Diagnosis Murder 4 - The Waking Nightmare (3 page)

BOOK: Diagnosis Murder 4 - The Waking Nightmare
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She glanced down at the hunting knife buried to the hilt in Winston Brant's chest, his parachute spread out behind him, dancing in the desert wind.

"If anybody can figure this out," Amanda said, "Mark can."






By the time Mark Sloan arrived at the scene, a large white tent had been erected over the corpse to protect it from getting ripe in the sun.

Two Range Rovers, a Lincoln Navigator, and a Jeep Cherokee with the words AIRVENTURES SKYDIVING written on the side were lined up in a neat row facing the tent a hundred yards away, like patrons at a drive-in movie angling for the best view of the screen. Several patrol cars and Steve's police-issue Crown Vic were parked at haphazard angles behind the SUVs.

Four men wearing blue Airventures jumpsuits milled around talking in hushed tones to family and friends, all under the watchful eyes of five uniformed cops sweating in the hot sun. Everyone but the cops seemed to have the same stunned expression on their faces as the employees at Funville Toys. The cops were trying hard to show no expression at all, their eyes hidden behind reflective sunglasses.

Mark drove past them, his Saab convertible bumping and lurching across the rough terrain, and continued on to the tent, where the morgue van was parked, the engine idling to keep the air conditioner running and the interior cool for passengers living and dead.

He got out of the car, nodded at the bored morgue assistants in the van, and stepped into the tent, where Steve and Amanda were waiting, holding bottles of water and standing on either side of the body. The first thing Mark noticed was the knife in the guy's chest. The second thing he noticed was the bright blue parachute, gathered up into a bundle, its lines still attached to the backpack that was strapped to the victim.

Steve was surprised by the instant relief he felt when he saw his father, despite the misery he knew would soon be coming his way from within the department. It was one thing to call his dad for help; it was another to keep the witnesses around and put up a tent to protect the body until he arrived. He could already hear the Chief yelling in his ear:
Why didn't you just put up a billboard on Sunset Boulevard announcing that the LAPD is full of morons who can't solve a murder on their own?

"Thanks for coming all the way out here, Dad," Steve said.

"How could I resist?" Mark said with a smile. "It's not often I get an invitation."

Besides, he was grateful to have something to distract him from the haunting image that kept replaying in his mind, of Rebecca Jordan calmly looking at him and hurling herself out her window.

Steve explained that the victim was Winston Brant, the forty-two-year-old publisher and editor of
Thrill Seeker
magazine, a publication that celebrated the American man's pursuit of excitement and adventure. Brant tried to personify the ideals of his magazine, like Hef did with

Brant was always making news, whether it was running in the Iditarod, swimming across the English Channel, or bungee jumping off the Eiffel Tower. Each year, he'd shame his board of directors into joining him in an "adventure weekend" before the annual shareholders' meeting. One year it was white-water rafting, another year it was rock climbing, this year it was skydiving.

Although these annual events weren't nearly as extreme as the activities Brant did on his own and wrote about in his magazine, they were often terrifying for his fellow board members, most of whom limited their thrills to playing the stock market.

That afternoon, the board of directors of Brant Publications flew out of Van Nuys Airport in a Cessna that was owned and operated by the skydiving company. The plan was they'd jump, be picked up at the drop zone by their waiting family and friends, and then meet that night for a private dinner at Spago in advance of the shareholders' meeting the next day.

Brant, his three fellow board members, and one dive instructor jumped from a Cessna at twelve thousand feet above the drop zone. Everyone landed safely except for Brant, who landed dead.

"It's not often a murder this bizarre comes along," Steve said, motioning to Brant. "I've never seen anything like it."

"If you need to know how it was done, yeah, it's baffling. But from my standpoint, it's nothing special," Amanda said. "It looks like a simple stabbing to me."

"'Simple' is not a word anybody would use to describe what happened here," Steve said.

"I see a great big knife in his heart," Amanda said. "That's about all I need to know."

Mark looked down at the dead skydiver. Brant was wearing the same jumpsuit as the skydivers outside, presumably his fellow board members. In addition to his parachute pack, Brant wore gloves, an open-faced helmet, and a pair of tinted, streamlined goggles that didn't look any different than the kind swimmers wore.

