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A tabletop altar stood in the corner just inside Rose Demille's bedroom door, draped in a deep blue satin cloth accented by a pleated valance. In the center of the cloth, an extinguished yellow votive candle, delicately scented with honeysuckle, had almost melted down to the socket of its polished brass holder.
As he entered the room a step or two behind Catherine Willows, Warrick Brown paused to regard a framed portrait of Saint Peter on the wall above the altar. Somehow, its presence there surprised him, though, considering the victim's background, he could not have explained why.
After a moment, Warrick turned toward the bed, where the woman known from one end of town to another as "Nevada" Rose Demille lay sprawled atop her sheets, her sightless gaze fixed on the ceiling, her arms and legs tied to her bedposts, the posts appearing to be made of the same shiny orange brass as the candlestick on the meditative altar near the door.
Crouched over the body, Dave Phillips, the assistant coroner, was busy fishing around in his medical examiner's field kit. Warrick moved deeper into the room behind Catherine, readied his camera, and waited. He could hear the maid wailing out in the driveway with Jim Brass, but if the picture of the saint had caught him off guard, her carrying on was very easy to explain.
Warrick knew there was a good chance of hysterics whenever anybody stumbled on a corpse, anyway. Mariah Valley was a swank master-planned community about fifteen miles from the Strip, and this was among its most exclusive sections. The affluent residents of these neighborhoods tended to have domestic help maids, pool keepers, gardeners, fitness coaches, personal cooks, and so forth. When the vics lived alone, as Rose apparently had, it wasn't unusual for their bodies to be discovered by a hired hand. Pay someone to show up at a certain time every day, and he or she was more liable to do so than your loving husband or mother.
For Warrick Brown, the odds were the thing. Not the stacked odds of the casino floor but legit statistical probabilities. There were always mathematical predictors for evaluating people's behavior and the fewer variables involved, the easier it was to calculate how the dice would roll. The record downpour of a couple of weeks ago had been a significant X factor, giving Las Vegans all sorts of reasons to get sidetracked in their everyday lives. But Warrick had observed that money was a great equalizer when it came to remembering obligations and appointments...even for someone struggling to bail out from under the floodwaters that had turned entire suburban neighborhoods into soggy river deltas.
Now Warrick and Catherine continued waiting for Dave to wrap up his exam of Nevada Rose's bound, gagged, completely naked, and admittedly still very beautiful body. Dave manipulated her wrists and ankles, wobbled the lower jaw, and lifted an eyelid over a filmy pupil with his latex-gloved fingertip.
"There's mild rigor mortis," he announced without looking up from the corpse.
Warrick not only got the sense that Dave was talking to himself, but also had a feeling he was unaware anyone else had even joined him. He watched the coroner in silence a moment, and then let his gaze drift around the room.
Besides the altar and the bed, its furnishings consisted of a dresser, a nightstand, and a large antique cane chair. Telephone on the stand, a ceramic bowl on the dresser. The bowl was the color of red earth, with a simple blue decorative pattern on the outer surface. Warrick thought it was Native American...possibly Shoshone or one of the other local tribes.
He went over to see what, if anything, it contained and found only loose odds and ends the kind of stuff Rose might have emptied from her pockets or picked up off the rug, tossed into the bowl meaning to either discard or put them away afterward, and then promptly forgot about.
Carefully shifting the various items around with a latexed finger, Warrick noticed several AA batteries, an unopened package of sugarless chewing gum, a pencil with a broken point, a thin red leather watchband, paper clips, a cigarette lighter, a square of yellow Post-its, and a few dollars worth of mixed change. Also, partially buried under the rest of the bowl's contents was one of those pill dispensers with reminder features that were used for everything from prescription medications to daily multiple vitamins.
Warrick lifted the dispenser from the bowl, snapped it open, and found nothing inside. Considering all the junk that had been scattered on top of it, he doubted it had been used recently. If drugs had contributed to Rose Demille's death, they probably wouldn't have come from this pillbox. Still, it might pay to find out what it had contained.
He bagged it in a Ziploc before turning to check on Dave's progress.
All signs were that he'd moved right along. Reaching into his kit for a digital thermometer, Dave had raised the body slightly onto one hip, inserted the rectal probe, and held its nonbusiness end steady in his hand. A series of electronic beeps, then he checked the temperature.
"Her core's ninety-three-point-nine degrees Fahrenheit," he said, reading the display. "Couple that with the rigor and lividity of the extremities, and I'd estimate she's been dead around two hours."
Warrick checked his watch. It was nine a.m. on the dot.
"One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock," he said to Catherine.
She looked at him and gave a thin smile. Dave, meanwhile, seemed about finished with the DB. He carefully extracted his probe, cleaned it with an antibacterial wipe, stuffed the wipe into a plastic zip bag, closed the kit, and rose to his feet.
