Read an Excerpt
August heat pummeled Las Vegas, the nighttime temperature hovering just over 100 degrees, driving the natives inside the air-conditioned sanctity of their homes. Out on Las Vegas Boulevard, in front of Treasure Island, electronically controlled sprayers over the sidewalks cool-misted the crowd as they watched pirates killing each other...though where mist stopped and the sweat started, who could say?
Downtown, on Fremont Street, even as the evening light show flashed overhead like gaudy lightning, many of the usual gawkers ducked into the coolness of casinos lining the pedestrian mall. Hearing Sinatra sing about luck being a lady, craning your head back to watch giant tumbling electric dice, wasn't nearly so much fun when salty pools of perspiration settled in and around your eyes.
In the desert around the city, even the animals were hunkering down, seeking the coolest spots Mother Nature could provide. Coyotes lay silent, too parched to howl, and the snakes sought refuge under rocks, away from the scorching desert air, slithering into coiled solitude as if finally accepting guilt for the Garden of Eden.
During the day, when the heat did its worst, the temperature rising to over 110 degrees, tourists still milled around the Strip, shuffling with the dutiful doggedness of the vacationer ("We paid for this fun package, and by God...") from one attraction to the next, all of them bleeding sweat, each weary traveler trudging along shell-shocked, wondering how they aimed for an oasis and wound up instead in the Ninth Circle of Hell. The endless parade -- this Bataan Death March outfitted in garish T-shirts, Bermuda shorts, and dark socks with sandals -- took each step as if absorbing a punch.
Stuck in traffic, watching the sorry spectacle, Captain Jim Brass could relate, even though his Ford Taurus's air conditioner was cranked to the max. It's not the heat, he thought, it's the humanity. The coolness of the car's interior did nothing to relieve the sensation that he was being pummeled with each throb of a massive headache that had settled behind his eyes like a house guest that had no intention of leaving, though the party was long since over.
He hadn't even taken off his sportcoat, a sharp brown number that with his gold-patterned tie reflected an improved fashion sense that admittedly had taken him years past his divorce to cultivate. A compact man with short brown hair and a melancholy mien that belied an inner alertness, Jim Brass fought hard against cynicism, and mostly won. But what Brass had not seen in his almost twenty-five years on the Las Vegas Police Department, he was not anxious to.
As usual, the summer heat had brought out the crazies -- local and imported. Here it was, not even the fifteenth of August, and already the city was pushing double-digit homicides for the month. LVPD had averaged investigating just over a dozen homicides per month for the last two years -- a staggering number for a department short of bodies, at least the right kind of bodies -- and now the heat seemed to be driving that number off the graph.
Brass worried that the hotter this oven of a desert got, the sooner the city might boil over....
And, of course, the politics of Brass's job were as unrelenting as the blinding sun.
There was, as the saying went, a new sheriff in town...who was bringing down some heat of his own. Former Sheriff Brian Mobley, had -- after a failed mayoral bid -- resigned; Mobley had never been anybody's favorite administrator, and few mourned his passing. But Sheriff Rory Atwater, while possessing better people skills than his predecessor, was no pushover. Atwater wanted the spate of killings stopped, and -- Brass had already learned, in the new sheriff's first few months on the job -- what Rory Atwater wanted, Rory Atwater generally got.
Both sheriffs were good, honest cops; but each was, in his way, a career politician, which only reflected the reality of the waters both lawmen had to swim in. The difference was: Mobley had always seemed like a high-school bully trying to behave himself while running for class president; Atwater, on the other hand, was smoother, more polished, and there were those in the department who considered the new boss a barracuda in a tailored suit.
Sighing to himself, stuck behind an SUV at a light, Brass pondered the latest absurdity: Atwater's meetings and memos had made it clear the sheriff expected these murders (and probably the damned heat wave as well) to stop simply because the man wanted them to...as if he could will homicide to take its own Vegas vacation. And it was up to Brass and the rest of the LVPD to turn the sheriff's desire into reality...with the results expected sooner, not later.
The snarled line of cars pulled forward another yard and Brass eased ahead, his eyes flicking toward the switch for the flashers. He was tempted, but he wouldn't break the rules and, besides, what the hell good would it do? Even if the cars ahead were willing to move out of the way, they couldn't.
