All right - I'm taking the plunge. Here is the first chapter of a story which explores my version of the events that brought Nick to to Las Vegas. I hope you enjoy.

A special thank you goes to ilovesara801 for her Spanish beta work - it's very much appreciated!

September 1997

Judge Bill Stokes looked weary as he sat down at the table in the kitchen, across from his wife.

"Anything?" she asked, anxiety etched into her pretty features.

"Nothin' new," her husband reported. "Last time anyone saw him was two nights ago."

"And PD can't do anything? Put out an APB? Trace his bank account? Nothing?"

"He's an adult, Jilly." Bill's tone was more harsh than he meant it to be, but he didn't correct himself. "There's been no crime committed and there's no suspicion of foul play."

Jillian looked away, shaking her head. "What's he doin', Bill?"

"I wish I knew. All we can do is wait for Nicky to contact us." He paused a moment, and then quietly ventured, "I might have an idea about where he is."

Jillian turned her head sharply, her eyes ablaze. "You just said there was nothing new."

He held up a hand. "There's nothing that anyone can confirm. I was followin' a hunch."

"What is it?"

"On Tuesday a marriage certificate was filed in Clark County, Nevada. The groom was listed as Nicholas P. Stokes."

Jillian's eyes were wide. "Who the hell was the bride?"

"Maria Serrano."

"But . . . the Serranos . . . they're gone. They've been gone for years."

Bill nodded. "I know, Jilly. I don't understand it myself. The fella I talked to recognized the groom's address as the Las Vegas PD. The bride's was a hospital or something. There very well could be some other Nicholas P. Stokes in the world eloping to, or living in, Las Vegas."

Jillian shook her head, unable to make sense of it. "What's he doin', Bill?" she repeated.

He mimicked her. "I wish I knew, Jilly."

Earlier That Month

Cleaning out the evidence room was the CSI equivalent of mucking out stalls. It stunk, but it had to be done. This was the assignment Nick Stokes, CSI Level I with the Dallas Police Department, had been given one afternoon as his shift kicked off. He hated it as much as he hated mucking stalls, although it wasn't because he was opposed to the work. It wasn't because it was a job for the low man on the totem pole, and he hadn't been the low man for a long time. It wasn't because his fellow CSIs smirked when he got handed the task, every quarter like clockwork, just because Captain Fischer enjoyed being able to hand grunt work to the son of a judge he greatly disliked. It wasn't even because he didn't get paid as much when he wasn't in the field, or that more often than not he missed out on good cases that got handed to rookies.

Really, it was because the moment everything was in order, it went to hell in a handbasket again.

He was gloomily muttering to himself about that fact when Captain Fischer rapped on the door frame with his knuckle.

"See me when you're done, Stokes." He was gone before Nick could turn around to reply.

Several hours later, Nick was covered in a layer of dust and sweat when he entered the captain's office. "You wanted to see me, Cap?"

"Yeah, Stokes . . . I got a job for you. You remember that fella with the dead Mexicans in his truck?"

Nick nodded, disquieted. "Yeah, I remember. Six Mexicans died so he could avoid the wrist-slap sentence he was gonna get for bringin' 'em over."

Fischer grunted. He wasn't going to get into it with Stokes again over immigration. "Got a call from a fella named Brass from Las Vegas lookin' for information. The fingerprints you found in the truck match a fella they got in custody, but he ain't talkin'. You're goin' to process."

"Process?" questioned Nick. "In Las Vegas?"

"Yeah, in Vegas," replied the captain impatiently. "The work don't come to you, Stokes."

"Right." The captain usually had a way of making Nick feel inept.

"Juneeta's got your flight and hotel all set. You better go home and pack; you leave in a couple hours."

"Can't I go tomorrow?" complained Nick, who was exhausted.

"No, Stokes. They need you ASAP."

Nick nodded. "Right. As soon as possible, after I'm done doin' your bitch work."

Fischer smirked. "That's right."

"It ain't funny, Fish."

"Don't cop an attitude with me, Stokes. I ain't in the mood. It ain't like you got somethin' to go home to anyway – you can sleep on the plane."

"This is gettin' old," spat Nick. "Maybe this let's-push-Nick's-buttons shit was funny when I was a rookie, but I ain't no more. I'm a good CSI, dammit – I have a ninety-four percent solve rate."

