Dead Midnight


By Marcia Muller

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New York Times bestselling author, Marcia Muller, brings you another thrilling mystery with her famous private investigator, Sharon McCone.

Sharon McCone has decided to throw herself into work so she can get past her brother's suicide, but the wrongful-death suit she is working on hits too close to home. It's a civil case in which the family of a young 'zine employee claims his suicide was the result of his company's treatment of him. In his final journal entry, Roger Nagasawa describes his fatal plunge from the San Francisco Bridge as being "swept away from sadness."

With the help of her friend, J.D. Smith, McCone investigates the InSite offices and soon learns of its publisher's less-than-professional activities. She also learns that Roger had been afraid for his life since he was a witness to computer espionage. Faced with the death of her friend, Smith, and the sudden disappearance of Roger's associate, McCone must keep one step ahead of the game and solve this mystery — or else become the next victim.


This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2002 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust

All rights reserved.

Mysterious Press books are published by Warner Books, Inc., Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017.

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First eBook Edition: June 2002

ISBN: 978-0-446-54988-2

























At one time or another, it happens to everyone. A call comes late at night, bringing news of the death of someone close, and with it a nightmarish sense of unreality. You entertain selfish thoughts: Why is this happening to me? Then you immediately feel ashamed because tragedy has not actually struck you. You, after all, are still alive, healthy, and reasonably sane.

Practicalities intrude, because they are a way of keeping the pain at bay. To whom to break the news, and how? What arrangements must be made? How badly will your life be disrupted? But in the end it all boils down to loss and finality—in my case, loss and finality heaped upon recent losses and betrayals.

My call came at eleven-twenty P.M., from a deputy sheriff in Humboldt County, some two hundred and seventy miles north of San Francisco. Deputy Steve Brouillette. I'd spoken with him several times over the past six months, but he'd never had any news for me. Now he did, and it was bad.

My brother Joey was dead at age forty-five. By his own hand.



"I'd hate to think we're going to be making a habit of this."

My brother John's remark, I knew, was intended to provide comic relief but, given the nature of the situation, it was destined to fail. I looked up at him, shielding my eyes against the afternoon sun, and saw his snub-nosed face was etched with pain. He slouched under the high wing of the Cessna 170B, one hand resting on its strut, his longish hair blowing in the breeze. With surprise I noted strands of white interwoven with the blond of his sideburns. Surely they hadn't been there at Christmas time?

"Sorry," he said, "but it's a thought that must've occurred to you too."

My gaze shifted across San Diego's Lindbergh Field to the west, where we'd earlier scattered Joey's ashes at sea. Joey, the family clown. Joey, whom we'd assumed had never entertained a somber thought in his life. The dumb but much loved one; the wanderer who was sorely missed at family gatherings; the worker who more often than not was fired from his low-end jobs but still managed to land on his feet.

Joey, a suicide.

"Yes," I said, "it's occurred to me. First Pa, now this."

"And Ma and Melvin aren't getting any younger."

"Who is?" I moved away and began walking around the plane. A red taildragger with jaunty blue trim, Two-five-two-seven-Tango was my prize possession, co-owned with my longtime love, Hy Ripinsky. I ran my hand over the fuse-lage, checked the elevators and rudder—preflighting, because I felt a sudden urge to be away from there.

John followed me. "I keep trying to figure out why he did it."

I went along the other side of the plane without responding.

As he gave me a boost up so I could check the fuel level in the left tank, he added, "What could've gone that wrong with his life? That he'd kill himself ?"

"I don't know."

John hadn't wanted to talk about Joey when I'd arrived last night, and he'd been mostly silent on today's flight over the Pacific and later at lunch in the terminal restaurant. Now, in the visitor tie-downs, he seemed determined to initiate a weighty discussion.

"I mean, he had a lot going for himself when he disappeared. A good job, a nice woman—"

"And a crappy trailer filled with empty booze and pill bottles." I eased off the strut and continued my checks. "From what Humboldt County told me when they called, the shack where he offed himself had the same decor."

John grunted; my harsh words had shocked him. Shocked me, too, because up till now I hadn't been aware of how much anger I felt toward Joey.

I opened the engine cowling and stared blankly inside. One of those strange lapses, like walking into a room and not knowing what you went there for. Jesus, McCone, I thought, get a grip. I reached in to check the oil, distracted by memories of my search for Joey.

