A/N: Welcome to my latest story! Involving a case, hopefully suspense, can't guarantee it'll be free from peril. Thanks to lily moonlight for the read-through, and suggestions. Reviews always hoped for, and will be replied to! :)
Disclaimer: I don't own the CSI characters.
Early morning rush hour. The sidewalks swarmed with people, each face indistinguishable in a sea of faces, while cars fought with yellow cabs for dominance of the roads.
The queue inside one of the myriad coffee shops seemed to stretch on forever. Jostled by an even more impatient customer from behind her, Stella checked her watch for what felt like the tenth time, to find that the second hand was ticking away much faster than she would have liked, time speeding up to match the frenetic pace of everyone around her, apart from the ones making it their objective to slow her down. Her foot tapped against the tiled floor as the old lady currently being served began to sift though a pile of change that was comprised mostly of cents to count out the price of her cup of tea.
Finally, her turn. The flustered girl behind the till looked up, greeting her by rote. "Good morning, ma'am, what can I get you today?" she asked, heart clearly not in the cheerfulness of the words.
"Medium white coffee, no sugar."
"Three dollars," the girl said, not needing to check the tariff. She punched details into the cash register, blonde hair coming askew from her ponytail, plastered-on smile contrasting with her flushed cheeks and the shadows under her eyes. Stella noticed her surreptiously checking her watch, and guessed that she had been on the night shift, now longing to go home and get some sleep. "It'll just be a minute, if you'll wait along there."
Standing now tapping her fingers on the wooden counter, Stella once again read the time, from the clock on the opposite wall, aware that she was probably going to be late for work. Not that it would matter too much if she was, but, as one who became easily irritated when forced to wait needlessly for others, she hated not being on time herself.
A cardboard cup with a corrugated sleeve was finally slid in front of her without a word, the man who had served it immediately turning to the next order. Stella took it and pushed her way through the small shop, holding the cup above the press of bodies, and out onto the street. She checked her watch once more and decided to risk walking the rest of the way to the labs anyway, rather than go by subway or take a cab. Her mood lifted as she passed the bright colours spilling from flower shops, clothing shops, fruit stalls, as shutters were lifted and doors hooked open.
She always enjoyed the feeling of walking the streets as the city began to come alive around her. People in business suits emerged from doorways and subway exits bleary-eyed, and joined queues spilling from yet another coffee shop. The air was full of noise, car and cab horns hooted impatiently as they ploughed through the clogged roads, overtaking, being overtaken, swerving to avoid each other, braking reluctantly at red lights while a river of pedestrians surged through the sudden gap formed by the parting of the sea of traffic.
It would be a beautiful day later. The sun, although in the sky for some hours, had yet to clear the tops of the skyscrapers to illuminate the ant maze at ground level. For now, the tall buildings resembled candles on their east-facing sides, with the top storeys flamed and bright, the wick of the lower levels still dull and grey as she looked up, past the buildings, at the pale blue of the sky. Soon it would be summer in more than just word, and the streets would swarm with tourists. More murders, more potential suspects.
Yet again, Stella checked her watch, and increased her pace. She remembered the coffee she was still holding and had to slow her pace for a second to take a sip, but as she was raising the cup to her mouth for the second time, a black-suited man with matching briefcase and shoes shoved past her, knocking the cup out of her hand, and she swore as it hit the sidewalk, plastic lid snapping off to spill its contents in a steaming puddle. She shot a death glare at the retreating figure, who didn't look round as he barged past other slower-moving pedestrians, which was probably in his best interests.
The smells emanating from yet another ubiquitous Starbucks tempted her, but she looked at the queue and sighed. The coffee machine in the break room would work. Should work. Well, it had better be working, because she didn't want to face a whole day without a dose of caffeine to wake her up. Should have left earlier, she told herself, as she had told herself on many mornings before now. Particularly on Mondays. Working the week round in shifts should in theory mean that the working week didn't start on any particular day, but for some reason Monday mornings still felt exactly like Monday mornings, even if the day following was scheduled for her day off. Which, this week, it wasn't.
Her steps were forced to slow as her way was partly blocked by a crowd gathered around a busker, a college-age student propped against a wall and playing a tune on a flute, one that she felt she ought to know, but couldn't quite pin down. Somehow it caught at her feet, tugging her footsteps into a rhythm and lightening her mood as she shouldered her way through, wishing she had time to stop and listen. But she didn't, and she continued.
Checking her watch again, Stella sighed, and resigned herself to giving up on her walk. There just wasn't enough time for it, and so she headed instead to where a subway entrance beckoned, joining the flow of people pouring into it and cascading down the steps. Reaching the platform, she was in time to see the red tail-lights of the train she had just missed disappear around the first bend in the tunnel, the echoes of the engine's roar muffled, and resigned herself to waiting for the next as speakers fixed high on the walls reminded her that unattended luggage would be removed without warning.
The momentary clear space in front of a coffee vendor selling at the back of the platform tempted her into buying a second cup of the day, and she sipped it as she waited, eyes idly scanning the crowd, rather than wasting time on the empty rail tracks and boards of adverts opposite. More people flowed down the steps, waiting to be carried away on trains to other identical stations. She wondered where they were all going, and if she would ever happen to see any of them again, and that trail of thought slid her into her standard game for when she was just waiting for something.
