A/N: This story is an alternative to the Mike Keppler story arc, and contains spoilers for Sweet Jane, Redrum, Meet Market and Law of Gravity. As for the title, I felt that Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken is more than appropriate as a representation for this AU. My greatest good fortune in this fandom is to have VR Trakowski as a beta; she is half-editor, half-muse and all compassionate to my desire to see everybody with a happy ending!
He wasn't like anybody I'd worked with before; that's for sure. I mean I've seen my share of guys—maybe MORE than my share, and in a town like Vegas you get all types. Boys, playboys, macho men, flaming flamboyant fellahs, broody aesthetes; you name a breed; we've got it here in spades.
But Mike was different. First of all, there was the suit. Yes, we have guys who wear suits in Vegas, but typically they're either full dress affairs with designer labels, or off-the rack duds for the conventioneer or businessman. Two ends of the spectrum right there, and a lot in between as well. I like suits for the most part; the right one can do a lot for a guy. Like Jim Brass. Even Sam and Eddie could carry them off when they had to.
Mike's suit though, was different. Pure working class, specifically East Coast. Brooks Brothers; dark enough for Fed, and not bad, but no great shakes either. When I first saw him, I thought 'Accountant' before I ever thought 'CSI', that's for sure. I was betting the tie was a clip-on too, but it turned out it wasn't, thank God. I don't know if I could have worked with anyone who wore a clip-on, to be honest; I mean there's geek and there's GEEK . . .
Anyway, he was tall and so damned quiet that it took me a while to get used to his style. See, Nick's never quiet, and Greg's pretty much a chatterbox at every scene. Sara's the sort of like Grissom; she concentrates and summarizes as she works, which is good. I never got the hang of Sofia talking things through, but I could see how it worked for her. Warrick says what needs to be said, and I know I can be pretty focused myself when I get in the mode. Different people, different styles; que sera, sera. But Mike Keppler redefined 'intense' for me. He looked at things as if he was memorizing them—which he probably was—and the entire time he was so quiet I wondered if he was another corpse on the scene, or I'd just lose track of him altogether.
Then he'd make some comment in that flat baritone of his and I'd remember he was around. I've always been a sucker for low voices, and Mike's was nice; flat East Coast accent which sounded a little odd on the ear until you got used to it. It was soothing though, and given some of the scenes we took in, that was sort of comforting.
He wasn't bad-looking as guys go, either: about six three, dark hair, pointed nose and the thickest, fullest eyelashes I'd ever seen on a man. It was completely unfair that Mother Nature would give him those when so many of us women were stuck filling ours out with mascara, but there you have it. Big shoulders, sort of lanky, but not comfortably coordinated like Warrick; efficient, not neccessarily graceful.
He wasn't wearing a wedding ring either, and from what I heard about his previous work I figured Mike Keppler wasn't the kind to stay put for very long. Being a CSI is a tough job, and the burnout/turnover rate gets higher all the time. Case in point: Grissom. I couldn't blame the guy for needing a sabbatical, even if it came at a crappy time, and although I probably could have been nicer about him going, I'm glad he came back.
Anyway, Mike was with me in the interim, and pretty gracious about it, considering we had about equal seniority. He was the new guy, sure, but he also had two years more experience, so I appreciated that he didn't just barge in and try to tell me how to run my shift. We handled the Doctor Dave case first out, and that one had me gritting my teeth, literally. Big jolly creepy as hell dentist, ugh! And all those poor girls who'd never get their names back . . . the sort of case that could sear into your heart if you let it.
Mike and I had lunch after that one, and I was pleased to see he was a meat and potatoes sort of guy. A little picky about his eggs, but he wasn't a dainty eater, and we got to chatting. He was easy to talk to, but hard to draw out.
And yeah, I noticed his shoe size. Ahem.
Las Vegas is one of those odd places that makes more than one first impression. There's the tourist side, with all the lights and glitter, the stuff right off the postcards. Then there's the under layer of the people who actually live here; the regular joes who man the casinos and cash registers and mini-marts. I've seen the same people in cities all over the country, and they remind me a bit of worker ants; just doing the job, not getting in anybody's way.
Then, under them are the leftover people—the ones who end up as my cases a good percentage of the time. Victims, unfortunately—people with no further down to go except into the ground, usually in a rough pine box, three to a stack.
Three layers, the same three any sociologist will tell you stratify society in any major metropolis—it was good to see them. Gave me a sense of stability to know that even in a new town, the game was the same, even if the accents and hours were different.
The only sour note was that the first case had me looking at a dead girl not much older than her early twenties. Too young and too pretty to be dead; too close to the vest for me in a lot of ways. Another problem was that I was looking at a partner who had a fair bit of va-voom to her as well. I understand it's Vegas, but I didn't expect that the glamour would extend through the law enforcement ranks.
