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    “Did you know him well?”

    Both the words and the fog of Cameron’s breath hung briefly in the icy air before fading on the wind.  It was a simple question, yet it exposed the raw pain many of those who knew Ben Osborn were feeling, at the news of his gruesome death.

    Cameron Spencer, an investigative reporter for the city newspaper, had spent much of the afternoon on the roof of the science building construction project, site of the man’s death, and watched various officials come and go.  Each would sadly shake his head and answer a few questions posed by the police, before making a hasty retreat, doing his best to ignore the dead man’s presence. 

    ‘So often people’s actions speak louder than anything they have to say,’ Cameron thought, as he watched another person shake Grant Fletcher’s hand and depart.  ‘Why is Fletcher keeping his distance?  After all, he was Mister Osborn’s boss; yet he appears to be feeling more . . . inconvenienced by the death, than disturbed.’

    Only one person seemed truly moved by the sight of the man half-lying in a pool of frozen blood, beneath a mass of twisted scaffolding and concrete block.  He’d spent the day standing close by the fallen man, with bowed head, oblivious to the wind and cold.  It was to him that Cameron had directed the question.

    He was a slender man, blond, with wire-rimmed glasses, and cheeks red from exposure to the wind and cold.  He acknowledged the question with a slight nod, his eyes never leaving the corpse, whose face was forever frozen in a mask of terror.

     “His name was Ben,” the blond man answered,” . . . “Ben Osborn.  He and I have been working together on this building for the last two years.  We were more than friends.  He was like family.” 

    The blond man heaved a ragged sigh as he tore his gaze away from the battered body of his friend.  He blinked once . . . twice, and frowned slightly.  “I . . . I’m sorry, but have we met?”  He closed his eyes, massaging his forehead and the bridge of his nose, before adjusting his glasses.  “Forgive me.  I’m not at my best right now.”

    ‘I’ve seen death, and mourning friends before,’ Cameron thought, ‘but I have never seen this sort of silent, dry-eyed grieving.  It reminds me of the story of a dog who sat at his dead master’s side, waiting for him to awaken.’

    “No we’ve not met,” he responded, meeting the slender man’s pale green eyes.  “My name’s Cameron Spencer.  I’m an investigative reporter with the city newspaper.  And you?” he invited, gently. 

    “Matt . . . Matt Whitting.”  The blond man absently tugged his coat tighter around his shoulders gesturing vaguely to the surrounding construction site.  “I designed this building.  Ben and I worked on it together.”  Matt nodded toward the men who stood perhaps twenty feet away.  “I work for Logan Marsh’s architectural firm.  Logan’s the tall dark-haired man speaking on his cell phone.  The beefy blond, standing at Logan’s side, is Grant Fletcher, the building’s contractor, and Ben’s boss.”

    ‘Beefy indeed,’ Cameron thought.  ‘Beefy, and I’m betting, dangerous as hell.’  Fletcher was a tall, square-jawed, broad shouldered, muscular man, with thick, perfectly styled blond hair, which seemed oblivious to the gusty wind. 

    ‘He’s intimidating,’ Cameron thought, ‘and he knows it.   In addition to being a formidable physical presence, he has a reputation for getting his way, no matter who he steps on.’ His ruthlessness, plus his take-no-prisoners philosophy, had rocketed his firm from the status of an insignificant home builder to one of the region’s premier construction companies, in only a few years.

    With each new project, tales of shady dealings and strong arm tactics followed close behind.  So far though, no one had been able to catch him in any flagrant wrongdoing, or convince any of those he’d stepped on, to bring charges against either him or his company. 

    ‘Why?’ Cameron’s gaze met Fletcher’s, surprising the contractor when the smaller man would not be cowed. 

    ‘Remember my face.’  Cameron inwardly grinned when the large man looked away.  ‘I am the person who will cause your downfall.  You have hurt too many people, stepped on too many toes and made too many enemies.  You don’t know me, but . . . you will.’

    Ben Osborn, the man who lay half-buried beneath the collapsed wood and steel scaffolding, had had what some people called a surprising relationship with Grant Fletcher.  He steadfastly stood by his employer during the company’s rapid rise to prominence, and ignored everyone who wondered why.  Osborn was widely known to be a stickler for detail, and doing things by the book, traits not held in particularly high regard by his boss. 

    ‘So,’ the public’s thinking went, ‘if Ben Osborn can’t find fault with Grant Fletcher’s business practices, maybe everyone’s been too fast to assume wrongdoing on the part of the burly contractor.  After all, arrogance and an abrasive personality are not illegal.’

    Cameron had been awake for two days straight, working to complete a story, when he’d received a call from his boss and was told she had a new assignment for him.  He’d been dreaming of taking a couple days off, and groaned when she told him she needed him, pronto.

    “I know you’re tired,” Anna Hawkins, editor of the city’s newspaper said, when he showed up in her office, bleary-eyed and yawning, “but I believe you are the most qualified person to handle this story.  I need someone with your tenacity to ‘get the dirt’ on Grant Fletcher.  One of his longtime employees has been found dead on one of his building sites,” she explained. 

    “I’m not saying the man is the cause of Mister Osborn’s death, but I don’t believe for a moment that this is an accident.  Too many things have been said about Mister Fletcher over the past few years.  So far, everyone he’s worked with has kept their mouth shut.  I’d like to know what sort of strong-arm tactics he’s used to ensure their silence. 

