Disclaimer: Most of the characters and situations in this story belong to Alliance Atlantis, CBS, Anthony Zuicker and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. All others belong to me, and if you want to borrow them, you have to ask me first. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
Spoilers: through "Lying Down With Dogs"
Note: this story includes the non-graphic deaths of children.
This is the result of my last NaNoWriMo, and will be fairly dark. It's very slightly AU so far; I gave Bruno to the neighbors because I think it's just silly for a couple of massive workaholics who work long hours to own a dog in the first place. Plus it's heavy on the casefile, so please be patient with me. (grin)
I owe much to Stokely, LosingInTranslation, Alour01, and Coldtoes for canon research, and of course Cincoflex for her invaluable encouragement last November and ever since! And her enthusiasm for the idea in the first place...
It was good to be back. Even if it meant doing paperwork again.
Sara filled out another line on the form in front of her, barely even having to think about the information. The robbery had been as routine as such things ever got, and the mindless cataloging of evidence was soothing in a dull way.
She'd learned to appreciate the value of dullness, at least in small measure.
Sara sat back for a moment, tapping her pen idly on the paper as memory surfaced. After her escape from the pressure cooker that her job had become, she'd thought she would never want to return to it; but after two months spent far away from both Vegas and California, finally laying shades to rest, Sara had found herself missing the challenge of investigation.
Though it had been a far second to missing Grissom.
Fortunately, she'd managed to arrange for emergency leave, so her job had been open when she'd decided to return, and stress management and the choice to pass on particular cases had helped her maintain her equilibrium.
Not to mention the support of a certain senior CSI--
"So when's the big day?"
Sara looked up to the sight of Greg leaning in the doorway, grinning at her. She pursed her lips. "You're in early."
He took that as an invitation and stepped into the room, still smiling. "I have something I want to finish up before assignments. So? Tell the Greg-man!"
She glanced down. Encircling her neck was a slender chain; strung on the chain was a ring, a round faceted diamond set in white and rose gold. It was small and light and a little worn, very Victorian. "We haven't set a date yet."
Greg rolled his eyes and held out his hand. "Lemme see." Sara sighed and ducked out of the chain, knowing that he'd give her no peace until his curiosity was satisfied.
He took the whole thing and bent his head to examine it. Sara wore the ring on her finger at home, but at work she relied on the chain, given the hazards of the job and the way stones could chew through latex gloves.
Greg made a disgusted noise. "I thought he was getting paid the big bucks. I mean, it's pretty and all, but--"
Sara snatched the ring back, amused and annoyed. "It's a family heirloom, Greg, not a trophy."
In fact, it had belonged to Grissom's grandmother. He had offered to let Sara choose something newer, but there had never really been a question in her mind. The mere fact that Grissom wanted her to wear it was sufficient...and besides, it was lovely.
Greg nodded, conceding. "I gotta admit, flashy's not your style, you're more of a unique woman, if you get my drift." He grinned again, and Sara returned it, warmed by his exaggerated teasing. She had chosen to move to Swing for good reasons, and she didn't regret the decision, but she still missed her friends. "But weddings usually come after engagements, you know."
Sara dropped the chain back over her head and shoved him lightly. "Shut up, Greg, or I won't ask you to be my bridesmaid."
Greg snorted with laughter, slapping a hand across his chest. "Anything but that! Okay, okay, but I'm first on the invite list, got that?"
"Absolutely," she said dryly, and Greg swung out of the room still chuckling. Sara watched him go, pleased to see some of his wacky humor returning after too long a period of seriousness. Things had changed, yeah...but not everything.
Resisting the urge to check for observers, Sara looked down at the ring, almost embarrassed to be seen admiring it. She had railed so long and so hard against the meaningless trappings of weddings, the expectations, the endless traditions; and for so long she had been scared to death of the idea of promising her life to someone, of giving up her hard-won independence.
She remembered endless discussions in college, about whether marriage was outdated and misogynistic, and how so much of it symbolized female submission. Most of that had been just the usual undergraduate half-baked philosophy, students trying out ideas with all the fervor of youth and ignorance. Engagement rings had been one of the things her own circle of feminists had snubbed--after all, they were just remnants of male claiming and ownership, and excessively consumerist, and so forth...
