Nick pointed to the far table, where a sign reading Tres Mechante Enterprises was decorated with garlands and candy canes. Under it, a five foot fuzzy Cuddle Honey was propped up, the green fur unmistakable. Sara strode over, Nick at her side. They approached the booth and stared at the enormous toy for a long moment.
“Think it’s a match for our fibers?” Nick demanded. Sara turned to him.
“What do you think I am, your X-ray girl? We’ll need a sample before we’ll know. Got a bindle?”
A clerk glided over, his demeanor slightly nervous as he spoke to them. “Help you?”
“Uh, yeah, we’d like to get a sample of fur from that Cuddle Honey,“ Sara asked with a tight smile.
The clerk shook his head. “No. I’m afraid not. It’s not for sale, it’s just a display item.”
“I’m afraid yes, Amigo. This particular warrant covers any and all booths on this convention floor, specifically those with Cuddle Honeys on display, so . . .” Nick told him with a hard smile.
The clerk turned and grabbed the huge animal, then began to run, shoving the table out of the way. Startled, Nick made a swipe at him, but the table slammed him against his thighs. Sara took off, chasing the fleet but panicky clerk through the crowded aisle of the Toy Emposium, weaving in and out among the startled shoppers and finally tackling him just beyond the snack food stand at the far end. Security guards descended on them in a ring, and Sara scrambled to her hands and knees.
“Whoah!" Nick pushed his way forward and helped her up absently, then knelt to look at the doll lying on the floor.
The seam on one side of the green fur had split, and poking out of the hole was a tiny giraffe head. Sara reached in her pocket for a glove, swiftly rolling it on. She tugged on the tiny animal, and as she did so, three more fell out: A pair of lion cubs and lifelike chimpy.
Nick grinned at her, but it faded as he reached out a hand and wiped a thumb above her top lip, then showed it to her.
Sara reached for a tissue.
*** *** ***
“Corporate theft, “ Catherine sighed. She fished through the file in front of her and tapped the photograph there.
“Gary Hamilton, part time clerk for Tres Mechant, full-time employee of Sevnoomsel Incorporated. They’ve been making bad decisions for a while now, and were on the verge of bankruptcy going into this Emposium. Gary decided to change that by stealing from his competitors.”
Sara picked up the case, nodding. “He got himself hired at Tres Mechant before the show, and ran the booth. When he carried the day’s receipts to the vaults, he took the Cuddle Honey with him and the security clerk thought nothing of it because so many of the merchants had all sorts of odds and ends with them. A pair of cotton gloves kept his prints off the Silly Putty he stuck on the cameras. Gary knew which safes were assigned to Belec and G/S, and he also knew the ONE major fault of the Convention Security area—“
Grissom shook his head, “—Which was that every vault uses the same combination.”
Sara and Catherine chuckled; Nick joined in. He leaned back and locked his hands behind his head, grinning as he spoke up.
“I suppose it normally doesn’t matter, since most folks using the conventions center aren’t long term tenants or anything, but man, that particular security issue has GOT to be changed.”
“No kidding,” Grissom muttered, rubbing his eyes.
Catherine tapped the file in front of her with a long nail. “Well, we managed to recover the stolen properties, Hamilton confessed to the theft and the Emposium is due to end tonight, so—case closed.”
“For now,” Grissom conceded, “But the convention center owners aren’t going to like hearing that their little security cost-cutting measure has probably lost them the Emposium’s business for next year.”
Everyone stood, stretching and gathering files, taking a break for the moment. Warrick came in and handed Grissom a note while Catherine slipped out, dodging both the mistletoe and Nick to head down to the locker room.
Grissom glanced over the slip in his hand. “How many bodies at the site?” he asked, squinting.
Warrick pointed with his chin. “Three for sure. Maybe more. A couple of hikers found them a few hours ago.”
Grissom drew himself up and frowned. “So that’s at least three different timelines . . . Okay, I’ll get out to the scene. You and Sara get a few Styrofoam boards delivered to my office then, would you? And see if you can round up those T pins I like, the—“
“—Stainless steel ones,” Both Warrick and Sara chimed in together, grinning at the sound of their duet.