When Pa died early in the previous September, we hadn't been able to reach Joey at his last address, and it wasn't till the end of the month that John traced him to a run-down trailer park near the Mendocino County hamlet of Anchor Bay. By then he'd disappeared again, leaving behind all his possessions and a brokenhearted girlfriend. I immediately began a trace of my own, but gave up after two fruitless months, assuming that—in typical Joey fashion—he'd re-surface when he was good and ready. Then, this past Monday, the call from Deputy Brouillette. Joey had been found dead of an alcohol-and-barbiturate overdose in a shabby rental house in Samoa, a mill town northwest of Eureka. His handwritten note simply said, "I'm sorry."

I shut the cowling and climbed up to check the right fuel tank. I was replacing its cap when John spoke again. "Shar, haven't you wondered? Why he did it?"

"Of course I have." I twisted the cap—hard, and not just for safety's sake—and lowered myself to the ground. Why was he doing this now, when he knew I wanted to leave?

"We should've realized something was wrong. There must've been signs. We could've helped him."

I wiped my oil-slick fingers on my jeans. "John, there was no way we could've known."

"But we should've. He was our brother."

"Look, you and I lived with Joey for what was actually a very short time. He was five years older than I, and for the most part we went our separate ways. I doubt I ever had a real conversation with him. And as far as I know, all the two of you ever did together was stick your noses under the hoods of cars, drink beer, and get in trouble with the cops. During the past fifteen years, Ma's the only one who got so much as a card or a call from him. Half the time we didn't know where he was living or what he was doing. So you tell me how we could've seen signs and known he needed help."

John sighed, giving up the illusion. "I guess that's what makes it so hard to deal with."

"Yeah, it is."

I took the keys to the plane from my pocket, and his eyes moved to them. "So where're you headed?"

"Hy's ranch for the Easter weekend, then back to San Francisco. I've got a new hire to bring up to speed at the agency, and a Monday lunch with an attorney who throws a lot of business my way."

"Gonna keep yourself busy, keep your mind off Joey."

"Is that so bad?"

He shook his head.

Not so bad to try to forget that sometimes people we love commit self-destructive acts that are enough to temporarily turn that love to hatred.



Glenn Solomon, San Francisco's most prominent criminal-defense attorney, and I were braving traffic—angling from Momo's restaurant where we'd just had lunch toward the city's handsome new baseball stadium. Pacific Bell Park struck me as a prefect combination of the old and new: red brick, with the form and intimate atmosphere of early urban ballparks, yet comfortable and equipped with every modern amenity. And, most important in this car-infested city, easily accessible by public transportation.

"You been to a game there yet?" Glenn asked me.

"Of course I've been to a game. You let me use your season tickets last June."

"Ah, yes. Hottest temperatures for that day in the city's history. You and your friends in the sun right behind third base. You greased up with SPF thirty, poured bottled water on your heads till it boiled, and left after the third inning. And to make matters worse, that game was the first time the Giants played well in the new park. You'll never stop reminding me, will you?"

"Not till I get another crack at those great seats."

"Mmm." Glenn nodded noncommittally, his mind already having strayed from baseball.

Like the ballpark, Glenn Solomon was a perfect blend of old and new San Francisco. Over an unhurried lunch, his cell phone turned off, he'd wined and dined me without a word about business. As waiters hovered, eager to please a cornerstone of the local legal establishment, he'd flattered me by asking about Hy, about the home we'd recently had built on our Mendocino Coast property, about some recent startling developments in my personal life. But now his focus had shifted into high gear, and soon he would trot out all his persuasive skills in order to interest me in taking on a job that I gathered, from his reticence so far, was one I'd surely want to turn down.

But he wasn't ready yet, and I walked along the Embarcadero beside him, content to enjoy the view of Treasure Island and the sailboats on the bay. When we reached Miranda's, my favorite waterfront diner, and he still hadn't spoken, I frowned and glanced at him. Glenn was a big man, silver-haired, rotund in a prosperous fashion, with a clean-shaven chin that looked strange to me because he'd worn a full beard the whole time I'd known him. In spite of his bulk he handled himself gracefully, and he cut an imposing figure, attracting many glances as we strolled along.

Glenn was known as a genial fellow among his golf and tennis partners; a kind and generous employer to his staff; a respected litigator among his fellow bar association members; a bulwark of strength to both clients and friends in need. And to his wife of twenty years, Bette Silver, he was a pussycat with a lion's roar. But Glenn could also be devious and sly. His quick mind, sharp tongue, and caustic wit demolished those who opposed him; his attack mode both in and out of the courtroom was formidable. I'd stood up to some tough characters in my years as an investigator, but I'd long ago decided I would never want to get on the wrong side of Glenn Solomon.

