With the darkness and the music, all the laughter and
chatter, no one noticed the crack in the concrete.
By the time the party hit its stride shortly before
nine p.m., the fifteenth floor penthouse of the new beachfront condominium was
as fragrant as a candle shop. Besides an assortment of perfumes, the smells
ranged from the fragrance of a gardenia stuck in a shapely guestís sleek black
hair to the tang of a spicy cheese dip. Evan Baucus, The Sand Castleís
developer, took it all in from the place of honor he had staked out for himself
at the center of the crowded parlor. His wife Greta, blonde, half his age, stood
at his side. She welcomed the guests with a slender hand and a deceptively naÔve
smile. What they noticed most about her was a Dolly Parton profile.
Among those invited were several dignitaries from the
Pensacola area, a scattering of prospects, people who had bought condos in the
building, local real estate brokers and agents, and several others involved in
the venture, including General Contractor Claude Detrich and Architect/Engineer
It was October, a Friday, the evening still quite
warm. A breeze blowing off the Gulf of Mexico fluttered past red damask
draperies flanking the French doors that led to the balcony. Gannon stood alone
near the arched entrance off the carpeted elevator foyer, a solemn figure
dressed in tan gabardine slacks, yellow sport shirt, open collar, a lightweight
blue blazer topping off the outfit. Having arrived late, he glanced about with a
Considering the enormous amount of money at stake and
the snail pace of sales, Tim thought the developer should have been a bit
uneasy. If he was, he hid it well as he glad-handed a tall, thin man with a
stubby beard. Baucus had a stocky frame clad in a steel gray suit. Dapper was
the only word to describe him, from the well-groomed brown hair, every strand in
place, to the full but neatly trimmed mustache and the mirror shine on the black
Claude Detrich strolled over, a beer clutched in one
beefy hand. He nudged Timís shoulder with a denim-covered elbow. "Looks like
Evanís kissiní a little ass with the commissioner," Detrich said with a chuckle.
The contractor was a hulk of a man proportioned like a
pro wrestler. He had black, bristly hair he kept cut short and gray eyes
deep-set beneath heavy brows. The result was almost a Frankensteinís monster
look, which fit a man with the finesse of an oilfield roustabout and the
reputation of a brawler.
"Whoís the guy?" Tim asked.
"Escambia County Commissioner Forrest England. Olí
Evaníd like to put him in a three-bedroom unit."
"Iíll bet he would."
Perdido Key, the location of Timís crowning
achievement of design and engineering, stretched out as a snake-like finger of
sand from below the Pensacola Naval Air Station. The barrier island lay in the
southwest corner of Escambia County, Florida.
With The Sand Castle all but finished, Tim knew he
should be celebrating like the others. But for the past few months, heíd had a
bad feeling about the project. A feeling he hadnít been able to shake.
The crack started at one edge of the balcony, where a
hurricane that had hit the Florida panhandle back in July had weakened the joint
not long after the concrete had been poured. Subsequent rains had seeped in,
chewing out the sub-structure.
Tall and lean at
forty-two, Tim walked across the room
with head erect, shoulders square, showing some of the military bearing that was
a holdover from his days as a Navy pilot. That had been a long time ago. He was
known now for his ability to dream in the abstract, then shift his focus to
apply bold concepts of space and aesthetics with engineering precision.
It wasnít design or engineering that concerned him at
the moment, however. It was construction. Tim kept his eye on Detrich as the big
man with the earrings, the Rolex, the gaudy finger bands and clothes that
appeared just off a rack at Goodwill, strode out through the French doors.
Tim saw nearly a dozen people milling around in the
light that spilled from inside, talking animatedly and sipping bubbly drinks.
The balcony was one of his signature elements, a cantilevered structure that
projected out like a drawbridge from an ancient castle entrance. The design
included a railing and chains that reached down from the wall as if waiting to
pull the bridge up. The chains served no structural purpose, of course. The
balconyís stability stemmed from the steel reinforcing bars buried in the
Detrich was one of the problems that had led to Timís
concern over the project. Tim didnít trust him, didnít like his tough-guy
attitude or his volatile temper. There had been too many requests for changes
that could have compromised the structure. Just little stuff that would save
money, the contractor claimed. Minor details. Whatever the reasons, Tim didnít
buy them. He and Detrich had almost come to blows once, which Tim knew could
have been a painful mismatch.
Tim turned away from the balcony toward one of the
bars set up on either side of the large room that was the centerpiece of the
penthouse suite. The four-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bath unit carried a price tag
of nearly a million dollars. Yet unsold, the unit was fully furnished in
Mediterranean dťcor, thanks to a Pensacola furniture store whose name appeared
on a small sign.
