The story starts here...

 

Chapter 1

 

IN A RURAL county fifty miles east of Nashville, Sid Chance turned his restless gaze to the front window. The rustic cabin perched like a stalking bobcat high on a wooded hillside. After the rain had moved on, a few slivers of moonlight revealed indistinct outlines of tall hardwoods that crowded the steep slope. Though small, only two rooms, the cabin provided everything he needed. He had found he could do without electricity or running water.
    The odor of seafood and soy sauce lingered in the air. He had cooked supper on his camp stove around eight, a stir fry concoction fashioned from canned vegetables and shrimp. That was when the rain started. After eating and cleaning up the mess—though not the tidiest of cooks, he didn’t like feeding bugs—he turned down the oil lamps and tried to relax in his homemade recliner. It wasn’t easy. This return to the hideaway where he had enjoyed a peaceful life for nearly three years left him wondering if he’d made the right decision in leaving. Going back to the type of work he had pursued for more than three decades left him exposed to the same flawed humanity that had chased him up here in the first place.
    The warmth of dying flames in the small fireplace soothed muscles weary from a day of lifting rocks and toting logs. Nature was unforgiving if you ignored her for long. Despite the doubts that plagued him, the fire’s warmth and the lullaby of rain chattering musically on the roof proved more effective than a Valium. He soon dozed off. He awoke around two in the morning.
    With the commitments he had made, he knew it was time to get back to the city. He lit the stove, put on a pot of coffee, gathered up the few things he had brought along and stuffed them into his duffle bag. After pulling on his boots, he donned a flannel-lined windbreaker, slogged out into the soaked underbrush and closed and locked the heavy wooden shutters over the windows.
    Back inside, the zesty aroma of Colombian coffee pervaded the room. He filled a large mug emblazoned with a brown bear and the initials NPS and drank it slowly, like a condemned man savoring his final cup. And, like a condemned man, his thoughts slipped back to the source of his greatest agony, the false bribery charge that had tainted his good name, costing him the job he hadn’t planned to give up until retirement. Lurking in the back of his mind was the unfinished business of putting a name to the person who had set him up.

Soon it was time to hit the road. He snuffed out the lamps and doused the smoldering logs, slung the duffle over his shoulder, grabbed a garbage bag and his battery lantern and trudged downhill to where he had parked his truck. Despite efforts to clear part of the meandering trail, it remained treacherous in the dark tangle that remained of late summer’s erratic growth. Regardless of what it had or had not accomplished, this brief return to the basics was over.

THE PATROL CAR cruised slowly through the remnants of a chilling rainstorm. At the wheel was a bored Metro Nashville park policeman more concerned about winding up his shift without getting soaked than in looking for trouble. He found it anyway. As he watched the rain tap-dance on the asphalt up ahead, something odd caught in his peripheral vision. Off to one side, where everything should have been green or brown, lay a splotch of red. His eyes snapped open wide. He braked to a stop, backed up, swung his spotlight around. The bright beam picked out a sight that ruined his night. A body clothed in a bulky red jacket sprawled beside the road.
    The officer shrugged into his raincoat, pulled on his cap, and trudged out into the shower. A young cop with more experience at changing diapers than in confronting trauma on his beat, he approached the still figure with the caution of a hunter unsure if his target was alive. The man’s cap had fallen off, leaving black hair matted against his head. When the officer’s flashlight played over the jacket, he saw what appeared to be bullet holes in the cloth.
    Not pausing to check for a pulse, he hurried back to his car and called in an apparent homicide.

