Authors: Lee Goldberg
"You've already questioned all of us," Hemphill said. "So what are we waiting around here for?"
"Him," Steve said, cocking his head towards his father.
Mark smiled amiably at Hemphill.
"We already told you everything we know, which is squat," Hemphill said. "Why do we need to say it all over again to another cop?"
"I'm not a police officer, Mr. Hemphill," Mark said. "I'm Chief of Internal Medicine at Community General Hospital."
"You're a little late, Doc, the patient has been dead for
hours," Hemphill said, turning to confront Steve again. "What kind of investigation are you running?"
Steve expected to hear that question a lot over the next few days.
"Dr. Sloan is being disingenuous, Clifton." Dean Perrow stepped forward, a broad smile on his face, greeting Mark as if they were bumping into each other at a garden party in stead of a crime scene. He had the body language of a salesman, the well-defined features of a male model and, Mark thought, the practiced sincerity of a television evangelist.
"You know this guy?" Hemphill asked.
"Of course I do. This is Dr. Mark Sloan," Perrow said, his skydiving goggles dangling around his neck more for style than for the convenience "He's a self-taught master of criminology, a legend in law enforcement circles."
Perrow shook Mark's hand with a firm grip and introduced himself, saying his name as if it should mean some thing to Mark, too. It didn't.
"I'm a fool for not making the connection the moment Lieutenant Sloan identified himself," Perrow said. "Every body knows Mark Sloan's son is an LAPD homicide detective."
"You're like Buffy," said Justin Darbo, the skydiving instructor, with the drowsy vocal inflections of a pothead, which, Mark thought, should have made anybody think twice about jumping out of an airplane with him.
"Buffy?" Mark asked.
"The Vampire Slayer," Justin said, absently picking at the thy skin on the bridge of his peeling nose. "You've got your own mythology. I bet your car is part of it, too."
Mark glanced at his Saab convertible. It didn't look very mythic to him.
"Glad to have you on board, Dr. Sloan," intoned Virgil Nyby with the authority of a man who should be in judges' robes instead of a skydiver's jumpsuit. He was barrel-chested, with broad shoulders and arms the width of tree trunks. "It means we'll get to the bottom of this horrific tragedy that much faster."
"That's certainly my intent," Mark said. "Though you are under no obligation to talk to me."
"You can talk to my dad, or you can talk to me in a tiny little interrogation room downtown," Steve said. "Your choice."
"We aren't a bunch of street thugs, so you can save the tough guy routine," Hemphill said. "There isn't a man standing here who isn't worth millions."
Justin raised his hand. "I'm carrying three thousand dollars in debt on my Visa card."
"I think I speak for all of us," Virgil Nyby said, like someone accustomed to speaking for everybody, "when I say we'll cooperate in any way we can. Winston was the heart and soul of this company and, more importantly, a dear friend. We want his killer brought swiftly to justice."
Mark couldn't think of anything to ask that Steve wouldn't have asked already. Besides, he'd rather hear what Steve found out, go over the autopsy report, and perhaps do a little research on skydiving before facing these men again.
"You've had a long, traumatic day, so I won't keep you any longer," Mark said. "We can talk another time."
He had started back towards his car, Steve at his side, when Dean Perrow called out to him. "Surely you must have some idea what happened, Dr. Sloan."
Mark stopped and turned to look at Perrow, who was standing with his arms open wide, hands up, palms towards him, as if to say go ahead, take your best shot.
"You are a genius at this sort of thing," Perrow said. "Aren't you?"
"Actually, Mr. Perrow, there is one thing I'm certain of already," Mark said, letting his gaze pass over each of the four men. "The murderer is right here."
As if on cue, the medical examiner's van passed behind them, carrying the corpse of Winston Brant to the morgue, kicking up a thick plume of dust in its wake. All four of the skydivers turned to watch in grave silence as the van drove away, as if it was the hearse in a funeral procession.
When the dust settled, they turned around and were surprised to see that Dr. Mark Sloan was gone.