Another twenty minutes passed before Brass finally slipped the Taurus into a parking place and hustled from the car into HQ, the broiling temperature popping beads of sweat out on his forehead, despite the short walk into the building. Sidestepping the metal detector, Brass nodded to the uniformed officer guarding the entrance and resisted the urge to mop his brow with his sleeve; the fabric wouldn't like it. Metal detectors had become SOP for many government buildings after 9/11, and Vegas had been no different from hundreds of other American cities in jumping on the security bandwagon.
The officer at the door was a post-9/11 occurrence as well. City Hall's atrium lobby was large and saw a great deal of foot traffic during any given day. Today was typical, with pedestrians seemingly everywhere and Brass having to duck in and out of the crowd as he made his way toward the elevator.
He had just squeezed in, touched the button for the correct floor, and was watching the doors slide shut when a suit-coated arm broke through and stopped them. Amid frowns and sighs from the half-dozen other people in the car -- irritation was high on a hot day like this -- Sheriff Rory Atwater strode into the elevator and gave them all a quick once-over and smile, as if this were a meeting he'd convened. Then he nodded and turned to face front.
The sheriff -- in a double-breasted gray suit, white shirt with a red and blue patterned tie -- showed no sign whatever that he had spent even a second in the blast furnace outside. The man's wide gray eyes matched his suit and his light brown hair, slowly turning silver, was close-cropped and as neatly trimmed as his thick mustache. The effect was dignified and gave weight to his self-possession, serving to make him appear older than his forty-five years.
"Well, this saves me a phone call," Atwater said cheerfully, tossing a grin toward the detective who found himself at the sheriff's side.
Brass managed to smile just enough in return, inwardly wondering, Now what in hell?
"Does it?" Brass said mildly.
"It does," Atwater said. "Someone I want you to meet, up in my office."
Liking this conversation less and less, Brass tried to bow out. "I was just going to stop by my office for a second, then head over to CSI to check on some evidence...."
Atwater's grin carried no mirth. "This meeting takes precedence."
The bell announcing the second floor interrupted any further explanation Atwater might have offered. Passengers scurried between and around them, all but two others getting off. The sheriff and his subordinate eyed each other as the doors whispered shut and the car again rose.
Brass twitched a noncommittal smile. "Mind if I ask who I'll be meeting?"
With his voice lowered almost theatrically, the sheriff replied, "Rebecca Bennett....You recognize the name, of course."
Brass shook his head. "Can't say I do."
"I guess that's understandable," the sheriff said, as if forgiving the detective. "She hasn't been around for a while -- most of the last decade, actually."
"Afraid you've lost me, Sheriff."
The doors opened on the third floor and the other two passengers got out to finally give the two law enforcement officers some privacy. As the door closed, Atwater said, "Well, you've no doubt heard of her mother."
No bells rang for Brass. "Bennett" was the kind of name the phone book had no shortage of.
The sheriff raised an eyebrow. "Rita Bennett?"
The third floor bell rang and so did another in the detective's mind -- an alarm bell.
They stepped onto the third floor.
"The car dealer," Brass said. And a major political contributor of yours, Sheriff, he thought. "But didn't she pass away not long ago?" Right after your election...?
"Yes, she did. She was a dear woman, a dear friend." The sheriff's grief seemed genuine enough; but perhaps any politician had the ability to truly mourn the death of a money source.
And Rita Bennett had been money, all right. She had won custody of one of her ex-husband's used car lots in their divorce settlement some fifteen years ago, after she'd caught hubby using his dipstick to check his secretary's oil in his office. She had turned the used car lot into one of the top GM dealerships in all the Southwest, leaving her ex in the dust.
The two men were walking down the hall toward the sheriff's office.
"Mrs. Bennett had a solid reputation in this town," Brass said, and he was not soft-soaping his boss. "But why is it we're meeting with her daughter?"
"Let's let the young woman tell her own story."
In the outer office, Brass saw Mrs. Mathis, the forty-something civilian secretary and holdover from Mobley's regime. Coolly efficient and constantly a step ahead of either boss, Mrs. Mathis ran the sheriff's office with a velvet hammer.
"Miss Bennett is in your office, Sheriff," Mrs. Mathis said as Atwater and Brass passed her desk.
