diagnosis murder 5 the past tense

 

 

To Dr. D. P. Lyle, for creating the illusion that I know what I am talking about.

 

 

 

AUTHOR'S NOTE AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

For the purposes of these books, Mark Sloan and his son, Steve, are younger than Dick Van Dyke and Barry Van Dyke, the actors who played the characters in the TV series. Mark is in his sixties and Steve is in his early for ties... and through the magic of fiction, they never age. It's a shame we can't all be fictional characters, isn't it?

A major portion of this story takes place in February 1962. While the events and characters are fictional, one thing is true: Southern California was pounded by a devastating and deadly series of storms that caused enormous damage and killed two dozen people. The historical and meteorological events described in this story actually occurred, though some artistic license has been taken with the chronology and some of the geography.

I am indebted to Zoë Sharp, Rhys Bowen, Stephen Booth, John Baker, Lee Child, Jan Curran, Ralph Spurner, Twist Phelan, Gen Aris, Stan Barer, Paul Bishop, Ann Tomlin, Robbie Schwartz, and everybody on the DorothyL mailing list for their technical, cultural, and historical advice. Special thanks to William Rabkin and Tod Goldberg, my unofficial editors, and to Dan Slater, my official one, and to Gina Maccoby, my agent with a license to kill.

But despite all those contributions, this book would not have been possible without my wife, Valerie, and my daughter, Madison, with their love, support, and home made cookies.

I would like to hear from you. To contact me, visit www.diagnosis-murder.com.

 

PROLOGUE

 

 

It was a good day for killing.

Dark clouds covered the sun like dirt on a coffin. The streets were muddy rivers. The sewers were clogged with trash, leaves, and unread newspapers. There was no one on the boulevard except the young woman. The rain had driven everyone else indoors. Even a slight drizzle threw Los Angelenos into confusion. A genuine rainstorm generated panic.

She wasn't dressed for rain. Nobody in LA ever was. They couldn't imagine a day without sunshine and felt naked without sunglasses. But those same people could blithely accept living in a place where they breathed poison, where the ground could suddenly heave under their feet and lay waste to everything.

She was one of those people Los Angeles was where she was born and raised and where she would die. He knew her entire life story, beginning and end.

He was the end.

She walked into the wind, clutching her jacket closed over her blouse and short skirt, as if she were afraid the buttons might not hold.

She was oblivious to everything but her own discomfort, cursing out loud at her miserable fate. If she'd actually known her fate, she wouldn't have been cursing. She would have been screaming. But she didn't see the man in the car, parked at the curb of a side street, across from her.

She stopped at the bench on the corner and looked up and down the street, clearly hoping to see her bus on its way. She gave him a fine opportunity for a full appraisal. She was in her late teens, with fiery red hair. Her legs were long and pale, her body thin but with some unexpectedly generous curves that her wet clothes only accentuated.

He put the car into drive and slowly eased out into the street, timing it so he would reach the intersection in front of her just as the traffic light turned red.

It was a long light and he was right at the curb. His windows were slightly fogged, just enough to obscure his face. Even so, he knew she was looking at him, dry and warm and comfortable. He knew she was imagining how nice it would be inside his big car, surrounded by all that rich leather and wood, away from the cold and the rain.

He glanced casually in her direction and caught her staring at him. She turned her head, pretending to check again for the bus she knew wouldn't be there. And when she looked back, soaked to the bone and shivering, the passenger-side window of the car was already down, and there he was beyond it, smiling at her. Without even being aware of it, she took a step towards the car, beckoned by the open window and drawn by the warm air escaping from inside like the heat from a fireplace.

He knew he had her then, even before he offered her a ride, even before she saw his face and made her choice. Her body foreshadowed her intent, betraying her one last time.

She got into the car, slammed the door shut, and buck led up, thanking him for his thoughtfulness.

The light turned green and he moved slowly into the intersection, rain beating down on the car. The rhythmic swish of the windshield wiper blades, repeatedly swaying across the glass, was strangely soothing, almost like soft music.

After a moment, she sunk into the plush seat and let out a contented sigh, relaxed and grateful, feeling absolutely no fear at all.

That would come later.

