Grissom straightened his tie, feeling slightly self-conscious as he did so. Next to him, Greg fidgeted, equally ill at ease in a surprisingly conservative suit of steel grey with a black shirt. He shot Grissom a look of concern, his normally cheerful expression strained.
“I appreciate this—“ he tried to speak, but the other man shook his head, a small reassuring smile on his face. He folded his arms over his chest as the two of them sat on the hard bench outside the courtroom, alone in the hall.
“It’s all right Greg, I’m glad to do it. If the judge’s caseload isn’t backed up too much we’ll both be able to make our shift on time as well.”
“Yeah. My mom should be her soon with his Royal Highness in tow,” Greg muttered, looking down at his long hands, which where twisting around each other. Neither he nor Grissom said anything for a moment, and both of them looked up when voices and footsteps from down the hall grew louder.
“I’m going to KEEP him, mom! If that judge thinks he can tell ME what to do he’s as f**ked up as Greg is.”
“Sondra honey, for God’s sake keep your voice down,” urged a more patrician tone and coming around the corner and into view came the two speakers. Grissom noted Greg going pale under the collar of his suit as he beheld the two blondes heading their way.
One was a tall elegant woman in a smart suit of soft green, her hair and make up artfully done to make her appear younger than she probably was. Her face however, bore evidence of strain and anger though she did her best to hide both as she saw them. The other woman was a willowy creature in a blue designer dress. Her big brown eyes narrowed into sneering expression focused exclusively on Greg.
“So where’s Wyatt, Greggie? Think you can get away with hiding him from me again? Well think twice buster, because after tonight you’re never getting him back!” she taunted, ignoring her mother’s tightening grip on her forearm.
“Hello, Sondra,” Greg managed in a coolly neutral voice that made Grissom proud. He turned his gaze on the other woman, “Patricia.”
“Greg,” the older woman acknowledged through thinning lips. Fascinated, Grissom watched the tensions shift and seethe among them as the four parties awkwardly stood in the courthouse hallway for a long moment.
“I asked a question, Greg. Where the hell is Wyatt?” Sondra hissed. Greg checked his watch in a smooth, unconcerned manner while Sondra finally turned her look on Grissom.
“And who the f**k is this, your lawyer?”
Before Grissom could answer, a breathless voice called to them from the other direction, and a stroller rounded the far corner of the hall.
“Oh Greg honey I’m sorry I’m late, but it was just terrible trying to find a parking space out there. Some Lexus was straddling the last two spots and I had to go up the street to one of the pay lots instead.”
A short slightly breathless woman in a sweater set and sensible shoes pushed the stroller up to them, a diaper bag on her shoulder. Riding in style, Wyatt looked up with his round-eyed baby gaze to take them all in; when he saw Greg he smiled and bounced excitedly.
“Missy,” Sondra’s mother muttered curtly. Greg’s mother managed a tight smile back.
Grissom noticed she didn’t greet, or even acknowledge Sondra, and her grip on the stroller was so tight her knuckles were white. Greg deftly unstrapped his son and hefted him up, smiling softly at the child, who immediately started yanking on his tie and burbling.
“Give him to me—“ Sondra insisted rudely. Greg shot her a cool look and shook his head.
“He’s still officially mine for the next forty minutes, and with any luck, after this, the rest of his life.”
Sondra’s cheeks grew red and her hands balled into fists; Grissom noted the cords on her neck standing out in her fury.
“I gave birth to him, he’s MINE.”
The sound of the heavy courtroom door opening ended the argument; a stern-looking clerk leaned out.
“Matthews/ Sanders custody? Come on in, please.”
*** *** ***
It was still half an hour until the shift started, but the break room was crowded.
“I’m telling you, he’s completely adorable!” Catherine cooed, rubbing noses with the Wyatt, who was fascinated by her strawberry blonde hair. Greg beamed.
“That he is, as long as he’s not wet, stinky, or into something. We’ve learned a LOT about babyproofing at Chez Sanders and now that the Wyattman is going to be living there full time, I suspect we need to hit Babies R Us again.”
“Oh can I go too?” Catherine asked wistfully as Nick took Wyatt from her and held him up high overhead. Wyatt burbled happily, kicking his new sporty baby striders.
“Man, he’s one solid kid, Greg—what’s your mom feeding him, bricks?” Nick grinned.
