The story begins here...

 

Chapter 1

 

I NEVER IMAGINED how much destruction a ninety-year-old car could cause until I got involved with the Marathon Motor Works case. I had tackled my share of strange investigations over the years, but this one had more twists and turns than a Tennessee mountain road. It rumbled onto the scene one scorching August afternoon when digital signs above Nashville’s major highways warned of dangerous air quality, a circumstance the TV weather folks insisted senior citizens and children should beware of. That seniors tag included Jill and me, of course, though we had little time to worry about it after the phone rang.

“McKenzie Investigations,” I answered. “Greg McKenzie speaking.”

“Retired Lieutenant Colonel Greg McKenzie?” asked a voice that resonated from somewhere in my past.

I hesitated. “That would be me. Who’s this?”

“Colonel Warren Jarvis.”

A flood of images played out on my internal memory screen as I glanced at Jill sitting behind her desk. “Did you finish your tour in Israel, Colonel?”

“I did. And you’re a private eye now. I thought this had to be you.”

“Jill and I have been in business about eight months. Retirement turned out to be a pain in the butt. Are you in Nashville?”

“Right. I was on my way to Arnold Air Force Base for a speech when I got sidetracked. It’s a bit of a complicated story. And a rather puzzling one, I might add. We may need your services.”

“We?”

“Remember my telling you about a lady named Abby Farrell, who I worked with on the Raptor Project?”

“The lady who disappeared? Don’t tell me you finally found her?”

“Yesterday. Can we come over and talk?”

 

THIRTY MINUTES LATER, we met the elusive Miss Farrell at our less-than-sumptuous office suite in a suburban shopping center (for “suite,” think former beauty shop). Only it wasn’t Miss Farrell now.

“Jill and Greg McKenzie,” said a smiling Warren Jarvis, “meet Kelli—spelled with an i—Kane. And that’s K-A-N-E.”

“Nice to meet you, Kelli-with-an-i,” I said, shaking her hand. 

She gave me an indulgent grin. “My pleasure, I’m sure.”

 Jill invited them to occupy the client chairs that faced our twin desks. Dressed in trim designer jeans and a white shirt, Kelli Kane moved with the easy grace of someone accustomed to traveling in sophisticated circles. Long black tresses accompanied a pleasant smile accented by hazel eyes that had a striking starburst effect. I guessed her age at early to mid-forties. That made her at least twenty years younger than Jill or me. On the outside, she had the look of a successful businesswoman on a relaxing vacation. My sixth sense told me there was a lot more going on inside.

 I turned to Jarvis, a handsome man who made no attempt to hide that precursor of aging, gray around the temples. “After what you did for us in Israel, Warren, we could hardly refuse our help.”

 “We’re not looking for charity, Greg.”

 “Point taken. So what’s the problem? I hope it isn’t too serious.”

 He glanced at Kelli. “That remains to be seen. It could involve a ninety-year-old murder.”

 “Ninety?” Jill’s brown eyes sprang open wide. “Wow, talk about your cold cases.”

 Jarvis shifted in his chair. “True. But it appears to be heating up.”

 Kelli spoke, her expression clouded. “Before we go any further, we need to agree on some ground rules.”

 As a retired agent with the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, I could write a book on dealing with confidential sources. Considering Colonel Jarvis’s earlier description of Abby as having apparently operated under deep cover, I wasn’t surprised at her conditional response.

 “I’ve never been a big fan of rules,” I said. “But let’s see if we can live with yours.”

 “Warren has told me about his previous conversation with you. Forget Abby Farrell. She no longer exists. That’s really all you need to know of my background. Kelli Kane is the name I was born with in Seattle forty-plus years ago. And that’s a fact.”

 Seeing the perplexed look on my wife’s face, I smiled. “My partner doesn’t understand these things. I’ll explain it later.”

 Jill’s eyes narrowed. “That would be appreciated.”

 “Now, you or the colonel needs to tell us what this is all about, and how we might be able to help.”

 Kelli crossed her legs, folding strong, slim hands over one knee. “When I spoke with my grandfather a few days ago, he asked if I could come to Nashville. He was scheduled to meet with a man named Pierce Bradley, a construction supervisor who related a rather strange story on the phone. Grandpa wanted me there to hear all the details when they met.”

