Diagnosis Murder 4 - The Waking Nightmare (9 page)

BOOK: Diagnosis Murder 4 - The Waking Nightmare
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"This is where I belong," she'd said flatly, explaining it was a job she'd held first for Winston's father, Gaylord Brant, during "the great man's later years."

The way Grace talked about Gaylord Brant, it was clear the woman not only admired him, but loved him. She'd also worked on the day of his death. In fact, she proudly declared that she'd only missed one "non-vacation day" in thirty-five years, and that was to attend the funeral of her beloved poodle Starchy, the dog who was now stuffed and positioned beside her desk.

Grace told Mark that she'd babysat Winston when he was a child and had continued, throughout his life, to "protect him as if he was one of my own bear cubs."

Her comment gave Mark, who was practically dozing off in his guest chair after more than a day without sleep, a natural segue into the questions he'd come to ask.

"Did he still need your protection?" Mark asked.

"More now than ever before," Grace said.

"From whom?"

"His so-called partners," she said. "Every day was war. Win took the company public because he wanted to expand the brand, but his new investors had other ideas."

"What kind of ideas?" he asked.

"Like buying this building, changing the name of the magazine, and spending a fortune on advertising," she said.

"They said they were focusing on maximizing profits rather than speculative spending."

"Speculative spending," Mark repeated. "I don't think I've ever heard that phrase before."

"They came up with it as a way to reject every idea Win had," she said. "They felt his ideas were too risky. All they wanted to do was tout the surge in circulation since they freshened the concept of the magazine."

"You mean when they changed the name of the magazine and started putting women on the cover."

"Half-naked women," Grace said, scowling. "Win prided himself on only using real people on the cover, doing the activities they genuinely excelled at. No touch-ups, no trickery, and no pandering to prurient interests."

To illustrate her point, Grace held up the same issue Sara had showed Mark before, the one with the woman hang-gliding in her skintight jumpsuit.

"This woman hang glides as much as I do. This photograph was shot in a Van Nuys studio against a green screen. Everything else was added and enhanced on a computer, including her bust." She tossed the magazine into the trash can. "It made us all sick, especially Win."

"Even though the magazine's circulation was up?"

"He was convinced they were cooking the numbers somehow. He had lots of anecdotal evidence that the core audience of the magazine, the folks who'd stuck with us since the beginning, were leaving in droves," she said. "Even if they were right, and we had two hundred thousand new readers, Win said to me, 'Grace, I'd rather have fewer subscribers and a magazine I can be proud of.' God, it was powerful. In that moment, he was truly channeling his father, may he rest in peace."

"Then why didn't he order an audit?" Mark asked.

"Because he felt a responsibility to the shareholders and to the reputation of the magazine," she replied. "He didn't want to appear bitter and vindictive or create a scandal. It would hurt the magazine too much."

Grace reached down and petted Starchy, who stared at Mark with his glass eyes. "It really got to Win over the last few months. He'd lost his spirit. He didn't seem to care any more."

"So what changed Win's mind?"

"What do you mean?"

"Sara told me he was preparing to fight back," Mark said. "She said he was going to announce at the shareholders' meeting that he had evidence that Hemphill, Perrow, and Nyby had been stealing from the company."

Grace shook her head. "If he was, I didn't know about it."

Mark stared at her. "You've been sitting right outside his door for years. No one gets to him without getting through you first. If he was building a case against his partners, you had to know about it."

"Perhaps he said that because it was what Sara wanted to hear. She hated what the partners were doing to the magazine even more than Win did," she said. "But even if he had the evidence, he never would have made it public, because it would have destroyed this magazine. Win was
Thrill Seeker
. It would have been like destroying a part of himself. He wouldn't have been able to live with it."

"Somebody on that plane wasn't willing to take that chance," Mark said.

Grace picked up her stuffed dog and hugged it to herself. "Then they killed him for nothing."

 

Mark was on his way out of Brant's office when he was intercepted in the corridor by Dean Perrow, a broad smile on the man's face.

"Don't tell me you were going to leave without saying hello to me." Perrow gave Mark a firm, businesslike hand shake. "I'm still a suspect, aren't I?"