“We do serious Gerbers and Tender Harvest at our house, not to mention the occasional teething biscuit and slow bug off the floor—“ Greg replied. Grissom managed a smile at that.
“Most insects are a wonderful source of protein. And teaching him to hunt his own is a useful skill.”
As he said this, he looked over the group to catch Sara’s eye and she grinned, knowing his comment held a personal joke in it.
“Just as long as he doesn’t bring you back the kill—“ she added to Greg, who smiled.
“No fear of that. With Wyatt, what goes in the hand goes in the mouth almost immediately. Hey, Nick, I wouldn’t hold him over your head like—Ohhh man, let me get you some wipes---“
Sara shifted to stand next to Grissom, and in a glance between them they both remembered Figaro’s latest adventure.
The kitten had taken to Casa Caliente with ease, racing and pouncing through the rooms as his natural territory. Sara managed to secure a litterbox and a few bowls for him, and Grissom brought home a small red collar that Figaro detested completely. The first time out in the back yard, he successfully stalked and captured in rapid succession a cricket, a snail and a horned tomato worm, dragging them back to Grissom’s loafers with understandable pride.
“We have a vicious killer living with us,” Sara muttered, disengaging a bedraggled moth from tiny claws. Grissom sighed.
“Nature of the beast. The ecosystem in the back yard will just have to cope.”
The stalkings were minor compared to the climbing, however, and for the past three mornings in a row Sara and Grissom had returned from work to find Figaro meowing piteously, stranded up on the fireplace mantle, too scared to climb down from his lofty perch.
Shaking away thoughts of home, Grissom cleared his throat; Greg motioned for his mom to take Wyatt. Everyone else said their goodbyes to the baby, and then turned their attention to the slips in Grissom’s hand. He waited until Greg’s mother was out of earshot and spoke up.
“Warrick, we’ve got a DB in Santa suit over at a carwash on Westhaven. Take Greg with you. The rest of us are going to the Convention Center for what seems to be a pair of robberies at the Las Vegas Toy Emposium.”
“Tis the season,” Catherine sighed.
*** *** ***
The Convention Hall was crowded and noisy; Christmas music blared from every direction as Grissom, Catherine, Sara and Nick looked in on the main floor. Row upon row of display booths lined the room, all exhibiting various brightly colored enticing knickknacks. Sara oooohed, Nick whistled.
“Man oh man, it’s like Santa’s workshop come to life!” he chortled, shifting his kit from one hand to the other, his gaze moving over the room with delight.
“Lindsey would go nuts in here,” Catherine agreed with a smile, although her glance at Nick clearly included him in that assessment. Grissom shot both of them mild looks and then pointed with his chin to the manager’s booth on the far side of the hall.
“Well before we get too carried away, let’s go see Mr. Edwin Cutler and figure out what our crime scene is.”
In the office, Brass was waiting; he looked up at them, his gaze lingering on Sara and Grissom a moment.
“Hey guys, I see you made it through Toyland out there. This is Mr. Cutler, the CEO of Belec toys. He called in the initial report about some prototype being stolen from his company’s display.”
“A prototype of--?” Grissom prompted. Cutler, a thin grey-haired man with a gaunt face frowned sadly.
“A Lion’s Pride. Lovely zoo set, very well put together, we were sure girls everywhere would adore it. We had it on site to test market it today, but last night someone broke into our safe and stole it. Come—“
So saying, he led the group into the next room through a door that was already ajar, and switched on a light; one concrete wall held various locker-sized vaults, ten across, three rows. Two of them stood open: one on the top row, second one in, and one in the second row near the middle. Cutler sighed.
“The one on top was ours. The other vault was rented to G/S Industries, but their president, May Ketso isn’t here right now.”
Brass broke in gently. “She’s at the hospital right now, in shock. Apparently one of her company’s prototypes, a board game called Perfect Match, is missing as well.”
Grissom scanned the scene intently; Nick was already donning gloves and Catherine had her kit open. Sara looked up to see Brass watching her.
“Your badge is on upside down,” he replied mildly. Sara looked down and realized he was right; in annoyance she took it off and refastened it. Cutler spoke up.
“I hope you understand the seriousness of these thefts—millions of dollars are at stake here, and even if we do well with this Christmas’s profits, the loss for next year could be disastrous.”
