Beyond the Western
The Matter of the Drowned Man in a Hot Air Balloon
Steve Levi

Beyond the Western

Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was pondering a particularly difficult move on the cloth chessboard that hung on the wall of his office. His King was hiding behind the Knight's Pawn and he was trying to lure Captain Sandoval of the Miami Police Department, by phone, into a double attack. They made contact every few days and Noonan was waiting to spring a trap.

"That call you've been waiting for is on Line 3," his administrative assistant, Juanita Gwinch, said sullenly over the intercom.

"Yeah. Yeah," Noonan snapped as he picked up the receiver and punched Line 3. "Don't tell me. It's Queen to Bishop Seven, right?"

"No," came a female voice over the line. "It's a drowning in a hot air balloon. Do I have Captain Noonan?"

"Yes," Noonan said, trying to capture his thoughts. "This isn't Captain Sandoval of the Miami Police?"

"No. This is Lt. Harriet Hellenthal of the Mazatzal Police Department in Arizona."


"Yes, sir."

"Just a moment," muttered Noonan and put Lt. Hellenthal on hold. He buzzed Juanita. "You told me I was expecting this call."

"I didn't say that. The Chief of Police did. That's why I patched her through."

"I was expecting a call from Captain Sandoval."

"Oh, you got that one too. I've got a message."


"I don't understand it but it's 'Knight takes Rook. Ha. Ha.' Do you know what he means?"

"Yeah," said Noonan as he looked at the cloth chessboard despondently. Then he punched Line 3 again. "What can I do for you Lt. Hellenthal. It is Hellenthal, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is. Your name was given to me by the Chief of Police in Tucson. He said we had exactly the kind of a case you love to solve."

"I can't imagine what he was talking about."

"Well, I called the Police Commissioner in Sandersonville and he seemed to agree."

"He would," said Noonan and he dragged the phone over to the cloth chessboard and replaced the black Rook with a white Knight. "What can I do for you?" he asked as he brought up the chess-by-mail program on his computer and logged the move.

"I'm with the Mazatzal Police Department. We're a small community of 150,000 about 100 miles northeast of Phoenix, on the far side of Horseshoe Reservoir.

"I imagine it's rather hot down there. What can I do for you?

"Yes, it is. 95 right now and it isn't noon yet. We have a very small law enforcement community here, 30 people including the meter maids, coroner, magistrate and patrolmen. We use the State of Arizona Crime Lab when we have a technical problem but this death falls under the category of unusual."

"Tell me about it."

"Well, three months ago we had a hot air balloon race that started at the far side of Horseshoe Reservoir and ended on the shore of Bartlett Reservoir near the community of Sunflower. It's pretty rugged country but we were going to do our chasing by boat."


"Right. Ballooning is done in pairs. One team rides in a balloon and the other has a truck on the ground. That way both teams meet when the balloon comes to ground."

"But for this race you were going to use boats on the reservoir?"

"Right. These balloonists were very experienced so traveling that far over water wasn't a problem. They would be high enough that if anything normal went wrong – not that anything goes wrong normally, if you know what I mean."

"Yes, quite. Please continue."

"One of the participants was a member of the police force, Sgt. Jane Williams. She was not a particularly well-liked individual but did her job well."

"What happened to Sgt. Williams?"

"She was alive when she went aloft. Two hours later her balloon was spotted flying without a pilot. A fixed wing, er, . . .

"A plane."

"That's right. A plane was sent aloft but the pilot could not see anything. When the balloon finally approached where the desert began, the pilot shot a hole in the balloon with a shotgun. When the balloon landed we found Sgt. Williams dead."

"Uh, huh." Noonan was fiddling with a letter opener. "Something tells me there's more to this story."

"There is. According to the coroner, she drowned."

"Drowned as in she came down in the middle of the reservoir, drowned, and then the balloon took her away?"

"No, sir. The water in her lungs was salt water. The reservoir is fresh water. Her balloon left with everyone else's and no one saw her anywhere near the water."

"Now I see why the crime lab can't help you. How close is the nearest salt water?"

"372 miles. We had a law-and-order picnic on the shores of the Gulf of California in Mexico about six months ago. How far it was to the ocean was a lottery so we know it's exactly 372 miles."

"Did Sgt. Williams go on that trip?"


"Were there any cuts or bruises on the victim?"

"Quite a few of them. When the balloon came down it came down quite hard. It basically dropped like a stone from at least a 1,000 feet up."