EAST PRECINCT Homicide Detective Bart Masterson stood outside the glow of portable floodlights set up beside the road in a secluded section of Shelby Park. Had it been daylight, he would have looked across at the railroad trestle that spanned the Cumberland River. Though the rain had passed, the clouds masked any hint of stars or moon and a musty dampness lingered in the air. The chill led him to poke slender hands into the pockets of his navy jacket. A six-footer with the tenuous build of a scarecrow, he wore a black mustache like an inverted V. It gave him the look of legendary Old West lawman Bat Masterson, who might well have been an ancestor. He turned away from the indistinct tree line as a hound bayed in the distance.
    The detective stared at the prone figure lying face down on the soggy ground. What had been a living, breathing human being only hours ago now amounted to little more than deteriorating skin and muscle and decomposing organs of no intrinsic value to anyone but a forensic pathologist. It was a sight he had encountered way too many times, but, as with all the others, he wouldn’t rest until he dug into every corner it took to find the killer.
    The scene had been exhaustively photographed. A technician from the Medical Examiner’s office, a short man with tousled hair and a pinched brow, knelt beside the victim, checking the random pattern of small holes in the red jacket still soaked from the rain. He rolled the body onto its back and studied the front of the jacket.
    “I count five entrance wounds in the back,” he said without looking up. “Don’t see but three exits in the front.”
    “Good,” Masterson said. “Maybe you’ll find some lead.”
    “Hopefully. My guess is it was a .38.”
    “Let me know when you have something definite.” The detective turned to a crime scene officer standing nearby with a large flashlight. “You got anything?”
    “Negative. We’ll check again in the daylight. There’s definitely no brass. He was probably pushed out of a car.”
    Masterson shook his head. “Five slugs. Somebody damn sure had a grudge against him.”