Atwater thanked her and opened his door, going in ahead of Brass.
The room hadn't really changed since Mobley had called it home -- different awards, different diplomas, different photos of the current resident with various celebrities and politicos. The most remarkable thing about the masculine office was the striking female seated in the chair in front of the sheriff's desk.
She rose and turned to them -- a brunette in her late twenties, beautiful even by Las Vegas standards, though her clothing was decidedly not flashy: light- blue blouse, navy slacks, navy pumps. She wore her black hair short and in curved arcs that accented her high cheekbones; her eyes were wide-set, blue and large, conveying both alertness and a certain naivete. Her nose was small and well-sculpted, possibly the work of a plastic surgeon. And her full lips parted to reveal small, white teeth in a narrow mouth.
The smile, however, was joyless, like the sheriff's was in return. Also like the sheriff, the young woman showed no sign of the heat. How did they do it? Brass wondered; as he crossed the room toward her, Brass could almost hear himself sweating. But now he wondered if it was from the heat or in anticipation of whatever card Atwater was keeping up his sleeve.
"Rebecca Bennett," Atwater said, "this is Captain Jim Brass -- if there's a finer detective in the department, I'd like to meet him."
This ambiguous praise sent another round of warning bells clanging inside Brass's brain as he stuck out his hand toward the Bennett woman. Atwater was about to spring some surprise, Brass just knew it -- but didn't know where it would hit him.
Rebecca Bennett had a firm handshake and a no-nonsense cast to her eyes. And was there something predatory in those small, white, sharp teeth...?
"Captain Brass," she acknowledged as they shook.
"Ms. Bennett," Brass said. "My condolences on your recent loss."
"Thank you, Captain. Actually, that's why I'm here."
Atwater moved behind his desk and motioned for her to sit and for Brass to sit next to her. "Miss Bennett," the sheriff began.
"Rory, you're a family friend. Just because you haven't seen me since I was a kid -- it's still 'Rebecca'...."
"Rebecca." His eyes narrowed. "I know this has been...difficult for you."
"I'm sure you do."
Atwater looked thoughtful, then assumed an expression that Brass knew all too well: sad eyes, soft frown, the staples of generic concern. "Rebecca, why don't you explain your...situation...to Captain Brass."
Odd way to put it -- situation. Glancing sidelong at the woman, Brass could see Rebecca composing herself. Something was wrong here, or anyway... weird.
"You offered your condolences about my mother," Rebecca said, her voice strangely businesslike.
"I hope that was appropriate," Brass said, wondering if he'd committed a faux pas.
"Actually, it wasn't," she said with an odd little smile. "But you couldn't know that."
"Your mother was a unique woman," Atwater put in. "Larger than life -- it's understandable that you'd be...conflicted."
What the hell was up, here?
Rebecca shrugged. "You could call it that."
"If you'll excuse me," Brass said, "maybe I'm the great detective the sheriff implied...maybe not...but I'm definitely not good enough to read between these lines. Please, Ms. Bennett -- what's this about?"
"Excuse me, Captain Brass," the woman said. "I sort of...forgot that you were in the dark here. You see, I already filled in Sheriff Atwater, in some detail."
Brass shot a look at the sheriff who wore his politician's smile and shrugged, just a little.
Rebecca said, "You see, my mother and I had been estranged since I was eighteen. I moved in with my father after high school, and never looked back."
"Sorry to hear this," Brass said. A thought of his own estranged daughter, Ellie, flashed through his mind; but then something gripped him: Why was the disaffected daughter of a political contributor important to Atwater?
"Captain Brass," she was saying, "I do regret it...now. You get a little older and understand that you've probably held your parents to an unrealistic standard. But the bitterness between us was very real. She wrote me a letter, oh, seven years ago, but I never responded, and...Anyway, I always meant to reestablish contact with Mother, but the timing just never seemed right. And now, of course...it's too late."
She shrugged. No tears, not even wet eyes -- just a shrug.
Atwater said, "You should give Captain Brass the background of this...situation."
