Authors: Lee Goldberg
She got up and walked through a side door into the next room. Mark followed stiffly, his back sore from the antique chair. If Winston Brant wanted a real physical challenge, Mark thought, he should have tried sitting on some of his living room furniture.
Stepping into the library was like walking into an entirely different house. It was full of dark wood and supple leather, the bookshelves overflowing with hardcovers and paperbacks. The room had a warm, lived-in look, far from the formality of the living room. The leather chairs were creased from use, the shelves cluttered with mementos, the coffee tables covered with well-thumbed magazines.
Sara picked up one of the magazines and held it up for Mark to see. It was an issue of Thrill Seeker, the cover featuring a rugged-looking, incredibly fit man free-climbing up the face of a jagged peak over a deep canyon.
"This is what the magazine used to look like before the company went public," she said, then picked up another from the table and held the two issues up side by side. "This is what it looks like now."
The magazine was retitled
Maximum Thrill Seeker
, the word "Maximum" written in a font that looked like it had been seared into the old masthead with a blowtorch. The cover of the new issue featured a young woman in a low-cut, skintight jumpsuit hang gliding into the lens, her massive, surgically enhanced breasts rocketing towards the reader like blazing cannonballs.
"They felt covers like this would appeal to a wider audience and increase circulation," she said. "To the groin. Win was mortified."
"Wasn't there anything your husband could do to stop it?"
"Besides walk away from the magazine and watch it all go crashing down? He'd never walked away from anything in his life," she said. "So he found another way to fight back. The last thing he said to me before he got on the plane was that he'd finally beaten them, that 'they don't call me Win for nothing.'"
"What was he going to do?"
"He was going to announce at the shareholders' meeting today that he'd discovered that Hemphill, Perrow, and Nyby were embezzling money from the company through all kinds of illegal schemes," she said. "They killed him to keep him from revealing what he knew."
"The evidence must still be there," Mark said. "Did he tell you what he found?"
"No," she said, dropping the magazines back on the table. "He wanted it to be a big surprise to me, too. I got a big surprise all right. So did the kids. We watched him fall..."
Sara started to cry. Mark stepped forward and gave her a hug. She pressed her face to his chest and all her grief seemed to escape at once, her entire body heaving, her tears dampening his shirt. He patted her back and gently rocked on his heels, comforting her as if she were a baby.
He wanted to tell her the usual platitudes, that everything was going to be all right and that he would make it all better. But he knew that would be a lie.
All he could do was try to get her some measure of justice.
That would have to do.
Lenore Barber left her house off Laurel Canyon at about nine a.m. and drove in her Lexus sedan down to the Starbucks on traffic-clogged Ventura Boulevard, flicking ashes from her cigarette out her window the whole way. She parked in the handicapped space, ran inside the Starbucks, and emerged a few minutes later with a cup of coffee. She then drove a half block west on the boulevard to Exclusive Properties Real Estate, parked beside the five other Lexuses in the narrow lot, and went inside.
She stayed in her office for about an hour, came back outside to smoke a cigarette, then went back inside for another hour, before emerging again and driving off, lighting a cigarette at the first stoplight.
Her destination was a sprawling, ranch-style estate nestled in the low-lying hills south of Ventura Boulevard in Encino. There was an Exclusive Properties FOR SALE sign in the freshly laid lawn. Lenore was met by a young couple who looked as though they'd stepped out of a Ralph Lauren billboard, grabbed the first Range Rover they saw passing by, and drove right over.
She led them up to the house, unlocked the key safe, and took them on a tour of the home.
Lenore Barber never even noticed the Toyota Prius parked across the street. Perhaps if she had, she would have remembered also seeing it outside her house and parked across the street from her real estate office.
Susan Hilliard waited until Lenore Barber closed the front door before she nudged Jesse, who was sleeping in the passenger seat, which he'd reclined into almost a flat position.
"What?" he blubbered, bleary-eyed, his hair askew. He was still wearing his surgical scrubs and had been asleep since she picked him up at the hospital a few hours ago.
