Authors: Lee Goldberg
"SID says there's nothing hinky with Brant's pack," Steve said.
Steve shrugged. "I watched a lot of seventies cop shows."
"It explains your hair," Mark said.
"I see you've learned a few things from Amanda, too," Steve said.
"Amanda couldn't be here tonight," Mark said. "She's stuck doing the Brant autopsy, so she asked me to pinch-hit for her."
"You can tell her my hair looks great. Retro is in," Steve said. "The way things are going, pretty soon it will be cool again to have your shirt unbuttoned to show off all your chest hair."
"You don't have any chest hair."
"Neither do you," Steve said.
"I'm not the one wondering when it'll be stylish to walk around with his shirt open to his navel," Mark said.
"I didn't say I wanted to do that," Steve said. "You want to know about the chute or make fun of my hair?"
"Can't I do both?"
"The chute and all the other equipment appear to be in perfect shape, nothing out of the ordinary. Except for Winston Brant getting stabbed to death ten thousand feet in the air." Steve shook his head and frowned. "How the hell did the killer pull that off?"
They sat in silence for a few minutes, thinking about the case, sipping their coffees, and enjoying their pie. Mark mentally reexamined Brant's corpse and went over every detail Steve told him. He visualized the entire jump in his mind and tried to see who had the best opportunity to stab Winston Brant in the chest.
"I think they all did it," Mark said.
"Really?" Steve asked.
"Nope," Mark sighed. "I'm desperate."
"Like father, like son," Steve said.
When they got back to the beach house, Mark and Steve watched the video that the skydiving instructor shot of the jump. The camera work was shaky, but that was to be expected when the photographer is falling at 125 miles per hour and the camera is mounted in his helmet.
Events played out exactly as Hemphill, Perrow, Nyby, and Justin Darbo said they did. The five men jumped out of the plane, joined hands to form a rough, free-falling circle, and then let go, flying out of frame.
Justin Darbo tracked a few of them with his camera, but since they were all wearing identical helmets, goggles, and jumpsuits, it was virtually impossible to tell who was who. Perhaps, Mark thought, that was significant. Whether the confusion was intentional or not, it could be the first clue towards unraveling the mystery. Or it could mean nothing at all.
None of the four men were caught on camera when they pulled their rip cords, and when Justin pulled his, the camera jerked wildly. The camera tilted up as Justin examined his own chute and rigging before he bothered looking around again to find the other skydivers. What the camera captured was four colorful parachutes and not much, if anything, of the skydivers suspended beneath the canopies. Two of the parachutes seemed to drift close together, but Mark couldn't be certain if they actually were near one another. He knew the camera's perspective could be playing tricks on the eye, making the genuine distance of objects relative to one another hard to gauge. Considering the camera, and the skydivers it was filming, were all in motion, it was hard for him to judge the speed, distance, or the true size of anything they saw.
The rest of the footage wasn't much more helpful and probably would have been edited out before the video was given as a souvenir to the skydivers. There was a fascinating shot of Darbo's shoes, a couple of riveting close-ups of Justin Darbo's altimeter, and a few quick views of the drop zone below, desolate except for the row of neatly parked SUVs.
Steve clicked off the TV and tossed the remote onto the coffee table. The screen was empty, but Mark could still see a picture. Rebecca Jordan sitting on her window ledge, staring at him.
"Our last case had much more interesting video," Steve said, referring to the infamous Lacey McClure sex tapes. "There ought to be a rule. If there's going to be video involved in a homicide investigation, there should at least be some sex, explosions, or martial arts to watch."
Mark groaned and rose from his recliner, not an easy task considering how plush and soft the cushions were. It was about eleven thirty, but felt much later. He was exhausted, his eyes stinging.
"I'm going to bed," Mark said, trudging towards his bed room. "Wake me when the case is solved."
The case wasn't solved, but Mark was awake nonetheless. He lay in bed, unable to sleep. As soon as he closed his eyes, he'd see Rebecca Jordan in her window, staring across the street at him for what seemed like hours.
