Diagnosis Murder 4 - The Waking Nightmare (18 page)

BOOK: Diagnosis Murder 4 - The Waking Nightmare
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Rebecca studied him for a long moment, then took a deep breath and went on with her story, a little less reluctantly now, perhaps because Steve had, in his own way, volunteered something about himself.

"When the deputies started chasing us, it just made it seem even less real, like we were on some kind of amusement park ride," she said. "I couldn't stop shrieking and laughing and neither could he. I've never been in a car that was going so fast. The windows were rolled down, the wind was blasting in. It felt like we were flying. And then, the police car cut us off. Pike stopped the car. I was breathing so hard, I was light-headed. I saw the deputy get out and then Pike got this funny look on his face and floored it…"

Rebecca closed her eyes tight and her finger squeezed the trigger on the painkiller, but Steve doubted there was any thing in the IV that could wipe away that memory.

"The deputy flew up into the windshield, his face was right in front of me," she whispered. "I could see his eyes, the fear and the pain, and then he slid off and I felt the car roll right over him."

She shook her head and looked at Steve. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.

"I woke up," she said. "I wasn't sleeping, but that's what it felt like, like waking up, from a dream into a nightmare. We were being chased again, only now it wasn't one cop car, it was like an army of them. I knew Pike wasn't going to stop this time, not for anything. But he didn't look scared at all. Pike was happy. 'We're always going to be together,' he said, and when he grinned, I almost believed him. And then we were in the air, falling towards the water."

Steve picked up a cup of water beside the bed, bent the straw, and lifted it to her lips. She took a long sip.

"He didn't lose control of the car," Steve said. "He went into the river on purpose."

"We were both supposed to die," she said. "And in a way, I did."

Steve set the cup down and remained standing, looking down at her.

"I was a teenager when I went into prison," Rebecca said. "When I came out, I was a woman, an entirely different person. I wanted a new life. I knew I'd never have one if I stayed in Washington. So I came here, to the sunshine."

Steve knew the rest. She reinvented herself as a toy designer. She created the Cuddle Bear. And then came the article, the photograph, and the unwanted publicity.

But there was still something missing.

"You didn't jump because you were afraid of being punished for a parole violation or that your junkie brother would show up," Steve said, looking her in the eye. "You knew Pike was alive."

"I always felt it, maybe because I didn't want to believe he was dead," she said. "A few days ago, a man broke into my apartment. He didn't know my roommate, Lissy, was there. She works nights, she was sleeping."

"I saw the meat cleaver she threw at him."

"Lissy described the intruder to me and I knew it was him, but I still didn't want to believe it," Rebecca said. "One morning, I looked out my window at work and saw him standing on the street."

"He was out there the day you jumped?"

"I saw that grin, and I could feel myself surrendering to it again. Just like that. One instant. And I was his. I knew I couldn't resist," she said. "There was only one way out."

Someone knocked on the door. Steve turned to see Tucker Mellish standing in the doorway, a pink bakery box in his hand.

"Is this a bad time?" Tucker asked.

Rebecca lit up immediately, a huge, relieved smile on her face. She looked at Steve, who nodded and stepped away from the bed. He'd found what he needed to know.

"It's the best time," Rebecca said. "Today happens to be the first day of the rest of my life."

"Then it's the perfect occasion for fresh Danish," Mellish said, lifting the lid on the box to reveal it was filled with fresh cinnamon rolls, bear claws, coffee cake, and glazed donuts. "Can I interest you in a bear claw, Steve?"

"No thanks, I'm on duty," Steve said, remembering his bear claw hangover.

"You two know each other?" Rebecca asked.

"We're in business together now," Mellish said. "I bake pastries for his restaurant."

"Amazing how much can change while you're sleeping," she said, glancing at Steve.

He smiled and walked out, pausing in the doorway to take a last glance at her. The gnomish baker was settling into the seat beside Rebecca's bed, offering the box of pastries to her, the Cuddle Bear on the floor next to him.

And that's when Steve noticed something familiar about the big stuffed animal. The dopey smile. The big wet eyes. The round body.

The Cuddle Bear bore an uncanny resemblance to Tucker Mellish.

