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The red baboon spider hissed at the showgirl.
"She's a little nervous," Gil Grissom said. "I don't take her out in public very often."
On Planet Showgirl, evolution had clearly favored sequins and feathers, while gravity was obviously much less of a factor. The showgirl leaned in closer and peered at the cage. "Hairy, irritable, and poisonous," she said. "Reminds me of my ex. Nice to see you, Gil." She strutted off on absurdly high heels, an exotic alien who somehow seemed completely at home.
Grissom glanced around the lobby. He often felt like an outsider in "normal" society, and his usual environment -- working graveyard shift at the crime lab in Las Vegas -- was anything but. Not only was it one of the busiest labs in the country; Grissom had helped it attain one of the highest case clearance rates as well. His world was one of high contrast, of bodies found in high-roller penthouse suites and in back-alley Dumpsters, of prostitutes who ODed on a thousand dollars' worth of cocaine, and homeless men frozen to death in the desert. Vegas was its own world, where all the rules were different and cash was king, where people came for the sex and the buzz and the shows and the slots, and everybody knew that beneath the city's bright neon smile were the sharp, hungry teeth of a shark. Vegas was a river, a shiny twenty-four-hour current of brilliant color and chiming bells, with the nets that let the fish through while separating them from their money so cleverly designed that people hardly noticed them -- and were too enthralled with the glitz to feel their pockets getting lighter. You could meet literally anyone in Vegas, from a celebrity throwing away his signing bonus at the craps tables to an elderly tourist couple from Iowa, from sharp-eyed hustlers honing their skills at poker to fresh-faced drunks eager to do something they'd regret tomorrow.
The town attracted many a convention-goer, too. Grissom had investigated his share of weekend warrior misadventures; the combination of booze, peer pressure, and sudden disconnection from their everyday lives pushed people to extremes of behavior they never would have considered at home.
Everyone needed to blow off steam; he understood that. Grissom himself rode roller coasters, the intense visceral rush so completely different from the cool calm of the lab. He sometimes wondered what sort of release his scientific colleagues indulged in -- not the ones he worked with every day, but other entomologists.
He supposed he was about to find out.
The sign board in the lobby read WELCOME ELEVENTH ANNUAL CONVENTION OF INTERNATIONAL ENTOMOLOGICAL RESEARCH PROFESSIONALS! They'd misspelled entomological. Grissom had already told the front desk, but they hadn't gotten around to changing it yet.
"Grissom? Gilly!" The voice was loud, Australian, and familiar: Grissom recognized the tall, lanky man who strode across the lobby toward him immediately. Jake Soames was from Melbourne, one of the foremost experts in the world on poisonous insects. He was dressed the same way he'd been the last time Grissom had seen him, in tan cargo pants and a jacket with too many pockets, a matching Tilley hat pinned up on one side of his head bushman-style. His face was wide and ruddy, his abundant red mustache streaked with gray.
"Hello, Jake," said Grissom. "Good to see you."
"You too, mate. How about this, eh? Guess we're on your turf now!"
Grissom smiled. "I suppose you are."
"It sounds," a polite voice from behind Grissom said, "as if you're conceding him the home-field advantage. Setting the stage for your inevitable admission of defeat?"
Grissom turned. The speaker was a short, trim Asian man, dressed in a conservative blue suit. Grissom knew him, too: Khem Charong, a researcher from Thailand. They'd met at a conference in Duluth, where Charong's entries in the cockroach races had just edged out Grissom's.
"Not bloody likely," said Soames. "I've got some real beauties this year -- though I'm sure Gilly's boys will give 'em a run for their money."
"Hello, Khem," said Grissom. They shook hands. "I don't know how much competition I'll be able to give you this year. Things have been extremely busy at the lab -- I'm afraid my breeding program's suffered as a result."
"I fail to be relieved, Mr. Grissom. A halfhearted effort on your part is simply not a credible premise."
"Well, thank you. I'll try not to embarrass myself."
"What have you got there?" asked Soames, peering at the cage. "Looks like a Harpactirinae."
"Citharischius crawshayi, actually," said Grissom. "I promised a colleague I'd bring her along. I'm supposed to meet him here, but he's late." Grissom glanced around the lobby once more.
"Well, we're all a bit early," said Soames. "Conference doesn't start until tomorrow, after all. I asked if anyone else had arrived, and the hotel told me so far us three were it."
Grissom frowned. "He hasn't checked in yet? That's odd."
