The fire had been a bad one, and most of the three buildings were completely beyond salvage. Even Grissom could see that as he eyed the slightly smoldering remains. He waited for the fireman’s all clear assessment, listening quietly to Nick and Warrick as the chill of the night settled in around them.
“She LIKES that kind of movie. I’m telling you that’s what makes it work for us—the more car chases the better, man,” Nick told Warrick, who merely grinned and blew on his hands to warm them a bit.
“Yeah? I always thought Judy was a chick flick kinda gal myself—you know, Places in the Heart, The Mirror Has Two Faces, Bridget Jones, In Her Shoes—“
“Not hardly—we’re talking Die Hard one, two AND three, Terminators, nearly every thing with Vin Diesel except that babysitting movie—it’s crazy.”
“Compatibility,” Warrick commented with a flash of a grin. “If she likes the meat-lover pizza too you’ve got it made, Stokes.”
Nick flashed a thumbs up, his own grin wide and white. Grissom watched the two of them out of the corner of his eye, feeling good about the renewed sense of camaraderie among the three of them. The fire chief made his way to Grissom and gave a weary nod.
“It’s clear now. The middle building was the starting point and then it spread to the other two—initial assessment is that it was probably electrical, but with two dead bodies--“ he left the statement unfinished, and Grissom nodded.
“Okay, Warrick you take the florist, and Nick, you handle the corner market. I’ll take the pet shop.”
Both men shot him wincing looks; Warrick clapped him on the shoulder in empathy and slowly the three of them split up, each heading in a different direction. The streetlights made the wet pavement gleam and Grissom took a moment to collect himself before stepping into the Puppy Pantry.
Wires dangled from the ceiling, and everywhere the smell of charred wood and melted plastic hung heavy in the air, along with mingled odors of burnt fur and flesh. Grissom squeezed his eyes shut hard for a few seconds, then let his mag light circle around the shop.
The shelves lay torn down, merchandise scattered everywhere along the aisles, and the lingering steam rose up at various points where the firemen had sprayed heavy loads of water. The scorching ran high along the back wall, and has he stepped closer, Grissom was painfully aware of the odor of boiled fish coming from the darkened tanks. Ash floated around with each step. He pulled on a filter mask over his nose and mouth, knowing that it would keep out the dust but not the smells.
He set to work, fighting the deep and aching melancholy that filled him for all the little lost lives amid the debris.
*** *** ***
It was nearly dawn when he heard the crackle of approaching footsteps over the baked linoleum and glanced up to see Nick watching him. Grissom noted how pale he looked just glancing around.
“Chief says the place didn’t have a working smoke detector,” he sighed. Grissom scowled, pulling off his face mask and dropping it in his case.
“This place was filled with them—unfortunately they didn’t have anyone to alert with their cries. Most of them died of smoke inhalation.”
Nick cursed softly; Grissom didn’t have the heart to chide him. He rose painfully and finished bagging the little section of frayed wire, neatly notating the vital information on the label. Nick took it from him. “It’s started to rain a little outside.”
“We’ll do what we can,” Grissom replied easily, looking around one more time. His light touched on a charred cage and the curled body within it, fur in spiky ash bristles. Grissom thought of Figaro and swallowed, trying to get rid of the dryness in his throat.
“You and Warrick go on, I’ll finish up here and be out soon.”
Nick muttered, making his way out again.
Grissom began walking to the back door of the pet shop, which hung off
broken hinge. He could hear the hiss of the rain now, against the
The narrow lane was bordered by the buildings on one side and a chain link fence on the other. Grissom looked in both directions, not seeing anything unusual. He stood very still for a moment, concentrating hard, turning his head back and forth to try and catch the sound once more. It disappeared, and Grissom glanced at the dumpster that stood next to the back door, wondering if rats had made the noise. He turned, and as he did so, the noise came again, right on the edge of his hearing, a little tiny squeak of a sound, definitely organic.
Grissom dropped his gaze, looking at the space between the dumpster and the wall of the building, trying to estimate the width there. The gap couldn’t have been much more than six inches or so, and dark. He got down and tried to peer into the opening, already slightly suspicious of what he felt he might find.