A keyboard, guitar and bass played Send in the
Clowns from a mini-stage set between two potted palms. Despite a valiant
effort, the combo fought a losing battle. Too many clowns were drowning them out
with a confusion of small talk that had risen in volume with the movement of the
As Tim headed for the bar, he felt a tap on his
shoulder. Looking around, he saw a handsome couple barely younger than himself.
Both were tall and tanned. The man had wavy blond hair and a look that appeared
a cross between an impish grin and a sneer. The woman was close enough that Tim
could smell the provocative scent of Shalimar. She had brownish-yellow hair and
a striking figure accented by a colorful dress that displayed flowers and fish
and birds, something that might have been pulled from a collection at Hilo
Hattieís. What she did not wear was a smile.
"Hello, Boz," Tim said, attempting to appear
indifferent. Bosley Farnsworth had been a thorn in his side through much of the
construction process. He was the Threshold Inspector, an engineer licensed by
the state and hired to oversee the job.
Farnsworth swirled his cocktail glass with one hand
and laughed. "Evan Baucus damn sure knows how to throw a party, doesnít he?
Lighten up, Tim. This is the big night. Weíve made it to the climax."
Farnsworth winked at the woman beside him.
Sherry Hoffman looked across at Tim through intense
brown eyes. Her voice hinted of suppressed indignation. "Congratulations. I
guess youíll be going back to Nashville to bigger things now."
Out beneath the stars and the soft glow of a rising
moon, the music flowing through the doorway changed to a staccato Spanish beat,
ratcheting up a few decibels. Two couples began doing a lively imitation of a
flamenco dance. As they clapped and stomped, the crack in the balcony widened.
No one heard the crunching, grinding sound of the concrete giving way, but the
screams of terror that followed sent hairs bristling on the necks of everyone
Claude Detrich had just stepped back through the door.
He spun around and gawked as he saw the balcony tilting downward, like a true
drawbridge, headed in the wrong direction. The chains held, then snapped.
Fortunately, it was enough time for some of the revelers to grab the vertical
iron supports or the top rung of the railing.
"Oh, my God."
That was all Detrich could mutter as he stared down
through the dim moonlight at the sight of people clinging frantically to the
black wrought iron sides, others heaped against the railing at the bottom like a
pile of dirty clothes.
Responding to the commotion, Tim ran across to the
doorway and darted a startled look past Detrich.
What he saw was unbelievable.
The impossible had happened.
Timís naval training had taught him to react instantly
to emergencies. He turned to Sherry Hoffman, who had walked up behind him.
"The balcony gave way!" he yelled. "Call 911."
He directed another shout at Detrich. "Get a fire
Tim stepped over to the window that faced one side of
the balcony. He knew every intimate detail of every feature in the building and
quickly detached the glass pane, dropping it to the carpet. Stripping off his
jacket, he clutched the window facing with one hand, swung a leg out and
stretched his other arm down toward a girl who clung frantically to the railing.
No matter how hard he stretched, he couldnít quite
"Climb like itís a ladder," he called, attempting to
keep his voice calmer than he felt.
She finally began to move toward him and he seized her
hand in a vise-like grip. As he pulled upward, another pair of arms reached
through the window to help. A muscular black real estate agent hurried to the
opposite window and began a similar rescue operation on that side.
By the time Detrich arrived with the length of heavy
brown fire hose, the sound of sirens filled the night air. Red and blue lights
appeared below, turning and flashing nervously. Tim left the window to others
and knotted the fire hose around his chest.
"Lower me down," he said to Detrich.
For once Tim got no argument. Pushing himself through
the opening, he began to inch downward, scraping bare arms against the rough
concrete floor of the balcony. A flashlight suddenly shined past him to
illuminate the crumpled bodies jammed against the end railing. Some moaned. One
woman with short gray hair screamed hysterically.
When he reached the bottom, Tim signaled Detrich to
stop. He looked for the person in the worst shape, choosing a slender,
casually-dressed man who lay unconscious, his limbs flung out like discarded
matches. Tim lifted him carefully beneath the arms.
"Pull us up," he called.
The ascent was slow and painful, but soon strong hands
reached out to grasp the injured man and pull him to safety.
"Hey, let me down." Tim glared as Detrich continued to
tug upward on the fire hose.
"These guys say theyíll take over," Detrich said.