He wasn't in any hurry. He was calm, completely at peace. Perhaps she sensed that. Perhaps that was what fooled her. Perhaps that was what fooled them all.

It felt good to be killing again.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Dr. Mark Sloan awoke that February morning to an empty house, feeling as if he hadn't slept at all.

He hadn't slept well the last few nights. It could have been the rain, which had pummeled the house all night long. Maybe he wasn't accustomed to the sound anymore, the rainstorm coming after one of Southern California's prolonged droughts, which had left the hillsides brittle, dry, and prone to wildfires.

Only a few days ago, the newspapers had been full of dire warnings about the parched soil, about catastrophic crop failures and uncontrollable fires, about the desperate need to conserve water before Los Angeles withered away from thirst.

Now, after three days of rain, those concerns were gone. Instead, everyone was worried about the water-saturated soil, about deadly flash floods and gigantic landslides, sweeping power outages and gridlocked free ways. Sandbags were being handed out at firehouses across the county. TV stations were interrupting regular programming with live "Storm Watch" reports, as if the city were facing an imminent hurricane instead of a common rainstorm.

Sometimes Mark wondered if what really worried people was having nothing to worry about.

It wasn't raining that morning, though the dark clouds remained, exhausted from the long night of thundering and pouring, gathering their strength before unleashing their mayhem again.

As Mark made himself coffee and looked out at the beach, covered with seaweed, driftwood, shells, and trash churned up by the stormy seas, he realized he'd been sleeping poorly for a while now.

It had started when he'd witnessed a woman leaping out the window of her office building. She'd survived, but the memory of that horrible moment tormented Mark's sleep until he discovered what had driven her to attempt suicide and then solved the problem for her.

But even after that, sleep didn't come easy. He'd broken his arm in a car accident, and the cast made it difficult for him to get comfortable in bed. Once the cast was removed, his arm was sore for weeks, making it hard to get a good night's rest.

Perhaps it was age, he thought. As much as he hated to admit it, he wasn't a young man anymore. He was in his sixties. His days of eight hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep might be gone for good.

He took his coffee to the kitchen table and sat, watching a flock of seagulls circling over the sand and picking at the enormous clumps of seaweed. He listened to the crash of the waves, the squawk of the gulls, the settling of the house, and the windlike whoosh of cars passing by on the Pacific Coast Highway.

He was acutely aware of the emptiness of his Malibu beach house, which seemed to double in size whenever his son, Steve, was away.

Steve lived on the first floor, but lately he had been spending more and more nights at his girlfriend's apartment.

Although his son's job as an LAPD homicide detective kept him busy and out of the house a lot, Steve's presence had been there even if he wasn't. If Mark didn't run into Steve at night, or on his way out in the morning, there would always be signs that he had passed through. Dishes in the sink. Sandy tennis shoes on the deck. Case files on the coffee table. Recently, however, the house looked the same in the morning as it had the night before.

Maybe it wasn't the rain, or his arm, or his age, that was causing him to rest so uneasily, Mark thought. Maybe it was being alone.

He immediately rejected the idea. Loneliness couldn't be the problem. His life was full of people and activity. Between his work at the hospital and consulting on homicide investigations for LAPD, he had very little time alone. The more he thought about it, the more he realized he should be savoring the time to himself.

Or was that what he was afraid of?

Was all the work simply a way to avoid being alone?

Ridiculous.

Mark set his empty coffee cup aside. As a doctor, he knew the best prescription for what ailed him: a brisk walk on the beach, followed by a scalding shower and a big, healthy breakfast rich in fruit and fiber. Two hours from now, he would feel rested and energized and ready to work. All this moping would be forgotten.

Until tomorrow morning anyway.

He changed into an old pair of jeans, a faded sweat shirt, and his most comfortable pair of ragged tennis shoes and hurried down the steps from his second-floor deck to the beach below.

Mark paused on the bottom step and took a deep breath, luxuriating in the crisp, clean air, rich with the ocean mist. That was one of the great things about a storm—it washed the gunk out of the air. Of course, that meant the muck was dumped onto the streets, where it was swept into the gutters and out to sea, where— He abruptly dropped that line of thought, deciding it was better to just enjoy the fresh air than to think about how it got that way.