Grissom shot them patient looks. “Just indulge me, all right?”
“Don’t we always?” came Sara’s cheeky reply. At that, Grissom merely cocked his head, watching her back up through the doorway and straight into an amused Jim Brass. He quickly slipped his arms around her waist and planted a light kiss along her temple, then raised his brows at her inquiringly.
Sara blushed. “Hey!” she squeaked, looking up and realizing her location.
Brass sighed. “I knew if I hung around here long enough I’d eventually land something nice.”
He let Sara go; she smiled up at him and spun away down the hall. Brass reached for the clipboard, jauntily listing the encounter as Grissom folded his arms over his chest and shot him a mild glare. “A little Christmas stalking?”
Brass waved his hand to dismiss it, but his smirk remained. “Better than sampling the fruitcake. And speaking of fruitcakes, we need to get out to that site as soon as possible. They’re calling for rain tonight.”
*** *** ***
Grissom held out his hand without looking away from the board; obligingly Sara lightly set another pin gently in his grasp.
“—And HERE we have the post-larval stage with the blowflies just emerging, which puts the timeline RIGHT where I estimated it would be.”
Sara smiled at him, crossing her arms, her chocolate eyes gleaming. “Amazing.”
He smiled back, and moving too quickly, jabbed the top of his forefinger instead of the blowfly. Sara hid her smirk as he winced.
“Ow! Maybe not THAT part," came his weak retort as she fished out the office first aid kit from under the stainless steel sink. He tugged the pin out of his fingertip with a wince.
“You suffer for your art," she rallied, spraying his wounded finger heavily with Bactine and deftly dabbing the trickle of blood away. Grissom let her cup his hand, his shoulders relaxing slightly; Sara peeled open a Band Aid as Catherine peeked in the office. A glance at the bloodied pin on the desk confirmed her guess and she grinned.
“Boss man got an owie? Awwwww--”
“Somebody’s gotta kiss it to make it better,” Grissom held up his bandaged finger.
Catherine made a face. “I’M not kissing fingers that touch bugs,” she backed away and moved down the hall.
Sara shrugged. “Her loss." She bent to drop a light press of her warm lips on the tan bandage circling his index finger, lingering a moment.
“My gain,” he finished, smiling gently. Sara moved away reluctantly, well aware of the need to maintain a professional distance again.
Grissom turned back to the board, but spoke over his shoulder. “You’re sure you don’t mind not seeing your folks at Christmas?” his tone was low and slightly worried; Sara glanced up from the specimen jar at him.
“It’s not a matter of minding . . . I don’t worry about it since I’ll be up there either in January or February. But I am nervous about Christmas. Sort of . . .” she admitted, carefully picking up the small fly with a pair of tweezers and bringing it to him. Grissom turned a slightly surprised look at her and she coughed a little adding, “I’ve never spent Christmas WITH anyone before.”
Grissom thought for a moment. “Me either. Aside from Mom and Alex.”
Both of them looked at each other for a warm minute, and Sara carefully held the bug on the board with the tweezers as Grissom pinned it. He scrawled a notation under the insect then stood back, looking over the timeline, concentrating on it. Sara came up around his shoulder and glanced at the board with him. “So—the first body was dumped about fifteen months ago . . . And the second?”
“About five months later. The last one’s fairly fresh, so as far as we can determine on this, his pattern is to kill about twice a year, with these deaths happening in March, then August and now December, roughly. Shall we go see what Robbins has for us?”
They moved down the hall together, speaking in undertones, easily picking up the thread of their personal conversation once more as they headed for the morgue.
“All this means is we get to establish our own traditions then. Start from scratch,” Grissom mused thoughtfully.
“So eggnog and hanging stockings, and reading The Night Before Christmas are on the table,” Sara offered impishly, “Along with setting out luminarias and a plate for Santa, and throwing away fruitcake—“
“I LIKE fruitcake!” Grissom objected, holding the big stainless steel door open for Sara. She shot him a disbelieving stare as she pulled a folded paper smock from the shelf near the door.
“You. Like. Fruitcake.” She echoed, somewhat weakly.
