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Dr. Mark Sloan, chief of internal medicine, was being paged over the Community General Hospital loudspeaker. He was wanted on the second floor right away, and he was doing his best to get there as fast as he could.
Mark rocketed down the corridors at what could only be called superhuman speed for a man of his age. He weaved around startled nurses and astonished visitors with a polite wave and a glowing smile, expertly rolling on the wheels imbedded in the heels of his Predator sneakers.
With one foot in front of the other, toes tipped up, and all his weight balanced on his heels, Mark Sloan glided down the slick linoleum floors like an Olympic ice-skater going for the Gold.
It was exhilarating for him and terrifying for everyone else. But anyone who'd visited Community General Hospital during the last forty years wouldn't have been surprised by the sight. Mark Sloan had experimented with everything from roller skates to Razor Scooters in his impossible quest to be everywhere at once.
He whipped around a corner, accidentally clipping an orderly and knocking his tray of food in the air, splattering everyone with mashed potatoes, peas and Salisbury steak. Mark looked over his shoulder to apologize and plowed into a group of candy stripers, scattering the volunteers like a flock of frightened pigeons.
That's when he saw the circular nurses' station looming up fast in front of him. Mark lowered the ball of his leading foot to the floor, going from a rapid roll into a running stop just short of a collision with the counter.
Mark smiled sheepishly at the disapproving nurse, who had thrown her considerable bulk on top of a stack of files to save them from toppling.
"I got here as fast as I could," Mark said, catching his breath.
"So I see," she said, shaking her head, each of her chins wobbling in judgment.
"Who needs a consult, Marge?" Mark asked.
"He does," Marge motioned to someone behind him.
Mark turned and was surprised to see LAPD Police Chief John Masters leaning against the wall, his muscular arms crossed over his broad chest, staring at the doctor with his usual cold, appraising look. The chief was a former football player who became a soldier who became a cop. He was more of a politician now than anything else, but he still carried himself like a man coiled to strike, who might be called upon at a moment's notice to tackle a quarterback, charge an enemy bunker or wrestle a deranged suspect to the ground.
"You have a unique way of getting around," Chief Masters said. His voice was low and smooth, managing to convey strength, authority and an unsettling hint of violence.
"It's called heeling," Mark lifted up one of his feet to show Masters the bottom of his shoe. "These are ordinary sneakers with removable wheels imbedded in the heels. It takes a little practice, but once you get the balance down, you can really move. You might think about it for your foot patrol officers."
"I'll be sure to do that," Masters said dismissively. "Is there somewhere private we can talk?"
"Does this have something to do with Steve?" Mark asked. Every time Steve left their Malibu beach house to go to work, pocketing his badge and strapping on his gun, Mark tried not to think about all the terrible things that could happen to him. And Mark knew from experience just how terrible those things could be.
"Doctor Sloan, if I have a problem with a homicide detective, I talk to him. I don't go running to his father."
Mark sighed with relief. "So Steve isn't hurt or in any kind of danger."
"No," the chief replied, genuinely baffled by Mark's assumption. "Why would you think that?"
"I suppose it's the natural assumption when your son is a cop and the chief of police shows up unannounced for a little talk."
"Oh, yes. Of course. I'm sorry." Masters wasn't so much sorry as he was embarrassed. He'd been so focused on his own agenda, he'd forgotten just how many times he'd done exactly what Mark described for exactly the reasons Mark feared.
"Don't worry about it, Chief," Mark said, surprising himself at how easily he was letting Masters off the hook. It was rare to see Masters flustered about anything, and Mark would ordinarily have taken advantage of it, but his curiosity was stronger than his sense of mischief.
If Masters wasn't here about Steve, what did he want? Some medical advice? Mark doubted it. Mark was the last person Masters would confide in about anything that could possibly be construed as revealing weakness, fear or vulnerability. Perhaps the chief finally had enough of Mark's meddling in homicide cases and had come to slap him down, once and for all.
Whatever it was, Mark would soon find out. Mark motioned Masters into one of the exam rooms and closed the door.
"So what's bothering you, Chief? One of your old football injuries acting up?"