Fischer sighed. "What are you gonna do, Stokes? Complain to dear old dad? He can't help you."

Nick's throat constricted in anger at the mention of his father. He closed his eyes and swallowed several times in an effort to control it. Then he chuckled bitterly.

"What's funny?"

"You, Fish," replied Nick. "You're hilarious." Without explaining, he turned and walked away.

In the hallway, he allowed his features to take on the annoyance he felt at Captain Fischer, until he reached the department secretary's desk.

"Hola, Juanita," he said with a pleasant smile.

"Hola, Nicolas," she replied, always happy to talk to Nick. He was one of the very few considerate people she worked with; her English was decent but not perfect, and many officers complained that her accent was too thick. "Como estas?"

Nick grunted a little. "Consado y un poco enojado," he replied. "Y tu?"

"Mejor que tu," she replied with a smile. "Does this have to do with the trip to Las Vegas you're getting?"

"Ah, yes . . . Captain Fischer told me that Juneeta had my itinerary." He leaned on the desk a little, hoisting his eyebrow.

"Well, I don' know who Juneeta is, but I have your flight and hotel information here. I'll let her know I gave it to you." Smilingly she handed Nick an envelope.

"Gracias," he said as he took it, winking at her. "You know, you shouldn't keep covering for that Juneeta; she oughtta be pullin' her own weight."

"One day I will find her out," said Juanita, who, despite being very married, enjoyed her flirtations with Nick. "She'll get it then."

Nick winked at her again. "Good luck with that," he replied. "I'll see you in a few days." Juanita nodded and offered her own salutations, and Nick headed for the locker room.

Nick entered the front door of the apparently very busy Las Vegas Crime Lab. Approaching the front desk, he smiled at the frumpily dressed woman sitting at the telephone and greeted her.

"Hi there. I'm Nick Stokes from the Dallas Crime Lab." He flashed his ID, secured around his neck as usual. "Warrick Brown is expecting me."

"All right," replied Judy, the receptionist. "Just one moment, please." She picked up her phone and paged, and a few moments later Nick looked down the hall to find a tall black man approaching him.

"You Stokes?" he asked.

"That's right," replied Nick.

Warrick held out his hand for Nick to shake. "I'm Warrick Brown."

"Call me Nick," he said as he shook Warrick's hand. "Nice to meet you."

"Yeah, likewise," said Warrick as he turned toward the lab. "Why don't we take a minute to compare notes quick and then I'll take you on down to the garage. Captain Brass is holding our suspect. His passenger's in the hospital, looks pretty bad."

Nick nodded in understanding. "Not unusual," he replied as they walked. "We don't see a lot of this in Dallas, but every once in a while the Rangers will pull one over. You spend days in the back of an over-heated, moldy van or trailer, nothin' good's gonna happen. Drivers don't stop to get 'em food or water . . . or even let 'em out for air or to use the bathroom, if they can help it. They just get 'em where they're going as fast as possible."

"This guy says he didn't know he had live cargo," noted Warrick.

Nick smirked. "Yeah, sure," he replied. "And lemme guess – he feels just awful."

Warrick smiled as he led Nick into the conference room. "What, you don't believe him?"

Nick set his kit down and pulled out his file. "I believe the wad of cash I'm sure you found in his pocket." As the door clicked, Warrick took a seat next to Nick and opened his own file. "Though usually, the live cargo stays live. This guy left his truck on the side of the road with the door closed, latched, and padlocked. He had eleven people in the back; six of them died. Only reason Dallas PD is interested in chasin' the guy is 'cuz they weren't all illegal immigrants. There were two reporters in the mix. One of them was dead when PD opened the truck and one died a few days later in the hospital."

Warrick shook his head. "Man, that's a serious problem," he said angrily. "Six dead people and the only reason you're here is because of the two who were white?"

Nick paused a moment before he answered Warrick. "They were all Mexicans," he said quietly.


"It's a flawed system," continued Nick. "For most police departments the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The two reporters were US citizens. Their families want answers – they want justice. Most often all we do is send everyone back home, but this guy . . . I think they'd like to stick a needle in his arm."

Warrick shook his head. "I'm sorry. Guess I'm still not used to seeing what people are capable of."

Nick smiled. "Me either," he said. "But for the record, Brown . . . I'm here for all six of them."

Warrick nodded. "Then let's get this guy got," he said. "And you can call me Warrick."