He noticed me studying him and touched my elbow. "Let's sit awhile."

There was a bench in front of Miranda's, flanked by planter boxes where tulips and daffodils bloomed. The flowers were evidence of the gentle side of the café's owner, an often brusque former longshoreman nicknamed Carmen Miranda from his days offloading banana boats at China Basin. Glenn and I sat there, but only after he—with great ceremony—dusted it off with his crisp white handkerchief.

We were facing the waterfront boulevard, as wide as the average city lot, with a median strip where stately palms grew and vintage streetcars rattled along. A red one passed, its bell clanging. Directly opposite us was the condominium complex where my nephew and operative, Mick Savage, lived with another of my staff, Charlotte Keim. The condos were built of white stucco incorporating a great deal of glass block and chrome, and to either side of them were other complexes, with shops, delis, and restaurants on the street level—all evidence of the revitalization of our waterfront.

In 1989 this area was at the bottom of a steeply descending curve. Years before most of the shipping industry had fled to Oakland or other West Coast ports; factories and warehouses stood abandoned; many piers were vacant, run-down, and rat-infested; the torching of buildings for insurance money was not uncommon. Then, on October 17, the tectonic plates along the Loma Prieta Fault shifted, the earth heaved, and one of the ugliest structures in the city, the Embarcadero Freeway, crumbled. When its ruins were razed, bay vistas that hadn't been seen for over thirty years were revealed, and we all realized that San Francisco could have a beautiful waterfront.

Now, with the redevelopment still continuing, the heart of the city has gradually moved from such traditional places as the financial district and Union Square to the water's edge, where it pumps lifeblood into long moribund areas. New buildings rise, and old structures are being converted to offices or live-work lofts. Technology-related firms have relocated to the South of Market, and close on their heels have followed the upscale restaurants, clubs, and boutiques that their owners and employees require. Even the crash of the hot tech market hasn't put too much of a damper on the vibrant ambience of South Beach, SoMa, and Mission Bay, and the future looks bright there. Of course, all change comes with its price, and in San Francisco's case, it has been costly.

As if he knew what I was thinking, Glenn said, "Too much, too fast."

"The changes in the city? Yes."

"I don't mind most of them. The Mission Bay complex, for instance, that's exciting: six thousand more badly needed apartments, the new UCSF campus, all the open space. It's good development. No, it's the divisiveness that bothers me. The haves versus the have-nots. The old people who can't afford to remain in the neighborhoods where they were born. Young families and working-class people who are being forced out by the high cost of living. The black community shrinking. It changes the face of the city, makes it a playground for rich people. What's the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment in a decent neighborhood these days?"

"I'm not sure. I paid well under a hundred thousand for my house, but last year a smaller one down the street sold for five hundred to a couple from Silicon Valley—and it was advertised as a fixer-upper. Office rents're coming down since the dot-com companies started failing; I've been watching them in case the Port Commission doesn't renew my agency's lease on the pier next year. But they were astronomical to begin with."

Glenn waved to a man in blue spandex who was jogging by. "One of my young associates," he said. "Top talent out of Columbia. I had to pony up a hundred and twenty-five thousand to get him. All these baby nouveaux throwing money around as if it were confetti. If the dot-com fire hadn't fizzled, we'd be ass-deep in them by now." He sighed. "Don't misunderstand me, my friend. I don't begrudge those who've earned it. And I like the new vitality in the city, even if we do have the worst political machine west of Chicago. But I wish …"

"You wish the bucks were spread around more evenly. Or that the haves exercised some old-fashioned concern and charity."

"Exactly. This isn't an abstract conversation, you know. It's leading up to the reason I asked to meet with you today."

At last he was getting around to the matter at hand. I glanced at him, expecting to see the crafty expression— what he called his "wolf look"—that always accompanied his efforts to enlist my aid in a near impossible case. But instead l saw only deep melancholy.

He said, "I am about to ask a very personal favor of you."

The matter he wanted me to investigate, Glenn explained, was atypical for his practice. A civil case, which he almost never took on. A wrongful-death suit against an online magazine called InSite.