 

Abel Marsh, the LAPD's forensic accountant, took a table at the back of BBQ Bob's and sat straight, facing the door. Marsh's badge was clipped to the front of his belt and he wore a gun, positioned so everyone could see it when they walked in, though Steve couldn't imagine a situation where he'd have to use it.

"Expecting trouble?" Steve asked, sliding into the booth opposite him.

"Question is," Marsh replied, "is trouble expecting me?"

Marsh wasn't joking. He'd honed his Clint Eastwood drawl so well, it stopped being an impersonation and came naturally to him, even if none of Eastwood's other mythic qualities did. Perhaps if Marsh wasn't so short and so pale, and if his hairline hadn't receded to the back of his head, he might have an easier time pulling off the effect.

Lots of the detectives, Steve included, liked to give Marsh a hard time, but the forensic accountant took it in stride. Marsh would remind them it was an accountant who brought down Al Capone. He'd say that the biggest heists today aren't being done in the dark by clever thieves but in the light of day by corporate CEOs and CFOs. He'd argue that in today's world it takes a new breed of cop, a certified public accountant with a badge, to enforce the law.

Maybe, Steve thought, Marsh was right. Very soon, the joke might be on him.

"Can I treat you to some dinner?" Steve asked. "Smokiest ribs in Southern California."

"No thanks," Marsh said. "A tall glass of ice water will be fine."

It seemed to Steve that Marsh wanted desperately to embody the steely presence of a man like Tom Wade. Perhaps if Marsh knew the price the marshal paid for living his life that way, the accountant might change his mind. Steve was tempted to tell him, but realized it would do no good. Marsh wouldn't understand, not unless Steve could find a way to express it in numbers.

Steve waved a waitress over, ordered a slice of banana cream pie for himself and a glass of ice water for his guest, then got down to business.

"Have you had a chance to study the finances at Brant Publications?" Steve asked.

"A little bit," Marsh said.

"How do the books look to you?"

"Like a gang rape," Marsh said.

Over three glasses of ice water, and with one break to go to the bathroom, Marsh explained to Steve how Brant's partners were plundering the company. The first thing Clifton Hemphill, Dean Perrow, and Virgil Nyby did was radically reshape the look and content of the magazine to jack up the circulation and increase ad revenues.

'That doesn't sound illegal to me," Steve said.

"The makeover was simply a smoke screen to explain the dramatic increase in their circulation," Marsh said. "It looked like the changes revitalized the magazine and attracted hundreds of thousands of new readers."

"What really happened?"

"Rampant fraud," Marsh said. "The partners created several shell companies that bought tens of thousands of bogus subscriptions at giveaway rates. They printed up thousands of copies that they reported as newsstand sales, but were secretly sold for cash directly to a paper recycling company and pulped. And in addition to those schemes, they simply lied, making up whatever numbers sounded good to them."

"What's the upside to throwing magazines out and buying subscriptions themselves?"

"The real money doesn't come from subscribers, but from advertising, and the price of page space is based on circulation numbers," Marsh said. "The higher the circulation, the higher the ad rates. The higher the ad rates, the higher the revenues. The higher the revenues, the more the magazine is worth. The higher the value of the magazine, the more money they can borrow against it."

"The partners were taking out loans?"

"In the tens of millions of dollars," Marsh said. "Some of which they used to buy their new headquarters building at a grossly inflated price from an offshore, dummy corporation owned by Hemphill, who constructed the office tower in the first place. I'll bet my badge Perrow and Nyby got big cash payoffs that coincided with the purchase of the property."

The fraud didn't end there. From what Marsh could tell, they were siphoning off even more money by purchasing expensive drive-time ads on Virgil Nyby's radio stations, which actually broadcast less than half of the spots. The stations, however, used those sales figures, and contracts with Brant Publications for future ad time, to jack up their own bottom line to investors.

Steve was astonished, not only by the widespread fraud, but that Abel Marsh uncovered it so quickly.

"They must be pretty lousy crooks if you found out so much already." Steve saw the look on Marsh's face and quickly qualified his statement. "Not that I doubt your accounting skills."

