Read Binding Ties Online

Authors: Max Allan Collins

Binding Ties (7 page)

Margie had said on the phone that Vince ought to be back by the time Brass and Grissom arrived; but
now Brass—knowing how abstract time could be to older, retired people, and how lonely for company they could be—wondered if he and Grissom should enter that apartment and risk wasting valuable time, the early hours in any murder case being the most vital.

Knowing Grissom was probably thinking something similar, Brass looked at the CSI, who shrugged in an it's-your-call manner.

Before Brass was forced into making an executive decision, a tall, athletic, silver-haired man strode into view up the hallway.

The well-tanned Vince Champlain wore light gray sweat pants, a dark gray-and-black striped Polo shirt, and tennies. He moved toward them with no sign of weakness or age in his gait.

His wide silver-mustached mouth broke into a smile, his teeth a little too white, too straight to be nature's work.

“Jim!
Why you dirty son of a—”

Margie shushed him loudly and said, “Vince, please … the neighbors.” Then she whispered to Brass and Grissom, “We have goddamn prudes on either side of us, and then here's Vince, with that fuggin' cop's mouth of his!”

Grissom's eyes were wide and Brass had to smile; Margie had worked as a barmaid for a long, long time….

Champlain was patting Brass on the shoulder, then nodded and grinned at Grissom and said,
“Been seeing your name in the papers, your shining face on the tube, Gilbert. Making a mark, making a mark.”

Grissom shrugged a shoulder and gave up a shy smile.

“Let's go inside,” Champlain said, waving them toward the open door, “where I can say ‘son of a bitch' without Margie having heart failure.”

“Vin
-cent,” Margie scolded, but she was smiling.

Margie went in first, Champlain followed, and Brass looked at Grissom and said, “After you, Gilbert …”

“No, no—you first … Jimmy.”

Brass smiled and Grissom chuckled, and the homicide captain wondered if the CSI shared his relief at even being able to smile, considering the circumstances of this day.

Champlain closed the door after them, and Brass and Grissom took in the living room, which wasn't terribly large, but had a nice homey feel to it, particularly considering the Champlains were essentially in the least-assisted wing of a nursing home.

A big-screen TV dominated one corner while a well-worn lounge chair angled into another corner and a floral sofa took up the wall near the door. Another chair sat at an angle to the sofa, and the tiny, magazine-covered island of a coffee table floated. Champlain gestured easily for them to sit. Brass and Grissom took the sofa while Champlain fell into his lounge chair.

“Beer, gents?” their host asked.

“No, thanks,” Brass said. “We're actually on duty.”

“Thought you guys were strictly graveyard…?”

Grissom said, “Dayshift's got sick leave and court time.”

Brass said, “Pulling more than our share of double shifts.”

“Don't bitch,” Champlain said. He'd been the kind of career cop who had not looked forward to his last day on the job. “I miss what you got … though retirement does have its bennies.”

Hovering, Margie asked, “How about some of that decaf?”

“Please,” Brass said.

“Yes, thank you,” Grissom said.

“Bottle of water, honey, please,” Champlain said.

Margie disappeared through a doorway into the kitchen.

“Two under par today,” Champlain said, only the merest trace of gloating in his voice. “Golf's one of those bennies I was talking about.”

“Where at?” Brass asked dutifully.

“Rio Secco,” Champlain said, as if that would mean something to the cops.

Brass nodded like he understood and the expression on Grissom's face said that he suspected Champlain was speaking Esperanto.

“Now,” Champlain said with a glance toward the kitchen, “surely a couple of on-duty coppers like you two didn't come all the way out here to the old fart's
home to hear me brag about my golf game…. What's up?”

“I think we may have a ghost,” Brass said.

Champlain sat forward, eyes slitted. “The past rattling its chains, is it? Some old pal of ours resurface?”

Margie brought in a tray with cups of coffee for herself, Grissom, and Brass, and a cold-sweating bottle of Evian for her husband.

Again she hovered, clearly wondering if she should alight and join the party—but was she wanted?

“To what do we owe this pleasure?” Margie asked tentatively.