Tim saw a blue-uniformed fireman waiting in the
doorway, an intense look on his face. A member of the rescue unit from the
Innerarity Point Volunteer Fire Department, the man carried a coil of rope over
his shoulder. Another fireman behind him held an aluminum sling used for
hoisting victims out of precarious spots. Paramedics from the Escambia County
Emergency Medical Service had also arrived and were giving first aid to victims
laid out on the floor.
"Are you okay, sir?" one of the paramedics asked.
Timís shirt was torn and red abrasions showed where he had scraped against the
"Iím all right," Tim said. "Take care of the others."
"Youíd better sit down and get some rest," Evan Baucus
said, showing unaccustomed concern. He ushered Tim toward a chair beside one of
the bars. "Want something to drink?"
"Just water," Tim said. He still breathed deeply. His
heart pounded in his chest. The adrenalin was yet to wear off, and he hadnít
come to terms with the full significance of what had happened. Watching Baucusí
hand shake as the normally unruffled developer reached for a glass at the bar,
Tim realized this was the first time he had seen Baucus looking every bit a man
Suddenly the place went strangely quiet. Tim looked up
to see a giant of a man strolling across the room. A tall Stetson added to his
already considerable height. His size strained the forest green fabric of his
uniform. But he was made of muscle, not fat. And though some cops tended to
swagger with a sidearm strapped on, there was nothing but calm, purposeful
motion in his stride.
After staring through the French doors for a moment,
he turned around, his voice booming. "Whoís in charge here?"
Baucus looked across warily. "Iím Evan Baucus,
president of the company that developed The Sand Castle."
"Sergeant J. W. Payne," the deputy said. "Big Lagoon
Precinct, Escambia County Sheriffís Office. As soon as the paramedics have
everything under control, Iím closing off this area as a crime scene."
"Crime scene?" Tim shoved himself up from the chair.
Sergeant Payne sized him up. "Who are you?"
"Tim Gannon. My company designed and engineered this
"Well, Mr. Gannon, your balcony appears to have caused
the deaths of two citizens of Escambia County. Thisó"
"Died, Mr. Gannon. Apparently because of the failure
of your balcony. An investigator from the Medical Examinerís office is on his
way. Heíll determine the cause of death, but somebody will have to investigate
the cause of this accident. Iím not sure who that will be, but Iím closing the
area until itís decided."
Tim slumped back into the chair. Two people had
toppled off that balcony, fallen fifteen floors to their deaths. His face turned
ashen as the reality sunk in. His balcony had failed...fatally.
I awoke to a strange-sounding clatter. Looking up from
the pillow, I saw my wife Jill standing by the bed, shaking what appeared to be
a coffee can from my workbench. It was likely one I used for spare nuts and
bolts. A cardboard mask of Spiderman I had last seen on the back of a raisin
bran box hid her face. Bright blue eyes stared at me through peepholes in a
fiery red face criss-crossed with web-like black stripes.
"Rise up O sleeping one," she chanted. "The goblinsíll
get you if you donít watch out."
The drapes had been pulled enough to allow a glimpse
of pale morning light. The clock showed it was somewhere around eight, though it
didnít seem all that long since I had put down the mystery I was reading, a real
page-turner. As best I could recall, that had been sometime after two a.m.
Funny, but my wife is usually the difficult one to get out of bed. She was
obviously enjoying this switch in roles.
My frown battled with a yawn. "Halloween is nearly two
weeks off," I said. "Damned if you donít look sillier than a goose."
The can clattered to the floor as she jerked off the
mask. "Thatís a terrible simile," she said. "Thereís nothing inherently silly
about a goose. Maybe their honkingís a little borderline, but a flock of geese
in V formation is as pretty as a flight of Blue Angels. Which reminds me, why
donít we head down to the condo today?"
The condo was our hideaway on the beach in Florida,
located on Perdido Key a few miles from the home of the Navyís Blue Angels
precision flying team. Now that I was fully awake, I swung my legs off the bed,
grabbed Jillís right hand and tugged her down beside me. She had on a
knee-length, flowery gown that did little to hide a body that bulged seductively
in all the right places. And though Iím a tad beyond sixty-five, my sap still
rises as faithfully as that of a stately maple.
I started to slip an arm around her waist. "I can
think of better things to do on a nice fall Saturday morning," I said.
She fell back on the bed and looked up with a smile of
mock innocence. "That wonít require but a few minutes, Mr. McKenzie. Then can we
take off for Florida?"
I swooped my head down like a gray-feathered predator
and nibbled on her ear. "Youíll be sorry you said that, babe."
