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Monday, January 24, 6:30 A.M.
Los Calina nestled in the foothills at the far west end of Summerlin. Packed in north of Far Hills Avenue, just west of Desert Foothills Drive, the gated community was a relatively new addition catering to upper-middle-class dwellers of a...certain age. Such words as "senior" or "elderly" were not spoken here; and when these folks ate at a restaurant at 4:30 P.M., the reason was preference, not the savings afforded by an "Early Bird Special."
Not as trendy, nor as full of star power, as Lake Las Vegas its more opulent eastside counterpart Los Calina ("The Hills" in less romantic English) catered to older money, clients who wished to remain very private while living in something resembling luxury. Residents were mostly well-to-do retirees still able to live independently. Gardening, garbage collection, and other rudimentary services were provided or overseen by the Los Calina Association, in essence overseen by the residents themselves. For a retirement community, this made other local options even pleasant facilities seem like nursing homes without staff, at best, and tenements, at worst.
A slim but shapely woman in her early thirties, Sara Sidle dark hair dangling out under a black CSI baseball cap, her attractive oval face somber pulled the black Tahoe into the Los Calina entrance to stop at a guard shack that squatted between the IN and OUT gates. The small, mostly glass structure (about the size of a double-wide phone booth) was the architectural equivalent of the guard who lumbered out of it, sweat rings on his short-sleeve brown shirt beneath meaty arms, despite the chill and the shack's thrumming window air conditioner.
In the passenger seat next to her, Gil Grissom stared straight ahead; he might have been catatonic, but was merely absorbed in his own thoughts. Pushing fifty, his hair and trim beard touched with gray, the CSI supervisor wore his customary loose-fitting black shirt and slacks, and an identical ballcap to Sara's. Grissom had never been talkative, but since the Crime Lab's deputy director, Conrad Ecklie, had unceremoniously broken up the graveyard-shift team, Grissom had become ever more interior.
Still, Sara could tell her boss was keeping up the appearance that everything was fine, as best he could; but she was attuned enough to him to detect differences out around the edges. In fact, Sara figured she knew Grissom better than anyone else in the crime lab, with the possible exception of Catherine Willows (recently appointed swing shift supervisor, but for years, Grissom's right hand).
Sitting quietly behind Grissom was Greg Sanders, the former DNA lab rat who had just completed his final proficiency, his two-tone hair (dark brown, orangeish blond) looking more controlled these days. Slender, with a narrow, handsome face, Greg fixed his eyes on something outside the vehicle Sara knew that he had long since learned not to make conversation with Grissom, who on occasion still made life hard for the twenty-something former lab tech.
Nonetheless, Sara felt the young scientist who had taken the "new kid" mantle from her (thank God somebody finally had!) had already turned a corner. The glib, flirty "kid" had receded into a more serious, committed criminalist didn't take many nights on the streets for a CSI to develop that kind of detached, no-nonsense attitude.
In the seat behind her, the newest member of their new team Sofia Curtis also sat in silence. Studying the woman in the rearview mirror, Sara thought the attractive CSI with the long blond hair today pulled back in a loose ponytail had already shown herself to be a highly competent investigator.
But they should be getting to know one another better by now, only Sara couldn't bring herself to let down her guard. Sofia had been the acting day-shift supervisor, seen by many as the much-despised Ecklie's lap dog. When Curtis had sided with Grissom against the vitriolic Ecklie, the woman had been punished with banishment to the graveyard shift and the recently dressed-down Grissom team.
That should have endeared Curtis to Sara. And, yet, try as she might, Sara couldn't help but wonder if they might not have a spy in their midst...
Then, shaking her head at her own (probably ridiculous) paranoia, Sara turned toward the square-headed, blunt-featured guard, who awaited like a carhop at her window, which she powered down.
"Can I help you?" the guard asked, and somehow she managed not to request a milkshake.
Not that the fiftyish guard didn't look properly official, clipboard at the ready, EVERETT stenciled on the nameplate pinned to one side of his brown uniform shirt, the other bearing a silver badge with a pressed-in logo HOME SURE SECURITY.
She lifted her laminated ID on its necklace for his inspection. "Crime lab."
"Oh." His face saddened. "You must be here for Mrs. Salfer..."
