Suspense A. J. Diehl The Mind Box

ISBN 13: 9780738708201

The Mind Box

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9780738708201: The Mind Box

A famous Hollywood producer, Eddie Ealing, is found dead and mutilated in his mansion--a heinous killing that mimics one of his own grisly thriller films. Only days before, Eddie had received a disturbing e-mail message containing a blood-spattered picture of a young woman and what looks like a human heart, from a source known only as "Mike's Gifts." Notorious for his belligerent character and ruthless tactics, it seems like everyone had a grudge against the wealthy Oscar-winner--including his powerful family that runs a lucrative business based on memory research.

Assigned to this high-profile case is Detective Lane Daily, whose investigation turns into a deadly cat-and-mouse game when her own dark secrets are discovered . . . and messages from Mike's Gifts begin appearing in her inbox

Click here to download Book Club Questions for The Mind Box, prepared by author A. J. Diehl!

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Award-winning writer A.J. Diehl is the author of a report on crime and violence in the media. She's been featured as a spokesperson on radio and television, and in newspapers such as USA Today and The Los Angeles Times.

Previously a senior news editor who worked with ABC, CBS and NBC-affiliated TV newsrooms, Diehl also freelances for regional and national publications. She's worked in the magazine, music and concert industries, and has organized artists for the LAPD's D.A.R.E. program and other youth initiatives.

The Mind Box, her fast-paced debut novel, took "Editor's Choice" stripes at the San Diego Writers Conference. The manuscript also received high praise from Silence of the Lambs editor Richard Marek who penned the Central Park Jogger book.

Top writing awards also went to Diehl at the Maui Writers Conference and she's won several national awards for creative excellence.

A member of the RTNDA (Radio and Television News Directors Association), the LA Press Club and the SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists), Diehl graduated from USC with honors in journalism.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PROLOGUE

Thursday, June 23

On his computer screen, the e-mail's images opened: a white gift box with a blue ribbon that untied itself and fell to a virtual floor. As if removed by invisible hands, the top of the box lifted. From inside came pictures so vivid, so alive, they shamed his Oscar-winning films. The young woman. Drops of red appeared, smearing her with their implication. The heart beating like something out of Poe's worst nightmare. He had to admit, it was the most terrifying gift a person could receive?one's worst memories. Untraceable; he'd checked twice. His estate manager hovered, watching. Was he in with them or not? Feeling exposed, Eddie Ealing reached for his Scotch, then remembered he'd stopped drinking a decade ago. First his mind grayed, like cooling ash, until the replaying images stoked and fired him, enraged him. He'd been accused of propagating violence but his exploits paled against the horrors conjured by the perfectly honorable monsters he knew. What they'd done. What they would do, if allowed. At last, Eddie's plan was in place. The deadline?July 4. They could terrorize, manipulate and threaten him, but they wouldn't win with him alive, and they couldn't kill him. Not now. The one redemptive deal in his life would be this?stopping them. He expected the next waves of dark haze icing his brain, but not the tears that dropped to his cheeks as he tried to quell the violent shaking in his gut. The damn memories filled him again.

* * *

Tuesday, July 5

The call interrupted an epic beach morning.

Lane Daily had just settled into her sand chair, the aches of last night's chase melting from her legs in the strong Hermosa Beach sun. She'd finished her first glass of Fumé Blanc, had just started a new book, and had just forgotten she was an LAPD homicide detective. She answered her cell phone with more of a sigh than a word.

"They're saying it's the strangest murder ever seen in L.A." It was her partner, J.D. Nestor.

"Real funny. First day off?"

"?in three weeks," he finished. "I'm not messing with you. More media here than God and they're calling it the chart-topper."

"Worse than Tate/La Bianca?"

"More personal. All the sick stuff directed at one guy." Nestor paused. "Eddie Ealing."

The wine soured in her stomach. "The Eddie Ealing? Where? How?"

"His place. Off Mulholland. Haven't seen the how; I'm on my way now. The lieutenant's been trying to reach you. Hear it's colorful." Nestor gave her the address, said he'd see her there.

As she gathered her beach gear the wind nipped at Daily's chestnut hair and relief coursed through her. Even now, she couldn't entirely relax near the ocean, no matter how she tried. Too much to remember. Systematic desensitization, her best friend called it: settling near your fears until they don't conjure up the demons anymore. But Daily's demons weren't in the sea, they were in her head.

It was early but already the smells of a grill tickled her nose. At the yellow beach house, the cute guy manning the barbecue waved at her and smiled. He ate burgers for breakfast. She certainly couldn't criticize given her dry white nourishment this morning the first sip of relaxation she'd allowed herself in twenty days. She tried to remember his name. Tad? Todd?

"Leaving already, Lane?" He knew hers. "The day's young and long...."

* * *

Mulholland was jammed with news cameras, vans, reporters. In sight was the canyon road that separated the Hollywood Division of the LAPD from the turf of the LA County Sheriff. If Ealing had been murdered a block west, she'd still be on the beach. The lieutenant had reached Daily right after Nestor. Even though the call was out of rotation for her team, he wanted her there. Like Nestor, he'd been unwilling to discuss any details until they were at the scene.