Catherine Willows introduced herself and got in a reprimand all in the space of the first few minutes. I respected that—professional I can deal with. I also liked it that she didn't ask me a lot of questions until we were back at the lab together. That gave me time to put myself into the case and deal with what we were looking at.
After we got rolling, I put her into my mental grid: five six maybe, at a good weight for the frame, a woman not only capable of taking care of herself, but also determined to do it. I pegged her as a divorcee most likely, and bet she didn't have a problem getting a date on a weekend.
Wrong on both counts there, as I later found out. Ah well--I never was much of a betting sort of guy, even in a town full of slot machines, and this time it was a matter of being wrong in a right sort of way. Catherine made my transition to Vegas a lot easier, and I appreciated the way she included me in the cases. She was sharp, too—good with trace, and on the ball when it came to follow-through.
She also knew politics; something I generally steered clear of, whatever city I was in. Ever since Trenton I've kept my nose clean, no matter what. Sometimes it was easy; sometimes hard. I took flak for not playing the game in a few jurisdictions, but my convictions were solid, despite the ever lingering presence of--
Anyway, as I said, Catherine made my transition smoother than usual, and considering all the ones I'd made in the last few years it was nice. A CSI at her rank could have made life hard for me, but she was pretty gracious about a lot of things. It was nice to pair up with someone who wasn't ten years younger, or ten years older, too. Somebody within my generation when it came to food, music and sports.
Someone who wore perfume.
So Grissom was gone—for a while anyway--and we had Mike. It wasn't a bad exchange, but still, it was going to take some time for things to settle in. We tried, but honestly, the cases didn't help. Doctor Dave was creepy enough, but when the undersheriff was breathing down our necks about the Zamesca case and Mike suggested reverse forensics—terrible idea. SUCH a terrible idea. I kept pointing out that my guys were too good to be fooled, and Mike kept telling me we didn't have to fool them long, but honestly? I hated every minute of it.
I mean yeah, we caught Thomas, but I'll never really get over how furious Nick was about the whole thing—about how all of them were pretty pissed off. I don't blame them, even though I'd never get them to believe me.
Then we had that God-awful tissue harvesting case, and after that everything went to hell when that retired cop, Frank McCarty came to Vegas. Things unraveled pretty fast at that point, and even though Grissom was back, my whole focus was on what the hell was going on with Mike. I mean he was a basket case, and in hindsight it's easy to see why, but at the time I just wasn't putting together any of the clues. My liking him was getting in the way, plain and simple.
And then, oh God, the shooting. I know Mike shot Frank to keep the bastard from shooting me, but that little insight only came to me later, when I was finally piecing things together. Things that bothered me a lot—like an EMT pronouncing in the back of an ambulance.
Wrong. Just—wrong. Paramedics have the authority to pronounce, not EMTS. Mike had been down less than fifteen minutes, and the amount of blood wasn't significant. They hustled him out of there with sirens and lights—why, if he was dead? I let Grissom steer me away, and I know my equilibrium was way, waaaaay off for the rest of the night, but somewhere in the back of my head I felt the way my team had during the Zamesca case.
So the first chance I got I went to Desert Palms morgue. Just to check—just to see. If there's one thing this job has ingrained into me, it's that tangible proof equals closure. I touched Eddie's body before it went to the funeral home; I held the bullets that killed Sam—I'm the kind of person who just . . . needs . . . that final, tactile evidence.
So I go in, showed my badge to the right people, and nobody knew anything about Mike's body. I got the polite runaround from the admitting desk, and the not so polite runaround from the administration for a while, but what it boiled down to was that nobody seemed to have any idea where the remains of my esteemed colleague were.
My bullshit detection meter kept rising, along with my temper until finally I decided to pull a favor from Al and get him to talk to his counterpart in the hospital morgue. The doctor here, Collette Dulac let me in and showed me around and I saw that she genuinely didn't know anything about two bodies from a shooting. She had McCarty, but nobody else. I asked her to keep my visit quiet and headed upstairs.
When you're tired and wrung out and emotionally in the crapper, sometimes the best thing is to catch a nap on a hospital sofa. Nobody bothers you—they all assume you're waiting for someone—and generally people keep their voices down if they pass by. I let myself curl up in this little alcove up in the ICU waiting room and did just that, trying to let go of enough to let my brain put little bits in place.
I also just needed to be away from work for a while.
I haven't had a spiritual belief system in a couple of decades, so the concept of returning from the dead is something I've only considered and dismissed from a medical point of view. It certainly wasn't the sort if event I ever thought I'd go through myself, so my return to consciousness if not life, was a little disconcerting.
I remembered being shot; that part was not fun at all, but after that, things are a little hazy. I know I shot Frank as well, and forgive me if I don't shed any more tears over that. I know what I did will never bring Amy back, but if he felt even a fraction of the agony she must have gone through, I'm fine with it. I failed her in life; any amends I could make in death were definitely worth the attempt.