And then she'd jump—only in his mind, she managed to hold her stare with him as she fell. The instant she hit the tree branch, Mark's eyes would flash open and he'd find himself looking at the electric clock on his nightstand.
The fourth time it happened, around three a.m., Mark gave up. Despite his exhaustion, he got out of bed, put on his clothes, and went to his car.
Mark drove along the dark, deserted streets to the nearly empty parking structure at Community General. He took the pedestrian bridge from the parking structure to the hospital, pausing midway to look across the street at Rebecca's building. It was a dark night, and the building was lit only by the glow of some streetlamps, but it looked to him like her window was still open. And for a moment, he could almost see her sitting on the windowsill.
He blinked away the image and continued quickly on his way to the hospital, taking the elevator to the intensive care unit.
The first thing he noticed as he stepped out of the elevator was that the Marlboro Man was still there, reading
Highlights for Children
. Mark wondered if the cowboy was looking for the hidden objects in the illustrations. As far as Mark knew that's all anybody who opened the magazine ever did. He also wondered what the big man was still doing there.
Mark went directly to Rebecca's bed and checked her chart. Nothing had changed, not that he was expecting anything. He wasn't quite sure why he was there, except that he couldn't sleep, that he couldn't close his eyes without seeing her looking back at him.
She wasn't looking at him now.
He took a seat beside her bed, glanced at the monitors, then studied her face.
She seemed at peace. Tranquil. Of course, she also looked that way when she jumped.
It occurred to Mark that he'd encountered two jumpers yesterday. One who wasn't wearing a parachute and one who was. One who wanted to die and one who didn't.
The irony might have amused Mark if it wasn't so tragic and if, in some way, he didn't feel responsible for making sense out of what happened to them both.
Usually when he embarked on an investigation, there was at least something that didn't fit, some inconsistency or incongruity he could focus on, a clue trail to get him started.
Not this time. Not with either situation.
For one thing, Rebecca Jordan's case wasn't a murder. It was an attempted suicide. He'd never investigated anything like that before, which forced Mark to ask himself some basic questions.
If he started looking into her life, what mystery did he hope to solve?
Why did she want to die?
If that was truly his motivation, was the answer to that question any of his business?
That never stopped me before.
But in all those cases, there had always been a higher purpose besides indulging his curiosity. He was seeking justice for the dead.
What higher purpose was there than saving a human life?
It was a nice, and sanctimonious, rationalization but he wasn't sure he bought it. Even if he wanted to help Rebecca, he had to face some facts. Her problems were probably emotional. He was a doctor and a police consultant, but he wasn't a psychologist. And even if he was, he couldn't do anything for her unless she opened up to him about her troubles. She was in no condition to do that now, and even if she was, he wasn't sure that she would. A woman willing to talk about her problems doesn't hurl herself out a window.
So where would he start? What was he looking for?
Those questions were easier to answer in the Winston Brant case. Of course, Mark had much more experience dealing with murders, even ones as perplexing as Brant's.
Killing a man in midair was quite a magic trick. Although Mark was an amateur magician himself, he didn't have the slightest idea how the killer pulled it off.
So rather than trying to figure it out, Mark decided to follow the advice he gave Steve. He'd learn as much as he could about Brant and his three fellow board members:
Clifton Hemphill, Dean Perrow, and Virgil Nyby. He'd also need to know more about Justin Darbo, the skydiving instructor.
The easiest place to start was with Brant's wile, Dr. Sara Everden. She knew all the people in the plane that day, which meant she already knew who her husband's killer was; she just didn't realize it yet. It was up to Mark to figure that out for her.
A shrill alarm from one of the monitors intruded on his thoughts. It was the 02 monitor. Rebecca's oxygen saturation had dropped below 92 percent, triggering the alarm.
Mark didn't have his stethoscope, so he pressed his ear to her chest. There were good breath sounds on the right, none on the left. Her left lung had collapsed. He glanced again at her monitor. Her oxygen level had dropped to 88 percent.