But none of the arguments, Sara thought now, had taken into account the weight of emotion behind the tradition. Sure, some of their points still held; for instance, it was silly that only the woman should wear a symbol of engagement. But the look in Grissom's eyes when he opened the box, the shy eagerness--the love--
She wore it because it was a symbol of that love, not because she was anyone's possession.
Besides-- Sara rubbed the diamond with the tip of one finger, feeling its glassy smoothness bounded by the bumps of the setting. It's...history.
She couldn't really articulate the feeling, not even to herself, but somehow the weight of time and family behind the ring was comforting. Grissom's grandmother had worn it all her life, he'd said; it gave her a sense of continuity, of the solid past that had been so lacking in her own life.
There had been no heirlooms in the Sidle family, even before it fell apart entirely. Nothing handed down, wreathed with stories; nothing to value for its age and memories.
Smiling, Sara went back to her paperwork. No, they hadn't set a date yet; both of them were still too dazed by the fact that they had taken the step of engagement.
There was time.
The small form was curled up on its side, as though asleep, but the smell told them differently, and Sara's frown was tight.
"Bum found him," Det. Vartann said, tilting his head at the elderly lady who huddled next to her shopping cart filled with grubby packages--almost the epitome of "bag lady". One of the officers was questioning her patiently, but she appeared to be more than half deaf. "George'll be taking her downtown, but frankly she couldn't lift a cat. Not a suspect."
Sara privately agreed with him, but procedure was procedure, and any good CSI--or cop--knew that appearances could deceive. She waited, but apparently he had nothing more to say.
As primary, she had disposition of personnel, so she waved Ronnie Lake forward. "Get a double set," she instructed the rookie, who was manning the big camera for Swing that night. "This one's priority."
Ronnie nodded solemnly, and the flashes began, each one briefly shocking the grimy alley. The last gleam of sunset was fading from the sky, and the shadows had long since gathered in the narrow, garbage-piled space.
Sara knelt down, carefully avoiding the edge of the plastic bag spread beneath the corpse, and made a closer examination. The pose was natural, as though the toddler had just fallen asleep, and she could see no immediate cause of death. The child's hand was folded around some piece of jewelry, silver links and beads, and Sara directed Ronnie to get some close-up shots of it. Ronnie went to one knee, heedless of the garbage, and snapped away.
A rattle of wheels alerted Sara to the arrival of the coroner, and she stood, nodding as Swing's answer to David Phillips halted in front of the body. Sam Oguntayo had a wrestler's build and a phlegmatic demeanor--reassuring in a coroner, in Sara's private opinion.
Though she did miss David's shy smiles.
Oguntayo grunted at the sight of the dead child, which for him was a strong reaction, and crouched down to carefully turn the slight form. "Lividity's fixed, rigor is passed," he said shortly. "No obvious trauma."
"Dumped?" Sara asked; she tended to adopt his verbal shorthand.
He shrugged, adding another grunt which she now knew meant We'll know more at the post, and let one hand hover over the little closed fist, raising his brows at Sara. She nodded, and he used one gloved thumb to open the fingers. It didn't take much effort.
Oguntayo hooked his finger through the chain and lifted it, handing it to Sara. She held it up so Ronnie could get a close-up, then turned her handlight on it. Huh.
Three years ago, she wouldn't have recognized it, not on first glance; but she'd learned a lot since then. The cross on the end was a giveaway, of course, but the rosary was child-sized, small and delicate, with crystal beads. The object joining the loop was a medal of some sort, but in the poor light Sara couldn't make out the details.
She dropped it into an evidence bag and sealed it while Oguntayo completed his examination. "I.D.?" she asked.
He shook his head. Neither of them had really expected any on a child so small, but there was always hope that the little boy's shirt had a name label sewn in the back or some such.
"Too young for prints, probably," Ronnie noted sadly.
"Yeah," Sara sighed. "Not much chance that his DNA's in the system, either."
Ronnie put the lens cap back on the camera. "Look at how he's dressed, though. Somebody has to be missing this kid."
It was true that the toddler's straight black hair was clean and even combed, his clothes inexpensive but well-made and tidy; he was as clean as could be reasonably expected for someone still apt to taste random objects. But Sara didn't bother to point out all the reasons even a well-cared-for child could easily end up dead in a back alley.
She had the nasty feeling that too many of them were going to come up in this case anyway.
Oguntayo had unfolded a small body bag, and now lifted the little body and laid it gently inside. Sara put out a hand, not to stop him but to draw his attention. "Run a SAE kit on this one, will you?" she asked softly.
