Casa Caliente 5: Grave Matters

Chapter One

Tuesday night, October 31st.

 

As she finished signing in, Sara gazed at the paper cutout pumpkins and skeletons adorning the glass windows of the crime lab with a modicum of good humor. Considering the ghoulish nature of the work going on here, the decorations could be considerably worse, she knew. Moving slowly, she passed down the long central hall, spotting a few pleated tissue bats dangling over doorways, and stopped short when she reached Greg’s station. He smiled at her.

 

Long fangs peeked out of his mouth, and Sara burst into husky giggles at the sight of them.

 

“Nice canines—“

 

“Aren’t they? I dated my orthodontist’s assistant and she made them up for me a few years back—“ he lisped a bit, preening.

 

“They look interesting. Can you eat with them?” Sara wanted to know. Greg gave a rueful shake of his head.

 

“Actually I keep biting my tongue,” he confessed. Warrick strode into the lab, carefully set three tubes into a rack next to the microscope and gave both Sara and Greg a quick smile.

 

“Hey Sara. You going to make it to the office party tonight?”

 

“Possibly,” she conceded. Grissom hadn’t mentioned going even though the flyers had been posted all over the locker room and community boards for the past few days. Warrick gave her a quick once over and grinned.

 

“You’d make a pretty good hippie you know.”

 

“Too close to home—“ she replied knowingly. “How about you?”

 

“Ah. This is one night a year I get to indulge in a little hero worship and celebrity at the same time, Warrick admitted, looking a little embarrassed.  “In twenty minutes I become--Hendrix.”

 

“Jimi— totally groovy!” Sara went wide-eyed, nodding approval while Greg riffed on the edge of his table.

 

“And no doubt you will be picking up many foxy ladies, experienced or not—“ he sighed. Warrick managed a faint swagger on his way out again, letting his body language confirm that.

 

Sara checked her watch and stepped out into the hall again, her thoughts adrift.

 

Halloween was never predictable, and some years it was their busiest night of the month while on others, things had been fairly quiet. She also knew Grissom chose to work it every year thus freeing up anyone with kids to take them trick or treating.

 

“Hey—whatcha think?” Catherine strode towards her. The floor-length dress was purple and black, form fitting along the bodice and fitted with a black velvet cape topped with a high white collar. She carried a bi-horned hat in her hands. Sara blinked before she could find the right words.

 

“Wow—that’s uh—“

 

“Maleficent, yeah, the evil queen. Lindsey’s going as Sleeping Beauty and she always insists on coordinating outfits. Sheer hell the year she was Tigger.”

 

“You were?“

 

“--Pooh. I wanted to be anything BUT, believe me. Anyway—“

 

“Whoa Catherine—so where’s your costume?” Nick called with a grin as he quickly passed by them. She shot him an evil glare, hands on her hips.

 

“Got an apple for you, Nick—a nice RED one--“

 

His chuckles echoed down the hall as he hurried off, a sheaf of papers in his hands. Catherine turned back to Sara and gave a quick smile as she rolled her eyes.

 

“Grissom’s got our shift assignments staggered unless we get paged, so Warrick and I are in after midnight. You and Nick have the first half and come off around two or so. Going to the party?”

 

“Maybe—I didn’t think about getting a costume, and usually company shindigs aren’t my thing—“ she trailed off awkwardly. Catherine gave a little shake of her head.

 

“Come on, you can’t let the skank hold you back, Sara. The first step in getting on is getting out, girl. Come to the party, you’ll feel better for it, trust me.”

 

Sara hid her smile and lifted her chin.

 

“Costume?”

 

“There’s a ton of things in the To Be Destroyed warehouse, hell, all of the Millander stuff from his Halloween shop. Half the day shift’s been consigning their outfits from there,” Catherine told her, giving Sara an appraising glance and a little nod.

 

“They’ve got some stuff you might like—go on and check it out—you’re early anyway, right? Anyway, I’ve got to get going--”

 

Sara gave a noncommittal nod as she strode away from Catherine, and cast a glance towards Grissom’s office.

 

She blinked at the sight of the man stepping out of room: the long black cassock, crisp white dog collar, plain olivewood crucifix neatly resting against the row of black buttons. As Sara lifted her eyes to his face the shock hit her; Grissom cocked his head, eyes twinkling.