"Captain, it wasn't long after my mother finagled my father out of his flagship car lot...in their divorce...that I learned her new boyfriend was actually someone she'd been seeing at the very same time my father was indulging in his own extramarital meanderings....In other words, she was playing the violated wife in the divorce court, when she herself had been cheating. Her lover was one Peter Thompson, and they'd been seeing each other for months before Mother caught Daddy...what's the term? In flagrante delicto?...with that bimbo secretary of his. Would you like to know something interesting?"
Brass, fairly overwhelmed by this little soap opera, said, "Sure."
"My mother never fired the woman -- Daddy's secretary, I mean. Don't you think it's possible the secretary was in on it? That it was a put-up job?"
Brass said, "Possible."
"Anyway, my finding out that Mommy screwed Daddy over was what drove the wedge between us. My father going broke, dying of alcoholism a few years later, didn't exactly...help. I didn't even go to the wedding when she married Peter. I was still in high school then -- that was one of our four-alarm arguments, let me tell you."
"I can imagine," Brass said. "How long since you've spoken to your mother?"
"Over ten years." Another shrug. "As I said, since shortly after my eighteenth birthday...when I moved out. Not so much as a Christmas card."
"And, if you don't mind my asking," Brass said, "what have you been doing all this time?"
"I worked my way through Cabrerra University in Miami. Waitressing. Took six years to get the four-year degree."
"That seemed about as far away from home as I could get without falling in the ocean. I majored in hotel/motel management -- both my parents had business in their blood, and it got passed on, I guess. After that, I worked for a chain in Miami, last six years. Two months ago, I got transferred out here -- the Sphere."
"Finding yourself in such close proximity to your mother -- did you try to contact her?"
"Yes...yes, I thought fate had finally put me on the spot. Time to be a grown-up and make some kind of peace with the miserable bitch." She laughed harshly and then it turned into a sob. She got into her purse, found a tissue, and dried her eyes.
Brass and Atwater exchanged raised eyebrows.
Then Rebecca was talking again. "That was when...when I finally learned that she'd died. Just this May."
"You talked to your stepfather?"
"Yes -- he said she died peacefully." She paused for a long, ragged breath. "In her sleep."
Brass glanced at Atwater, but the sheriff had his eyes on Rebecca Bennett.
"But you don't believe him," Atwater prompted.
"No, I don't."
"That's what brought you here today, isn't it?"
Hesitating, Rebecca glanced between the two men before saying, "Yes. I think my stepfather murdered my mother."
A prickle of anger tweaked the back of Brass's neck -- so that was why Atwater had brought him in on this! With the daughter of a deceased major contributor battling the widower, who could say where the money would wind up?
Brass allowed himself to cast his boss a disgusted smirk, but Atwater didn't seem to notice -- he appeared placid, somberly so. Just a concerned friend of the family, trying to do the right thing...
"I want you to know right now, Rebecca," Atwater said, "that we'll look into this immediately...and thoroughly."
Brass had sense enough to tread carefully around the sheriff when Atwater was playing one of those cards from up his sleeve. Nonetheless, he asked, "Why don't you believe your stepfather, Ms. Bennett?"
She turned to Brass, her wide eyes like exclamation marks in her surprised face. Apparently it had never occurred to her that anyone might question her reasoning, much less her motives.
"There are several things," she finally said, as if that were explanation enough.
"What were the autopsy results?"
Rebecca's mouth formed a sarcastic kiss. "What autopsy results?"
"There was no autopsy?"
She shook her head. "In fact, that's one of the reasons I suspect Peter -- he told me an autopsy would have been contrary to my mother's wishes...due to her religious beliefs."
"And you're skeptical of that reason?"
"I'm skeptical of that excuse -- I've been away from Mom for a long time, and I understand that things can change, people can change...but she wasn't religious at all when I lived with her."
"Some kind of religious conversion, then...." Brass offered.
"Yes, a conservative fundamentalistic church she and Peter joined -- the body has to be preserved for resurrection and all of that b.s."
"Not everyone considers that belief 'b.s.,' Ms. Bennett...."
"I know, I know....I don't mean to sound like some kind of religious bigot, but it just...seems very drastic for Mom. Out of character. But there are other things too. For example...Peter got everything in Mom's will."
Brass already knew why Atwater was here (to protect his ass, whichever Bennett inheritor wound up with the family fortune) and why he himself was here (to provide Atwater with a potential fall guy); and now, finally, Brass understood why Rebecca Bennett was here. Whatever contempt she might have felt for her mother, Rebecca wanted her share. Her piece.
