The characters, setting and some of the dialogue belong to CBS and people who are definitely not me; I'm just borrowing them for a little while. No harm, no foul.

This is a pre-ep for 'Gum Drops', and a prequel to my story 'Red Rain' - no spoilers for the latter, but there are some spoilers (or at least hints!) for the former.

With many, MANY thank yous to procrastin8or951 for the help and beta'ing

And for those of you waiting for more 'Red Rain', the next chapter will be going up in the next couple of days - honest!

Learning To Fly

When his phone started to ring, Nick's first impulse was to ignore it. He was, after all, supposed to be off tonight. It wasn't quite his first night off since officially being cleared back for fieldwork, but it was the first one that he hadn't immediately assigned to doing as little as possible out of sheer exhaustion. He was finally back into his stride and he'd half been thinking about going out for a drink - just to prove to himself that he still knew how to go out and have a good time.

The fact that his phone was ringing at nine o'clock in the evening, however, strongly argued against it.

He debated the matter for another ring then shook his head. Who was he kidding? Being back into the routine also meant expecting nights off to evaporate faster than a glass of water left out in the Nevada desert, though that thought actually made him smile. If they were calling him, that meant that they felt he could take it.

And if they'd got to that point, who was he to tell them otherwise?

Nick picked up the phone and double checked the caller. It was, as he'd expected, Grissom. "Hey Gris."

"I'm sorry to call you on your night off," came the answer.

"But you need me to come in," Nick completed, already starting to haul himself off the couch.

"Not exactly. We need you to work, but not in Clark County."

Nick frowned even as he started for the bedroom so that he could locate his boots. "What's up?"

Grissom exhaled slowly. "Lincoln County Sheriff's department have asked for help. It seems they've got a bit of a situation up in Pioche--"


"It's a small town north of Caliente."

Nick winced. That would be a long ass drive. "So what's the situation?"

"The details are sketchy. It looks like they've got a murder on their hands and they don't really know what to do about it."

"That's it?"

"That's it," Grissom confirmed. "I think you can probably assume you're going to be out of town for at least a couple of days. Ecklie has said the department will cover any 'reasonable' expenses."

"Right. No surf'n'turf on room service." Nick balanced the phone between his shoulder and ear as he started hauling on his boots. "Does that mean he is covering gas?"

"Your guess is as good as mine."

Nick grunted. "Figures."

"How soon can you be on the road?"

"Fifteen minutes. Ten if I'm lucky." He hauled a bag out the closet and started tossing necessary sundries into it. "Am I meeting someone up there?"

"Sheriff Denis Brackett - and probably half a dozen or so deputies."


"He didn't ask for one. I'm assuming that means there's no actual body but a lot of blood."

"Sounds like." This was sounding more and more complicated by the second. "Who'm I picking up?"

There was a long moment of silence. "Nobody."

Nick nearly dropped the phone. "Excuse me?"

"Nick, at least until we know what we're dealing with, I can't spare anyone else."

"You're lettin' me work solo?" Nick still wasn't sure he necessarily believed what he was hearing. Given how long it had taken Grissom to decide he was ready to work solo, he'd fully expected that, after the events in May, it would take at least another three or four months before Grissom was ready to let him out of his sight. Either he wasn't giving Grissom enough credit or they were already seriously tapped out for the night, to the point where Grissom didn't actually have a choice. On balance, he suspected that was probably the latter.

"You're running point," Grissom corrected. "Whether you're working solo or not depends on what you find. I think you can handle that."

Or maybe he really hadn't been giving Grissom enough credit. "I'll check in when I know."

"Okay. I'll get Sheriff Brackett to give you a call in an hour or so - hopefully, he'll be able to give you a better idea of what you're heading into."

"Thanks, Gris."

The call ended and Nick fully turned his attention to packing. Just what was he actually going to need? It had been a while since he'd been called out to a scene outside of Clark County; it had been much, much longer since that call out had involved an overnight stay and given the unknown nature of this one, it was probably better to err on the side of caution. He smiled wryly.

Since when in life had he ever done that? He took chances. He leapt before he looked. That had been how he'd landed the job with the Dallas lab instead of taking up the place at law school. It had been how he'd put in the transfer to the field instead of carving out a nice cosy career as a lab rat. Hell, the move to Vegas had been one huge and uncalculated risk. And most of the time, he did seem to have got away with it, too.