IT WAS STILL DARK when Sid Chance pulled off I-40 at the Old Hickory Boulevard exit. He turned his vintage brown pickup toward Madison, a rambling middle-class suburb on the northeast side of Nashville. A big man, every bit of six-six, he had a headful of black hair and a short beard to match, both laced with threads of silver. The last time he had glanced in a mirror, the glower he saw made him think of a troll. He recalled an old admirer saying he looked like a Hollywood hero when he smiled. He wasn’t so sure. He hadn’t done all that much smiling in recent times.
    Though most of the area’s workers remained asleep or just getting started on breakfast, traffic moved at a moderate pace on the circumferential highway. After crossing the Cumberland River, Sid took the cutoff north to Gallatin Pike, Madison’s Main Street. His office, a grudging requirement of his new life, occupied a corner in a glass and stone building near RiverGate Mall, anchor for the community’s primary shopping area. One strip center after another lined both sides of the street, deserted mini-cities at this time of day.
    He glanced at his muddy boots and smudged jeans as he ambled toward the front of the building. He needed a shower and clean clothes, but that could wait. He figured his chances of encountering someone now little better than those of holding a winning lottery ticket. Nobody was fool enough to come in at this time of day except a habitual early riser, something he’d been since service with Army Special Forces in Vietnam. That’s where he learned to exist on a minimal amount of sleep. Inside, he turned toward his office and glanced at the “Sidney Chance Investigations” sign on the door. It brought one of his infrequent grins. How cool would it have been if they had named him Random instead of Sidney.
    The answering machine chirped its practiced greeting as he walked in. Welcome back to what most people would call the real world, he thought. Maybe a few more months of civilization would rekindle his appreciation for the marvels of modern technology. Right now they seemed more an annoyance. A computer glitch that had gobbled up three days of painstaking work was the kicker that sent him back to the cabin for a cooling off period.
    He found six messages on the machine. Two from Jaz LeMieux wanting him to return her calls, two from guys he didn’t know and doubted he wanted to, one from a process server, and one from a lawyer seeking his help. He played that one again.
    “This is Arnie Bailey, with the law firm of Bailey, Riddle and Smith. Jasmine LeMieux highly recommended you for a job I need done. She said you were good at finding missing persons. This is a little different, however. It’s a missing company. My client faces a major financial disaster if we can’t find the organization involved. It’s a chemical pollution case around Ashland City. I’d appreciate your calling me as soon as you can.”
    He glanced at his watch. It was way too early to call a lawyer, even somebody who sounded as anxious as this one. He decided to go home and shower, eat breakfast, then come back and have another go at it. No doubt the calls from Jaz related to Bailey’s problem.
    Sid lived in the ranch-style brick house his mother had called home for twenty-five years. She died around the time his career as a small town police chief crashed and burned. The house stood near the river at the end of a quiet street in a neighborhood of mostly young couples and a few retirees. The sky had begun to brighten by the time he pulled into his driveway, though dirty gray clouds seemed to hang within arm’s reach.
    He reveled in the soothing spray of the shower. It drummed against his back like a masseur’s fingers, easing some of the troubled thoughts that had knotted up his mind on the drive back from his hillside retreat. Despite a lot of jury-rigging, he had never come up with a reliable way to get a hot shower in the backwoods. He dressed and settled into the compact kitchen for breakfast. As he poured milk onto his cereal, the phone rang.
    “Glad you finally decided to answer.” Jaz LeMieux’s voice had an edge.
    “I just got home a little while ago.”
    “From where?”
    “The cabin.”
    “Don’t you answer your cell phone?”
    “When it’s turned on.”
    There was a pause. “I think you’re reverting to your mountain man persona, Sid.”
    He said nothing.
    “Have all my efforts been wasted?”
    “I did a lot of pondering last night,” he said. “But I came back.”
    At first he had credited his financial mentor, Mike Rich, with the responsibility for luring him out of self-imposed exile. Lately he had begun to lean toward Jaz.
    “Have you talked to Arnie Bailey?” she asked.
    “I went by the office around 5:30 and got his message off the answering machine. What’s the story?”
    “You’ll have to get the details from Arnie.”
    “He a friend?”
    “He’s a good guy. He’s done legal work for us.”
    At forty-five, she served as chairman of the board of Welcome Traveler Stores, a lucrative chain of truck stops her father had founded. She was also a sharp, attractive, persuasive woman who knew how to get what she wanted. Sid wondered how much pressure she had put on the lawyer.
    He settled back in his chair. “Bailey says you told him I was good at finding people.”
    “You are. You’ve navigated those databases like an old pro.”
    “Fine, if the computer would quit eating the results.”
    “I told you I could fix that.” Jaz held a computer science degree as well as an MBA. She knew the inner workings of the machines as well as arcane methods of mining the Internet’s secrets. “Is that why you went traipsing back up the mountainside?”
    “Partly. There were other issues.” Sid rumpled his brow. “Bailey mentioned a pollution case.”
    “There was a story in the paper, but I didn’t get a chance to read it. Do you plan to call him?”
    “Yes. But I doubt he’d be around this time of day.”
    “I know he gets to his office early. Maybe not this early, but he likes to be well prepared before court opens.”
    “Okay, Jaz, I’ll talk to him. That’s a promise.”
    “Good. Let me know what he says.”
    Sid placed the portable phone back onto its base. Despite occasional disagreements, he couldn’t help but like her.  She had no reason to continue pushing him other than a belief that it was in his best interest. Jaz had been the key to his entry into the PI business. With his background, he had slipped into the role as smoothly as pulling on a pair of comfortable sneakers. He found running investigations for private clients a convenient and, so far, profitable way to stay involved in police work. About the only drawback had been a feeling that sometimes Jaz’s efforts skirted the boundaries of his independence.
    After finishing breakfast, he realized a couple of days away from his exercise routine had left him sluggish. He settled on an abbreviated version of his morning run. He didn’t want to have to shower again.

