McMansionby Justin Scott
Ben Abbott, realtor and private detective, is so incensed by mammoth McMansions that he refuses to sell them. Ben is not the only citizen of Newbury who is provoked by over-sized, ugly, wasteful houses, however: Billy Tiller, Newburys greediest developer, is discovered underneath his bulldozer.See more details below
Ben Abbott, realtor and private detective, is so incensed by mammoth McMansions that he refuses to sell them. Ben is not the only citizen of Newbury who is provoked by over-sized, ugly, wasteful houses, however: Billy Tiller, Newburys greediest developer, is discovered underneath his bulldozer.
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By Justin Scott
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2006 Justin Scott
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNewbury, Connecticut's greediest developer had seen the bulldozer in time to run.
Billy Tiller had had a moment to hope, too.
His footprints zigzagged, crossed twice by the machine track. His five last steps between the treads stopped at a deep gouge left by the ripper, the rock-tearing steel fang in the back of the machine. It looked to me as if he had somehow slipped behind the blade and thrown himself flat, hugging the mud between the treads as the machine passed over him. Home free, until the murderer impaled him with the ripper.
The tracks the bulldozer had gnawed up the slope were dry. No rain had fallen since the Sunday afternoon he died, and the wind had blown. The ground was rock hard. I probably could have climbed the tread marks without breaking the ribbed crust. But the evidence in this case included the ground; so even though I was the last on the scene, by a long shot, I kept to the side, working my way among clods of earth, stones, and crushed tree branches as I traced the intersecting routes of the hunter and the hunted.
The bulldozer itself was gone, hoisted off the man's body by a powerful crane (which had left its own distinctive tire tracks and outrigger prints) and impounded at the Plainfield barracks. The troopers had escorted it down Main Street, chained to a flatbed like a rogue elephant. The cops were gone, too—both Newbury's resident state trooper and the Major Case Squad up from Plainfield. The reporters were gone: the network TV crew from Hartford; the cable crew from Bridgeport; the Danbury and Waterbury newspapers. Someone had even retrieved the yellow tape cordoning off the crime scene.
I didn't want to be here, either. I would much rather be showing a colonial to a client hunting for an "antique" house with bee hive ovens, or lunching on Caesar salad and a chilled Gascogne white with my cutie, if I had one. But when I wasn't selling houses I worked as a private investigator, and Northwest Connecticut's number one criminal defense attorney had asked me to check things out.
It looked like a waste of my modest talents. His client had been arrested while sitting on the bulldozer—it was still on top of Billy Tiller's remains—while wearing a backpack filled with cans of spray paint and posters reading, "Power to the People. Long Live The Earth Liberation Front."
Nonetheless, "a job worth doing," in the words of my father, Bertram Abbott, Newbury's revered First Selectman, long in his grave, and my great-aunt Connie Abbott, still lively, "was worth doing right." So I took a bunch of photographs with my cell phone and sketched a diagram. Then I secured the tab of a measuring tape to the ground with an ice pick, walked to a towering white oak to the right, wrote the distance in my note book, reeled in the tape and walked to a wall of ledge to the left and recorded that distance and did a third measurement to a massive hemlock unlikely to be cut down anytime soon.
I could have pinpointed the death spot with the cell's handy little Global Positioning System. Some real estate agents employ GPS to dazzle the clients, but I've always courted the discerning sort of home buyers who expect their broker to locate a property without the help of a satellite. Besides, had I zipped coordinates out of the phone instead of walking the ground I might have missed the fact that Billy's right boot had dug ever so slightly deeper than the left.
He had limped, slightly, for the last year of his life. Maybe it had slowed him down enough to lose the race. That and his big belly. Except that in high school he had been a running back. And even carrying sixty extra pounds Billy had still been a youngish, big, fast man whom I would have thought capable of dodging a machine built more for destruction than speed.
It was time for a bulldozer tutorial. I tried to phone one of my across-the-tracks Chevalley cousins. But no signal reached down in this hollow. I climbed up the back of the property and over a stone wall that marked the boundary of a former wood lot. A deer trail offered a way through the thick growth and I followed it, trusting that the animals had chosen the easiest climb. I continued uphill checking the phone repeatedly. I was nearly at the crest, seeing sky through the treetops and running out of breath, before it rang.
"What?" answered Sherman Chevalley. If anyone knew bulldozers it was cousin Sherman, who was famous in Newbury for having built one himself out of parts he'd found in his barn. And others borrowed from the Department of Transportation garage. Paving the road to Somers Correctional, from which he had recently won early parole.
The signal was fuzzy and Sherman kept shouting, "Who?"
I kept climbing, repeating, "Ben Abbott."
I'm the only child of a mixed marriage, the Abbotts of Main Street and the Chevalleys from the cold, wet north slopes of Frenchtown, which had been the wrong side of the tracks long before the invention of the locomotive. Which makes me welcome in some surprising places, though suspect everywhere.