Another wry smile crossed his face as he rescued a travel wash kit from the cabinet beneath his bathroom sink.

Of course, when it didn't work, it had a nasty habit of going not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong. And since the most recent occurrence of that had resulted in nearly three months of medical leave and another three of being treated with kid gloves, maybe exercising a little more caution was the way to go.

"Guess that means packing for decomp," he murmured, the wry smile making another appearance. "And hoping like hell that's overkill."

The drive north proved to be every bit as long as Nick had suspected it would be. It was, he realised about an hour in, the first time he'd really left the Las Vegas metro area since his abduction. Knowing that there was at least another couple of hours' drive ahead of him did bring on a brief moment of panic. Three hours, or more, stuck in a relatively small metal box on wheels? But before the panic had really been able to take hold, his cell phone had started to ring and by the time he'd finished talking with Sheriff Brackett there had been plenty of other things to fix his mind on.

Like what the hell could have happened in a town as sleepy as Pioche for an entire family to have disappeared.

As he now parked outside the McBride family's home, it was a question that he was no nearer to answering, beyond the suspicion that what ever had happened, it wasn't going to be simple or obvious. Crimes like this seldom were.

Switching the ignition off, Nick took a moment to work out what his best next step was. Logically, he ought to put the call in for back up now. If it was a missing persons investigation, the sooner it was underway the better and there wasn't likely to be much he could accomplish, just working on his own. On the other hand, he still only had a hazy idea of the crime scene - though Grissom's earlier suspicion of a lot of blood and no body had been confirmed by his conversation with Sheriff Brackett - and even if he did call for back up now, it wouldn't arrive for at least three hours. So, really, waiting until he'd done a walk through and had a much better idea of what he was facing seemed like the best way to go.

The thought occurred to him, as he grabbed a few necessities from his kit, that at no stage since talking with the sheriff had it crossed his mind to even try to work the case solo. That gave him a moment's pause. That was definitely a change. Granted, a crime like this would probably have led him to call in back up anyway, but six months earlier it would have been his second thought, not his first.

Nick sighed and shook his head. As disturbing as it was to realise how much his priorities had shifted, it wasn't something to wonder about right now. There was a case to investigate and a family that needed him to concentrate on the job at hand.

Checking he had everything he wanted for the walk through, he climbed out of the Denali just as a tall man in a police uniform approached. It didn't take much imagination to assume this was Sheriff Brackett. Nick offered him a smile and stuck out a hand in greeting.

Sheriff Brackett shook it and nodded. "Mr. Stokes - you made good time."

"Highway was quiet," Nick answered. "What do we have?"

The sheriff waved his hand towards the stoop. "No-one's been inside, but the house seems to be empty and, as I said on the phone, there's a lot of blood on the floor in the entryway. You can see it through the windows."

"Any signs of forced entry?"

Sheriff Brackett shook his head. "This isn't Las Vegas, Mr. Stokes. Round here, people don't see the need to keep their doors locked."

Nick nodded slowly. That was an attitude he knew well, though it had been years since he'd lived anywhere where it applied. "And the family were definitely supposed to be here? It's not a case of misunderstanding?"

Sheriff Brackett hitched a thumb in the direction the house's carport. "I know that Nina was talking about going up to Tahoe for a concert, but both their cars are right there."

Nick nodded again, slipped a pair of gloves from one of his vest pockets and started to pull them on. "Guess I'd better go see what I can find out."

"Is there anything I can do?"

That stopped Nick cold. He had never been asked by a cop what needed to be done on a case like this. Then again, all his experience, give or take the odd case, had been in large, built up areas. First in Dallas, then in Las Vegas. This was a tiny town far away from the bright lights of the city, where most of the crime probably amounted to little more than speeding and the occasional hunting violation. Maybe he shouldn't be so surprised that the local LEOs didn't know how to tackle it. "Not with the house," he finally answered, "but if the bodies aren't here, we're gonna need to find them."

The sheriff nodded. "I'll get my deputies to start the search, then."

Nick nodded and started up the steps. A quick glance through the window showed him the blood - all dried, making the scene at least twelve hours old, but not just confined to a single puddle. He could see at least one more pool, further in to the house and livid footprints criss-crossing the hallway. This was going to be complicated to process, that was for sure. If he'd had any doubts about getting back up, this view would have dispelled them.