 

“Happy All Soul’s Eve,” he intoned, watching her scramble to recover herself. Sara shook her head, marveling at how somberly handsome he looked, how his beard gave him an extra air of ecclesiastical authority. When she found her voice she muttered,

 

“Mendel, right? Boyhood hero?”

 

Grissom gave a perplexed look and shook his head, glancing down at his dark robe and rosary.

 

“A good guess, rooted in logic, but no. This is more along the lines of undercover work.”

 

“A priest in Las Vegas, oh yeah, you’re going to fit right in,” Sara commented dryly, watching him give her a wry grin. A passing tech noted Grissom’s outfit with a bewildered double blink.

 

“There are still a few places in this city where a priest might not be out of place,” he prompted her, watching the challenge of the puzzle settle in her eyes. Sara drew a breath, but a beeper went off, and Grissom hauled his robe up along his hip to fish in his pants pocket.

 

“Duty calls—I’m on remote so reach me by cell. Are you going to the party?”

 

The last question came out casually. Too casually; Sara caught his shy tone and shook her head.

 

“Not really a party kind of person, especially around costumes, you know? It’s hard enough to work with someone like Hodges without seeing him in some ridiculous getup.”

 

Grissom cast a glance down at himself and arched an eyebrow that spoke intimate volumes to Sara, who caught his unspoken meaning.

 

“I think I know which vow you’d break first—“ she whispered to him; he lifted his chin.

 

“Do you?” came his calm reply, and Sara had to turn away to avoid giggling. They walked down the hall together and when they reached the doors, Grissom turned to flash her a soft smile.

 

“If it’s a slow night you’re welcome to come hang out with me.”

 

“Now that depends where you’re going to be. A church? A mission?”

 

Grissom’s smile faded a bit, but he drew himself up, squaring his big black shoulders as he pushed the glass door open and called back, “Bunker Brothers—Garden of Lambs.”

 

Sara watched him stride out to his car, the long cassock swinging at his ankles, stunned.

 

Garden of Lambs ?” she murmured to herself.

 

***   ***   ***

 

 Sara tried not to flinch; Robbins’ work was actually quite gentle, but he laughed at her reaction.

 

“Hold still if you want this done right, Sara—I’m not used to people moving when I touch them.”

 

“And I’m not used to anyone doing my make up for me, sorry—“ came Sara’s mumble. Robbins gave a twinkly smile and deftly smudged more grey-green cream under her eyes.

 

“Understandable. Let’s give you a little more graveyard mold here—sort of a mossy hint along the jaw line—what color lips—green or black?”

 

Sara risked a peek at herself over his shoulder in the stainless steel of the nearest refrigerator, and marveled at her ghoulishness.

 

“I dunno, I’ve never played dead before—what would you suggest?”

 

“Green with black streaks along the liplines,” he promptly replied, carefully daubing a sheen over her temples. “That way when you flash your teeth it will be more dramatic. Nice dress.”

 

Sara preened a little on the stool, smoothing a hand over the torn and stained satin tulle skirt. It was a little big on her, but better than the alternative; a dead bride beat out Minnie Mouse any day as far as she was concerned. She closed her eyes as Robbins dusted her nose.

 

“You’re in luck it’s a slow night.”

 

“I’m in luck you took drama in college AND know what a corpse is supposed to look like,” she replied, grinning. Robbins chuckled softly.

 

“Call it a serendipitous moment; and may I add you’ve got cheekbones to die for—literally.”

 

“Dad’s side of the family. Thin Austrians mostly. Some Italian blood.”

 

“Ah,” Robbins smiled. He motioned for her to tilt her head up and darkened the lovely hollows of her throat with a paintbrush. “My wife Simone’s Italian, from Palermo . Second generation.”

 

Sara blinked as Robbins added, “Do you have gloves, or do you want me to do the hands too?”

 

“That might get messy—“ Sara argued, but he shook his head and picked up her right one, studying the tendons on the back of it.

 

“Not if I just highlight along the hollows and give them a nice desiccated look. Make the bones stand out so sharply Gil will cut his lip on them next time.”

 

The minute the words slipped out he flinched.

 

“What?” Sara’s expression sharpened and she stared at him.

 

Robbins had the grace to look embarrassed as he met her glance over the top of his glasses.