Bingo. Two eyes glowed back in the beam of the flashlight, and a little body tried to squeeze itself further back into the crevice. Grissom smiled. He let his beam play over the clumsy paws, the matted, soot-covered fur and smudged belly.
“So. Someone escaped the inferno,” he muttered softly to himself, thinking hard. At the sound of his voice, the puppy perked up a bit, but made no move to come any closer and for a moment they were at a standoff. Grissom knew he couldn’t reach all the way into the gap, which ran the length of the dumpster, and shifting it would be dangerous. He patted the pockets of his vest hopefully, while speaking again.
“Let’s see if I‘ve got something here . . .” Luck was with him; a half-eaten BLT was still there, wrapped in a napkin. Grissom remembered shoving it in his pocket when his pager had gone off. He opened it up and peeled off one of the strips of bacon, then crawled back to the gap and dangled it temptingly. “Hey buddy, come on and check this out.”
For a moment the pup whimpered and stayed put, but the scent of the bacon worked its magic, and gradually the puppy began to inch forward, brown eyes locked on the food Grissom twirled lightly.
“That’s a good boy. You know you want it, and you can have it, pal. In fact, you’re doing me a favor,” Grissom continued in a low, coaxing tone. “Because knowing me, I’d have left it in my pocket and forgotten about it over the weekend.”
The puppy didn’t seem too concerned about Grissom’s memory; his tongue flicked out and he kept inching forward, whimpering in earnest now. Grissom could see that the puppy’s fur still had the thick and rough fuzzy texture of babyhood. He’d almost come within grabbing reach, and Grissom fluttered the bacon again.
“That’s right, just a liiiiiiittle bit more—“ Just as the pup nosed his face against the food, Grissom reached in and scooped the little fur ball out. For a second the puppy considered whining, but it was nearly impossible to do through a mouthful of bacon rind. Grissom let the little dog gulp the food, holding him close to his vest. He looked down and felt a cold nose begin to nuzzle the bottom of his beard.
“Let’s have a look at you and see if you’re hurt anywhere.”
Grissom paused, realizing how talking to the dog seemed natural. He talked to Figaro at home all the time, but rarely got any reaction anymore unless food was involved. The puppy gave a snort and a wriggle, but Grissom held him out and inspected him carefully in the light of the alley.
The Golden Retriever pup couldn’t have been much older than seven weeks at most, he realized, about five pounds of smoky smelling fluff. Grissom checked his head, belly and four paws, finding small cuts along the puppy’s forepaws and traces of glass as well. He thought hard, and remembered seeing a cracked display case on the floor level near the register.
“You got out when the case front broke . . . The shelf fell, shattered the glass, and you ran out of the danger. Smart fella,” Grissom praised. Something in his tone appealed to the pup, who wagged his tail happily. Amused, Grissom shifted the animal, bringing him back up against his vest. “Okay, let’s think about this . . . I could turn you over to Animal Control, which is probably the wisest course of action—“
The puppy snuffled against Grissom’s beard again, this time snorting and seeking invisible crumbs, his paws scraping against the embroidered nametag. Grissom turned his face to try and avoid the enthusiasm, feeling himself smile in response. There was just something about the boundless optimism of a puppy that softened the melancholy of this evening in particular. His breath was baby-sweet, and tinted with bacon; Grissom laughed softly.
“Or, I could take you home, which is trickier, but doable. Got a gal there who’s going to love you, and a cat who probably isn’t, but the secret to getting around HIM is all in the approach.”
Trustingly the puppy licked his own nose and looked up at Grissom, chocolate eyes wide and adoring. Grissom cleared his throat, feeling a surge of fondness growing, and remembering that look from so many years ago. Then he felt guilty; he hadn’t thought about Ernie in a long, long time. For a moment he hesitated, torn, but then the puppy whined again, that soft sad sound that had first drawn him out to the alley and Grissom made a choice.
Carefully he tucked the puppy inside his vest, fending off licks and soothing the little one. He walked back through the pet shop, noting that the patrolman stationed at the site was at the other end of the scene, checking his watch. Grissom looked over his shoulder and called to him.
The officer gave a nod, and Grissom patted the bulk in his vest as he walked to the car, trying not to grin.