 Bradley, she related, was job foreman for a contractor involved in renovating an old brick building near downtown Nashville that had once housed Marathon Motor Works. Bradley had a bundle of papers that contained the name of Kelli’s great-great-grandfather, Sydney Liggett, who was Marathon’s assistant treasurer. A carpenter discovered them stashed behind the paneling of an old wall he was restoring.

 The foreman thumbed through the papers and found they were Marathon Motors records dated in 1914. A handwritten note attached indicated Liggett planned to turn them over to the District Attorney. An enterprising fellow, Bradley made a few calls in the business community and learned that Sydney Liggett’s grandson, Arthur Liggett, had been admitted recently to a nursing home on the northeast side of town.

 “Your grandfather is Arthur Liggett?” I asked.

 “Yes. I had been out of the country and wasn’t aware he’d gone into the nursing home. He’s eighty-four.”

 Jill donned a sympathetic frown. “Was it the result of an illness?”

 “No, though he has emphysema.”

 “So why the nursing home?” I asked.

 “He fell at home and fractured his leg in a couple of places. He’s coming along. I think he’ll make it okay, but it will take a while. I had just completed an assignment and was ready to take some accrued leave when I called to check on him. That’s when he told me about Mr. Bradley.”

 I turned to Jarvis. “What’s the deal on this ninety-year-old murder, Warren?”

 “Sydney Liggett disappeared around the time that note was written.” A trim, muscular man still capable of handling the controls of the Air Force’s hottest jet fighters, Jarvis squared his jaw. “They accused him of running off with some company funds.”

 “Did he ever turn up?”

 “They found him five years later . . . dead,” Kelli said. “Grandpa says the family never believed he took any money or left of his own volition.”

 It had the sound of a tragic story, but I didn’t see where Jill and I fit in. “Have you talked with Mr. Bradley?”

 A grim look crossed Kelli’s face. “We were supposed to meet with him last night. He didn’t show.”

 “Did he give any reason why?”

 Jarvis tapped his fingertips. “We haven’t been able to locate him.”

 “If he’s a supervisor, you’d think he would be on the job.”

 “You would think so, but they haven’t heard from him over at the Marathon project. They say he doesn’t show up there every day, but he hasn’t been by the contractor’s office, either.”

 “Does he have a wife?” Jill asked.

 Kelli opened her handbag and pulled out a cigarette pack. “Mind if I smoke?”

 Jill gave her a polite smile. “We’d rather you didn’t.”

 Jarvis looked at me and grinned. “Did your wife prod you back off the cancer sticks?”

 “She prodded with a vengeance. I found it pretty tough at the start, but I gritted my teeth and hung in there. Regarding this Mr. Bradley, did you make an effort to check with his family?”

 “He’s a single man,” Kelli said. “Lives alone over in another county.”

 “That’s why we’re here,” Jarvis said. “We don’t have a lot of time. We want to hire you to find him and recover those papers.”

 Kelli stuck the cigarettes back in her bag and dropped it to the floor with a pronounced clunk. I took that to mean she wasn’t too thrilled with the house rules. But she hid it well as she spoke in an impassioned voice.

 “My grandfather thinks those papers may provide the proof that Sydney Liggett was no embezzler. They could show he was framed, possibly murdered. Grandpa feels the erroneous allegations have left a permanent stain on the family name, one that should have been erased long ago. This is very important to him. He’s in poor health. I want to do what he’d do if he could. I have some investigative talents, and I’ll do whatever you’d like me to. But this is your territory. I’m sure you can do the job much better and much quicker.”

 I hoped she was right on both counts. From her description, it sounded like a no-brainer. I had a bad feeling, though. Brush aside something that looked no more complicated than a twist of rope, and the next thing you knew it could pop up as a coiled snake and take a bite out of your behind.

 But we owed Warren Jarvis. Whatever it took, I was determined to track down those errant records.

 

Chapter 2

 

AFTER JARVIS AND Kelli left for the nursing home, Jill pulled her chair over to my desk. “I don’t suppose the police would consider Mr. Bradley a missing person,” she said.

“You don’t suppose correctly.”

