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The white van blew past the gray Lexus at nearly ninety miles an hour, dodging crazily from one lane to another. The driver of the Lexus, Stephano Kliomedes, swore and hit the brakes as the vehicle cut in front of him, but the van never even slowed down; it crossed another lane and then swerved back the other way, darting through gaps in the traffic like a running back with five hundred pounds of defensive linemen breathing down his neck.
"That's it! That's it!" Stephano roared.
His wife, Grace, sighed in the way that only a twenty-year marriage can produce. "Stephie, calm down," she said. "You don't -- "
"I don't? I don't? What about him? He don't, that's what I say! Not this time!" He stomped on the accelerator and took off after the van, muttering curses in Greek under his breath.
"Leaping, always leaping," Grace said. "Leaping before looking, that's you. What if this maniac is on drugs? What if he has a gun? Or a pregnant wife in the back, going into labor?"
"Then the child will grow up an orphan! I have a gun, too!"
"What a terrible thing to say. Now you'll go to prison for murder? And what am I supposed to do -- grow old without you? Or do we both die in a hail of gunfire?"
"You're already old. We're both old. And we deserve more respect than this!"
"You want respect, you should have become a fireman. You're a shoe salesman."
"A shoe salesman with a gun!"
Grace's reply died on her lips. There was something in the sky ahead of them -- something large. "Stephano," she gasped. "You think maybe that has something to do with Mr. I'm-in-a-Hurry?"
Directly ahead of them, a hot-air balloon dropped toward the highway. It wasn't exactly plummeting, Grace would tell the police later; no, it was more like sinking. Sinking in a Titanic sort of way, she said, except without the iceberg. Slow and heavy and kind of inevitable.
The basket touched down with hardly a sound, and the balloon proceeded to collapse like a gigantic airborne thespian giving her last and greatest performance. The airbag kept moving as it settled, dragging the basket along the highway at an angle until it wedged between an SUV and a convertible that had stopped to gawk.
The white van slammed to a halt a few feet away. A young man with an unruly thatch of hair and a three-day growth of beard jumped out of the driver's side and sprinted over to the basket, leaving his door hanging open. By the time he got there, the driver of the convertible and the SUV were already out of their vehicles and staring into the basket. Its sole occupant stared back sightlessly with his one remaining eye.
Lieutenant Horatio Caine surveyed the scene, hands on hips. The balloon had been dragged off to one side of the highway, but the basket hadn't been disturbed. Police barriers had been set up to isolate the scene, with a single narrow lane down one side to let traffic by. A steady stream of slow-driving rubberneckers crept past, sometimes snapping pictures with cell phone cameras.
"Alexx, what can you tell me?" asked Horatio. The ME was inside the basket itself, examining the body.
"Looks like a single GSW," Doctor Alexx Woods said, straightening up. "Entry point is the right eye. No exit wound -- bullet's still inside." She shook her head. "Nobody shoots themselves in the eye, Horatio. Suicides put the barrel in their mouth, under their chin, sometimes to the temple -- almost never to the eye."
"Just because they want to die, Alexx," said Horatio, "doesn't mean they want to see it coming. Time of death?"
"No more than an hour or two. Body temperature hasn't dropped at all, and there's no rigor -- not even in his eyelids. Well, eyelid. And there's stippling around the entry wound, indicating he was shot at close range."
"I don't suppose you noticed a gun while you were down there?"
"No. But if he shot himself in midair, it probably went over the edge. Give me a hand, will you, Horatio?"
Horatio helped her climb out of the basket. "I retrieved his wallet while I was in there," said Alexx. She handed it to Horatio and he flipped it open.
"Timothy Breakwash," said Horatio. "Fifty-one, resident of Florida City. Has his pilot's license, which means he can fly passengers as well as solo."
"Well, if he had anyone else with him," said Alexx, "they got out before he did."
