Dead Air signals trouble at the radio station. Glenn Beckert discovers his high school best friend is shot in the head while on the air. Beck, the owner of Blue Water Security, is employed to provide security for the station.
He becomes willingly embroiled in the investigation by the not-so-innocent widow. The list of potential suspects is long, gleaned from the numerous extramarital affairs of the victim and widow. The pending sale of the radio station has created friction between his now dead friend, Richie Zito and the major stockholders. Motives for murder becomes increasingly murky after the search reveals an encrypted file on Zito’s laptop.
Beck enlists the help of an old flame, Irene Schade, to break the code, revealing a money laundering network leading to the financial and political powers of his beloved city of Pittsburgh. Their collaboration ignites the flames of passion each had considered extinguished.
A former college teammate, police Lieutenant Paglironi delivers a message to back off. Arrogantly, he ignores his friend’s advice. The threats from less friendly sources are more ominous, forcing Beck to move in an unfamiliar world. A startling revelation from his client forces Beck to deal with his inner conviction of right and wrong, challenging the gray areas of his ethical principles. Betraying his client’s confidence could expose the killer. The alternative is to confront the suspect and take matters into his own hands. Either way his life is in jeopardy.
Cliff Protzman was a winner in the 2015 real life writing contest, Unfinished Chapters. After attending the University of Pittsburgh, he began a thirty-year career in banking and finance. Cliff is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and Pennwriters. Visit cliffprotzman.com for announcements of the second of this series coming the fall of 2018.
|Publisher:||Mill City Press, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.71(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Dead Air. It was the most unforgivable of sins. I was standing at the bar in Jergel's Rhythm Grille in Warrendale, PA when the overhead sound system finished blaring "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," the seventeen-minute, two-second version, then dove into silence ... and stayed there.
Minutes crawled past while WZOC, better known as Z-Rock to Pittsburgh-area listeners, remained silent. The long version of the Iron Butterfly song was played when DJs need extended bathroom time. Apparently, it was not enough time.
The seventeen-thousand-square-foot bar and restaurant was beginning to fill up. The stage hands scrambled over the stage in a well-orchestrated dance as they prepared the stage at the rear of the building. I was at the front bar, one of six serving the customers. The crowd noise increased due to the silent overhead system. The bartenders and service personnel went about their jobs, oblivious to the lack of music. I appeared to be the only person who noticed it. The dead air was an unexpected lapse for a normally proficient staff at Z-Rock. The station owned by my high school best friend, had been my first client, so I was always glad when the bar staff piped it in to provide background noise.
A Pittsburgh favorite, The Clarks, were scheduled to take the stage in forty-five minutes. Their classic rock style was often compared to Tom Petty. Z-Rock had introduced The Clarks to the Pittsburgh market, and it remained a strong supporter of the band. They had parlayed the station's promotion into a broader following along the Southern Atlantic states. The quartet was almost as well-known in the city as the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting lineup. I had had the great fortune to see many of their local performances.
Before heading to the front door, I finished my IC Light, a low-calorie brew from Pittsburgh Brewing. The bartender grabbed my empty bottle and asked, "Another one, Beck?"
"No thanks; probably later." I headed toward the entrance, featuring solid wood double doors, the left side closed to restrain the incoming crowd. The line stretched outside beyond my view.
My firm was in charge of crowd control for the event. Even though I was on duty tonight, my plan was to be more of a spectator.
In my earpiece, I heard my site manager of Jergel's security, Lance Parisi. "Beck, we have a problem at the front door. This patron is drunk and belligerent. He may be armed. I'm trying to get him to leave."
I replied, "On my way." As the owner of Blue Water Security, I was always glad to help with situations like these. I tried to hire only the best, so backing them with my support was always a pleasure.
An obviously intoxicated man was pointing a finger at Lance who had to be at least six inches taller than the swaying man. "You fucking asshole! I have a ticket! You can't keep me out!" I heard the word motherfucker and that was that. This wasn't going to end well for the drunken ticket holder.