InSite's market niche was chronicling the new and the hip in the Bay Area: whatever restaurant the hordes were about to flock to; hot artists, authors, and celebrities; trendy products and fashions. In short, a W of the local wired set. I myself had visited their site a few times: to check out good shops for unusual Christmas presents; to read an interview with Mick's father, Ricky Savage, whom they'd described as a "country-and-western icon"; to see what subjects my reporter friend, J.D. Smith, was currently delving into. The writing was lively and informative; the content changed frequently. InSite and a handful of other quality online publications such as Salon had survived the recent economic downturn.

I asked Glenn, "What's the personal angle?"

"The suing family are people I count among my closest friends. The InSite employee who died was my godson."

"And how was the company at fault?" Working at a magazine didn't sound like particularly hazardous duty.

"Have you heard of karoshi?"

I shook my head.

"The word is Japanese. Literally it means to die of overwork. A common phenomenon in that country—responsible, they estimate, for between one thousand and ten thousand deaths per year."

"What kind of deaths? Heart attacks? Strokes? Pure exhaustion?"

"All of those, and more. Until recently the majority of such deaths seldom resulted in litigation, but last year the family of one victim successfully sued a large Tokyo advertising agency. My clients, who are of Japanese descent, knew of the case and decided to see if the same could be accomplished in the U.S. courts."

"And you need my agency to document that the employer was liable for your godson's death."

"Yes. And I want you, Sharon, not one of your operatives."

"Of course." The concept was intriguing. Why had Glenn felt he needed to ply me with expensive food and wine in order to interest me? I pulled my mini-cassette recorder from my bag and said, "I'll need some particulars now, so I can open a file. And I'll need copies of your files on the case as well. What's the family's name?"


"That sounds familiar."

"You've probably seen the name in the paper. They're patrons of the arts and supporters of a number of local charities. I went to college with Daniel Nagasawa. He's an eye surgeon and owns one of those clinics that do corrective laser treatment. His wife, Margaret, has a small press that publishes quality children's books. They have—had—three sons. Harry, the oldest, is twenty-nine and a resident in cardiac surgery at U.C. Medical Center. Roger, my godson, was twenty-six when he died, the middle child. Eddie's twenty and still down at Stanford, studying a combination of physics and computer science, top of his class."

"From their given names, I judge the family has been in this country awhile."

"Four generations. Daniel's grandfather came over from Osaka to work on a truck farm in the Central Valley, and ended up owning his own farm near Fresno. He left his son a going concern that earned enough to put Daniel through college and medical school. The Nagasawas are worth many millions now."

"Okay, what about Roger? What was he like?"

Glenn's face grew more melancholy. "An underachiever in a family of overachievers. Had a degree in journalism from the University of Michigan—the only one of the boys who ever lived far from home. Personally, I think he chose Michigan in order to escape the family pressures. After graduation, he drifted from one reporting job to another, moving west with each change. A year and a half ago he returned to San Francisco, and a friend recommended him for a staff position at InSite. Roger saw it as an opportunity to excel, eventually exercise promised stock options, and measure up to the rest of the family."

"He told you that?"

"Yes. We were close. But apparently not as close as I thought."

"What does that mean?"

Glenn ignored the question. "The atmosphere at InSite was brutal. Sixteen, twenty-hour days, seven days a week, and no comp time. Low pay, and their promises of stock options went unfulfilled. The editor and publisher, Max Engstrom, is an egomaniac who delights in abusing and humiliating his subordinates. Stupid stuff, reminiscent of hazing in college fraternities, but it cuts to the core when a person's sleep-deprived and unsure as to whether he'll have a job the next day. And particularly hard to take for a sensitive young man who's desperate to win his family's love and approval."

"So what happened? Did Roger die because the hazing went too far?"

Glenn's mouth twitched and his eyes grew liquid. "You could say that. Two months ago, on Valentine's Day, Roger committed suicide. Stopped his car on the Bay Bridge, climbed over the railing, and jumped. Beforehand he mailed a letter to his parents in which he apologized for being a failure."

I'm sorry.

Joey's note. God, the parallels were so obvious! A man who drifted from job to job. An underachiever in a family of overachievers.

A man who killed himself.

Suddenly I felt lightheaded. I touched my fingers to my forehead. It was damp, and the too-heavy lunch I'd eaten now lay like a brick in my stomach.

"Sharon?" Glenn said.

I pressed the stop button on my recorder. "I'm okay," I said after a moment. "But I can't take this case. There's no way I can take it."

And there was no way I was going to discuss Joey's suicide with Glenn. Too much of my private life had been the subject of conversations over the past six months. Bad enough that I was repeatedly forced to explain—as I just had at lunch—that when the man whom I'd thought to be my father died in September, I'd discovered that I had a birth father living on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. That while I had a family in California, I also had a birth mother, a half sister, and a half brother in Boise, Idaho.