Daily navigated her unmarked car through the media glut and the sun bounced a glare off the rearview. She adjusted the mirror; the reflection of three nonstop weeks stared back at her. Her olive skin looked unusually pale. Red irritation nagged her brown eyes for sleep. Feeling much older than thirty-three, she stretched tired shoulders and wiped the sweat beading her brow. This July was already the hottest in decades, worse than the spikes a couple months back, and the crime rate had hiked in harmony.

The Crown Victoria's churning air conditioner was worthless. She made a mental note to have the Freon checked and rolled down the window. Her unruly mane danced in the arroyo gusts. She reached in her bag for a hair clip, the biggest one she could find, yet it couldn't contain the chaos of her hair. The unsure, loose waves came from her Italian mother, the dense curls beneath from her half-Bahamian, half-British father. The whole mess framed her dad's willful cheeks and nose, her mom's ample lips. Lane Daily was the "other" box on every form and application. Small wonder her hair didn't know if it was coming or going. Her skin prickled and the mirror showed her neck and chest flushing. It wasn't the heat, it happened when she was stuck, as if her blood was trying to jump out of its skin. She needed to move.

She opened the car's glove compartment. Provisions. The notion of real food evaporated when Daily rode a case. In its place came one of two cravings?salt or chocolate. She tore a cellophane cashew packet open with her teeth, downed the warm nuts, then finished off two more packs and stuffed the empty bags under the seat. If Nestor laid eyes on the stuff she'd get another lecture. Ever since she'd shot the perp that was about to unload a nine into her partner, Nestor felt it was his duty to save Daily from her junk food diet, her ex-husband and her life. She loved Nestor like a brother but he could be a pill.

An officer spotted Daily's car and yelled at the plug of vehicles to let her pass. She edged the Crown Victoria past Kelly Spreck, the blonde from Channel Six News pitching fast and hard to her camera. Daily listened.

"High-powered and hot-tempered entertainment executive Eddie Ealing has been killed in exactly the fashion he lived: loudly, violently and as the center of attention," Spreck reported. "A hundred people attended the Fourth of July party thrown by Ealing last night here at his estate. While no cameras were allowed inside, News Six caught the mogul smiling as he returned home in his car yesterday. But this morning, Ealing was found dead in what's certainly the strangest murder the Southland has seen in years."

Kelly cut it there, barked at her cameraman to follow her past the gate. Daily watched as two patrol officers stopped her.

"Just doing my job," the reporter protested.

Daily rolled by in her car. "Outside, Kelly."

"Daily?nice shirt. It'll play great on camera. Tell me?"

"Not now."

"Hey, I've been good to you. Help me out."

"I am. You leave trace inside this line, you get to be a suspect."

"Is it true? About his tongue?"

"I just got here, Kel."

The reporter leaned in. "You'll talk to me first? Tell me the truth?"

"Someone always talks. The truth is another matter." Daily passed the last news van and gunned the gas.

* * *

She drove up a road that meandered past mature pines and oaks. Three acres easy. Looked like horse country, not a couple miles from the Sunset Strip. The ME's van and several patrol cars were parked in the curved driveway of an estate five times as big as the Hollywood Police Station. Pitched roofs, gables, two enormous chimneys. Shingles coddled the place in a rich coat of cedar. Edging red brick, the mansion's wood gleamed in the July sun. She parked and badged the two uniformed officers stationed at the home's entrance. After signing her name to the crime scene log she entered a porte-cochère. Arches hovered over a succession of iron lanterns. To her right was a garden filled with rosemary and lavender. A fountain in the corner. To her left, multi-paned windows framed the opulence inside. Daily entered a pristine foyer filled with three more officers talking in somber tones. Their radios were louder than their words but she caught a few.


Heinous.

Bizarre.

Psychopath.

Daily's eyes took in spaces filled with antiques. A long public room was graced by a Steinway baby grand at one end, a mahogany dining table and tapestry chairs at the other. Crystal vases coddled blooms of blue irises set off by branches of red hypericum berries. Punctuating the walls were irregularly-sized windows, leather bench seats beneath two of them. Party invitations and small American flags were strewn on a secretary's desk in the corner. Even the messy spots in the mansion look arranged. At homicides in the bowels of Hollywood, Daily usually stood out as well-dressed, fastidious, confident. But here, in the world of Mulholland, every imperfection of her knock-off suit screamed mediocrity. She shook off her nerves, asked to see the scene. Senior officer Carl Hastings led her toward open doors that spilled them onto a marble deck above a pool squared in emerald grass. The lawn was Disneyland green, perfect. She'd read about genetically programmed grass seed in the Times. Eddie Ealing could afford it.

"Hell of a party," Hastings said. "Hear the tab was quarter of a mil."

"For how many people?"

"Hundred and change."

"That's one expensive plate. More than my wedding, anyway."

