The story begins here...

Chapter 1

When you get a strange feeling that something isn’t quite right, even though there’s no obvious basis for it, your comfort index begins a slow slide, like a worn tire on an icy road. You have no idea where it might end up but know it won’t be someplace you want to go. That’s how I felt after getting the call from Arnold Wechsel on a Saturday afternoon a week before Christmas.

Jill and I had spent a few hours at the office that morning, tidying up loose ends to clear the deck for the new case we had taken on the day before. A brisk north wind that bore the sharp sting of winter chased us back to our warm and cozy log cabin in the woods. I don’t mean to sound like some latter-day Abe Lincoln. It was closer to a manor than a country cottage. The biggest log house I’d ever encountered. As for the woods, it was a forested three-acre plot in a heavily-populated Nashville suburb.

I had just pulled off the padded jacket that made me resemble an Iditarod driver who’d wandered off course when the phone rang. I checked the caller ID and saw Arnold’s name. We hadn’t heard from the young man in a couple of months.

“Where’ve you been, Arnold?” I asked. “Long time no see.”

“I have been working many hours,” he said, his German accent making it sound like “verking.”

“Your Uncle Jeff has been pretty quiet lately, too,” I said. Arnold’s Aunt Lisle was married to Jeff Price, an old Air Force OSI colleague now stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

“I talk to my mutter every week or two.”

His mother was Lisle Price’s younger sister. Three years ago they had paid his way to study the maintenance of high performance vehicles at Nashville Auto Diesel College.

“I hope everyone is doing well over there,” I said.

“Yes, thank you.” A man of few words, he got right to the point. “I am calling for a special reason, Mr. McKenzie. I have some important information for you.”

From my limited experience with him, I knew Arnold was a serious young man. Now he sounded downright mysterious. “What sort of information?”

“I do not wish to talk about it on the telephone.”

“Then come on over. We just got home and don’t plan to go anywhere else.” We had invited him for dinner once, so he knew where we lived.

“Not there. I do not want it known that we meet.”

This was beginning to get spooky. “What does it concern?”

He hesitated, then said, “Your National Basketball Association matter.”

I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. My voice sharpened. “Arnold, how did you know we had any interest in that situation?”

“Please, I will tell everything when we meet. It will, how do you say, blow the mind.”

I looked around at Jill and shook my head. “When and where?”

“Seven-thirty tonight at a small automobile repair shop owned by my friend. It will be closed, but he gives me the key.”

Arnold provided me an address in the Dickerson Pike area of Northeast Nashville and promptly hung up.

Jill saw my puzzled look. “What was that all about?”

I told her what Arnold had said.

“How do you suppose he knew about our case?” she asked. “We haven’t even met the principals involved yet.”

“That’s something I intend to ask him when we meet. It sure sounds like the situation Terry mentioned, though.”

Terry Tremont, McKenzie Investigations’ best lawyer client, had called us in yesterday afternoon. He was retained by a group of Nashville Predators’ hockey fans circling the ice wagons in an effort to thwart a clique of local businessmen intent on bringing an NBA team to Music City. It was the old story of this town ain’t big enough for the both of us. Or, in this case, the three of use, since Nashville already had both professional football and ice hockey.

Terry wanted us to check into a rumor that something shady was going on among the NBA franchise seekers. He had been frank in laying out his skepticism. He thought his clients’ concerns were based on flimsy evidence.

“Somebody heard bits of a conversation and told somebody else,” Terry had said. “Could be strictly a rumor, but these people are fanatics. They’re really fired up about this, so we need to try and find some answers.”

From Arnold’s description of information that would blow my mind, it certainly sounded like he was ready to confirm the rumor.

“He didn’t give me much chance to ask questions,” I said.

Jill moved into the kitchen and filled the carafe with water to make coffee. “You probably wouldn’t have gotten any answers. Arnold is a sweet boy, but he can be awfully reticent.”

“I’m getting some bad vibes from this,” I said.

Jill spooned coffee into the filter and flipped the switch. “If this has the potential to solve our case, you should be getting good vibes.”

I sat at the kitchen table and gazed about at the miniature Christmas tree on the long white tile counter, plus numerous other holiday doo-dads my bride of nearly forty years had artfully placed around the room. It was the season for good vibes. I just didn’t have them.

“I wish we’d been able to talk with one of Terry’s clients before now,” I said. “What did you get set up with Bradley Smotherman?”

“His secretary said we could see him at eight-thirty on Monday. He’s in one of those office buildings on West End out past Centennial Park.”

Smotherman was ringleader of the group called Protect our Preds, the super hockey fans we would be working with.

“Did you have any luck with Gordon Franklin or Mack Nolan?” I asked.

She ran slender fingers through her thick black hair, a feature that, along with a pleasantly-curvy body, sometimes made people mistake her for my daughter. Not an ego-soothing notion. She was nearly as old as I was. “Franklin will see us Monday at eleven-thirty. Mack Nolan, as you might guess, will be harder to pin down. I talked to his manager. He promised to make time for us as soon as possible.”

