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Death's Crooked Shadow
By Gordon N. McIntosh
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Gordon N. McIntosh
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFIFTEEN YEARS LATER—MONDAY, JULY 9
Chicago's June had been its fickle self, balmy teases interspersed with chilling reminders of the long, gray winter. As if newly arriving from other climes, Mother Nature had chosen Independence Day to prove she hadn't lost her fire, punishing the city with record temperatures. Day after day the sun bore down, its intensity stifling the slightest breeze. Area governments issued ozone alerts, opened temporary cooling shelters, and asked citizens to look out for the homeless and elderly. Those who had been eager for summer had second thoughts as they listened to triple-digit forecasts.
Doug Sutherland loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar. Sweat trickled down his back, a drop from his temple plopping onto the front page of his newspaper. He stood, opened a gap in the venetian blinds, and squinted into the white glare. Eastward, through the canyon of office buildings, he caught a glimpse of the lake a half mile away. Dozens of sailboats drifted on their moorings, aimless in the calm. His sloop was one of them, and if there was any wind offshore he intended to find it that afternoon. Worst case, it would be cooler on the water than in this boiler of an office. What was wrong with the building's goddamn air conditioning?
As if in answer, his secretary stepped into his office, fanning herself with a handful of envelopes. "I called the manager again," Eileen said. She was a pretty, single mom in her mid-thirties. Her long hair was dirty blond, and due to an addiction to chocolates, her figure was slightly on the chunky side. "A compressor went out. They don't know when it will be fixed."
"Welcome to summer." He watched as Eileen wiped her forehead with the back of her free hand. "If it's not working in an hour, you can go home."
"That's just as bad. I'll go to a movie. It's always cold at theaters." She looked at the envelopes she had been fanning with and said, "Oh, here's your mail. Sorry for the sweat."
Sutherland flipped through the mail and stopped at a familiar envelope. The statement had arrived as always, marking the end of June and another fiscal year. His name and address showed through the envelope window, and in the upper-left corner were the names of the deceased founders of one of Chicago's venerable law firms. Sutherland tossed the envelope on the pile on his desk. He didn't have to open it. The report would contain the same information as always. The amounts varied each year, but the long-term trend was positive. The holdings of the trust had doubled since it was formed. As if he cared.
For years, as regular as the summer solstice, the statement found its way to him. Despite the exigencies of college, law school, marriage, a daughter, divorce, and a few career changes, he'd only dipped into it once, and that was when he was desperate. He'd felt sullied afterward, corrupted, as if by touching the money he shared in his father's guilt. He'd reimbursed the trust as soon as he could and swore never to draw on it again. One day he would donate it to a good cause. In the meantime, he tried to forget it along with the other traces of his father.
Doug Sutherland glanced at that morning's newspapers resting on his desk. He had made the front page of both Chicago dailies. After months of quiet coverage in the back sections, he and the McCollum Building were big news again. Hardly the type of publicity anyone would have chosen.
The Sun Times featured a two-column-wide photo covering the demonstrators marching in front of the old building. In the Chicago Tribune, Bill Jamison's column described the futile last-ditch efforts of the preservationists to obtain a court order stopping the McCollum's demolition. Six months earlier Sutherland had finally won approval to tear it down and redevelop the site. In another few weeks, it would be history, its terra-cotta façade and signature fenestration consigned to photos and memories.
An hour later, after a conference call with his attorney and a discussion with a potential lender, Sutherland clicked onto Yahoo's weather page. The temperature had risen to ninety-five. It felt close to that in his office. His shirt was sticking to his back, and the ice cubes in his Coke hadn't lasted two minutes. With the air conditioning out of order, it was no use. Sutherland told his secretary, accountant, and staff of five others to go home.
The sky was white hot as Sutherland stepped out of the building. He put on his sunglasses and draped his suit jacket over his shoulder. He was meeting a few friends at the yacht club in twenty minutes and taking the tender to his boat. No racing today, just a relaxed sail beyond the swelter of the city.
As he walked he thought about the newspaper articles and the critics of what Sutherland was doing with the McCollum Building. It had been owned by his father, Bernard, and along with a number of other properties, it had been placed in a trust with the young Sutherland as beneficiary. The building was old, vacant, and dilapidated, but it was one of the last remaining buildings influenced by the Luis Sullivan school of architecture. And despite its age and poor condition, its location made it desirable. It commanded one of the few undeveloped corners in Chicago's Loop, and if it hadn't been tied up in the trust, it would have been acquired years before. As the trust's beneficiary Sutherland was entitled to everything in it, but he had insisted on purchasing the building at a market price. It was a risky financial stretch, but it was better than benefiting from his father's tainted legacy.