He slipped plastic booties on over the soles of his shoes and then twisted the door knob. As Sheriff Brackett had indicated, the door was unlocked and opened easily. Had that been how the perpetrators had got in? The first blood pool was suspiciously close to the door which, to Nick's mind, suggested that someone in the house had actually opened the door to them and been, at the very least, badly wounded for their trouble.

Assuming, of course, that this was human blood.

Nick took out a swab and a test kit and crouched down to do just that. He couldn't quite imagine that it wasn't going to be human blood but caution and long experience had taught him that it was better to double check - particularly if and when the case came to trial. The test kit spat out a result: human. "Figures." The other pool would need to be checked as well, but that could wait. He had confirmation that there was at least one crime against a person. That was enough for the moment.

Getting back to his feet, Nick stepped further into the house. The footprints he'd already noted were leading off in two directions, some going further into the first floor, some leading up the stairs. The sheer number of prints told him that there'd been several perpetrators and they'd been busy after whatever violence had taken place. The lack of bodies suggested one reason for that. Was theft another? Unlikely, he decided as he got level with the foot of the stairs. He could see at least one wallet and cell phone on the table beside the stairs, never mind the fact that the cars were still in place outside. So, what then? Was this just random violence? Domestic violence? Or something else?

He followed the footstep trail through the first floor, looking for anything that might suggest what had gone on, but all he found was a kitchen in a state of serious disarray - was that normal or was it a result of what had happened? - and a dining room with congealed pizza left lying haphazardly across the table. To judge by that, whatever had happened must have occurred either during or just after dinner. Looping back through the open plan living room, he was even more sure that theft was not an issue. This was the one area of the first floor where there were no signs of struggle or activity; nothing was ransacked, no desk drawers yanked out, no picture frames upset - and there were a lot of those.

Nick paused in front of the fireplace and took a look at the snapshots adorning the mantelshelf. They weren't that dissimilar to the photos that decorated his parents' ranch house. They all showed a very happy and loving family - mom, dad and two kids. He felt his heart clench. Which two out of the four had been attacked? And what had happened to the two who hadn't?

It was always bad when kids were involved.

He headed out of the living room and back to the stairs. Time to take a look and see where the other set of footprints led. As he climbed the stairs, though, he found he had to revise his estimates. There was a third pool of blood half way up the stairs. Three out of four, then. Who was left?

The footprints continued up the stairs. Nick followed them round to the right. He paused, briefly at the first bedroom door he found, but a quick glance through it suggested that it, like the living room, was largely untouched. A bag, half packed and sitting on the floor beside the end of the bed offered a little tangible proof of what the sheriff had said - it did look as though someone had been preparing for a trip. He moved on, following the prints further along the upstairs hallway and straight into the next bedroom, rather than on and round to the right.

But that made little sense. The bedroom belonged to the girl. That much was obvious, just by the colouring of the decor - he didn't think he'd seen quite this much pink in one place since Lindsey Willows had been persuaded to redecorate. There would be nothing of value in the room so what would the owner of the footprints be doing in here?

But the answer to that question came in an unwelcome flash: the girl was the survivor. She hadn't been attacked with the rest of her family, she'd been safe up here. Maybe she'd hidden when it had begun and the owner of the footprints had been sent up here to deal with her. To judge by the deep staining, the footprints' owner had stopped at the foot of the bed and then crouched down - all their weight driving the blood on their shoes deeper into the carpet than anywhere else - which suggested the girl had been hiding under the bed.

Had she been attacked there?

Nick crouched down and shone his Maglite beneath the bed. No sign of a blood pool there, just a plate of crusts, a shoe and an empty bottle of cough syrup. They would need more investigation later. For right now, though, he had what he needed. He slowly straightened again.

Three blood pools. Four missing people. With the amount of blood, the chances were good that three out of those four were dead - and probably murdered, given what he'd found up here, but he couldn't say that for certain. Not until the bodies were found and cause of death pronounced. That left one person still missing - and left her, quite probably, still alive.

He frowned as the curtains twisted in the nighttime breeze. The more he thought about it, the more he was sure that the girl was alive.