APPROACHING THE office a little later, he saw cars and pickups clustered around the mall’s entrances like mice at a cheese shop, parked by mall walkers, mostly seniors, who swarmed the corridors before time for the stores to open. Considering his own exercise routine, Sid wondered if the lawyer might stop off at a place like this before appearing at his office. No matter, he called Bailey, Riddle and Smith at 7:30 and found the senior partner at his desk.
    “Glad you called,” Bailey said. “I’ve been on spikes and nails all night.”
    Sid translated that as needles and pins. Evidently Bailey liked to be creative with his clichés.
    “You mentioned a pollution case,” Sid said. “Before we go any further, you need to be aware of where I stand. I spent eighteen years in law enforcement as a National Park Service ranger. I do not like people who mess with the environment.”
    “Excellent. Miss LeMieux assured me you were the man for the job.”
    “You don’t understand. What I meant was, if your client is responsible—”
    “No, no . . . you’ve got it all wrong. My client is being saddled with a pollution mess another company created before he bought the property. It involves trichloroethylene that’s polluted water in Cheatham County.”
    “I’ve encountered TCE before.”
    “It’s bad stuff.”
    “Can be lethal.”
    “I’d like to talk to you in person before we get started, Sid. Okay if I call you Sid?”
    “That’s what my mother called me.”
    Bailey gave a slight chuckle. “I have a client due here in a few minutes, and I’ll be in court until noon. Could you meet me here for lunch? I’ll have my secretary order us some food.”
    With that settled, Sid called Jaz and related the conversation.
    “Are you going to take the job?” she asked.
    “Why not? The subject is one I’m somewhat passionate about.”
    “I thought it would be. Oh, I had a call from Bart Masterson. He wants to know if you’d like to host the poker club at your office Friday night?”
    The poker club was a group of six people with present or past ties to law enforcement who got together occasionally for a friendly game of cards. Jaz had invited Sid to join them at their last session. She said it would give him an opportunity to make some good contacts in the field.
    “Sure,” he said. “Is everybody coming?”
    “Bart’s checking. He said he’d demand to be off. They called him out in the wee hours this morning, right after a messy rainstorm. It was a homicide in Shelby Park.”
    “What happened?”
    “To quote Bart, it was a case of overkill. The man was shot five times with a thirty-eight.”
    “He find any clues?”
    “Nothing. And what’s weird is the guy worked on a Metro garbage truck. Who would do that kind of killing in that kind of place with a guy like that?”