In my mouthpiece, I said, "Stay cool, Lance. He's all talk," but before I could arrive, the man took a swing at Lance. So much for my expert analysis. In one quick movement, Lance had the man's right arm twisted behind his back, Lance's left arm firmly around his neck in a choke hold.
I rushed to Lance's side. The man's open coat displayed the butt of a gun in his waistband. I jerked the .38 Special from his belt holster and turned to look him in the eyes. The combined stink of beer and whiskey oozed from him.
Adrenaline was pumping through my body as if facing a three-two pitch. I regained my composure before speaking in a calm, determined voice. "Sir, even with a concealed carry permit, it is illegal to bring a gun into a bar, especially when you are intoxicated." The other patrons waiting to enter had backed away when they saw the gun. "The man with his arm around your neck is going to escort you to the office. The police will be called. I hope you have your permit with you. You can walk to the office quietly. If not, I'm certain Lance will find a way to get you there. Is that clear?"
The man nodded as best he could with Lance's muscular arm wrapped around his neck. Lance released his stranglehold, keeping a firm grip on the man's arm. I handed the gun to my employee. The drunk remained calm and allowed Lance to lead him away. Using my mic, I paged Jason Weaver, who had been assigned to dance floor security for the night, to come to the front door.
I remained at the door, checking tickets for the anxious concert fans, until Jason appeared. It was then I realized there was still silence coming from the sound system. The normal professionalism of Z-Rock's staff made me wonder about the cause of the extended silence. I could imagine engineers scrambling to locate and repair whatever technical problems had occurred.
Jason arrived, assuming Lance's position at the door. I turned back to the bar as my cell phone rang. "Glenn Beckert," I answered.
"This is John Waner at Z-Rock." He paused and I wondered if I was truly surprised to be hearing from my security guard at the station. His voice was high-pitched, his words rushed as he said, "There's a big problem here."
"John, what's the problem?"
"Beck ... H-He's ... I don't know what to do. R-Richie's been murdered."
Back in my 35th anniversary edition T-Top Camaro, the curving path of I-279 propelled me through the North Hills of Pittsburgh. The driver's window was cracked open, allowing the cool spring air of late March to cool my tense perspiration of fear. My only exposure to murder had been from television or newspaper accounts, the occasional murder mystery novel.
I was wearing a zip-front warm-up jacket with the Blue Water logo over a pale blue golf shirt concealing the Beretta 9mm worn on my belt holster. Black jeans and dark athletic shoes completed the outfit. In order to hide male pattern baldness, I had chosen to shave my head. Combined with steely blue eyes, I'm told I paint a good picture of a man who owns a security firm – no one to fuck with but someone you'd like to invite out for a beer.
Z-Rock was the crown jewel for Open Air Communications and owned by Richie Zito, my best friend in high school and best man at my wedding. The station was by far the ratings leader in the Western PA market. Richie was not only the owner, but also the Saturday night DJ for Z-Rock. Richie believed that he had to spend time on the air to keep in touch with his audience and business.
I tuned the car stereo to Z-Rock, hearing nothing but dead air. I was on my way to a murder scene. My thoughts were jumbled. I needed to behave like a professional; detached and analytical. On the other hand, the murder victim was a longtime friend. We had a history of shared experiences that were part of our life story. Now he was dead. Maybe it was a mistake, just some accident, and Waner had gotten it wrong.
I approached the Fort Pitt Bridge, passing between PNC Park and Heinz Field. Suddenly, Phil Collins burst out "In The Air Tonight" over the car stereo, Z-Rock was back on the air. My dashboard clock showed 9:12. I crossed the bridge, through the tunnels, and up Greentree Hill. You couldn't drive in this city without crossing a bridge or going through a tunnel.
At the top of the hill, I pulled into the parking lot at the Z-Rock studios and noticed three cars in the lot, a police cruiser entering from the opposite side. The cruiser's emergency lights were flashing; the siren was silent. I parked beside a silver Jeep Liberty.