Grissom frowned, his concentration on the two vaults. He shot a look over his shoulder at Brass and Cutler.
“We’re going to have to seal off this room.”
Cutler winced. “Mr. Grissom, that’s going to be a problem. Most of the major manufacturers are storing their sensitive materials here: Hasbro, Mattel, Fisher-Price, not to mention several others. They’re not going to be happy either with the break in, or the inability to access their property.”
“A crime scene isn’t child’s play—“ Grissom replied faintly, earning winces from both Catherine and Brass. Sara had a jar of Red Creeper open while Nick was carefully scanning the floor with his flashlight. Brass sighed.
“Come on, Mr. Cutler, let’s go explain the situation to your fellow attendees and let these folks get on with their job here.”
After they left, Sara looked over at Grissom.
“So—industrial spying?” she asked softly. He gave a slow shrug, not quite an agreement.
“We have yet to determine if these two vaults were the only ones targeted, or if anything else was missing. We also don’t know if this was all the perpetrators wanted to take, or if they were interrupted in the act.”
“So what is it we DO know?” she asked, following the logical pattern of observation. Catherine, who had been carefully looking into each open safe with a strong penlight, smiled at the familiar phrasing.
“Well, there are folders left in each vault, and what looks like a moneybag here in the lower one,” she observed.
“The floor’s high traffic cement—not great for shoeprints,” Nick grumbled.
“But, the surface of the vaults is a nice ceramic glazed metal, which is good for fingerprints,” Grissom added. Sara moved to look at the vault room door, squatting down and eyeing it up close.
“Electronic card swipe lock. It should be wired to a security system within the Convention Center.”
“Inside job?” Nick asked curiously. Shrugging, Sara photographed it. Grissom crossed his arms and stared at the wall of vaults, thinking.
*** *** ***
Brass smoothly moved, matching Grissom’s stride as the team slowly began to straggle out of the vault room an hour later. He listened patiently, waiting until Grissom had finished with his final instructions to the other three, then managed to catch his eye.
“I need to talk to you,” came the soft request. Grissom nodded, motioning for the others to go on ahead as Brass steered him out of the main floor of the Toy Exposition and into an alcove with a few vending machines in it.
“Nothing I want to discuss here, but it’s kind of important,” Brass told him gently. He shot a quick glance at his watch, adding, “It’s nearly time for dinner break—“
“--Sure,” Grissom agreed, shooting Brass faintly curious looks. The other man managed a soft smile in return, a look both reassuring and intriguing.
“Triple decker pastrami sandwiches at Bingolori’s okay with you?”
Within half an hour they were at a far corner booth of a small deli just around the corner from the convention center. Only a few other patrons were around, leaving Grissom and Brass in a fair degree of privacy, considering it was nearly ten o’clock downtown Las Vegas. Grissom carefully fished the thick toothpick out of his sandwich and laid it on his plate, sighing happily.
“This place has great pickles. I electrocuted one once—“
Brass’s eyebrows went up at this remark, but only slightly. He pulled his own toothpick out with slow care, like Arthur slipping the sword from the stone, then dropped it on the plate.
“Gil, I have a question to ask you, and it’s personal,” he began softly. Grissom looked up warily, a mouthful of sandwich in his face. Brass continued.
“When did you . . . move?”
“Yeah,” Brass sighed heavily. He gently toyed with the stuffed olive on his plate, his attention on that rather than Grissom’s face.
“See the thing is, I stopped a DUI as I was coming off shift a few days ago. Not a big deal, one of those ‘see him, nab him’ things. I was over on the west side of town, on a little street beyond the Fifteen coming back from a stabbing in Red Hills. Anyway, I call it in, and while I’m waiting for the black and white to take the guy off my hands, I look around the neighborhood. Quiet place, pretty rural.”
Grissom said nothing, merely waited for Brass to continue. The other man gave a little smile, finally looking up.
“Not a bad place. And as I look a little further down the street, I see a Denali in a gravel driveway. Lots of people have them nowadays, but not with the license plate 3J4988D.”
Brass picked up half of his sandwich and studied it carefully, then looked over the top of it, continuing.
“It’s a cop thing, you know? You memorize phone numbers and badge numbers and license plates. Get to know them until like someone’s voice, or handwriting you can spot them anywhere.”
“Anywhere,” Grissom echoed, speaking up for the first time, his tone absent. Brass nodded gently.