*** *** ***
The puppy was definitely interested in the office. When Grissom set him down, he scampered to the desk and sniffed it, working his way along the front legs while Grissom glanced at the unread newspaper on his desk and sighed. Sacrificing the undone crossword, he laid it down on the flooring and moved to sit at his desk, looking through the messages there while trying to keep an eye on the dog, who had rounded the corner.
“Oops—“ Grissom commented when the puppy ran into his boot. Immediately he took notice of the laces and began to tug on one. Grissom eyed the dog over the top of the memo from Ecklie, admiring the little guy’s tenacity. The degree of soot on him was more visible now, and Grissom shifted his glance to the stainless steel sink, thinking out-loud.
“Better to get you cleaned off before you eat too much of that carbon residue,” he explained to the puppy, who continued to worry the bootlace. Grissom gently freed himself and walked over to the sink, watching his step. The puppy bounded along, delighted to follow. He circled around Grissom while the water flowed, warming up. Grissom pushed up his sleeves.
A scoop, a lift and instantly someone was a very unhappy camper. Grissom let him down in the sink, holding him under the warm stream, trying to keep him from wriggling away.
“It’s WATER, pal, plain H2O, not battery acid,” came the soft chide. Unreassured, the puppy squirmed once more, making pitiful sounds as Grissom carefully soaped him up and rinsed him off. Wet, the pup was smaller than ever, his fur a caramel color as the dirt and soot streamed off of it. Grissom did the final rinse, big hands cradling the little dog as he spoke again. “There, you’re clean at least, so let’s get you dried off.”
It took nearly fifteen paper towels before Grissom was satisfied that most of the water was blotted up, and as he tousled the puppy dry, the little dog snorted again, trying to nip at the moving bits of paper. Grissom laughed softly. “Definitely not a bath lover. That’s okay; Ernie wasn’t either. Just don’t roll in anything and I’ll let you do most of your own grooming.”
He set the puppy down on the linoleum and the small dog defiantly shook himself, sending the last tiny drops flying to splatter against Grissom’s pant cuffs. With a snort and a snuff, he marched back towards the desk, not even looking back at the man, and Grissom laughed again as he tossed the sodden paper towels away. Already the puppy was fluffing out again, looking like a dandelion puff.
pretty full of yourself for a survivor you know.”
Grissom pointed out. The puppy was now seriously sniffing the ground;
reading the signs, Grissom hurried over and picked him up, planting him
newspaper. Not a moment too soon; a squat later and the paper bore a
yellow puddle. Grissom sighed. “Good job. That certainly
photo doesn’t it?”
His cell phone rang. Grissom checked the number and flipped it open, smiling a little as he spoke up. “Grissom.”
“Hey, court got out early, so I’m on the way home. Should I pick up anything?”
“Sara—“ Grissom began, and although he tried to keep his voice normal, some tone must have come through because she laughed a little, her throaty giggle returning over the line.
“I know that voice, babe, something’s up. What is it?”
“I have a surprise in my office,” he admitted in a low voice, giving up on subterfuge and grinning into the phone.
“Could be,” he countered, picturing her puzzling over that.
“Is it bigger than a breadbox?”
“About the size of a shoe box.” At his feet, puppy had found Grissom’s shoelace once more and was tugging again, making tiny growling sounds.
“Is it edible?”
“Only in certain Asian societies, or so I’ve heard—“ Grissom replied. “And I don’t plan on eating this one, even though it was almost cooked tonight.”
“Grissom—I need more context clues here, babe. Maybe you ought to just bring it home and we’ll share this surprise together, okay? I have to go—“
“Sounds good, I’ll be there in an hour.”
*** *** ***
“Oh my God.”
“Oh. My. God. Grissom, he’s adorable. And an asset, isn’t he? Nick told me about the pet store, but I thought it was totaled, all property lost. How did you end up with a vest-full of dog?”
Grissom sighed, and fished the puppy out of his vest; sleepily the little one shook his drowsiness off and turned his attention to Sara, snuffling her fingers excitedly. Sara took the puppy from Grissom and brought him up against her own chest, cradling him expertly as she stroked his head. At the back end, the puppy’s tail lashed back and forth delightedly.