"She's showing a couple a house," Susan said.
"Okay," Jesse said, rolling over to face the door, curling into a fetal position as if he was in bed.
She nudged him again. "I thought you'd be interested."
"Why?" he mumbled.
"Because you asked me to follow her, remember?" Susan said. "This is your stakeout."
"I've been up for over thirty hours, I'm too tired to drive," Jesse said. "It wouldn't be safe."
"I know," Susan said. "But I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be looking for."
"Exactly what you're seeing. Take lots of notes," Jesse said, and went back to sleep.
So Susan sighed, turned on the radio, and listened to an unbelievable story about a skydiver who somehow got stabbed to death in midair.
It was a couple of hours before Steve was able to leave the crime scene at Rebecca Jordan's apartment. First he had to report the homicide, then call in the SID techs to gather forensic evidence, and then wait for the arrival of the medical examiner to gather the body. In the meantime, he took Lissy's statement and sent out uniformed officers to question the neighbors.
Steve had hoped to keep the favor he was doing for his father quiet. He figured that he'd take care of it on his way to work and nobody would have to know about it.
Fat chance of that now.
He left the apartment a few minutes after Amanda arrived and drove straight out to Hollywood, to the Paradise Hotel and the door that would fit the key he found in the dead man's pocket.
During the drive, Steve tried to figure out the best way to explain to his captain how he happened to discover a corpse in an apartment in Culver City. No matter how Steve looked at it, he was in trouble.
But now he was no longer doing a favor for his dad; he was investigating a murder, and this next stop was official business. He wanted to know who the dead guy was and what he had to do with the attack on Lissy and, perhaps, the suicide attempt by Rebecca Jordan.
The Paradise Hotel was on a grimy side street off Hollywood Boulevard. If the hotel was somebody's idea of paradise, Steve couldn't imagine what their vision of hell was like.
The building was a rotting tenement, strewn with trash and reeking of urine. And that was just the impression Steve got from the street. It got worse once he went inside. Hookers, drunks, and junkies were draped over soiled furniture like discarded garments. The desk clerk was asleep or unconscious, facedown on his scribble-covered desk blotter, four cigarette butts floating in the filthy cup of murky coffee that he still gripped in his hand.
Steve walked past him, taking the stairs up to room 17. He pressed his ear to the door and heard someone moving around quietly behind it. He drew his gun and tested the doorknob with his other hand. The door was unlocked.
He threw open the door and burst into the room, training his gun on the biggest rat he'd ever seen, scurrying across the floor and disappearing into a hole in the cracked, water- stained wall.
Steve holstered his gun and took in the empty room. He saw the lopsided bureau and its uneven drawers. He saw the sagging bed and its thin, soiled mattress. He saw the curl of smoke coming from a cigarette dropped hastily on the floor. And just as he was realizing what it meant, she came at him, springing from her hiding place behind the door, a table knife in her fist. He sidestepped her, almost by reflex, grabbing her wrist, wrenching the knife free and using her momentum to slam her face-first against the wall.
He glanced down at the knife on the floor. It wasn't sharp enough to cut a slice of bread. He kicked it under the bed anyway and another rat scurried out, disappearing into the same hole as the other one.
"Paradise," he muttered to himself, then glanced at the woman, who was facing him now, feral anger in her eyes, her nose bleeding, thin rivulets of blood rolling over her lips and dripping onto her faded denim shirt.
She looked a lot like the guy he'd just seen in a body bag, only she was still breathing. She had pale, sunken cheeks and oily, matted hair that hung on her shoulders in tangled clumps. Besides the shirt, which reeked of body odor, she wore only a pair of panties. Her bony legs were blotched and bruised, her thighs covered with scratches and needle marks.
She was either a junkie or a reanimated corpse, not that there was much of a difference.
Even though she'd attacked him with a dull knife, he felt guilty for hurting her. He did, after all, bust into her room unannounced with a gun in his hand. It was only natural that she'd tried to defend herself.