The sand was pleasantly thick under his feet, soaked and pockmarked by raindrops. He was dismayed by the amount of trash that had been washed ashore amidst the seaweed, driftwood, and palm fronds. Styrofoam cups, fast-food cartons, newspapers, candy wrappers, cigarette stubs, beer bottles...

It could be worse, he thought. A few years back, the morning surf had littered the shoreline from Manhattan Beach to as far north as Ventura with thousands of used syringes that'd been illegally dumped into the sea.

As he worked his way around and over the obstacles in his path, his walk became more of a slog. Ahead of him, the seagulls picked and fluttered and fought over a pile of kelp resting above the berm. From the smell drifting his way on the ocean breeze, Mark guessed that the carcass of a seal had washed ashore, tangled in the rubbery vines and tiny bladders.

As he got closer, he saw the hint of a fin and the silver glint of scales. It wasn't a seal after all, but rather some kind of large dead fish.

Mark turned, and was about to continue on his walk, but curiosity got the better of him. No fish he'd ever seen had a tail fin quite so perfect or scales that shone so bright. He had to know what it was.

So he grimaced against the stench and crouched beside the mound of seaweed, scattering a thousand flies and infuriating the gulls, which continued to hover low over him, squawking their fury at his intrusion.

Using a stick of driftwood, he brushed away dozens of hungry sand crabs and carefully parted the strands of sea weed to get a better look. First he saw the long, graceful fin, tapering to a fantail at its point. Then, as he cleared more kelp, he saw a mane of fiery red hair.

For a moment, he simply stared in disbelief.

It was a mermaid.

Her face was ghostly pale, almost translucent. Her eyes were wide and green, her lips slightly parted, her slender throat slit from ear to ear.

* * *

It started to rain again just as the crime scene techs finished erecting the tent over the clump of seaweed where the woman's body had been found.

While she was being kept dry, scores of officers and forensic investigators were getting drenched as they moved slowly up and down the beach, looking for clues in a race with the rain and tide, both of which threatened to wash away any remaining evidence.

Dr. Amanda Bentley, the medical examiner, squatted beside the body, waving away the swarm of flies and sand crabs that stubbornly refused to give up their claim to the corpse.

"She isn't a mermaid. She's wearing a costume," Amanda said. "And those big openings on either side of her throat aren't gills."

"I figured that much out for myself," Mark said, studying the body.

The only reason that he was still allowed to be at the crime scene was that Dr. Amanda Bentley worked for him, too. She was staff pathologist at Community General Hospital, where her lab doubled as the adjunct county morgue. Amanda not only juggled two jobs but also was a single parent, raising a six-year-old son. And she did it all with seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm. Mark couldn't figure out how she pulled it off.

"It's not going to be easy determining time of death," Amanda said, "but judging by the lividity, the shriveling of the skin, and the lack of bloating, I'd say she's been in the water no more than eight to ten hours. I'll know more after I get her on the table."

"This may come as a shock to you," a familiar voice said, "but I'm actually the homicide detective in charge of the investigation."

They turned to see Steve Sloan entering the tent, water dripping from his umbrella, his hair surprisingly dry. His badge was clipped to his belt.

"I know it's just a small technicality," Steve said, "but shouldn't you be saving your report for me?"

Amanda shrugged, tipping her head towards Mark. "He was here first."

"That's only because the body washed up in his front yard," Steve said.

"Isn't it your front yard, too?" she asked. "Come to think of it, weren't you wearing those same clothes yesterday when I saw you at the beheading?"

"
Beheading
?" Mark asked.

"Never mind," Steve said.

"This couple, married for thirty years, is sitting down to dinner," Amanda said. "The husband turns to his wife and says that the casserole she made for dinner is too salty. So his wife does the natural thing. She smacks her husband with a cast-iron frying pan, cuts off his head with an electric carving knife, and tosses it out the window."

"What happened to the casserole?" Mark asked.

"She's not one to waste food. She kept it and offered to serve it to us while we worked the crime scene." Amanda glanced at Steve. "I didn't think it was salty, did you?"

Steve shook his head.

