Authors: Lee Goldberg
Maybe, Steve thought, he'd try to overcome his nature, too, which reminded him that he ought to give Lissy Dearborn a call. There was no reason he couldn't date her now.
But first, he'd have to buy a coffee table and a big red ribbon to tie around it.
Steve dropped Mark off at the beach house and went in to headquarters, where investigators from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI were already huddled in the conference room with Abel Marsh, going over Brant's financial records.
He popped his head into the conference room long enough to introduce himself and confirm he wasn't needed, then went to his desk to work on his report. It took him three hours to write up everything and deliver it to Captain Newman, who took only fifteen minutes to scan it and wave Steve back into his cramped office.
To Steve's surprise, the captain accepted without question his conclusion that Brant committed suicide and seemed pleased the Feds could run with it on their own.
Steve was turning to leave Newman's office, astonished that he'd come through the meeting unscathed, when the captain asked him if he knew how much it cost, per hour, to operate a helicopter. Perhaps, he added, Steve would like an LAPD chopper to pick him up at home from now on and save him the stress of dealing with traffic.
Steve assumed these were rhetorical questions, kept his mouth shut, and turned to face a verbal lashing. He was smart enough not to interrupt, and certainly not to argue that he'd only appropriated the helicopter because he feared for his father's life. He knew that defense wouldn't score him any sympathy from Newman. Black-and-whites were on their way to the scene and, in fact, arrived at the same time as the chopper. If anything, the captain would attack him for letting personal matters affect his judgment.
So he kept quiet, nodded his head often, and apologized for his mistake. Without getting an argument, the captain seemed unable to muster up any more abuse so, in frustration, he simply ordered Steve to get out.
All in all, Steve figured this was one for the win column and called it a day.
BBQ Bob's was packed for dinner that night, so Mark had to take a stool at the counter. Thanks to Dr. Atkins and the low-carb carnivore craze, Dr. Travis was kept busy, taking orders and bussing tables, until Mark was nearly finished with his ribs.
Jesse took a break, drawing himself a Coke and leaning against the bar while Mark picked at his ribs and told him about what happened in Sara Everden's office. Mark also passed along the sentiments Steve shared afterwards in the car.
"I wasn't even there, and I feel cheated, too," Jesse said.
"So do I," Mark replied.
"You do?" Jesse set down his glass and poked at the crushed ice with straw.
"Somehow it feels incomplete," Mark said. "You have any idea how hard it is to eat spareribs with one hand?"
"You're changing the subject." Jesse lifted his glass and took a mouthful of sweet, slushy crushed ice.
"I know," Mark said.
"Because I'm embarrassed. I've got barbeque sauce all over myself."
"That's not what you're embarrassed about," Jesse said, embarrassed himself because he was talking through a mouthful of ice.
"I'm saying I could use a napkin." Mark raised his sauce-smeared face up to Jesse.
Jesse picked up a napkin and wiped Mark's chin.
"Could you get my mustache, too?"
"Thanks," Mark said.
It seemed strangely intimate, this polite favor he'd just done for. Mark. No more so than dressing a wound, pulling out an IV or a Foley catheter, and yet somehow it was.
"Where's Steve?" Mark asked. "Isn't he supposed to be helping you out around here?"
"He called a couple hours ago, said something about having to buy a coffee table."
"We've got a coffee table."
"There's some big sale at Ikea that ends tonight," Jesse said. "He didn't want to miss it."
"If we had to get a coffee table, it wouldn't be one that we've got to snap together," Mark said.
Jesse took another mouthful of ice, then ditched the glass in the dish bucket under the counter. "I haven't forgotten my question, Mark. What are you embarrassed about?"
"My own selfishness."
"I've never known you to be selfish," Jesse said. "In fact, your selflessness has nearly gotten you killed on a number of occasions. Yesterday comes to mind."
"Sara Everden lost her husband, her kids lost a father, and the worst thing is, it didn't have to happen." Mark pushed his plate away. "Why would I want to add to their pain?"