No, I couldn't take this case, but I'd find some way of explaining why that didn't involve Joey. Or so I told myself until Glenn spoke again.

"I know about your brother," he said. "Hank told me." Hank Zahn, my closest male friend since college, had betrayed a confidence.

"The subject came up because of Roger," Glenn added.

"And you, like a typical lawyer, saw a way to capitalize on it."

"That's not fair."

"No, what's not fair is you asking me to do this. Why would you want me to take on a case that would continually remind me—"

"Perhaps you need to be reminded, and to deal with it."

"What're you saying? That you're offering me the job for its therapeutic value?"

Glenn stood, put both hands on my shoulders, and looked into my eyes. "Yes, for its therapeutic value—for you, me, and the Nagasawas."

"Sorry, the answer is no."

He studied me for a moment longer, then straightened, smiling faintly. "I'll have copies of my files messengered over to you by close of business."

"So that's how it is. You understand why I've got to tell Glenn I can't take the case."

Curled up on my sofa, a cat draped across the back with its paws dangling onto my head, another purring on my feet, I was sipping a glass of wine and talking on the phone with my birth father, Elwood Farmer. Elwood was one of the few people I knew whom I could find wide awake and eager for conversation at eleven-thirty P.M.—the hour I'd finished reading Glenn's files on Roger Nagasawa's death.

"I understand why you think you can't take it," he said.

I could picture him seated in his padded rocker in front of the woodstove in his small log house in Montana. He'd be wearing a plaid wool shirt and jeans, his gray hair unkempt and touching his shoulders, a cigarette clamped in the corner of his mouth, its smoke making him squint. We'd taken to talking every couple of weeks, feeling our way toward a comfortable father-daughter relationship. Unfortunately, the conversations were not always amicable, because I harbored a resentment toward him for having suspected my existence my whole life but making no effort to find me, and he was plainly bewildered at how to be a parent to a forty-one-year-old stranger.

"What?" I said. "You think I should accept a job that's going to make me dwell on Joey's suicide?"

"I didn't say that."

"Well, do you?"

"What I think isn't important."

"Come on, Elwood. Be a father for once. Give me some advice."

"I'm only learning to be a father. And I don't believe in imposing my opinion upon another person."

"I just want to know what you think."

"… I think the answer is already within you."

"Oh, for God's sake! If you're going to get mystical, or whatever you call this, I'm going to hang up."

"Good. Hang up and call me back when you've assembled your thoughts."

Assemble my thoughts, my ass! He pulled that crap on me when we first met, but it isn't going to work this time.

Who is this man to me, anyway? Somebody who donated his sperm to my birth mother, that's all. End of his connection to both Saskia and me. Later, when she was in worse trouble than the pregnancy, he didn't return her phone call because he was preoccupied with the woman he eventually married.

Why should I care what he thinks?

Assemble my thoughts. Hah!

"I'm sorry I hung up on you."

"I know you are."

"I've assembled my thoughts."


"And I know what you mean by the answer already being within me. I can't refuse this case, because I'm a truth-seeker. If working on this Nagasawa investigation can help me to understand why Joey killed himself … Well, it's something I have to do."

"Not so difficult to figure out, was it?"



Roger Nagasawa's flat was in a narrow building on Brannan Street not far from South Park: five stories of gray cinder block over an original wood facade, each with a single casement window facing the street. Its concrete front steps ended in a porch large enough for a pair of wrought-iron chairs and a small glass-topped table; all three were secured by chains to rings that had been attached to the building's wall. To the right stood a former warehouse that now housed a health club; the building to the left was a live-work loft conversion, now stalled by the city's six-month moratorium on such projects while a study on growth and development was conducted.

I took out the keys Glenn Solomon had given me, got the front door open. The lobby was small, perhaps ten feet square, and carpeted in threadbare brown that bunched up in the center, as if stretched out of shape by too many vigorous cleanings. An elevator with an accordion grille that screened a door with a porthole window was opposite the entrance, its cage waiting. I stepped inside, punched the button for the top floor, and it began a groaning ascent.


On Sale
Nov 15, 2008
Page Count
304 pages

Marcia Muller

About the Author

Marcia Muller has written many novels and short stories. She has won six Anthony Awards, a Shamus Award, and is also the recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America's Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award (their highest accolade). She lives in northern California with her husband, mystery writer Bill Pronzini.

Learn more about this author