"She's all yours, " he said, finally acknowledging the criminalists. "I've gotta get back. See you guys later." And with that, he headed out the door.
"Later, Dave," Catherine called out.
The CSIs went about their work, Catherine going around the bed toward the victim, Warrick raising his camera for a series of snapshots. Though he wasn't inclined to be judgmental about how Rose had conducted her life, he'd pretty much ruled out the possibility of her being canonized in death like the guardian of her altar. No candidate for sainthood would boast a rose tattoo on her shapely and to all appearances implant-free right breast. Nor was a saint-in-progress likely to have worn the sheer robe that had been haphazardly tossed over an arm of the living-room sofa. Or the pair of stiletto heels outside the bedroom door. Or the skimpy thong panties Warrick had seen on the carpet near the foot of the bed.
"It'd be very quiet here so early in the morning," Catherine said, turning to him. "If any of the neighbors were awake and about, they might have noticed someone running out the door around that time."
"Or heard someone go barrelling down the road at ninety miles an hour."
"Assuming our certain someone didn't stick around to admire Rose after she died."
Warrick nodded. They had left Jim Brass out front taking the housekeeper's statement, part of which related to a gym bag she'd found on the lawn alongside the garage. According to her, it was there when she arrived for work, and her first thought was that the driver of a car might have dropped it while hurrying off. This had given her a nervous feeling, though she wouldn't in a million years have expected what she discovered inside the house.
Warrick fell into thoughtful silence. At the bedside, Catherine had put down her kit and knelt over the body. In her black field vest, black jeans, and latex surgical gloves, she might have been a cross between a SWAT cop and a medical doctor on house call.
"Her lips have a slight bluish discoloration. Also, I see petechial hemorrhaging," she said, indicating the pinpoint blood spots in the whites of Rose's eyes.
Both were characteristic signs of hypoxia.
Warrick shifted his camera lens onto the dead woman's hands and feet. It was important to get abundant photo documentation of the ropes binding them to the posts, since they'd be cut and bagged as evidence before Rose was wheeled into the morgue wagon. The placement of the knots and the way they were tied could reveal a lot about whoever had done the tying. Particularly if what they were seeing here turned out to have similarities with other crime scenes.
"There any ligature marks on the throat?" he asked.
Catherine shook her head, her gaze suddenly a bit distant. "No superficial bruises on the body, either."
Warrick clicked away. Her expression told him she was visualizing how Rose's final moments could have gone down, the images flickering across the screen of her mind. All of the lab's veteran criminalists got that remote look in their eyes from time to time and came to recognize it in one another.
"Could be Rose was having a sexual role-playing fantasy that went too far," she said.
Warrick nodded, thinking along with her. "Then her partner flees in a panic after realizing how far it went."
"Yeah," Catherine said. "Look around this place."
Warrick assumed she was being rhetorical. They'd done that together during their walkthrough and observed nothing to indicate forced entry at the doors or windows. Nothing whatsoever broken or disturbed in the room. And no fingernail scrapings that pointed toward a struggle. Furthermore, the scattered locations of Rose's robe, heels, and panties suggested she'd voluntarily shed them or let someone undress her on the way from the living room to the bedroom.
"BDSM games." Warrick lifted the camera to his eye. "Seems...plausible."
Catherine picked up on his uncertain tone, tilted her head.
"I've seen people who've died from oxygen deprivation while taking hot licks in the sack," he said. His lens whirred, auto-focusing. "It mostly happens when a victim's been hog-tied on his or her stomach. With your hands and feet restrained behind your back, the abdominal muscles tire out, and it gets harder and harder to breathe."
"Until you stop," Catherine said.
Warrick nodded, pressed his shutter button a few times.
Moving around the bed now, Catherine took her ultraviolet flashlight from a belt holster, snapped an amber filter behind its head, and thumbed it on. She ran the beam slowly over Rose's thighs, then onto the sheets between them, searching for obvious stains from semen or vaginal secretions. It helped that the shades were drawn the dimmer the room, the easier it would be to detect UV fluorescence.
"She might've been using narcotics or alcohol," Catherine mulled aloud. "Or she could have had a preexisting health condition. Heart disease, asthma, bronchitis...any one of those could lead to her suffocating in this position."
She paused and studied the bedding through the filter.
"Well?" Warrick said. "Anything?"
Warrick shrugged. "Her romantic evening might've gone bad before the real fun and games started."
Catherine didn't answer. She had returned the flashlight to its case and produced a hand magnifier from a vest pouch. Warrick lowered his camera and went over to where she squatted. Maybe there'd been no sex stains, but it was clear that something had caught her attention.
She looked at him, motioning toward a rumpled wedge of top sheet between the dead woman's bare thighs.
"Blond hairs," he said.
"But not naturally blond." She passed him the magnifier.
