Authors: Lee Goldberg
"Thanks," Steve said, picking up another bear claw. "This is my third one. I can't keep my hands off them."
"I noticed," Mellish said.
"You only sell these out of your bakery?"
"Yeah," Mellish said.
"I think they'd make a great breakfast item on a restaurant menu," Steve said. "And I know just the place."
After making a deal with Tucker Mellish to provide breakfast pastries to BBQ Bob's, Steve drove out to Rebecca Jordan's apartment in Culver City. He figured if her roommate Lissy worked the graveyard shift, she was likely to just be getting home and they could have a quick chat. Steve brought a few of Mellish's pastries for her, to get things off to a friendly start, but ended up eating them all on his way.
By the time he arrived outside the one-story courtyard apartment building, he had the mother of all sugar headaches. The first question he was going to ask Lissy was if she had some Advil.
Steve parked, got out, and walked across the dry crabgrass lawn and into the building's courtyard, a brick-ribboned cement patio cluttered with rusted garden furniture and sickly potted plants. He had an immediate sense of déjà vu, but he didn't give the feeling much credence. Los Angeles was paved with thousands of charmless apartment blocks just like this one and his work took him to two or three of them a day. They became a blur, though today he wasn't sure if it was from weary familiarity or his sugar hangover.
He was nearly at Rebecca's apartment door when he heard a woman's unmistakable cry of pain from inside and the sounds of a major scuffle. Glass breaking, furniture sliding, fists against flesh.
Steve tried the knob and shoved his shoulder against the door. It was locked. The sounds of a struggle intensified from inside, a man's growls intermingled with a woman's furious shrieks. He supposed it could be lovemaking that he was hearing, but he instinctively knew it wasn't. He could almost feel the violence.
"Open up," Steve said, drawing his gun. "This is the police."
There was a huge crash, the sound of something heavy falling, followed by the woman's yelp of pain and surprise.
He stepped back and kicked open the door, the thin wood splintering at the doorjamb. He sprang low into the apartment in a firing stance and, in a split second, took in the scene. It looked like the aftermath of an earthquake. The apartment was trashed. A woman was sprawled on the floor. A man was racing out the back door.
Steve went to the woman first, who was already struggling to her feet. "Are you okay?"
She nodded, so Steve charged through the small apartment, jumping over all the upended furniture and broken glass, and out the back door. He burst out into the alley, but there was no sign of the attacker anywhere.
Steve holstered his gun and trudged back into the apartment. His head was splitting with pain. He told himself this was the last time he'd eat half a dozen pastries before chasing an assailant.
Lissy was already on her feet, wiping off the blood from her forehead with the back of her wrist. He got a good look at her now. She was a stocky, strong-boned woman in jeans and an oversized sweatshirt. Strong and tough but still very feminine, the way he imagined frontier women must have been like in the Old West. If she was afraid, she didn't show it. All Steve saw was anger.
"You get the bastard?" she asked.
"He got away," Steve said. "What happened here?"
"I work nights," she said. "I walked in and saw some guy trashing the place. So I hit him with a chair and we danced."
"You're lucky he didn't kill you," Steve said.
"He's lucky I buy cheap furniture."
Steve liked her already. She went to the kitchen sink, wet a rag under the faucet, and dabbed the cut on her forehead.
"You're pretty tough," he said.
"I had five older brothers," she said. "I can handle myself. It's your fault he got away."
"I got distracted when you yelled. He caught me off balance and smacked me headfirst into the coffee table." She gave him a smile. "You owe me a new coffee table."
"Then I'm lucky you buy cheap furniture, too," he said. "Usually people who are being attacked are glad when the cops show up."
"It's that guy who should be glad, because he was two seconds away from losing his ability to procreate."
"No wonder he was running so fast," Steve said. "Any idea who he was or what he wanted?"
She shook her head. "Probably the same guy who tried breaking in a couple days ago while I was sleeping. I scared him off."
"How did you do that?"
"I threw a meat cleaver at him." She pointed to the back door. There was a meat cleaver stuck into the wall beside the door frame.