“So I see the Denali and wonder if something got called in that I missed. I run a check—no late calls. I run a request on the address, and damned if it doesn’t come back at the property of one Gilbert G. Grissom.”
“Of which there is only one in Clark County Nevada,” Grissom smiled and took another bite of his sandwich. Brass nodded, some of the tension leaving his expression.
“And for that we’re all grateful, trust me. Anyway, I’m about to get out of the car and go knock on your door, give you grief about moving out of the townhouse without some sort of a housewarming party when I spot another car pulling up into the driveway. Driver gets out, checks the mail, carries in dry cleaning and groceries then unlocks the door and goes inside. So now I’m looking at two cars with two familiar plate numbers, and I sure as hell recognize the figure of the driver, even from across the street.”
Grissom sighed, but his eyes were bright. He cocked his head and looked at Jim Brass for a long moment.
“I moved in October. Not completely, but bit by bit. One stick, one piece of string, one feather at a time.”
Brass gave a slight shake of his head, but his smile was twisted at this confirmation.
“Jesus, Gil . . . out of the entire Las Vegas police department, you’re the last guy I’d ever picture tossing caution to the wind and succumbing to admittedly sweet charms of a colleague. You and I are supposed to be older and wiser than that, pal. I mean it’s one thing to date somebody in the business, but not right out of your office. Have the two of you thought this through? If this relationship goes south, do you have any idea what the ramifications are going to be?”
A tense pause filled the moment as the two men looked at each other over their plates. Grissom squared his shoulders and kept his expression neutral.
“Work is work; our private lives aren’t a factor in the equation,” Grissom stated flatly. “We’ve talked about it, argued about it, but in the end Sara and I are more than capable of handling the situation.”
Brass didn’t look convinced; he picked up a half of his sandwich.
“You say that now, but what about the next time a promotion opening comes up? You know how ugly that competition can get,” Brass muttered. Grissom pursed his mouth for a moment, then reached for his iced tea, drinking a large gulp of it.
“Jim, Sara and I have both changed. If she wants a promotion, she’ll earn it on her own well-deserved merit, and not because of any letter I write or recommendation I make. She’s . . .” he took a deep breath, “ . . . my partner. I’m through with evaluating or ranking or judging her on ANY level. And she knows that.”
Brass leaned back and stared at the man seated across from him, a soft smile crossing his weary face. Whatever he saw there in the stern blue eyes and stubborn expression seemed to finally click, and he sighed.
“Love her that much, huh?” he asked softly. Wistfully.
Grissom managed a shy, almost boyish smile in return as he picked up the dill pickle. His voice held a hint of urgent wonder, making his Midwest accent thicker for a moment.
“More. And I’m still kicking myself over all the time I wasted coming to grips with that.”
Brass chuckled a bit; enough to make Grissom look over at him with a perplexed expression.
“Sorry Gil—it’s just that those of us in the loop thought you two would never make a move. We’ve been watching and waiting, laying a few bets here and there—“ Brass waved a hand back and forth.
Grissom’s confusion turned to annoyed alarm, but Brass turned the palm up and caught his friend’s eye once more.
“—Come on, lighten up. You can’t think that people as sharp as Rick and Catherine and Nick wouldn’t have picked up on the attraction between you two. Hell, I only see the two of you at crime scenes or interrogations and even I know that frisson is there. So don’t think your new living arrangements are going to shock anyone around these parts, okay?”
Grissom frowned. “I need you to keep it all under your hat, Jim. Neither Sara nor I are quite ready to send out change of address cards.”
“Why not?” Brass asked softly. Grissom took a bite of pickle, puckering at the tart taste before replying.
“Because I’m a cautious man. Because Sara deserves to be in on any decision about sharing the news. And, because I’m asking you as a friend, Jim. When Carvello hears about this, it’s going to be directly from me, and not through some interoffice grapevine. The time will come, but not now.”
Brass gave a little nod. He finished his tea and swirled the glass, making the melting cubes jingle a little bit.
“You and Sara . . . all I can say is it’s about time, Gil. Congratulations.”
Grissom’s eyes went bleak for a moment, then a cautious smile crossed his face.
“I know. Thanks.”
*** *** ***
Down on the main floor of the Emposium, Sara wandered to the next booth and was startled as a soft, fluffy rope of feathers dropped around her neck.