Grissom nodded, pulling on his own smock. “Love it. I’ve never understood the amount of derision and abuse heaped on a perfectly innocent holiday offering. In fact, my aunt used to make this one brandy, walnut, apricot and pineapple fruitcake . . .” Grissom sighed gustily, lost in memory for a moment. Sara rolled her eyes and led the way through the double doors to the main room of the morgue.
Doc Robbins looked up at them, and for a moment his baby blues twinkled brightly before he managed a nod of greeting. “Here about your three gentlemen from the foothills I take it. Well, cause of death is pretty self-evident, but I’ll walk you through it. Strangulation, plain and simple. The ligature marks are still evident in the latest body, but even with only skeletal remains here with the first one the crushed larynx is clearly visible . . .”
The debriefing went on, with both Sara and Grissom asking pertinent questions. Finally Robbins sighed and limped over to the end of the table, shaking his head. “That’s as much as I can tell you right now, guys. From the look of the wounds, I can’t say for sure that it’s the same killer, but--I've got a feeling about this one.”
Grissom nodded in agreement. Sara glanced back at the three bodies side by side on the stainless steel gurneys and crossed her arms.
“So we’ve got to find the common link. And that will happen once we know who they were,” she summarized softly.
*** *** ***
Catherine breathed a sigh of relief, hopping off the chair and hurriedly shoving it back against the wall of Grissom’s office. The room was dark, with only a reading lamp illuminating his desk at the moment. In the hallway, Greg grinned as Catherine looked right and left when she stepped out towards him.
“My lucky night! Shall you and I christen this sprig together oh loveliest of CSIs?”
“You’re too young, I’m too . . . experienced, and anyway, you’ve used up your allotment, Smoochmaster Sanders."
Greg slapped a hand over his heart, dramatically staggering back. “Catherine you wound me! I figured as a fellow parent you might understand the difficulty of working a little affection into our busy schedules.”
“Greg, don’t play the loveless card with me—last count on the break room clipboard you’ve kissyfaced your way through the entire LVPD tech directory, buddy!” Catherine accused playfully.
Greg sighed, not in the least embarrassed. “I have Hojem lips—generally irresistible. It’s a Norwegian curse.”
“Obviously,” Catherine grinned despite herself.
Greg let his gaze drift back up to the doorway of Grissom’s office. “Ensnaring the bossman . . . devious.”
“Ah, I see. The Sidle clause,” Greg sighed. Startled, Catherine looked at him and he shrugged. “Come on, a person would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see the mutual attraction goin’ on there. Ever stand between them? It’s like being in a pheromone crossfire.”
Catherine nodded a little, her smile widening at Greg’s slightly forlorn tone. She reached out and patted his arm gently, her touch as comforting as she dared risk. He cocked his head and met her gaze. “So, my soulful puppy look getting to you yet?”
“Down, boy. And no doubling up on THIS mistletoe, understand? You’ll end up with Mono before Christmas at the rate you’re going.”
“Totally worth it," Greg replied dreamily, rubbing the palms of his artistic hands together.
*** *** ***
Sara glanced over at the stack of mail in Grissom’s hand as he unlocked the front door. He’d made it home only a few minutes before her, and was checking through the envelopes as she brushed by his shoulder and moved to hang up her coat. Discreetly, she tucked a blood speckled Kleenex into her pocket and rubbed under her nose, then turned to face him.
“Thinking about getting your mail redirected here?”
“Yes. But after the holiday season," he picked out a bright red envelope and smiled, holding it up and staring at the gold ink on it. “Oh my. A Christmas card from Betsy Ryderson-Hayes.”
Sara turned on the tree lights, admired them a moment, then looked over at him and the envelope, shrugging. “Who’s that?”
Grissom’s expression went soft; he shot a sideways look at Sara, as if gauging his moment, then softly murmured,“My former wife.”
Sara swayed a bit then recovered, crossing her arms and tipping her head up at him, eyes big, lower lip thrust out. Her skeptical expression did him in; Grissom set the mail down and pulled her into his arms. Carefully he cuddled her tense body close to him. He sighed.
“I was young, so was she. I married Betsy Ryderson a grand total of eleven times, Sara. Sometimes we had a son, and each time the relationship ended amicably. It was financially rewarding for me.”