Steve hadn't noticed it before. He wondered how he missed it and decided he was distracted by the meat cleaver in his skull.
"You got any aspirin?" he asked.
"I really don't need it," she said.
She gave him a look. "Hurt yourself breaking down my door?"
"I had six bear claws on the way over," he said.
Lissy opened a cabinet near the sink, found a bottle of Bayer, and tossed Steve the bottle. He shook out two pills and dry-swallowed them.
"Who called the cops?" she asked.
"No one," Steve said.
"You were just strolling by eating bear claws?"
"I came to ask you about Rebecca."
"Why?" she asked. "Is something wrong?"
He would have slapped himself on the forehead if his head wasn't already hurting. Of course, Lissy didn't know about what happened. She'd been working all night. Besides, who would have called to tell her?
"Your roommate tried to commit suicide yesterday," Steve said. "She jumped out of a window at work."
Lissy caught her breath. "Oh, hell."
Steve gave her a moment to absorb the news and for him to absorb the aspirin.
She leaned against the counter, her shoulders sagging with fatigue. "How is she?"
"Lucky," Steve said. "She's in the ICU with a concussion and some broken bones, but she's going to make it. Any idea what might have been bothering her?"
"We rarely saw one another, she'd be coming in as I was leaving," Lissy said. "But the attempted break-in the other day really spooked her. Rebecca said something about being afraid her past was going to walk through the door someday real soon."
"Was she running from something?"
Lissy shrugged. "She moved in a year ago. She pays her rent on time. Does her dishes. Keeps her stuff in her room. That's about all I can tell you."
"Mind if I look at her stuff?"
"Go ahead," Lissy said. "Second room on the left."
Steve carefully negotiated a path through the trashed apartment to the hallway, then opened the door to Rebecca's room. It was as clean and orderly as a motel room and about as personal. He couldn't tell anything about her from what he found. Some inexpensive jewelry, off-the-rack clothes, a bathroom full of the expected personal hygiene products. There were a couple of paperback romances on the night stand and the most recent issue of
magazine. The only thing that struck him as unusual was the enormous teddy bear on the bed.
That's when he heard a shriek from the living room. He ran out to find Lissy holding up one end of a fallen bookcase and staring in horror at something on the floor.
"I think I found what she was running from," Lissy said. "I'm thinking of running myself."
He stepped up beside her and followed her gaze.
There was a dead man on the floor, his head caved in, his lifeless eyes staring up at them. The man wore soiled clothes and had a sick, pasty look that had more to do with his previous lifestyle than his current circumstances as a corpse. On his left hand, two fingers were taped together and braced with Popsicle sticks.
Steve glanced at Lissy. "Recognize him?"
She nodded. "He's a homeless guy. I've seen him around the neighborhood the last few days."
Steve tipped the bookcase aside, crouched over the body, and checked the man's pockets for ID. He found a thin wallet and opened it up. There was no driver's license or credit cards, just six dollars, a hotel room key for room 17 at the Paradise Hotel, and a newspaper clipping folded into a tight square.
He unfolded the clipping. It was a picture of Rebecca Jordan and the huge stuffed bear.
"I've been home ten minutes and already I've fought off a burglar, I've learned my roommate tried to kill herself, and I've found a corpse in my living room." Lissy sat down on the couch and sighed. "I've had better mornings."
The living room of Winston Brant's Spanish-Mediterranean mansion in Newport Beach was two stories tall. The walls were adorned with several large paintings, smatterings of vivid color reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. Perhaps they were Pollocks, for all Mark knew. Marble sculptures filled individually lighted niches near the ceiling. One of the sculptures was of a jaguar, poised to spring on its prey below which, in this case, was Brant's widow, Dr. Sara Everden, and her guest, Dr. Mark Sloan.