Horatio glanced up as a silver Humvee parked at the edge of the barricade. Calleigh Duquesne, dressed in black slacks and a white silk blouse, got out of the driver's seat. She gave them a cheerful wave as she grabbed her CSI kit from the back.
"Ms. Duquesne," said Horatio. "Glad you could join us."
"You know how badly this has traffic backed up?" Calleigh said as she strolled up with a smile on her face. "Even with the flashers on, it took forever. Like playing hopscotch for fifteen miles using one leg."
"I know," said Alexx. "And all the looky-loos slowing down to stare doesn't help." She glared at a Jeep full of college-age kids crawling past, all of them straining for a glimpse of possible carnage.
"Death is the great mystery, Alexx," said Horatio. "You can't really blame people for their curiosity."
"No," said Calleigh, "but we can charge admission."
Horatio dipped his head and peered at her over the rims of his sunglasses.
"Taxes," said Calleigh. "The public pays them, we collect our salaries, do our job, and come up with answers. The public may be clueless...but we aren't."
"No, we're not," Horatio agreed. "As a matter of fact, I have a whole basket full of them, just for you."
"Why, thank you, Horatio. You're so thoughtful..."
Natalia Boa Vista ducked under the yellow crime scene tape and flashed her ID to the uniformed officer guarding the front door of the house. He nodded and waved her inside.
Natalia hadn't been a CSI for long, but her training kicked in the second she stepped over the threshold. She looked around, not just to the left and right but down to the floor and up to the ceiling. The bungalow was nothing special, just a single-level building in a middle-class Miami neighborhood, but she could already tell that it was occupied by a single male, probably in his forties, no wife or kids; she saw a single pair of sneakers and a light jacket on a hook, but no women's or kids' shoes. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, Horatio had told her, the foyer of a house is the inside cover of a book. Take the time to read it and it'll prepare you for what's inside.
It didn't prepare her for the blood, though.
The vic was sprawled in the middle of his living room, face-up. Blood soaked his torso and was pooled under the body. Spatter from castoff had decorated one wall and a lampshade with an abstract spiderweb of crimson.
Frank Tripp stood beside the body, jotting down details in a small notebook. He glanced up as she walked in and said, "Oh, hey, Natalia. Got a messy one for you."
"So I see." She realized she hadn't put on a pair of gloves yet, and looked around for a place to set her kit down. Rookie mistake, she thought.
If Tripp noticed, he didn't show it. "Vic's name is Hiram Davey. Multiple stab wounds, looks like."
"He looks familiar." She pulled on the gloves, then knelt by the body. The DB didn't have the face of a movie star or the build of an athlete, but she was sure she recognized him just the same.
"If you read the Tribune, you'd know him. He writes a weekly column -- Hi Davey. Humorous local stuff -- I was a fan, actually. He made me bust my gut on more than one Sunday morning."
"Well, it looks like somebody busted his," said Natalia. "Medical examiner been here, yet?"
"Been and gone. Had to attend a balloon crash, of all things."
"Yeah, I heard about that." Natalia pulled her camera out of her kit and began taking pictures.
"Kinda thing Davey would have loved. You ever read that column he did on the exploding manatee?"
"Uh -- no, I think I missed that one." Natalia surveyed the room. A chair was kicked over and the coffee table upended -- Davey had put up a fight.
"It's a classic. Still got it taped to my fridge."
"Any sign of forced entry?"
"No, door was unlocked. His editor was the one that walked in and found the body. Says he was here to give Davey hell for missing his deadline -- so to speak."
She glanced around. "Where is he?"
"Took off before we got here, called it in from hiscell. Seems he was in a hurry to write it up and get it in the paper."
"Doesn't he know it's illegal to leave a crime scene like that?"
Tripp grunted. "Some journalists seem to think the law doesn't apply to them. I'm gonna swing by his office and re-educate the man."
Natalia grinned. "Wouldn't want to be in his shoes, then."