"Pity. Nice lady."
Leaning over toward Sara, close enough for her to get a whiff of the scent of his soap, Grissom asked the guard, "Have you been here all night, Mr. Everett?"
"Nope," the guard said, shaking a concrete-block head that seemed to swivel on his shoulders without benefit of a neck. "Jack, the night guy, he called in sick flu. Going around, cold weather maybe."
"When did you come in, Mr. Everett?"
Sara checked her watch six-thirty. Why all these cases seemed to fall toward the end of shift was a bigger mystery than most of the crimes themselves.
Grissom was asking, "And who was here overnight?"
The guard looked at the shack like the answer might lie inside.
Grissom frowned. "Don't you know, Mr. Everett?"
He shook the blocky head. "Place was empty when I got here; we been short-handed. Office called me to come in early, so I did don't know what the problem was, if any. Could be nobody was out here from eleven last night till I come on."
"The 'office' called you?" Sara asked. "What office is that?"
He thumped his badge with a forefinger. "Home Sure. We have the contract for security here at Los Calina."
Grissom's smile was faint. "How long do you anticipate holding onto that contract?"
The guard sighed. "Yeah, I know. No one in the guard shack, and here we have a ...a damn murder, or something. Hell of a thing."
"Isn't it?" Grissom said pleasantly. "Thank you, Mr. Everett."
And the CSI supervisor sat back, eyes forward, in a manner that told Sara it was time to move on.
Sara said to the guard, "Thank you, sir," and powered up the window.
Giving them a nod, the guard backed away, then returned to his shack; you could almost see the sweat rings growing, despite the "cold" that was giving everybody the flu.
After a moment, the gate slid open, and Sara eased the SUV through, rolling twenty feet to a stop sign at a T-intersection. Houses went off in each direction, side streets veining to God only knew where.
"Which way to Arroyo Court?" she asked Grissom.
Sofia leaned forward. "Left here, then take the first right; then, when you can, another left."
"You've been here before?" Grissom asked without looking back.
"Just a couple months ago," Sofia said. "I did a seminar on identity theft for the residents. That was at the main office building. Which is the other way, to the right; but they showed me around while I was here."
"You're good," Sara admitted with a smile.
Sofia said, "Call it a gift for street names."
The streets in question wound past lines of stucco houses, both one- and two-story, all looking new and fronted by a lush carpet of green grass a real rarity in these drought-stricken days.
Sofia's directions, not surprisingly, turned out to be right on the money, and they were soon parked in front of a large, two-story tile-roof stucco, with a two-car garage attached on the left; and the lawn looked every bit as well-maintained and manicured as the others around it. This struck Sara as decadent, in an oddly mundane way.
Two cars had beat them here: an LVPD squad in front of the Tahoe, and Brass's familiar Taurus, parked in the wrong direction on the other side of the street. A blue-and-white golf cart a clear plastic covering protecting it from the rain, and the Home Sure Security logo painted on the front was nosed in at an angle, not quite pulled into the driveway, and an ambulance in the driveway itself. Right now the EMTs were packing up their gear and loading it back into the ambulance obviously in no hurry.
Sara hated seeing the defeat on their faces. She'd talked to enough of these men and women, over the years, to know that they were well aware they couldn't save every one on each call; but that didn't stop them from trying...or from feeling like shit when death won another one.
Already in strictly-business mode, Grissom said, "Big house."
"Evidently," Sara said, " 'retired' doesn't mean you have to downsize."
"Not in Los Calina," Sofia said.
They looked at her.
She smiled and shrugged. "Residents here run the full gamut from wealthy to very wealthy."
"What if you're wealthier than that?" Greg asked, his eyes full of the impressive home. "Say stinking rich?"
"You live at Lake Las Vegas," the two women said simultaneously.
They laughed, and Sofia said, "Bread and butter," and Sara enjoyed the brief bonding, while Grissom looked at them like they were at least mildly mad.
Recovering her sanity, Sara asked, "What do we know about this?"
"Four-ninteen," Grissom said. "Probably a four-twenty, if the EMTs are right..."
Four-nineteen meant a dead body, four-twenty a homicide. If you were the victim, Sara thought, you were having a bad day, either way.
Grissom was saying, "According to Brass, the EMTs think she may have been strangled."