“Dante here apparently escaped the inferno. From what I can reconstruct, his glass-fronted cage was on the floor level. When the shelves of the display case near it collapsed, one of them hit the glass and broke it. The puppy managed to wriggle out and run, although how he got out the back door I can’t be certain. The hinge was damaged so it’s possible the firemen were responsible for that. I found him hiding behind a dumpster in the alley, and . . . “
“. . . and you just couldn’t leave him. OR turn him over to Animal Control,” Sara finished mildly. Under the caress of her talented fingers, the puppy was blissing out, resting his fuzzy head along her collarbone. Grissom felt slightly jealous as she grinned broadly, flashing the gap in her teeth at him. “You are such a soft touch.”
“Sucker for a pair of big brown eyes,” he admitted, stepping closer. Sara leaned over and rubbed her nose with his, all her attention on him as her voice dropped lower.
“Heroes SO turn me on. Bold rescuers braving the odds, using their wits—“
“I have been known to waggle a mean piece of bacon,” Grissom responded with a grin, moving to kiss her. Sara purred against his mouth, and a squeak interrupted them as the indignantly squashed Dante protested the dual closeness. Sara set him down and moved back to Grissom.
“Let’s try that again.”
“Bold rescuer—“ Grissom prompted helpfully. Sara laughed, her tongue flicking out to his bottom lip in a sweet tease as his arms slid around her. He pulled Sara closer, appreciating the thinness of her blouse, which allowed him to caress the length of her spine with his palms. Abruptly Sara laughed on his mouth, the little puffs of air warm and tickly.
“The dog is watching us--“ she announced. Grissom reluctantly shifted his glance to see Dante staring up at them, head cocked. He sighed.
“He’s probably hungry.”
“Okay, but all we have is cat food. Speaking of cats . . . “ Sara murmured, shifting to wetly kiss Grissom’s neck as she spoke. His eyelids fluttered as a surge of lust rolled through him, and it took some throat-clearing to be able to speak properly.
“Cats . . . oh, yeah, Figaro. Well I didn’t see him when I came in, and we probably shouldn’t . . . feed Dante . . . cat food . . .” he murmured, not releasing Sara, and moving to nuzzle her neck in turn. It amazed him still how a simple gesture of affection from her could crank his libido to flambé so quickly.
“Mmm, you smell smoky,” she whispered, clearly enjoying herself. Grissom gave a little groan and let his mouth wander along the lean sweet warmth of her throat. She was wearing Emerald Fire, and the subtle scent of it brought back memories of the many many times it was the ONLY thing she’d been wearing to bed . . .
“And where there’s smoke, Acushla—“ he breathed, hands sliding from her back down her sexy spine to her butt. Sara wriggled against him. Grissom rubbed his teeth against her neck, fingers fumbling for the zipper on her slacks. She moaned a little, then raised her head.
“I really think we need to feed the dog first—“ Sara huskily whispered. “Since he’s chewing on your copy of A Bug’s Life—“
Grissom noted with despair that Dante had happily begun to gnaw on the DVD cover, little puppy teeth puncturing the cardboard sleeve. He pulled away from Sara with great reluctance and bent down to retrieve his property.
“Bad dog,” he muttered in such an affectionate tone that Dante’s tail wagged harder. For a moment they had a little tug of war over the DVD, and finally Grissom freed it from the dog’s mouth, wiping the damp cardboard on the back of his hand.
“Yeah, you tell him—“ Sara teased. Grissom straightened up and thought for a moment, trying to concentrate; pulling away from lust was difficult once he’d opened the throttle on that train of thought.
“I can make some homemade dogfood—stewed tomatoes, ground beef and rice. My mom used to do that for Ernie when money was a little tight.”
Sara leaned against his shoulder and took the DVD from him.
“Sounds good. You cook, I’ll see about finding the Fig.”
*** *** ***
Grissom checked the beef, giving it an absent stir, and looked down at his feet. Ever Mr. Hopeful, Dante looked up at him, tail wagging.
“Yes, it’s cooking. It won’t cook any faster just because you want it to,” Grissom told him. Taking these words as encouragement, the puppy whimpered a little. With a sigh, Grissom stepped out of the kitchen to let the beef simmer a while. Sara waved to him from the hallway to the bedroom, indicating the closed door.