"If you don't need to know any more," Steve asked Amanda, "why are you still here?"

"I like to see Mark work," she said. "And it also happens to be my responsibility as adjunct county medical examiner to take possession of the body and transport it to the morgue for autopsy. I can't just leave it here unattended."

"And you enjoy watching me fumble around," Steve said.

Amanda shrugged.

Steve shifted his attention to his father. "So what's your take on what happened?"

"It's pretty obvious," Mark said, rising to his feet with a sigh. "He was stabbed."

Amanda looked at Steve. "Told you."

"It's a little more complicated than that," Steve told her, then turned back to Mark. "Isn't it?"

"He was stabbed in midair," Mark said. "Sometime between the moment he jumped out of the plane and the instant he hit the ground."

Saying that, the image of Rebecca Jordan, slamming into the parked car, flashed across Mark's mind again. He blinked it away and tried to concentrate on the matter at hand.

"How do you know he wasn't stabbed and then pushed out of the plane?" Amanda asked.

"I thought you knew all you need to know," Steve said to her.

"I'm naturally curious," she replied, then faced Mark. "How do you know he wasn't stabbed when he landed?"

"For one thing, this is a flat, wide-open space and the family and friends of the skydivers were waiting here," Mark said. "If Winston Brant was murdered after he hit the ground, everyone would have seen it."

"Maybe they did see it," Steve said. "Maybe they lied when they told me he was already dead when he landed."

"There must be a dozen people out there," Amanda said. "You think they were all in on it?"

"Did you ever see Murder on the Orient Express?" Steve asked.

"No," Amanda replied. "And now I never will. Thanks for ruining it for me."

"I knew whodunit in the first five minutes," Steve said.

"How?" she asked.

"Dad told me," Steve said.

"The witnesses aren't important in this case," Mark said.

"They aren't?" Steve said.

"At least not to determine when this man was killed. I'd know he was stabbed in midair even if there were no witnesses at all and he jumped in pitch darkness," Mark said. "The evidence right here in front of us says it all."

"What evidence?" Amanda asked.

Mark crouched beside the body. Steve and Amanda joined him.

"There's specks of blood on his chin, his goggles, and his helmet. There's also traces of blood on the risers, the lines, and the chutes, but there's hardly any blood pooling around the body," Mark observed. "All of which proves Brant did most of his bleeding out as he fell, the blood blown upward by the force of his descent."

"Didn't any of the other skydivers see anything?" Amanda asked Steve.

"Everybody on board the plane, including the instructors, insist there wasn't a knife in his chest when he jumped," Steve said. "And they have the video to prove it."

"A video?" Mark asked.

"Their jump was filmed by the skydiving instructor as a souvenir of their experience," Steve said. "During the minute of free fall, they all joined hands, waved at the camera, all the usual hey-look-at-me-I'm-skydiving stuff."

"And none of the hey-look-at-me-I'm-being-murdered stuff," Amanda said.

"You never know. Where there's video, there's hope," Mark said, remembering a murder investigation of his own not so long ago where the crucial clue was hidden in the video. "I'd like to see that tape."

"I'm having copies made," Steve said, then gestured to the body. "So, how do you think he was murdered in midair?"

"I have no idea," Mark said. "I suppose I'll have to find out more about skydiving."

"The crime scene mice are scurrying over every inch of the plane," Steve said, referring to the techs from the LAPD's Scientific Investigation Division. "When they're done with that, I'm going to bring in an FAA-certified rigger to help them go over Brant's equipment. In the mean time, I'm getting a bunch of uniforms and some cadets from the police academy bussed out here to walk the drop zone, looking for any evidence that might have fallen from the sky with the corpse."

"That's going to make you real popular with the rank and file," Amanda said. "What are you hoping to find?"

"I'm thinking maybe the knife was in Brant's parachute pack," Steve said. "Maybe it was rigged to spring out somehow when he pulled the rip cord or when his automatic activation device released the chute."