"Who says you do?" Jesse wondered what it was about a bar that made people open up to whoever was behind it. It couldn't be alcohol, because they only served beer and wine, and Mark wasn't drinking any. Maybe it had something to do with sitting alone, on a stool, because until the other day in the doctors' lounge, Mark never talked to him like this.
"Because that's what I'm bound to cause them if I go ahead and do what I can't seem to stop myself from doing," Mark said.
"Doing what?" Jesse knew the answer, but he wanted to hear Mark say it.
"I want to know why Brant killed himself and there's no reason I have to know," Mark said. "None at all."
"Why does there need to be a reason?" There was also something about a bar that made the person standing behind it wiser than he usually was, or so it seemed to Jesse at that moment.
"To justify me asking questions, poking at open wounds, prying into people's personal lives."
Jesse shrugged. "I'd like to know."
"Why Winston Brant killed himself." Jesse cleared Mark's plate and stuck it in the dish bucket. "I bet his kids would like to know, too. Even his wife."
"They might not appreciate me asking right now."
"So don't ask them," Jesse said.
"Now that you mention it, there is someone else I could talk to," Mark said. "You've become a bad influence."
"I learned from the best," Jesse said.
When Mark got home, he found Steve sitting on the living room floor, assembling a coffee table using tiny L-shaped, hexagonal Allen wrenches to drive in special screws that had matching hexagonal sockets.
The vaguely art-deco table was made of particleboard with a fake wood veneer and came in about twenty separate pieces, cut to fit with predrilled holes.
'What's the table for?" Mark asked.
"It's an invitation for a date," Steve said. "I'm sending it to Rebecca's roommate, Lissy Dearborn."
"Nowadays you have to give a woman a coffee table when you ask her for a date?"
"It's sort of an inside joke."
"I see," Mark said, though he didn't understand at all. "So are you still feeling cheated at the way the Brant case turned out?"
"I'm getting over it," Steve said, eyeing his father suspiciously. "Why?"
"Does the press know the homicide investigation is closed and that Brant's death was a suicide?"
"Not yet," Steve said. "The department won't make an official announcement until tomorrow afternoon. There's still time for you to figure out it was a murder."
"It wasn't," Mark said.
"Damn," Steve said.
"I'd still like to know why Brant killed himself," Mark said. "There's one person besides his wife who might be able to tell me."
"Grace Wozniak," Steve said. "His secretary."
"She knew him all his life," Mark said. "I'd like to ask her a few questions tomorrow morning."
"Go ahead," Steve said.
"I think it might go better with you there," Mark said.
Steve gave his father a knowing look. "To give her the impression that there's still an active police investigation and by answering your questions, she's answering mine."
"I can't be held responsible for any assumptions she might make because you happen to be standing there."
"I can," Steve said.
"Does that mean you won't come?" Mark asked.
"I wouldn't miss it."
"Why is that?"
Steve. smiled. "Because you wouldn't keep asking questions if you weren't onto something."
"I'm not onto anything," Mark said.
"You will be," Steve said.
For the first time in days, Mark didn't dream of Rebecca Jordan throwing herself out a window, but he slept fitfully that night. He couldn't find a comfortable sleeping position with his rigid left arm and managed to whack himself twice in the head with the hard cast.
He got up before Steve, picked up the morning paper, and saw that the Brant case had made the front page for a second day in a row. The scandal caused the value of Brant Publications stock to plummet. Shares that formerly traded at nearly three dollars fell to a mere fifty cents.
There was a brief mention in the article that the homicide investigation into Winston Brant's death was ongoing and that police officials remained "tight-lipped" on the details.
Steve emerged showered and shaved at seven thirty, intending to casually read the paper over a cup of coffee and a light breakfast. But he could feel Mark staring at him, radiating his eagerness to get going.
So within twenty minutes, Steve read the story on Brant, swallowed a cup of coffee, and arranged for a messenger service to pick up and deliver the coffee table to Lissy. By eight o'clock they were headed for Orange County, driving through a McDonald's on the way for McMuffins and coffee.
