Janine Geller walked through the pale blue-painted halls of Desert Palm Hospital to the large waiting room where Sheriff Rory Atwater had asked her to meet him. She found several people seated around the large room, many of them still wearing the black, nylon vests with the words 'LVPD Crime Scene Investigator' stenciled in large, white letters across the back. She stood for a moment observing this group. They looked tired, drained and slightly haunted. Yes, it had been a very rough couple of nights for all the parties involved.
Spying Janine standing in the doorway, Sheriff Atwater stood and moved to join her. She smiled as he approached.
"Janine, thank you for coming down on such short notice," he said, shaking her hand.
"It's not a problem, sir. Actually, I've been expecting your call."
"Ah, so you have heard about the situation?"
"Well, I've been watching the news, along with the rest of the city."
"Oh, so it's already hit the news, has it?"
"Come now, Sheriff, an attractive, young law enforcement officer is kidnapped by the vindictive father of a convicted criminal? That's television at its finest. You don't get news stories this juicy every day, even in this city. This is a news producer's dream come true. You didn't really expect to keep this quiet, did you?"
"No, I suppose not," Atwater said, nodding sadly at the truth of her words.
Janine continued, "The evening newscasts didn't have the latest update... So, is this a grief counseling session?"
"Oh, no, they got to Stokes in time. He was suffering from anaphylactic shock and dehydration, but the paramedics were able to stabilize him at the scene and they say he's going to be fine. We're all just waiting for the official word from the doctors."
"Anaphylactic shock? What did he have an allergic reaction to?"
"Oh, sorry, the news couldn't possibly have had all the details. Why don't we..." He gestured for her to step out into the hallway, away from the CSIs, and gave her the rest of the pertinent details: the booby trapped Plexiglas coffin, the fire ants, and the live feed, which allowed the other CSIs to watch their friend's suffering.
"Well, it sounds like I have my work cut out for me," Janine said, with a wry smile.
The two stepped back into the waiting room and the Sheriff gestured to a man who was sitting with the CSIs. As he stood and approached them, Janine saw that he was a handsome man of medium build, who appeared to be in his mid-to-late-40s. He had gray-streaked, dark hair and a neatly trimmed, matching, gray-flecked beard.
"Janine, this is Gil Grissom. He's the supervisor of the night shift CSIs," Atwater said.
"Gil, this is Janine Geller. She's a department psychologist. She's here to talk to you and your team."
"About...?" Gil asked.
"About what happened to Stokes."
"Mr. Grissom, witnessing a life-threatening event can sometimes be just as traumatic for the by-standers as it is for the victim, especially if that victim is a friend," Janine pointed out.
"Somehow, I think Nick would disagree with that," Grissom said irritably.
"Gil," the sheriff interrupted quickly, "it's department policy. You've all been through an extreme event. You all have to go through counseling sessions and be cleared by Janine before you can return to duty. CSIs may not be police officers, but you do carry loaded weapons and we can't have potentially traumatized investigators running around the county with loaded guns."
"I know, I know," Grissom said, with a resigned sigh. "How do you want to do this?"
"Well, the sooner we get your people talking, the better," Janine said. "We're all here. Why don't we get started right now? And why don't we start with you, Mr. Grissom?"
At the sheriff's request, the hospital staff allowed them to use an unoccupied private room, very close to the waiting room. Janine sat facing the lead CSI, who was sitting with his arms and legs crossed, watching the woman warily.
"Tell me what you're feeling, Mr. Grissom."
"Irritation," the man responded, although Janine could see nothing about his outwardly calm demeanor which gave any indication of this emotion.
"I hope that's not directed at me," she commented dryly.
He cocked an eyebrow at her, but simply said, "None of this should have happened."
"I agree, but how could it have been prevented? I don't think anyone could have predicted that Mr. Gordon would have responded to his daughter's incarceration in such an irrational manner."
"No, I suppose not, but it should never have gone as far as it did. Nick should never have been left alone, even for a few minutes, at that crime scene. Lord knows we've been burned enough times in the past by that mistake... The county should have given us more support. It took too long for us to figure out that something was wrong. We lost precious time trying to play catch up. We should have been more on the ball... I should have been more on the ball."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, Mr. Grissom, but looking at Mr. Stokes' file, I see that he was recently assigned to the so-called 'swing shift'. Catherine Willows was his immediate supervisor, not you. Why are you taking so much responsibility onto yourself? Do you feel that Ms. Willows was remiss in her duties?"
"No, absolutely not," Grissom said quickly. "I don't fault Catherine in any way for what happened. I just feel that... if Nick had still been under my supervision..."
"Somehow none of this would have happened?" Janine finished for him, a wry smile on her face.