Sara blinked a moment, then a tiny smile touched the corner of her mouth as she kept her gaze locked on his. She drew in a breath. “Okay, I think you better tell me ALL the details of this bombshell before I brain you with a Yule log, Grissom!”
He steered her to the sofa, and pulled her onto his lap, settling Sara in before he cleared his throat. In the semidarkness, their faces illuminated by the twinkling tree lights, Grissom began.
“Once upon a time . . ."
The kitchen clock light flashed at the half hour. Three thirty on a Tuesday afternoon in late September. Hunched over the kitchen table, a lanky teenager in jeans and a faded Rolling Stones tour tee shirt squinted at the two-page spread of the Periodic Table of Elements and scribbled something in the notebook before him. He needed a haircut; his curls were long and hanging into his eyes.
“Griss! You hafta marry me!” came the insistent demand. Grissom looked up from his chemistry textbook at Betsy Ryderson, who held out her grubby little hand with the imperiousness of a queen.
He blinked, trying to switch gears. Betsy gave a loud sigh.
“Betsy, I have to study. I don’t have time to marry you today. Can’t you just play with Ernie instead?”
Hearing his name, the retriever under the kitchen table snuffled, poking his black nose out hopefully. Betsy patted it but shook her head, blonde braids whipping around her skinny neck.
“I’ll play that Ernie’s our baby but we hafta get married and then I can go shopping while you go to the war.”
Grissom sighed a little, well aware of Betsy’s persistence. A little in awe of it, actually. For a seven year old she had remarkable lungpower, and a will of iron, making her hard to ignore when she wanted something. Fortunately they’d worked out a pretty good compromise for the past week, so he reached for the yellow wire twist tie on the package of bread, sighing.
Whatever it took to keep the peace in this babysitting job.
“All right. Come here," He looped the wire around the stubby ring finger of her left hand, twisting the ends together and forming a butterfly from the left over lengths as he rapidly spoke.
“I Gil solemnly plight my troth to you Betsy with this ring, we’re now man and wife, bibbidy bobbidy boo.”
Betsy giggled, staring at the wire butterfly and waggling her hand. Satisfied, she dropped to her hands and knees to crawl under the table, where Ernie proceeded to wash her face. Grissom turned a page of his book, making a quick note in the margin. The house was quiet for a moment, then Betsy’s voice called up.
“Can I get an Otter Pop?”
“Yep,” he replied absently.
Betsy dragged one of the kitchen chairs over to the refrigerator and clambered up on it to reach the freezer. Ernie followed her, wagging his tail, alert for any possible spillage of edibles. The girl pulled a purple one and a green one down, hopping to the linoleum and carefully bringing the green over to Grissom. He shot her a brief smile.
“Thanks, my good wife.”
“Shhhhh. You’re in Vietnam while baby Ernie and I are waiting. You might get something shot off.”
“NO.” Grissom announced shortly, using his teeth to tear open the pop. “Nothing of mine gets shot off.”
Betsy pouted a little, then tried to gnaw her frozen treat open with her incisors, since both her front teeth were missing. “But all the soljurs get stuff shot off, like their legs or their arms, or their heads. The news says so.”
“Yeah, well I’m one of the lucky ones, Bets. I make it through just fine so I can come home to you and my loving son, the golden retriever," Grissom declared, taking pity on the girl and deftly ripping open her Otter pop for her. She smiled at him in thanks and took it, slipping under the table again.
Silence again, broken only by the soft whine of Ernie. Grissom took another note and twirled his pencil, thinking hard. The phone rang.
Moving quickly, he reached it, flipped off the TTY and picked up the receiver as Betsy and Ernie came out from under the table. Half of the girl’s face was sticky and purple; Ernie was busily working on her chin.
“Gil? It’s Officer Munoz. Listen, I have something I need you to check out for me if you can.”
“Yes sir?” Grissom grabbed a section of the TTY paper and waited for the details. Betsy came over and watched him.
“Hit and run a few blocks from your house, over on Linden Street. Driver claims the old lady and her dog were clear of the crosswalk when the dog darted back and he hit them. I need you to tell me about the dog. Can you do it?”