Settling in a chair, Nick replied, "Well, Warrick, why don't you tell me what you know about Mr. Fingerprint."

Warrick sat across from him. "Right now we don't know anything; the guy won't talk. I'm pretty sure he can speak English, but he wouldn't even talk to the interpreter to tell her he wasn't going to talk."

"And what did y'all pick him up for?"

"Speeding," replied Warrick, which surprised Nick.

"You'd think he'd avoid that kind of attention."

"I think what's goin' on is that the driver and the girl who's in the hospital are related – I'm guessing father and daughter. He was picked up just off the strip. Told the officer he was trying to get to the hospital."

"Does the officer speak Spanish?"

"Yeah – Sam Vega; he's fluent. But now that the guy's sitting at PD he won't talk, not to anyone."

Just then, a stout, balding man in a suit knocked on the doorframe and entered. "The girl woke up," he said, addressing Warrick. "You comin'?"

Warrick looked up. "Yeah," he replied, and then gestured to Nick. "Brass, this is Nick Stokes from the Dallas crime lab. Nick, this is Captain Brass – he's our fearless leader here on the graveyard shift."

Nick and Brass shook hands. "Nice to meet you, sir," said Nick.

Brass smirked at him. "Likewise," he said.

"We were just comparing notes," said Warrick. "Let us get this locked up and we'll head over."

"I'm drivin'," said Brass as he left the room. Warrick sighed and shook his head.

Nick smiled at him. "You don't get along so well?"

Picking up the folder he'd set down just a moment before, Warrick shook his head. "Let's say we rub each other the wrong way."

"I can relate," replied Nick. "I don't exactly get along with mine, either."

"Must come with the title," said Warrick as they headed to the evidence locker.

In Brass' car on the way to the hospital, the three men shared small talk, which mostly involved Nick talking about himself and his experience. Nick thought Captain Brass was an amiable kind of guy – sarcastic and probably a bit tough, but he liked that. It reminded him of his Grandpa Stokes.

When they arrived they were directed to the Telemetry unit. Warrick remarked that he didn't think the girl had been that ill.

"It's not the trip that made her sick in the first place," replied Brass. "They're running tests on her to figure out what it is, but it doesn't look good."

"Food poisoning or something?" supposed Warrick as they approached the nurse's station.

"Might be malaria, if she's had bad water," said Nick.

Brass nodded his head at an approaching nurse. "I'm sure these lovely ladies can help us out," he said with a smile. "I'm Detective Jim Brass with LVPD. This is my colleague Warrick Brown, and Nick Stokes from the Dallas PD. We're here to see a young lady we brought in a few days ago."

"The one you wanted us to handcuff to the bed?" asked the nurse, tilting her head in the direction of one of the rooms. Nick's eyes followed her gesture.

"That's the one," replied Brass brightly. "What's her condition?"

"She's still not goin' anywhere and I'm still not letting you handcuff her," replied the nurse, unimpressed by the badge that Brass had flashed. "She's more stable than yesterday, but right now all we're providing her with is comfort measures. There's been no diagnosis yet. You'll have to talk to her doctor for that and he won't be around for about an hour."

"Can we go talk to her?" asked Warrick.

The nurse nodded. "Yeah, if she's awake."

Brass nodded. "Great. Thanks," he said as he turned toward the room. He and Warrick walked swiftly past Nick and entered. Nick followed.

"Good morning," said Brass, too loud and too cheery. The girl in the bed opened her eyes and turned her head slowly. Brass watched her blink once as he introduced himself, and she closed her eyes again. "We need to ask you some questions about the man you're traveling with. What's your name?"

Nick cleared his throat, and with a voice thick with unexpected emotion, told Brass, "Her name is Maria Isabel Garcia de Serrano."

Warrick looked around, expecting to see a chart, a get-well card, an ID – anything that would naturally have her name on it that he'd missed when his eyes initially swept the room. "How'd you know that?"

But Nick's eyes had locked on the girl's face when he entered the room, and hadn't moved. She was ill, that was certain – the rosy tint in her cocoa-colored cheeks had been replaced by a deathly pallor, her face was thin, and she was smaller than he remembered. But she was unmistakably there. After nine years of searching, wondering, and hoping, she was there. Maribel was with him again.

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(c) 2010 J. H. Thompson