Hearing this thought stated so openly Grissom could hear how ridiculous it sounded. How could the mere fact of Nick being under Gil's supervision possibly have made any difference? Walter Gordon hadn't directed his vengeance toward Catherine or even Nick himself. The man had simply laid a trap then sat back to watch whichever CSI stumbled into it. If Nick hadn't been sent to the scene then someone else would have. And it would be someone else lying in that hospital bed, possibly Warrick... or Sara...
"You know, when I met with Mr. Gordon, to give him the ransom money, he asked me how much Nick meant to me. I told him it was none of his business..." Grissom said softly, not looking at the psychologist, speaking more to himself than to her.
"It was none of his business," Janine prompted gently when the man seemed to lose himself in his thoughts.
"No... but that wasn't why I said it." He looked up at her, mentally returning to the room. "I said it because I didn't know what else to say. I honestly don't know how much Nick means to me. I'd never really thought about it. I don't know how much anyone means to me... I'm not a 'people person'. I don't deal with them well. I've been accused of being cold and of not caring... Maybe it's true. Maybe I don't care. Maybe I don't know how to..."
Janine could hear the genuine confusion in the man's voice.
Catherine Willows paced around the small room like a caged lioness. She had nervous energy to burn and couldn't sit still any longer. What was taking the doctors so damn long? Shouldn't they have had some news about Nick by now? She desperately wanted to go home and be with her daughter, but she didn't want to leave without seeing her colleague first.
"Ms. Willows, I know you're concerned about your friend, but someone will come and tell us if there's any news. Please, sit down."
"Sorry," Catherine said, somewhat sheepishly, as she returned to her chair, "when I'm anxious, I pace. I've always been a little hyper."
"That must be how you stay so thin," Janine commented. The woman sitting across from her truly was stunningly beautiful. She was tall and slender, with shoulder-length, strawberry blonde hair. The psychologist couldn't help wondering if all that beauty was an asset or a liability in her chosen profession.
Seeing that the woman was still bouncing one leg up and down while she sat, Janine asked, "You still seem quite agitated. Is there something more concerning you than Mr. Stokes' condition?"
"Well, I was just thinking about the fact that Internal Affairs is going to be all over this. There'll be an inquiry, to see what went wrong... who was at fault..."
"I don't think you have anything to worry about. I know I'm not familiar with all of your procedures, but I can't see that there was anyone to blame for this unfortunate incident."
"I don't know... maybe I'm being paranoid, but with Ecklie constantly breathing down all our backs and having to measure up to Grissom..."
"Why would you need to measure up to Mr. Grissom? He's no longer your supervisor."
"We all strive to measure up to Grissom. He's sort of the gold standard of our field. Ecklie may be higher up on the food chain, but it's Grissom that pulls all of our strings."
That's good to know, Janine thought, making a note of this in her journal. "Is there anything else that's bothering you, Ms. Willows?"
"Hell, yeah, there's a lot bothering me!" the other woman snapped. Once again, she stood and began stalking through the room. "I'm still so pissed at that bastard Gordon! And not just for what he did to Nicky. Gordon took the coward's way out. He killed himself so that we couldn't prosecute him and in doing so, he denied Nick the closure of facing him in court. Every victim should have the right to face their attacker in court.
"And that son-of-a-bitch claimed that he was doing this for his daughter. How the hell does kidnapping and torturing Nick help his daughter? If he had wanted to help her, he should have been with her, but he only visited her a few times. I guess we're supposed to believe that it was too difficult for him to see her like that. But if he truly loved her, he would have stood by her, no matter what. That's what true paternal love is, unconditional!"
"I'm sensing a great deal of hostility toward Walter Gordon as a paternal figure. Do you have unresolved issues with your own father?" Janine asked gently.
"Do I have unresolved issues with my father?" Catherine repeated contemptuously. "Lady, you don't know the half of it!"
Janine sat watching the young man before her. Every line of his tall, loose-limbed frame seemed to scream defeat. He sat leaning forward, his elbows propped on his knees, his chin resting on his clasped hands. He was staring into space, obviously having completely forgotten the psychologist's presence. From the brief conversation she had had with Asst. Director Ecklie, Janine had gleaned that CSI Brown and CSI Stokes were pretty close. Brown seemed to have been harder hit by his friend's abduction than the others.
"What are you thinking about, Mr. Brown?" she asked at last.
"Just thinking about Nick..."
"The doctor's have already said that he's going to fully recover..."
"Yeah, physically... You're a psychologist, what's something like this going to do to him mentally?"
"Well, I don't know yet. That's something we'll have to wait and see on."
Warrick looked up at her, his unusually colored eyes boring into her like shards of jagged green glass. He wasn't going to simply accept her dismissive answer. With a sigh, Janine continued, "It won't be easy for him. There will be scars, mental as well as physical."