“So what happened?”

“It’s a nice Tuesday afternoon in August. He probably went fishing.”

“That’s not what happened to me two years ago.”

“True.” No way I could forget that. “But I found out pretty quickly you’d been kidnapped. Until we get some positive evidence that it’s otherwise, we have to assume Mr. Bradley, for whatever reason, simply chose not to keep an appointment.”

“So how do we find him, boss?”

That “boss” bit was delivered tongue-in-cheek. Although Jill held a license as an apprentice investigator under my supervision, she considered herself a full partner in the firm. Which she was, of course, though I sometimes wondered why I let her talk me into pursuing this wacky profession in a partnership. Anyway, I suppose you could say I qualified as the lead investigator on this case.
“We start with Mr. Bradley’s boss. Where are your notes with the contractor’s name?”

After consulting the notes, I called Allied Construction and got the owner’s secretary, a Mrs. Nelson. Her voice reminded me of my mother’s, laced with overtones of patience and tolerance. When I explained my problem, she gave a musical laugh.

“I’m not all that surprised. His transportation probably played out on him. Pierce Bradley is a stubborn young man. He insists on driving an antique Jeep.”

“An old Cherokee?” That’s the Jeep I had driven the past few years.

“Heavens, no. It’s a real Jeep. You know, that military color.”

“Olive drab.”

“That’s it. Looks like surplus from some ancient war.”

I knew about ancient wars, too, having served an Air Force tour in Vietnam. “Does it break down often?”

“I wouldn’t say often. But a lot oftener than he’d like, I’m sure.”

“I’ve had experience with Jeeps like that. Where does he live?”

“In Walnut Grove. It’s a wide spot in the road up in Trousdale County, about forty miles northeast of Nashville. I think he’d like to move down here, but he’s got some problems. Would you like his phone numbers?”

“Sure.”

She gave me both home and cell numbers. I thanked her and turned to Jill. “Mr. Bradley probably had car trouble. He drives what sounds like a Vietnam-era model of what Jeep now calls a Wrangler.”

She fixed me with a wary frown. “Why didn’t he call and tell somebody?”

Good point, but I played devil’s advocate. “If he didn’t have anything pressing, he probably didn’t feel it necessary.”

“I heard you repeating phone numbers. That means we should try calling him, right?”

“Right.”

“Shall we divvy up?”

“You try at home. I’ll try the cell.”

We were big on serendipity, economy of effort, all that good organizational stuff. Neither of us got an answer, which was troubling. We left messages on both phones to call us, regardless of the hour.

It was almost time to close shop when Jarvis called back.

“Having any luck?”

“Not so far. How’s Mr. Liggett?”

“He’s doing fairly well, but the pain medication leaves him a little confused at times. I think it would be profitable for you to come over and hear his story, though.”

“And you want him to see that we’re on the job.”

“Might improve his outlook.”

“When is a good time for us to make our appearance?”

“He’s eating supper now.”

“Why don’t Jill and I get a bite, then we’ll drop by.”

“Sounds good. Kelli and I’ll be here. I don’t have to be down at Arnold for my talk until in the morning.”

Jarvis’s current assignment was with the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon. He had flown into Nashville to rent a car en route to Arnold Air Force Base near Tullahoma, seventy-five miles to the south. He planned to brief delegates attending a conference at Arnold Engineering Development Center, the Air Force’s big supersonic wind tunnel facility capable of testing most anything that flew, on the situation in the Middle East.

OUR STOREFRONT OFFICE in a suburban strip center had acquired a little more dignity since we’d covered the plate glass windows with a mural depicting the Gardens of Versailles. Quite a step up for an ex-beauty salon. Being the daughter of a symphony violinist, Jill had insisted on a classical look. That, however, marked the extent of our elegance. The rest was strictly utilitarian, more in tune with my Scottish roots—a couple of green metal filing cabinets, a well-stocked bookshelf, a paper shredder, and a table with printer, fax, copier, and a small TV.

I had found the location ideal for a guy who likes to eat, being convenient to numerous restaurants. We stopped at a nearby ribs place and ordered a pile of food that would embarrass a porker. I had just cleaned the last bone of its barbeque sauce-slathered meat when Jill gave me her be-prepared-to-duck look.