“Business, dear,” Champlain said.

“Oh,” Margie said, her disappointment not well hidden. “I just remembered—I have some straightening to do in the bedroom.”

Champlain gave his wife a warm smile. “Thank you, babydoll.”

After the “babydoll” in her early seventies walked down a hallway and slipped into a doorway on the right, Champlain turned his attention back to Brass and the CSI.

The detective said, “This morning, Gil had a murder call out in North Las Vegas. The M.O. was too damn familiar—Vince, it reminded me whole a lot of CASt.”

Some of the color managed to drain from Champlain's
deeply tanned face. “You have got to be shitting me….”

Brass said nothing.

Champlain blew out air, as if an invisible birthday cake with every candle he'd earned sat in front of him. “Okay, Jim—let's have it … chapter and verse.”

Brass did—leaving nothing out this time, including the copycat notion.

Then, with another huge sigh, Champlain shook his head. “But if this kill had the earmarks of the real CASt, like you say—how could any copycat pull that off? We kept a lid on everything.”

Grissom fielded the question. “Certain aspects of the scene do suggest a staged crime, as opposed to the more spontaneous activity of our original killer. But we're not ruling anything out yet—certainly not the idea that our original CASt is back.”

“What can an old retiree like me do to help?” Champlain asked.

Right now, the “old retiree” looked more fit than Brass had ever felt.

Brass said, “Have you spoken to anyone about the case? Anyone at all?”

“Not since the newspaper coverage died away years ago. And you know how careful we were back at the time—only the sheriff, rest his soul, and the dayshift CSI supervisor knew our hold-backs.”

“How about lately?” Brass asked. “I mean, you might sit around with some of your new friends here,
and swap war stories about your various professions.”

Champlain waved that off. “Come off it, Jim—you, too, Gil. You
both
know we don't go around bragging about our failures … and CASt was my biggest.”

Nodding, Brass asked, “How about Margie?”

“No. She's got a tough hide, but the rougher aspects of what I used to do … she's squeamish. And I don't remember ever getting into the case much with Sheila, either. Of course, that was a long time ago,” Champlain said, brow furrowed. Then he shrugged, rather elaborately. “Guys—I'm afraid I got nothing for you. God knows I'd like to help. CASt was the big fish that got away.”

“I know how you feel, Vince,” Brass said. “We just had to check.”

Champlain said, “Be honest with you? … If I can avoid it, I try to not even think about that goddamn case. We were so close to catching that bastard. So close. Jim, I was always pretty good at leaving the job behind, when I got home at night. But that case … those poor S. O. B.s who got humiliated and strangled … the mental pictures of those crime scenes … late at night….”

Champlain shivered.

Brass and Grissom got to their feet.

“If it is him,” Brass said, “we'll get him. Don't worry about that, Vince.”

“And if it's not him?”

“If it's not him, if it's some other sick bastard,
we'll catch his ass, too. Either way—this killer goes down.”

Champlain rose and walked them to the door. He laid a hand on Brass's shoulder. “You sure as hell aren't the young guy that filled my shoes when I left.”

“Those were big shoes,” Brass said. “And I don't remember
ever
being young.”

“You will,” Champlain assured him. “You will.”

“Lot of miles since then,” Brass said distantly. “A lot of miles and a lot of death….”

Out of nowhere, Grissom chimed in: “‘The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.'”

Brass smirked and asked Grissom, “Who said that?”

But it was Champlain who answered: “Judge John Philpot Curran.”

Grissom, impressed, bowed his head and smiled at the retired cop.

“But,” Champlain said, “I kinda doubt that judge was talking about Las Vegas Homicide.”

With a little shrug, Grissom said, “Well, there's always that other old saying, Vince.”

“Yes?”

“If the shoe fits …”

THREE

A
lmost every black leather chair around the large rectangular table in the CSI conference room was filled, although the one at its head remained vacant. The X-ray box on one wall, and the whiteboard running the length of another, were not in use. Fluorescent lighting gave the assembly a deathly pallor, as they sat like relatives gathered to hear the reading of a wealthy patriarch's will, each with the expectation of not getting one red cent.