"Any of them caused before death?"

"Very little way of knowing."

"No sign of a struggle, skin under fingernails, the usual?"


"If she was so badly battered, how did the coroner come to the conclusion she had died of drowning in salt water?"

"Because some was found in her lungs."

"Do you have any good suspects?"

"Not a one."

"You said that she was not well-liked. What did you mean by that?"

"She was a very selfish person, put herself ahead of others. No one trusted her. She's one of those people who got a job because she was a female in the days of Affirmative Action and hasn't learned anything since. She bolted from one of her partners while they were under fire and turned in another for alleged sexual harassment."

"Was the charge true?"


"So you'd have to say that she wasn't very popular with the rank and file."

"That's right. She couldn't be fired and no one could work with her."

"Was she married? Did she have family?"

"Her husband works in coroner's office. They have two children, 10 and 11, I think. Her father is retired but lives in town and her mother, now remarried, lives in Tucson. Her brother works for us in records and her sister and her husband work for the magistrate. She's got some other cousins or whatever. One of them is a patrolman and the other is a clerk."

"A big happy family. Was it a happy marriage?"

"Not really. She ran around a lot. She had a trapline of men but no one steady."

"Did her husband know it?"

"He does now."

"When did he find out?"

"As far as we can tell, he didn't know until the day we started the murder investigation."

"How about the boy friends? How many of them were at the start of the race?"

"All of them."

"And the husband?"

"He was there and most of the close relatives were too."

"Was the woman who got into the balloon in the morning at the start of the race positively identified as Sgt. Williams?"

"Yes. We all knew her."

"She was seen getting into the balloon?"

"Not really. She was seen the morning of the race. She was seen standing in the balloon basket at the start of the race. That was the last time anyone saw her alive."

"Did she wave to anyone from the balloon?"

"At the start of a race? Naw. That wasn't her style."

"What was her style?"

"She was known to drop her required ballast as soon as the rules allowed and then blast as high as possible as soon as possible. That's a risky proposition in a race."


"The person who would win this balloon race was the one who covered the set distance in the shortest period of time. Usually that means going up slowly, finding a cross current and then riding it in the direction of the end of the race. If you rise too fast, like Sgt. Williams did, you run the risk of passing through cross currents without even feeling them."

"So when the race started she went, quite literally, straight up?"

"That's right. Dropped all her ballast at the start of the race and pulled the burn cord on the balloon straight down."

"Was her husband a balloonist? How about her boyfriends?"

"The husband was a spotter but rarely went up. He just supported her passion. As far as her boyfriends are concerned, I don't know."

"Could you find out?"

"For those boyfriends we've identified, yes."

"Could there have been anyone else in the balloon with her?"

"Not really. If there had been anyone else in the basket the balloon would have ridden sluggishly. As it was, she jumped into the sky. No. There wasn't anyone else in the basket."

"Was there anything unusual in the basket?"

"It was pretty badly broken up but the lab went over the basket thoroughly. But there was nothing unusual we could find."

"Any extra holes? Trapdoors?"


"Was there anything at all that was unusual no matter how insignificant you may consider it?"

"She was legally drunk, but then we all were that morning."

"How drunk?"

"1.5. Like the rest of us."

"Was she a heavy drinker?"

"Not really. We were all drinking whiskey that morning. We didn't want to drink beer because . . ."

"I can imagine."

"Did you see her when the race started?"

"Not in the way you mean. All of the balloons were lined up and the pilots were inside the baskets. The gun sounded and we left. She shot straight up out of sight like she usually does and that's the end of the story."

"Where is her body now?"

"In the morgue."

"All right. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give it a day and roll some possibilities around in my mind. But I want you to do some checking for me."

"I've got my pencil and paper ready."

"I like your attitude. First, was the water in her lungs water with salt, ocean water, saltwater from an aquarium or water that just appeared to be salted? Second, did her husband, boyfriends or any of her family go on that law-and-order ocean trip? Third, who benefits financially from Sgt. Williams death and how much are we talking about? Fourth, fourth?, fourth? I can't think of a fourth so I guess the three I gave you will have to do."

"I'll do what I can. Should I call you at this number tomorrow about this time?"

Noonan looked longingly at the cloth chessboard on his wall. "Maybe a little later."


"Never mind. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

* * *

Noonan was still pondering his vulnerable first rank the next morning when Lt. Hellenthal called back.

"Lt. Hellenthal! I've been thinking about your problem all night! Did you get me the answers I needed?"