She must have read what he was thinking, because she quickly said, "Understand, it's not about the money."
Keeping his face neutral, Brass nodded. Very little was certain in this wicked world; but one thing Jim Brass knew: Whenever somebody said it wasn't about the money -- it was about the money.
"My mother's fortune was built on my father's used car business -- a business she and Peter Thompson all but swindled Daddy out of. That after all these years Peter would be the one to benefit -- it's just too much. Just too goddamn much."
"Ms. Bennett -- "
She sat forward, blue eyes flashing. "There just seems to be so much...secrecy about my mother's death, and when I tried to talk to Peter? He shut me out."
"Which is why," Atwater said, with terrible casualness, "you want her exhumed."
Brass sat up like a sleeping driver awakened by a truck horn. "Ex-," Brass said, "-humed?"
"Yes," Rebecca said, with her own dreadful ease. "I want my mother exhumed, and an autopsy performed, so I'll know once and for all whether or not Peter Thompson killed her."
Brass felt the words tumble out: "Well, certainly your stepfather will fight you on this...."
She laughed, head back, as if proud of herself. "He promised me he would. He hates me like poison...and he'll use my own murdered mother's money against me."
Softly, to try to bring the melodrama down a notch, Brass said, "We'll check him out."
"What about the exhumation?" she asked, sitting forward, excited now, nostrils flaring, tiny teeth clenched.
"Well..." Brass said, looking toward the sheriff, who would surely have the sense to call off this witch hunt....
Atwater jumped into the situation with both feet...which of course landed on Brass, right where the sun didn't shine, even in a Vegas heat wave.
"The exhumation will be no problem," Atwater said, his gaze flicking for just a second to Brass, then back to his potentially lucrative audience. "As your mother's last blood relative, you have the right to an autopsy...especially with your suspicions about your stepfather. My best man, Captain Brass, will see to it...personally."
Here they were, murders up higher than the temp, and Sheriff Atwater was assigning him a case that was little more than a political favor.
In his mind, Brass said, "Like hell I will. Do your own damn political bullshit!"
But what he said was, "Get right on it, Ms. Bennett."
He had to swim in these waters, too.
The Desert Palm Memorial Cemetery occupied a lush green space not far from the intersection of North Las Vegas Boulevard and Main Street. Two days had passed since Captain Brass met with Sheriff Atwater and Rebecca Bennett, and the detective stood with court order in hand, in the middle of the cemetery. Like most grave robbers, they were working in the wee hours -- at the behest of the cemetery management, who requested that this effort not interrupt their regularly scheduled interments.
The desert was cool at night, it was said; and right now the temperature was all the way down to ninety-eight, with a slight devil's-breath breeze. Of course this was actually morning, about two hours from dawn, toward the end of the CSI graveyard shift... literally graveyard, this time.
Brass was well aware that CSI Supervisor Gil Grissom sympathized with his distaste for politics. But they all had a job to do, including two more nightshift crime scene analysts, Sara Sidle and Nick Stokes. The four of them cast long shadows in the light of a full moon as they waited while a backhoe tore open the earth over Rita Bennett's grave.
Two gravediggers were paid accomplices tonight on this ghoulish mission. Joe, a lanky guy with stringy black hair and sky blue eyes, sat atop the backhoe. His partner, Bob, shorter but just as skinny, stood beyond the grave directing Joe to make sure the backhoe didn't smash the concrete vault that held Rita Bennett's casket. Both men wore filthy white T-shirts and grime-impacted blue jeans, appropriate for this dirty job that somebody had to do, if less than wholly respectful to the deceased they were disturbing.
Next to the backhoe, a flat bronze headstone with Rita's name, birth, and death dates carved into it, stood on edge, standing sentinel over the awkward proceedings. Brass and the CSIs stood well off to one side, watching the growling machine paw at the dirt.
Moderately tall with graying hair and a trim dark beard, Gil Grissom was dressed in black, head to toe, blending with the night. Even when the sun was out, though, the man in black gave no sign that the heat bothered him in the least. Brass, meanwhile, wore a tan sportcoat and light color shirt and had, all day, felt like he was walking around inside a burning building.