"She?" Sofia asked.
"Mrs. Grace Salfer," Grissom said without referring to his notebook. "Owner of the home."
Sara had a feeling Sofia was wondering why Grissom had waited until they'd got here to share this; but Sara was used to it Grissom often did that, preferring background information to have the context of the crime scene itself.
As they climbed out of the Tahoe, Captain Jim Brass his suit a cloudy-sky gray, his face a somber mask exited the house and started down the driveway. A rather small woman in a Home Sure Security uniform trotted along in his wake like an eager puppy.
From the back of the SUV, Sara yanked her crime-scene kit, then came around to see Brass heading in their direction; when the detective abruptly stopped, the woman tailing him nearly crashed into his back.
Grissom and Sara approached Brass, Sofia just behind them.
"What do we know?" Grissom asked.
Eyebrows lifted in Brass's otherwise blank countenance. "Just what I told you on the phone dead body in an upstairs bedroom. Grace Salfer, woman who lives here. Lived."
"Nothing else?" Grissom said.
Brass almost smiled; almost. "Gil you think I haven't learned not to disturb your crime scene, after all this time?"
Sara glimpsed Sofia trying to figure out whether Grissom was kidding or not. Good luck to her on that.
The short female security guard was next to Brass now, like a high-school football player on the sidelines dogging the coach's heels, hoping to get in the game. Her eyes were green and ever-moving though Sara couldn't quite characterize them: nervous or searching? in a long, thin face that belonged on someone much taller. Straight nose, high cheekbones, very little makeup except for some not-too-red lipstick, blonde hair licking at her shoulders, the guard whose nameplate said GILLETTE was in her mid-twenties at most; and though the brown and tan uniform fit her all right the black webbed belt with a flashlight and pepper spray gave her the appearance of a child playing dress-up.
"Did the security service call it in?" Sara asked, referring to the woman but addressing Brass.
"No," the detective said.
Before he could say anything else, Gillette interrupted: "Alarm didn't trip, for some reason."
Grissom's head made a mechanical turn toward the guard. "And you are?"
Mild irritation digging a hole in one cheek, Brass answered for her: "Susan Gillette guard patrolling the neighborhood overnight. She "
"Never got even a buzz on the alarm," Gillette said, as if completing Brass's sentences was something she'd been doing for years. "That sucker should have gone off like a thousand screaming babies, if someone broke into the house."
Brass closed his eyes, and Grissom smiled mildly and said, "Colorfully put."
Gillette shrugged. "Well, Mrs. Salfer was hard of hearing...not that that's a rarity around here...but anyway, she had the XLR-5000."
The guard imparted this latter piece of information as if everyone on the planet, or at least in law enforcement, would know exactly what she was referring to.
"Did she now?" Grissom asked. "And what is the XLR-5000?"
"The loudest alarm Home Security stocks, for private homes. And trust me, I've heard hers go off enough."
"Really?" Grissom's eyes tightened and his lips moved, as if he were consuming this knowledge. "Then this isn't the first problem at Mrs. Salfer's house?"
"Well, it's the first real problem. Her alarm was always going off, and...Look, maybe Mrs. Salfer and I didn't get along so great, but I would never have ignored a call if the alarm went off."
Grissom arched an eyebrow. "Didn't get along?"
The guard looked sheepish. "She thought her XLR-5000 going off all the time was my fault."
Brass looked sideways at her. "The alarm went off 'all the time'?"
"When she first moved in it did," Gillette said, nodding vigorously. "The techs were out three times, and it's been fixed. Either that, or she turned it off."
From beside Sara came Sofia's voice: "You're the only one patrolling, Ms. Gillette? This is a pretty good-size community."
"Yes," Gillette said, "and no."
They all just looked at her.
"I mean yes, it's a pretty good size...and no, I'm not the only one that patrols at night."
"How many of you are there?" Sara asked.
Gillette held up three fingers and said redundantly, "Three during the day and evening..." Two fingers. "...two of us, overnight. Bobby Ranson, the other overnight guard, he left at end of shift. I rushed right over here as soon as I heard that something was wrong."
"If there was no alarm," Grissom said, "who called the police?"
They all turned to Brass, including Susan Gillette, who had lost (probably just momentarily) her ability to read the detective's mind.