 

“Sorry about that—but I saw the two of you at Copeland’s about a month back.

 

“Dinner—“ Sara interjected automatically, “We had dinner.” Robbins blinked and he waited. When she said nothing further, he shrugged a little.

 

“Gil and I have had dinner before too, but he’s never kissed my hand, or split a chocolate mousse with me,” he declared in a softly mournful tone.

 

Sara couldn’t stop a tiny flicker of a grin cross her mouth and seeing it, Robbins relaxed a little. He dipped the sponge brush into the dark paste and lightly stroked the spaces between the tendons of her hand, adding shadow and depth to it as he spoke again.

 

“It’s none of my business Sara, and frankly if it wasn’t for this hand you’d have never heard it from me.”

 

Sara stared at him a moment, and he could see the fine muscles in her throat quivering ever so slightly, the only hint of emotion in that pause.

 

“Was it . . . obvious?” she finally whispered, her husky voice low with repressed feeling. Robbins let his mouth fall open slightly before he spoke.

 

“Sara, I happened to look up at the right moment to catch a glimpse of the two of you and it was . . . amazing. In all the time I’ve known Gil, and that’s a good number of years, I’ve NEVER seen him look like he did that night.”

 

Sara pondered that, overcome by the dry sincerity in his tone. Robbins glanced over his glasses at her and added, “Or you either for that matter.”

 

She blinked, thrown off guard, feeling heat on her pale green cheeks. The coroner smiled, rolling his eyes.

 

“A blushing dead bride—there’s a first.”

 

“The dead part is more likely than the bride part—“ she muttered, “Does Grissom know that you know?”

 

Robbins shook his head decisively and picked up Sara’s left hand as he motioned for her to blow on the back of the right one to dry it.

 

“No, and he won’t, unless he asks me directly.”

 

“So you’re putting this revelation back on ME,” Sara grumbled, staring at her hand. Robbins managed a wry smile.

 

“Come on, Sara—the two of you had to realize someone around here would find out eventually, right? Las Vegas isn’t as big a city as people think, and in the long run—“

 

“I know, I know. Despite the locale we didn’t consider the odds I guess. When I’m out by myself, I NEVER run into people I know.”

 

“That’s generally the way of things—when you’ve GOT a secret it gets harder to keep,” Robbins commiserated. He took her two hands and looked at her critically.

 

“Not a bad approximation of a corpse if I do say so myself. Sneak up behind Hodges and I bet he’d wet himself.”

 

That made Sara grin; she rose from her stool and smoothed down the stained tulle skirt in a manner that betrayed itself for the delaying tactic it was. Robbins cocked his head and waited.

 

“So . . .”

 

“So?”

 

“Aren’t you going to give me the standard warning advice about dating the boss?” Sara blurted, bracing herself. Robbins kept his gaze on her.

 

“I’m a coroner, I don’t give advice,” came his bemused reply. Surprised, Sara looked up into his guileless blue eyes as he added, “But as a friend of Grissom’s . . .” Robbins hesitated, and Sara steeled herself.

 

He smiled, pushing up his glasses. “Just know that he takes his commitments seriously, that’s all. I’ve never seen him do anything half-assed in his life.”

 

“Yeah,” Sara nodded, trying to look serious—or as serious as a ghoul-painted dead bride could look, “He’s pretty much a full-assed sort of guy.”

 

Robbins laughed and patted her shoulder, giving it an affectionate squeeze before herding her out of the autopsy bay.

 

“I’ll take your word for that, since it’s not something I really think about—“

 

She turned and smiled, and despite the makeup, Robbins caught a flash of the spiritual beauty that radiated within her, the essence that had so obviously captivated his colleague. Tongue-tied for a moment, he added,

 

“And you have MY word.”

 

Sara nodded once, and began to stride down the hall, her long skirt rustling along the linoleum.

 

 

***   ***   ***

 

Grissom sighed. To a passerby it might have sounded resigned or even melancholy; the image of a priest bowed over a grave would have added gravity to the solemn moment. A light breeze blew across the headstones and tiny plaques nestled flush into the green lawn, and stirred the leaves on the few trees that were scattered across the cemetery.  No one was around, and the last rays of the setting sun were stretching out along the hills all around the horizon, lighting everything with a golden glow.