Grissom's two associates seemed dressed more appropriately for the weather. Sara, her dark hair tucked under a CSI ball cap, wore tan slacks and a brown short-sleeve blouse; her oval face had a ghostly beauty in the moonlight. Square-jawed, kind-eyed Nick Stokes stood next to her, a navy blue CSI T-shirt doing its best to contain the former jock's brawn; his dark hair was cut high over his ears and he seemed almost as at ease in the heat as Grissom.
Stokes said, "With the run of murders we been havin', I wouldn't think the sheriff would want to go digging up new customers."
"If it does turn out to be a legitimate customer, Nick," Grissom said, in his light but pointed way, "we'll give full service."
"No autopsy," Sara said. "That doesn't smell right."
"Don't say 'smell' at an exhumation," Nick said.
"That's not inherently suspicious," Grissom said to Sara, meaning the lack of autopsy. "Some people want to get shuffled off this mortal coil in one piece....Not unusual for religious beliefs to preclude an autopsy."
Sara made a face and shrugged. "I'm just saying."
But that was all she said.
They watched as the backhoe clawed another gouge in the earth. Before long, Bob the gravedigger waved for Joe, the backhoe operator, to stop. Joe climbed down off the machine and the two men met at the head of the grave, in executive session, apparently.
"Everything okay?" Brass asked with a frown.
Bob, hands on hips, looked over. "We've reached the vault."
Brass and the CSIs moved to where Bob and Joe stood at the edge of a hole that went down three to three-and-a-half-feet. Barely visible at the bottom was a sliver of something brown.
"Have to dig the rest by hand," Bob said. "Graves on each side are too close to use the backhoe, and 'course we don't want to damage the vault."
Brass knew this and so did Grissom, Sara, and Nick; but the gravedigger had never done an exhumation with this group before, and he seemed to enjoy sharing his wealth of information.
"Not our first time at the rodeo, Bob," Brass said dryly. "Do what you do."
"Could take some time," Bob said, cocking his head, relishing his power.
"This is a graveyard, Bob," Grissom said. "We'll reflect on the relative nature of time."
"Huh?" Bob said.
"Dig," Nick said.
Bob thought about that and then a grin appeared in the midst of his dirty face. "Yeah -- yeah, I dig."
And the gravedigger scurried back to work, as Sara and Nick traded rolling-eyed expressions.
The detective and the three CSIs watched as the two men used tile shovels to carefully excavate around the concrete vault. Neither of the workers looked very happy as they gingerly pawed at the earth within their small hole.
"Where's the concerned daughter," Nick asked, "to watch us dig up Mommy?"
"Be nice, Nick," Grissom said.
Brass said, "She'll meet us back at CSI and be there when we finally open the coffin. Legal procedure requires her presence."
Sara said, "If I were forced to do this, with the grave of a loved one...? I wouldn't want to be anywhere around."
Grissom looked at her curiously. "But you're a scientist."
"Even scientists have feelings," she said, with a mildly reproving glance.
Shrugging, Grissom said, "Nobody's perfect."
Sara and Nick took photographs of what followed. Grissom made field notes. Brass just watched.
The two workers finally got cables under the vault and, using the backhoe like a crane, they lifted the concrete box out of the ground and set it on a flatbed truck. Brass and the CSIs piled into the black Tahoe and followed the vehicle back to the station, where the flatbed backed in the tall door at the end of the garage behind the CSI building. Meanwhile, Nick parked the Tahoe, after which the quartet marched inside to get down to business.
The garage had spaces for three cars, beyond which was an oversized bay built to accommodate trucks even bigger than the one that carried the strapped-down remains of Rita Bennett. Essentially a concrete bunker with a twenty-foot ceiling and an overhead crane, the garage had a workbench along the back wall and two huge tool chests, one against each of the side walls.
First, Nick and Sara climbed up onto the truck and removed the straps from the vault. As they did, Brass went inside, to the office, to bring back Rebecca Bennett. As Brass disappeared through the door, Nick motioned for Grissom to come closer to the truck.
Keeping one eye on the door even as he and Sara undid the straps, Nick asked, "Don't we have better things to be doing than an exhumation to satisfy one of Atwater's contributors?"
