“Ken,” he wheezed, “I have to talk to you. I tried to reach you last week, but I didn’t get any answer at your house. I couldn’t get through on your cell either.”
I’d returned from a year-end vacation to find my latest intern visibly shaken. Extracting information, however, was painstakingly slow.
“Ken, listen. This is serious. Dead serious. We have to talk.” The black circles under Edison’s eyes drooped an inch. His chubby cheeks, normally telegraphing a joyful outlook, appeared hollow and desperate. Fresh perspiration glistened on his forehead. His dark eyes darted with a nervous twitch.
“Edison, relax and tell me what’s going on. You don’t look so good.”
His rotund mass filled my guest armchair as Edison nervously poked his pudgy fingers through my candy dish. It was a relief to be back to work, after a rough holiday week. I surveyed the orderly stacks of files and rolled drawings in my modest eight-foot cubicle with satisfaction, delighted that I’d taken the time to straighten things before leaving on Christmas Eve. With a prolonged sigh, I shrugged off the previous week’s miseries.
Standing up hastily, Edison raised himself on tip-toes to peer over the partitions, scanning the room’s dozen or so grey fabric-covered cubicles. “Maybe we should go into the conference room. There’s…um…something I have to tell you.”
The moment his words stopped drumming on my ears, Edison withered away from my thoughts. Memories of the unceremonious tongue-lashing I’d received from my girlfriend the week prior gnawed at me like graphic images of some third-world catastrophe. The message light on my phone blinked incessantly, further blurring my focus, so I didn’t immediately register the panic in Edison’s voice. I shook my head to cast off those thoughts and return to the moment.
“Just spill it, Edison.”
His eyes skipped from one point on the floor to another. “No, I can’t do it at your desk. Someone will hear.” He swayed from side to side, rust-colored shirt straining at the button above his black leather belt. Several moments passed, then he motioned for me to follow. Reluctantly, I stood and trudged behind. Shuffling down the aisle between cubicles, the toe of his hiking boot caught on a loose carpet seam.
Shutting the oxblood-colored metal door, Edison sank into a brown padded roller-chair. Anxiety pinched the muscles of his face, pulling his mouth into a nervous pout. Where had Edison’s familiar joviality disappeared to? He sucked in a long breath, then shifted forward toward me. “Ok, Ken. You know how you asked me to do that job inspection at Flamingo Shores, right before Christmas?”
I remembered all right. Days before I blew town, we’d received the contractor’s monthly Application for Payment for the thirty-six million dollar addition to Flamingo Shores.
Our firm had designed the two story mall addition, the upscale department store Crystals, and the parking deck in-between. The owners of Flamingo Shores hired our firm to review the contractor’s monthly payment requests. Our task: to ascertain that, for each of the twenty trades, the amount of completed work agreed with the dollars requested. We’d been late on the previous pay app and I’d resolved to return this one on time.
He continued, “Well, everyone was off work anyway, and I still had some shopping to do. For Jeanelle. I didn’t get around to the inspection until last week.”
“Edison, that pay app should have gone out two days after I gave it to you. We talked about this. The critical timing on that paperwork must be adhered to. Last minute Christmas shopping for your girlfriend is not an excuse I can give the client.”
“Yeah, I know, I know. You’re right.” He lowered his eyes in apology. “But listen. I went there on the twenty-seventh. The contractors must have had Monday off for Christmas. The place felt deserted. I went step-by-step through the project, reviewing the status of completion of the various trades and taking pictures. Like you and I did for The Shops at Silver Pond. I knew what you needed done.”
Blood rose up the back of my neck. “Wait, didn’t Wally go with you?”
“Yeah, we were going to meet, but issues flared up at Brighton Mall and Wally’s wife’s aunt landed in the hospital. He told me to click off a bunch of pictures and he’d check everything out before I shipped it.”
Wally had promised to accompany Edison to the site, review the paperwork, and stand on Edison’s head until it went out. Mental Note: ask Wally why he’d abandoned his commitment to help out on this.
“Anyway,” Edison said, “I went through the whole job, comparing the trades line item by line item. Only, there was a snag.”
“What kind of snag?” I said reflexively, my patience evaporating. I was only half listening to Edison’s rambling. Those blinking messages awakened a dozen little nagging thoughts in the back of my mind. I had eight projects dancing around in my head; urgent tasks and duties niggled at me for attention. “Edison, tell me the problem so I can deal with it. I need to move on.”