"Next-door neighbor," Brass said. "Carmon Perez she's an early riser. Looked out her kitchen window and saw a ladder leaned up against Mrs. Salfer's house and thought it looked suspicious...too early for repairmen. From her angle, Mrs. Perez couldn't see that the second-story window was open, but the ladder was enough to make her phone Mrs. Salfer. When there was no answer, Mrs. Perez got anxious and called nine-one-one."
Grissom's head was to one side. "A ladder?"
"Yeah," Brass said. "Looks like someone broke in. There's "
"An aluminum ladder up against the house in the back," Gillette said, her psychic network connection with Brass reestablished. "And some footprints nearby. Whoever it was went in through the second-floor window."
Grissom's frown was barely perceptible. "Was the crime scene disturbed?"
"No! I walked around the house and saw the ladder. As soon as I did, I went back around front."
Tightly, Grissom asked, "Weren't there any officers at the house?"
This seemed as much addressed to Brass as the security guard.
Gillette nodded. "Yes, and Captain Brass here pulled up, right when I was coming back around the house. I let them all in with my key, and the alarm wasn't on."
"You mean, it wasn't ringing?"
"No. I mean, yes it wasn't ringing. No, it wasn't even set."
Grissom frowned. "And it should've been?"
Gillette nodded again. "All Los Calina residents are strongly advised to set their alarms at night."
Measuring his words, Grissom said, "Sofia, you and Greg take the exterior, starting with Security Guard Gillette's shoes."
"My shoes?" Gillette blurted.
Grissom continued as if she hadn't spoken. "Sara and I will take the interior."
Gillette, small but feisty, got right in Grissom's face. "What do you want with my shoes?"
"You walked through my crime scene," Grissom said, his smile small yet somehow enormously reproving, his tone as mild as if he were ordering coffee.
"Uh, with all due respect, what makes this your crime scene? We're all law-enforcement professionals here."
"I'm the lead crime-scene investigator. That makes it my crime scene...but I'm not greedy. I'm going to share it with these other crime-scene investigators. With all due respect, you are a security guard who trampled through my crime scene, and turned her shoes into evidence. Those shoes will be processed, in part as an effort to eliminate you as a suspect."
Grissom's voice remained soft, calm. "This is Greg Sanders give the nice man your shoes and he'll give you a set of plastic slippers."
"I don't have to give you my shoes do I?" Her volume was lower now, matching that of the serene Grissom, only with a pitiful edge.
"You do. Greg? Would you help Ms. Gillette?"
To Sara, the exchange had been like watching one of those old movies of the snake charmer hypnotizing a cobra with a flute.
After a few moments of stunned silence, Gillette followed Greg to the SUV for the shoe exchange.
While Sofia stayed outside to process the entry point, Sara and Grissom followed Brass through the front door. A few seconds were required for Sara's eyes to adjust to the darkness within, but soon she found herself in a wide foyer with a Mexican tile floor. To her right, a round dark three-legged table made a home for a smoked glass vase filled with fresh lilies; maybe fifteen inches in diameter, the black lacquer table stood about thirty inches high and was covered with gold flowers. A spindle ran down to a much smaller flowered circle that sat upon three carved legs, the feet of which also bore the gold flowers. The table, which was museum quality, seemed from a different time altogether.
"Golden Khokhloma table," Grissom said, as he watched her study it.
"Golden...what was that?"
"Hok-lo-ma. The process is very old...around the time of Peter the Great." Grissom was spellbound now, his eyes affectionately taking in the table. "The 'gold' is actually powdered aluminum, not covered by the black lacquer. Gilded wood, they called it. Very popular. Collectors would kill for a table like that but not tonight, since it was left behind."
He moved off into the living room to the right. Sara stood there wondering if there was anything in the world the man did not know. To her left, a long staircase with a dark banister rose to a second-floor landing off of which were three doorways, one open; that would wait. For now she followed her boss into the living room.
It was larger than her own living room, dining room and kitchen combined Sara couldn't imagine having this much space at her disposal. Windows consumed the wall to her right, morning sun already leaking in, taunting Sara as her shift ended but her work continued. A tan leather sofa faced a thirty-six inch TV on a far wall otherwise taken up by bookshelves, a single arm chair angled, a squat coffee table providing a place for a neat pile of mail, stacked magazines, a remote control for the TV, and a pair of eyeglasses.
