Cold Comfort
by Luna

On Christmas Eve, when Nick was seven, his father came into his room and turned on the light. Nick was wide awake. He shut his eyes quickly, but his father just laughed. "It's okay," he said. "Come on. Get your sneakers."

He was too surprised to ask where they were going. Dad bundled him into the car and they drove, north out of Dallas, for a long time. Maybe they even crossed into Oklahoma. Dad stopped the car on a back road between two wide fields, and lifted Nick out, and said, "Look up."

Nick looked up at the most stars he'd seen or would ever see. So many stars that it was easy to believe that the black sky was just a moth-eaten blanket drawn over infinite white light. He raised his hands and felt the starlight slip through his fingers, cold and clear as water. His father laughed and swung Nick onto his shoulders.

"See that red light?" Dad said, pointing. He waited for Nick to find it. "Who do you think that could be?" Nick couldn't speak, only giggle in delighted awe.

Years later he knows that Rudolph was just the winking light on a plane's wing, and that his father got him out of the house so that his mother could wrap presents in peace. But adult knowledge can't touch the childhood memory, the exhilaration of seeing more stars every second he looked, barely out of his reach, if at all.

Years later, all he gets is a Christmas card.

It's Nick's first night off out of nine and he's going through the accumulated mail, bills and ads and ads disguised as bills, and then the thick creamy envelope with his address in his mother's writing. He tears it open with his thumbnail and shakes out the card. "Noel, Noel," it announces, in gilded letters above a watercolor snowstorm. He skims over the printed message inside. His mother's written a note, and underneath that his father's scrawled, quickly, "Trust all's well," and signed his name.

Nick blinks at the card and feels a surge of--not anger--a surge of nothing. No feeling at all but a distance, a disconnection. Almost an out of body experience. A lousy Christmas card. He tosses it on his couch and paces through his apartment, picking things up and putting them down. Pointless. He goes outside, down to his car. It's a hot night.

There are two ways to go from his parking lot, the desert or the Strip. He's at the stop sign with his fingers on the wheel. It's four in the morning, which is something like high noon when you work nights, and if he drives this disconnected feeling out into the desert he might never come back. Just ride his horse away over the horizon. He turns left.

How do you figure 'all's well,' Dad? If it's work, then I'm doing just fine. Dead hooker in a thousand-dollar hotel suite, night before last, probably twenty-five years old but looked sixteen. Looked like she'd just fallen asleep, in a baby doll T-shirt with a cartoon turtle on the front. Nick knew she'd been smothered from the bloodshot crescent of one half-open eye. She had her killer's skin under her pink-patterned fingernails. A slam dunk.

And he hasn't had a date in weeks, and, worse, he hardly cares.

He drives toward unnatural light, strobes and sparkles that play yellow off the sky. No stars; he can't even find the moon. The Tahoe's steering wheel pulls away under his hands as if it would turn instinctively toward the road he takes to work. Nick's grip tightens. He doesn't want to think about it.

The work, like this city, sheds a layer of mystery every day. He used to think of forensic science as magic, more or less, finding hidden evidence like the living rabbit in the empty hat. Not these days. Even among his open cases, cause and circumstance of death tell their tales. A discreet .22 caliber wound, just behind the ear, all the damage internal, is still sloppy with powder residue. They can always figure out where the gun was and how it was held when it was fired. There's always something.

He's driving through the outer ring of casinos and bars, now, the dominion of nickel slots and dime lap dances. Cheap and easy. He finds a place to park. Sure, he likes this stuff, as much as any guy, as much as he likes beer or softball or the badge and gun riding his hips. All's well. Yeah. It's been more than six weeks, even more than two months. Not exactly forever, but something's wrong.

Ten bucks at the door and he's inside a room full of red darkness, and girls in white spotlights with holly-berry nipples. He orders his beer and watches the girls, and the football game on the screen mounted in the corner, half a smile on his face.

