A/N: This story takes place roughly just under a year after Grissom has left the lab and Las Vegas to go to Costa Rica. The rest of the details will be apparent as the story unfolds. Imagine the story to be the very anticipated episode where Grissom makes a very welcomed return to help his former colleagues. Hope you'll give the story a try...it's an ambitious piece so I will need all the encouragement I can get!
A precious child.
"He…llo?" Sara whispered sleepily into the phone.
"Sara? Hi, it's Catherine."
"Catherine?" Sara repeated, keeping her voice low, wary of waking Grissom. She ran a hand through her hair, blinked a few times and pushed herself up on her elbow, squinting at the alarm clock on the opposite side of the bed. Through the blur, she made out that it was 1:15 am.
"I'm sorry to be calling you at this hour but…could I speak to Grissom?" There was an edge to Catherine's voice as she wasted no time with pleasantries.
"Grissom?" repeated Sara, trying to get her bearings.
Catherine sounded somewhat odd and Sara decided against probing for detail. She had a feeling that this would be case-related.
"Sure, hang on."
Sara put her hand over the mouthpiece and turned to her right. Grissom was still fast asleep, undisturbed by the ring of the phone, curled up on his side facing her.
"Gil?" she tried. "Gil, wake up!" she repeated more forcefully when he didn't stir. She ran two light fingers the length of his beard and placed a soft kiss on his exposed cheek. Grissom mumbled in his sleep, shifting unconsciously closer to her. As her subtle efforts to rouse him weren't doing the trick, she resorted to shaking his shoulder lightly.
"Gil, wake up," she whispered loudly.
"What's wrong, honey?" he mumbled drowsily.
"It's Catherine," she stated as he rubbed his eyes, "on the phone."
He sat up abruptly, a concerned frown appearing on his brow and took the receiver from Sara, glancing at the clock. "Catherine," he said into the phone "I'm guessing…this isn't a social call?"
"Unfortunately no. I wish it was but even I would remember to call in the daytime," she said, a serious tone to her voice and then she paused. He could sense her debate with herself about what to say next.
"Well," she carried on, with evident hesitation in her voice, "we've got a badly decomposed DB in Spring Mountain. From Nick's reckoning, it's been there a while and there's a lot of insect activity. Nicky's doing what he can as far as insect collection and study's concerned…"
"Something's not as straightforward as he'd like and he…we" she amended quickly, "would really appreciate your second opinion."
Nick's competent enough to handle insects' collection and draw basic timeline, Grissom mused.
"You…would?" Grissom asked hesitantly, peering through the darkness over to Sara's side.
"Yeah." He heard Catherine undisguised sigh over the line. "Potentially, this has all the makings of being a high profile case and while we don't want to get ourselves ahead of the evidence, we don't want to draw the wrong conclusions or miss anything probative either."
"When was the body found?"
"Earlier on this evening."
Grissom let out a small breath. Every minute counts. "Nick's still on the scene now?"
"Afraid so. It's going to be a very long shift. Anyway, I've already cleared it with Ecklie…" she added with a trace of hope in her voice, "and if you agree, he's sanctioned for the lab to retain your services as a consultant on this case."
"Well, it must be very high profile indeed." Grissom retorted. "I expect you're not willing to divulge any more information?"
"Willing, yes but I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss the minutiae of the case, you know that. Not until…"
"Yeah, I know." Grissom interrupted. While his curiosity was piqued, he was uncertain whether to accept without discussing it with Sara first.
Grissom felt the mattress shift, looked over to where Sara had been lying and found that she had got out of bed to retrieve his travel bag from the top of the wardrobe. He switched the bedside lamp on; as she turned round to put the bag on the bed she met his gaze and Grissom nodded his head in gratitude, smiling tenderly at her.
"I'll be on the first flight out," he finally told Catherine. "Make sure to tell Nick to leave the body where it is and to remember to photo-document the insects every two minutes or so as well as record the ambient temperature. I'm sure he's already doing that though."
"Yeah, he is. And thanks Gil, I was hoping you'd say yes," she paused briefly. "I already booked you on the next red eye to McCarran. Your plane ticket will be waiting for you at the airport information desk and I'll make sure there's a car when you land, ready to take you to the scene."
Grissom cocked an eyebrow at Sara and wearily shook his head. This case must be very important indeed for her to be acting so quickly and by the sound of it with Ecklie's backing.
He didn't get to voice his reply though as Catherine had already ended the call. He reached over to Sara's side of the bed and replaced the receiver on the stand.
"Are you sure you don't mind?" he asked her, slowly swinging his legs out of the bed.
"Why should I?" She replied with a soft smile. "I know Catherine wouldn't have called unless she really needed your help."
