Alvin Harney stretched his left arm out of the window and tapped the beat to an old Rolling Stones tune on the truck door. He bobbed his head as he sang the song off-key. There was no working radio in the truck, just a melody in his head and the crisp morning breeze in his face.
Except during a thunderstorm or hard downpour, he always drove with his window open. Even in winter when frost coated the Tennessee hills and most people cranked their heat up as high as it would go, Alvin kept the driver’s-side window of his white Ford pickup rolled down. The cold never seemed to bother his fifty-year-old bones.
It made him feel alive.
This morning the air felt even fresher than normal. A heavy spring rain had fallen during the night—a cleansing deluge that had hammered the gray dust from the surface of the gravel and forged deep puddles across the road leading to the construction site.
The pickup rocked as Alvin splashed through the pools, the spray coating his arm with a fine brown mist. At the end of the road loomed a massive skeleton of steel and concrete, which, under his guidance as lead superintendent, would soon be transformed into the largest and most luxurious hotel in the posh Nashville suburb of Blanton Hills.
Alvin was usually the first to arrive at the site. It gave him the opportunity to review the progress from the previous day and then make adjustments to ensure the project remained on schedule. Not the bigwigs’ schedule, dreamed up in a boardroom somewhere—his own schedule, honed into shape from years of hard work and experience.
He took pride in bringing projects in well ahead of the expected completion date, an ability that had garnered him a sterling reputation in addition to fat bonus checks.
Today, however, he was not the first to arrive.
Alvin wheeled his pickup into the parking area next to a black Dodge. Nico Williams sat on the tailgate eating a biscuit sandwich, a Hardee’s sack in his lap. He swung his legs in unison with each chew.
Nico was new on the job. This was his third day. At first glance, he was not what you would expect a construction worker to look like. But for a man of around 250 pounds, he was extremely agile.
Agile and quiet.
On two separate occasions, Alvin had turned around to find Nico standing directly behind him, close enough to butt heads, never once having heard him approach. Nico reminded him of a big yellow tomcat stalking its prey.
Alvin never liked cats.
He turned off the ignition, got out, and slammed the pickup’s door. The wet gravel crunched under his work boots as he rounded the corner of the truck bed. He nodded at Nico. “Hey, how’s it going?”
As Alvin passed, Nico stuffed the last of the biscuit into his mouth, wadded up the paper sack, and tossed it into the back of his truck. Leaving his tailgate down, he followed Alvin to the double gates in the security fence.
Alvin removed the padlock and let the gates swing open. “So what got you here so early?”
Nico shrugged. “Just trying to make a good impression on the boss.” His Cheshire grin revealed bits of what looked like either steak or sausage between his tobacco-stained teeth.
“Uh-huh. Well, here comes your chance.” Alvin gestured toward the silver BMW X5 making its way down the access road. “That’s Scott Chadwick. He’s the man who designed the hotel, and he and his partner own all of this.” Alvin waved at the SUV as it crawled through the gates, but the hard-hat-clad Chadwick stared straight ahead, a cell phone glued to his ear.
“Seems like a real nice guy.”
A smirk had replaced Nico’s grin, and Alvin wasn’t sure which irritated him more. He turned and watched the BMW disappear around the corner of the hotel. “Well, actually he is, but he’s probably got a lot on his mind right now. He’s getting married in a few days.”
“You don’t say.”
“I’ll bet that’s her on the phone, giving him her honey-do list.”
Nico pulled a red bandanna from his pocket and tied it around his blond crew cut before slipping on his hard hat. “You married, Harney?”
“I used to be.” Alvin hooked the padlock onto the open gate and headed for the construction trailer.
The trailer was one of three at the site used for offices and meeting space. The interior was small but adequate. A metal desk, a blueprint cabinet, and a bank of file drawers, topped with a copier and fax machine, filled the left side of the room.
On the right, a card table and four folding chairs were set up in front of a kitchenette complete with a coffeemaker, microwave, and miniature fridge. The plot plan and drawings of the front, rear, and side elevations of the hotel plastered the walls.
