See Chapter One for disclaimers

By the time the plane reached Las Vegas it was pouring down rain and lightening had nearly caused them to be diverted away from McCarren International. Fate smiled on them briefly, though, and the electrical activity moved away long enough for them to be cleared for landing. The two rental cars Bailey had arranged prior to their leaving Atlanta was waiting for them to pick up the keys at the counter and once the luggage was in the trunk they left, heading for the bright lights of Vegas.

oOo

They all wanted to get to the Desert Palms hospital but it was decided that they would go to the Las Vegas crime lab instead and see what evidence had been recovered. John was vocal about wanting to see Jake but Bailey called the hospital and told them Jake was still in surgery and would be for another two hours so there was no point in going to the hospital and doing nothing.

The crime lab was bustling; it wasn't every day that a missing FBI agent was found and although there was some dislike for the feds following the so-called "Strip Strangler" incident, they also understood that the VCTF wasn't just more FBI agents. The agent they found and the woman still missing were friends and co-workers. "Agent Malone just called, the FBI team is on their way here, then they'll head over to the hospital," Captain Brass told the group that was in the garage processing the car.

"They want to take over the investigation, don't they?" Nick said, shaking his head.

"No, they don't, Nicky. They just want to find the person responsible and find their missing friend."

"Can you imagine if someone from CSI disappeared and we had to let someone else investigate?" Greg asked.

"That is why we are going to extend every professional courtesy to them, and share everything that we find." Grissom came in with a folder in his hand. "Find anything to tell us where this vehicle was before it appeared in the middle of the desert?"

"Plates are stolen, no big surprise there. Registration comes back to a salvage yard in Georgia that bought it for scrap three years ago. I tried to reach someone but according to the Georgia DMV that salvage yard closed two years ago when the owner died and all of the cars were scrapped."

"All but this one." Grissom tapped the car's hood with the folder before ducking down to watch Catherine swabbing the floor of the backseat. "What have you got?"

"Blood. Someone back here was hurt and bleeding, but not much so it must have been a superficial wound. There's no spatter to indicate that there was any kind of struggle."

"This whole thing makes no sense," Nick said, frustrated. "Since the steering wheel and door handles were wiped clean, I think we can assume that Agent Carter was not the driver, yet we found no other tracks near where the vehicle was found. So what happened to the driver? And why drive into the middle of the desert just to be just as stranded as your passengers?"

"Maybe whoever was driving didn't intend for them to get stranded," Grissom offered.

"Then why wasn't Agent Carter with Patrick and Nicole? And if Agent Carter escaped, why take the time to wipe down the steering wheel and the door handles instead of going after him?"

"Hopefully when we find our missing people, we'll know the answer to that, Nick."

oOo

"Are we taking over the investigation?" Grace asked while they were all waiting in the lobby for Captain Brass to meet them.

"No," Bailey answered, "we are not. The locals are more than capable of taking care of this. We're here because Jake's here and Nicole is still out there. We owe it to both of them to see this through. Captain Brass and the Sheriff have assured me that we will have complete access to any and all evidence."

"I just hope we're not too late," John said, walking over to stare at the rain pouring down just outside the glass doors.

"Don't think like that," Sam cautioned, rubbing his back as she came to stand behind him. "We'll find her."

"We've been saying that for the last two months, Sam." Ignoring her, he continuing to watch the rain as it caused the gutters to fill with water.


Two Months Earlier

Please help me. I don't want to die here.

John sat up with in bed, trembling, Nicole's plea still ringing in his ears.

It had been over a week since they had returned to Atlanta, and every time he closed his eyes to sleep he had the same nightmare. He was walking along in an area he didn't recognize, but he could see Nicole in the distance. She appeared to be standing near the edge of a cliff with a red valley spreading out before and below her. He started yelling her name but she didn't respond so he ran towards her and the side of the cliff gave way, sending her falling. He always woke up before he reached the edge to see what happened to her, but this time he heard her plea just as he was waking and it seemed so real but he knew that it couldn't have been. Her words must have been in his dream because she wasn't there.

Looking around the darkened room he could see Sam, still sleeping beside him, and he was thankful that he hadn't disturbed her. Slowly he got out of the bed, making sure Sam was still asleep before he left their bedroom for the play room that held Chloe's jungle gym and most of her other toys. The large glass window let the pink light of dawn filter in and he was content to just watch it, standing in silence as another day dawned. Another day that would bring them no closer to finding Nicole and Jake.