Grissom's voice remained soft, but his face grew serious. "She's not a contributor -- her late mother was."
"What, are we gonna quibble?"
"No, Nick, we're not going to quibble -- this is a woman who needs answers about the death of her mother...answers that we might be able to provide."
"Hey, all I mean, there's serious crimes -- "
"Do your job, Nick."
Nick started to say something, but Sara cut him off: "It's a sealed vault! Gonna take us some time gettin' into it."
Nodding once, Grissom said, "No time like the present."
Using the overhead crane, Nick and Sara put the crane's metal runners under the frame of the concrete lid and tightened them down. Then, using the column of buttons on the hanging control box, Nick nudged the RAISE button a few times, until the slack was gone from the chain and the vault was just about to leave the bed of the truck.
Accepting a pry bar from Sara, Nick went to work on the sealed edge of one side of the vault while Sara worked on the opposite side. They had been at it for almost ten minutes, both perspiring despite the air conditioning inside the garage, when Brass reappeared with an attractive, slender, black-haired woman in dark-green slacks and a black silk blouse.
Grissom extended his hand as Brass and the woman approached where he stood next to the truck. The woman's eyes remained locked on the vault on the back of the vehicle, the two CSIs still plugging away with the pry bars.
"I'm Gil Grissom from the crime lab," he said, his hand still hanging out in space.
She finally tore her eyes from the vault, looked for a moment at his hand like she couldn't understand why it was there; then, with a visible flinch, she focused and shook it.
"Sorry," she said. "Rebecca Bennett....I guess I wasn't prepared...."
"As an abstraction, exhumation is just a word," Grissom said. "The reality is...sobering. You don't have to stay long."
"No, that's all right," she said, her voice cold, detached now, an attitude she assumed like a cloak she'd suddenly gathered herself in. "So that's Mother?"
"Yes. We've already started working on the vault, but it's sealed...so it's going to take a little time."
She nodded, her eyes returning to the vault.
At that moment the epoxy bond was broken and the vault settled back onto the truck bed, the shock absorbers and springs grunting as it did. The noise made Rebecca jump a little.
Brass walked the woman to a chair across the garage.
"Easier than I thought," Sara said, mopping her brow with her hand.
Nick gave her a sarcastic look. "Piece of cake."
Sara looked at him, smiling, but hard-eyed. "Nick...tell me you're not creeped out by this...."
"What? Gimme a break. I'm a scientist, too, you know."
"Scientists have feelings, remember?"
"After all we've been through? Don't insult me."
Sara made a shrug with her face. "I wouldn't dream of it...but we all have our little, you know...bugaboos."
Nick grunted a small laugh. "Yeah, well help me open this one."
Rita Bennett had only been buried about three months and remarkably little odor crept over the sides of the vault and down to the trio on the floor.
Using the crane, Nick set the vault lid off to one side.
Brass walked over and asked, "How's the casket look?"
The two CSIs glanced down into the vault at the same moment.
Sara spoke first. "Looks good, surprisingly."
"Like brand new," Nick added. To Sara under his breath, he said, "Only one owner...."
"Not much smell," Sara said quietly.
Their comments were sotto voce, to keep them from the daughter seated across the room.
Turning to Brass, Grissom said, "One of the good things about living in the desert -- things decay slower, here."
"Personally," Brass said, "I'm decaying pretty damn fast these days, this heat."
Next, Nick and Sara worked straps around the casket and Nick used the crane to lift it out of the vault and swing it over the side of the truck. Lowering it slowly, Nick set the casket gently on the floor not far from Grissom and Brass.
Brass turned to the seated woman and said, "Ms. Bennett -- if you'd join us?"
She did, and the five moved to the oaken box; then Grissom, Brass, and Rebecca watched as Sara and Nick released the locks and flipped up the lid of the coffin.
Within, Grissom had expected to find Rita Bennett looking much as she had when she'd been buried, just three months ago. The dress would be tasteful, her makeup in place but slightly over the top, like it always had been in her TV spots for the car dealership, and her hair would be dyed platinum blonde.
Looking into the casket, Grissom felt his stomach lurch a little.
He saw tennis shoes, jeans, a Las Vegas Stars T-shirt, painted fingernails, pierced ears, pink-glossed lips, and auburn hair surrounding a face that had to be younger than twenty-five. The young woman in the casket, younger than Rebecca standing next to him, looked very peaceful indeed.