Mark stared at his son in disbelief. "You ate the casserole?"

"It wasn't the casserole that killed the guy," Steve said.

"In a way it was," Amanda said.

"Could we please move on?" Steve said.

"You're right," Mark said. "Let's stick to the point. Steve spent the night with his girlfriend."

Steve groaned.

"What girlfriend?" Amanda said. "He's never mentioned a girlfriend. Who is she?"

"Her name is Lissy," Mark said. "She used to work nights as a technical support operator until her job got outsourced to India. Now she's studying for her real estate license. He made her a coffee table. Not from scratch, of course. One of those snap-together things from Ikea."

"They don't just snap together," Steve said. "There's fifty parts you've got to assemble with hundreds of special screws and interlocking bolt thingies using only this tiny little tool they give you that's impossible to get a good grip on."

Mark and Amanda stared at him, making him feel self-conscious. He cleared his throat.

"Do you think we could discuss something else now?" Steve motioned to the body. "Like, for instance, this dead mermaid

"She's not a mermaid," Mark said. "It's a costume."

'Thank you, Dad," Steve replied. "It's nice to know I won't have to go to Atlantis to interview suspects. What can you tell me, Amanda?"

"I'm not a forensics expert, but I'm certain this wasn't where she was killed."

"Because there are no signs that she bled out here?" Steve asked. "The blood could have been washed away by the surf."

"It's not the lack of blood," Amanda said. "It's the body. She's covered with postmortem scrapes and some deep, ragged gashes. She didn't get them from being splashed by the tide on a soft, sandy beach. This body was slammed against a rocky shoreline a few times before washing up here. I'd bet she was in the ocean most of the night."

Mark sighed. "Which means that for the moment the victim herself is the only evidence we have to work with to solve her murder."

"We?" Steve asked.

"She did wash up in my front yard," Mark said.

"That doesn't mean you've got the right to start investigating her murder."

"Of course it does," Mark said.

"I have the strangest feeling I've experienced this conversation before," Amanda said.

"Send that mermaid costume down to the crime lab as soon as you can, okay?" Steve said.

"Sure," Amanda replied. "If you like, I can also finish your end of the argument for you. I think I know all the lines by heart. I can even tell you who wins."

"I know who wins," Steve said, leading his father out of the tent, putting his arm over his shoulder and sheltering him from the rain under his umbrella. They headed for the beach house.

"You've got some kind of luck, Dad."

"What do you mean?"

"A couple months ago you walked in on a murder at the house next door. Now a corpse washes up on the beach, practically on your porch."

"Our porch," Mark corrected.

"If I was one of your neighbors," Steve said, "I'd move."

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

Russell "Cork" Corcoran liked to tell the rookie life guards under his command that he was the inspiration for David Hasselhoff's character on
Baywatch
. He told Steve Sloan the same thing as they drove in his life guard patrol truck to the southern edge of Point Dume state beach. Steve would have had an easier time believing Cork's story if David Hasselhoff was thirty pounds overweight and tried to hide a bald spot under six wispy strands of hair combed over from the other side of his head.

The rain had stopped, but it was just an intermission while the scenery changed in the meteorological show. Dark, heavy clouds were lumbering up to their marks onstage.

"Normally the currents run north to south," Cork explained as they bounced along the deserted beach in the bright yellow pickup, surfboards and rescue floats strapped to the bed. "But if there's a southern swell, like with the storm we've had the last couple of days, the current runs the opposite way."

After leaving his father's house, Steve had contacted the county lifeguards, hoping someone over there could use tide tables and currents to help him pinpoint where the dead woman might have been dumped into the sea by her killer. Cork had volunteered for the job.

"So you're guessing the body was dumped south of where it was found on Broad Beach," Steve said.

"There's no guesswork involved. I've been doing this job twenty years," Cork said. "I can feel how the currents are moving just by looking at the water."

"So if we know the direction the currents were moving, then it's just a matter of calculating the speed and working backward from her approximate time of death."

"The lateral current runs about a quarter knot per hour," Cork said. "That's about the equivalent of one mile per hour. But then you got to figure in the wind speed, which is going to have a much bigger impact on how far, how fast, and in what direction the body floated."

