Authors: Lee Goldberg
"But you still kept it from Mark," she said. "I don't get it."
"I'm a nice guy," Jesse said.
"That much I know," Susan said. "I'm curious about your motivation. Why do you have this sudden need to be Mark's guardian angel?"
"He's done a lot for me," Jesse said. "I'm just giving a little back."
"Here's how I see it." She washed her last French fry down with a sip of Dr Pepper. "You're still trying to earn his respect, even though you got it a long time ago. The only difference now is that you're doing it in the shadows."
"You're overanalyzing this," Jesse said.
"You work at the hospital with him. You help him solve crimes. You opened a restaurant with his son. And now you're doing secret favors for him," Susan said. "What do you want from him that you don't already have?"
"Nothing," he said irritably.
"You have a father of your own, Jesse."
"It's not a relationship I wish to pursue," Jesse said coldly.
"So instead you spend your time treating Mark as your father and hoping he'll treat you as his son."
"That's not what I'm doing," Jesse said. "I like snooping around. I like helping people. This isn't just for Mark. This is for Lenore, too."
"You don't even know Lenore."
"You're missing the point," Jesse said.
"And you're avoiding it," Susan said. "But that's okay, at least I've got you thinking about it."
"No, you don't."
"You're not thinking about it now?"
"Then what are you thinking about?" she asked.
"The Gamesters of Triskelion," he said.
"What is that?" she asked.
"An episode of the original
," Jesse replied. "I'm still trying to figure out why those three throbbing brains-in-a-jar who lived at the core of the planet bothered gambling their quatloos amongst each other on alien gladiator battles. What did they do with all the quatloos they won? Buy clothes, jewelry, fancy cars? They were brains-in-a-jar. It makes no sense."
Susan just stared at him. "You're hopeless."
At that moment, Lenore drove out of the private school with her kids in the backseat. Jesse waited for a few cars to pass, then followed her.
On her way home, Lenore stopped at the Ralph's Market at Coldwater and spent an hour buying groceries and twenty minutes browsing through the National Examiner, the Globe, and the National Inquirer. She unloaded her children and groceries at the house, then went back down to her real estate office, where she stopped briefly before leaving again to show another property, this one a house on stilts that clung precariously to the edge of the Hollywood Hills.
While she was showing the house, Jesse drove back to the real estate office and had Susan go in to get a sheet of Lenore's listings. Susan had to leave a callback number to get it, but that was fine. It was all part of the plan.
Jesse looked at the careful notes he and Susan had made of Lenore's activities. He decided another day of surveillance should be enough to learn her routine. After that, the games would begin.
He didn't ask himself why he was doing it. It didn't matter. He just knew it was going to be fun.
Mark was so tired when he got home, he had no doubt he'd fall asleep the instant his face hit the pillow. But that's not what happened.
Once again, his mind wouldn't let him go. He'd close his eyes, and Rachel's suicide attempt would replay itself again and again in his mind. Only there was one difference this time. When her body hit the tree limb and snapped it, she cartwheeled and became Winston Brant tumbling out of the sky, a knife in his chest.
An instant before Winston hit the ground, Mark would awaken, his heart pounding, his eyelids heavy with fatigue, to see that only ten or fifteen minutes had passed.
He kept at it for a few more hours, struggling to sleep, before giving up. It was dark outside. Mark squirted some eyedrops into his bloodshot, stinging eyes, brushed his teeth, and shuffled into the kitchen. He stood in front of the beachfront windows for a moment, taking in the view, watching the moonlight ride the swells.
He could understand why Brant was still on his mind. It was a murder he couldn't solve. But why couldn't he get Rachel Swicord out of his head? He knew her story and it hardly made her sympathetic. Whatever mystery there might have been was gone. Steve was right; there wasn't anything he could do for her now. Her immediate future was clear. She was going back to Washington.
So why couldn't he let her go?