The coroner nodded, his face settling into harsher lines, and zipped up the bag.
Swing's senior coroner was a transplant, like at least two-thirds of the lab's personnel. Dr. Nat, as she was known, had chosen that shift because, she claimed, she had done years of night shift at her old job and was thoroughly sick of it. Sara had to wonder why she hadn't just gone to Days instead--anyone with her credentials could pretty much pick her shift--but didn't ask. She rather liked the curly-haired pathologist, whose frank manner and sly sense of humor made visits to the morgue as enjoyable as dropping in on Doc Robbins and his superior coffee. Nat's button nose and wide-set eyes kept her from beauty, but her force of personality and apparently unending energy made her attractive all the same.
She bore no trace of humor, though, when Sara walked in to inquire after her corpse.
"Probably no more than two years old," Nat said sadly as they looked down at the boy. "Twenty-eight months at the most. No distinguishing marks, though he's probably of Chinese descent."
Sara asked the most pressing question. "Cause of death?"
Nat lifted the boy's eyelid gently, then pointed to the faint trace of blue-grey on the philtrum. "Petecchial hemorrhaging and perimortem bruising. I'm calling it asphyxia unless I find something better when I open him up."
"Smothered." Sara rubbed her forehead with the back of her wrist; her head wasn't aching, precisely, but the sorrow and rage that came with these cases always laid a black weight on her, as though her skull were made of iron instead of bone.
"Looks like it," Nat agreed darkly. "I've sent blood to Tox. Now, wanna hear the cold comfort?"
Sara almost smiled despite the circumstances. "Sure."
The coroner actually ticked her points off on her fingers. "No signs of sexual trauma; in fact, no signs of abuse of any kind. He's well-fed, healthy, even his baby teeth came in straight. And there's no bruising aside from his mouth, no indications of struggle at all, which makes me very interested in the results of the tox screen."
"Hmm." Sara frowned, looking down at the toddler. The knowledge that he might have been unconscious when he was killed was, indeed, not much comfort, but it was interesting forensically. "Any fibers?"
Nat shot her a look that told her she should know better than to ask. "Did I mention any?"
This time Sara did smile, just a little. "Sorry. Okay. Anything I can plug into the missing persons database?"
Nat snagged a report form from the counter and handed it to her. "Not a lot, but good luck with it."
Sara thanked her and left.
"Are we going to be here all night?" Ronnie asked, watching over Sara's shoulder as she called up the database. The rookie CSI's overeager enthusiasm had died down somewhat over the last few months, but if she got interested enough she was willing to extend her shift.
"Probably not. Think about it," Sara prodded gently as her fingers flew over the keyboard. Julia Reyes, the Swing shift supervisor, had been delighted to get Sara's skills and dedication on her team, and tended to pair her with Ronnie for the experience. Fortunately, the younger CSI seemed pleased with the informal mentoring, and liked to pick Sara's brain when a case baffled her. Sara, in her turn, found Ronnie more tolerable now that she had stopped playing Twenty Questions with each case.
Ronnie was silent for a few minutes, and Sara played around with the display, not wanting to give her any hints. Then she heard the younger woman shift behind her. "Oh. Amber Alert?"
Sara smirked at her reflection in the monitor, and clicked on the correct link. "Very good. Now tell me why."
"Because a child that well cared for was most likely reported missing--and he's been dead long enough for someone to actually have missed him."
"Yep." Sara began scrolling down the page; a heartbreaking number of children were reported missing every day, though there was a small relief in knowing that many of the children were recovered quickly, and a good handful of the rest were errors of some kind--crossed wires or missed connections resulting in kids who were merely temporarily misplaced, as it were, rather than actually lost or taken.
"How about that one?" Ronnie shifted to Sara's side and pointed at the screen, and Sara clicked on the picture of the beaming toddler.
The link opened to more data on the missing boy, and Sara checked it against Nat's report. "Nope, he's an inch too tall to be ours."
But the second look-alike fit the particulars. Roger Hsien, twenty-four months old almost exactly, 36 inches tall, 28 pounds in weight. Reported missing two days previous in Yakima, Washington.
"He's a long way from home," Ronnie said softly.
Sara felt the weight in her head doubling. "Sounds like an abduction gone bad--somebody wanted him for sex, and something went wrong."