“Figaro’s in there, on the rocking chair. So—how do we do this? Just lock them in the same room or what? Because this is all new to me, babe; I have no animal counseling skills.”
“Well, “ Grissom thought out loud, “The best way is to have pup here confined but sniffable from Figaro’s point of view. Could you bring in one of the laundry baskets?”
Sara did, and
Grissom promptly put it over Dante,
who barked at the unexpected caging. He whined a wistful little tone,
stuck her fingers in between the plastic weave to soothe him and he
madly. “Aw. He looks so
. . . trapped.”
“He’s not trapped, he’s confined. So, one more thing to do—“ Grissom looked around the bungalow living room, his glance sweeping the fireplace, “—Do we still have that hand cream of yours?”
“The mint one?” Sara grinned, catching on. “Oh yeah. I put it away—hang on.” Moving gracefully, she slipped out to the bathroom and returned with the tube in hand. Grissom took it from her and squeezed a dab on his index finger. Poking quickly, he stroked a little smear of it on top of Dante’s head.
“There, scent marked with something appealing,”
“We could have just dabbed it behind his ears, maybe behind his little knees—“ giggled Sara. Grissom shot her a dry look, but the corner of his mouth was turning up.
“We want them to get along, not start DATING, Sara.”
“Um, it would be strictly platonic anyway, considering what Figaro’s lacking—“ she commented. Grissom rolled his eyes; the subject was still a slightly tender one with him.
“Just . . . let the cat out, please.”
She did, opening the door of the bedroom and calling softly. “Hey Fig! Come see who followed Grissom home—“
Figaro sauntered out, tail swinging in the casual elegance found in all naturally bossy felines. He stopped a few feet from the laundry basket and made eye contact with Dante just as the puppy saw him for the first time as well. A happy bark rang out; Figaro arched up, every hair en pointe along his humped spine as he danced sideways away from the basket.
Sara fought her laugh. Grissom squatted down and kept an eye on the two animals, not making a move towards either one.
“Okay Figaro, we KNOW you’re the boss of the house . . . just take your time here.” He murmured gently. Sara snickered harder, recognizing Grissom’s patient Interrogation voice. Annoyed now, Figaro let the warning growl rumble low in his white-furred chest as he kept his eye on the puppy behind the plastic bars.
Dante shoved his nose out, his entire body wriggling delightedly, little happy whimpers leaking out of him. He snuffled the air, moving from one gap in the laundry basket webbing to another. Figaro moved closer with extreme caution, finally sniffing back, his cat face poking forward with an expression of annoyance. When Dante got a good lick in, pink tongue flashing out to touch Figaro’s chin, the cat struck, one clawed paw lashing out.
The puppy gave a quick pained whine and Sara lurched forward, but Grissom held a hand out to stop her, his own expression rueful.
“Sara—they’ve got to work out dominance on their own. Dante isn’t really hurt.”
“I don’t know if I like the bullying side of Fig,” she replied, growling a little herself. Grissom tilted his head in agreement and kept watching.
“He’s been used to things his own way for a while. Going to have to learn to share . . .” At these words Sara shot him a pointed look, and Grissom cleared his throat. “What?”
“Nothing,” she murmured in a way that said everything through her smile.
Figaro moved back towards the laundry basket and sniffed again; chastened, Dante held still, quivering a bit. When the cat scented the little smear on the puppy’s head his tail twitched again, this time excitedly.
Dante held still, and gradually Figaro’s tongue flicked out, raspy and small. Both Grissom and Sara watched, their tension easing a bit as the puppy allowed the grooming, his own wariness abating a bit. Figaro slipped a paw into the basket mesh, patting it, anxious to get closer to the cream, and Grissom cautiously gripped the plastic, lifting it up.
Dante cowered down, still intimidated. Figaro stepped closer, tail swinging in deliberate wide twitches as he poke sniffed along the puppy while Sara leaned forward. Finally Figaro began licking Dante’s head more firmly, cleaning him in long strokes, nuzzling him carefully. Sara smirked. “Wow, I had no idea mint lotion could bring world peace for dogs and cats.”
“Never underestimate the power of chemistry,” Grissom shot back sweetly.
From the kitchen, the sudden beep of the smoke detector went off and Sara laughed. “Dinner’s ready.”