"I'm not here for a physical, Doctor," Masters said. "I'm assembling a blue ribbon task force to do a thorough review of the department's dead case files. I want you to be on it."
The last thing Mark was expecting was any kind of job offer. "What are dead case files?"
"Unsolved homicides that are no longer being actively pursued, investigations that were reprioritized after considerable time, effort and manpower were spent on them without positive results."
It was the kind of reply Mark would have expected to hear at a press conference. In fact, he suspected he probably would, and that the chief was simply taking it out for a test drive first.
"I think I understand," Mark said. "What you mean is these are the cases you dropped in favor of murders you knew you could close, and close quickly, to keep your annual clearance rates from dropping."
Mark gave the chief his most avuncular smile, but Masters was one of the few who was immune to it. He looked Mark in the eye and spoke very slowly, so there would be no misunderstanding. Mark tried not to wither under the big man's steely gaze.
"What I mean, Doctor, is that there are five hundred homicides in this city every year, and while we solve most of them, there are a few that we can't close. Maybe it's lack of evidence, witnesses or cooperation, or maybe it's just bad police work. I don't know. But I can tell you this: It makes me sick that those killers are still out there on the streets, making a mockery of the law. I want them behind bars. And I'm asking for your help to do it."
"Let me get this straight. You want me to investigate homicides. Not just any homicides, but the ones the department couldn't solve."
"I wouldn't put it that way. The mandate of the task force is to take another look at some inactive cases to see if any new leads can be developed."
"I'm confused," Mark said. "Aren't you the man who once told me 'You're a doctor, not a cop,' and wanted me thrown in jail for obstruction of justice for showing up at a crime scene? Now you're saying you want my help?"
The chief shifted his weight uncomfortably. He didn't like explaining himself to anyone, particularly Dr. Sloan, but he knew had no other choice.
"I don't tolerate any civilians getting involved in homicide investigations, particularly those lurkers, losers and lunatics who think of themselves as detectives," Masters said. "But you were regarded as some kind of expert at solving murders long before I got this job, and I can't deny you've been responsible for putting a lot of killers away, even under my watch. That said, I've never wanted your help before. This time I'm asking. That should tell you something."
So Mark decided to press his advantage and see just how much more he could get out of Masters.
"Why me?" Mark asked. "Why now?"
"I need a fresh perspective on these difficult cases and I know, for better or worse, you can give that to me."
Mark met his gaze. The chief had answered his first question but had carefully avoided the second. Mark had a pretty good idea what the answer was, and that it was the real motivation behind the blue ribbon task force and Mark's appointment to it. Even so, this was an opportunity Mark couldn't pass up, and he was well aware that Chief Masters knew it. You don't become chief of police without knowing how to skillfully manipulate people.
"When do I start?" Mark asked.
Masters reached into his jacket and handed Mark a crisply folded sheet of paper. "You already have."
As the chief walked out, Mark looked at the paper. It was an LAPD press release, dated that morning, announcing Mark's appointment to the chief's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Unsolved Homicides.
"Congratulations," Dr. Jesse Travis said, catching up to Mark in the hall.
"On what?" Mark asked.
"That whole task force thing," Jesse replied. "Very impressive."
Mark looked at the young doctor in astonishment. He'd just left Chief Masters a few minutes ago. "How did you know about it?"
"I heard it on the radio this morning," Jesse said. "Though frankly, I was a little hurt that I had to learn about it from Mike and Ken instead of you."
"I'm sure Mike and Ken, whoever they are, know more about it than I do."
"You've never listened to Mike and Ken?" Jesse said. "They're great. They once broadcast an entire show standing naked in an enormous vat of pig poop."
Mark gave him a look. "How do you know?"
"That they were actually standing in pig excrement."
"They said so."
Jesse thought about it a moment. "Okay, you have a point. But I know for a fact Mike can play the national anthem with his armpit."
"I'm sure it's an inspiring rendition," Mark said. "It's nice to know you're getting your news from such reliable sources."
"Hey, they knew about you and the task force, didn't they?"
Mark couldn't argue with that.
"So," Jesse said, "have you uncovered any intriguing cases?"
"I haven't looked at the files yet."
"You haven't? What are you waiting for? These cases have been buried too long already."