He leaned towards her, offering her his hand. "I'm sorry I crashed in here like that, I'm—"
She flung herself at him with a primal yelps fingers bared like claws, her mouth open wide as if revealing fangs in stead of her yellow, crooked teeth. He pinned her easily against the wall, her arm twisted behind her back, and let her thrash until she ran out of energy.
Steve dragged her limp body to the edge of the bed and sat her down. He moved back to the center of the room, a safe distance away. Her face was smeared with blood from her nose. He took out his handkerchief, ran some brownish water over it in the sink, and gave it to her.
"Wipe your face," he said.
"So I can be clean when you kill me?" She balled up the handkerchief in her hand. "Go to hell."
She threw the handkerchief at him. He easily dodged it and let it hit the wall with a wet smack.
"We aren't running, you sonofabitch," she hissed. "We're getting Maurice Balcore his damn money. Deke is getting it from his sister, okay? You going to break some of my fingers now, too?"
Steve took out the newspaper clipping and held it up to her. "Is this Deke's sister?"
The woman stared at the paper as if he was dangling Deke's decapitated head in front of her.
"That's from Deke's pocket," she said, almost in a whisper. "You killed him already, didn't you?"
"He's dead, but I didn't kill him." Steve opened his coat so she could see the badge clipped to his belt. "Lieutenant Steve Sloan, LAPD homicide."
"Oh hell." She flopped back on the bed, her legs still dangling over the side.
"You want to tell me what's going on?"
"I could arrest you for assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon," he said. "Or I can forget about it."
"You want to make it with me?" She tugged at the waist band of her panties. "Is that what you'd like?"
"No," Steve said, disgusted. "I want some answers. Let's start with your name."
"Your momma," she said.
Steve sighed. His morning wasn't turning out much better than Lissy's.
"Deke said if we came down here, we'd have all the money we'd need." She yanked up the sheet from the mattress and used the corner to wipe the blood off her face. "Now what am I supposed to do? Huh?"
"You could answer my questions before I lose my temper," Steve said.
"Or what? You gonna beat me up some more?" she asked, examining the bloody sheet. "Is that what gets you off? Throw in a twenty, I'll let you kiss me, too."
"Is this who was going to give him the money?" Steve dangled the clipping over the woman's face.
"His big sister Rachel, though he used to say she was dead," she said. "Wouldn't be the first lie he's told me."
"You sure he said Rachel?"
"That's all he talked about all the way down from Spokane," she said. "He saw her picture in the paper. Said she'd give us money to pay off Balcore and get his goons off our backs for what we owe. Deke said she'd help us for sure."
"Right now, she can't help anybody," Steve said. "She tried to kill herself yesterday. She's in a coma."
The woman propped herself upon her elbows and looked at Steve with genuine interest. "Is that so?"
"Yeah, it is."
"Deke was the only family she had left," she said. "We got hitched in Vegas one time, which makes me her sister- in-law."
"You want to send her flowers?"
"I'm just thinking." She licked her chapped lips. "if she dies, don't I get her stuff?"
Mark Sloan believed that the best way to learn about a man was to talk to his wife or his secretary and not necessarily in that order.
Grace Wozniak was not at all what Mark expected her to be. For one thing, she was nearly Mark's age. She was a stout woman, with a big, bold head of gray hair that had been puffed, sprayed, and cemented into a dandelion that could withstand hurricane-force winds. Her eyeglasses dangled from a chain around her neck and rested on her formidable bosom, just one of the barriers she'd established in front of Brant's corner office.
The first thing anybody saw when they entered was Grace, facing them from behind a massive desk she manned like a military fortification. There was no way to reach his door without getting past her desk first.
Behind her was a window overlooking the John Wayne Airport. Mark doubted it was a coincidence that the offices just happened to overlook a tribute to an enduring cultural icon of rugged American individuality and courage, everything
was supposed to stand for.
Mark was surprised that Grace was manning her post the day after Brant's murder. The stockholders' meeting, originally scheduled for today, had been postponed for a week, so he couldn't imagine what business needed to be done that couldn't wait for a few days.