Diagnosis Murder: The Death Merchant

BOOK: Diagnosis Murder: The Death Merchant
5.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

 

 

 

 

 

To Valerie and Madison

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

Once again, I am deeply indebted to Dr. Doug P. Lyle, who inexplicably continues to answer all my bizarre medical questions with humor, patience, and ingenuity. I also owe thanks to Bill Dinino, Jason Stoffmacher, Gerald Elkins, Jacquelyn Blain, Aimee and David Thurlo, and Rich and Marie Colabella for their wise counsel.

Finally, I could not have written this book without the continued enthusiasm and support of William Rabkin, Tod Goldberg, Gina Maccoby, and Dan Slater.

 

PROLOGUE

 

Roger Standiford stood alone in the pitch darkness of the desert night, holding two suitcases bulging with $4.5 million in cash, just as he'd been told to do five hours earlier. That's when he got the call on his private line at the T-Rex casino and an electronically distorted voice told him they had his eighteen-year-old daughter and the price he'd have to pay to get her back.

They also told him not to call the police. Not to alert his security staff. Not to do anything but get the money together from the cashier's cages at his three casinos and await instructions. He had six hours, not a minute more, to deliver the ransom or his daughter would be killed. And in case he didn't believe they were serious, they'd left one of Connie's pinkie fingers on the cutting board in his kitchen.

Roger rushed home in his Lincoln Town Car, trying in vain to reach Connie on the cell phone as he crawled through the Las Vegas traffic, cursing at the herds of slow-moving tourists who clogged the streets, the medians, and the sidewalks. Until that day, he'd never minded the crowds and the gridlock; it had been a reassuring sign of his own continuing prosperity. Now they were cattle blocking the road.

Roger Standiford lived in a sprawling, Mediterranean style estate on three acres of reclaimed desert on the out skirts of Las Vegas, an area he was transforming into an enclave for the city's wealthiest residents. Bulldozers, excavators, and huge earthmovers were clearing and grading the barren landscape all around his property for the lakes, golf courses, and residential palaces to come. His showplace was the first to be completed, but fifty more were already on the way.

When he arrived at the house, the gate was wide open when it should have been closed. Ordinarily, his wife, Emily, would have been at home, but she was traveling in Spain, looking for artwork to adorn the wall of the high roller suites at his Alhambra casino, which meant Connie came home from school each day to an empty house But Connie was an adult now; they weren't worried about her

The fact was, they'd stopped worrying about anything after Roger made his first $10 million.

He followed the circular driveway around a huge fountain, its decorative geyser of water a sign of Roger's mastery over the dry desert that surrounded him. Connie's BMW, a surprise present on her sixteenth birthday, was parked in front of the house.

Roger peeked in her car, feeling every rapid pulse of his heart, then turned to the house. The front door was ajar. He eased the door open slowly and stepped inside As in his casinos, at was thirty degrees cooler inside, chilling the sweat on his skin and making him shiver. Or perhaps it was the sight of Connie's car keys and book bag carelessly dropped on the entry hall floor that gave him goose bumps.

Her things were at the foot of one of the two winding staircases that joined at the top like a giant marble wishbone.

Connie never dropped her stuff on the floor like that.
Never
.

Roger called out her name, and heard his desperation echo unanswered through eight thousand square feet of emptiness. He hesitantly stepped into the kitchen, saw the splatter of dried blood on the granite countertop, and knew with horrifying certainty that the call he'd received wasn't a sick joke. He staggered back, his daughter's terror and agony almost palpable in the cold air.

The only thing that kept him from crumbling, that pulled him from the edge of emotional collapse, was a sudden, energizing flush of pure rage.

He'd get his daughter back. And then he'd get them. He'd bury the kidnappers in the foundation of his next casino for the pleasure of walking over their bodies every single day.

The phone rang.

He knew who it was before he answered it.

"You've wasted forty minutes, Roger," the voice said. "Tick, tock"

Roger considered going upstairs and getting the .38 from his nightstand. But it was 102 degrees outside, and he'd left the T-Rex-in a polo shirt and tan slacks; if they were actually watching him and he emerged in this heat wearing a jacket, he'd look ridiculous and they'd know he was concealing a weapon.

So he reluctantly left the gun behind, ran to his car, and drove back to the T-Rex as fast as he could, which was not very fast at all. Another thirty minutes evaporated.

The T-Rex towered above the lush-rain forests of prehistoric earth, where enormous volcanoes spewed lava and monstrous, animatronic dinosaurs roamed, roaring at tourists, swatting helicopters out of the sky, and crushing cars in a fiery display twice an hour every weeknight.

Roger parked in front, ordered the doorman to keep the Lincoln where it was, and dashed into the lobby, which looked like it bad been carved out of solid rock. Lights cleverly disguised as stalactites dangled from the ceiling. Mist rose from the steaming pools of Dinosaur Grotto, where a brontosaurus chewed on leaves and idly watched the tourists playing the $5 slots.