She knelt and checked the contents of the body's pockets. "Might be a robbery -- his wallet's gone." She pointed to a pale band around the DB's wrist. "And so's his watch. Could be they're both somewhere in the house, though; if he works at home he wouldn't necessarily have them on his person."
Tripp shook his bullet-shaped head. "Nah. Davey did all his writing on a laptop in coffee shops and bars -- it was a running joke in the column. Claimed he got cabin fever sitting at home."
"Well, if he worked on a laptop it should be here, right?" She looked around. "Did he have a study?"
"Yeah -- converted sunroom in the back." Tripp jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
Natalia left the living room and went down a short hall. Several framed writing awards hung along its length, and a tattered brown runner covered the floor. The air had that smell that Natalia always associated with bachelor apartments: a mixture of old pizza boxes, unreturned beer bottles, and dust.
The study was about as messy as she'd expected, crammed floor to ceiling with bookcases, stacked with cardboard boxes overflowing with papers, and festooned with the relics of a misspent youth: a neon beer sign over the door, a poster of the Miami Dolphins cheerleading squad scrawled full of signatures on one wall. There was a desk covered in magazines, books, and bric-a-brac, but no computer.
She returned to the living room. "No luck. Either it was stolen, or he left it somewhere else."
"Anything else missing?"
"Hard to tell for sure. Nothing obvious."
"I'll take a closer look." He hesitated, then said, "Sorry, I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I just meant -- "
"It's okay, Frank. New kid on the block, I know. I'll process in here while you look around." She gave him a smile; he nodded and left the room.
She studied the scene carefully, trying to piece together the sequence of events. The killer didn't break in. So unless the door was already open...She retraced her steps and examined the front door. Heavy-duty lock, plus another lock built into the doorknob and a sturdy slide-action bolt.
Unlikely he would have this kind of security and not use any of it -- he must have let the killer in. Someone he knew? Or just someone he thought was harmless?
She went back to the living room and took a closer look at the body's hands and arms. Defensive wounds. If he fought back hard enough, there's a good chance some of the killer's blood is here, too.
She was collecting samples from near the wreckage of the coffee table when she noticed something strange about the spatter pattern on the couch. There was a blank rectangular space on one of the cushions, a void outlined in drops of red.
Just about the size of a laptop, too...
Natalia went over to take a closer look, then checked beneath the couch.
No laptop -- but she did find something else.
"Find anything interesting?" Horatio asked.
"I have," said Calleigh. She handed Horatio a single sheet of paper in a clear evidence baggie. "This was tucked inside an interior compartment."
Horatio read it aloud. "'I have seen enough.' Machine-printed, no signature."
"Well, it's not like we're going to confuse it with anybody else's suicide note."
"True -- but it's awfully clinical, isn't it? It wasn't even on his person. And the 'seen' part is clearly referencing his being shot in the eye -- almost as if trying to explain it."
"I know," said Calleigh. "If he hadn't been shot at close range, I'd say this scene was staged. But how do you fake a crime scene a thousand feet in the air in broad daylight?"
"I don't know," said Horatio. "But while Timothy Breakwash may have seen enough, we're just getting started..."
Calleigh finished processing the basket and sent everything she had collected to the lab. What she didn't find was a gun; from the look of the gunshot wound she'd guess it would prove to be something small, a .38 or maybe a .22. And, more than likely, it had tumbled to the ground an instant after Breakwash had pulled the trigger.
If he pulled the trigger.
Which meant it was most likely somewhere in the Everglades -- anywhere from the top of a mangrove tree to the bottom of a pool of quicksand. It could even be in the belly of an alligator by now -- they'd been known to eat all sorts of strange things.
Unless this is a murder, she thought, and not a suicide.
It wasn't as impossible as it seemed. Breakwash could have been shot while still on the ground. He had been shot in the basket, that much she was sure of; there were no indications of the body's having been moved after being shot -- well, other than drifting a few miles though the air -- and the pattern of bloodstains seemed to confirm it. So unless he'd been attacked in midair by sky pirates...she shook her head and grinned.