I understood. With a string of top country hits, the young man was much in demand around the circuit. He, along with the other two well-heeled fans, had put up most of the money for the organization. They had hired Terry Tremont and planned various strategies in an attempt to thwart the basketball promoters. Being primarily a Tennessee Titans fan, I wasn’t prepared to take sides on the issue. But if Arnold held the key to clearing up the claims of skullduggery, I anxiously awaited hearing him out.

 

Chapter 2

 

I disliked the place as soon as I stepped out of the car, my breath vaporizing in the cold December night as though I had lapsed back into the smoking habit. Rather than smoke, the smell of used oil and worn tires tainted the breeze. The street appeared as cluttered as the back room in a neighborhood bar. Iron rods criss-crossed the window of the small auto repair shop that had been a service station in a previous life. In a half-hearted attempt at Christmas décor, a winking string of icicle lights writhed like a nervous snake above the overhead door.

A shiny red Corvette several years removed from the showroom sat next to the building. Arnold Wechsel had driven it when he visited our house. I saw no lights inside but knew he had to be here. I was running a few minutes late. As I approached the office door, hands jammed into the warmth of my jacket pockets, I regretted not bringing my 9mm Sig Sauer. Like most PI’s, I didn’t carry it routinely. I had been a bit lax in my thinking tonight, though, feeling Arnold’s imposing size would keep any bad guys at bay.

At the door I hesitated, then turned the knob.

I pulled the door open, stared into the darkness. Something began to take shape on the floor as my eyes adjusted. I drew back, half expecting a bark or a lunge. Instead, I realized it was a body. I felt a pounding in my chest. Was it Arnold?

My first impulse was to rush in and turn on a light. My cop instinct restrained me. Not without a weapon.

I hurried out to my Grand Cherokee for a flashlight. Back at the door, I shined the light inside. Worn black and white vinyl tiles covered the floor. One white square was tinged a garish red. Arnold Wechsel lay sprawled on his back beside a battery display, a lifeless stare fixed on the ceiling.

I caught my breath and my heart seemed to stop. I swept the area with the flashlight but saw no one. Moving carefully to his side, I squatted down and checked his pulse. Nothing. A large, stocky young man with a neck like a Titans lineman, Arnold had fallen almost the full depth of the office. A small round hole in his cheek with dark smudging around it told me he had been shot. Blood pooled beneath his head from the exit wound.

I felt totally helpless.

Jeff Price’s wife and sister-in-law had been happy that a friend was nearby in Nashville to offer help if needed. In the back of my mind, I knew this was not my fault, but I felt responsible anyway. He had come here to give me information he thought I needed.

My investigator mindset kicked in and I knew what I had to do. Find who killed Arnold Wechsel. I pulled out my cell phone and speed-dialed my Homicide buddy, Detective Phillip Adamson.

“Phil, this is Greg McKenzie,” I said.

“Damn, Greg. You really know how to spoil a guy’s nap.” He spoke slowly, as if grappling with clouds that needed clearing.

“Sorry, friend. This is one call I really wish I didn’t have to make.”

He suddenly sounded wide awake. “What’s happened?”

 “I was supposed to meet a young German who’s the nephew of an old OSI colleague. He was bringing me some information. When I got here, I found him shot in the face. Dead.”

“Damn. Where are you?”

I gave him the address, explained the condition of the body, the darkened shop office.

“I’ll get a patrol car and an ambulance over there.”

“Thanks.”

“You carrying?”

“No.”

“In that area, on a Saturday night?”

“Not my smartest move lately.”

“That’s for sure. Stay in your car until they get there. I’ll be right behind ’em.”

I took a last look at Arnold, already dreading the call to Jeff Price at Ramstein. The Metro Police chaplain would contact the family, but I needed to alert Jeff when things settled down. I pulled the door shut, walked over and placed my hand on the hood of the sleek red car, using a handkerchief to avoid disturbing any fingerprints, or leaving any of my own. Still warm, despite the frigid air. I glanced at my watch. Seven-forty-three. He hadn’t been here long. Was he a target of opportunity for some young punk out to grab a quick buck? If so, the killer would have high-tailed it out of here. Or had someone been waiting to ambush him? In that case, the murderer could still be around.

I got in my Jeep and pressed the door lock. Would anybody have heard the shot, I wondered? I looked around the darkened street. A drab market that likely depended on the sale of beer and cigarettes for survival sat to one side, closed for the day. A vacant building in the other direction had a For Lease sign in place of its former occupant’s name. Across the street, a blue tarp stretched over the roof of a burned-out house. The nearest occupied residence appeared a couple of doors down, where a bare bulb with a few years of grunge on it cast a dim glow over the porch. Not the sort of area where people would come out and volunteer information even if a cannon had been fired.

I took out my cell phone and made another call I dreaded. When Jill answered, I tried to put it gently. “I’ve got some bad news, babe. When I got here, I found Arnold had been shot.”

“Oh, Greg! That’s awful. Is it bad?”

There was no way to make it any easier. “As bad as it gets.”

“You mean he’s…”

“Dead,” I said when she hesitated. “Phil Adamson and more cops are on the way.”