"Yes, but I don't know how much help they will be."


"OK. The best the coroner can tell, it was ocean water. It could have come from a salt water aquarium if it didn't use the usual pet shop chemicals. The husband of Sgt. Williams went on the law-and-order trip as did at least one of her boyfriends. He's a patrolman. But, like I said yesterday, we don't know all of her boyfriends so there could have been another one there as well. As far as her will is concerned, she leaves an estate of about $20,000 to her husband and children and her insurance leaves $100,000 to her children."

"Is there one of those double indemnity clauses?"

"Yes. But only if killed in the line of duty."

There was silence for a moment. When Noonan said nothing Lt. Hellenthal came back on the line.

"Captain Noonan? Are you still there?"

"Yes. Yes. I'm just thinking."

"Would you like me to call back?"

"No. No. Let's see. First, how she was killed. Actually it was quite simple. Whoever killed her did it on the ground in the basket of the balloon. There was no reason to be clever about it because he thought her body would never be found. If it was, as long as he used a blunt instrument he was going to escape detection. Any chemicals would have left a residue. It would have been easy because she was drunk and knew her killer. After she had been killed, a rope was looped around her right wrist. She was pulled erect by the rope and that's the position she was in when the gun went off to start the race. She only had to be visible erect for a few seconds. No one was near her or looking at her closely when the race started so there was no reason to suspect she was dead."

"But she had to be alive to go aloft."

"Not really. Her usual practice, as you told me, was to drop all her ballast at the beginning of the race and rise as high as possible and quickly as possible. When the gun went off, the killer had all of the ballast fall away from the balloon. The burner on the hot air balloon was probably jammed so it would leap into the sky."

"But you can't leave a burner on for very long or you'll burn out the bag. That means short bursts."

"The killer was planning on that. Remember, the race was over water. The killer figured that she'd rise too fast and the bag would burn. Once the bag went, that was the end of Sgt. Williams. The balloon would erupt into flames and she, balloon and basket would fall into the reservoir. End of story. The rope that was looped on her wrist was probably run around the burner. When it got hot enough, it burned through. That way, if the balloon was ever found she wouldn't be discovered tied to the burner."

"But the coroner said she drowned!"

"That's what's fooled everyone for so long. What probably happened was that the burner on the balloon shut off. I'd guess there is some kind of shut off mechanism to keep the balloon from burning. The killer didn't know that. He didn't know balloons that well. So there was his victim, up in the sky and sailing along. She was dead and when she came down it wouldn't take too long for the police to put two and two together. After all, I'm betting that there were photos of start of the race, maybe even some videos. The killer didn't know what was in those photos or on those videos. So he had to muddy the waters of the investigation."

"What you're saying is that the salt water was a ploy by the coroner to cover up his own murder."

"Or by someone he knew and was covering up for. Or by someone in the coroner's office. Or by someone who was responsible for handling the body. Or by someone at the crime scene. That body had to be pretty badly broken after falling 1,000 feet. As soon as the balloon didn't fall out of the sky, the murder needed Plan B. But he had time, a few hours, right?"

"Yeah. She was in the air a few hours before she was shot down."

"Right. The murderer could have taken some salt water from an aquarium or, if he had been planning ahead, he might have collected some from the ocean on that law-and-order trip. He didn't need much, maybe as little as a syringe-full. The point was to make it appear as though she had drowned."

"I see. But wouldn't that have kept the case open rather than closing it?"

"No. It sent you off on a red herring. If it had been a normal investigation, you might have spotted the murder right away from the photos and video. Now, what, three months later the trail is pretty cold. If your murderer is smart he's seen every photo and foot of video taken at the start of the race. Any photos or footage that would incriminate him are probably now gone. Lost. Your murderer is still around, somewhere. He's a member of your law-and-order fraternity there."

"That's not a very pleasant thought."

"I can understand that. But if you really want to find the murderer, recheck all of the negatives of the photos taken at the start of the race. Compare those with the actual photographs that were collected for the investigation. If you find a photograph missing, that will tell you who your murder is."

"It's certainly worth a try. Thank you very much for your help. If there is anything we can every do for you, please let us know."

"Good. Good." Noonan's eyes drifted to the cloth chessboard on his wall. "Would you happen to know how to defend your first rank against an about-to-be discovered Check?"

"Why not ask an expert? Try Bobby Fischer."

Before Noonan could respond, the line went dead.