Surprises may pummel us without warning. I was driving down I-75 one Saturday evening headed for metro Detroit after leaving a business meeting in Gaylord. My firm had designed the client’s home when he retired to that Alpine community. I hit the road later than planned—the client was a conversationalist and his wife had made a delicious meatloaf dinner—and now there was a back-up outside of Brighton. My friend Steve’s anniversary party would be gathering momentum miles south of me. I planned to shave time by skipping my customary peach cobbler stop at Millie’s on Grand River but it was already past nine o’clock.
I kicked myself. He asked me a couple of times about making it. I ought to have finished working last night and been on my way back home this morning. But yesterday afternoon, the client’s son requested another meeting. If I’d known the summit would include 18 holes of golf and a homey dinner, I might have reconsidered.
Traffic cleared and we were moving again. My phone sounded. Mighty Mouse. Edison, my intern.
“Hey pal,” I said.
“There’s a man dead. I think you should get over here.”
“What? Where are you?”
“Um, sorry. I know you’re at the party and everything, but this is probably important. You should be here. The sign fell and—”
“Wait, I’m not at Steve’s yet. Slow down. What sign?”
“At the civic center. Jeanelle and I attended the poetry reading. You know, it’s one of the inaugural events. By the way, the building looks great. Love that grand stairwell. Anyway, in the middle of the program, the sign fell off the building. The Neumann Auditorium sign.”
“Whoa. The big sign? Off the roof?”
“Exactly, this is what I’m telling you. And it killed somebody.”
Our building. Recently completed. What the hell?
Edison continued. “You better get here. This isn’t good.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m about forty minutes away.”
I hung up and punched the accelerator.
How could the sign fall? It was secured to the metal framework atop the building, bolted to the steel frame. Did Steve, our structural engineer, make a mistake? Not likely. Of course there was that time in Traverse City, when he had indulged in too much partying. But it was just once and he was so appalled at his own failure I doubted he would make an error like that again.
My phone chirped. Robert, the boss.
“Cannoli—we’ve got trouble. Are you watching the news?” Robert’s voice had more of an edge than usual. The dash clock said 10:09. “Cannoli?”
The nickname annoyed me. Wally, one of our rambunctious project managers coined the label, alluding to my pronounced pot belly and six-foot-three-inch frame. It was an easy transition from Ken Knoll.
“No, Robert. I’m on the freeway, heading back from the Gaylord meeting with Walter Gruen.”
“Oh, yeah. I hope you have good notes. I want to hear about that later. Right now, a crisis has reared its ugly head, and I need you on this. How quick can you be at the civic center?”
I resented his tone. “Robert, I’ve been on the road for hours after a difficult meeting. Can you—”
“I don’t care what you’ve been through. JeromeNeumann is dead. The sign has just fallen off the Neumann Auditorium and squashed him flat. Unlucky bastard. It’s all over the news.”
Robert continued his rant. “How the hell could this happen? Did the contractor blow it, or did you guys screw up the design? Get hold of Steve Dickerson and survey the conditions A-S-A-P. I want photos, measurements, the works. What a predicament! I’ll track down our insurance agent Sue what’s-her-name and get her down there too.”
“Robert, that assembly couldn’t have failed. Those connections were tested and certified. But what about Motor City Sign?” I said.
“Do we know where the failure occurred? Have you called the sign company? Maybe it’s in the attachment of their sign to our framework, not in the framework we designed.”
“Christ, Cannoli, do I have to do everything? Call Paul Larkin and get him out there too. Meanwhile, you guys document every nut, bolt and weld. I want to know what went wrong before we end up in court.”
“On my way.” I hung up. I dreaded the long night ahead of me.
Ever since last month’s liability seminar, Robert had been acting particularly prudent. What a switch. I guess those lawyers scared the bejesus out of him. Document everything. And don’t rely on the police or the insurance people or anyone else. Sad. He was thinking about repercussions to the firm, and a man was dead. Priorities.
I pictured Jerome Neumann chuckling, brown plaid vest over a pale yellow shirt, freckled skin stretched taught over the bony head beneath his thinning strawberry hair. He never left my office without a golf joke, or asking about me personally. Sweet man. Not to mention the $3 million he donated to the library that prompted the auditorium project to come to fruition.
Edison phoned again to fill me in on the identity of the dead man.
“I know, Robert just called me. Listen, he wants me to bring Steve and survey the place.”
“I don’t know how you’re going to do that. The police are all over.”