Grissom looked at Betsy, then at his textbook on the table, then the clock. He drew in a breath.“Yes sir. Give me about twenty minutes to get out there. Has anybody touched the dog?”
“No son. Only the old lady. It’s a poodle, sort of grey, and it’s on the grass. I’ll be there waiting. And thank you.”
Betsy grinned up at him as he hung up the phone. “Are we getting ‘nother squished cat?”
“Nope. A dog this time. Remember, not a word to your mom or we’re both dead meat, okay Bets? You have to promise.”
Grissom checked the clock again, trying to calm himself. The exhilaration of working for Munoz was counterbalanced by the thought of Mrs. Ryderson’s potential hysterics if she ever knew her trusted babysitter was taking her daughter along periodically to collect roadkill. Betsy nodded solemnly, and then let Ernie finish washing her face. Grissom winced.
“That’s totally unsanitary, Bets—come on, soap and water while I get the gloves and trashbag. And I’m going to check, so do it right.”
*** *** ***
Ten minutes later the three of them were flying down the street. On the back of the bike seat, Betsy clung to Grissom’s lean back like a limpet while Ernie raced alongside the ancient Schwinn as it rolled down the street. Traffic was light, and Grissom knew his neighborhood well, cutting down a sloping section of road to reach his destination swiftly. The police car was still there, but the ambulance was gone, so only a few gawkers remained at the scene. Grissom eyed the skid marks on the pavement as he rolled up on the left side of the street and parked the bike. Betsy hopped down and followed him as he walked up to a beefy officer in a blue serge uniform.
“Ah, Gil. You made good time, kid. See you brought Little Bit with you again.”
Betsy giggled while Ernie snuffled through the short grass towards a bloody grey mound. Grissom whistled. The dog stopped and looked at him guiltily.
“Yeah, but she knows the rules. So what happened?”
Officer Munoz smiled briefly at the serious look the lanky boy flashed at him and cleared his throat before speaking. “No witnesses on this one, strictly the driver’s account. He claims the old lady and her dog were on the curb here when the dog turned back into the street and yanked her with him. Says there wasn’t time to stop and that’s how he ended up hitting them both.”
Grissom looked up and down the street for a moment, thinking. Further down the sidewalk a small cluster of teenagers loitered, shooting glances his way.
One of them, a big beefy redhead hooted derisively. “Well if it isn’t gruesome Grissom out getting his supper!”
Officer Munoz shot the boy a warning look; Grissom didn’t react at all, his attention turning from the road to the dead poodle on the grass. He knelt, studying it for a moment.
Betsy glared at the redheaded teenager. “You be quiet!”
The boy looked down at the small toothless girl and sneered.“Shut up, brat.”
“Knock it off Dave," Grissom warned over his shoulder without looking. Carefully he began to pull on a pair of bright yellow dishwashing gloves.
“Yeah. Griss is my husband!” Betsy announced loudly; the teenagers all bent over laughing at this unexpected information. Betsy stamped her foot indignantly. “He IS, and Ernie’s our baby!”
Even Officer Munoz was having trouble keeping a straight face at this comment as he finished writing up a report against the hood of the police car.
David wheezed. “Oh yeah, that’s probably why he eats puppy patê off the highway!"
Grissom carefully picked up the poodle and set it into the plastic bag, then stood up and slowly walked over. He stepped up to David, looking at him a long moment. “Hey David, heard back from the SAT board yet?” he asked softly.
The other boy flushed, his expression shifting into something between sullen and desperate. Grissom leaned closer. “Before you start insulting my wife and kid again, I’d think about who your mom’s going to ask to coach you through the math portion on your retest, okay?”
“You’re an asshole, Grissom,” David growled, backing up a step.
Grissom peeled his gloves off slowly. “Yeah, but I’m an asshole getting into UCLA. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got dinner waiting."
Betsy helped Grissom load the bag into the wire basket over the front wheel, and waved at David as she clambered on the back of the bike.
The teenager stiffened in anger, then looked at the officer. “Hey did you SEE that? She flipped me off!”
Officer Munoz shot the boy a lazy look. “Is that a fact? Well some wives are pretty protective of their husbands you know.”