Grissom nodded his head distractedly, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "You're right. She was very tight-lipped about the case, as if she wasn't telling me everything she could have. Nick knows enough about insects to handle basic timeline. I wonder…" he let his words trail, thoughts already swirling in his mind.
He bent down to pick up his boxer shorts from the floor to pull them on. "I should start packing," he said getting to his feet. He looked up toward Sara, met her gaze and gave her an uncertain smile. "You could come with me."
"You know I can't. I've got classes and Noah…" she shrugged.
"I love you."
"I know," she murmured. She walked round to where he was standing, opened her arms and gave him a tight hug.
He returned the embrace and kissed her on the top of the head. "Thank you."
"I'll call Stanford in the morning to let them know. How long do you think they're going to need you?"
"A few days. A week at the most."
Sara nodded her understanding. "Don't worry. I've got everything covered this end. We'll be fine."
Two weeks previously. Sunset Park. Las Vegas. 5.00pm.
Vartann screeched to a halt and parked his Taurus at the curb behind a procession of black and whites. A 418, dispatch had said. He quickly made his way to a uniformed officer guarding the scene, had a brief conversation with him and followed his gaze toward a hunched man sitting on the grass, head in his hands, away from all the commotion.
Vartann looked at his watch and strode purposefully towards the man. "Mr Kessler? Sir?" Vartann called, trying to get the man's attention.
The man looked up startled. "Have you found her?" he asked, voice and expression full of hope.
"No. Sorry, Sir. I'm Detective Vartann," he stated as the man's face fell in disappointment.
Vartann crouched down I front of Kessler as he pulled out his pen and notebook from his breast pocket, acutely aware that time was always of the essence in cases of missing persons. Especially when it involved missing children.
"Before we get started," he continued, "can you clarify your relationship to the missing little girl?"
"I'm her grand-father. Jerome Kessler."
"Okay, Mr Kessler. Can you start at the beginning and tell me exactly what you told the first officers on the scene, please?"
Kessler started his account for the second time that afternoon. "Ali was playing in the sand pit…"
"Ali?" Vartann interrupted.
"Okay. So, she was in the sand pit and…" Vartann repeated, scribbling into his pad.
The man wearily ran a trembling hand through his hair. "Well, I'd been pushing her on the swings for so long and she just wanted to go higher and higher, reach the sky, you know?" the man asked with a sad smile on his face.
Vartann nodded. When the man didn't continue his account, seemingly lost in the recollection, Vartann prompted. "Mr Kessler?"
"Sorry?" Kessler shook his head back to reality. "Oh, yeah. Anyway, my arms were aching from all the pushing so I told her to go play in the sandpit for a while, while I went to sit on the bench over there," he said pointing to a bench between ten and fifteen metres away, behind the crime scene tape.
"I picked up my newspaper and got engrossed in this article and she was playing nicely, you know? over there," he told the detective pointing toward some scattered toys in the sand. "I can't have taken my eyes off her for more than a few minutes. Five at the absolute most."
"Okay. And then, when you noticed she wasn't there, what did you do?"
"Well, at first, I didn't panic. I thought she must have got fed up and had just gone to play on the slide or on the climbing frame." He shrugged helplessly. "I looked around and when I couldn't see her, I called her name and then I searched all over the playground and then the park. She was gone maybe ten minutes by then." He motioned to his left. "These two ladies helped look with me. When I couldn't find her…" he let out a long sigh, "I called 911 straightaway."
"You did the right thing." Vartann said reassuringly. "We've got officers searching the surrounding area and I've got some police cadets on the way as well as a CSI. And I'll be taking these ladies' statements next."
Kessler pondered that for a while. His gaze was fixed on the ground, his fingers nervously fraying a blade of grass.
"Where could she be, detective? It's going to be dark soon." Kessler whispered, his eyes misting over. "Ali's scared of the dark. Oh my God, what am I going to tell her grand-mother?"
"Her grand-mother. Is she out looking for her?"
Kessler shook his head slowly. "No," he replied. "It's complicated," he apologised.
"Sir, every single detail is important. Complicated is my bread and butter."
"Well, her grand-mother and I are separated but we share custody and have her alternate weeks. Her grand-mother is out of town today."
"Mr Kessler," Vartann asked, "is it possible that Alison has wandered off somewhere?
"What? No," he said shaking his head emphatically. "She knows better than that. We've told her not to talk to strangers either. She's not a trusting child by nature. I don't think…"
Vartann insisted with this line of questioning. "Could she have hidden and fallen asleep? Did you tell her off maybe and she's sulking?"
"No!" Kessler interjected, squeezing his eye shut tightly. "She wouldn't do that."