Rebecca Jordan lay comatose in the Community General intensive care unit, her right arm and leg splinted, elevated, and immobilized. She was surrounded by complex machines that monitored all the activity in her body. The machines were supposed to provide Mark Sloan with essential information that would help him restore her to perfect health. But none of those machines could tell him what he really needed to know—none of them could track the fear, chart the sadness, or measure the desperation that drove Rebecca Jordan to hurl herself out a window.
Mark didn't need to see a readout to know those demons were still there, waiting to torment her again when she awoke from her coma. Examining her chart, he didn't see any obvious physical indications that she'd been suicidal before. There were no scars on her wrists nor old needle marks elsewhere on her body. There were no drugs in her system nor any signs in the x-rays of serious injuries in the past.
It was pointless, of course, to try and make any assumptions about her mental state from what he could see in an x-ray or determine from a tox screen. What afflicted Rebecca Jordan wouldn't show up in any medical chart.
There was nothing more he could do to help her now. There might not be anything he could do to help her at all.
Mark suddenly realized how tired and hungry he was. It was after eight p.m. He left the ICU and went to the elevator, pushed the DOWN button, and idly glanced around.
There was only one person sitting in the waiting area. The man occupied one chair, his Stetson occupied another. He wore a corduroy jacket, crisp white shirt, faded jeans, and sharp-toed leather boots. The man seemed engrossed in the
Ladies' Home Journal
he was reading. The headline on the cover read: TEN BEAUTY SECRETS EVERY WOMAN SHOULD KNOW.
It struck Mark as a great photograph. The Marlboro Man catching up on beauty and skin care tips.
The Marlboro Man
An old, outdated advertising icon. What made him think of
Clearly, it was the guy in the chair, who was just a man with a weather-beaten face wearing a cowboy hat. There were a thousand other cowboy images that could have come to mind.
Why the Marlboro Man?
And then it hit Mark. It was so obvious.
His visit to see Rebecca Jordan had reminded him of Lenore Barber, the other suicidal woman he'd encountered today. His subconscious was graciously reminding him that he hadn't been able to save either one of them.
Hurrah for Mark Sloan.
The elevator arrived and Mark stepped inside, irritable now as well as tired and hungry. What a lousy day. As the doors closed, he glanced again at the cowboy, who was setting aside the
Ladies' Home Journal
for the latest issue of
Mark met Steve for dinner at BBQ Bob's, the restaurant his son and Dr. Jesse Travis bought a few years ago when the original owner retired. Steve and Jesse arranged their lives so that most of the time one of them was there to run the place while the other pursued his day job.
It was a charming dive with loyal customers who didn't mind wearing bibs when they ate. For years, most of the customers looked like long-haul truckers, construction workers, and professional wrestlers. While business wasn't bad, customers could always count on finding plenty of open tables and empty stools at the counter.
But lately, at lunch and dinner, the tables filled up fast and often there was a line out the door, thanks to Jesse's shrewd reworking of the menu to capitalize on the low-carb craze. In addition to the usual fare, slathered in barbeque sauce, Jesse introduced a menu of smoked-only meats and carb-conscious side dishes.
Now the place was filled with fresh-faced, carb-counting carnivores ready to feast on the wide selection of meat and a leaf or two of lettuce.
Mark almost felt guilty occupying a booth, taking it away from a paying customer. As the principal investor in BBQ Bob's, he enjoyed the privilege of never paying for a meal. But he was costing them double if, by taking the only available seat, he was simultaneously denying them the opportunity to serve someone else.
If Steve resented Mark taking a booth, he didn't say any thing about it; he was too busy thinking about "The Case of the Dropped Dead Skydiver," which was what one local TV station was already calling the homicide on their early evening newscast.
"When they put it like that, it sounds like Encyclopedia Brown should be investigating the murder," Steve said, wiping some barbeque sauce from his chin. "He'd probably have a lot better luck."
"Give yourself a break, Steve," Mark said, washing down his last bite of brisket with some draft root beer. "You've only been on the case for a few hours."
"Usually I've at least got something to go on," Steve said. "Or you do." He looked hopefully at his dad.
"Sorry, Steve," Mark said. "But nothing jumps out at me yet, no pun intended."