"No offense taken," Marsh said. "I had an advantage I don't ordinarily have. Turns out Winston Brant had been quietly going through the books himself for months and left detailed notes. His secretary, Grace Wozniak, gave me access to his computer and I hacked his encrypted files."

"You know how to hack?"

"I do what has to be done," Marsh said, chewing an ice cube. "I'm sure there's more to find. I can smell the stink. I just haven't dug deep enough yet. We could arrest 'em now on a slew of charges."

"Not until I get one, or all of 'em, for murder," Steve said. "Keep this and whatever else you find between us for now. I don't want Hemphill, Perrow, and Nyby figuring out how much we know yet. If all else fails, maybe I can use the threat of jail time on financial crimes as leverage."

"For what?"

"To get one of them to point a finger at whoever killed Winston Brant."

Marsh nodded, finished his fourth glass of ice water, and walked out. Steve stayed in the booth, picking at the crumbs of his piecrust.

If the three partners found out that Brant had discovered their fraud, and that he was going to reveal it at the share holders' meeting, then they had good reason to want him dead.

Now Steve had the evidence to prove motive and, since they were all on the plane together, opportunity as well. What he didn't have was the slightest idea how Winston Brant was stabbed to death in midair.

And without that, he had nothing.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

 

Dr. Mark Sloan had seen the sun rise through hospital room windows many times over the years, but never as a patient.

The view from the bed was quite a bit different.

He didn't know how long he'd slept, but he felt completely rested for the first time in days, despite the discomforts of the IV feeding fluid into his veins, the Foley catheter emptying his bladder, and the hard cast supporting his broken left arm.

As brilliant as the sunrise was, when he looked out the window, he saw last night's dream playing out in front of his eyes again.

Rachel Swicord sat on the window ledge. Only she wasn't Rachel any more. She was Lenore Barber, and she looked at Mark defiantly, as if daring him to stop her. Lenore threw herself out the window, a wild grin on her face, and plummeted to the street below.

Her body spun and she became Winston Brant, and then the dream slowed, as if he'd been watching a DVD, paused the image, and then advanced the picture frame by frame. Brant looked at the knife in his chest. When Brant lifted his head, his face was speckled with blood and he stared right at Mark. There was no shock on Brant's face, no pleading in his eyes, only grim acceptance of his unavoidable fate. And then the dream sped up again and Brant hit the pavement, which was odd to Mark, since Rachel had landed on a car.

But now, in the bright light of morning, the inaccuracy didn't matter to Mark. It wasn't Rachel falling anyway; it was Winston Brant. Besides, it was a dream. Brant could have landed in a bowl of whipped cream. So what difference did it make?

It always struck Mark as odd how, even asleep, he was often observing himself observing the dream, reminding himself it wasn't real and yet still trying to apply some kind of logic to it all.

Mark pressed the call button and, within a few moments, a nurse came in. She was a slender African American in her mid-twenties, with a surprisingly energetic spring to her step for such an early hour. Mark didn't recognize her and felt bad about it. Nobody expected him to know every nurse in the hospital, but as Chief of Internal Medicine, he prided himself on trying.

"How are you feeling this morning?" she asked.

"Fine and dandy." Mark glanced at her name tag. "Nurse Ademu-John, I'd appreciate it if you'd take me off the IV and remove the Foley catheter."

She grinned at him. "I'm sure you would, but you'll have to wait until the doctor sees you."

"I am a doctor," Mark said. "In fact, I'm the Chief of Internal Medicine at this hospital."

"I know," the nurse said. "I was warned about you."

"Warned?"

"That you'd try to check yourself out before Dr. Travis came to see you. I was told to call security if there was a problem."

"You're joking," Mark said.

"But I won't need security." Her cheery expression suddenly turned implacable. "If you take those tubes out of your body I will pin you down in that bed myself and shove them back in.".

"
Shove?
" Mark stammered.

She put her hands on his bed railing and leaned in close. "Do I make myself clear, Dr. Sloan?"

Mark nodded vigorously.

"Good." She stood up straight, her bright demeanor immediately returning at full wattage. "Dr. Travis will be in to see you in a few hours. Would you like some breakfast?"

BOOK: Diagnosis Murder 4 - The Waking Nightmare
7.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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