The story begins here...

Prologue

 

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 Tim Gannon.

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 detached look.

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 designer shoes.

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 concrete.

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 clock.

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 inside.

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 hose!"

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 reach her.

"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 balconyís surface.

"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 pushing sixty.

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 building."

"Well, Mr. Gannon, your balcony appears to have caused the deaths of two citizens of Escambia County. Thisó"

"Two peopleó"

"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.

But why?

 

 

Chapter 1

 

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 of distress.

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. Remember?"

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 week.

"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 dead."

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.

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