"Uh-huh," Steve said.
"I see you've learned a few things from Amanda," Mark said.
"It was a nonjudgmental 'uh-huh'," Steve said.
"Uh-huh." He waved over a waitress and asked for a thick slice of apple pie and a cup of coffee. Steve asked for the same and Mark thought about Rebecca Jordan, lying in the ICU, being fed her dinner through an IV.
"It might help if I knew more about the suspects," Mark said, forcing the image out of his head.
"As you can tell from the short time you spent with the board of directors of Brant Publications, they are a swell bunch of guys," Steve said. "Each one of them is a multi-millionaire, as Clifton Hemphill was so quick to point out— once to you and twice to me before you got there."
"Clearly Mr. Hemphill derives his identity from his money," Mark said. "It's like you saying you're a cop or me introducing myself as a doctor."
"But neither one of us whips out our bank statement when we do it," Steve said. "He could've said he's in the construction business and that he bought a big chunk of Brant Publications when Winston took the company public."
"When did Brant do that?" Mark asked.
"About five years ago," Steve said. "The magazine industry was in a slump and he'd expanded too fast, putting out other magazines that strayed too far from the corporate identity established by
. He had to go public to generate the capital to keep his company afloat."
"Who told you all that?"
"Dean Perrow," Steve said. "A professional investor, likes to swoop in and gobble up companies when they're the most vulnerable. He's got his hand in all kinds of enterprises."
"Where do his millions come from?" Mark asked.
"Other people's millions," Steve said. "He used to be an investment banker, specializing in hostile takeovers, before he decided to go solo."
"And what's Virgil Nyby's story?" Mark asked.
"You mean besides bringing down the Ten Commandments and parting the Red Sea?"
"He does project a tremendous amount of authority," Mark agreed.
"He has the voice, which makes sense, since he owns a bunch of radio stations," Steve said. "Mostly talk-radio and all-news in the major markets, and country-western stations in the smaller ones. His father was a radio preacher and built his station group to spread the gospel."
"I bet you won't hear Winston Brant's murder referred to as 'The Case of the Dropped Dead Skydiver' on any of the newscasts on Nyby's stations."
"Don't be so sure," Steve said. "Despite his Charlton Heston voice and commanding demeanor, his broadcast philosophy has changed quite a bit since his father's day. His stations have been slapped by the FCC with some of the largest indecency fines on record. His LA and Chicago stations run Mike and Ken."
"The guys who once broadcast naked from a vat of pig excrement?"
"It beats listening to Dr. Laura," Steve said. "Though I think she gets her advice from the same vat."
"You listen to Dr. Laura?"
"You've got to do something on an eight-hour stakeout to relieve the boredom," Steve said. "And distract you from your bladder."
"Good to know," Mark said. "What did the skydivers tell you about what happened today?"
"Besides how rich they are and how much they wanted to go home? Basically they told me what you already know," Steve said, pausing while the waitress set down their pies and coffee. "They met at the Airventures hangar at the Van Nuys Airport. Nothing unusual happened during the ten-minute flight to the drop zone. They engaged in some small talk that no one remembers, then jumped out of the plane."
What was important to Mark now was the chronology and choreography. He needed to know who did what, when, and where, before he could even begin to figure out who killed Brant and how they managed to do it.
"Who jumped first?" Mark asked.
"Brant, of course, followed by the dive instructor, Justin Darbo, and then the three others," Steve said. "They met in midair during their free fall, joined hands to form a circle for forty-five seconds, then let go. A few seconds later, they pulled their rip cords."
"Did anyone see a skydiver close enough to Brant to stab him before he opened his chute?"
"If they did, no one is admitting it," Steve said.
"Leading to your theory that they all did it," Mark said.
"No," Steve said. "It's desperation that led to that theory."
So far, chronology and choreography weren't helping Mark much. Perhaps it was time to consider what happened before they even got on the plane.
"Who packed Brant's chute?" he asked.
"There's a guy at Airventures who does nothing but that," Steve said. "He didn't keep the packs under constant super vision. It's possible that someone could have gone in and sabotaged Brant's pack. There's just one problem."