"I've only had the job ten minutes."
"And you're falling behind already? C'mon, Mark. I know it's hard, thankless work, but if you need help, I'm glad to lend my expertise," Jesse said. "Or just be the guy who goes out and gets the coffee and Krispy Kremes."
It wouldn't be the first time Jesse had helped Mark out on a case. Jesse was boundlessly enthusiastic, hardworking and eager to please his mentor. He reminded Mark of himself at that age, though many people, including his own son, accused Mark of intentionally molding the young doctor in his image. Mark often wondered if Jesse really had an interest in homicide investigation or if he worked so hard at it just to please him. Solving murders wasn't actually a part of the Hippocratic Oath.
When Jesse wasn't at the hospital or helping Mark with an investigation, he could usually be found behind the counter at BBQ Bob's, a small, struggling diner he owned with Mark's son, Steve. All of this left him little time to sleep, much less do anything else, which wasn't exactly helping his relationship with his girlfriend, Susan Hilliard, a nurse at Community General. She occasionally worked the counter at BBQ Bob's just so she could spend more time with him.
"I appreciate the offer, Jesse, but it looks to me like you've got your hands full just managing your patients," Mark said, motioning to the files under Jesse's arm.
"Actually, one of them is yours." Jesse slipped one of the files out and handed it to Mark. "Stanley Tidewell checked himself in this morning."
Stanley was in his early fiftiess and had been one of Mark's patients, off and on, for years. He had high blood pressure, mild diabetes and a history of kidney problems. One of his kidneys had been removed several years ago and he'd been on dialysis three times a week ever since.
He was the founder of Burger Beach, a legendary, family-owned chain of local restaurants that perfectly synthesized the idealized California beach experience. Besides a simple menu of hamburgers, hot dogs, fries and shakes, Stanley's restaurants all featured suntanned waitresses in bikinis, the smell of coconut oil in the air, the sound of crashing surf piped in on hidden speakers, even a stretch of sand strewn with seashells and beach towels.
Stanley Tidewell could barely keep up with the success of his restaurants, opening new locations as fast as he could, regularly putting in twenty-hour days and eating off his own menu. He refused to slow down or change his lifestyle, despite Mark's dire warnings about the risks he was taking with his health. Mark treated him for a kidney infection a couple of months ago, but other than that, Stanley's condition had remained remarkably stable. At least until now.
"I'm getting him dialysized, running the usual tests and keeping a close eye on his electrolytes," Jesse said. "You don't need to worry, I'm on top of it."
"What's his problem?" Mark asked. "Did his kidney infection come back?"
"No. He's fine."
"Then what's he doing in the hospital?"
"Mr. Tidewell decided to have a kidney transplant. He's found a private donor and he's flying in some big shot surgeon to do the operation," Jesse said. "I thought you knew all about it."
Mark shook his head and handed the file back. "I guess I better start listening to Mike & Ken or I'm never going to know anything."
Mark glanced down the hall as the elevator arrived and people began filing out. He couldn't see anybody waiting to get in, which meant in a moment the doors would close on an empty elevator. He narrowed his eyes and calculated the variables.
"I'll catch up with you later," Mark said.
And with that, Mark ran a few steps, lifted the balls of his feet, shifted his weight to his heels and rocketed towards the empty elevator, making it inside with a triumphant smile just as the elevator doors were closing. There was, however, one variable Mark hadn't considered-how he was going to stop.
An instant later, Jesse heard a heavy thunk and a muffled "yee-ouch!" from inside the elevator. Jesse couldn't figure out how such a brilliant man could also be such an incredible klutz. There had to be a balance there somewhere, but Jesse couldn't find it. He'd seen many people judge Mark Sloan by his eccentricities and underestimate his genius. That was a big mistake, one Jesse never made. Instead, he respected Mark's intelligence, learned from his example as a doctor and, as he had that afternoon, simply accepted his odd behavior for what it was. Odd.
The young doctor took one more look at the elevator, grinned to himself and happily continued on his rounds.
--from Diagnosis Murder: The Silent Partner by Lee Goldberg, copyright © 2003 Lee Goldberg, published by Signet, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.