Catherine Willows, leaning back, arms folded, unobtrusively gauged the other faces around the table. To her left, Warrick Brown studied some papers, his eyes half-lidded, his face a grim mask. Across the way, Nick Stokes slouched in his seat, uncharacteristically down, staring at nothing, his mouth a tight line. Opposite Catherine, Sara Sidle fiddled with a pen, spinning it on the table in front of her, her forehead free of thought, her eyes hollow.

The crack CSI nightshift team—who prided themselves on not only their expertise and energy, but their patience—seemed beaten down by a dreary week of dead ends.

Left of Sara, Greg Sanders, their spiky-haired topnotch DNA lab tech—whose inexplicable aspirations for the lesser pay of CSI field work Grissom had been humoring of late—sat and rocked back and forth, his head bobbing to some rhythm playing in the iPod of his mind as he read a report. The energetic Greg alone seemed happy with where he was in the current investigation. Perhaps this was due to Grissom recently granting his request to leave the lab for the field, even though Greg's apprentice CSI status was not yet full-time.

Across from Greg, immediately to Catherine's right, sat Dr. Al Robbins, his metal crutch propped next to him, his eyes riveted to autopsy photos spread out on the table in front of him, like a losing hand of cards he was trying to assemble into some kind of winning order. His salt-and-pepper beard was merely flecked with pepper now, its sodium count long since out of control. The doctor's normally cheerful eyes seemed clouded as he looked from one stark picture in the pile to the next. The gravity of the situation was apparent in the coroner's rare public appearance outside of the autopsy room.

To Catherine's left, beyond Warrick, at the far end
of the table, Brass stared into space, as if seeking an opinion on whether he should remain pissed off or give in to despair. He had been the last one to walk in, carrying a large cardboard box that now sat on the floor next to him.

Supervisor Gil Grissom, who had called this meeting, wasn't here yet, and his disheartened troops were getting antsy. They had been on the Marvin Sandred murder for a week and had little more to go on than the victim's name. The only thing working in their favor was the press coverage—no one in the media had thus far connected Sandred with CASt.

While Grissom had kept tabs on what each individual CSI (as well as Greg and Robbins) had been up to, this would be their first group meeting, to present, contrast, and compare what they'd all learned, and have a look at the lab results that were just coming in.

Grissom entered quickly, his demeanor just as serious as the rest but minus any overt sign of frustration. Catherine admired quite a few things about Gil, but not the least of them was the chief CSI's ability to remain objectively professional no matter how fast and hard the brown rain was coming down. Oh, there'd been exceptions; even Grissom had his weak spots—violence against children brought the human side out, in spades—but generally he maintained a high standard of scientific detachment that Catherine could esteem without really striving toward.

Catherine's process necessitated maintaining her humanity, and even subjectivity. Different strokes.

A light-blue lab coat was draped over Grissom's standard black attire; his wireframed glasses were on. Unceremoniously, he dropped a stack of folders onto the table with a dull thud. The CSI's upper lip formed a subtle sneer, which was the equivalent of anybody else tearing the room up and throwing things out windows.

Sitting up, Catherine said, “Let me guess—somebody up there hates us….” She'd gone for a lighthearted tone but fell just short.

“Nicely deduced, Catherine,” Grissom said tightly.

Nick groaned. “Atwater?”

“Atwater,” Grissom affirmed, the word sounding more like an epithet than the name of a human being—specifically, their boss, the sheriff. “He's starting to get calls … about CASt.”

“Ah hell,” Warrick said, pawing the air.

Grissom continued, “Our esteemed sheriff wanted my assurance that no one at CSI was leaking anything to the press.”

Brass said, an edge in his voice, “Who is it, bugging the sheriff? Our pal Perry Bell?”

“No,” Grissom said. “It's from the broadcast side—a local TV station.”

Catherine considered that for a moment, then asked, “Do we trust our North Las Vegas brothers? Bill Damon and Henry Logan? You gave Logan kind of a hard time.”

“I did?” He seemed genuinely not to know what Catherine was referring to.

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