As she started to squirm, I reached around and
accidentally hit her left arm. It brought an immediate groan and a twisted look
I felt as if the pain were my own. Barely a month and
a half ago, Jill had undergone surgery to patch up a bad tear of the rotator
cuff in her left shoulder. The first week post-knife had been pure hell. She was
forced to sleep on a recliner in the living room to find any relief. I had
witnessed the pain that accompanied her therapy sessions at the rehab center, as
well as the obvious discomfort brought on by doing her exercises at home.
After a few moments, she managed a thin smile. "You
still havenít answered my question."
I gave her an indulgent look. "Tim is using the condo.
Tim was the son of our closest friends in Nashville,
Sam and Wilma Gannon. We had bought the two-bedroom condo in a development
called Gulf Sands not long after our move to Tennessee following my retirement
from the Air Force. The beachside condominium was Jillís idea. I grew up in St.
Louis, a long way from any balmy shores. But Jill was a native Nashvillian and
had been a regular Florida visitor as a girl, vacationing there every summer
with her parents.
We hadnít spent all that much time at Gulf Sands for a
variety of reasons. But whenever we were down there, Jill loved to sit on our
second-floor balcony and watch the black shapes of playful dolphins bobbing in
and out of the water beyond the churning surf. Sam and Wilma had visited us
there on one occasion, and we had let Tim use the place several times over the
past eighteen months to oversee work on a major resort project he had designed.
The luxury condominium was being built just up the beach from us.
Admittedly, Iíve enjoyed some aspects of Perdido Key,
particularly the seafood we gorged ourselves on. But letís face it. Without an
election contest and a flock of chads to fight over (pregnant, dimpled,
hangingówere the ballots all female?), Florida doesnít hold that much excitement
for me. Swimming and fishing arenít among my passions. And at my age Iím not
thrilled a bit by large round-eared rodents. Additionally, after Iíd suffered a
bout with actinic keratosis (scaly places on my face), the dermatologist warned
me to avoid the sun like the plague. All in all, I looked on Florida as a place
where I could easily be bored to death. And boredom was exactly what I did not
need, having lately wallowed in more than my fill of it.
I had retired in the mid-nineties as an agent with the
OSI, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. About three years ago, I
landed an interesting job as an investigator for the DAís office in Nashville,
only to get ousted over a nasty incident involving a newspaper and a bull-headed
Murder Squad detective. That was more than a year ago. Since then, Iíd
practically worn out a recliner reading all I could stomach of
encyclopedia-length thrillers by the likes of Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum. I
also watched enough TV specials on geography and nature to earn a degree in
scientific trivia. And despite Jillís best efforts at finding an antidote for my
restlessness, I had begun to wander about the house like a caged tigeróshe would
probably have said a cooped rooster. Hell, I had never really learned to enjoy
leisure, forced or unforced.
"Tim was going down there primarily for some kind of
party last night, wasnít he?" Jill asked.
"Right. But he wasnít sure exactly when heíd be coming
back." There were some problems he needed to look into, he had told me when I
gave him the key.
Jill twisted onto her right side and swung a silky
smooth leg over mine. That was a come-on if Iíd ever seen one. Rotator cuff
surgery may be disabling for some things, but not the important ones.
"If he needs to stay a while longer, he can use the
front bedroom," she said in her most persuasive tone. This lady could charm a
dragon. Sheís been practicing her magic on me for more than thirty-five years.
"Tim wonít be in our way, and we shouldnít be in his."
Obviously, there was plenty of space for the three of
us. I knew Gulf Sands would be a nice place for Jill to continue her
recuperation, though she still faced at least a couple of more months of getting
her arm pulled and stretched and elevated and rotated by PTís (an acronym for
Painfully Thorough, she contended), a regimen that took around an hour twice a
"Iím sure Dr. Vail would take a dim view of your
missing a bunch of therapy sessions," I said.
She shrugged. "Iíll just have to find a rehab center
near Perdido Key."
Before I could come up with a counter to that, the
phone rang. I reached for the bedside table and answered.
"Greg?" a tentative voice asked.
I was fairly certain who it was, though he sounded
under considerable stress. "Sam?"
"Yeah. Iíve got some terrible news."
He hesitated, a reluctance that was not at all like
the normally upbeat and talkative Colonel Samuel Gannon, retired Air Force
command pilot. "What is it, Sam? Anything we can help with?" I was really
getting concerned now.
"Itís Tim." I could hear him draw a deep breath. "Heís
I looked at Jill, shocked. "What happened?"
"They say he committed suicide."
Designed to Kill excerpt Copyright © 2004,
Chester D. Campbell
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used
or reproduced, in any manner whatsoever, without the written
permission of the Author.