Sutherland's iPhone rang as he was walking east along Madison to the Grant Park garage. He recognized his foreman's number.
"Yeah, Jack. What's up?"
"I'm at the site. You gotta get over here."
"What's the problem?"
"Not on the phone. You gotta see this. We had to stop work."
"It won't wait? You can't handle it?" He could almost feel his hands on the helm, an onshore breeze cooling his face and filling the sails.
"Not me. This is your call."
"All right. Fifteen minutes. This better be good."
Chapter TwoThe skull lay encased in a shattered section of Greek column. The jaw hung askew, exposing a half-dozen blackened fillings. In the shadows below the skull, Sutherland could make out the concave cast of the neck and shoulder in the hardened plaster, the muscle and sinew long since shriveled away. But the skull's most eye-catching feature was the missing upper-front tooth, conferring the appearance of a cartoon hillbilly.
"Jesus," Sutherland said, jumping up from his crouch, stumbling over some of the bricks littering the site.
He removed his hard hat, wiped his forehead with his sleeve, and took in the scene before him. The McCollum waited in the summer glare, a crumbling shell resigned to the wrecking ball swaying overhead. Under the bleached sky, building and shadows looked surreal, a charcoal fantasy by Salvador Dalí.
Stripped of its terra-cotta façade, the building revealed cross sections of offices, each floor a slice of stained walls stacked twelve high to the caved-in roof. Blackened shafts cut vertically through the floors and yellow-brown stairways zigzagged from level to level, stitching the fractured floors together.
Sutherland recalled standing with his father here, in the building's lobby, remembered the promise that someday this "grand old lady" would be his. Since that time the city had erupted into a skyline of glass and steel, elegant giants towering over the old McCollum. Viewing the destruction before him, Sutherland felt confused and uncertain. Was it really economics that forced the demolition, or was he merely destroying another memory of his father?
A shower of masonry and stone cascaded to the foot of the ruin, forcing him to cram on his hard hat and retreat a few steps. While he waited for the dust to settle, a wave of stale air pricked his nostrils—musty drafts descending stairways and shafts, dying exhalations of the condemned structure. Ghosts, he thought.
Sutherland's two-way radio crackled and he unsnapped it from his belt. Yelling over the diesel crane still clattering twenty yards away, he said, "Jack? Was that you?"
From the construction trailer at the edge of the site, his demolition foreman's voice squawked over the radio. "Yeah. You find it yet?"
"Right in front of me."
"Should we forget it? Means nothing but trouble. Some poor slob stuck in the column," Jack said, "from a hundred years ago. We'll lose days, more maybe, if we call the police."
Sutherland thought about Jack's comment. A hundred years? The man buried here when the McCollum was built? No. It didn't take an expert to know the difference between the original construction and this more modern addition. But the foreman was right about delays: they meant thousands in cost overruns, temptation enough to dump the column's contents into one of the waiting trucks and forget about it.
"What you think, Mr. S? It's history. Who cares?" Jack said.
Sutherland's inner voice echoed the foreman's words: Let it lie. He already had enough to think about, financial issues to deal with. After a long pause, Sutherland said, "Hold on a minute. I'll take another look."
"You're the boss." Even over the static, Sutherland sensed the foreman's disapproval.
Sutherland surveyed the pile of rubble once more, noting how the remnants of the ten-foot column lay across the field of crumbled brick. It was cast plaster and broken, a five-foot section leaning against a rubble mound, smaller pieces scattered nearby, the construction not original—a renovation during his father's era. Reinforcing wire mesh still connected parts of the plaster like ligaments in a severed limb.
He scrambled over loose debris to the column and squatted, studying the shadows between the pieces, trying to ignore the skull's hollow stare. Pulling his flashlight from his rear pocket, Sutherland went down on one knee, probing with the beam of light the section of column lying cracked open above the skull. Inside he could see the fossil-like imprint of a human hand—the right palm, thrust into the plaster, making a perfect mold. Another, smaller fragment of the column lay a foot away. In it were molded an impression of the nose, eyes, and forehead. Below the nose, where the mouth would have been, the form of the man's other fist pressed against the mouth. And in the grip of what had been that fist, there remained a section of PVC pipe extending from where the mouth must have been, through the plaster to the top of the column.
Sutherland had to hold back a violent urge to retch. The significance of the scene was undeniable. The victim had been buried in the plaster alive, sucking last breaths through the tube.