“Welcome to Dressy Dress Up! Would you like to see our catalog of princess, fairy and good witch costumes?” the perky girl behind the counter demanded. Sara grinned, stroking the soft boa, admiring the soft pink feathers and silvery spangles. Next to her, Catherine received a boa of her own and laughed.
“God, I haven’t worn one of these since my Palace days.”
Sara briefly eyed the spangley wands and tiaras on the display table, smiling at the thought of Sophie parading around on one of them.
“Do you ship?” she asked impulsively, earning a surprised glance from Catherine, who was toying with a faux diamond choker.
“Certainly ma’am. We can gift-wrap for the holidays too. Do you have something in mind?”
Glancing at her partner, Sara muttered, “Five year old niece,” before pointing to a tiara and wand set. Catherine smiled approvingly and picked up one of the star topped wands, waving it. It made a musical chime, startling both women for a moment.
“Oh this is darling! Another stocking stuffer for Lindsey, before she gets too old to play with one,” Catherine muttered, pulling out her wallet. Sara finished giving the salesclerk the credit card and mailing information. For a moment both women sighed. Catherine picked up a rhinestone tiara and carefully set it in Sara’s dark hair, cocking her head at the effect it made. Sara’s waiting expression demanded a verbal opinion.
“Very Snow White with the dark hair and eyes,” Catherine told her with a smile. Sara sighed.
“Yeah, well dress-up was never my thing, unless it was pirates. When you grow up around a beach you play a lot of pirates.” Reluctantly Sara pulled the tiara out and set it down amid the others again.
“Oh yeah, I was into cowboys in Montana, but there was one girl at school who ran a tea party ring during recess. Taught me that pinkie thing for drinking—“ Catherine demonstrated, extending her pinkie with exaggeration. Sara laughed.
“A tea party ring? What did you do, smuggle doilies? Fold napkins into gang signs?”
Catherine broke up, and they wandered to the next booth. Here, huge knotted coils of colored lights in complex patterns dangled from a display board. Sara leaned closer, fascinated. A geeky young salesman with a goatee shot her a quick glance.
“Siddahartha’s Snake. It’s a brainteaser for the older gifted child. You pick the pattern you want to follow and unravel it, but it has a time limit.”
Sara picked one of the coiled balls up and studied it as Catherine shot it one look and rolled her eyes.
“No thanks— too Rubik’s for me. I’d probably end up booting it down the hall in a fit of pique.”
Sara picked a strand and carefully began to unweave it, her fingers flying as she worked. Just before she managed to free the string of lights she’d picked, the coil went black. The salesman whistled softly.
“Wow, you were only about four seconds off—the best so far for a first time, miss.”
Sara grinned and reluctantly handed the toy back to the man. Catherine shot a sideways look.
“Should I tell Grissom to get you one for Christmas?”
Sara tried to look innocent. “Think he’d go for it? He got me a book last year—“
She didn’t mention that the entomology text had been a first edition from a private printing, nor that it had been autographed by the authors and inscribed by Grissom himself. Nothing overtly sentimental, but Sara remembered being awed by the thoughtfulness of the gift. She’d made it a point to read the book cover to cover.
Catherine sighed noisily, making the feathers of her boa flutter around her throat.
“Honestly Sara, we’ve got to work on your seduction skills. You want Gil, he wants you, but the two of you shuffle around in this lab partner geek dance that’s driving me nuts. I’m going to make it my mission this Christmas to shove you two under the mistletoe if it kills me.”
“Catherine!” Sara smirked, going a little pink. They wandered on past a few doll booths and over to a magnificent track display, where Nick was standing, his eyes glazed over with the gleam of toy greed common in little boys. He was staring at a small figure on the top.
“Evel Knievel. Man, I always wanted to BE that guy—“ he muttered softly. Catherine bumped her shoulder against his.
“Forget it, Stokes—you’d have to get up pretty early in the morning to do that. And anyway, we need you on your hands and knees here, processing scenes with us.”
He gave a good-natured grin back and checked his watch.
“Lunch is over I guess. Think Grissom’s back at the lab yet?”
At that moment, all three of their pages went off; Catherine fished hers out first and nodded.
“Oh yeah, looks like Christmas shopping is over. Back to work, guys—“
As they left, Nick shot one last loving look at the figure on the motorcycle.