At left stood a four-panel Chinese screen across which flew four cranes, hand-painted on silk symbols of happiness and long life in Chinese mythology. (Did Grissom know that? Probably.) In any case, their meaning rang empty for Grace Salfer, right now anyway.
The only thing out of place in this immaculate room was a pair of slippers under the edge of the coffee table.
Next, she followed Grissom and Brass upstairs to the master suite where the victim lay in bed, blankets pulled back, probably by the paramedics. Brass positioned himself to stay out of the CSIs' way but to take everything in; Sara knew of no detective on the LVPD more sensitive to the needs of a crime scene but, then, he had once been supervisor of the crime lab himself.
This chamber was elegant and simple, a Mediterranean dresser next to the door, a taller, matching chest beyond the foot of the bed. The bed itself had four spindle posts and a matching nightstand on the left with a paperback book, a plastic daily pillbox, and a wind-up alarm clock.
On her back, one leg drawn up and bent out, her arms spread, Grace Salfer resembled one of the cranes painted on the screen downstairs. She wore navy blue lounging pajamas and nylon anklets. Her top, open at the throat, revealed no ligature marks.
The woman had been beautiful once, her eyes closed now, her features at peace.
Sara noted the short-trimmed, well-groomed white hair; high cheeks with just a hint of sag to them; straight nose; sharp chin; lipsticked lips crinkling up at the corners, as if death had been welcomed with a smile.
"Blue tinge," Grissom said, gesturing to the victim's face.
"She didn't die on her back," Sara said. "Otherwise, I'd say Mrs. Salfer just went to bed and to sleep."
"But not perchance to dream," Grissom said.
Rigor had already started to settle in. That meant the victim had been dead for somewhere between six and twelve hours. Autopsy would give them a more exact time.
Bending over the corpse, Grissom carefully lifted the woman's left lid and revealed one large, lifeless green eye.
"Petechial hemorrhaging," Grissom said.
"Possibility she was strangled," Sara said. "No bruising or other apparent hand marks on the throat..."
Not having budged from his position, Brass glanced around the room. "Doesn't look like she put up much of a fight. Suprised her in bed?"
"Pillow maybe," Sara said.
"Here's a thought," Grissom said. "While we're building hypotheses, let's also look at the evidence."
This sort of prickliness was hardly unusual for Grissom, but Sara couldn't help wondering if his irritability quotient hadn't risen since his dressing down by Ecklie.
Why was she thinking about this, and not the job at hand?
Partly, she was tired, a trifle punchy; but more than that, all this political infighting was taking its toll on her on all of them. Ecklie had them looking over their shoulders, instead of concentrating on the case. Though one day she intended to be a supervisor herself and exposure to the political b.s. that went with the job was a good learning experience for her she also knew that until Ecklie was out of the equation, a supervisor slot was not for her: he wouldn't offer it, and she wouldn't take it from that jerk even if he did.
"For one thing, there's lividity in the face," Grissom was saying, pulling Sara back to the scene. "Vic was on her stomach for some time before she was turned over. Or moved..."
Brass finally came closer. "Moved?"
Grissom nodded. "She's in bed here, but her glasses and slippers are downstairs."
Sara said, "I noticed those didn't put it together, though. Nice catch."
Her eyes went to the doorway. But why would the assailant move Mrs. Salfer upstairs, after killing her? And if he or she waited long enough to move her, so that post-mortem lividity set in...what was he doing during the interval?
"Didn't you hear me?" Grissom asked.
Hear him what? Sara wondered. "Sorry," she said. "I was...thinking."
"Thinking is allowed. But we also need some photographs."
"On it," she said, happy to have evidence to concentrate on instead of supposition.
She withdrew the camera from her case and snapped away at the body, often following Grissom's lead he pointed to some faint bruising on the woman's neck and Sara took close-ups. He also found carpet fibers in the victim's hair, which Sara recorded with the camera before he put the fibers in an evidence packet.
"Bedroom floor is hardwood," Sara said, lowering the camera for a moment. "Only carpeting's in the living room, downstairs."