Sara sat very straight on the edge of a white couch covered with little pillows of various colors and fabrics. She was tall, blond-haired, with the gently muscled physique of a casual athlete, the kind who kept in shape with occasional visits to the tennis court or golf course. She deftly balanced elegance and relaxed charm. Her white silk blouse hung loosely on her fine-boned shoulders, a strand of pearls around her long, slender neck, a stark contrast to the faded jeans and Reeboks she was also wearing.
Mark sat across from her in an extremely uncomfortable antique French chair and tried not to squirm too much while they spoke, their voices echoing off the high, steepled ceiling. He wondered what kind of home Rebecca Jordan came from, what kind of art was on the walls, and if the chairs were cushy and comfortable.
"I'm glad you're here, Mark, If your son hadn't asked you to look into my husband's murder, I would have," Sara said. "What happened to him was an abomination."
"Murder always is," Mark said.
"This was worse," she said. "Whoever did it not only killed Win, but cruelly mocked everything he lived for."
"That's what my husband liked to be called," Sara said. "He thought 'Winston' sounded prissy and aristocratic. He felt that 'Win' embodied his approach to everything."
"He was competitive?"
"It wasn't about beating somebody else but succeeding against adversity, overcoming an obstacle on his own terms. Win never felt more alive than when he was tackling a physical challenge, particularly if it was dangerous. That's where the thrill came in. To him, feeling that exhilaration was life itself."
"And he only felt that alive when he was cheating death?"
"He found exhilaration in other things," she said, a sad look passing over her face. "In his family, of course. Watching his children grow up. But it wasn't the same kind of thrill. It wasn't enough."
"That didn't bother you?"
"I knew what kind of man he was when I married him," she said, her eyes becoming moist. "It was part of the attraction. I've always been so practical, so 'down-to-earth'."
"You aren't a thrill seeker, too?"
Sara shook her head. "I'm a doctor. I can't take those kinds of physical risks. I know all too well what happens when you lose. It's not worth it to me. I can't even get on a rollercoaster."
Mark knew how she felt. He was the same way and couldn't understand how Steve could enjoy surfing and dirt biking and any other sport that could leave him paralyzed for life. His son was probably the target audience for Brant's magazine.
"You didn't try to change him?" Mark asked, thinking of all the times he tried to talk Steve out of dangerous pursuits.
"I always knew to stay vibrant and alive, Win needed a wave to tame, a mountain to climb, to know the only thing between him and death was his ability to master himself and the world around him."
Mark saw her face redden, her cheek muscles tighten. Her tears came now, not with sadness, but with anger.
"To murder him while he was doing something inherently death-defying ridiculed him, the man that he was, and the magazine he published," she said. "It was an act of utter contempt and pure hatred."
"Do you know anyone who hated him enough to go to such lengths?"
"You don't have to look any further than the people who were on the plane with him," she said, wiping the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand.
"I wasn't planning to," Mark said. "But my decision was based on opportunity, not the motive. You'll have to help me there."
"Greed," she said. "Win should never have gone public and let those sharks into our lives."
"Then why did he?"
"Win was ambitious," she said. "As if you couldn't tell by the name he picked for himself."
It was the first time she revealed any resentment towards her husband. Mark made mental note of it.
"At least he was up front about it," Mark said. "How did Brant Publications come about?"
She explained that it was a family business, started by Brant's grandfather. They published small, regional newspapers in farming communities all over California. After Winston's father died, he sold off the newspapers and launched
with the proceeds. The magazine caught on and became not just a publication, but a lifestyle. Brant wanted to capitalize on that with spin-off publications and branded items, like clothing, athletic equipment, even cologne. He needed capital and took the company public to get it, which brought Clifton Hemphill, Dean Perrow, and Virgil Nyby into the fold.
"They're strictly businessmen, they have no passion for anything but making money. They didn't care about
or the lifestyle it stood for," she said. "I told him going public was a mistake, that he would end up losing control of the company to them. But Win couldn't imagine losing anything to anyone. His answer to everything was 'They don't call me Win for nothing.'"
"Were you right?"
"I wish I wasn't," she said. "The three of them formed a voting block on the board against him. They thwarted all of his projects and pushed forward their agenda. Let me show you what that was."