She just didn't happen to be Rita Bennett.
Rebecca's hand shot to her mouth and her eyes opened wide.
Sara was the first to find her voice. "Uh...oh...."
She looked at Nick, whose slack-jawed, wide-eyed expression mirrored her own.
"Gris," Nick said gingerly, "this doesn't look like a heart attack."
"What have you people done with my mother?" Rebecca demanded. She turned to Grissom and said, "Where is my mother?"
The shift supervisor turned to Brass, who seemed suddenly about three inches shorter, an invisible and very heavy weight having settled across his shoulders.
Sheriff Atwater was going to love this....
Grissom faced Brass and asked, "We double-checked the grave location -- right?"
"I went to the office myself," the detective said, his voice wavering between anger, confusion, and frustration. "And the damn headstone is even in the truck! Everything matched."
Holding up his hands, Grissom said, "No need to get defensive, Jim...just checking." Grissom turned to Sara and Nick with renewed energy. "If our paperwork was right, and the cemetery staff took us to the correct site...all of which seems to have happened, then we have ourselves a brand-new crime scene."
Rebecca Bennett got between them. "I'm thrilled for you! But where is my mother?"
Grissom raised a palm, as if trying to stop traffic. "I don't know, Ms. Bennett...but I can promise you we're going to do everything we can to find her."
"This isn't happening," Brass said, and sat on the bumper of the truck. "We come in to do a simple exhumation, and now we have a murder?"
"Not necessarily," Grissom said. "Could be a simple mistake."
The dead woman's daughter managed to open her eyes even wider. "Simple mistake?"
Covering his eyes, Brass was calling for a dispatcher on his radio.
"Forgive me, Ms. Bennett," Grissom said. He began to lead the stunned woman away from the casket. "We, as criminalists, have to approach this as a problem that needs to be solved. But we don't really mean to be callous."
"My mother, what the goddamn hell happened...?"
"You have my word, Ms. Bennett -- we'll solve this. All your questions will be laid to rest."
"Like my mother was?"
Grissom didn't have an answer for that.
Sara approached and said, "We're very sorry about this awful turn of events. This has been a terrible traumatic thing, but please believe me -- we're going to help."
Grissom watched as a uniformed officer entered. Brass joined Grissom and the distraught young woman, showing up at the same moment as the uniform man.
"Ms. Bennett," Brass said, "I'm afraid we're going to have to ask you to step out now."
"Are you people trying to get rid of me now?" she asked, her voice, practically a shriek, careening off the cement walls.
Grissom stepped up. "No, Ms. Bennett -- we're trying to preserve evidence. We have to find out what happened to the woman in your mother's casket."
Shaking his head, Grissom said, "The only clues we have to what happened to your mother are inside that casket with this girl. You need to let us do our job."
Rebecca obviously wanted to put up a fight, but Grissom could tell she saw the logic of his argument; he read her as a strong, intelligent young woman. Hanging her head, sighing in defeat, she allowed the uniformed officer to lead her out of the garage.
Turning back to his charges, Grissom's face was tight. "Let's do it."
Sara was already bent over the coffin. "Blood on the pillow," she said. "I can't tell more until we get the body out."
Grissom said, "All right, then...Nick, you work the casket. Someone put her in there -- let's see if we can't find out who. Sara, find out who she is and walk her through autopsy. Tell Doc Robbins this is a rush -- we're already at least three months behind."
Brass added, "I'll start with the cemetery and work my way back to the mortuary." He checked his watch. "The staff should be there by now -- you gonna work past the end of shift?"
Grissom nodded. "All the shifts are working overtime these days."
Sara asked, "What about Rita Bennett?"
"We can't find out what happened to her," Grissom said, "until we find her...and the only clue we have to her whereabouts is the mystery guest buried in Rita's grave."
"Blood on the pillow," Sara said. "Already looking like murder."
Nick shook his head slowly. "Doesn't anybody in this town ever die normal anymore?"
Grissom cast his charming smile on the younger CSI. "Where would the fun be in that, Nick?"
Copyright © 2004 by CBS Broadcasting Inc. and Alliance Atlantis Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.