"Never keep a man with a tarantula waiting, I always say," said Soames. "Could be a good thing you brought it, though. We can feed it the losers, give 'em a little incentive."
Just then, Grissom spotted whom he'd been looking for, standing at the front desk and looking through a pamphlet. "Ah, there he is. If you gentlemen will excuse me, I think the person I was waiting for just arrived."
The man looked up as Grissom approached. "Dr. Quadros?"
"Yes. Dr. Grissom, I presume?"
Dr. Roberto Quadros was a Brazilian man in his forties, his skin tanned by field work, his neatly trimmed beard and slicked-back hair pure white. His eyes were dark behind tinted, thick-framed glasses, and he wore a gray blazer over a T-shirt with a University of Rio de Janeiro logo on it.
"A pleasure to finally meet you," said Grissom. "I've greatly enjoyed our correspondence."
"As have I," Quadros said. His smile was wide but brief, his attention immediately turning to the cage Grissom held. "Ah. This is the specimen we discussed?"
"Yes." Grissom handed him the cage.
Quadros brought it up to his face, staring at the spider from no more than six inches away. "Beautiful," he murmured. "And one of the largest I've ever seen."
"Did you just get in?"
"Hmm? No, I arrived yesterday. Been looking around. Don't much care for the place so far. Too bright, too busy."
"Parts of it are. Vegas can be something of a shock to the system."
"I'm sure. Fortunately, we'll be too busy this week for such distractions. I'm looking forward to your paper."
"And I yours."
Quadros sighed. "I hate most conferences. Telecommunications are so advanced today that face-to-face meetings seem unnecessary; staying in the field and swapping files via a good satellite connection seems much more efficient."
"Well," said Grissom, "even a spider can't spend all its time on the web..."
Captain Jim Brass wasn't a cynic. He was the person cynics studied when they needed a role model.
"Yeah, okay, fine," he said to the motel desk clerk, a heavyset man with long, greasy black hair. "All you remember about who rented the room is he was a guy. Average height, average build, hair brown or possibly blond. Somewhere between twenty-five and forty-five years old. I'm gonna have to ask you to slow down -- I don't know if I can keep up with this blizzard of details."
The clerk, Manny, looked at him with eyes a little too bloodshot to be attributed to the late hour. "He was just this guy. I think he was black, or maybe Hispanic. Or he could have just had a good tan."
"Well, that narrows things down. You sure he wasn't Chinese?"
Manny thought about it. "I guess, maybe."
"Thanks for your help. I'll let you get back to your eagle-eyed observation of the immediate environment."
Brass left the motel office and climbed the stairs to the second level. The crime scene was in room 219, now guarded by a uniformed officer. As a homicide detective, Brass was usually the second official to arrive on the scene, after the beat cops who originally investigated the call but before the medical examiner. This led to Brass sometimes saying he was middle management in the death business, but nobody ever seemed to laugh.
The ME had arrived while he was talking to Manny. Doctor Albert Robbins stood just inside the doorway to the room, leaning against the arm crutch he used to help him get around.
"Hey, Doc. How are you doing?"
"Damn stairs," Doc Robbins grumbled. "I hate these two-level motels. They never have an elevator."
"Yeah, too bad the vic didn't have the consideration to die on the first floor. You open the bag?"
"No. And I'm not going to, either. I'll let Grissom do it."
"Grissom can't make it," Nick Stokes said, walking up with Riley Adams at his side. "He's at a conference."
"Where's he gone this time?" Brass asked. "The wilds of Duluth again?"
Nick shook his head. "No, this time it's right here in town. Some big bug expert thing. He's pretty pumped up about it."
"Well, he's going to be sorry he missed this," said Brass.
"What have we got?" Riley asked. She was a slender, pretty blonde with her hair tied back in a ponytail.
"Well," Robbins said, "at first glance I thought it might be a suicide." He moved aside to let Nick and Riley get a better look.
The body on the motel bed was that of a young, well-built white male, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. His arms were spread, wrists handcuffed to the bedposts, and his head was covered with a white plastic bag secured around his neck with a plastic zap strap.
"Suicide?" said Riley. She adjusted the focus on the camera she held and started taking photos. "With his hands cuffed like that?"
"Oh, sure," said Robbins. "A lot of suicides are afraid they're going to lose their nerve at the last minute, so they try to impose a point of no return. I call it hesitation insurance."
"Can't back out once that cuff locks into place," Nick murmured. "But you said 'at first,' Doc?"