While Sutherland picked his way out of the building's shade, shielding his eyes from the sunlight, he envisioned the condemned man—one hand squeezing the tube, the other straining upward into the muck, lungs heaving, laboring for precious air. Swallowing back bile, Sutherland reached for the radio.
"Jack," he said into the two-way, "call the police."
Chapter ThreeTwo hours later in the air-conditioned trailer jammed against the construction barriers, Sutherland said good-bye to Jack, his foreman, leaving him to deal with the police and their paperwork. Sutherland couldn't help them with the dead body's identity but was able to place the time of death as sometime in the two-year interim between his freshman year in college and when he returned from his wanderings in the Caribbean and Mexico. He knew the building well, having followed his father from floor to floor on many visits there, and he had first seen that column—now the unidentified man's coffin—when he'd returned after his father's death.
The crime scene technicians intended to close down the job while they removed the skeleton and searched for evidence, efforts that could take at least another day. Sutherland waved an adiós to the Latino detective handling the investigation and opened the outside door to a rush of hot air. From the top of the stairs, he surveyed the busy scene around the McCollum's corner site.
Three police cars had squeezed against the construction barrier surrounding the lot. Behind the squad cars, parked in the shadow of the McCollum, was a white van, the top a jumble of microwave dishes and antennae, its decal declaring the presence of Channel 2 News. Circling in front of the main gate a handful of protesters, veterans of the attempt to designate the McCollum a landmark, brandished placards bearing slogans from their lost battle.
SAVE THE McCOLLUM
Don't they ever give up? he thought. While he watched, a white Mercedes limousine eased to the curb, shimmering in the heat like a mirage. Sutherland squinted for a better look and, when the car came to a stop, read the license plate: JULES. The tinted rear window slid down and Jules, the man himself, hailed from inside. "Doug. Over here."
Jules Langer. No avoiding him now that he'd been spotted. Sutherland descended the trailer's stairs and picked his way through the traffic toward the limo. When he arrived at the car, Jules Langer was peering through the open window at the police cars and television vans. A white-haired chauffeur in a dark suit sat behind the wheel. The smell of new leather hit Sutherland on a wave of cool air as he drew near the window.
"Doug. What's going on? They clamping down on amateurs?" Langer was the president of Langer Development, a heated competitor. He was forty-one with striking blue eyes, salt-and-pepper hair, and a cultivated tan. The only flaw in his handsome features was a slightly receded chin, a suggestion of timidity that he more than compensated for by his unflagging ego and penchant for expensive clothes. "And you. You been in a wrestling match?"
Sutherland glanced down. His shoes were ash colored, his navy suit pants were streaked with dust, and perspiration stained his blue shirt like an indigo rash. He stooped to see his reflection in the driver's window. His face was sweaty and smudged, one wide streak obscuring the half-moon scar on his cheekbone.
"It's a dirty business, Jules. Remember when you used to do it?"
Langer chuckled, but the laugh didn't conceal the resentment. Sutherland was the new kid on the block, this being his first downtown office project. Langer had built a half-dozen high-rises in the preceding ten years. Yet Sutherland had won the intense competition for Broadwell Communications' Midwestern headquarters—the anchor tenant that would enable development of the McCollum site. Langer had needed Broadwell for America Tower, his plan for a seventy-story building on an empty lot that lay fallow two blocks away.
"There an accident?" Langer was looking across the street at the news team setting up a camera. "Somebody hurt?"
The image of the skull and breathing tube was still turning in Sutherland's mind. "We found a body."
"Just bones. The police thought from when it was built, but I told them it's more recent. It's definitely murder."
Langer blew out a long whistle. "Maybe the building's cursed. All the problems you had getting approval. Doubt your new tenant will take this too well. Good thing you've got a lease executed, right?" He smiled knowingly.
Sutherland could imagine wheels turning behind Langer's blue eyes. The lease wasn't finalized, and with all his contacts, Jules Langer would know it. There were some minor unresolved issues, even though they'd been working on it for months. "Don't get your hopes up, Jules," Sutherland said. "This happened a while ago, while I was in Mexico. Nobody's going to care."
Langer massaged his jaw with a manicured hand as he stared across the street. "About the time your father went to prison?" He never missed an opportunity to needle, didn't even bother to disguise it. Sutherland learned long ago not to let him get under his skin.
"The skeleton's in a column. Your dad's company might have done the construction." Miles Langer, Jules's father, had run the construction company that had evolved into Langer Development after the old man died.
Langer's eyes widened and he swallowed hard. "The body was in a column? During that time you were gone?
Excerpted from Death's Crooked Shadow by Gordon N. McIntosh Copyright © 2011 by Gordon N. McIntosh. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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