Alvin fired up the coffeepot and then settled at his desk. Through the open door, he could see Nico standing near one of the portable toilets talking on his cell phone. Probably getting his own honey-do list.
Alvin checked his watch. It was 5:15—about thirty minutes before the crews started trickling in. He opened his notebook to the day’s agenda. He was glad Scott had arrived at the site early. They needed to go over several changes in the lobby’s interior.
The hotel was being fast-tracked, Alvin’s favorite type of project, though some considered this risky. He loved the challenge of coordinating all the phases of construction simultaneously. The project began with a preliminary design, and then the builder made modifications as the construction was completed.
In order to fast-track a building, you had to have a first-rate architect. Otherwise you could end up with the plumbing or electrical wiring in the wrong place. In Alvin’s eyes, Scott Chadwick was the best. Alvin had worked for a countless number of design/build firms before signing on with Chadwick & Shore, but none of the contractors had earned the level of respect he held for Scott. And it wasn’t just his boss’s architectural skills that he admired. Scott always made Alvin feel that his opinions mattered—that he was more than just an employee.
The pungent aroma of the freshly brewed coffee permeated the trailer. Alvin glanced up and saw Nico standing at the door.
“Think you could spare a cup?” Nico asked.
Alvin checked his watch again. “Yeah, I think so, but don’t expect it to become a habit.”
He filled three cups and handed one to Nico. He placed the other two on the trailer steps along with his notebook, just long enough to close and lock the door, and then he set out to find Scott.
The hotel consisted of a twelve-story tower flanked by two five-story wings set at forty-five-degree angles. Designed to cater to an upscale crowd, the rooms were mostly suites, each equipped with a working fireplace and an elaborate bath. The hotel would also house two gourmet restaurants and a nightclub.
Alvin walked into the lobby area expecting to see the building’s owner, but he wasn’t there.
“Scott?” Alvin’s voice echoed through the empty structure.
Maybe he was still outside.
Alvin crossed the lobby and peered out the doors that opened onto the rear courtyard and pool area. He could see Scott’s car parked about a hundred feet away.
Still carrying the coffee, Alvin stepped onto the plank that served as a makeshift ramp from the door of the lobby to the ground. He was halfway down when he saw Scott Chadwick.
The coffee cups slipped from his hands.
The scalding liquid soaked through the front of his jeans, but Alvin didn’t feel a thing.
© 2011 D.B. henson
Toni Matthews dialed the number for the fifth time.
“This is Scott Chadwick; you’ve reached my voice mail.”
Why didn’t he answer his cell phone? He wasn’t answering his private line at the office either. She glanced at the clock on the bedside table: 7:23. Did he have an early meeting this morning? She couldn’t remember.
“Hi, it’s me. I was wondering if you could meet me somewhere. I left my briefcase in your car last night, and the file for my nine o’clock closing is in there. Call me when you get this. I love you.”
She couldn’t show up for the Barton-to-Collins closing without that file. Everything was in it—the termite inspection, the septic letter, even the keys to the house. And this was one property transfer she really didn’t want to postpone. The sale of the Bartons’ home was her final order of business for the next three weeks. She wanted to get it over with as soon as possible so she could spend the rest of the afternoon concentrating on last-minute wedding details.
It was hard to believe she would be married in less than seventy-two hours. There was a time when Toni was certain she would remain single forever. Not that she hadn’t had meaningful relationships before. She’d had strong feelings for several different men during the course of her twenty-nine years. But in the past, she’d always managed to keep a sliver of distance between herself and them, sheltered by an invisible wall of protection. She’d cared for them, but never let them get too close. Never gave them the opportunity to break through that wall.
Then she met Scott, and everything changed. She remembered the first time he’d asked her out two years ago. She’d turned him down. The second time he asked, she’d turned him down again. Not because she didn’t want to go out with him, but because she was afraid to say yes. She somehow knew from the moment they met that he was the one man she wouldn’t be able to keep outside the wall. And she’d been right.
