody's shooting!" he shouted. "Call nine-one-one!"
Charlene was already pawing her phone from her purse as the vehicle surged from the parking lot, cutting the angle wrong and bouncing off the curb with two wheels. Brent didn't care.
He just wanted to get gone, while he still could.
"Catherine's in charge."
Those had been Gil Grissom's last words before leaving the lab for the airport. He was flying off to Washington, D.C., where he would be a featured speaker at a symposium on forensic entomology, after which he would testify before a congressional committee about the necessity of public financing for small city crime labs. As it was, most rural, small town, and small city police forces sent their caseloads to the big city labs, which were already backed up with their own big city crime. The additional workload slowed everything down, a vicious circle that left felonies unsolved and criminals on the streets. Gil would be more comfortable talking about the insects that frequented dead bodies, but his testimony before Congress would be sincere and convincing, and Catherine Willows couldn't help feeling a tickle of associational pride at the knowledge that her boss was helping to make a difference on a national level.
She also didn't mind being in charge. She had kind of enjoyed it, in fact, when she had temporarily been swing shift supervisor. If she rather than Gil had been the actual supervisor, the lab would be a different place, but primarily in small, cosmetic ways. Gil ran it well and she had few real complaints about his leadership. Still, she was an ambitious woman with ideas of her own and the drive to want to put them into action. But if Gil hadn't been out of town, she might not have had to go to the Rancho Center Motel, which was just the kind of hole that made her want to burn her clothes and scrub her skin down with steel wool when she was finished. On this hot night, with the overloaded window air conditioners dripping onto the sidewalk, the building itself seemed to be sweating. The parking lot held a peculiar reek all its own. And she hadn't even reached the DB yet.
That was still waiting for her inside Room 119. The door from the parking lot was open. Catherine and Nick Stokes had to pass under yellow crime scene tape and sign a log sheet to get to it...a far cry from the more exclusive spots around town, where the crowd control ropes were crushed velvet and the bouncers didn't wear uniforms and badges.
"Take a deep breath, Nicky," she said outside the door. "Bad as it is out here, it'll be much worse in there."
Nick raised an eyebrow and twitched his lips, the closest thing to a smile he could muster at the moment. He knew the score. Catherine didn't think the reminder would offend him, but she had to watch herself. She was nobody's mom but Lindsey's, and Lindsey didn't work at the Las Vegas Police Department's crime lab.
The motel room looked pretty much as she had expected it to. She had been here before -- this wasn't the joint's first homicide -- and this wasn't the kind of place that spent a lot of money on regular remodels. A bed sat in the middle of the room, with a nightstand made of some woodlike substance next to it. A small dresser stood against the opposite wall, near the smashed-in door. Lying in the rubble, just inside, was the small black handheld battering ram, like the kind police used for hard entries, that had almost certainly done the smashing. There was a TV chained to a rack in one corner, six feet off the floor, and its remote was chained to the nightstand. The carpeting was of a mixture of colors chosen primarily for its ability to disguise vomit stains, and in the event of a fire would probably immediately turn into a poisonous gas. The walls were painted white, but on top of the paint was what looked like a year's worth of dust, giving it a flat gray appearance.
The foulest motel room's many sins faded in significance, however, when there was a body inside, and this one was no exception.
Assistant coroner David Phillips had already arrived. When Catherine entered the room, he looked up from the body, blinking behind his glasses. "Victim's been dead less than thirty minutes," he said by way of greeting. "Obviously there's no rigor present yet. He took two bullets. First one through the left trapezius muscle; the second entered through the lower lip and exited through the top of the skull." He tilted his head toward the ceiling, and Catherine saw the knot of blood, brains, and hair pasted there.
"Hello to you, too," Catherine said.
"Oh, yeah, hi, Catherine. Nick."
"Hey," Nick said.
"So I'm guessing that's our COD?" Catherine asked. "The head shot, anyway?"
"That's my initial determination," David said. "Vic is a thirty-six-year-old male. Wallet in his back jeans pocket, with a Nevada DL identifying him as -- "
"Deke Freeson," Catherine said. She had walked around the body far enough to see his face. What was left of it, anyway. In life it had been reasonably handsome -- not as square-jawed as Nick Stokes, maybe, but with a good firm chin, full lips, a nose that jutted forward like it meant business but not so far it rounded the corner before the rest of him. Deke's eyes were his best feature, a brilliant blue that people remembered and remarked on long after even the most cursory meeting with him. She found herself oddly pleased that the bullet had missed them. His hair was sandy and spiked. She had, on more than one occasion, seen him out on the town with some showgirl or other. Had he ever asked, she might have dated him herself.
"Yeah, that's Deke," Nick said.
"You both know him?" David asked. He seemed surprised.
"Everybody in Vegas knows Deke," Nick said.
"You run with the wrong crowd," Catherine said. "Or maybe it's the right one, I don't know. He was a private detective. Strictly low budget, but he's a decent guy and a good investigator."
"He was on the job, years ago," Nick added. "Ex-military, too. I think he was a Gulf War vet."
"Well, there's a photocopied PI license in the wallet too, which I was about to tell you. I guess that comes as no surprise, though."
"Not at all," Catherine said. She hadn't known Deke Freeson well, but like Nick had said, everybody in Las Vegas knew him. Every cop, at least. Every dead body was sad, but the sorrow sliced with a sharper edge when the victim was someone you knew.
"There's a gun here," David said. "Close to his right hand. I think he was holding it when he fell."
"Desert Eagle?" Nick asked. "Fifty caliber? Brushed chrome?"
"Deke did love his firepower," Catherine said. "You found a license for that too, right?"
"Yeah. Maybe it would be easier if you tell me what you don't know about this guy, and then I can try to fill in the blanks."
"That should be obvious," Catherine said.
"What we don't know," she said, "is who killed him."
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