 

With one gentle finger, Grissom let the ladybug crawl onto the tip, and then lifted her up from the marble monument. The beetle turned into the breeze and opened her elytra; her amber translucent wings popped out and she flew off as Grissom managed a faint smile, following her flight through the sunset. His gaze dropped to the headstone and gently, he patted it.

 

He turned away and stepped to the white gravel path, moving slowly, breathing in the scent of sun baked lawn and greenery all around him. Carefully he looked to the perimeter of the cemetery, to the stone and iron gates that encircled this part of the Bunker Brothers mortuary. This was one of the oldest sections, and much closer to the road than the others; consequently, it was the most frequent target of vandals, thieves and desecration. Grissom set a slow pace, passing by a cluster of stones shaped like tiny lambs, glancing at the names: Hanna, Anna and Lee Roebble, born 1871 died 1873 Called to His Loving Arms.

 

Grissom recalled reading about the Diphtheria epidemic, and how a hundred and thirty years ago it had swept through the community seemingly overnight, killing one out of every three children or babies at that time. These mute crumbling stones were all that remained of a lost generation of Nevada settlers.

 

He squared his shoulders and ambled on, his pace sedately slow as befitted the costume he wore. The cross bounced against his chest, and once again he was discomfited by how familiar it felt. When he closed his eyes he could faintly hear the soft brogue of Father Jack rising up in his memory, their conversation of almost thirty-five years ago still clear.

 

 
No Gil me boy, priesthood’s not for the likes of you. You’re too fond of standing apart, of turning a keen eye on things best seen by the heart.

 

I tell the truth, and believe in it.

 

Which puts you in better stead than many, Boyo, but you’re young and still clay in the hands of the Almighty.

 

I’ve already got a shape. And a will and a brain, Father. What I NEED is a purpose!

 

Which will come in time. Priesthood requires commitments you’ll never be comfortable with.

 

At the rate I’M going, the vows won’t be a problem—at least two of them, anyway.

 

Tush! Spoken like a true teenager—no, I mean that to do God’s will as a priest means you must deal with other people, and let’s face it laddie, that’s not your strong suit. Never was, never will be.

 

I could learn.

 

Learning doesn’t transform into accepting the concept, young Gil. To thine own self be true. Priesthood, never. Brotherhood though—perhaps.

 

A wry smile twisted his mouth as Grissom remembered the rough kindness in Father Jack’s words, the heavy gnarled hand patting his shoulder in brusque comfort.

  

 

Later, when he did find his calling amid a world of glass and steel and science, he appreciated the old priest’s insight into his true nature. The only people Grissom truly felt comfortable around were those who, like himself, stood apart.

 

Shaking this surprisingly melancholy thought away, he turned at the main intersection of the gravel paths, heading for the wrought iron bench between the Italian cypress trees. He sat down, his eyes sweeping the ground. Smiling, he bent down to pull up a dandelion puff on a stem. It was a full fat one, thick and wispy white.

 

Pursing his lips, he blew, sending the seedlings soaring in the first touch of twilight, gliding up and away on the gentle breeze. He smiled, enjoying a sweet, uncomplicated moment.

 

The sound of a car in the distant parking lot broke his reverie, and as he stood his cell phone rang.

 

“Grissom.”

 

“Hey,” came Sara’s voice. “Thought I’d take you up on your offer, but I wanted to warn you first.”

 

“Warn me?”

 

“Let’s just say I’m wearing a lot of green tonight,” her voice had dropped into a warm tone and he smiled in response.

 

“Leprechaun or Martian?”

 

“Uh, neither.”

 

“Intriguing. Should I keep guessing?” he asked, deliberately turning away from the parking lot. From the sound of Sara’s chuckle he could tell he was being watched.

 

“Maybe you better—I don’t want to freak you out or anything.”

 

He made a chiding sound and fought the urge to look over his shoulder. Twilight was turning the air a soft blue, and the breeze had gotten a little colder now.

 

“Sara, I dare you to name a single time in the history of our acquaintance when I freaked out—“

 

“When I asked if you were kinky,” came her prompt response. Grissom paused, trying to figure out the proper explanation.

 

“I didn’t freak,” he began carefully, “I merely expressed justifiable surprise at your line of enquiry.”