“We’ll figure something out. Are you going to be there for a while?”
“We’ll hang until we see what the police do.”
“What about Nicole? Is she there?” I wondered how Neumann’s wife was faring.
“She was here earlier. I don’t know, now.”
I disconnected and dialed Steve, our structural engineer du jour. The firm changed consultants every couple of years. You’re only as good as your last job, the saying goes. If Dickerson was responsible for today’s catastrophe, he would be out the door too.
“Hey, Ken. Are you coming over? We’re having a blast.” I heard a muddle of conversation and giggles in the background, the distinctive strains of AC-DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap blaring.
“No, Steve. Sorry to ruin your party. Robert wants us down at the auditorium project.”
“No, can’t go now, Ken. What’s Robert’s problem? It’s Saturday night.” His voice was raised over the ruckus behind him.
“There’s been an accident. Jerome Neumann was killed.”
“Huh, what’d you say?” He must have moved, as the background noise muffled somewhat. “Killed? Oh my god. How?”
“Apparently he was, ur, ahh… felled by the ‘Neumann Auditorium’ sign.”
“What? The sign killed him?”
Silence stretched on, until I thought I’d lost the line.
“Ken, that’s impossible. The connections—”
“Were tested, I know.”
* * *
The Neumann Auditorium was a recent annex to the Southfield City Library. After weeks of interviewing, presenting concept sketches and battling it out with eleven other firms, BPW Architects was awarded the project. As much as I detest Robert Westin, one of the partners, I believe his lobbying helped tip the scales in our favor. Robert had returned to the firm a few months before the project came along, after being away for almost a year on a personal leave of absence.
Our plans called for demolition of a large portion of the old Fitzgerald Reading Room, a ton of modifications to what remained, and the addition of a new two-hundred seat auditorium, with integrated technology updates. At the roof we designed a circular screen, sheathed with a standing seam copper roof on a sixty-degree angle. The simple addition of a metal roof screen would change the appearance of the entire building. Along the Evergreen Road elevation, we placed a sign panel above the parapet: the words “NEUMANN AUDITORIUM” in three-foot high letters, attached with metal framework to the roof, the text backlit by four rows of T-5 fluorescent lamps. Against the night sky, the dark letters appeared outlined in white.
* * *
Steve and I approached the building. The aluminum “Auditorium” letters remained at the parapet, though no longer lit. It appeared cold against the sky.
We encountered a hub of commotion on the front lawn along Evergreen. News trucks from Fox2, News-4 and Channel 7 lined the drive, glaring lights on enormous poles illuminating the lawn like a football field. A crowd in formal attire was crammed up against the yellow police tape. We approached the accident scene, fitted with cameras, tape measure, and clip boards. Steve Dickerson was dressed in casual slacks and a sport shirt, but I had on the grungy jeans and a t-shirt I had changed into for the drive home. I was not expecting this failure investigation to be a formal event.
The crowd looked out as if this were a spectator sport. Pushing our way to the front of the group, our eyes were drawn to a point twenty feet away. The trussed metal carcass lay face down, the letter “M” squarely on a sprawled-out tuxedo-clad torso, the leading leg of the “A” across the back of his head. I was relieved to see there was little blood.
Sergeant Gilmore, who I had met during the course of the auditorium project, moved toward us. As he approached, I noted that the lines on the forehead of his oval face appeared deeper, and the scantiness of his thinning salt-and-pepper hair more meager in the harsh light.
“Sargent Gilmore, Ken Knoll, we met—”
“Yeah, yeah.” Mouth tight, eyes hard.
We explained our mission.
“No,” Sergeant Gilmore grimaced. “You’ll have to stand clear. Access is restricted to our investigators. No private investigation. No cameras, no measurements. Tomorrow, maybe.” He turned away.
“But it will be helpful to determine the cause—” I called after him.
Sargent Gilmore jerked a thumb at an officer, who headed our way. We weren’t going to make any headway here. We took in what we could see from that vantage point, then drew back.
FOX2’s reporter was off to the side, microphone in hand, every line of her plum suit immaculate. She interviewed a woman in her early forties, the subject gesturing emphatically. A cocky smirk on her pale, wide face, she pointed up to where the sign had stood, jabbing her finger in the air like a mad-woman. Her actions spelled jocularity despite her professional attire, a form- fitting teal suit over an ivory blouse. The skirt ended just above the knees, strappy black heels polished off shapely legs.
Could it be my raven-haired nemesis, Shirley Hanson?