Chapter 2


SID SWITCHED ON his computer. While waiting for it to boot, he swiveled his chair, resting his gaze on the windowless beige wall beside him. It was covered with photographic memorabilia of multiple careers from Special Forces in Vietnam to policing various National Parks to providing law and order in the small town of Lewisville. Located a little over fifty miles to the southwest of Nashville, it was named after explorer Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame. Lewis died nearby on the Natchez Trace in 1809. Some said he was murdered there.
    When the Internet browser flashed on the screen, Sid checked his email. Jaz had engineered a website with the help of the Welcome Traveler Stores’ webmaster. It gave people a place to request on-line help. At the moment everything worked like a well-greased axle. He found two missing person search requests prepaid by credit card. That was easy cash.
    Using Internet data bases and a few phone calls, he spent the next couple of hours tracking down people who had disappeared from friends’ and families’ radar scopes several years back. It helped that he’d had experience with missing person cases while the top cop in Lewisville. He emailed results of his investigations, then returned to the computer with a stack of notes to re-create the files that had been lost earlier in the week. He stayed with it until time to drive downtown to keep his luncheon appointment.
    Sid pulled into the garage beneath the building that housed the offices of Bailey, Riddle and Smith around noon. As expected, the first parking floor was already packed like dominoes in a box. Near the entrance, some character in a green VW Beetle had backed into a parking space for the disabled, making it impossible to tell if he had a special license plate. Since Sid was no longer a sworn officer of the law, it was none of his business. But as he passed, he glared at the driver, who still sat in the car. An NRA sticker graced the bumper, but no disabled parking permit dangled from the rearview mirror. Sid shook his head. Some people . . . .
    He finally located a parking spot two levels down, crossed to the elevators, and sped up to the twentieth floor.
    “Mr. Bailey just called from the courthouse,” his secretary said as she ushered Sid into the walnut-paneled conference room. A grandmotherly woman with neatly-coiffed white hair and an Aunt Bea smile, she pointed to an assortment of sandwich meats, cheeses, bread, lettuce, raw veggies and dips, potato chips, cookies and slices of cake that filled trays at one end of a long shiny table. “He said you could go ahead and start eating. What can I get you to drink?”
    “A cup of coffee would do fine.”
    Sid looked out a broad window at the dwarf-like lunchtime figures scurrying along the sidewalk below. After several years as a small town police chief, followed by three years of isolation at his cabin in the woods, he found it difficult to adjust to Nashville’s booming growth, both downtown and in the suburban counties. New skyscrapers had changed the skyline, and the planned 70-story Signature Tower would usher in a whole new wave of changes. Developments like Nissan North America’s new international headquarters in Brentwood reshaped the suburbs. It was hardly the quaint Southern town he remembered from his youth.
    Arnie Bailey arrived a few minutes later. The polar opposite of Sid, who had a solid frame, broad shoulders, and a modest waist, Bailey launched his short, chubby body through the door like a well-dressed groundhog storming out of hibernation. He pulled off his navy blazer and draped it around the back of a chair.
    “Been waiting long?” he asked.
    Sid held out his cup. “Long enough to get started on your version of Starbucks.”
    The lawyer headed for the food display. “Grab a plate and fill it with some of this grub. I have to be back in court by one-fifteen. We need to get busy.”
    Sid chose turkey and Swiss on wheat and assorted veggies. He grimaced at the pile of food that filled Bailey’s plate. Though ten years older than his host, Sid flexed muscles where Bailey collected fat. Most guys had passed their prime by the time they reached their fifties, but most guys didn’t take care of their bodies like Sid did. He followed a daily running routine. Workouts in the gym. He would never forget the gunshot wounds that halted his Park Service career, injuries received in a multi-agency drug case fourteen years earlier. He didn’t intend to get caught short in a situation where physical conditioning could make the difference between life or death.
    “How about giving me the particulars?” Sid said when they were seated at the table. “It took place in Cheatham County?”
    “Right. My client is Wade Harrington. He’s around forty, a veteran of the Gulf War. He runs a small company just outside Ashland City that makes specialty shipping boxes. They’re designed for specific products.”
    “Like cartons for computers and such?”
    “Exactly. He started the company—it’s called HarrCo Shipping—about ten years ago, with money he’d been saving. He found an abandoned plant nobody seemed to want and bought it at a good price. An uncle loaned him the rest of the cash he needed to get it going. He’s paid that back.”
    Bailey said HarrCo only occupied part of the plant at first, but as the business caught on, the operation expanded until most of the building was now in use. Everything looked great until people who lived in the area began to complain of headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Others reported bouts of clumsiness that made them appear drunk. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation inspectors found trichloroethylene, or TCE, in the well water. It had also seeped into streams that fed into the local water supply.