And Catherine. I remember her shouting at me, telling me to hang in there, which would have made me laugh because that phrase always makes me think of that terrible poster from the Seventies—you know the one, with the distressed little kitten dangling from a clothesline? I never liked that one, personally. I know she meant well; but I was so tired and beaten down and ready to let go. People talk about the peace that closure brings, but they never mention how sometimes it can flatten you too.
But I woke up, which surprised the hell out of me, to be honest. I have a tougher constitution than I realized, I guess. Tubes everywhere, an ache in my gut and a headache from hell. Hospitals always smell the same; disinfectant and starchy sheets and plastic. I was thirsty, but the nurse told me I couldn't have any water. She did swab out my mouth with a sponge on a stick though, and that helped a bit.
After a while, a doctor came in—some lanky Texan with a thick mustache—and he told me I'd been lucky because the bullet had passed through me. Sure, it had punched through my small intestines and nicked the bottom of my stomach, but on the bright side it missed my spine so as trajectories go, it was fairly straightforward.
I didn't feel particularly lucky. Or smart. Or relieved. Between the pain medication and the thirst, my focus wasn't what it should have been, and under it all I just wanted to sleep, even though I wasn't sure--
Would I still have nightmares?
As it was I didn't find out for a long time anyway; I kind of hovered in that half-sleep state you get into after surgery—the one where you can't really tell day from night, and everything feels either completely static, or as if it's going in slow cycles of deja-vu. Nurses taking blood, checking your pulse, the same carts rolling past the same doorways, the same quiet pages over the intercoms. A sameness and a strangeness that settles in and makes you wonder if things have always been like this.
I had no idea what was going to happen to me, not that I much cared. Frank was dead, and with him, the last bloody chain that held me to the past. The state of Nevada would probably convict me for murder, but New Jersey would fight to extradite me for the prior. My only saving grace was that at least the DA here would know my side of the story—I'd Emailed it to him along with the combination to my locker for the evidence to back up my testimony. Either way I was due for time behind bars.
Somehow, this didn't feel like a bad thing.
I woke up with a bit of a stiff neck, but I felt better oddly enough. The sleep had done me good, and now I was ready to think about the bits and pieces that were still floating around in my head . . . after a cup of coffee. The vending machine made a decent cup, and after I poured in a few packets of sugar I felt almost human again. I called home and checked in with mom. She knew I was working the shooting, so she was pretty patient, which was a blessing. I told her I'd be home soon, and reminded her to make sure Lynds ate something before school, then I hung up.
The great thing about early morning in a hospital is that you can wander a little because the shift is changing and nobody's paying a lot of attention. I circled around the ICU and realized that the main hallway was empty, so I slowly made my way down it, trying to look as if I belonged there. First few doorways were hard to pass—part of me kept hoping even while part of me was trying to be realistic. As I tried to keep inconspicuous, I managed to peek into the first three rooms. An elderly woman with her head in bandages was in the first one. The second one was empty.
Just as I started to look in the third on, I heard a voice behind me, a low deep one. "You lost?"
I was afraid the jig was up, so I took a breath and got ready with my line of BS, hoping I could charm my way out of being the wrong place, but when I looked at the guy, I hesitated.
He wasn't a doctor, not in that outfit. This little old man was about my height, bald on top with a white fringe of hair around his head, and one of the biggest, bristliest mustaches I've ever seen. The thing under his lip looked like a roller from the car wash, honestly, but it was as white as the rest of his hair—what he had of any.
Sharp eyes; sort of a watery blue, thin shoulders. He had on a Hawaiian shirt with pink surfboards on it, and a baggy pair of Madras shorts in green and black, black socks and sandals. Skinny varicose veins all up and down his legs. In short: he looked like somebody's hippie grandfather. I wasn't sure what to say, but finally I spoke up. "Not lost, just . . . looking."
"Looking isn't always a good idea. You might find," he responded, and there was something in his tone that made me look a little more sharply at him. Then, very slowly, he winked, and I know it sounds stupid, but right then and there I got this weird feeling that this old man knew a lot more than I initially gave him credit for.
Then he sighed and motioned for me to come along with him. I was curious, so I did. We stepped around the corner, to one of the secondary rooms off the side, and he pushed open a door with no number on the outside of it. And yeah, on the bed, looking pasty and sluggish, but definitely alive---Mike Keppler.
I didn't know whether to smack him or hug him, so I settled for gritting my teeth. Mike looked over when the two of us came in, and anything I was going to yell at him died when I saw him smile. Just a little one, but it sort of slammed into me and I was next to his bed without really knowing how I got there.
"Catherine," he croaked.
"You look like hell," I blurted, mostly to keep from overreacting. I reached out—couldn't help myself really—and touched his hand. Cool, but definitely alive.
"Rough shift. I have an extra belly button now," he told me solemnly.