"Something funny?" Horatio asked.
"Just the image of sword-wielding brigands bearing down on the balloon in a zeppelin flying the Jolly Roger."
Horatio grinned back. "That seems...unlikely."
"Hey, you asked. Anyway, turns out the balloon was only flying a few hundred feet up on a clear day -- somebody could have seen something through binoculars or a telescope. What do you think?"
"I'm thinking," said Horatio, looking at the line of cars still inching past the crime scene, "that sometimes rubberneckers can prove useful."
"Well, they're already lined up. Might as well ask them a few questions as they go through."
"I already have a uniformed officer doing exactly that. If anyone on the road saw something, she'll let us know -- in the meantime, I think I'll start with the first person on the scene."
Natalia finished bagging the blood swabs from the living room and joined Frank in the study, where he was searching through each and every book.
"You done?" he asked.
"Yes, I think so. I'm pretty sure the laptop was on the couch when the murder happened -- there's ghosting of just the right size. That's not all, though -- I found this under the couch." She held up a small digital recorder.
"You think our murder was recorded?"
"Don't know -- battery's dead. Could be because it was running for the last few hours -- I'll have Cooper take a look at it and see what he thinks. How about you -- find anything odd?"
"Thought I'd check for backup files. So far, no luck."
"Used to be a computer disk was fairly easy to spot. These days, though..." A sudden thought struck her. She glanced around the room but didn't see what she was looking for. "Just a second, Frank."
Natalia returned to the living room and walked over to the stereo. An upright CD rack made of wire stood beside it; she ran her finger down the titles until she came to one that looked handwritten. "Ima Novella -- Greatest Hits," she said aloud. She pulled it out, revealing a gold CD in a clear plastic case. Scrawled across the front in Magic Marker were the words, DEATHLESS PROSE.
"Funny," she murmured. "But not exactly accurate..."
Frank walked up behind her. "CD-ROM?"
"Yeah. I'm guessing this is a backup copy that he hid in plain sight. Sort of."
"Ima Novella. Yeah, that sounds like Davey."
"I'll take it back to the lab. I hope it isn't encrypted."
Frank shook his head. "Knowing Davey, it might just be a collection of traveling salesmen jokes."
"Guess we'll know soon enough." Natalia slipped the CD into an evidence folder. "And if this doesn't give us anything relevant, I guess the joke's on him."
"My name's Joel Greer," the driver of the white van told Horatio. "I crew for Mister Breakwash."
Horatio studied the young man with the unkempt hair who wouldn't meet his eyes. The death of his boss had definitely upset Joel, but Horatio could tell there was more to it than that. "I see," he said. "And what, exactly, does crewing a hot-air balloon entail?"
"I don't fly with him," said Joel. He crossed his arms. "I just help get the balloon inflated and then pack it up again at the other end. And I drive the support vehicle."
"So you were present when Mister Breakwash launched?"
"Yeah, of course. And when he..." Joel swallowed. "Came down again."
"Was there anyone else there?"
"No, it was just us."
"What about during the flight?"
"I followed him at a distance in the van. He was over the 'Glades, so I couldn't exactly pace him, but he was in sight the whole time. I followed the highway until -- well, he was supposed to meet me over here." Joel pulled a battered map out of his back pocket and unfolded it. "Right here in this field. We've done it lots of times. But this time -- this time he just kept going."
"Did you try to contact him?"
"Yeah, we have a set of walkie-talkies for that. He didn't answer. I just followed him the best I could after that, until he finally -- "Joel broke off and looked away.
"Did you see anything unusual during the flight? Did anything approach the balloon or leave it?"
"I didn't notice anything -- but it was pretty far away, and I had to keep my eyes on the road. I called the FAA as soon as I knew something was wrong."
"Yes, I imagine their investigator will want to talk to you, too."
"I didn't do anything wrong, did I? I mean, this isn't my fault, right?"