"How fast was the wind blowing?"

"Fifteen, twenty miles per hour," Cork said. "But you've also got to factor in the tide and lots of other variables. For instance, when there's a southern swell, the current moves a little faster. Plus the wind speed isn't constant; it tends to change based on the time of day. The wind also changes direction depending on what corner of Santa Monica Bay you're talking about."

"This is starting to sound like one of those tricky math questions we used to get in grade school," Steve said. "I flunked math."

"Me too," Cork said.

"Great," Steve said. "You happen to have a calculator in this truck?"

"I don't rely on numbers anyway," Cork said. "I prefer instinct."

Cork stopped the truck at the southernmost edge of sand, where the beach gave way to large, jagged boulders that spilled out into the sea, creating a natural breakwater. They got out of the vehicle and trudged a few feet to the shoreline, close enough to feel the ocean spray as the waves crashed against the rocks.

"Where we're standing, the wind runs west to east," Cork said. "My instincts tell me the girl had to be dumped here."

"If the wind blows east," Steve said, "wouldn't that drive the body right back to the beach?"

"You'd think so," Cork said. "But the bay curves in the same direction, so the wind actually runs parallel to the coastline, which, given the factors at play twelve hours ago, would have carried the body north."

Steve wasn't sure he understood Cork's thinking, but his instincts told him this was the right place.

It was a great spot to dispose of a body. There was a public parking lot that ran most of the length of the beach, which would have been pitch-black and empty last night, particularly in the midst of a storm. The location provided easy access and good cover, with the added benefit that the wind, the rain, and the tide would probably wash away any evidence the killer inadvertently left behind.

Steve glanced at the waves, churning and frothing against the boulders. It wasn't just his instincts, or tide tables, or lateral currents that made this spot feel right to him. The location fit with Amanda's theory that the victim's postmortem abrasions came from being dumped along a rocky shoreline.

Still, it was only his gut feeling. He didn't have any proof that this was actually the place where the woman's body had been tossed into the sea.

He looked back at the parking lot. It was about a hundred yards from the lot to the rocks. Either she had walked out to the rocks and then was killed or she was dragged or carried across the sand. If she was dragged, there was a slim chance that some evidence might have been left behind that hadn't been washed away, particularly higher up the beach away from the surf.

That was when Steve noticed the man moving methodically along the beach, waving a metal detector over the sand in front of him, stopping every so often to dig with his sifter for whatever treasure was registering on his earphones.

Steve looked at Cork, then gestured towards the beach comber. "You know that guy?"

"No, but guys like him always come out after daybreak, particularly after a hot weekend or a major storm," Cork said. "They're looking for things like diamond rings lost by sunbathers or gold doubloons washed up from sunken Spanish galleons."

"Does that happen often?"

"About as often as you find dead mermaids," Cork said. Steve thanked Cork for his help, asked him to stick around for the evidence collection team, and then marched over to the man with the metal detector.

The beachcomber had a deep tan, a scraggly beard, and long, matted hair that looked like a bird's nest. He wore four filthy shirts on top of one another and an oversized peacoat that hung from his wiry shoulders like a cape. His dirt-encrusted Top-Siders were held together with silver duct tape. His socks were mismatched, one black and one brown. He was totally focused on his task, his eyes locked on the dial of his detector, the sounds of the out side world dampened by his headphones. He didn't notice Steve until he swept his detector over the detective's feet.

The beachcomber looked up, startled, as if rudely awakened from a deep sleep.

Steve flashed his badge and motioned for the man to remove his headphones.

"Lieutenant Steve Sloan, LAPD. Have you been out here long?"

"Every morning," the man said in a voice that sounded like it was filtered through broken glass.

"I meant today."

"Since dawn," the man said. "Why?"

"I'm going to need to confiscate whatever you've found."

"It's mine," the man said, straightening up and puffing out his chest. "The Supreme Court ruled in Benjamin v. Spruce that property is deemed lost when it is unintentionally separated from the dominion of its owners. When items are accidentally dropped in any public place or thoroughfare, or anyplace where the inference can be made that such item was left there unknowingly, it is considered lost in a legal sense."

"You're a lawyer?" Steve asked incredulously.