"Yes. I was going to remove the bag from his head, get a look at his face -- "
"But you didn't," Riley said. "Why not?"
"Poke the bag," Brass said. "You'll see."
"Gil Grissom," Roberto Quadros said, "I'd like you to meet Professor Nathan Vanderhoff."
Grissom shook the hand that was offered. Vanderhoff was a slender man with coffee-hued skin, his curly hair cut short against an elegant skull. He wore an expensive-looking pale green suit that looked far too warm for Vegas in the summer, and a bright yellow tie.
"A pleasure, Mr. Grissom," Vanderhoff said. His accent was Dutch Afrikaans. "I see you have one of my countrymen with you."
"Countrywomen, actually," Grissom said with a nod at the cage. "Her name is Elizabeth."
"A fine name for a king baboon spider," Vanderhoff said, chuckling. "Or perhaps I should say a queen?"
"I don't name my specimens," Quadros said. "They're not pets."
"Mine is," Grissom said mildly. "I'm quite fond of her."
"Come now, Roberto," Vanderhoff said. "Don't tell me you've never named a subject you've been studying -- we've all done it, especially in the wild. If nothing else, it makes them easier to differentiate."
"I find numbers work just fine," Quadros said. "Objectivity must be upheld."
"Objectivity is for physicists," Vanderhoff insisted. "We deal in the study of life; surely a little subjectivity is allowable, even desirable, in our field. A biologist should never forget he is a biological organism himself -- don't you agree, Mr. Grissom?"
Grissom blinked. "I think," he said carefully, "that all science stems from a desire for knowledge. And that's a very...human characteristic."
Quadros shook his head vehemently. "I can't believe I'm hearing this. We study arthropods, do we not? The biological equivalent of machines. They have no psychology, no culture, no advanced cognitive functions. Seeing them through the filter of human experience does nothing but distort data."
Vanderhoff grinned, clearly enjoying himself. "You are even more passionate in person than online, Dr. Quadros. Quite the contradiction, considering that what you're arguing for is the cool, detached perspective of objectivity."
Quadros's scowl deepened, then broke into a grudging smile. "Hah! You're right, Nathan. Damn it, you can always get me going."
"And speaking of going," Grissom said, checking his watch, "it's getting late. Shall we?"
"You two go ahead," Vanderhoff said. "I've got a few things to do."
"Never could resist a dare," Nick said. He took out a penlight and prodded the bag with one end.
The bag moved.
Nick jumped and Riley took a step back. It wasn't so much the suddenness of the movement as the quality; the bag squirmed.
"What the hell?" Nick said. "What's in there, a snake?"
"No way," said Riley. "I saw the outline of legs. Lots of tiny little legs."
"Cockroaches, maybe?" said Brass. "Though the way it's moving does seem kind of snake-like."
"You're right, Grissom is gonna hate missing this," said Nick. "Okay, whatever's in there, we've got to get it or them out. I've got an idea."
Nick fitted a large clear evidence bag over the first one and sealed it with duct tape. He made a small incision in the top of the second bag with a scalpel, then inserted the scalpel through the hole and used it to slash an opening in the bag beneath. He pulled the scalpel out quickly and slapped a duct tape patch over the hole in the outer bag. "Come out, come out, whatever you are," Nick muttered.
A second later, something did.
Two long feelers attached to a black head the size of a pea tested the air. A second later, a segmented black body fringed with orange legs flowed out of the hole, followed a second later by another. And another. And another.
"Centipedes?" Riley said.
"Millipedes, I think," Nick said. "Grissom would know for sure." He sniffed the air. "You smell that? Almonds."
"Cyanide?" Riley said. "So our suicide poisoned himself, sealed a bag full of bugs around his head, then cuffed himself to the bed?"
"Whatever this is," Nick said, "it's no suicide." He pulled out his cell phone and hit a button.
"Who you calling?" Brass asked.
"Who do you think?" Nick said. "If I didn't let him know about this he'd bust me back down to a level one. Hello, Grissom? Yeah, I thought you'd be up. Listen, there's something you're gonna want to see..."
"Really?" Grissom said. "Can you describe them?" He listened for a moment, then said, "Yes, you're right, it's probably best if I see for myself. Thanks, Nick. I'll be there shortly." He closed his cell phone and put it back in his pocket.