Guess the crime. It was a rather childish way to pass the time, especially for a trained criminalist, but she had a sneaking suspicion that all the cops she knew played it sometimes, without admitting it. Except Mac, of course, she thought, and a smile quirked onto her lips as she stared blandly with no eye contact at the thickset man in the suit and trilby hat, who only needed a cigar to become an old mobster boss, the haughty blonde with improbably high heels and even more improbably defined features who had murdered three husbands by serving them poisoned cocktails, the thin, pinched man with dark clothes and slightly shaded glasses who was clearly an assassin for one of the various secret services.
Her attention was suddenly drawn to a woman who was shoving her way through the growing press of people, face scrunched up in an expression of almost panicked urgency. She had an arm bent out in front of her, elbow foremost, and kept shooting glances feverishly over her shoulder. Her brown purse was clutched tight against her chest, with the strap looped over her shoulder. The glances behind her were snatched as if she couldn't help looking – as if she was being hunted. Stella stared in the same direction, but could see nothing unusual, no one who looked any more out of place than anyone else, nothing obvious that was inspiring this much panic, but something was clearly wrong. She began to move towards her, aiming to cut her off, pushing gently through the crowd with muttered apologies as they moved aside reluctantly.
The woman reached the edge of the platform and stood as far forward as she could, toes of her flat shoes sticking out over the rim, above the tracks, bobbing slightly on the balls of her feet. Her hand twisted tightly into the dark waves of her shoulder-length hair, and her head turned back and forth as she alternated between snatching wide-eyed glances behind her, and staring anxiously into the tunnel to the right, as if willing the train to arrive faster.
She had attracted attention from other people in the crowd, but no one was helping her, no one was asking her what the matter was. They were giving her sideways glances, and those nearest were turning their heads away, unwilling to be caught staring. No one wanted to get involved. A second-hand memory flared up in Stella as she tried to push her way through – Mac confronting serial killer Henry Darius on a packed subway train, and nobody, not one single person, had bothered to look round, or had noticed that in the corner a man had had his throat cut…
She gave up on politeness and began elbowing people out of the way with one arm, the coffee in her other hand held against her body, copying the woman's method of crowd-cutting, and finally reached her from the side, joining her in the only clear space, the slight ledge between the rim of paving and the yellow line, the space that frequent painted letters on the floor warned should be kept clear. She pulled her badge from her belt and held it up. "I'm a police officer. Are you alright?"
The woman jumped and spun to face Stella, eyes suddenly wide, face drained of colour. But as the words and police badge registered, the tension drained from her body and her features seemed to collapse in relief. "Oh, thank God, thank God. Can you help me?"
"I'm sure I can," Stella told her calmly. "What's happening?"
The woman opened her mouth, shooting another glance behind her, Stella's eyes following hers but still unable to tell what or who she should be looking at. "I think – "
Whatever she had begun to say was lost as the dragon-roar of an approaching train began to rattle and rumble through the tunnel, reverberating through the air and against the curved walls, filling Stella's ears. As the fiery headlamps began to light the darkness around the bend, suddenly the packed crowd behind the two of them made a stumbling surge forwards, just at that point, pushing them forwards, so that Stella had to lean back against someone to prevent being knocked over, struggling to regain her balance and her footing.
The woman was on the very edge of the platform already. The sudden wave of movement took her seemingly by surprise and she rocked with the impact of bodies against her, tripped forwards and stepped onto a space that wasn't solid, hands windmilling for support that wasn't there –
Stella lunged forwards, grabbed for her pullover, her arm, her hair, anything, the coffee cup and her badge forgotten even before they had left her grip. She reached out, caught something solid within her hand, tried to pull it back but was dragged forwards into the emptiness below by the weight she held, the shriek of the fast-approaching, desperately braking train all that she could hear, screaming through her ears and maybe through her mouth as well, and then the tension in her arm was suddenly gone as the woman's purse slipped from her shoulder in betrayal of its owner, and the woman fell just as the unstoppably vast body of the train tore towards them and Stella desperately struggled for her own balance but she was falling forward anyway, unstoppably, as the horrified face of the driver gaped at her from behind the glass –
Her flailing arm was suddenly grabbed and tugged from behind so that her fall forwards was changed to a fall sideways, and she hit the concrete slabs, hard, without having time to put a hand out to break her fall, her centre of gravity still on the platform but only half her body, knees sticking out, concrete cold against a suddenly bare foot, outstretched arm hanging into nothingness and nearly touching the metal of the juddering train which had stopped but not fast enough, the cold concrete rim of the platform stamped painfully into her cheek, the purse still clutched tight in her fingers.
Someone was screaming, a thin blade of sound that ripped through the fabric of the air. It wasn't her. She hadn't breathed in yet.
More shrieks as more people realised what had happened. The shockwave rippled backwards through the crowd, people bending to hear as the news passed them, shoving each other, all anxious now to get back from the edge, to get away. The train doors remained closed.
Winded, all Stella could do was lie there, shaking, staring down at the iron wheel of the train and a segment of the gravel lining the track. The woman was gone. She hadn't been fast enough, and she was just – gone.
A shocked hush spread outwards.
A disembodied announcement echoed from the speakers. "Please mind the gap between the train and the platform edge. Please mind the gap…"