He was the only man who had ever truly understood her. He never pushed too hard. He never tried to change her or mold her into something he wanted her to be. Instead of stifling her independence, he acknowledged her freedom. She remained a whole person, never feeling that she was sacrificing a part of herself in order to be with him.
Scott never played games. His love was solid. Constant. He loved her as she was, for who she was. And when it came to loving him, she held nothing back for the first time in her life.
Toni returned the phone to the nightstand and shifted her focus to the mahogany-framed photo on the left, taken the previous summer in Cozumel, Mexico. Four faces smiled back. Scott, deeply tanned with gold streaks in his sandy hair; Scott’s business partner, Clint Shore, wearing sunglasses and holding up a Corona; Jill, Clint’s wife, lithe and blonde and as beautiful as any runway model; and Toni sitting in the front, clad in an emerald-colored sundress.
The shot was definitely not her best picture. But no matter how plain she felt it made her look, oddly, it was one of Scott’s favorites. He said it showed her natural beauty—though she wasn’t convinced she had any. Still, he loved the look of her long auburn hair falling across her bare shoulders and the glow the sun had painted on her nose and cheeks.
But Toni liked the photo for a different reason. It was a reminder of the best summer of her life. Clint and Jill owned a house on the beach, and the previous June, they had all spent two perfect weeks snorkeling, sunning, and relaxing. On the last night, after a quiet dinner for two, Scott had asked her to marry him.
The phone rang.
“Toni, it’s Eva Collins.”
“Hi, Eva. Are you ready for closing?”
“Exhausted is what I am. We’ve been driving all night. Let me tell you, it’s a long trip from Savannah with three kids and two U-Hauls.”
Toni laughed. She’d met the Collins’s children. All boys—aged two, four, and five years. “I can only imagine.”
“I just wanted to check in and make sure everything was still on schedule.”
“Everything’s fine. The Bartons moved out over the weekend, and I had the carpets cleaned yesterday. You’ll be able to move in right after closing.”
“I really appreciate how you’ve taken care of things. You’re the best real estate agent we’ve worked with, and we’ve worked with quite a few. Thank you so much.”
Toni hung up the phone. It was already seven thirty and she hadn’t heard from Scott. She had to get that file. Knowing him, he was most likely out at the hotel site. He’d practically been living there the past few weeks. He’d probably left his cell phone in the car and had no idea she was trying to reach him. It could be hours before he checked his messages. She would just have to take a chance and drive out there.
It was eight o’clock by the time Toni reached the construction site. As she made the sharp turn onto the access street, a white van barreled down the center of the road toward her. She jerked the wheel and veered off the gravel, her right tires plowing into fresh mud.
You idiot, stay on your side of the road. You’re going to kill somebody.
After the van had safely passed, Toni pulled back onto the gravel and continued down the road. There were three police cars in front of the hotel and a uniformed officer at the gate. The construction crews were huddled in groups a few feet away. She wondered what had happened. Had there been a fight between the workmen? Had some of them been arrested?
She left her car in the parking area and walked toward the workers, dodging mud puddles along the way. It was the first week of April, and the old nursery rhyme echoed in her mind. April showers bring May flowers. Looking at the raw red-clay earth surrounding the construction site, it was hard to imagine the lush greenery that would soon line the drive and walkways leading to the finished hotel.
She thought about the people who would stay here. Perhaps travelers from the North who had longed to visit the Grand Ole Opry, or peewee football players who had convinced their parents to bring them to a Tennessee Titans game. She imagined the hordes of conventioneers who would be lured by the beauty of the city on the Cumberland River. What a difference just three more months would make.
A man in a red T-shirt, standing by himself, gazed upward toward the roof of the building.
“What’s going on?” Toni asked him. “Why are the police here?”
When he looked down, she could see the man’s face was ashen. He cleared his throat before he spoke. “A guy did a swan dive off the top floor.”