"I thought you said he wasn't abused," Ronnie protested.
"If he was merchandise, he might not be hurt until he was turned over to a buyer." Sara reached for the phone next to the computer. "I'll get in touch with Yakima PD, see if we can match him exactly."
Ronnie hung around as Sara made the call, a quiet presence at the back of the room. It was not a long conversation, but it was never easy, even when it was a detective on the other end rather than the victim's family.
Sara exhaled as she hung up the phone, conscious of how tired she was. Cases like these were brutally draining.
Ronnie came back to lean against the table, and Sara propped her elbows on the edge and folded her hands together. "His parents should be here by tomorrow morning."
"I'll call Vartann." Ronnie suited actions to words, letting the detective know that their victim had a tentative I.D., to be confirmed by the parents when they arrived.
Sara hadn't moved by the time she was through, and Ronnie looked down at her. "What's the next move, Sara?"
Sara let her hands clench into fists. "Now we catch the son of a bitch."
Ronnie made a skeptical noise. "I don't want to be a pill…but with what? We don't have anything--no hairs or fibers or DNA, no prints at the scene, no weapon..."
"We have a plastic bag to check for prints," Sara pointed out sharply. "There's a tox screen pending, and there's whatever evidence the Yakima lab collected. The detective I talked to said it was a Dayshift case, and that he'd have them send it as soon as they come in in the morning."
Ronnie raised her hands in surrender. "Okay, okay," she said good-humoredly, not pointing out the odds of so careful a perp leaving prints on the bag, or the likelihood that Yakima had just as little. Sara took a breath, and made herself smile. Ronnie was a good kid; Sara was grateful that Dr. Reyes had trusted her with the role of mentor for the new girl.
"Sorry. Look, how soon until the end of shift?"
Ronnie glanced at her watch. "About thirty minutes ago."
Sara snorted. "Go home."
She didn't argue. "Should I come in tomorrow when the parents get here?"
"You can if you want. I'll be here." Sara cocked a brow at Ronnie. "But clear it with Julia before you put it on your time card."
"Right." Ronnie threw her a salute and left.
Sara sighed again, and stretched, taking her time about it. There was plenty left to do, but before she began she had an errand to run.
She ran her quarry to ground just outside of Trace One, meandering down the hall with a cup of coffee in one hand and three folders in the other. Grissom's face brightened when he saw her, and Sara fell into step with him, as she had been doing for years now.
Grissom shoved the folders under his arm and let his newly freed hand find the small of her back, all the PDA they would allow themselves at the lab. She savored the familiar touch, resisting the urge to inch closer. "Good evening, dear," he said, his voice amused. "Overtime again?"
"Just a little. How're you? Did you get enough sleep?"
Grissom guided her into his office, leaving the door open since he was on shift. "I'm fine. It was a pleasant drive."
Sara leaned against his desk, pulling up one knee as he rounded it and dropped the files on an uneven pile of papers. "You were asleep so fast this morning that I never got a chance to ask you about Seattle."
Grissom sat down, leaning back and taking a sip of coffee. "The lecture went well; a bit boring, actually. No...imaginative questions." He winked at her, and Sara snickered.
"How many phone numbers this time?"
He rolled his eyes, and fished in his pocket, tossing two business cards and a paper napkin onto his desk. "Just three."
Sara laughed and picked them up. All three of the names were female, and the number on the napkin was underlined twice. "Face it, Gilbert, you're hot stuff."
Reaching out, Grissom plucked them away from her and dropped them in his trash can. "It was an informative weekend, but it rained the whole time." His hand came to rest on her knee, out of sight of the windows--a subtle, warming touch. "I missed you."
Sara covered his hand with her own. "I missed you too. I was almost tempted to borrow Bruno from the neighbor again, just to have a warm body in the bed."
Grissom chuckled at her tease. "Why didn't you?"
"Because when I went over to ask if I could dogsit, he'd just finished rolling in a dead jackrabbit. I can take the smell; it's the enthusiasm that puts me off." She grinned as Grissom laughed out loud, then gave his fingers a quick squeeze and slid off the desk. "Gotta go, and I'm sure you have work too."
"Monthly orders," Grissom replied, scrunching up his face into exaggerated distaste. "Don't stay too late."
"Yeah, yeah." Sara gave him a wave as she made for the door, deliberately not telling him that she intended to be present when the Hsiens arrived.
She could always sleep later.