“After eating all that, you’d better be ready to march in the morning, Colonel McKenzie. Considering what you put away, you may have a stomach cramp, but that won’t work as an excuse.”

Most mornings we trekked the neighborhood on a two-mile jaunt before breakfast. We’d shower and eat and head for the office around eight. This morning I had begged off walking because of a leg cramp.

“Okay, babe,” I said. “I’ll be ready. I guar-ahn-tee it. You can cancel the whip-cracking routine.”

My bride of nearly forty years had become a firm taskmaster of late when it came to my maintaining a healthy lifestyle. I tend to gravitate to what is politely called hefty. She not always politely reminds me to back away from the table.

AFTERNOON RUSH HOUR traffic had subsided, although a conglomeration of cars and trucks cluttered Old Hickory Boulevard as we took the circumferential highway to the north. It led past President Andrew Jackson’s restored Hermitage mansion, for which our community was named, through an area called Old Hickory, another Jacksonian reference, and the tiny incorporated village of Lakewood. The traffic slowed to a decent 45 miles per hour there, thanks to its reputation as a speed trap.

I had never been to this particular nursing home. We found it in a fashionable neighborhood of large post World War II houses built on sizeable lots with brawny oaks and maples and lawns as smooth as golf course greens. Though I couldn’t say if it was a conscious effort to stash away the ranks of the infirm, the facility lay hidden behind a woodsy façade. We would have missed it except for the modest Safe Harbor sign at the driveway entrance.

A nurse wearing a colorful smock directed us down a tiled corridor infused with a pervasive antiseptic odor. We passed a huddled woman in a wheelchair, a few wisps of gray hair clinging to her bowed head. She talked to herself in low, unintelligible tones. It left me with a hollow feeling inside, a feeling I should do something to help her but without the vaguest idea of what I could do. It was similar to what I felt when encountering a homeless guy on the street. I usually gave them a buck and hoped it would be spent in some useful manner, if not a wise one.

We found Arthur Liggett’s name beside the door to a room not a lot more spacious than a broom closet. It housed a bed, a lounge chair, and a three-drawer wooden chest. A few aluminum stack chairs had been squeezed in for our benefit.

A large man with thinning white hair, Liggett had a full face and a silvery mustache in need of trimming. I suspected his granddaughter would get around to that shortly. Hooded eyes gave him a lethargic look. Small oxygen tubes fed into his nose, a circumstance that struck me as demeaning, though necessary. Neither age nor physical impairment had lessened his desire to maintain the formality of years in management, however. He wore a white shirt with red tie beneath the blue sweater donned to combat the robust air-conditioning system. My approach to retirement had taken the opposite tack. After a lifetime of being forced to dress up in coats and ties, I took pains to avoid them except when an absolute necessity, and never during a mid-August heat wave.

After introductions, I shook Mr. Liggett’s large, gnarled hand and took a chair beside the battleship gray wall. “What in the world are you doing here, Mr. Liggett?” I asked. “You look like you’re ready to run a marathon.”

He leaned his head against the lounge chair and gazed out through thick oval lenses, the bare hint of a smile tilting a corner of his mouth. “You can’t see the gruesome part . . . under this blanket covering my legs. I never did run too fast, though. Maybe it won’t matter.”

He spoke in a low, breathy voice, the words coming slowly.

“As long as I’ve known him, he’s never been a complainer,” Kelli said.

I wondered about that “as long as I’ve known him” but let it pass.

“You were a hospital administrator?” I asked.

“Yes. You’d think I’d seen enough of this sort of environment, that I’d figure out how to avoid it in any way possible.”

“How long were you in the hospital business?”

He took a deep breath, looked up at the ceiling, then back at me. “Practically all my life. I served in the Army Medical Corps during the war. Went to work in a hospital after my discharge. I only needed a year to finish college. They were generous enough to let me do that while I was working.”

Kelli leaned forward. “He was manager of one of the city’s largest hospitals when he retired at seventy-plus.”

“You’ve spent a long in the trenches,” Jill said. “Time for you to get a rest.”

“Hmph. Only rest I’m likely to get’s in the grave. Kelli says you’re detectives. I hope you can find out what’s going on.”