Bernie Allen exited the police car. Bernie had worked for me while he attended the police academy. He'd been a dependable worker, always on time and conscientious. He was still young, mid-twenties, with a stocky, muscular build, reddish-brown hair, and a round face that gave him a perpetually boyish look.
I headed to the back door. This was the employee entrance, accessible only with a swipe card. The door wasn't alarmed, though there was a surveillance camera. I looked up to make sure it was in place. The red light showed it was operating.
When he spotted me, Bernie seemed a little surprised. "Beck, what are you doing here? You never come out to my sites when I had a problem."
"You never had a murder on site."
Bernie stopped abruptly and he looked startled. "No one said anything about murder. I was there when the dispatcher took the call. The call was for a possible suicide."
Suicide. The thought had never occurred to me. Richie wasn't a suicide candidate. Surely the guy I knew in high school wasn't capable of that. I felt a numbness creeping through my body.
Bernie began to pace in front of the door in short steps, shaking his head. As far as I knew, he'd never been involved in a homicide, but then again, I was such an expert.
I said to Bernie, "Waner called me and said that Zito had been murdered. You remember John, he was always a nervous wreck. I told him to call the police. What exactly did he say?" Bernie blinked, still trying to shake off his shock, but managed to speak in a professional tone. "The caller reported a shooting. It looked like suicide. An ambulance is on the way." He reached for his shoulder mic. "Dispatch, this is unit 4. I am at Z-Rock with Glenn Beckert from Blue Water Security. His people are reporting a possible murder." Bernie waited for a reply, staring at the door like he expected a murderer to come charging out any second.
Bernie's shoulder mic crackled. "Unit 4, backup is on the way. Secure the scene." The voice continued in a sterner tone, "Beckert may be in charge of security but you're in charge of the scene. Keep him on a leash."
Bernie cringed but quickly regained his self-control. He put his hand on my chest and I immediately flinched, reminding myself he was an on-duty cop. "Beck, I see you have a gun, so leave it in your holster and keep your hands in your pockets."
Waner buzzed the door open after I used the intercom to call him. Bernie pulled the door open with his left hand, right hand on his weapon. The rear door was aluminum with no window.
We walked a fifty-foot hallway that led to the main entrance. There was a hallway to the left of the lobby, leading to the production studios. To the right were the on-air studios. There were two stairways on either side of the reception area going to the offices on the second floor. The lobby contained the security desk in the middle, the front entrance facing out to Greentree Road.
John Waner was at the desk. His strong cologne let you know from about three blocks away that here was a ladies' man. He wore his dirty blonde hair high on top, similar to an Elvis impersonator. He had been hired for my original team assigned to Z-Rock when I got the security contract eight years ago. In spite of his experience, he was very unsure of himself. He would regularly call with questions or reports of the smallest nature. He looked like he was pacing even when he was standing still.
John said, "Beck, how ya doing? I can't believe this happened." He even spoke in a deep baritone, reminding me of Elvis saying, "Thank you. Thank you very much."
"Not exactly a quiet night, huh?" I said to him. "Tell me what you saw from the beginning."
He acknowledged Bernie. "Good to see you, Bern." John turned to face me and continued, "I just came back from rounds. When I reached the desk, there was dead air. I went back to the studio, and there was Richie. He was leaning to the left in his chair and there was blood everywhere."
Bernie interrupted, "Did you touch anything?" John shifted his weight from side to side. He said, "No, the door was locked; I didn't go in. I looked through the studio window and saw Richie."
"There's another car in the lot. Who does it belong to?" I asked.
"Ron's. He's on the emergency call list." Ron was Richie's younger brother and a shareholder of the radio station. He functioned as the Operations Manager for Z-Rock, I had worked with him in the past, sometimes more often than I worked with Richie.
"Is he in the building?" John hesitated. "Well, yes. He's setting up programming for the rest of the night in Studio Y."
Bernie looked at me as if I knew what the next move should be. I looked at John and asked, "Where is Richie?"
John seemed to flinch and replied, "In Studio Z."
"Okay. Stay at your post; we'll check things out."