"Which is where she was killed," Grissom said. He threw her a smile. "Keep thinking."
Slowly, they worked their way out of the bedroom, then back to the first floor and, finally, back up to the rest of the second.
The only thing they had to show for their efforts so far were smudged prints Grissom got off five keys of the alarm keypad, some footprints gleaned from the Mexican tile floor in the entranceway...and even those were piled on top of each other, all the people who'd been in and out of the house since the call came in: EMTs, uniformed officers, Brass and both CSIs. And those were just the ones Sara knew off the top of her head. The victim's footprints would probably be in there too, and buried in among all those would be the killer's.
They found the open window on the second floor in a back bedroom made up to be a guest room. Small and tidy, the room had a twin bed you could bounce a quarter off, a dresser and mirror next to the door, and a short chest of drawers opposite the bed. The room appeared perfectly clean, a guest room that seemed never to have housed a guest.
Sara photographed the window and Grissom dusted the sill and frame, as well as the mirror (frame and glass) and the tops of both the chest and the dresser. They found only two prints, on the top of the dresser. Sara dutifully took pictures before Grissom lifted them.
"Mrs. Salfer?" Sara asked, nodding toward the prints.
Grissom said, "Probably. Do you notice anything about this scene?"
Sara looked around the room and thought back to what they had seen downstairs. "Very clean."
"Exactly," Grissom said. "It only stopped raining a couple of hours ago, rained since noon yesterday. Ground outside should be a mess, and there should be "
"Water or wet footprints on the floor."
Grissom nodded. "With rigor present, that tells us she was killed last night, during the height of the storm."
"Yet the house is bone dry...and so is the body."
"The evidence never lies," Grissom said, "but someone may be trying to lie to us, through the evidence."
Sara wasn't sure she followed that, but said, "Yeah," anyway.
Outside they found Greg and Sofia in the backyard. Greg had camera in hand while Sofia put down a scale-providing ruler next to a footprint in the flower bed. Beyond the footprint, an aluminum ladder leaned against the house under the open second-floor window.
Grissom told the pair what he and Sara had found inside. "What have we got?" he asked.
"Two footprints in the mud," Sofia said. "But there's something about them I don't like."
"What's not to like about a footprint?" Grissom asked innocently, but Sara thought she was finally following him.
Sofia was new, but she knew enough not to bite. "Take a look, Grissom and you tell me."
Squatting at the edge of the flower bed, Grissom studied the footprints. Over his shoulder, Sara looked at them, too: prints were even, and surprisingly well defined, considering the inclement weather last night. The ladder leaned against the house, its feet flat on the wet dirt. Something wasn't sitting right with her, either; but Sara couldn't quite nail it...
"You know," Grissom said, pointing to the prints, "I don't like 'em, either."
Sofia nodded and Greg inched closer to get a better look.
"They're too well defined," Grissom said. "With last night's weather, these prints should be a mess."
Greg said, "You couldn't find more perfect prints outside Mann's Chinese in Hollywood."
Grissom glanced up, Greg flinched, but then the supervisor smiled and said, "Aptly put, Greg."
Sara wasn't grinning, but she was nodding herself.
"They should be deeper, too," Sofia said.
"Deeper?" Greg asked.
"Yes," Grissom said. "These prints belong to about a size-ten man's shoes. Judging from the depth of these impressions, he weighed, oh...a hundred pounds."
"Child, maybe?" Greg offered.
"In size tens?"
"Same with the ladder," Sara said, gesturing. "If a man of normal weight for the size of these prints had climbed this ladder, the feet would be buried in the mud. And they're not."
"And where's the mud on the rungs?" Grissom asked, standing. "Only, they're clean." Hands on hips, he surveyed the scene, shook his head, smiled slyly. "No. Somebody thinks he...or she...is cute. This is all staged. Inside and outside both. And I hate cute."
"Complete agreement here," Sofia said. "This is orchestrated, all right."
Sara felt a ball of anger forming in her stomach. "Somebody thinks we're stupid."
"Which is the killer's second mistake," Grissom said, and cast a beatific smile upon his crew. "The first was thinking we'd let anybody get away with what was done to Grace Salfer."
Copyright © 2000-2005 by CBS Broadcasting Inc. and Alliance Atlantis Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.