"It sounds as if you're leaving us," Nathan Vanderhoff said. He, Grissom, and Jake Soames sat at a table in one of Vegas's quieter lounges, the torch singer having just finished her set and left the small stage. Grissom didn't generally avail himself of such places, but he'd heard good things about the performer -- plus, his colleagues had pestered him to take them out and show them around his town. Being wide awake despite the hour -- one of the perils of night-shift work -- Grissom had given in. He was actually enjoying himself; he didn't get the chance to talk shop with fellow entomologists face-to-face very often.
"I'm afraid so," said Grissom. "Work."
"You told me you were off for the whole of the conference," said Soames. "You're not just ditching us, are you, Gilly?"
"I'm not actually on the clock," Grissom admitted. "This is more of a personal interest."
"Nobody you know, I hope," said Vanderhoff.
"Not exactly. More like a species I'm familiar with."
That got their attention. "Oh?" said Soames. "Flies? Maggots?"
Vanderhoff shook his head. "They wouldn't bother him for something so mundane. Beetles? Something poisonous, perhaps?"
"I'm not sure," said Grissom, getting to his feet. "But it's definitely unusual."
"Unusual?" said Soames. "Oh, no, mate. You can't do that to us. That's like dangling a nice plump rabbit before a croc and then snatching it away."
"I can't really talk about an active police investigation."
"We're not asking for gossip," said Vanderhoff. "We understand the need for discretion. But we are your colleagues -- couldn't you share a few details in a purely professional sense?"
Grissom hesitated. Many were the times he'd discovered some particularly fascinating aspect of bug life related to a case and either had no one to share it with or had been met with raised eyebrows and squeamishness when he brought it up. "I'll see what I can do," he said. "I can't promise anything, but I might be able to discuss the insects themselves. In a purely scientific way, of course."
"Good enough," Soames declared. "Go get 'em, Gil. Bring us back some juicy tales tomorrow."
"Yes," said Vanderhoff. "Do return with something interesting..."
Grissom showed his CSI ID to the uniform at the door and stepped into the motel room. He hadn't brought his kit, but he had slipped on a pair of gloves as a precaution.
"Knew you couldn't stay away," said Brass. "Pay up, newbie." He held out his hand to Riley.
"I'll get you later," said Riley.
Grissom raised an eyebrow at her. "You bet against me?"
"Against you driving to a fleabag motel in the middle of the night on your own time? Seemed like a pretty safe bet to me."
Behind her, Nick Stokes tried to suppress a chuckle. Grissom gave him a look. Nick suddenly found something very interesting to examine on the other side of the room, though he didn't bother getting rid of the wide grin on his face. He'd known Grissom a long time.
Grissom nodded hello at Dr. Robbins, then approached the bed. They'd removed the bag from the head and transferred the millipedes to a plastic evidence container with holes punched in the top. Grissom ignored the bugs and studied the corpse's face instead.
"Gris?" said Nick. "Creepy-crawlies are over here." He tapped on the lid of the evidence container that stood on the table next to him.
"They're probably Harpaphe haydeniana," said Grissom. He pulled a penlight out of his pocket and shone it on the vic's face. He looked like a high school or college student, his hair brown and cut short. His skin was a bright pink.
"You know that without looking?" said Riley. She sounded skeptical.
"I could be wrong," Grissom admitted. "But the color of the skin and the petechial hemorrhaging in the eyes point to death by cyanide poisoning. Harpaphe haydeniana are more commonly known as cyanide millipedes, because they emit hydrogen cyanide gas as a defense mechanism. They're common in the rain forests of the Northwest, but not in Nevada."
"So the bugs were actually the murder weapon?" Brass asked. "Means he and they were sharing that bag while he was still alive. Nasty."
"It's like a killing jar in reverse," said Grissom.
"Killing jar?" said Brass.
"It's what entomologists call the container they put specimens in -- specimens they don't want alive. It has a thin layer of plaster of paris on the bottom as the absorbent substrate for whatever poison is used. These days, chloroform or ether is the most common -- but some collectors will actually use these very same millipedes to generate cyanide gas. You have an ID?"
"Keenan Harribold," said Riley. "Found his wallet in his jeans. Pile of clothes at the side of the bed. He's seventeen, goes to Plain Ridge High. I've got a cell phone, too -- looks like the last place he called was home."
"Desk clerk -- and I use the term clerk loosely -- was no help," Brass said. "Name in the register is L. W. Smith. Doesn't remember anything about the guy -- it could have been our boy here or someone else."