I turned to Bernie, indicated the right hallway, and said, "Let's go."
My head felt like a Nerf ball, no substance to it, just squishy. Here I was, leading a policeman to the scene of my oldest friend's death. Bernie acted like I was his boss, which was fine with me. I was sure he'd receive a reprimand from his superiors after tonight.
As we approached the door to Studio Z, my conflicting emotions were uncontrollable. I was ecstatic about being involved in the investigation. My adrenaline flowing, I couldn't remain detached. Richie was someone I knew and had shared the carefree time of our lives. But it sucked that I had to be involved in this way. I wished anyone else was the victim. Anyone but my old friend.
Bernie tried the doorknob and found it locked, as John had mentioned. We stepped to the dingy window to look into the studio. A few spots of blood splatter had managed to reach the glass, which surprised me. As John had said, Richie was in his chair, slumped to the left. The calmness I had been struggling for left my body. I was dazed by the sight of the blood and brains splattered throughout the studio.
Bernie stepped back and kicked the door near the knob. The door flew open. I said, "Was that necessary?" Surely, he'd have a lot of explaining to do to his superiors about destroying evidence at a homicide scene. Trying to lighten the moment, I said, "Nice job, but we could've gotten the key from John."
"Shit. It's what we do. Break down locked doors."
Stepping to the doorway, I could smell the undeniable stench of excrement and cordite. My stomach lurched and something tried to rise. Richie leaned back in his chair as if he was taking a nap, except the top of his head was missing. His left hand was on the control panel, fingers spread into a V as if he were reaching for a button. His right hand hung over the arm of the chair, underneath on the floor was a .45 caliber pistol, a lot of firepower for a suicide.
I examined the overwhelming blood splatter on the back wall and the carpeting. The spray pattern suggested the shot originated from Richie's right side. The outline on the carpet seemed odd. The copper smell of fresh blood reached the back of my throat. I swallowed hard, but the taste stayed put.
Over the station speakers, I heard Mick Jagger moaning, "I can't get no satisfaction." Did Richie feel he had no satisfaction in his lifetime? Bernie pushed me back out of the way and closed the door. Through the fog in my head, I heard him say, "It looks like suicide. Any idea why he would do it?"
My head was still spinning and another wave of nausea washed over me. The growing rage in my gut overtook the nausea. There was no way Richie would commit suicide. I said, "Why would you say that?" My thoughts cleared, allowing me to concentrate on the present. "There is no blood splatter on the carpet near the right side of the body. The backlash of the bullet entry should have left blood on the floor, unless the blood spray was interrupted by something or someone before it hit the floor. There must have been a shooter."
Bernie seemed startled. He said, "The gun is beside his hand and the door was locked. There's nothing we can do now. We should leave things alone until the detectives get here."
I mumbled, "Nothing more to see here. The forensic team needs to do their job." Bernie seemed to agree, as he slowly backed away from the door and me.
We silently walked back to the reception area. John was at the front desk, pacing. Bernie was doing a zombie imitation, staring at nothing but space.
Grasping for some semblance of normalcy, I said, "You two wait here for the detectives. Is Ron still in Studio Y?" John nodded. I headed toward the studio.
I found Ron sitting at the console with his head down, hands at his prematurely graying temples. Shorter and stockier than Richie, I was always startled at first by their similar facial structure. Ron had a thinner face and pointy chin.
As I held the door open, the music shifted from the Stones to Elton John's "Funeral For A Friend." It was so eerie, I felt my eyes tearing up. I believed that like most brothers, Richie and Ron were kindred spirits. There seemed to be a bond between them that unrelated men rarely experience. Despite my history with Richie, I knew Ron had always been his best friend.
I cleared my throat to let him know I was there. Ron looked up slowly, his face haggard, looking older than his years. I had no idea what to say; the tears on his cheeks caused me to choke up. There were times when words and speech make matters worse.
Excerpted from "Dead Air"
Copyright © 2017 Cliff Protzman.
Excerpted by permission of Mill City Press.
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