"Absolutely," Mark said, smiling right back at him.

"So how come you didn't stop by my office to play cat and mouse?"

"I need more evidence against you first."

"Does that mean you have some?"

Mark shrugged. Perrow wagged a finger at him. "There you go, playing me already. You're good at this."

Perrow tilted his head toward Brant's office. "I suppose the pit bull told you I'm the root of all evil."

"She mentioned that you and Brant didn't get along," Mark said. "I'm sure it's not much of a secret."

"I don't always get along with my wife either, but we love each other deeply," Perrow said. "I admired Winston Brant. The man, the adventurer, and the publisher.
Thrill Seeker
was Winston Brant, we knew that when we bought into it. I don't know what kind of future this magazine will have now without him."

"If that's the way you felt, why did you infuriate Brant with your changes to the magazine and ignore his new business initiatives?"

"We were looking out for his best interests," Perrow said. "The magazine had stagnated creatively. Circulation was down. Ad rates were plunging. We couldn't risk expansion until we shored up the core asset,
Thrill Seeker.
All we wanted to do was revitalize the magazine and we succeeded, amazingly well."

"That's apparently not the way Winston Brant saw it," Mark said.

"Let me ask you something, Mark. How would a woman feel if you went up to her and said 'I love you, honey, but you need bigger boobs, a nose job, a face-lift, and a tummy tuck if you want to be a knockout again.'"

"She'd be offended and deeply hurt."

"That's what happened here.
Thrill Seeker
was Winston's public face and we said it needed work. Of course he was upset. But when all was said and done, he forgot his anger as soon as he saw his profits." Perrow winked at him. "Same way my wife appreciates that guys are checking her out again when she walks down the street."

"You told your wife she needed plastic surgery?" Mark asked incredulously.

"Tough love is the truest love," Perrow said.

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

 

Mark was stuck in the crawl of traffic north on the San Diego Freeway, trying not to fall asleep at the wheel. If traffic had been moving any faster than three miles an hour, for safety's sake he would have pulled off the road for a cup of coffee. But at this speed, the only danger he posed was a gentle nudge to the car in front of him.

He used the unwelcome downtime to think about his conversations with Sara Everden and Grace Wozniak. Beyond learning a bit more about the kind of man Winston Brant had been and the history of Brant Publications, he was no closer to learning who the killer was or how the murder was committed.

Winston still wasn't out of danger. If his body wasn't placed under guard, Mark thought, Grace might have him stuffed and mounted right next to Starchy.

The only thing that puzzled Mark was the odd discrepancy between what Sara and Grace had to say about Winston's state of mind on the day of his murder. Sara believed her husband was going on the offensive and was intending to expose Hemphill, Perrow, and Nyby's dirty dealings at the stockholders' meeting. Grace believed he was a beaten man, unwilling to do anything that might involve the magazine in a scandal. How could these two women, who knew Brant better than anyone, have such contradictory accounts? What was Brant really up to, and did it lead to his murder?

Even if Mark could determine that, it didn't narrow the field of suspects down any further than the three men he was already considering.

Was he overlooking anyone?

There were at least two other people in the plane with Brant that day. The airplane pilot and the skydiving instructor.

Mark could safely scratch the pilot off his list. There was no way the pilot could have left the controls of the plane, stabbed Brant in midair, and returned to the cockpit, unless he was also hiding his secret identity as Superman.

That left the skydiving instructor, Justin Darbo. What possible motive could Darbo have for killing Brant? And if he did do it, wouldn't the act have been caught on tape by the video camera mounted on his helmet?

If Mark assumed Darbo was the killer, and that the video itself hadn't been altered, what explanation could there be for the murder not being captured on tape?

He considered that for a moment as traffic inched forward. All the skydivers looked alike. What if the video wasn't shot that day? Mark remembered it was virtually impossible to tell the skydivers apart. What if the video he saw was actually shot earlier using other people dressed in the same helmets, goggles, and jumpsuits as Brant and the others?