If she were there he had no doubt she would chide him for blaming himself and for giving up hope so soon. It had only been a week, after all, and yet it felt like it had been so much longer. This whole ordeal felt like it had dragged on for years.

"John?"

He turned and was greeted by a sleepy Sam in her pajamas, hair messed up and eyes half-open. "Yep, it's me."

"Why are you up so early?"

"Oh, you know, couldn't sleep and I didn't want to disturb you with my tossing and turning."

"Bad dreams?"

"Just couldn't sleep. You should go back to bed."

"Actually I got up early because I want to take Chloe to the zoo. Don't you remember? We talked about this last night. Bailey gave us his blessing to take time off from work, said it would do everyone some good to get away."

"Of course, I just didn't realize you wanted to get up this early to go to the zoo," he lied, wondering how he could have completely blanked out that conversation.

"You are coming with us, right?"

"Of course I am. How could I pass up the chance to spend the day with my two favorite girls?" That at least got a smile out of Sam.

"I'm going to wake Chloe up so she can start getting ready."

"At this hour? Sam, it's only 6:30."

"I just want to get an early start so we can make the most of this day off."

"Sam..."

"I feel like every minute has to count because it could be taken from us at any time just like they were."

"Shh, it's all right, Sam," he said as he put his arms around her and held her, feeling her sob against his chest. "We're all going to be okay."

"You don't know that."

"I do know that. We're strong, and Nicole and Jake are strong, and if we can't find them they'll find us. If there's one thing I learned it's that they're both too stubborn to give up." He kissed the top of her head and rubbed her back. "You sure you want to go to the zoo? Because we could just as easily stay in, watch movies or National Geographic all day and order some pizza..."

"No, I promise Chloe we were going out to the zoo. We need to get out of here and be outdoors. I think we've all spent far too much time enclosed for our own good."

"Angel coming with us too?"

"No, she wants to work on some of her sculptures."

"You go and get Chloe up while I fix us pancakes."

"You're going to fix pancakes?"

"Yes, I am going to fix pancakes. Go on, get Chloe while I start breakfast."

By the time Chloe and Sam came out to the kitchen John had mixed up pancake batter and was starting to pour it onto the griddle. "How did you do that so fast?" Sam asked, sitting at the table with her daughter.

"It's a secret," he said with a wink. "I hope you're both hungry."

"I am!" Chloe announced, and Sam laughed.

John found himself just watching them, taking in the sight of the two most precious people in his life laughing. It was something he had been afraid would never happen again, and he wondered if he would ever be able to laugh again.

oOo

Once breakfast was over with Chloe was practically dragging Sam and John to get ready so they could go.

"The animals aren't going anywhere, I promise," Sam told her daughter as she was practically running from the car to the entrance.

"I know Mommy, but it's been so long since we got to do something fun."

"Well there will be plenty of time to do fun things today," John said, "and maybe your Mom will let us go for pizza afterwards."

"Oh can we Mom? Can we?"

"Perhaps we can actually get to the zoo before we start planning what to do afterwards, ok?"

oOo

The trip to the zoo was more fun that John had expected, and he found himself relaxing and laughing along with Sam at the goofy things she and Chloe did. Seeing mother and daughter relaxed and having a good time made John feel more relaxed. Even the animals seemed calm and content in their enclosures, occasionally walking closer to the people or eating some food.

All too soon, according to Chloe anyway, the day was over and the zoo was getting ready to close. "So, can we have pizza?" John asked as Sam was digging in her purse for the car keys.

"Please?" Chloe joined in, hoping to convince her mother.

"Yes, we can have pizza," Sam answered.

Chloe got into the back seat, looking happier than Sam could remember her being in a long time. "So did you have some place in mind?" she asked John absently as they got in the car.

"As a matter of fact, I do. Do you know how to get to Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta?"

"Yes, I know how to get there."

"Great. Dinner is on me. It's the least I can do for my two favorite girls."

As they drove down the I-75 John gave Sam directions on what exit to take and in less than half an hour they were inside, waiting for a pepperoni and cheese pizza with extra sauce and mushrooms. John's cell phone rang and he pulled it from his pocket. 'UNKNOWN CALLER' showed on the screen so he pushed the button to silence the ringer before putting the phone back in his pocket. He was not going to let this dinner be interrupted by some unknown caller. Probably a damn advertisement or political campaign he thought as he watched Chloe gleefully taking a slice of pizza, the call forgotten as he joined in and grabbed himself some pizza.