"I spent fourteen years in the Disney legal affairs department before I was disbarred," the man said. He spit on the sand, then continued, "Furthermore title to such items belongs to the finder against all the world except the true owner."

"So in other words," Steve said, "finders keepers, losers weepers."

"In a crude sense, yes," the man said.

"What does the Supreme Court say about taking evidence from the scene of a murder?"

The man frowned, reached into his jacket, and pulled out a crumpled and damp paper bag.

"I want an itemized receipt," he grumbled, shoving the bag into Steve's hands. "And I want everything back that isn't pertinent to your investigation and first dibs on any thing that goes unclaimed after the trial."

"What about the paper bag? Would you like that back, too?"

Steve opened the bag and peered inside. Amidst the sand and loose change, there was a Hot Wheels car, a charm bracelet, a watch, an earring, a fork, a Saint Christopher medal, a fingernail clipper, a cell phone, a keychain, a fishing lure, a pen, a class ring, and a stick of gum still in its foil wrapping.

"What do you do with this stuff?" Steve asked.

"What any sane person would do." The beachcomber scratched at his soiled armpit. "I put it all on eBay."

* * *

Finding a corpse on the beach didn't slow Mark Sloan down. He still made it to Community General Hospital on time for his first appointment. Not that he'd been in any hurry to get there. It was a meeting he'd been dreading.

His patient was Dr. Dan Marlowe, a cardiologist at Community General. They'd done their internal medicine residencies together and were even neighbors for a while, back when their children were in diapers and their wives were still alive.

Dan was a big, gregarious, round-cheeked man whose hearty laugh, ready smile, and perpetual good cheer made him the natural choice at Christmas to play Santa Claus in the children's ward. He'd gladly donned the Santa suit and passed out gifts to the sick kids for nearly forty years.

Lately, Dan spoke with a hoarse voice that he blamed on too much laughter and lingering laryngitis. But being a doctor himself, he naturally put off seeing one. Mark finally nagged him into it, arguing it was probably a simple sinus or throat infection that could be quickly cured with the right antibiotics.

But it wasn't. Instead, Mark discovered something unexpected and much worse. The laryngitis was an alarm bell, one that rang far too late in Dan's case. The scratchy voice was caused by a tumor on the upper left lobe of his lung that had invaded his recurrent laryngeal nerve. Dan showed no other obvious symptoms of his dire affliction.

Dan insisted that Mark conduct all the follow-up tests and exams at another hospital so word wouldn't spread around Community General about his condition.

So now, rather than meeting in Mark's office or an exam room, they got together over coffee in the Community General cafeteria. They were both wearing their lab coats, stethoscopes slung around their necks, several files open between them. To anyone who saw them, they appeared to be just two doctors conferring on a case. There was nothing unusual about that. But this time the patient happened to be one of the doctors at the table.

The news Mark had to deliver was far from encouraging. The cancer had metastasized widely throughout Dan's body. Aggressive chemotherapy and surgery were the only options, but the prognosis wasn't good. Both men knew that. Dan was in his late sixties, and his cancer was advanced. At best, the treatment might add a year or two to his life, but not much more. His illness was a death sentence.

"This is probably sacrilegious for a doctor to say, but I'm not going to do a damn thing about it," Dan said. "It's a quality-of-life issue. What's the point of living another year or so if the extra time is going to be spent in misery?"

Mark had guessed that would be Dan's decision, and he couldn't really blame him. It was a choice Mark might have made himself had he been in the same position. But still, it saddened him.

"I understand," Mark said. "But there are still things we can do to relieve some of your discomfort."

"Nothing invasive and no drugs that are going to turn me into some kind of zombie," Dan said. "I want to continue showing up at this hospital as a doctor instead of a patient for as long as I can."

"You're going to keep working?"

"Of course," Dan said.

"Wouldn't you rather spend the time you have left traveling? Visiting with your grandchildren? Reading all those books you've always meant to get to someday?"