It was ridiculous. In cases like this, you seldom found any of the victims still alive. The crime scene was over twelve hours old, too, so even if she hadn't been attacked, why would the perpetrators leave her alive? It made no sense. And yet he couldn't shake the feeling. It was something deeper than gut instinct; something far stronger than just a hunch. And the longer he stood her, looking at her things, the more certain he became.

"They couldn't find what they were looking for."

Nick's head snapped up. He was alone in the house and yet he'd heard the words. Hadn't he? Or had he simply thought he'd heard them because they made so much sense. The to-ing and fro-ing downstairs did imply a search, though what it was for was a mystery just at present.

He turned and made his way out of the bedroom, half expecting that odd sense of certainty to fade once he was no longer surrounded by her things, but it didn't. He sighed. This was all he needed. He could almost hear Grissom saying, "Don't get emotionally involved, Nick." He could only imagine what whoever lucked out in getting sent up here would say, for that matter, should he mention this particular hunch. He shook his head and trotted back down the stairs. Until there was real, solid evidence, it was a theory he wasn't even going to mention - and maybe not even then.

Nick paused at the front door, to slip off the booties and remove the gloves. In the scrubby land in front of the house he could now see deputies walking the grid at the start of their search. Maybe they'd all get lucky and this would be wrapped up by lunch time. But in the same way he was certain about the girl's survival, he was equally certain that this wouldn't come together that quick. At least that was a certainty he could believe in.

"Sheriff - who called it in?" he called as he approached the older man.

"Anonymous 911 call," the sheriff answered.

Nick sighed and nodded. That figured. The usual rule of thumb was to treat the reporter of the crime as the first viable suspect, but untangling who an anonymous caller was would take time and might not reveal anything but a concerned burglar who had a fit of honesty at the sight of all the blood.

"Listen," Sheriff Brackett continued, "we haven't had a murder in all of Lincoln County in ten years, let alone a quadruple."

Nick winced. "Without the bodies, I can't confirm there was a murder."

"No offence, Mr. Stokes, but did you see the amount of blood in the house? Somebody's dead."

That was something that Nick couldn't argue about. Someone probably was dead. Probably three someones, in fact. Four, damnit. Probably four. He had to keep that straight in his mind or else he was going to go nuts. "What can you tell me about the family?"

Sheriff Brackett thought for a moment, then nodded. "Jude McBride - great guy; stay at home dad. Nina owns the local coffee shop. Jeremy's a junior in high school - smart kid. Ten-year-old daughter Cassie." He smiled faintly. "Pip squeak."

Cassie McBride. Nick turned the name around a couple of times in his mind, tying it to the images of the laughing, smiling blonde girl in the photos. She must have been terrified by what she would have heard. Poor kid. Left alone. Left till last. Left alive?

Why did he keep coming back to that idea?

Thanking the sheriff for the information, Nick pulled out his cell phone and dialled Grissom as he started back towards his Denali.

"What do you need?" Grissom asked, once pleasantries were dealt with.

"Whatever I can have," Nick answered. "This is big. Possible--" he hesitated a beat as the word triple threatened to come out, "possible quadruple, big scene and local LEOs who haven't dealt with a murder in ten years."

"Understood," said Grissom. "I can't make any promises, but you'll at least have Sara."

"Tell her to just drive straight through Pioche; the McBride house is on the northern edge of the town." Nick didn't bother adding that the rest of the graveyard shift would also be welcome; he knew that the sticking point wasn't Grissom's assignments but Ecklie's budget. "And you might want to warn her the scene's a mess."

"In what way?"

"Footprints everywhere," Nick answered, opening the trunk of his Denali.

"I'll warn her."

Grissom hung up and Nick returned his cell phone to his pocket. A glance at his watch told him that even if Sara left Las Vegas now, she wouldn't be here until nearing five am. That left him with two choices. He could either get Sheriff Brackett to point him in the direction of the local motel so that he could crash for a couple of hours or he could make a start on the processing. He smiled faintly and reached for the writing block and pencils. Two hours' sleep wasn't worth having, particularly if it generally took at least one hour to even manage a light doze. Better to get on and start the overall scene sketch and what processing he could accomplish before help arrived. And maybe, by focusing on the details, his brain would let go of the notion that Cassie McBride was still alive.

Nick smiled wryly and closed the Denali's trunk with a slam. One thing was certain. This was going to be a long case.