"How fast could Billy's D4 go?"
"That son of a bitch owed me nine hundred dollars."
"I drove a front loader for him. Right before I went away? He said he'd pay me when I got out." Sherman erupted in a hoarse laugh that sounded like he was grating Parmesan with his telephone. "Man was Billy surprised when I got out so soon."
He wasn't the only one. Whether the warden had been moved by a character reference from Sherman's mother stating, "Sherman isn't a bad person, he just does bad things," or state-budget-crisis layoffs of prison guards, was a topic debated hotly by the bikers who hung out at the White Birch, particularly those on good terms with their mothers.
"Now I get out and the son of a bitch gets killed."
"Tell you the truth, Sherman, I'd rather have your problem than Billy's. I was hoping you could tell me how fast a D4 goes."
Growing old alone, like most Chevalley men, Sherman spent many a night with a six-pack and the History Channel. Before I could stop him, he explained that the bulldozer was invented in the 1920s when some farmers affixed bulldozer blades to their crawler tractors, gas or kerosene powered vehicles that rode on endless chain treads turning on cogged wheels. The farmers had named the entire contraption for the blade, which used to be pushed by mules, Sherman told me. The Caterpillar Corporation that built the D4 called it a track-type tractor.
"Billy's bulldozer," I prompted. I reached the crest where I could see through the trees down the other side of the hill to a gleam of water far below and tried to catch my breath while Sherman informed me that Billy's D4 Caterpillar was nine feet high at the cab and weighed 17,000 pounds. I told him that I already believed that Billy's last sight on earth had been eight and a half tons of gut-wrenching terror.
He told me that its blade was three feet high and eight feet wide. Wider than the grossest SUV, I noted. Not much, countered Sherman, warming to another area of interest. A "real" civilian Hummer—"not talking any candy-ass H3"—was a full seven feet, two and a half inches wide.
There was no point in yelling at a Chevalley. About the only non-assault way of getting their attention was to keep repeating yourself as you would address a cat weighing the pleasures of in versus out. "How fast can a D4 go?"
"Five-six miles an hour forward."
"That's all? ... How about reverse?"
"A hair quicker backing up."
A runner has to do fifteen miles per hour to sprint a four-minute mile. Of course a miler doesn't limp uphill in the mud. I said, "It looks to me like Billy got behind the blade. Could he go over the top, or under?"
"Under," Sherman said. "There isn't enough clearance between the blade and the tractor for a man his size to go over the top. I figure the guy driving lifted the blade pretty high up to crack his skull—I would of—and Billy must of thought real quick and threw himself under the cutting edge."
"The guy was pretty damned quick with the ripper."
"Quicker than Billy."
We said goodbye. I stood there thinking a while and gazing down at the valley.
I recognized the gleam of water. It was a shallow lake that used to be Fred Franklin's best hayfield. Billy Tiller had flooded it by diverting streams from a development for which the Conservation Department had wisely denied permits, until Billy got a court order from a friendly judge down in Stamford who wouldn't have recognized a natural watercourse if it gushed through his chambers.
I climbed back down to the house site. An ochre smear in a foot-deep hollow was all that remained of whatever the medical examiner had scooped off to the morgue. After the bulldozer had caught up with Billy and impaled him with the ripper, the murderer had stood on one pedal and engaged the opposite track to rotate the machine in place like a gigantic disk sander.
"Murder is not a pretty thing," wrote our New England painter Marsden Hartley. He had lost a loved one to the sea, but his bold reds would have served this death site forty miles inland just as well. Had the murderer reduced Billy's body to ground meat in a brutal rage? Or for twisted pleasure? Or to hide evidence that might be discovered on an intact corpse? Or had he simply panicked at the controls?
I walked down to the foot of the driveway. The newly cut road that linked the subdivision to County Road 349 was a long, gloomy alley of skinny second-growth trees that had grown up in the shade. Stripped suddenly naked by the clearing, they had no lower branches.
When the road was finally paved and the lots built out, it would slink between two rows of five-bedroom behemoths known as McMansions. They would all look alike, despite mirrored floor plans and randomly scattered carbuncles of stone veneer. Each would boast a two-story entry. In the upper level of each entry would yawn a Palladian window. And in each of these triumphal arches a chandelier would glitter. If I were selling the monstrosities, I would list them as "In a neighborhood of comparable homes."
On this warm, dry afternoon in late spring, all to be seen of the future neighborhood, other than a nearly completed model, was hardened mud, raw foundations, chipboard stapled to studs, a couple of pre-fabricated, pre-painted two-story entryways poking dull factory colors at the sky, and several parcels of yet-to-be-uprooted forest where the only hint of the destruction to come was a lot number tacked to a tree.