“No ma’am. Wish I was.”
A man had died, and she’d been worried about something as mundane as a closing. No wonder Scott hadn’t returned her call. He had far more important things to deal with. “When did it happen?”
“Early. I got here right before six, and the police were already here. They’re not letting anybody in.”
“Did you know him, the man who jumped?”
“Not real well, but yeah. He owns the construction company.”
Toni’s stomach lurched. “What?”
“It was Scott Chadwick.”
Her throat went dry, and for a moment, she forgot how to breathe. “Who told you that?” she demanded.
Startled by her tone, the man shrugged. “I . . .”
Toni shouted, “Who told you that?”
The man backed away, eyeing her as if he was unsure how to answer.
He couldn’t be right. This had to be just a rumor somebody started. Like the game where you tell someone a secret, and by the time it gets around the room, it’s morphed into something unrecognizable. She had to get inside. She’d find Scott, and he’d tell her what really happened.
Forgetting the mud, she ran toward the gate. The officer on guard caught her before she could get through. “I’m sorry miss,” he said. “You can’t go in there yet.”
“No, you don’t understand—I need to get inside.” She jerked her arm free and tried to push past him, but he held her back.
“Just calm down—”
“Dammit, let me go!”
She saw Clint on the other side of the fence and called out to him. “Clint!”
When their eyes met, it was as if he didn’t even recognize her. He hesitated for a second and then, seeming to realize who she was, headed for the gate. He nodded at the officer. “Let her in.”
“I’ll have to get her name first.”
“This is Toni Matthews,” Clint told him. “She’s Scott Chadwick’s fiancée.”
The officer stepped aside and Toni rushed through the gate. “Where’s Scott?” she said. “I need to talk to him, right now.”
Clint pulled her to him and wrapped his arms around her. “I’m so sorry.”
“No.” She pushed him away. “Don’t you dare tell me that Scott’s dead.”
“Toni, I’m sorry, but it’s true.”
She searched his face for some sign that this was all a mistake, some kind of sick joke. A harmless prank taken too far. Instead, she saw the truth in his soft brown eyes—a truth she was not ready to accept.
Hot tears spilled from her eyes, scorching her cheeks. Her strength seemed to leave her all at once, and her knees began to buckle. Clint caught her and held her close, gently rocking her from side to side as violent sobs wracked her body. When she was finally able to catch her breath, she pulled away from him, determined to stand on her own. “I need to see him.”
“Toni, you can’t. He’s not here.”
She remembered the van that had passed her on the access road. It must have been the medical examiner. “Then I’m going to the medical examiner’s office or wherever it is they took him.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Not right now.”
Toni had started to head back to the gate when she caught sight of a familiar sandy-haired figure standing a few yards away, his back toward them. Relief flooded through her. They had been wrong after all. Scott was alive. She had never before experienced such a rush of joy in her life. She pushed past Clint and ran toward him. “Scott!”
Clint was right behind her. “Toni, wait—”
She grabbed the man’s arm, and he turned around. Her chest tightened and the feeling of weakness returned. It wasn’t Scott’s face that met hers; it was the face of his younger brother, Brian Chadwick.
“Toni, this is Detective Russell Lewis,” Clint said. “He just wants to ask you a few questions.”
The way Clint was looking at her reminded her of the way one would look at a small child when trying to explain something too adult for a young mind to handle. She was sitting at a folding table in one of the construction trailers. He had somehow managed to get her here, and although she had been vaguely aware of his presence, she remembered nothing about the trip from the front gate. Had no idea if she walked or had been carried.
Someone—she wasn’t sure who—had put a glass of water in front of her. She stared at the cup and tried to make sense out of what she’d been told. Only there was no way to make sense of it.
Clint moved behind her chair and put his hands on her shoulders, but his touch barely registered. Her body had gone numb. Nothing seemed real; it was as though she was trapped inside a bad dream—the kind of dream where you want to run, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t move. She had the urge to shake herself, to do something—anything she could to wake up from this nightmare. To open her eyes and see Scott sitting beside her.