Grissom scanned the room. "A teenage boy in a motel room -- any sign of alcohol, drugs, or condoms?"
"Yeah, found a brand-new box of pre-lubricated love gloves in his pocket," said Nick. "Looks like he came prepared to party. Didn't happen, though -- no sign of sexual activity."
"Whoever he was meeting had a very different agenda than he did," said Riley. "And they didn't leave much behind, either. We've been through this room and the bathroom and found nothing. Neither the soap nor the water glasses have been used."
"So our killer probably wasn't staying here," said Grissom. "This location was probably chosen for its privacy. Easier to control someone young and strong -- he could have threatened him with a weapon to get him to put on the cuffs."
"And then bagged and bugged him," said Riley.
"Yes," said Grissom. "A very deliberate -- if unusual -- way to kill someone. The killer obviously has some knowledge of entomology."
"Sorry, Grissom," said Brass, "but I'll have to take you in now. You had a good run, but your homicidal tendencies have finally gotten the better of you. Thanks for making it so easy, though -- I appreciate it."
"It's the least I could do," said Grissom. "The thing is, while normally I'd agree with you about the identity of your prime suspect, at the moment I'm not the only one in town who holds those particular qualifications..."
"Damn," Greg Sanders said, turning on the AC of the Denali. "It's gonna be a hot one today."
"Yeah," Catherine Willows agreed. "Sun's only been up an hour and it's already over a hundred degrees. But look at the bright side -- we're almost at the end of our shift."
"There's something seriously wrong with working graveyards and still being at risk for sunburn."
"Baseball hat and sunglasses, Greg." She tapped the brim of her own cap. "Also useful for hiding bad hair and bags under your eyes."
She checked the dashboard GPS and then pulled off the highway onto a narrow dirt road. They were a few miles west of the city, the terrain uneven and rocky. They hadn't gone far when Greg spotted the telltale blue-and-red flashing lights of a parked cruiser.
The coroner's wagon was already there. David Phillips, the assistant coroner, was talking to a tall black officer, both of them drinking coffee from paper cups.
Catherine parked. "Hey, David," she said as they got out. "What do we have, guys?"
The officer nodded at both of them. "Well, it's a little strange -- "
"Uh, do you mind if I explain it?" David interjected. He smiled a little nervously. "It's just -- I probably won't get a chance to do this again."
The officer shook his head. "Be my guest."
"What's up, Dave?" Greg said. "You got something special for us?"
"You could say that." David smiled. "Okay, first thing I have to tell you is that I'm pretty sure our vic is a Pacific Islander." He motioned for the CSIs to follow him as he led them around a house-sized outcropping of granite. "And the second is that he's probably a virgin."
Catherine mock-frowned as she walked along, her CSI kit in one hand. "Virgin as in the Virgin Islands? Or as in -- "
They rounded the corner and all of them stopped.
" -- virgin sacrifice," Greg finished.
Only one arm and the head of the body were visible. The hand ended in five red stumps -- his fingers were gone. The rest of the corpse was embedded in a mass of pitted black rock with veins of vivid scarlet running through it. A thick scarlet sludge was edging its way across the desert floor, bits of black matter floating on top.
"Lava," Greg said. "This guy was killed by his own personal volcano, in the middle of the Nevada desert."
"Kind of looks that way, doesn't it?" David said.
"But looks," said Catherine, "can be deceiving." She crouched down beside the slowly spreading ooze and stuck a gloved finger in it. She pulled it out again, then rubbed her finger and thumb together. "This isn't lava -- unless you're talking about the lamp variety. It's wax."
"Right," Greg said. "Only the stuff in the sun is running. I guess that black stuff isn't hardened magma, either."
"Pretty weird, huh?" David said. "Hiker found him. No obvious COD, but there's a large contusion on his forehead."
Catherine walked around the semicircular pool of wax, getting as close as she could to the body without walking on the wax itself. She bent down and studied the corpse while Greg began to take pictures. "I think you're right about him being a Pacific Islander," she said. "Could be a hotel worker."
Greg nodded. "Yeah, there's a big Hawaiian population in Vegas -- some people even call it the ninth island. You know those ABC Stores you see in Vegas? Those are based out of Hawaii."
Catherine examined the ground. "Guess they have a lot of experience with tourism...I've got some tire marks here. Looks like a truck, maybe an SUV. I'm thinking this is just a dump site."
"Or," Greg said, "the remains of a luau gone horribly wrong..."
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