    They tracked the TCE back to an area at the rear of the HarrCo Shipping plant. When the ground was tested there, they discovered it was soaked with the hazardous chemical. With no way to determine just when the spill occurred, the state came after Wade Harrington to pay the hefty clean-up bill, which could run into the hundreds of thousands. It would bankrupt a thriving small business with lots of promise for the future.
    “Trouble is, Wade’s plant never used TCE or anything like it,” Bailey said.
    “You’re sure about that?”
    “Dead sure. There’s no need for that stuff in the shipping business. Besides . . . ” He rummaged through a folder in his briefcase, emerged with a paper scrawled with barely decipherable letters and numbers. “Here’s a list of every chemical they use. Right down to the carpet cleaners.”
    “So it was the previous occupant?”
    “Had to have been. They went out of business a couple of years before Wade bought the plant. He heard it had something to do with the automobile business. They must’ve used TCE some way in the process. How that much wound up on the ground is anybody’s guess.”
    “The people Harrington bought the place from should be able to tell him what he needs to know.”
    “The guy who handled the sale said he didn’t know anything about the company that previously used the plant. Somebody else was involved with that deal. It wasn’t local.”
    Sid reached for the coffee pot and refilled his cup. No doubt Harrington faced a real problem. Somebody created a bad situation behind his plant, one that did serious damage to the environment. It was a bit different from the concerns he had encountered in the Park Service. A few national parks suffered from water pollution, but the greatest problems they faced stemmed from air pollution, primarily acid rain.
    “Harrington hasn’t learned anything about the previous owner?” Sid asked.
    “Wade is completely in the dark. He hasn’t turned up anything about the company other than a vague hint. He can’t find who owned it or managed it, or what happened to them. It seems nobody around there knows what went on. He’s really between a boulder and a brick wall.” 
    More cliché adaptation. “What was the company’s name?”
    “Don’t have that either. Sounds like a phantom operation.”
    Sid’s look flashed a caution sign. “You realize phantoms can be hard to chase down. That can get kind of expensive.”
    “Do whatever you have to. Just find the culprit. It’ll be a lot cheaper than whatever he’d have to pay the state.” Bailey reached into his file, pulled out a large photograph. “Here’s something they gave Wade. It’s just a sample of what some irresponsible asshole caused.”
    Sid stared at the face of a small girl with curly blonde hair. Her mouth twisted up on one side. Her right ear appeared only as a gnarled stub. Large hazel eyes gazed out as part of a grotesque smile.
    Sid looked at the lawyer, then back at the disturbing image. The little girl could smile now, unaware of what was to come. A cousin of his had been born with similar malformations years ago, after her mother took thalidomide during pregnancy. Attempts to correct the defects proved unsuccessful. Unable to take the stares and ridicule, the girl had committed suicide as a teenager.
    “If that little girl was mine,” he said, “I’d be looking for somebody’s scalp.” He handed the photo back to Bailey.
    “That’s how I feel, too.”
    “Have you told Harrington about me?” Sid asked.
    “I talked to him this morning right after you called. I told him I was meeting with you here for lunch. You’ll want to get with him, of course, but he was headed out of town. He’ll be back tomorrow.”
    “What sort of time frame are we looking at?”
    The lawyer referred to a sheet among the papers in front of him. “They’ve scheduled a hearing in two weeks. I need everything you can give me before then.”
    “Okay, I’ll head down that way and start shaking the trees.”
    Sid pulled out of the garage and turned up the hill north on Third Avenue. Nashville was built on a series of hills. Not as steep as San Francisco’s, but steep enough to give anyone’s legs a workout who chose to hoof it about town. He had just made the turn behind the Courthouse when he noticed a dark green VW Beetle in the rearview mirror. It looked similar to the one he had seen at the garage on the way in. Checking back as he approached the bridge, he spotted the NRA bumper sticker. That cinched it. He could think of no reason anyone would be tailing him, but he kept an eye on it as he crossed the river and turned toward Ellington Parkway. When he reached the Hart Lane exit, he veered off and watched as the VW followed. After swinging into the street leading to a Highway Patrol Driver Testing Station, he turned into the parking lot and drove up to the building.
    Glancing around as he walked, he saw the Beetle had backed into a parking space in the last row toward the street.  He strolled into the building, turned, and looked out to see if anyone got out of the car. No one did. After waiting a few minutes, he returned to his car and drove out of the lot. He looked back toward the green vehicle to check the license number, but it had already pulled out.
    He headed toward Ellington Parkway and took the long, curving exit onto I-65. He threaded into the HOV lane on the far left and jammed the accelerator. It was only two miles to the RiverGate exit, where he cut across two lanes, hit the succession of traffic lights just right and swung into the parking lot entrance at his building. He saw no sign of the VW.
    It had been years since he’d encountered anything like this. Why now? And who could it be? He walked across to his office knowing there was nothing he could do except keep an eye out for anything else that sounded a discordant note.
 

The Surest Poison excerpt Copyright © 2009, Chester D. Campbell

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