If there was one thing Mark had learned about himself over the years it was never to deny the pull of his subconscious. It didn't have to make rational or obvious sense.
Sooner or later, if he kept plugging along, whatever was nagging at him would make itself clear. It always did. All it took was discovering one fact, or hearing one key comment, and everything would make sense.
So until then, he had to be true to himself. He had to keep on the Rachel Swicord case until he knew what it was that was unsettling him.
Steve wasn't going to like this much. Mark wasn't wild about it himself. But Mark didn't have a choice.
He glanced at his watch: It was a little after eight. Steve would be home soon, hopefully with some more details on the Brant homicide.
Since there was nothing he could do for Rachel at the moment, Mark decided to concentrate on the Brant case. He stuck the skydiving video back in the TV and watched it a few more times, gleaning nothing new from the repeat viewings. So he decided to see what facts he could find on the World Wide Web.
Mark used any excuse to go on the Internet, where he could get instant access to facts on just about anything that intrigued him on virtually any subject imaginable.
When he was a boy, he used to love sitting in the library, indulging his insatiable curiosity, limited only by the number of books on the shelves. Now he had the equivalent of tens of thousands of libraries right in his own living room or anywhere else he happened to be. With his laptop computer and a wireless connection, he could be plugged into a limitless world of knowledge at all times. It was only through sheer willpower that Mark wasn't planted in front of his laptop day and night.
But this wasn't a casual journey through the uncharted worlds of knowledge and imagination. This was a search for specific information. It made it easier for him to control himself, stay focused, and not take interesting side trips through cyberspace. As Mark knew all too well, one embedded link led to another and then another and pretty soon he was exploring topics he'd never even thought about before.
Mark spent the next two hours learning everything he could about skydiving, storing dozens of Web pages on his hard drive and printing out a ream of information on his laser printer to share with Steve. He paid particular attention to the packing of the parachute and the mechanics of its release. By the time he was done, his eyes looked blood red and felt like hot coals.
He doused the flames with more eyedrops, closed his eyes to let the medicine work, and thought about what he'd learned about skydiving.
A skydiver usually packs and checks his own chute. In Brant's case, Airventures handled that step. Once the skydiver suits up, his straps and rig are double-checked by another skydiver, a task which fell to Justin Darbo and his crew.
The skydivers then board a plane that flies to a height of ten to sixteen thousand feet, which gives each jumper a 120-mile-per-hour free fall that lasts from forty-five to seventy-five seconds.
That, Mark thought, was the kill window. A mere minute or less.
When the altimeter hits twenty-five hundred feet, the skydiver pulls his rip cord. if he fails to do so, an automatic activation device does it for him, usually at seven hundred and fifty feet.
Mark had always assumed pulling the rip cord released the parachute, also known as the large canopy. What he learned in his brief research was that the skydiver first deploys a smaller, foot-long chute called the drogue, which catches the wind and pulls out the bridle, a ten-foot-long piece of nylon attached to the main chute.
As the drogue pulls the bridle, it yanks out the main chute and the five sets of lines that connect it to the risers, a pair of thick straps which, in turn, attach everything to the skydiver's pack.
The parachutes Airventures used were ram-air canopies, rectangular expanses of lightweight, zero-porosity nylon divided by fabric ribs into five individual bands that arc when they're hit by the wind. Unlike the familiar round parachute, the ram-air canopy resembles a nylon wing, allowing the skydiver to glide to the ground at an angle instead of dropping straight down. It also gives the skydiver a lot more control over his descent.
Mark didn't see any step in the deployment of the chute that offered the opportunity for the simultaneous deployment of a knife into Brant's chest.
So he looked elsewhere in the process and found something that had intriguing possibilities for the aspiring murderer.
He focused his attention on the automatic activation device that releases the parachute if the skydiver is unable to due to unconsciousness, injury, or distraction. The device is a small computer that monitors the altitude and fires a tiny knife-shaped projectile that cuts the cord and releases the reserve chute.