"Yeah," Warrick whispered, his gaze dropping to the floor again.
"We will begin dealing with Mr. Stokes' trauma when the doctors give us permission to see him. Until then, we're here to discuss your feelings."
"That night, when Catherine came to give us our assignments, she told us we could decide between ourselves who got which one. Neither of us wanted the 'trash run', so we flipped a coin. Nick lost... I just can't help thinking about that..."
"It wasn't your fault Mr. Brown. It was chance, that's all. It wasn't your fault."
"I don't know... I've generally been a pretty lucky guy when it came to gambling, maybe-."
"It was chance, Mr. Brown," Janine repeated firmly, interrupting his sentence before he could complete it.
Warrick nodded absently. "Right... I also can't help thinking; what if I'd lost the toss? What if it'd been me in that box?"
"But it wasn't."
"Yeah, I know, but what if it was," Warrick persisted. "I don't do well in tight places. I never have... I wouldn't have lasted five minutes in that box. I know I wouldn't. I'd have eaten my gun within the first half hour."
"You don't know that and it doesn't matter. You weren't there. You didn't have to face it."
"Yeah, cause Nick did... I don't know how he held on for so long and I still keep catching myself thanking God that it was him and not me... Man, how messed up is that! He's one of my best friends and I'm glad that he got buried alive instead of me. Some friend I am, huh?"
"It's a natural response. No, it's not something any of us want to admit about ourselves, but it's perfectly normal. You're human and that's nothing to be ashamed of. If it makes you feel any better, I'm sure Mr. Stokes would be feeling the same way, if your situations had been reversed."
Sara Sidle sat in her chair like a lifeless doll, her eyes vacant and staring. She almost appeared to be in shock. Janine studied her for a moment. She was an attractive woman, but no where near as striking as her female co-worker. Sara's features and figure were too boyish for her to be considered traditionally beautiful. Janine wondered if this was a source of friction between the two female CSIs. After all, society programmed women to judge and compete with each other on such superficial levels. But perhaps their science and intellect-driven careers allowed them to break out of the beauty-ranked roles they would otherwise be relegated to. Janine sincerely hoped so.
"What are you thinking about, Ms. Sidle?"
"The story of Persephone," the woman answered quietly.
"Persephone," Sara repeated. "From Greek mythology? She was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter..."
"Uh, yes, I remember her story now. Why would you think of her?"
"Well, one day, when she was gathering flowers on the plain of Enna, the earth suddenly opened before her and Hades rose up from the gap and abducted her, taking her down to the Underworld to live with him."
"Ah, I see, rather like what happened to Mr. Stokes."
"Yeah, I mean, think about it, one minute you're minding your own business, doing your job and the next... someone grabs you, right out of the blue, no warning, no nothing..." The woman gave a short, humorless laugh. "I suppose Nick wouldn't like it that I was comparing him to a female character from Greek mythology."
"Well, it does make a certain sense," Janine agreed.
"I just don't get it," Sara said. "Nick never did anything to Walter Gordon. I'm not even sure he had anything to do with the daughter's case. It was totally random. Gordon didn't care who fell into his trap, just so long as it was someone from CSI. It could have been any one of us... I just don't get it. What could make such an intelligent and rational man feel the need to do what he did to a complete stranger, someone who probably never did anything to him? How could one human being do something like that to another human being?"
"I wish I had an easy answer for you, Ms. Sidle, but I don't. Some people simply cannot cope with situations that are beyond their control."
"Yeah? Well, what about Nick? I'd say this situation qualifies as something beyond his control. What is this going to do to him?"
"I honestly don't know. We're going to have to wait and see."
"It's kind of weird. I mean, I know I'm not going to live forever, but I've never seriously thought about how I was going to buy it, before. Now, I can honestly say, I don't want to be eaten alive by fire ants."
Janine smiled at these words. Greg Sanders was like a breath of fresh air after the much more intense sessions she'd shared with the older investigators. She realized that as the youngest and least experienced member of the team, he should have been the most vulnerable, but she wasn't picking that up from him. He seemed to be genuinely coping well.
Perhaps his lack of field experience was a blessing in this instance. He had not worked side by side with Stokes as long as the others and was therefore not as personally involved as they were. And not being as intimately acquainted with the potential dangers of the field, he did not feel the same sense of sympathetic fear as the others.
"Don't get me wrong," Greg said quickly. "I feel really bad for Nick, I mean, what happened to him... sucked. But it didn't happen to me, so I'm not sure why I have to talk to you. Shouldn't you be concentrating on him?"
"I will be, but since the doctors won't let us see him yet, I'm just making sure that all of you are coping with this," Janine explained.
