Charlie maneuvered through the throng of county police, shoving her badge into the face of anyone who tried to stop her.
Close on her heels was her squad's best forensic analyst—who grumbled in dissatisfaction the moment they arrived.
"The heat," Claire answered, clutching her kit to her chest to relieve her shoulder of its bulky weight. "TOD is going to be off..."
"Sheriff!" Charlie called, greeting the man as he approached her. She extended her hand to hold Claire upright before the woman stumbled right into her. With a sheepish grin, the analyst muttered 'thanks' and peered curiously over the man's shoulder.
"Can you take us to the body?" Charlie asked, just to prevent awkward silence from fully settling in. The oppressive heat was bad enough.
"Of course," the Sheriff said, with a smile that was far from pleasant, and showed them into the warehouse. "It was left as we found it... as ordered."
Charlie nodded and put on her gear, glad that he wasn't the type to throw his weight around when a woman was put in charge.
When her eyes landed on the lump of flesh chained to an office chair, Claire was already suited up and taking pictures of the scene.
"Any witnesses?" Charlie side-eyed the sheriff, her attention primarily on the holes that perforated her side of the building.
When he shook his head, she smiled. "You should look into that."
The moment he left, a quiet laugh left Claire's lips. Charlie restrained herself from commenting on it and got right down to business. "What do we have?"
"Victim: adult male, Caucasian, late sixties. COD: multiple gunshot wounds to head and chest. Most were made postmortem." There was a click as the camera went off. "Culprit is this machine gun... Seems to be rigged to a sort of timer."
"This tub of unidentified corrosive," another click, "might be the cause of the chemical burns on the victim's left arm."
"A note on the container but no footprints near it."
"Same as the other murders then?"
"It's most likely our 'Ghost'." Claire peeled it off and bagged it. "The message is definitely similar. Instructions on how to get free. There's a key in the tub."
"The numbers on the note?"
"1...9...6...9. Only visible under UV as always." Claire said and put away the light. "Still don't know what they mean."
"Any DNA not related to the VIC?"
Claire got to her feet. "I'll have to comb the scene for more evidence. But for now, no."
"I'm Detective Cunningham, this is Claire Scott, CSI." Charlie held her up badge. "May we come in?"
"We are very sorry for your loss," Charlie told the woman, who only nodded mutely and shut the door.
"Do you mind if we take a look around?"
Agatha Roberts—the VIC's wife—shook her head. Rodney Roberts happened to be ex-military, just like the other twenty-three victims before him. It was the only lead they had so they had to work it for everything it had in hopes that they'd find something their background check had missed.
As Claire searched the bedrooms, Charlie took her time looking around the room. "When and where did you last see your husband?"
"Here. Yesterday morning. Before I went jogging."
"Do you usually go jogging?"
"Every day before sunrise."
"Are you sure you went that morning?"
"Robert keeps to a strict routine."
"Any change to it before he went missing?"
Charlie stopped in front of a photo and ran her fingers down its carved frame. "He was dedicated, I'm sure."
"Yes," Agatha said. "That was his platoon, just before he came back. He proposed that year..."
"Which year was that?"
She smiled sadly, staring wistfully at the image of her dead husband. "1969."
"Those digits again. They're definitely a message," Claire couldn't help but blurt out once they were back in the car.
"I took a pic of the photo."
"You saw our other VICS, right?"
"All of them, and the next two targets if we're lucky." Charlie started the car with one hand and unlocked her phone with the other.
"We have to find them."
"Might be too late for that." The detective grimaced as she read her newest notification. "One of them is already dead."
"Alexei Vladimir. Had to dig real deep to find his records, then owe some favors to get them unsealed." Charlie slammed the file on Claire's work desk. "But I'm damn glad I did. This is the only copy and it's worth it."
"Hey!" Claire snapped. "Be gentle with it."
"I know. I know. Wouldn't want our precious evidence to be invalidated because of me." Charlie laughed and patted the woman's hair. "The profilers say there are two of them. A woman is the mastermind and a man is her henchman. He does all the dirty work and heavy lifting. She plans how the VICS die."
"A woman?" Claire said with a slight blush. "What else?"
"The prints you got were cold hits too." Charlie sighed. "Well, at least they didn't belong to the wife."
"And get this, I know the other person in the photo."
"You never told me you liked older men," Claire said.
"It was a one-time thing. Now come on." Charlie headed for the door.
"I only go to crime scenes. You should take your partner with you for this."
"Why do you sound jealous?"
"Why do you seem reluctant? Are you hiding something from me?"
"Are you coming or not?" Charlie raised an eyebrow and held the door open.
"So Alexei was part of a special investigation. He was made and killed but everything was swept under the rug to avoid backlash from the public. He went missing in 1969 and was part of Rodney's platoon."
"Also, the killer waited until this year, twenty-thirteen, to kill thirteen people all in one go. It's symbolic and personal."
"Makes sense," Charlie nodded. "Looked into it. Alexei had a daughter due in '68. Annika Vladimir. It would make sense if she was the killer. She's completely off the grid."
Claire levelled a serious stare on Charlie. "Do you think she's at your boyfriend's place, right now?"
"CCPD!" Charlie walked through the door of William's house with her gun aimed true. She had left Claire in the car to call for backup in case she needed it.
"Will? We need to talk—"
Before she could get all the words out, pain exploded in her left shoulder. Cursing, she turned towards the kitchen. Someone had shot her while making a break for the door.
Charlie emptied her rounds into his back and saw him fall down to the porch just as her vision started to grow dim. Without looking at her arm, she knew that the wound was a lot worse than she had first thought. The hand she pressed to it did little to staunch the flow and soon her top was dyed red.
Gasping for breath, she staggered out of the house and leaned against the doorway, intending to check on the man she had shot and possibly killed.
The last thing she saw was a panicked Claire running towards her, and the last thing she felt was the softest touch of the woman's lips on hers.