"Even more than my divorce," Hastings grumbled. "They had theme buffets, according to one of the TV vultures at the gate last night. Departing guests were talking Caribbean, Indonesian, Brazilian, Indian, you name it. A caviar bar with five kinds of fish eggs and fifty kinds of vodka. Wine tasting, Cuban cigars."

"No sparklers?"

"Just the stars themselves. Both Toms, Julia, Brad and the little lady plus a bunch of others. The news guy said Ealing was his usual self. Nothing out of the ordinary."

"Nothing in Ealing's life was ordinary."

"Nothing different, then."

"The reporter have tape?"

Hastings shook his head. "Nope. And no cameras allowed inside."

Past a rising berm and ash trees on the other side of the pool, panels of glass steepled skyward. A chapel? She couldn't envision a tyrant like Eddie Ealing believing in higher powers of any sort but these days who knew. The man had won Oscars and a Grammy and winners always thanked God, implying the losers were unrepentant pagans. Daily figured the Big Guy had more important things on his mind than the statuette for best special effects. Then again, maybe the privileged prayed to a different God.

Officer Hastings motioned toward the steepled glass. "The vic's in there. Conservatory. That's what the estate manager calls it anyway. Helmut Ulgrod. He's the one who called."

Conservatory. Place for growing plants.

Daily entered what was more of a luxurious pool house than a greenhouse though tropicals and palms lined the walls. In the middle of the space an azure pool snaked from one corner to the other. Rock steps at one end draped waterfalls into a spa that steamed in the shafts of morning light. Golden sandstone encircled the main pool while flagstone walkways led to a black marble wet bar. White phalaenopsis orchids pouted in successive urns.

J.D. Nestor stared at a chaise longue and rubbed his forty-four-year-old chin with a consternation Daily rarely saw. Nestor was six foot-two, with the build of a tight end gone long on calories. He shook his head at the chair.

Her gut clenched. The smell of pool chemicals engulfed her. Daily typically saw death in its usual milieu?murder was mostly impulsive, dirty or sloppy. But here death lay decadent, lounging in a magnificent summerhouse. Eddie Ealing's body had been split open. Fat spilled from either side of the wound that ran from his breastbone down his abdomen. There was a noticeable lack of blood. The large man's nostrils were filled with something dark. A small brown trail had oozed from one nostril and withered dry on his cheek. His thick ash hair stuck to his head as if it had been wet and then air-dried without benefit of a towel. His eyes were open but instead of pupils, the raw backs of his eyeballs glared back at Daily. From the victim's open mouth spilled a yellow mass. She looked down at the abdominal cut. The skin on one side of his belly crumpled in. The fat in his mouth was his own.

Nestor stared at the wound bisecting Ealing. "Stomach, intestines and liver are intact. I think."

"The knife?"

"If it's here we haven't found it."

"Prints?"

"More than words can say. Some of the guests found Eddie's pool house to their liking."

"Stuffing his mouth." Daily's pulse rushed. "Packing his nose. Eyes turned inward. That's three of the five senses. Was there a recording playing when he was found?"

Nestor nodded. "Phone conversations. Eddie Ealing himself, tearing new assholes across America."

"That covers sound. What was he touching?"

Nestor handed Daily four pages, a guest list for the party. "That's a copy. Slam's got the original over there. It was rolled and stuck in Ealing's right hand."

"Sense of Life." Daily pointed to a framed film poster near the bar. "Six years ago. It's not exactly how the victim in the movie died. But it's mighty close."

Nestor snorted. "Wouldn't know. I don't pay to see that kind of crap."

"Several million people did. And the book was a bestseller before Ealing made it into a movie."

"Double the pleasure. You sure it was Ealing's movie?"

"Absolutely. Won for best actor and best adapted screenplay."

Nestor studied the other movie one-sheets: Mercy Seasons. Lifeline. Break the Chain. The Currency of Souls. Sense of Life.

"He was one of the producers on Sense of Life," Daily said. "He took the lion's share of the credit at the awards. The whole premise was the ultimate death for a narcissist. The perfect comeuppance. Every one of the victim's five senses was filled with himself as he died."

"How in God's name is that entertainment?"

"I'd rather people work out their dark sides at the multiplex than this."

Nestor's eyes challenged her but she wasn't about to engage in one of his what's-wrong-with-the-country debates. Daily scanned the names on the guest list, noticed the tally on the last page. Fifty-seven. Some with one guest, some with more than one. On the other side of the body, Daily saw coroner's investigator Slancio "Slam" Damas, one of the senior CIs, the word CORONER boxed in yellow letters on the heart of the dark windbreaker. Today he also wore a nose/mouth mask as he made notes on a clipboard, his field report. The CI had first pass at the victim and it was critical that no one else work the body until he gave the go-ahead in order to prevent defense attorneys from crying foul on tainted evidence. Two men from Scientific Investigation Division, the LAPD's own crime lab, talked with the police photographer. Daily saw open tackle boxes which meant Slam had already cleared SID to work the outer perimeter. They were farther along than she realized. Traffic on the freeways had been hell?hungover holiday drivers had slammed four jams in the city's arteries. Cars had run into dogs scared loose after a night of fireworks; the fifth of ...

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