Warrick peered through the lens, grunted. "Lower down the follicle, the color's more a sandy brown."
"They've been frosted," Catherine said. "And it doesn't match our victim."
He nodded his understanding. Spilled across her pillowcase in disarray, Rose's tresses were long, thick, and uniformly chestnut brown. Even a quick look at the hairs under the lens revealed them to be a different texture and color.
He moved aside as Catherine collected the hair samples with her tweezers and deposited them in a small glassine envelope.
"I wonder if the lightener's a professional or consumer brand?" she said. "If it's a salon product, that'd definitely help with "
"You two might want another look at this."
The interruption jerked their attention toward the half-open door, where Captain Jim Brass had suddenly appeared with the gym bag recovered from the front lawn a navy blue nylon duffel with the Nike swoosh on its side. Warrick realized he could no longer hear the maid carrying on outside.
"We miss something before?" he said.
Brass entered, holding the gym bag with one hand, displaying a small, flat object in his opposite palm.
"One of the uniforms found this ID tag in a hedge a few feet from the driveway. Looks like its fastener might've snagged on a branch and gotten torn off the duffel's zipper."
Catherine stood up and looked it over.
"Mark Baker," she said, reading the name penned under the clear plastic window.
Brass seemed disappointed at her lack of immediate familiarity with it. Dressed nattily in a dark gray suit with a polished detective's badge on the lapel, he was a broad, stocky man with a receding hairline, features as blunt as his typical disposition, and eyes that had seen it all far too often.
Just at that moment, those eyes jumped off Catherine to land on Warrick's face.
"How about you? Name ring a bell?"
Warrick's brow creased thoughtfully.
"Fireball," he said.
"The Fireball, right."
"Wait a minute," Catherine said with dawning recognition. "Isn't that some baseball player's handle?"
"Might be the greatest lefty pitcher ever," Warrick said, nodding. "He's also got a rep for being a ladies' man..."
"They've been spotted together around town," Brass said. "Nevada Rose and Baker. As a couple." He looked at Warrick. "My guess is I'm not telling you anything you don't know."
Warrick was silent. The captain was one of the straightest shooters he'd met on the job and didn't waste time getting to the point.
No stranger to the Vegas nightlife, Warrick had once come close to signing with a minor league baseball team an interest in the game stuck with him long after he enrolled in college. By that time, though, he'd already realized that betting on pro sports (and coming up a winner) was a much quicker and easier way to make his tuition than waiting tables.
"I heard they were an item," Warrick said after a moment. "There were stories that they were ready to tie the knot. No pun intended." He shrugged. "Who knows what's true? It isn't like I sit around watching those entertainment shows. Or like they're known for their high standards of reporting."
"But Rose had a relationship with him," Brass persisted.
Warrick didn't know why he suddenly felt defensive. "This woman had a whole lot of relationships. She was known as a maneater..."
"Famous athletes having been her favorite menu item."
Warrick looked at him but said nothing.
"Do what you need to in here. I'm going to have this gym bag tagged as evidence and make some phone calls," Brass said. "We'll want an expanded perimeter around the crime scene. And added uniformed details for when the carny train rolls up and clowns start spilling out all over the goddamned place."
Warrick and Catherine exchanged meaningful looks, then watched Brass turn on his heels and stride heavily out the door.
"I don't blame him," Warrick finally said. "He sees what's coming. The media's going to be at this with steak knives and barbecue sauce."
Catherine kept looking at him but didn't say anything.
"I heard Rose Demille was from New Orleans," Warrick said. "Last of a high-stepping family line. After Katrina, she loaded up her good looks and expensive tastes and moved to Vegas."
"Fabulous Las Vegas, that is," Catherine said. "Swimmin' pools, sports superstars."
Warrick smiled soberly. "Rose chased players," he said. "Their big-time lifestyles, their bank accounts "
"And their hard bodies," Catherine said.
"Yeah," Warrick said. "Them, too, I suppose."
Their eyes met.
"You do know stuff about her," Catherine said.
"Some." Warrick rubbed his light scruff of beard. "Of all the guys she hooked up with, I figure Mark Baker's got to be the richest and most famous."
"The prize catch, huh?"
Warrick was silent. His gaze had drifted back to the wall above the satin-covered altar, hung with a bland portrait of Christ's second apostle holding the key to heaven against his white-robed breast.
"It's an old-time Creole custom to have an altar and a picture of your patron saint in the bedroom," he said. "A yellow votive candle near the door's supposed to bring people wealth. And Saint Peter with his key's a symbol of quick success. They say he holds the key to everything and opens all doors."
Catherine glanced briefly at the picture, then returned her attention to the nude, lifeless woman on the bed.
"Sure is looking like Nevada Rose opened her door to the wrong person," she said. Copyright © 2008 by CBS Broadcasting Inc. and Entertainment AB Funding LLC. All Rights Reserved.