As Roger walked across the casino floor, past the gaming tables and rows of slot machines, he scanned the faces in the crowd, wondering if one of them belonged to a kidnapper. But no one met his gaze, no one looked away too quickly, no one stared. They were too busy losing money and gawking at the ferocious pterodactyl that soared over the casino, hunting for prey.

Roger went straight to the gift shop, grabbed two T-Rex souvenir suitcases from the window display, and, without stopping to explain himself to the stunned salesgirl, marched to the cashier's cage.

He punched his code into the keypad, the door buzzed open, and he hurried inside. The cashiers whirled around, surprised to see the resort magnate in their midst. He dropped the bags on a table and ordered the cashiers to quickly fill them with $1.5 million in cash. Then Roger called ahead to his other casinos, demanding that they each prepare $1.5 million and have it ready for him within the hour He hung up before anyone could ask questions.

Moments later, Nate Grumbo, Roger's head of security, strode into the cage. The ex-Fed with the flat-topped head, square jaw, no neck, and permanent squint had obviously been alerted by his people at all three casinos about Roger's outrageous demand.

"Is there a problem, Mr. Standiford?" Nate asked, his voice a low grumble rising from deep within his wide linebacker's body.

"Nothing that concerns you." Roger looked at his diamond-studded Rolex, then back at the cashiers counting the money. It was taking too long.

Nate glanced at the cash, the bags, then back at Roger. It didn't take a genius to figure out the broad strokes of what was happening. "Are you sure this is how you want to play it?"

Roger nodded. "I don't have a choice."

He pictured the terror on his daughter's face when they held her hand down on the cutting board, and he wanted to scream but he swallowed it back.

Nate must have seen the muscles tensing in his employer's neck, the momentary flash of fear in his eyes.

"I'm going with you," Nate said.

"No," Roger said firmly. "I need you to leave this room now, go back to your office, and wait for my call. I don't want anyone doing anything except their usual routine, is that clear?"

Nate nodded and walked out.

Of course, what Roger asked for was impossible, and he knew it. The kidnappers had to know he couldn't keep this quiet. There was no way Roger Standiford could walk into the cashier's cage, stuff a million and a half bucks into a couple of bags, and walk out again without every employee in the building hearing about it. By nightfall, half of the citizens of Las Vegas would know.

Maybe that was the point. Maybe that was how the kidnappers were tracking his compliance. Maybe they were on his payroll. It would certainly explain how they knew his wife was away, the time his daughter got home from school, all his private phone numbers, and the security code to his front gate.

It was something he'd think hard about, later, when his daughter was home safe, when he wasn't counting minutes while his cashiers were counting cash.

The cashiers had his bags packed in forty-five minutes, and then he was on his way to Gilligan's Island, his first casino. He'd built it a decade ago, shrewdly capitalizing on the world's incomprehensible affection for the inane sitcom. Since then, thousands of people had posed for pictures in front of the shipwrecked SS Minnow and the bronze statues of the seven stranded castaways. It was what passed for a historical landmark in Las Vegas. He honked the sightseers out of his way and scrambled out of the car

The money was waiting for him in neat stacks in the cashier's hut. He was out of the casino again in ten minutes, "The Ballad of Gilligan's Island" ringing in his ears.

Twenty minutes later, he was driving away with the last third of the ransom money from the vaults of the Alhambra, his lavish re-creation of the Moorish palace in Spain, when his cell phone trilled.

It was them. They told him where to drive. Then they called back a few minutes later and gave him new directions. And then they did it again. And again. Each time never giving him a chance to respond and to make demands of his own.

Night fell as they made him drive in circles around the city for an hour and then, finally, miles and miles out into the desert.

And now he stood in the vast emptiness, swallowed by the impenetrable darkness, "The Ballad of Gilligan's Island" playing in his head on an endless loop, just like it did in his casino.

He was in hell.

His cell phone rang. He flipped it open.

"Drop the bags, walk away, and drive back to your house," the voice said. "You will be told where to find your daughter."

They broke the connection before he could speak, before he could ask what guarantee he had they would call once they had the ransom.

He looked around, trying to see into the darkness. Were they out there somewhere, watching him now? How close were they? Was Connie with them?

"I want my daughter back now!" he yelled.

But the darkness absorbed his cry and gave nothing back. After a long moment, he turned and walked away. He got into the car, tossed the phone onto the seat beside him, and drove back toward the city.

It was the longest hour of his life. The phone was like a physical presence on the seat. He could almost feel the kidnapper sitting there beside him, sneering with pleasure at Roger's impotence and fear.

Roger steered the car up to the house, parked behind Connie's BMW, and got out. The outdoor flood lamps had come on, bathing the property in light, turning his house into a glowing castle that could be seen for miles at night. His cell phone rang. He dived back into the car, laid his stomach across the seat, and picked up the phone.

BOOK: Diagnosis Murder: The Death Merchant
5.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Deeper by Jane Thomson
Crescent Dawn by Cussler, Clive; Dirk Cussler
L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories by Jonathan Santlofer
Ruined by You by Kelly Harper
Unstoppable by Scott Hildreth
Disharmony by Leah Giarratano
About Sisterland by Devlin, Martina
Mistletoe and Holly by Janet Dailey