"Hell no. That would almost be as bad as the chemo," Dan said with one of his robust grins. "I love my job, Mark. I want to do it as long as I'm physically able. But don't worry, old friend. I'll find time to indulge myself and do some of the things that I've put off for too long." It wasn't the first time Mark had told a patient that he was going to die, and the doctor knew it wouldn't be the last. He was continually amazed by the courage and serenity so many of his patients showed when faced with the certainty of their imminent death. Often it seemed to be their loved ones who felt the most fear, anxiety, and sadness over the news. This time Mark was one of them. He was losing an old, dear friend.

"Don't look so sad, Mark," Dan said. "I'd rather go like this than have a stroke, get hit by a car, or walk into an open manhole."

"I think I'd prefer the manhole."

"Nonsense," Dan said. "It's a luxury to know when you're going to die. It gives you a chance to put your life in order, to say all your good-byes."

"That's the thing," Mark said. "I'm lousy at good-byes." Dan waved Mark's comment away. "Ah, we all have to go sometime. Few of us are privileged to do it on our own terms. I'm a lucky man."

They sat for a moment in silence, comfortable in each other's company. They had a history together that encompassed most of Mark's personal and professional life.

Mark knew his sadness wasn't for only Dan, but for all the friends and family he'd lost over the years. He'd reached an age at which more and more of his contemporaries were dying. It was as if his past was fading right before his eyes. Soon Mark would be the only one left who could say that what he'd experienced in his youth actually happened.

At that moment Mark realized that what troubled him wasn't just the loss of loved ones or the loneliness of be coming the only witness left to much of his own life.

It was fear.

Of what? Of surviving? Or of knowing that his own death might not be that far off?

But looking at Dan now, so clearly at peace, Mark wondered if there wasn't some benefit to knowing the end of your own story. Perhaps true peace came from seeing the whole picture, from being able to look upon the entirety of your life. Perhaps his fear came from the uncertainty about his own fate, of never being able to achieve that clarity.

"There aren't many of us left," Dan said. "This hospital has changed a lot since we first came in these doors."

"It's changed completely, thanks to me," Mark said. "I'm the reason a mad bomber blew the place up a few years ago."

"I don't mean the brick and mortar," Dan said. "I'm talking about the people, the technology, the practice of medicine. Look at us, Mark. We're still here. Imagine if our younger selves could see us now."

Looking past Dan, across the large cafeteria, Mark could almost see them.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

Mark spent the rest of the morning attending a mind-numbing administrative meeting with the various hospital department heads, which actually wasn't such a bad thing. After finding a corpse on the beach and having an emotional discussion about a friend's imminent death, he needed a little numbing, to give his heart and mind a rest from the depressing events of the day. His eyes were open and he looked attentive, but sitting through the meeting was almost like sleeping, something he hadn't been getting enough of lately anyway.

Although the meeting felt endless, it did finally break up around noon. Mark headed down to the ER to see if his friend and protégé Dr. Jesse Travis wanted some company for lunch.

The ER was filled with patients, which was typical in the wake of a storm, when the number of accident-related injuries increased substantially. But the rain wasn't responsible for the crowded conditions. There were at least three dozen patients, some of them firemen and police officers, and they were all covered with hives.

Dr. Travis was scurrying around to treat the patients who were already there and deal with the steady stream of new arrivals. But if Jesse was overwhelmed, he didn't show it. If anything, he seemed to be enjoying himself, thriving on the urgency and activity. Jesse's boyish enthusiasm reminded Mark more than a little of himself in his twenties, or more accurately, of what he'd been told he was like by those few people who knew him back then.

Mark approached Jesse. "What happened?"

"See those two kids over there?" Jesse cocked his head towards two boys who looked to be about twelve years old, lying on adjacent gurneys, their legs elevated, IVs in their arms. They had red, swollen sores all over their faces, necks, and arms. "They saw a beehive in the eaves of their apartment building and thought it would be a lot of fun to throw rocks at it."

"Oh no," Mark said.

"Sixty thousand Africanized honeybees came swarming out," Jesse said. "Those two were stung a few hundred times before they dove into the swimming pool. The swarm killed two dogs, attacked everybody in the building and on the street. They even stung the firefighters and paramedics who showed up. The firefighters doused the bees with fire-retardant foam and cordoned off the street until the exterminators got out there."