You can tell a suffocation by the hemorrhages. A strangling is easier, because of the marks on the throat. He's had at least a dozen. Mostly women and a few men. And you wouldn't believe how they do it, he imagines he'd tell his father, if they had the type of relationship that allowed for casual conversation. Hands, ropes, chains, electrical cords, the terrycloth belt from a bathrobe. Sara had a case once, he remembers it vaguely, they found a woman with her own purse strings wrapped around her neck. Every implement leaves a unique ligature pattern. Find the how and you'll find the who, they say, and it's as true as it is tired.

A girl is aiming her breast implants in his direction, and he's thinking about stranglings, and Sara. A couple of thoughts that are pretty well linked in his head these days, and he wonders exactly how long Grissom plans to stall the decision on that promotion. He doesn't want to think like he's working tonight. But he looks at the dancer and misses the forest for the trees. The dark roots of her hair, a fading bruise stamped on her hip, a drop of sweat making its way south over her clavicle.

That's the problem: you can never put it away.

In college Nick was a Greek, and he loved being a Greek, no matter what people say about frat boys now. He was proud of it, his parents were proud of him, and of course there were the house and the parties. Once, he was a sophomore, they'd hired a call girl for somebody's birthday. Exactly the stereotype that pisses him off, but it happened. They were in a room, the call girl and Nick and a couple of his brothers, drunk and noisy in the glow of a lava lamp. One of the guys got her to kneel and unzip his fly with her teeth.

From a few feet away, Nick caught a glimpse of the call girl's eyes. The deer-in-a-blind, child-in-a-corner look in them, frightened and resigned at the same time. In the same second he lost his erection and his sense of belonging. Nobody noticed him leaving the room.

That was the night he decided to go into criminology, though his father would have preferred law school or at least an MBA. Something other than going out West and playing cowboy. But he knows now, as he knew then, that he's found his calling, as much as anyone ever does. It's where he's meant to be.

The stripper with the roots shimmies around to his table, and he does what is expected, slipping a bill into the thin ribbon over her hipbone. She squeezes his bicep as she wiggles into his lap. "Big guy," she says.

Nick snorts. "Bet you say that to all the boys."

She stares at him through glittering eyelashes. Her pupils are as large as lit coals. She's high on something. "Probably you're an asshole," she says. "Probably that's why you don't have a date tonight."

"I don't think so," he says, wondering if it's true and he just can't tell. Maybe he's changing. He tries to give her his widest, brightest grin. Old Faithful. "I'm pretty sure I'm just a regular guy."

"Regular guys," the stripper says, "are assholes."

"Not necessarily--"

"Please don't talk to me." She turns herself around, tickling his face with her hair, rolling her hips against his. It works a little, not as much as he'd hoped. He still feels far away from himself. The stripper probably feels the same way. The song she's dancing to--though this barely qualifies as dancing--is all gritty percussion and chanting: I can taste you on my lips and smell you in my clothes. A part of Nick longs for the blues.

Before the girl gets up and winds her way back to the stage, he asks her, "What's your name?"

She sucks on her lower lip, doubt peeking through her empty eyes. "Tiffany," she says, finally.

He shakes his head. "What's your real name?"

The stripper tosses her head and whirls away from him. Anger sounds in the clicks of her stilettos on the floor, and the music is practically growling in his ear. He knocks his second beer back, or maybe it's his third. His hand is not quite steady on the glass.

It's not hard to picture Catherine someplace like this. He's seen the way she handles a steering wheel, or a weapon; he's seen her move through a crowded room with the same fluidity she must have taken to the stage. He shuts his eyes and imagines her, dripping with spangles, flicking men away like ashes.

Now that's a sexy, single woman, he says, in his father's voice, inside his own head. What're you waiting for, Nicky?

He looks into the amber of his new beer and can't see the answer. Because Catherine's gotten to be like a big sister? Bullshit. He is, like he said, a regular guy; regular guys don't have female friends. Just women they don't have a chance with, and women they haven't gotten to yet. Because she outranks him? Sara's gone after Gil like he's the second coming of Valentino, and aside from a few crude water-cooler remarks it hasn't done her any damage. He doesn't really know the answer. Maybe he already sees too much of the women he works with, or else they see too much of him.