"Then it seems to me he'd be stabbed in the back, where the pack is, and not the chest," Mark said. "Don't you think?"

"I think maybe it was a very clever device and the cadets will find pieces of it scattered over the drop zone," Steve said. "And then we'll know how it could have been designed to stab him in the chest."

"Uh-huh," Amanda said.

Steve glared at her. "I have to explore every avenue of investigation. That's my job."

"I didn't say anything," Amanda said.

"You said 'uh-huh'," Steve said. "It was a very critical 'uh-huh'."

"It was a nonjudgmental, I'm-paying-attention 'uh huh'," she said.

"I don't think you'll find anything unusual about the parachute rigging," Mark said. "Someone on that plane knows how this man was killed."

"You mean one of the skydivers did it," Steve said.

"Maybe all four of them did it," Amanda said, earning another glare from Steve. "And the instructor was in on it, too."

"If we can find out
," Mark said, "we'll figure out

"Uh-huh," Amanda said.

"That was definitely not the same 'uh-huh' you gave me," Steve said. "That was a very supportive, I-agree-with-you 'uh-huh'."

"Uh-huh," she said again.

"That's exactly what I mean," Steve said, pointing as if the words were written in the air and still floating between them. "That was a patronizing, you're-crazy 'uh-huh'."

"Can I remove the body now?" she said. "We're going to hit rush hour getting back to Community General as it is."

Steve glanced at his dad. "You need to see any more?"

"Just the autopsy report," Mark said.

"Should be ready first thing in the morning," Amanda said. "I'm not expecting any surprises. From my standpoint, this is an easy one."

"Stop rubbing it in," Steve said.

Amanda hid her smile as she walked out. Teasing Steve was almost as much fun and almost as easy as provoking Jesse. She figured Mark must enjoy it, too, because he never acknowledged what she was doing or leapt to their defense.

While she and her morgue assistants put the corpse in a body bag and carried it out to the van, Steve and Mark ambled outside, walking a little way out into the desert for some privacy.

"There are a lot of easier ways to kill a guy," Steve said. "I don't understand why the murderer went to so much trouble."

"Whoever did this was showing off. The whole point was to attract attention. He wants us to know how intelligent he is," Mark said. "And how dangerous."





"Everybody is still here except for Brant's wife and two kids," Steve said as he and his father approached the onlookers, among them the three skydivers and one instructor who were on the plane with Brant. "I sent them home. They were devastated. I figured we could ask them questions later. Besides, I think she'll be more at ease with you around."

"Because of my wonderful bedside manner?'

"Because you might know her," Steve said. "Dr. Sara Everden."

Mark looked surprised. "I had no idea Sara was married to Winston Brant."

"Then I guess you didn't know her very well," Steve said.

"She's a general practitioner with a modest practice down in Newport Beach," Mark said. "I've only met her on a few occasions when she's had patients at Community General or when we've bumped into each other at medical conferences."

"I wonder why she didn't tell you about her husband," Steve said.

"Possibly for the same reason she kept her maiden name. My guess is that she wanted to maintain her own professional identity and not have it completely overwhelmed by her husband's," Mark said. "Winston Brant was larger-than-life."

"He isn't larger-than-dead."

"We'll see," Mark said.

Steve motioned to the four skydivers in their matching suits. "The kid with the ponytail and the sunburned nose is Justin Darbo, the skydiving instructor. The other three are the Brant Publications board of directors, Dean Perrow, Clifton Hemphill, and Virgil Nyby."

He was about to tell Mark more about them, when the chubbiest of the four skydivers marched up angrily to meet them. He had a puffy, pockmarked face and a deep, even tan that looked applied rather than sun-baked.

"That's Hemphill huffing towards us," Steve whispered.

Although Clifton Hemphill was in his early fifties, what struck Mark was how clearly he could see the petulant child this man once was underneath the jowls, the creases, and the tan-in-a-can.

"We've been stuck out here for hours," Hemphill said, directing his anger at Steve and ignoring Mark. "What the hell is going on?"

"A murder, Mr. Hemphill," Steve said.

BOOK: Diagnosis Murder 4 - The Waking Nightmare
3.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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