Dr. Jesse Travis rushed in, trailed by two nurses. He was stunned to see Mark standing there. But before Jesse could say anything, Mark spoke.
"She's got a pneumothorax," he said. "I need to do a chest thoracotomy."
"I'll do it," Jesse said. "She's my patient and I'm the doctor on call."
There was no argument there. Mark stepped aside and let Jesse go to work re-expanding her collapsed lung. Both doctors slipped on rubber gloves. The nurses quickly brought in a surgical tray, from which Jesse selected a scalpel, which he used to make an incision in the space between two ribs on her left side.
Mark handed him a pair of scissors, which Jesse slid into the incision until he felt them pierce the pleura, the lining of the chest cavity.
"I'm in," Jesse said, carefully spreading open the scissors and pulling them back, giving himself a wide opening into the chest cavity. He eased a finger inside, feeling around to see if the collapsed lung was stuck to the pleura.
"Is there any lung adhesion?" Mark asked.
"No," Jesse said, removing his finger.
Mark handed him a chest tube, which Jesse slid into the opening, snaking it up to the top of her chest. The other end of the tube was attached to a suction bottle. The procedure would allow the air trapped in her chest cavity to escape, relieving the pressure on the lung that had caused it to collapse.
Jesse taped the tube in place and glanced at the oxygen monitor. Mark was already watching it and seeing immediate improvement. Her oxygen saturation levels were increasing.
"Get me a chest x-ray and update me on her 02 until it gets to 95 percent," Jesse said to one of the nurses; then he turned to Mark. "You're going to tell me what you're doing
"I am?" Mark asked.
"Right after you buy me a cup of coffee," Jesse said.
Mark and Jesse sat at a table in the center of the empty cafeteria. Jesse was on his fourth cup of coffee, listening as Mark finished telling him what little he'd learned about Rebecca Jordan and what little he knew about Winston Brant's murder. As little as all that was, it still took Mark an hour to tell it. Mark didn't bother telling Jesse about his problems sleeping or the disturbing dreams that kept waking him up.
During that hour, Jesse left briefly to examine Rebecca's chest x-ray and her 02 levels and reported back to Mark that her chest tube was in proper position and her lung was re-inflated.
When Mark finished his story, they sat quietly for a moment; then Jesse nodded.
"I think I've got it," Jesse said.
"Got what?" Mark asked.
"I know how Winston Brant was murdered."
Mark leaned forward. "So tell me."
"You know those things that hunters use to shoot arrows?"
"No, the cool thing that assassins use," Jesse said. "What do you call 'em? There was a girl holding one in a James Bond poster. You see her standing from behind and James Bond creeping by between her legs."
"You know the poster?"
"I know the weapon," Mark said.
"What if somebody modified a crossbow to shoot a knife?" Jesse mimed holding a crossbow and aiming it up at a target. "Somebody hiding at the drop zone could have shot Winston Brant right out of the sky."
"You're saying the killer was one of the people on the ground waiting for the skydivers."
"Using a crossbow that shoots knives," Jesse said. "It's the only explanation."
"It's one possible explanation," Mark said. "But to be honest, it seems a little far-fetched."
"What could be more far-fetched than a skydiver getting stabbed in midair?"
"I can't argue with that," Mark said. "But even if we accept for the moment the possibility that someone could modify a crossbow to shoot a knife, and that he could fire it unseen by the others on the ground, there are still some major flaws in your theory."
"Like what?" Jesse asked.
"The killer would be shooting from a great distance at a moving target hundreds of feet up in the air. It's an impossible shot, unless the knife is propelled by some kind of explosive force, the way bullets and missiles are," Mark said. "Even if no one saw it, they would have heard it."
"That's why I called it a modified crossbow," Jesse said. "Coming up with a way to shoot a knife with enough velocity and keep it quiet would have been part of the modifications."
"It seems like an awful lot of effort to kill just one man."
"That's true no matter how the killer did it," Jesse said.