Maybe if they were wasted enough. He scans the room but 'Tiffany' is gone, and the music's turned jiggly and Eighties. Probably more than half the girls here are on something. It shows up subtly if you know where to look. The rims of eyelids and nostrils, the dark tattoo of needle marks hidden inside the thigh, the bend of the elbow, even between the fingers. And, of course, everything comes out in the blood. Well. He doesn't really want drugs, anyway.

The football game's over. He doesn't have any idea who won. He stands up and the room moves apart from him, in bright peppermint candy swirls. The bathroom first, and then he goes to settle his tab. The bartender, a black girl in a white bikini top, shows him her perfect teeth. He smiles back, automatic. Turns and leaves the club.

Outside it's a little warmer than it should be, warm enough that Nick shrugs his jacket off. He doesn't know who his mother's kidding with her snowbound cards; he's never actually seen a white Christmas. But that's okay, he likes living somewhere reliably hot and dry. He likes how he lives, as much as most do. He braces himself against his car with a fist, looking down at the dirty gray ground.

Nick hasn't been laid in six months, and he knows why. Yes, you do. He can peel his gloves off at the end of a shift, but the dust of the latex stays on his skin. The things he's seen, things he's smelled and touched, stay with him, too. When he looks at a woman, the first flare of attraction is drowned in the flood of too much vision, too much knowledge.

When he looks at a woman, he sees dermis, hair follicles, fingerprints, two hundred and six breakable bones. Blood, saliva, secretions, chambers of the heart, tissues of the cervix. Almost as soon as he wants someone he sees them stripped to a state of raw fragility. Mortality. No mystery at all.

He lets his forehead touch down on the roof of the Tahoe. Trust all's well. And if it's not, there's nothing he can do.

He gets in the driver's side and hits the steering wheel a couple times with the side of his hand. He should be too smart to drive drunk. He's seen the worst consequences splattered all over the main roads of the county. He stares through his dusty windshield at the bubbles of colored light, like a Christmas tree crushed under a giant's heel. All this electricity and noise, sex and money, it's all here to stave off the dead loneliness of the desert.

His eyelids fall shut. In their darkness he can remember the curves of every woman he's ever known, from high school cheerleaders to the girls inside the club. Warm in the shine of their skin. His hand struggles with the button of his jeans, slips inside: somehow it's easier when it's not real. He touches himself to get a sense that he's still there, and thinks about blissful ignorance. Oblivion.

These days, he is most intimate with death.

He comes with a little sigh; it's almost disappointing. Anticlimax. On the dashboard there are extra napkins from his nightly coffee. He mops himself up. Hands back on the wheel, he's not that drunk. He peels out into the street a little too fast, without really looking. Skid marks, burnt rubber on the road, trace evidence: they can tell who's to blame for every accident. Who's reckless, who's careless. His knuckles sharpen on the wheel.

Nobody takes any secrets to the grave, Nick reminds himself. The voice in his head still sounds like his father, or maybe more like Grissom. If anything happened to him, everyone would find out why. Which is how it should be. He has to remind himself of that, too.

Someone's taken his spot, so he has to squeeze the Tahoe into a skinny space by the wall. Napkins crumpled and dropped into the Dumpster, on the way to the stairs. He jingles his keys out of his pocket and lets himself in.

The apartment is darker then he left it; the lamp in the living room's burned out. Nick doesn't bother to replace it. He throws his jacket on the couch, over the card from his parents so that he can pretend it's not there. He doesn't need even the image of snow.

"Jesus was born in the desert, Mom," he says. The empty apartment agrees with him in its silence.

It's six o'clock in the morning. He walks around and pulls down all the shades. Soon the sun will rise, daylight blazing up the Strip and shocking the eyes of drunks and tourists. Shocking, when they realize they've been up all night making wishes on light bulbs instead of stars.

He lies back on his bed, under the ceiling's blank gray slate. He doesn't wish. He doesn't sleep.


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