Billy had named the subdivision "Newbury Common" and promptly slapped a Private sign on it, an abuse of the language I found hard to forgive. His advertisements in the weekly Clarion's real estate section promised, "Classical Colonial Custom Architecture With European Accents, Marble Baths and Gourmet Granite." Factoring in free public school, they were a lot of house for the money—compared to closer-to-New York, Fairfield, or Westchester County—if Dad was willing to spend three or four hours a day driving to work on ever more crowded roads and Mom didn't mind staring out the windows at an empty cul-de-sac.
To my traditional buy-to-the-horizon Yankee eye, the remote lot up a long driveway where Billy had been killed was the premier site because it was farthest from the others. The homeowners would not have to gaze upon other ugly houses and could actually make love in their front yard without disrupting their neighbor's cookouts. Such seclusion was not the norm in Billy Tiller's developments, where roofs gabled as jaggedly as Patagonian toothfish and two-story marble foyers hailed the street like neon dollar signs.
Total Landscape, Billy's site-prep company, had leveled the two-acre house site to its perimeter. In most cases, unwary buyers might mis-imagine they were buying a house in the woods with a two-acre lawn, only to discover when the bulldozers came back shortly after they moved in that Billy intended to clear two-acre lawns on either side of theirs and erect large buildings that looked suspiciously similar to their exclusive custom-colonial creation. But the land surrounding Billy's death plot was so steep that Planning and Zoning had ruled it off limits.
Billy had sued, ordering his civil engineer/mouthpiece E. Eddie Edwards into Superior Court to convince the judge that what looked very much like a cliff was not really that steep and therefore town regulations had violated Billy's constitutional right to build anything he wanted to anywhere. When the town prevailed, at considerable cost, Billy erected a sign claiming that he had donated the unbuild-able acreage to the Newbury Forest Association as a nature preserve.
Total Landscape had shoved a huge heap of brush, stumps, boulders, and broken trees into the donation. Logging the bigger trees, they had stacked them in twelve-foot lengths near the road. Billy had taken refuge there, temporarily, until the bulldozer had scattered the tree trunks like pickup sticks, and it didn't take a lot of imagination to picture what the man had experienced dodging twelve-foot logs when the machine crashed into the pile. In fact, it was a miracle that he had escaped that alive.
I took a picture of the scattered log pile and had a closer look at the roadbed. The earth had been pounded to dust by lumber trucks, ready-mix trucks, Billy's fleet of dump trucks, and workmen's vehicles. The troopers had impounded his personal truck, a big red diesel pickup, along with the bulldozer, so I could not tell where the machine started chasing him. If the cops had found any sign of the murderer's vehicle—tire tracks, footprints, eyewitnesses—they weren't talking. Eye witnesses weren't likely. Nobody had worked on the site that rainy Sunday. Nor had the cold and wet weather been the sort to entice strollers to brave a muddy rutted road to admire the wreckage of a wooded hillside. In fact the only reason Oliver Moody, our resident state trooper, found the remains as soon as he did was that an annoyed neighbor across the hill had complained that the bulldozer was working on a Sunday again, even though Billy had repeatedly promised the Planning and Zoning and Building departments that he would not.
The tire tracks rutting the road had been laid down by many deliveries in and dump runs out. And, I suspected, numerous loads of stolen topsoil. It's illegal to strip mine house sites of their topsoil, but builders like Billy Tiller always managed to steal a few hundred yards before some alert citizen called the building inspector.
The many footprints would belong to truck drivers hopping down to roll back a tarp or take a leak, to machine operators, carpenters, immigrant day laborers hired to stack rock, and the building inspector stopping by to cite violations. I though it unlikely that the troopers had plaster castings of a single set of prints guaranteed to send the foolish rich kid they had arrested for the crime away for the rest of his life. Not that they needed them.
When Trooper Moody found him on the machine it was still running and had his fingerprints, in wet paint, on the controls. He had claimed that he panicked when he saw an arm sticking out from under the bulldozer and had tried to move the machine to help the victim.
Trooper Moody had not believed him.
Nor had Connecticut's chief state's attorney, an ambitious fellow who had good reason to hope that a high-profile TV trial would vault the victorious defender of public safety to the head of the pack running for the United States Senate.
Chapter TwoI wasn't the only one who disliked Billy's Newbury Common sign.
Some vandal had spray painted ELF on it in big letters. ELF stood for Earth Liberation Front, a secretive, amorphous radical movement that protested the waste and abuse of resources in general—and SUVs and sprawling McMansions in particular—by defacing SUVs and setting fires at McMansion construction sites.
In the same spray hand, ELF had been painted on the model house. Someone had also tried to burn it down. But the arsonist had misjudged the force of the weekend rain. The fire had not amounted to much, just some scorch marks, which I duly photographed. Continuing past the model to photograph the sign, I had a sudden, strong feeling I was no longer alone at the construction site.
Excerpted from McMansion by Justin Scott Copyright © 2006 by Justin Scott. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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