"Anyone seriously hurt?" Mark knew a healthy adult could endure a thousand stings, but just one sting could cause a hypersensitive person to have a potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction.

"We've have eight patients with massive angioedema but no evidence of cardiovascular problems," Jesse said. "I've got them on diphenyihydramine IV, epinephrine, and oral antihistamines. For everyone else, I've given them Benadryl, ice packs, and a recipe for a skin paste of meat tenderizer with a touch of garlic and seasoned salt."

"What's the garlic and salt for?"

"The steaks," Jesse said. "As long as you're going to be making the paste, you might as well marinate some meat for dinner."

"I'm surprised you didn't just prescribe lunch at Barbeque Bob's," Mark said.

"That would be a conflict of interest, since Steve and I own the place."

"Looks like you've had an exciting morning," Mark said.

"Not as exciting as yours," Jesse replied. "It's not every day you go for a walk on the beach and trip over a dead mermaid."

"How did you hear about that?"

Jesse gave him a look. "It would be more amazing if I
hadn't
heard about it, don't you think? When a woman in a mermaid suit washes up on a beach with her throat slit, it's a big attention-getter. It's probably all over the Internet by now."

Mark felt a chill. How could he have missed it? He'd been so preoccupied with Dan Marlowe's health problems, he'd put the murder out of his mind for a few hours. But even at the scene, he'd been so caught up in the situation that he'd missed the gruesome point: The murderer wanted the killing to be noticed.

It was a message.

But to whom? And what did it mean?

"Are you okay?" Jesse asked.

Before Mark could reply, his beeper went off. He glanced at the readout to see who was summoning him. It was the pathology lab, also known as the adjunct county morgue. The answers to some of his questions were waiting for him on a stainless-steel autopsy table.

 

Dr. Amanda Bentley had seen lots of dead bodies, hundreds over the course of her career. She'd cut each of the bodies open and examined them in cold, clinical detail. But none of those autopsies prepared her for the mermaid. And none of them frightened her quite as much.

The first of the Sloans to arrive was Steve. He seemed surprised to find Amanda alone, the corpse of the dead red-haired woman laid out on the examination table in front of her, a sheet covering her eviscerated body.

"Where's my dad?" Steve asked.

"On his way," she said. "I called you first and gave you a half hour head start."

"What did I do to earn such special treatment?" Steve asked.

"You're the homicide detective. It's your case," she replied. "You should hear what I have to say before any one else does."

"In other words, if Dad got here before me, he would have charmed you into telling him everything, and you didn't want to have to tell the same story twice."

"You should be a detective," Amanda said.

Steve studied her, suspicious. "There's something else you aren't telling me."

"There's a lot I'm not telling you," she said. "But I will, as soon as Mark gets here."

Mark Sloan bounded in at that exact moment, out of breath from running up the stairs.

"Steve," Mark said, "you got here awfully quick."

"You'll just have to run faster next time," Steve said.

Mark took a seat on a stool opposite Amanda and motioned towards the body laid out between them. "So, does she have a name?"

"Not yet." Steve stepped up to the end of the exam table and looked down at the dead woman's pale, expressionless face. "She doesn't match any missing-persons reports, and we came up with nothing when we ran her prints."

"What about the mermaid suit?" Amanda asked.

"It's a Halloween costume made in China and distributed worldwide for the last five years," Steve said. "They are sold by those itinerant, no-name Halloween stores that occupy vacant storefronts for a month or two before October 31 and then disappear the next day."

"So the costume is a dead end," Mark said. "The killer could have bought it anytime over the last five years just about anywhere in the world."

"We've got a good idea where she was dumped, though," Steve said. "Point Dume state beach. The evidence collection team is sifting through the sand right now. We've found a bunch of stuff, from charm bracelets to nipple rings, but nothing we've been able to trace back to anybody yet."

Mark glanced at Amanda. "Looks like the victim is still our best lead to whoever killed her."

Amanda took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Mark and Steve exchanged a look.

"What?" Amanda asked.

"You look upset," Mark said. "What's wrong?"

"She's what's wrong," Amanda said, tilting her head towards the dead woman. "She scares me."

"You've seen a lot worse," Steve said. "We all have."