Grissom reached the bottom of the hill and called to Betsy over his shoulder.“Hang on, I have to get us to the top—"
Betsy clutched handfuls of the black tee shirt around his waist. Grissom stood up on the pedals, pumping his hightops hard, gripping the handlebars as the cords stood out on his neck. Betsy laughed with delight while the old bike ground up the hill, Ernie galloping alongside. At the top, Grissom turned towards home, settling down on the seat once more, his curls damp with exertion, but his grin broad as he checked his Timex.
*** *** ***
Betsy looked over the edge of the enamel table, her eyes just over the top. Grissom flicked a compassionate glance at her for a moment. “Come on, I know you hate this part. Go play with your Barbies for a while, okay?”
“Okay,” the little girl let out a relieved sigh and skipped to the other side of the bomb shelter, puttering with her pink vinyl suitcase of dolls while Grissom set the grooming comb down and reached for the surgical scissors. He muttered a silent plea to Assisi, then began to cut. He gently peeled back the skin, moving carefully to expose the muscles of the little dog’s mangled shoulder joint. Across the cool cinderblock room, Betsy was singing a Jackson Five song and bouncing her Barbies along to it. After a while Grissom set his magnifying glass down and gave a little sigh. At that signal, his charge trotted over and looked up at him. A section of green towel mercifully covered the remains of Fifi.
“I’m hungry,” Betsy told him.
Grissom nodded. “Me too. Spaghettios?”
When Mrs. Ryderson showed up ten minutes later, Grissom and Betsy were at the kitchen table, companionably wolfing down bowls of warm noodles and meatballs together, with Ernie weaving around Betsy’s chair hopefully.
“Hi Betsy honey. Have you been a good girl for Gil today?” Mrs. Ryderson demanded, sweeping into the kitchen in her shiny green polyester pantsuit.
Betsy nodded, trying to talk through a mouthful of noodles. “Un huh. We got married again and then we went out on the bike to get—"
“Some fresh air,” Grissom finished, shooting Bets a quick look. The little girl flushed at her near slip, nodding vigorously.
Fortunately Mrs. Ryderson was too preoccupied with her wallet to notice the conspiracy. “That was very sweet of you, Gil. Now here’s what I owe you for today, and an advance for Thursday as well. Betsy honey, go get your things."
Betsy hopped off her chair and carelessly yanked the twist tie ring off her finger, handing it to Grissom. She flashed him a broad, toothless grin. “Next time I wanna flower shape one!”
After Betsy and her mom had climbed into their old yellow Matador and driven off, Grissom picked up the phone and dialed a number.
“Grissom. The driver lied, sir. The poodle had impact contusions on her left side. So she and her owner were still crossing the street from right to left.”
“Yeah I thought so. We found beer cans in the vehicle too. Thanks, Gil. If you drop off the write up with the front desk I’ll make sure the check gets cut before the end of the month.”
He made his way back down to the bomb shelter and the enamel table. Gently, Grissom scooped up the towel-covered remains of the little poodle and set them in an empty carton, carrying them up the stairs and out into the back yard. After loading the carton into the basket of the bike and whistling for Ernie, Grissom set out through the blue twilight, riding through the darkening streets until he reached a vacant lot a few blocks over. There, he skidded to a halt, carried the little mangled body to a spot under a pine, and dug a quick hole; Ernie helped.
Laying the little poodle in, Grissom murmured a quick prayer, then covered it up again, patting the dirt down smoothly over the mound. By now the last cries of the pelicans on the pier were echoing on the breeze, and Grissom hunkered down by the grave, one hand softly patting Ernie’s broad back while they sat together and watched night move in.
“ . . . So that’s how I ended up married and discarded almost a dozen times. I didn’t mind, and the money helped me get my first real microscope.”
Sara snorted sleepily. She burrowed against Grissom’s chest, muttering something softly, and he stroked her shoulders.
“What was that?”
“I said what does Betsy do now?”
“Ah. She’s a marriage counselor . . .”
Sara laughed. For long drowsy moments they sat entwined on the sofa while the colored lights of the tree flickered over them. Grissom smiled into Sara’s hair and he gently whispered, “Think you could handle being my trophy wife?”
His only response was a soft snore.