Horatio eyed Joel calmly for a second. "I don't think so, no," he said. "But we've just started our investigation. Would you mind holding out your hands? There's a test I need to perform."
Natalia took the CD-ROM back to the lab, where she popped it into her computer and discovered it wasn't encrypted -- nor was it full of traveling salesman jokes. What it did contain was the outline of a novel, along with a large file labeled NOTES and another called INTERVIEWS. She was halfway through them when Cooper stuck his head in the door. He wore a lab coat over a bright orange T-shirt with the word POW! on the chest.
"Hey," he said. "I've been looking at that digital recorder you gave me."
"Step into my parlor and listen for yourself."
She followed him back to the AV lab. "Okay," he said. "Here's what was on it." He hit a key and a voice she assumed was Hiram Davey's said, "Maybe move the bit with the flamingo until the end of the chapter? I dunno..."
A knock sounded in the background. "Dammit -- just a sec -- " There was a crashing noise -- then nothing.
"Sounds like he was making notes for a book," said Cooper. "And got attacked halfway through."
"That doesn't quite line up," said Natalia. "The killer didn't force his way in, so that crash had to have been part of the struggle. There were no voices, either. It's like part of the tape was edited out -- but why bother? Easier for the killer to erase the whole thing or just take it with him."
"I think I can explain the sequence of sounds. He was dictating notes, then hit pause when he heard the knock on the door. If he'd been using an analog recorder, there would've been a noticeable click. I had to analyze the signal digitally, but I found an interrupt signature."
"And the crash?"
"Something or somebody hit the pause button again. Probably happened by accident -- maybe the vic dropped it when he was attacked."
She nodded. "I found it under the couch -- it might have been dropped then kicked there during the struggle. Did you pull anything interesting from the recording?"
Cooper shook his head. "Sorry. It must have been activated after the vic was already dead -- there's no sound of a struggle or any voices. You can hear some very faint breathing after the pause -- the killer must have gotten closer to the recorder for a few seconds."
"Probably when he bent down to grab the laptop. Nothing else?"
"Sound of the door closing a minute later. The person who discovered the body must have shown up after the battery had run down -- there wasn't anything else on it."
Frank Tripp glared at the man on the other side of the desk. The man -- editor Jeremiah Burkitt -- glared back. Burkitt was short and paunchy, with a graying beard and jet-black hair that looked as if it had been polished with shoeshine.
"I did what I had to," growled Burkitt.
"You left the scene of a murder," Tripp growled back. "You know what that looks like?"
"You're the cop. You tell me."
Tripp leaned forward in his chair. "You are getting on my last nerve, Mister Burkitt. I have some questions, and you're going to answer them. Or I will haul you down to the station in handcuffs and stick you in a room with no air-conditioning while I take my own sweet time deciding just what I'm going to charge you with."
"Why were you at Hiram Davey's home at six in the morning?"
"I told you. He owed me a column and I was there to collect. He wasn't answering his phone, so I went to see him in person."
"And when there was no answer you just walked in?"
Burkitt snorted. "When one of my writers misses a deadline, they know there's no place to hide. If the door had been locked I would've broken it down."
"Tell me exactly what you saw when you entered the house."
"I saw Davey's body, lying in a pool of blood in the living room. It looked like there had been a fight. I didn't touch a damn thing."
"You didn't check him for a pulse, see if he was still breathing?"
Burkitt's eyes narrowed. "I've seen my share of corpses, Detective. I knew Davey was dead the second I laid eyes on him, and I know enough to not disturb a crime scene."
"Right. Are we gonna find your prints on anything in that house other than the doorknob?"
"Sure. I've been there before. Check the whisky glasses in the rolltop desk he used as a bar -- I doubt he ever washed them."
"Any idea who would want Davey dead?"