The rush hour traffic on the southbound 405 freeway moved at speeds barely above idle. It took them nearly two hours to make the drive south to Newport Beach. When they arrived, the Brant Publications building was ringed with television news vans. Steve's arrival in one of the LAPD's unmarked Ford Crown Victoria sedans didn't go unnoticed by the reporters, who quickly crowded his vehicle. It made Steve wonder who the department thought it was fooling by calling the cars "unmarked"; they were every bit as obvious as a black-and-white patrol unit.
Steve gave no comment to the reporters and hustled himself and his father into the building. They were met in the lobby almost immediately by Detective Abel Marsh, who emerged from a conference room packed with SEC investigators and FBI agents sifting through stacks of financial records.
"I thought this was a federal production now," Steve said to Marsh.
"It is. I've been assigned as department liaison to the federal agencies investigating Brant's books. What are you doing here?"
"Cleaning up a few details," Steve said.
"On a suicide?"
"Have you met my father?" Steve said, clumsily changing the subject. "Dad, this is Abel Marsh, the LAPD's top forensic accountant."
"Pleased to meet you." Mark offered his hand. "Dr. Mark Sloan."
Marsh gave him a firm handshake. "I count myself among your admirers, Doctor. We ought to sit down and talk shop sometime."
"Forensics," Marsh said. "You deal with the relation between medical facts and murder. I do the same thing, only with numbers. We aren't that much different, you and I."
"Except I can't balance my checkbook," Mark said.
"And I can't reattach a severed thumb, though I tried once."
"Who hasn't?" Steve said. "Anything new come up in your investigation?"
Marsh scowled and ushered them across the lobby, out of earshot of the agents in the conference room. "They're closing me out. I'm basically just fetching coffee. But I picked up some interesting chatter on the street."
"What street?" Steve asked.
"Wall Street," Marsh replied, lowering his voice. "Brant's wife is gobbling up the devalued shares of this company for pennies apiece. And she's got the leverage now to get Perrow and his gang to sell her their stake in Brant Publications for pocket change. Way things are going, what's left of this magazine will belong to the Brant family again once this is all over. Looks like there's a happy ending after all."
Steve and Mark went upstairs and found Grace Wozniak still manning her post outside Winston Brant's office, though most of the file cabinets were gone. About the only thing left standing was her stuffed dog Starchy, which she was carefully grooming with a brush. She greeted the Sloans with a pleasant smile.
"I'm surprised you're still here," Mark said. "Isn't your job done?"
"Protecting Win's interests is even more important now than ever before," she said. "And I want to be here if the investigators need any help."
"Does that include reporters from the
Los Angeles Times
?" Steve asked.
Grace chewed on her lip as she considered her response, then came to a decision, setting her dog brush aside and looking Steve directly in the eye. "If you're asking if I was their anonymous source, the answer is yes."
"Did you ever consider that telling the
all about the financial games going on here could damage our investigation?"
The color suddenly drained from Grace's face. "No, of course not. I never thought of that. I just wanted to expose what those bastards did to him, to this company."
"What was the hurry?" Steve said. "It all would have come out."
"Don't be so sure," she said. "Dean Perrow is a major fund-raiser for the mayor and Virgil Nyby has a media empire in this town. Between them, they wield enough power to make sure what they did to this magazine is buried with Win's body."
"Then why didn't you tell me or Steve about Brant's secret files to begin with?" Mark asked.
"I didn't know about them," Grace said. "When you came here, you said you'd heard from Sara that Win was planning on fighting back, that he was going to make a major announcement at the shareholders' meeting. It made me curious. What was his announcement going to be? Was that what he'd been killed for? After you left, I went into his computer and found his hidden, encrypted files. It didn't take me long to figure out his password and open up the files."
"Detective Marsh said he had to hack into them," Steve said.
"He did. I showed him the hidden files, but I didn't tell him the password. I didn't want him to know that I'd already looked at them."