“Look, I know you’ll be mad at me, but it was the right thing to do. It went horribly wrong, that’s all.” Perched on the edge of his seat, his hands grasped his knees as his body tensed. The fresh scent of a cherry Lifesaver on Edison’s breath seemed incongruent with the strain in his voice. His dark eyes glistened, and ragged eyebrows poked out in all directions.
There’s nothing difficult about traversing a construction site and noting the status of construction. Our job simply concerned checking the contractor’s breakdown sheet and verifying the work completed. Edison had been with the firm almost a year. Though this constituted his first architectural job out of school, his age of thirty-four years suggested he should have been able to handle those duties. “Quit stalling, Edison. Tell me what happened.”
He licked his lips. “When I first saw him, I would have sworn he was asleep. I mean, he looked like one of those homeless guys you see in the city. He had, like, three layers of rumpled clothes on and a week’s growth of a beard. I thought he’d wandered onto the site to get out of the wind.” He wrapped one hand around the other, but despite this, they shook like leaves in a windstorm.
The panic creeping into Edison’s voice began to grow a knot of apprehension in my stomach.
Edison began talking faster. “Well, he sat right in the shot I wanted to take. I needed a picture of the elevator and he was blocking the view. I had to do something.”
“They finally got the elevator in?” Even as an ominous feeling in my stomach grew, I noted this development with pleasant surprise. After weeks of delay, not only was the elevator delivered, but somehow the installation had been coordinated during the notoriously slow construction month of December.
Edison fidgeted in the chair, shifting his weight from one bun to the other, wringing his hands until the fingers became red as popsicles. “This is what I’m saying. I knew you’d be really upset if I didn’t get a picture. I tried to change the angle to get the shot without disturbing the bum, but his body leaned right up against the door jamb.” Edison’s eyes pleaded.
“So what did you do?”
“I yelled at him. Tried to wake him to get him to leave. He didn’t move. I thought maybe he’d fallen asleep or passed out. Or, I thought, maybe he pretended to sleep so I wouldn’t kick him out of there. Finally, I figured I’d better shake him awake. When I touched him, he slumped over.”
I bolted straight up in my chair. “Did that wake him?”
“No. He was dead.”
“What!” I jumped up.
He nodded and stared at me. “Edison. How could this be?” I took a breath. ”What was he doing there? Why didn’t you call me? Crap!” I wished I’d listened more closely. “Why now? On the parking deck?” I paced back and forth. “A dead man on the jobsite. Who was he? How did he get there? We’re so far behind already. I bet the cops will have the place shut down for a couple of weeks.”
“Exactly my thoughts. That the police would get their hands in everything. They’d be poking around, and keep the work from getting done. And you constantly remind us how the job’s a month behind already. If they found a dead body on site, the project would never be completed on time. So I thought, well, it’s just a homeless guy anyway. What difference is it if they find him on the project site, or out in the woods somewhere? He’d be easy to, er, relocate. The work could continue and the project would have a chance of opening on schedule.”
I couldn’t believe the words hitting my ears. “What? You decided to move the body?” He stared quietly in my direction, his weepy eyes seeking approval. He certainly wasn’t getting that from me. “What were you thinking?” I screamed.
“I thought, this job’s never going to get finished with a murder investigation going on.”
“Murder?” I shuddered. “No, some lost soul made a place for himself sitting up against the elevator. He died in his sleep. Probably of exposure…maybe he had a heart attack.”
“No, Ken. It was murder. A broken neck tells a story. Maybe I didn’t learn much at the morgue, but one time, Uncle Gary let me help him with the prep. I’ll never forget how it felt. There’s a certain change in the quality of the muscles. Anyway, I could tell something didn’t align properly. Oh, yes, his skull was fractured, too.”
My head spun in tight circles. A dead man on our site. My heart beat faster. How could this happen? And why would Edison move the body? Didn’t he have any common sense? Doesn’t every adult know that you don’t move a dead body? Doesn’t he watch TV? Don’t leave the scene of an accident. Don’t touch fallen electrical wires. And don’t move a dead body.
His eyes continued their erratic motion. “Let me tell you what happened next.”