“Miss Matthews?” The voice was a deep baritone. She looked up to see the man she assumed was the detective standing expectantly before her. Middle-aged and dressed in a plain brown suit, he had thinning hair and kind hazel eyes. She wanted to connect with those eyes, wanted to make him understand how wrong they all were.
Without rising, Toni shook the detective’s hand. She nodded but realized she couldn’t yet speak. Her throat had closed up, strangling her words.
The detective pulled out one of the metal chairs and sat down facing her. “I’m really sorry for your loss, and I understand how hard this is right now, but I need to ask you a few questions. I need your help to piece together what happened here this morning.”
Toni nodded, still not trusting her voice.
“Now, I understand you had a party last night.”
She shook her head. “No. No, it wasn’t a party.” When she spoke, her voice sounded hollow in her own ears, as if it had come from outside her body and she was merely a wooden puppet mouthing the words of a ventriloquist. “We had our rehearsal dinner. We’re getting married on Friday.”
Toni noticed Detective Lewis and Clint exchange glances, and she realized how crazy she must seem. “I meant, we planned . . . we planned to get married,” she said.
The detective nodded and slid his chair closer to hers. He motioned for Clint to step back, as if somehow giving her space would make her more comfortable. But nothing anyone did would make her feel comfortable. Not now.
“How did Mr. Chadwick behave at the dinner?” the detective asked. “Did he do or say anything out of the ordinary?”
“No.” She shook her head. “He was fine ...everything was fine.”
“Did you notice anything different about his actions over the last few days? Did he ever seem distant or preoccupied?”
Toni looked down at the tissue in her hand. She had forgotten she was even holding it. She twisted it around her index finger, wondering what she should say. What she could say that wouldn’t be taken the wrong way.
She cleared her throat. “There were a few times when it seemed that something was on his mind, but that’s not unusual. This hotel is a big project; of course, he would be preoccupied with it.”
She watched the detective scribble something in his notebook. She knew he was making a psychological profile of Scott—trying to justify his death as a suicide since everyone was saying he had jumped.
“What happened after the dinner?” he asked. “Did you go straight home?”
“Did you argue?”
The eyes that had previously held kindness were now full of accusations. “What?” She couldn’t believe what he was implying. “Just what in hell are you trying to say?”
This was all too much to take. She needed to get out of there; she needed some air. She attempted to push her chair away from the table and accidentally knocked over the cup of water.
Clint stepped between Toni and the detective. “That’s enough. She doesn’t have to do this now. It can wait.”
Toni tried to stand, but her legs wobbled. As the room began to spin and darkness threatened the edges of her vision, she sank back into the chair. A cold sweat broke out on her forehead, and she realized she was going to faint.
She closed her eyes, held onto the table, and took several deep breaths. She felt Clint’s hand on her arm. His strong grip steadied her, helped her hang onto consciousness. She opened her eyes. The room had stopped spinning, at least for the moment.
“I’m taking you home,” Clint said.
“No. No, you don’t have to do that. I’ll be fine.” She wasn’t sure who she was trying to convince—Clint or herself. But she had to stay. She couldn’t leave, not until the detective knew that there had to be an explanation other than suicide for what had happened.
“The answer is no,” she said. “Scott and I never argued that night. We were happy—both of us. There’s nothing I could have said or done that would’ve caused this.” Her eyes began to fill with tears.
“I’m sorry,” Detective Lewis said. “I never meant to imply that you did.”
Clint knelt beside Toni’s chair. “Are you sure you’re ready to answer questions right now? Why don’t you let me take you home?”
Toni wiped her eyes with the tissue. She stared at the puddle of water that had dripped from the table onto the dusty green floor. She thought about the detective and wondered if he had a family—a wife, children. How would he feel if he were sitting where she was now? If someone he loved was gone? Would he realize how absurd the questions sounded, how they added to her pain?