 

She blew a loud, wet raspberry into the receiver, making him grin broadly.

 

“I take that as disagreement.”

 

“Duh! Since you were lying on top of me with a raging hard on at the time, I feel vindicated in my assessment of your reaction. You freaked, Gris, big time.”

 

“Be fair—those weren’t your ordinary circumstances,” he pointed out, hearing the soft sound of approaching footfalls behind him.

 

“True,” Sara admitted with a light laugh. “Hey I’m almost right behind you—don’t get scared—“

 

He turned, crucifix swinging as he did so, the gravel crunching under his shoes. Sara caught a glimpse of wide-eyed confusion before his expression shifted to a speculative smile.

 

“This is a new look for you,” came his low murmur as he tucked his phone away. Sara fluttered her eyelashes at him through the tattered veil, managing a slightly embarrassed smile.

 

“Trust me, you don’t want to know what the alternative costume was. When a zombie is the better option—“

 

Grissom grinned and circled around Sara, staring at her in the dim twilight.

 

“The only things you’re missing are a ring and a scent,” he whispered behind her ear.

 

“I’ll manage nicely without the bouquet of decomp, thank you—“ Sara muttered, feeling self-conscious in the dress. She hadn’t considered the symbolism of the outfit, or how wearing it around Grissom was making her feel.

 

Tingly.

 

Slightly frightened.

 

“True, and if you died before consummation, then the ring would be nothing but a hollow symbol of an unfulfilled sacrament. Tis virtue that makes an early grave.”

 

His words hung in the twilight for a moment.

 

Sara pursed her mouth and turned away, waving one arm in a careless gesture, deliberately shifting his attention.

 

“Like all of these? And why are you out here anyway, Grissom?”

 

He stepped away from her, squaring his shoulders and looking off in the distance for a moment; she studied his profile and felt a tremble in her belly, the hot flutter that hit her now and again looking at him.

 

Sweeter than desire.

 

Love.

 

“I . . . keep watch. Keep an eye on the cemetery during Halloween. Someone needs to, and the department is always too short-handed to assign anyone officially, so . . .” he trailed away at Sara’s expression.

 

“That’s—incredible. You choose to stay here and make sure no one disturbs the graves. Wow.” There was no mistaking the awed sincerity of her words, and Grissom ducked his head, embarrassed.

 

“It makes me feel useful. The first Halloween I was in Vegas about forty of the monuments here were kicked over or destroyed. It sickened me to think that anyone would consider that fun. Worse yet—“ he turned again, his eyes blazing,  “—They’re children. The most innocent of victims at any time, but particularly here.”

 

Sara nodded, feeling his controlled anger so keenly it was almost like heat radiating off of him. She crossed her arms unconsciously, and Grissom suddenly relaxed, scratching the back of his neck in a self-conscious way. He looked at the gravel for a moment.

 

“It’s okay,” Sara assured him, shifting closer, “I respect the way you feel about it.”

 

Looking up, he smiled gently and rolled his head in an attempt to loosen his tension, the clerical collar glowing in the twilight.

 

“The first two years I was out here, patrol cars kept stopping by and asking me for ID. I mentioned it to Brass and he commented that I stuck out—that if I wanted to blend in I needed to look like I belonged in the cemetery. Ergo—“

 

“—Father Grissom,” Sara nodded. “Makes sense to see a priest here. I on the other hand—“

 

“—Fit in too, albeit in a slightly more morbid fashion,” he grinned. “Just keep your license handy and try not to be conspicuous. I don’t want anyone out on the road having an accident because they saw a zombie in the cemetery.”

 

“Try not to be conspicuous? Grissom, I’m covered with green body paint and fake mold. I’m wearing a dress Miss Havisham would have thrown away!”

 

“Look at it this way—you’ve been complaining about being a bride’s maid all the time—“ he trailed off. Sara pouted at him; he reached to touch her tattered finery, straightening it with his strong fingers as the cool Las Vegas night settled around them, desolate and quiet. “You look remarkably beautiful, Sara. Your next veil will be much prettier, trust me.”

 

Her mouth dropped open, but before she could say anything, the loud creak of rusted metal screeched out over the landscape, followed by the tinny sound of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell blasting out on the night air.

 


                                       
Grave Matters 2                                                       
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