If the device could automatically fire the equivalent of a bullet, Mark wondered what else it could be modified to do.
Now I'm thinking like Jesse, he thought.
But even if the automatic activation device could be modified to shoot out a hunting knife, Mark still didn't see how the weapon could end up buried to the hilt in Brant's chest without going through his back first.
He didn't feel on the verge of any great discoveries, so he decided to give up on it for the night, to let the facts he'd learned percolate with everything else in his subconscious.
Something was bound to come up. It always did.
Then again, he thought, one of these days he was bound to be outsmarted.
Perhaps that day had finally come.
He opened his eyes and dismissed the thought. It was too troubling.
His son would be home soon and he'd be hungry. Mark was hungry already. So until he had some new facts to crunch, he decided to apply his considerable skills and imagination to the task of making dinner.
At least that was something he could still manage.
Tom Wade knew how to have great skin on his wedding day, ten shortcuts to a fantastic bust, how to prepare the perfect Seder, and seven secret techniques to control underarm odor without using an antiperspirant.
Of all the things he'd learned in the three dozen magazines he'd read in the waiting room, only the last topic was useful for him. He hated antiperspirants.
But the time wasn't a complete waste. He figured he now possessed all the specialized knowledge he needed if he ever had to hold his own in conversation at a baby shower, a Tupperware party, or a gynecologist's office.
Certainly men had waited here for news of their loved ones in the ICU. Why didn't any of them leave their reading material behind? Would it be asking too much for one of them to donate a
to the pile on the coffee table?
At this point, well into his second night in the waiting room, Wade would have welcomed another issue of
Highlights for Children
. He was down to his last magazine, an issue of
, and not looking forward to the experience of reading it, when his cell phone trilled.
"Wade," he said.
The caller didn't say anything, didn't even breathe as far as Wade could tell, but he knew instinctively who it was. His throat constricted and he could feel the blood pulsing in his temples.
"I'm taking her back to prison," Wade said. "And then I'm coming after you."
"I'll kill anyone who gets between me and Rachel," the caller said, his voice like tires on gravel. "Even you."
The caller hung up. Wade kept listening for a moment to the dead air, wondering if he'd imagined the whole thing. But he knew he hadn't. He'd never had much of an imagination; it had always been one of his failings, though certainly not his worst.
His worst failing was still haunting him today.
That was exactly the right word. He'd felt the pain of that failure, personally and professionally, every hour of every day for the last eight years.
He dialed a senior official at the Department of Corrections, spoke with him for a few minutes, and then called a friend at the Department of Justice to expedite the necessary paperwork on an emergency basis.
The reckoning was coming.
Steve came home to find his father cooking in the kitchen, an apron around his neck, happily humming some indefinable tune.
"I thought you were going to get some sleep," Steve said, glancing at the messy kitchen.
The sink was filled with dirty dishes. The counters were covered with mixing bowls, an open can of chopped clams, scattered vegetables, bottles of cooking oils, shakers of seasonings, cups of flour, cubes of butter, a carton of eggs, and a bowl full of chocolate chips.
"I tried to sleep but couldn't," Mark said, chopping onions. "So I tried to do some thinking about the Brant case instead."
Steve ate a couple of chocolate chips and motioned to the mess. "I can see how well the thinking went."
"I decided to take my mind off things and cook us some comfort food," Mark said.
"I don't need comfort," Steve said. "I need clues."
"Tonight, we're having Malibu clam chowder."
"It's like Boston clam chowder, only with more vegetables thrown in," Mark said. "And for dessert, your favorite Chocolate Decadence a la Sloan."
"Why can't you sleep?" Steve asked.
"You're not thanking me for making Chocolate Decadence a la Sloan?"
"You haven't made it in two years," Steve said. "You were up making it at five thirty in the morning because you couldn't save a young boy with an inoperable brain tumor."