“His mother will be devastated.” After a moment of pained silence, she asked, “Who could have done it?”

“That’s what I intend to find out.”

“Do you have your gun?”

“No. Coming to meet with Arnold, I didn’t see the need for it.” Though I should have, considering the location.

“Be careful, dear, and don’t do anything rash.”

I liked to think of myself as a guy who chooses the prudent alternative, although expedience sometimes seems to get in the way. I didn’t make any promises. My wife knows me too well for me to try blowing smoke in her direction.

I heard the sirens before I got off the phone. Shortly afterward, I found myself flanked by two Metro Nashville Police blue and whites. I got out with my PI card in hand. A burly, stern-faced cop with a thick mop of white hair confronted me. From the look on his face, I gathered he was not at all happy that I had forced him out in the cold away from a warm, cozy corner café.

I held out the card. “I’m Private Investigator Greg McKenzie.”

He gave my ID a cursory glance. “They told me you’d be here. Where’s the body and what happened?” The tone of voice told me this was not a guy to mess with.

I read “Dexter” on his name plate, then pointed toward the shop entrance. “He’s just inside that door. He’s been shot in the face.”

The sound of another siren cut through the cold night air. The cop looked around as a boxy Metro Fire Department ambulance swerved into the parking area and added it’s flashing lights to the Christmas tree effect of the police cars.

“Hadn’t we better check out the building?” a low-pitched female voice asked from behind me.

I turned to see the blue uniform of the second cop, who had stood silently behind me. She was a little shorter than my five-ten and a lot slimmer. I judged her to be mid-to-late twenties.

“You see anybody else around here, McKenzie?” Officer Dexter asked. It sounded more like a demand.

“No.”

“How long you been here?”

“Around fifteen minutes. I didn’t see anyone, but they could have gone out the back.”

“You didn’t go inside?”

“Only to check his pulse. I didn’t find any.”

“Come on, Bolling,” he said. “You stay where you are, McKenzie. I’ll get back to you.”

The officers drew their guns and headed for the building in a cautionary crouch as two men climbed out of the ambulance, one carrying a large equipment bag.

“What do we have here?” a tall paramedic asked, zipping up his blue jacket against the icy breeze. He had the physique of a basketball center and the weary expression of someone who’d rather be back at the fire station drinking coffee instead of traipsing around in this God-awful cold.

I explained what I had found, that the cops were clearing the building. As the ambulance crew ambled toward the shop, I headed back to my car. I didn’t see any advantage to standing out here freezing. As I slid onto the seat, I realized I’d not had a chance to consider the repercussions of this murder on our case. Before I could get my mind shifted away from the shock of finding Arnold dead, the cell phone rang.

“I’m headed out North First,” Phil Adamson said. “Are you okay?”

“I’ve been better.”

“Hang in there. I’ll be on in a jiffy. Patrol guys on the scene?”

“Guy and gal,” I said. “Dexter and Bolling.”

“Watch your flanks, buddy. Tom Dexter’s a real hardass. He give you any problems.”

“Not yet.”

“Give him time.”

“I wasn’t too pleased with the way he delivered his ‘I’ll get back to you.’”

Phil chuckled. “Try to keep from getting cuffed before I can make it over there.”

He was familiar with my reputation for not treading lightly on toes that got in the way. I stuck the phone back on my belt and looked up to see the older cop stalk out of the shop headed for my Jeep. Evidently he’d left the young policewoman to monitor the crime scene. I donned my Tennessee Titans cap and stepped out onto the asphalt.

“Find anybody else?” I asked.

“No. You know the victim?”

“His name is Arnold Wechsel.”

“Who is Wechsel and what’s he to you?”

Where his face had looked stern before, he twisted it into a scowl now.

“He’s the nephew of a former Air Force colleague of mine. He called this afternoon and asked me to meet him here at seven-thirty tonight.”

“What for?”

“He said he had some information for me.”

“About what?”

“He said he’d tell me when we met.”

“You make a habit of this, McKenzie? Traipsing around at night in shitty places with no idea why?”

“Officer Dexter, I worked a quarter of a century as a special agent for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. I’ve spent many a night meeting with informants, having no idea what sort of info they might show up with.”

“I don’t give a damn if you’ve spent a hundred years meeting with pimps and whores. I want to know what you were doing here tonight. And don’t tell me you were just fishing.”

I couldn’t see the handcuffs on his belt, but I knew they were there. And though I had no desire to try them on, I’d had about enough of his blustering.

I took a deep breath. “I just talked to Detective Phil Adamson on the phone. He was on North First and said he’d be here in a jiffy. Why don’t we wait for him and I can satisfy everyone’s curiosity with one telling?”

“Are you refusing to answer my question?”

I’m sure he wasn’t accustomed to anyone crossing him. I suspected the flush in his face did not just stem from the weather. He seemed to be near the boiling point. And so was I.

“No, sir. I’m not refusing anything,” I said in a slow, deliberate voice. “I’m merely suggesting—”

“Bullshit!”

 

A Sporting Murder excerpt Copyright © 2010, 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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