“Yeah, I moved the truck over underneath the edge of the parking deck near the body. I found a pile of cardboard and some plastic sheets at the site and laid them in the back of the pick-up truck. Then I went back up there. Luckily they haven’t put that rail up yet next to the stairs. I kicked him over the edge, into the back of the truck. He didn’t have far to fall from the second level, only a few feet to the truck. I pulled the bed cover over the top of him and snapped it on, so that no one would see.”
“I didn’t know your truck had a bed cover.” The moment the words were out of my mouth, the realization hit me. Forcibly trying to stay calm, I lowered my voice. “You put the body into our company truck?”
He nodded sheepishly.
“I just thought…it seemed like…I just thought I’d drive him a few miles away, and dump him into the woods over by Stony Creek.”
“You touched a dead body. You didn’t call the police. Then you moved a body. Do you know how many crimes you must have committed? As if that wasn’t enough, you put it in the company truck.”
Edison nodded his head up and down slowly.
“I can’t believe this. You go out to do a simple job inspection, and now…. Not only did you get yourself in trouble, but you’ve put the company in an untenable position. Who’s going to believe we weren’t involved in moving the body off site?” Edison exhaled a weighty sigh. Moments passed. We looked at each other silently. “You might as well tell me the rest of it.”
“I went back to see if anything needed cleaning up.”
“I noticed a little smear of blood on the wall. Not so the casual construction worker would observe. That elevator wall has yet to be painted anyway. And the guy had relieved himself. Did you know you do that when you die? A small stain marked the location. It didn’t seem like enough to bother with. Well, when I got back downstairs, Robert was there.”
“Westin. He almost gave me a heart attack.”
Having your boss, not to mention an owner of the firm, appear when you’re moving a dead body would spook anyone. I closed my eyes.
“He and Andrew had come out to look at the project. I guess those guys don’t take any time off.” Andrew was the senior partner in our firm. What were they doing at the jobsite two days after Christmas?
Edison continued, “They started asking me questions, and so I was dragged into showing them around the project. All the while, I was desperate to leave and dump that body. Finally, they’d seen enough and I thought I could get on with it. All of a sudden Andrew explained that he was late picking Smartain up at the airport. Robert suggested that Andrew go right to the airport from there, and he would catch a ride back with me.”
I stared at him incredulously. “You drove Robert back to the office with the body in the truck?”
Edison nodded. “What could I do? It wasn’t like I could tell him ‘no.’ Back in the office, I kept looking for an opportunity to sneak out to the truck, but things kept coming up. Around four o’clock I finally dropped everything and went out there. The truck was gone.”
“No, not like that. Wally had signed out the truck. He was gone for the rest of the day. I guess Wally sweet-talked Rita into giving him the other set of keys.”
A drop of sweat rolled down my back. Slumping back in my chair, I said, “Edison, I can’t take any more. Where is the body now?”
“It’s still in the truck. Gwen took it home over New Year’s. As soon as she gets here….”
I was shaking. I didn’t want to move. It was hot. My eyes closed. I could feel the vein in my neck pounding against the collar of my shirt. “I passed Gwen at the coffee pot as I came in.” I braced myself and stood on unsteady knees. Edison looked disoriented. He sat expectantly in his chair, hands braced on the armrests. “Let’s get out to the parking lot now,” I said with a dry mouth, “and take care of this business before somebody discovers what’s in that truck.”
We walked deliberately through the office, grabbing our coats along the way. As we approached the back doors, I peered out the window. There sat the white company pick-up truck on the opposite side of the lot. The truck’s bed cover was pulled back. Gwen stood at the side of the truck, reaching into the bed and fiddling with the contents. I pointed out the window. “What is she doing?”
Edison looked dumbfounded. “I don’t know.”
“Let’s find out.” It was the last thing I wanted to do, but what choice did we have? My stomach convulsed as I opened the door. Gwen had moved to the back end of the vehicle, her petite body bent over, reaching into the truck bed with her gloved hands. For a moment my sensibilities were overcome. Gwen’s layered, copper-colored hair barely touched her shoulders. I admired her athletic back, which accented the the lines of her stylish winter coat. My eyes were drawn to her tight black skirt, which played intriguingly at the edge of her three-quarter length coat. Edison and I stepped up on either side of her as we approached and looked into the bed. Arranged neatly side-by-side were sixteen full-sized gold shovels and three large boxes of white hardhats.
There was no sign of the body