It was possible, but it meant that Justin Darbo would have needed at least four willing accomplices. That seemed unlikely.

Mark reconsidered his theory. What if it was a genuine video of Brant and the others, only shot on a previous day? That would eliminate the need for accomplices.

There was also another possibility. What if Darbo was an innocent dupe and his camera was sabotaged in some way?

What if he was unaware that he wasn't actually recording anything on the day of the murder? What if what he thought was a blank tape already contained footage that was nearly identical to what he thought he was shooting?

It was a long shot at best, but Mark made a note to himself on the stick-it pad on the dashboard, which he kept just for moments like this. He'd ask Steve to check out if Brant and his board of directors ever took a practice jump together and if Darbo filmed it. He'd also recommend that Steve dig deep into Darbo's past to make sure the skydiving instructor didn't have some grudge against Brant.

Mark's cell phone rang, breaking him out of his fatigued stupor. It was Amanda, calling from the path lab.

"I just wanted to let you know I'll have the autopsy re port on Deke Swicord ready for you around three," Amanda said. "I know you're probably in a hurry for it, though it's hardly a mystery what happened to him."

"It is to me," Mark said. "I've never heard of him."

"He's the dead guy Steve found when he went to talk to Lissy Dearborn."

"Lissy Dearborn?"

"Rebecca Jordan's roommate," Amanda said. "She's lucky she wasn't killed, too. Odds are it was the murderer she was fighting off when Steve got there."

"Got where?"

"Rebecca Jordan's apartment," Amanda said. "Though I suppose we can stop calling her that now."

"What should we call her?" Mark was thoroughly confused, chalking it up as another symptom of his sleep deprivation.

"Rachel Swicord," Amanda said. "That's assuming that Deke is really her brother, and we only have Darla's word for that."

"Darla?"

"You can't trust a junkie's word on anything," Amanda said.

"I suppose not," Mark said, replying to what seemed to him like a non sequitur.

"Dana says she's Deke's wife, which entitles her to what ever Rachel has if she dies," Amanda said. "Can you believe it?"

"I honestly can't understand any of it," Mark said.

"That makes two of us."

"It certainly sounds like it to me," Mark said. "Where can I find Steve?"

"He's at the station, getting chewed out by his captain, who has a lot of questions about how Steve stumbled into this murder when he was supposed to be working the Brant case."

"I've got a few questions to ask him myself," Mark said. "I'll see you at three."

He flipped his phone shut and tossed it on the passenger seat beside him. Now there was another murder for him to solve. Some days, he thought, the killing just never stops.

 

Traffic let up north of LAX, so Mark managed to get to Community General Hospital in West LA at two. He stopped in the cafeteria for a hamburger, fries, and a Coke, which he devoured, surprised by how hungry he was. Sated by his meal, and feeling more alert, he decided to stop by the ICU to check on Rebecca Jordan before meeting Amanda and Steve in the path lab.

He emerged from the elevator and immediately looked to the waiting area on his left, and wasn't surprised to see the Marlboro Man still there, though he'd managed to freshen up his reading material. The man was now immersed in an issue of
Allure
, which promised to reveal THE 12 AWESOME JUICY FRUITY LIP SHADES OF SPRING.

Rebecca Jordan's corner of the ICU was now filled with flowers and boxes of pastries. There was a man who reminded Mark of a garden gnome asleep in one of the guest chairs. Somehow, the gnomish fellow managed to make the stiff-backed plastic chair seem comfortable. Mark envied him his nap.

Mark made a quick check of Rebecca's chart, saw that her condition was unchanged, and took the elevator back down to the path lab.

Steve was already standing with Amanda on either side of the autopsy table, where a body was covered with a white sheet.

"I understand you've had a busy morning," Mark said to Steve, then glanced at the toe tag on the body. The tag read DEKE SWICORD.

"Why is it when I do you a favor one of two things always happens," Steve said. "I either find a corpse or one of my superiors threatens to fire me. Come to think of it, both things always happen."

"Then you should be used to it and not complaining," Mark said.

BOOK: Diagnosis Murder 4 - The Waking Nightmare
8.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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