Burkitt grimaced. "Six months ago I would have sworn the man didn't have an enemy in the world -- and that's a rare thing to say about a journalist. Hi was good at making people laugh, and people loved him for it. He got more mail than anyone else at the paper, and it was all positive."
"So what happened six months ago?"
"He signed a book deal. Some kind of crime novel, with a really loopy cast of characters. I thought it was going to be typical Davey stuff, but then I found out he was doing a ton of research and interviews. He wanted people to take his writing more seriously, so he thought he'd ground the book in reality, base it on actual people and events."
"You think some of the people he was planning on using in the book weren't too happy with him?"
"That's what Davey said. He claimed his life had been threatened more than once."
Burkitt shrugged. "No idea. He was being real secretive about the book, wouldn't give me any details. You want to know who was in it, you'll have to read it for yourself."
"I'll do that," said Tripp.
Many drivers reported seeing the balloon drifting over the highway, but none of them had noticed anything fall out of the basket. A few people had spotted the craft earlier over the Everglades, but nobody saw anyone leave it either.
Calleigh talked briefly to the FAA investigator, a thin, harried-looking man named Pinlon who'd driven up along the shoulder, bypassing the crawling line and getting more than a few angry honks in response.
"Gunshot?" Pinlon said, shaking his head and entering data in a PDA. "That's a new one. Better than what I usually get, though. Most balloon fatalities happen when they hit power lines. Pow, zap, game over."
"This was more of a blam, crash, traffic jam," said Calleigh. "Fewer fireworks, but more angry commuters."
"They'd be a lot angrier if they got home and their power was out." Pinlon sighed and ran a hand through his thinning hair. "Anyway, seems pretty open and shut to me."
"Looks like it, I know. But we're not so sure..."
Pinlon talked to a few more people and then supervised the loading of the balloon itself onto a truck. "We'll have to go over the whole thing inch by inch," he told Horatio. "They may be big and slow, but they're still aircraft. The FAA won't sign off on this until I hand in a full report."
"Let us know if you find anything unusual," said Horatio. "We'll do the same on our end."
"What's next?" Calleigh asked after Pinlon had left.
"We visit the launch site," said Horatio. "Mister Greer tested negative for GSR -- let's see if the rest of his story checks out."
Frank Tripp knocked on Natalia's door around two. "Got a minute?"
She looked up from her monitor and giggled.
Frank looked nonplussed. "'Scuse me?"
"Sorry, Frank. But you were right -- this guy's funny."
"So that's what you found on the disk? More columns?"
"No, it looks like Mister Davey had higher ambitions. He was working on -- "
"A book, I know. I just got back from talking to his editor at the newspaper. Apparently he just signed a pretty sweet deal for a crime novel."
"It's called Floridosity," Natalia said. "But referring to it as a work of fiction isn't exactly accurate."
"Yeah, apparently he was basing all the characters on real people -- Miami residents he'd interviewed or researched."
"Not only that, he made extensive notes detailing his plans for each character."
"From what his editor said, his portrayals weren't all that flattering."
"Actually, they're hilarious." She grinned and shook her head. "But yeah, he doesn't exactly show these people at their best. If he wasn't careful, he could have had a libel suit on his hands."
"I'd say he definitely wasn't careful enough."
"Well, he did manage to leave the disk where his attacker didn't find it -- which gives us a shopping list of suspects."
Frank nodded. "How long of a list we talking?"
"There are five main characters in the book. Any one of them could be our killer."
"And we've got the real ID of each of 'em?"
"Right here on disk."
"Then what are we waiting for? Let's go get 'em."
"But -- don't you want to read the files, first?"
"Nah. I'm a quick study -- you can fill me in as we drive. Besides, how bad Davey made our suspects look isn't the important part. It's what they did as a result -- and who they did it to."
Natalia took off her lab coat and hung it up. "The facts, not the fiction?"
Tripp grinned. "Couldn't have put it better myself."
Copyright © 2008 by CBS Worldwide Inc. and Alliance Atlantis Productions, Inc.