"Okay," the detective softly conceded for now, aware that he was getting the man agitated. "I understand she's five. Would she know her way home? Do you live locally?"
"No. We live over in Henderson. But we like this park and we come here on occasion, on a Saturday when we can."
"You say you have custody. What about her parents? Could she have gone with them regardless?"
"No. That's not possible. Her mother's dead and her father…well, she doesn't know about him." Kessler waved his arm about, shaking his head dismissingly.
Vartann raised his eyebrows in interest and made a note to look into it. "I know you've gone through this before but it will help me if you could give me a detailed description," continued the detective.
"Alright." Kessler closed his eyes and rubbed them wearily. "Ali's about four feet tall; she's quite tall for her age. She's got longish blond hair…"
"Shoulder length, longer?" cut in Vartann.
"Down to her shoulder but today it's platted in a French braid…she likes it out of the way you know?"
Vartann nodded earnestly, taking quick notes in his book and waiting for more detail. When none was forthcoming, he asked: "What is she wearing?"
"Mmm…she's got her favourite blue jeans on and a plain white T-shirt…mmm…it's got a stain at the front. Ice cream? Double chocolate, her favourite," the grand-father added with a sad smile.
"Are these her shoes?" Vartann asked, motioning toward a pair of red patent Mary-Janes.
"Huh?" Kessler looked to his right and nodded meekly. "She took them off to go to the sand pit, said the sand was tickling her toes…" his voice broke. "I had them in case I found her, so she'd put them on." He let out a long deep breath. "She can't be far, can she? You're going to find her soon, aren't you? I don't understand. She knows she's to stay where I can see her, not to stray. I looked everywhere…Do you think someone took her?"
"Mr Kessler, we don't know that yet. I can assure you we'll do everything we can to find her. Can you excuse me, just for an instant?" Vartann asked, getting to his feet from his crouched position and moving to the side while tugging his radio out of his jacket pocket.
"Dispatch? This is detective Vartann," he spoke into the radio.
"Go ahead, detective."
"Can you arrange for a canine unit to come to my location asap?"
The detective waited an instant while dispatch checked the availability of the unit. The radio buzzed back to life. "They're over in North Las Vegas so it might be a little while."
"10-4" replied the police officer.
Vartann pocketed his radio and turned back to Kessler. "The scent dogs are on their way, Sir." Kessler nodded his head. "In the meantime, is there anything else you can tell me?"
Kessler appeared to think for a moment when suddenly his face lit up, he got up and started running toward the bench where his possessions were scattered.
"Sir, please. You mustn't cross the tape," Vartann called, following behind.
Kessler stopped dead in his tracks and turned round toward the detective. "Her Dora. I can't see it. It's gone too."
"Dora the Explorer. She doesn't go anywhere without it."
When he caught Vartann's puzzled face, he explained. "It's a small canvas backpack with a picture of Dora on the front. It's old, battered and faded," he rattled off with enthusiasm.
I'm not sure that helps, thought Vartann. "Good," he smiled. "Back to her description. Does she have any distinguishing features?"
Kessler's question was muffled by the high-pitched drone of a small aeroplane approaching nearby McCarran airport for landing. This interruption only served to remind Vartann of the fact that he would need to send out an APB to the security team at the airport as soon as possible.
When the noise of the aircraft had subsided, the detective clarified. "Any moles, birthmarks, scars, anything you can think of that would help us identify her when we find her?"
"What? You mean if you find her body? Oh my God! You think she's dead?" the man asked frantic with worry.
"No, no, not at all." Vartann replied in a calm voice. "Sir," he put a comforting hand on Kessler's shoulder. "It would help especially if she's alive."
"Sorry but I can't think of anything," Kessler mumbled dejectedly. He suddenly jerked his head up to meet Vartann's expectant face. "Of course," he said, voice rising in animation, "how did I not think of that? You know, you see them everyday and after a while you don't pay attention…"
"Attention to what, Mr Kessler?" the detective cut in impatiently.
"I beg your pardon?"
"It's a genetic condition, her mother had it. Her eyes…they're a different colour. Her left one's brown and the right one blue."
Vartann shook his head in wonderment and jotted it down in his notebook. "Do you happen to have a picture of her with you? I may need to use it if we haven't located her by night-time."
"I do." Kessler said with a hopeful smile, glad there was something he could help with at long last. "It's in my wallet in my jacket pocket on the bench."
Detective Vartann noticed CSI Willows striding decisively towards them. She was carrying her silver metallic field kit. He walked a few steps to meet her and gave her a welcoming and grateful smile. He had been expecting someone from the swing shift and was delighted at her unexpected and very prompt appearance.