"Ah, I get it... Well, I think I'm going to have a few sleepless nights, but I think I'm okay. I mean, I was one of the lucky ones. I didn't get put in a box... And I'm good with that."
"You should be. And yes, I think you will be all right."
Janine was about to continue, but she was interrupted by a knock on the door of the room. Almost immediately it opened and Sheriff Atwater poked his head through the doorway.
"Uh, sorry to interrupt, Janine, but the doctors are through with Stokes. They say we can see him in a few minutes."
Back in the waiting room, they found one of the doctors addressing the gathered CSIs and police officers. The doctor was a dark young man in his early-to-mid thirties, of obvious Indian descent.
"We've finally managed to fully stabilize Mr. Stokes. We had him stabilized earlier, but he had a biphasic, or secondary, reaction. We've been treating him with epinephrine, as well as diphenhydramine and prednisone. We'll be keeping him here for a couple of days so we can continue to monitor his vital signs and to be sure that he doesn't have any serious adverse reactions to the epinephrine."
"But he is going to fully recover from this, isn't he?" Jillian Stokes asked anxiously, clutching her husband's hand in a death grip. "What I mean to say is, there won't be any long-term side effects, will there?"
"Well, he will now have serious allergies to fire ants, and possibly other insect, stings. Given his line of work, he should probably carry an epinephrine auto-injector pen with him at all times."
"I don't understand. We're from Texas, fire ant capital of the U.S. Nick's been stung before as a child and he only had mild reactions."
"Repeated exposure to an allergen can cause more serious reactions. And remember, Mrs. Stokes, your son was stung hundreds of times."
Judge and Mrs. Stokes were allowed to see their son first. As they were about to enter the room, the doctor warned them not to be alarmed by Nick's sluggishness. "As you probably know, being from Texas, fire ant stings are very painful. We've given Mr. Stokes a mild sedative to keep him calm and make him more comfortable."
The rest of the team continued to wait impatiently outside the room. It was some 20 minutes before Nick's parents returned to the waiting room. Jillian's face was damp and she was being visibly supported by her husband.
The five CSIs were the next to enter. Janine tagged along with them, but stayed back near the door. It was quite obvious that Stokes was in no condition to speak to her, nor had she really expected him to be. She simply wanted to discreetly observe this reunion.
Nick smiled weakly as the group approached the bed. His face was still somewhat swollen and every inch of visible skin was covered with angry-looking, red welts, some of them were pustules from the ant stings, some were hives from the anaphylaxis. He had an IV in each arm, one delivering his meds, the other giving him fluids to rehydrate his body. There was a tube with a split prong cannula delivering oxygen directly into his nasal passages, to compensate for his still slightly swollen airways.
As the others gathered around the bed, speaking encouragingly, Janine took the opportunity to observe the man occupying the bed. As she had already noted from the photographs shown during the newscasts, he was very attractive, not even ant stings or hives could completely obscure that fact. Noting the faint network of lines at the corners of his eyes, she felt some encouragement for him. This was obviously a man who smiled easily and often. With luck that good humor would serve him well on his inevitably rough road of recovery from this nightmare ordeal.
"Nicky, I'm sorry, but I need to get back to Lindsey," Catherine said, after several minutes of awkward conversation.
"Tha's okay, Cath, go 'head. Go be with Linds." The sedative was thickening Nick's accent and making his words slur slightly.
"I'll come back tomorrow, I promise," she said quickly, moving closer to give him a hug. But seeing all the tubes and monitors attached to him, she settled for simply kissing the top of his head.
Janine watched the other woman walk quickly out of the room, swiping at her eyes. The psychologist stayed in the room with the remaining CSIs for several more minutes before quietly slipping back out to the waiting room. As she emerged from the room, Sheriff Atwater moved to join her.
"So, what's the verdict?" he asked.
"Well, it's a little difficult to tell at this point. These were just preliminary meetings. I'm going to need to see all of them again for more in-depth sessions. But, in the meantime, there's no reason they can't return to work whenever they're ready. I don't think any of them is a potential danger. I'll speak to Stokes when he's rested and a little more coherent."
"All right, I'll make all the arrangements."
"Thank you. I don't think you need to worry too much, Sheriff. These are good people. They obviously all care about each other and that's good start. They'll get through this."
Janine shrugged. "It's entirely too early to say at this point."
To be continued...
Author's note: for anyone interested. Here are some of my sources:
"Anaphylaxis", Medline Plus, online medical encyclopedia, a service of the U. S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health.
"About Anaphylaxis", Allergic Reactions Central
"Protect Against Potentially Deadly Fire Ant Stings", Linda Anderson, AgNews, News and Public Affairs, Texas A&M University System Agriculture Program.