But their roles weren’t reversed. He wasn’t the one who’d lost everything; the one being forced to recount events that didn’t matter. He didn’t know her, and he didn’t know Scott. He was just doing his job, following a routine. And the sooner she answered his questions, the sooner he could start trying to find out what had really happened.
She nodded. “I want to get this over with.”
The detective turned his gaze toward Clint, as if daring him to speak. “We’re almost done here.” His hazel eyes then locked on Toni. “Just take your time and try to remember. Last night, did Mr. Chadwick do anything unusual, anything out of the ordinary?”
Toni took a deep breath. Should she be truthful? Would the detective try to twist things around, use the events of the previous night to help strengthen his case? She hesitated for a moment, but then decided it didn’t really matter what she told him. Once he did a full investigation, suicide would be ruled out. “I woke up during the middle of the night—around two, I think. Scott wasn’t in bed, so I went downstairs and found him in the study.”
“What was he doing there?”
“Just sitting at his desk, staring at the computer. He’s got this screen saver that’s a slide show of some vacation pictures we took in Mexico.”
“So he was looking at the pictures?”
“No, not really looking at them—more like he was looking through them, if you know what I mean. He had a strange expression on his face, like he was off in another world.”
“Like he was mulling something over in his mind?”
Toni nodded. “I asked what he was thinking about, but he said it was nothing.”
“And you didn’t believe him?”
“No. I thought maybe he was having second thoughts about the wedding. When I asked him, he pulled me onto his lap and told me he loved me.” Toni’s voice broke, and she swallowed a sob as tears rolled down her cheeks.
“It’s okay. Take your time.”
Clint handed her a fresh tissue, and she wiped her face. “He told me there were a few problems with the hotel. I asked him if I could help, but he said no, that it wasn’t anything serious. We talked about the wedding and our honeymoon trip to Tahiti, and then he got out his blueprints and I went back up to bed.”
“Did he tell you what the problems were?”
“What about this morning? Did he say anything else?”
“He was already gone when I woke up.”
“What time was that?”
“Did he usually leave before you got up?”
She shook her head. “No, not usually, but I just assumed he had an early appointment.”
The detective scribbled something else in his notebook and then closed it. “Thank you, Miss Matthews. I think I have everything I need.” He started to rise.
“Wait.” Toni stopped him. “There’s one thing you need to get straight.”
“It doesn’t matter how things look, or what you think about Scott’s mental state. There’s no way in the world he jumped off that building.”
Detective Lewis exchanged another glance with Clint. “And how do you know this?”
“Because I knew him—just as well as I know myself. No matter how many problems Scott may have had, he would never even consider taking his own life. I’m not sure exactly what happened up there this morning, but I do know one thing: it was an accident—it had to be.”
Brian Chadwick stood alone at the main entrance to the hotel and watched Toni as she emerged from the construction trailer with Clint at her side. His arm was around her, supporting her, as if he thought she wasn’t strong enough to stand on her own. But Brian knew better. He knew not to underestimate her.
Toni might be many things, but weak was not one of them.
He’d been taken off guard when they’d met the night before. She was nothing like the woman he’d imagined. He’d expected to meet a blonde playmate type—all body with not much going on upstairs. But his memories of the kind of women his brother preferred were now twelve years old. Scott had only been twenty-two back then. His tastes had apparently changed with age.
Not that Toni wasn’t attractive. She was—but more in a girl-next-door kind of way. More Mary Ann and less Ginger.
It wasn’t only her appearance that had surprised him. Toni possessed a quick wit, an acute business sense, and an easygoing personality. It wasn’t hard to see why Scott had fallen for her. Brian remembered how they’d looked together, the happiness he’d seen in his brother’s eyes—the eyes of a man who thought he had a whole lifetime of special days ahead of him.
But what his brother had planned didn’t matter, just as Toni’s beauty and intelligence didn’t matter. What concerned Brian now was her attitude. Toni was a woman who knew exactly what she wanted and was determined to get it.
And that just might prove to be a problem.
© 2011 D.B. henson