“Tell us how this came about,” I said.

“A few days ago I got a call.” He glanced at the phone on the bedside table. “Fellow said—what was his name?”

“Pierce Bradley,” Kelli prompted.

“Yes, Pierce Bradley called. Said he was a foreman with a contractor rehabbing the old Marathon Motors buildings on Clinton Street. It’s just beyond downtown, near the Inner Loop. I knew the place, of course. That’s where my grandfather worked years ago. Werthan Bag Company used the buildings in its operations for a while, but they’d been vacant a long time.”

“Somebody new had bought them?” I asked.

“Yes. A fellow making office space for photographers and artists and musicians. Don’t remember his name. Anyway, this—Bradley, was it?—said one of his workers had found a sheaf of papers behind some wood paneling. It was addressed to the Davidson County District Attorney General.”

“The worker gave the papers to Bradley?”

“That’s right.”

“Did Bradley show them to anybody else?”

“I don’t think so. Said they were obviously quite old. The building had been vacant for years. Derelicts had trashed the place. Bradley said he started to throw the papers away but decided to take a look first. He’s not a financial type of fellow. He wasn’t sure what to make of it. But he talked to the building’s owner and lerarned of Marathon’s bankruptcy. He knew there had been a lot of controversy. Then he saw my grandfather’s name, that he was the assistant treasurer.”

“How did Bradley connect it with you?” I asked.

“I think he started with the Chamber of Commerce. They suggested he contact somebody else. After a few calls, he came up with my name.”

“I imagine you’re pretty well known in the Nashville business community,” Jill said.

He allowed a full smile for the first time. It had a touch of shyness to it. “You could probably say that.”

I looked up from the notes I was jotting in my lap. “That part about the District Attorney sounds like your grandfather thought something criminal was involved. Did Mr. Bradley give you any clue as to what the records contained?”

Liggett took another deep breath before replying. “I don’t think he really had any idea. He didn’t know anything about Sydney Liggett’s disappearance.”

“Tell us about that.”

Liggett shifted in his chair, a beefy hand smoothing his tie. “It’s one of those things you’d rather forget, but can’t. The first I knew about it was when I was in the first or second grade. This uppity boy got mad at me one day and said, ‘Your granddaddy was a thief.’ I thought he was just inventing an insult until I got home and told my mother. She sat me down and told me not to believe such things. My grandfather had been accused of taking money from the company, but the family was convinced he didn’t do it.”

“That was a terrible way to learn about it,” Jill said.

“It was. My mother told me Grandpa Liggett had disappeared. They found nothing but bones when they discovered his body several years later. The legal system ruled him guilty, but his wife and son, my dad, always believed in his innocence.” Albert Liggett rubbed his eyes. “I’d like to be able to prove that, and these papers sound like they just might do it.”

Jill leaned over and whispered in my ear. “He’s getting tired.”

I agreed. I stuck my little notebook in my pocket and stood. “We certainly enjoyed meeting you, Mr. Liggett. This little chat should help get us off to a good start. You take it easy now and get well. I’m sure we’ll see you again soon.”

“Just find that fellow and get me those papers,” Liggett said, removing his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose.

Kelli and Jarvis followed us into the corridor. “What do you think, Greg?” Jarvis asked.

“I think we’d better go camp on Mr. Bradley’s doorstep. I hope he’s just gone fishing. It would certainly make things a lot simpler.”

We had just returned to the car when my cell phone rang.

“Hello,” I answered.

“Who’s this?”

I don’t take well to that sort of question on the telephone. “Who wants to know?”

The voice was a young man’s, with a good ol’ boy twang. “Well, I found this here cell phone with a message on it to call you. I figured you’d know whose phone it was.”

I checked the number on the caller ID. It looked familiar. I opened my note pad. “It belongs to Mr. Pierce Bradley. Where did you find it?”

“On Carey Lane, just off Highway 25.”

“What’s that near?”

“Near?”

I shook my head. “Is there a town somewhere around?”

“Walnut Grove,” he said, “but it ain’t zackly what I’d call a town.”
 

 

The Marathon Murders excerpt Copyright © 2008, 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 Publisher or the Author.

 

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