    “I’ve met a couple of the people he’s worked with.  They’re afraid to say anything about Mister Fletcher.  If he’s doing something to frighten them I have to believe there’s more going on than we can imagine.  Until recently, he’s been working on small projects.  Now that he’s working on that enormous building over at the university, he and everyone he works with are going to be under increased scrutiny.

    Anna Hawkins continued speaking, holding her coffee cup in a white-knuckle grip.  “Mister Osborn’s death may be the thing which will allow us to expose Grant Fletcher for what he really is.  The man is rotten to the core. 

    “As important as that part of the story is though, what I’m wanting you to take a look at is the larger picture.  What’s allowed the construction company to grow so large so quickly, and how the man maintains control over his subcontractors.  Something is going on and I’d like to know what it is.  Grant Fletcher can’t be managing everything all alone.  I believe he’s something akin to a puppet master, pulling the strings and making others do his bidding.”

    Cameron pushed the beliefs of his boss aside.  ‘Just because she thinks the man is a bastard, doesn’t make him one,’ he told himself, trying his best to be fair, as he turned his attention to Logan Marsh, the dark-haired man standing at Fletcher’s side.

    Unlike the contractor’s well established company, Logan Marsh, Matt’s boss, was a relative newcomer to the list of the city’s large architectural firms.  He was a ruggedly handsome man who was reported to spend as much time in the arms of a mistress, as in those of his wife.

    He was viewed by many as a social climber, a “would-be,” someone in Cameron’s office had once laughed.  “He would be everything he desired if only he had enough money, skill, patience, finesse, and talent to achieve his goals.  The one thing at which he seemed to excel, was surrounding himself with top-notch employees.

    It had surprised everyone when his firm had been chosen to design the signature building on the university’s rapidly expanding research campus.  By all reports though, everyone, from the school’s president, to the scientists for whom the building was being built, were more than pleased with his firm’s handling of the prickly personalities and mega egos of those involved with the project.

    Matt Whitting, the man who was currently staring out across the campus, was the building’s lead architect.  He was considered by many to be a rising star in the architectural world, and the reason Logan Marsh’s firm had been both awarded the project, in the first place, and why everyone was so happy with the rapidly rising structure.

    Like Cameron, Matt Whitting was in his mid twenties.  Unlike Cameron’s dark-haired intense personality, Matt was a blond clean-shaven man, whose haunted eyes currently reflected the pain he was having little success in hiding.  As Cameron watched, Matt sniffed, removed his glasses, and wiped a shaking hand over his face, before bowing his head.

    An especially strong blast of wind and sleet smashed into the two young men with a force strong enough to knock anyone, unprepared, off his feet.  Cameron hunched his shoulders and turned his back to the raw blast.  “Damn!”

    Matt watched a large sheet of packing material scoot across the concrete floor, pause for a moment when it ran into Osborn’s body, then disappear, over the edge of the building.

    Cameron laughed, as his winter scarf whipped and twisted wildly about his neck and shoulders like an angry, fringed, red snake.  “Damn!  I should have been born someplace warm.  Better yet, a place with palm trees!”

    In spite of himself, Matt laughed.  “Me too!”  He batted one end of the attacking scarf away.  “What say we both move?” 

    “I’m ready!  Let’s hit the road,” Cameron laughed, finally bringing his scarf under control.  “I’m not that big of a guy.  If I don’t get back to the ground soon, one of those gusts is gonna pick me up and deposit me someplace even colder than where I am now.”

    Both men sobered and stood aside, as two workers from the coroner’s office set about doing their job of preparing the body to be transported back to a lab, where someone could determine the cause of death.

    Cameron moved closer to Matt Whitting’s side and studied the battered man’s body.  ‘He was hit on the back and side of his head by something as heavy as a sledgehammer.  Determining the cause of his death is the easy part.  Now, if only someone could answer the questions, why . . . and who did it.’

    “I apologize for joking around.  I’ve got a job to do, and you’re watching out for your friend.  This isn’t the time or place to be joking about being blown over the edge of the building.”  He glanced down at the leafless tree tops swaying in the wind, and tried not to shudder.  “If there’s one thing I hate as much as cold, it’s heights,” he quietly grumbled.  “Yet here I am, in the cold, and exposed to the elements, eight stories up.”

    Matt smiled crookedly as he watched his friend being zipped into a body bag.  “I appreciate the thought, but Ben wouldn’t mind.  He was always joking around.  He didn’t much like the cold either.”

    Both men followed the two workers with their eyes, as the body was carried away.  “I’ve never seen a dead person before,” Matt said in a low voice.  “In the movies, death is always so sterile.  No blood . . . nothing.  Just bang, you’re dead, and the person falls to the ground without protest, or leaving behind friends and family.  The movies never show the battered skull, the dead person’s wide-eyed look of horror . . . or the blood.”  He shook his head and drew his coat more closely around himself.  “The reality is so much different.”

    Cameron glanced to where the men with the stretcher had disappeared with their sad burden, then to Logan Marsh, Matt’s boss, who was resting an arm across his employee’s shoulders.  “I’m sorry,” the impeccably dressed man said, barely loud enough for Cameron to hear.  “He’s going to be missed.”

    Matt jerked a nod, not trusting his voice, as Logan acknowledged Cameron’s presence with a grim nod. 

    “Do . . . do you know if Julie . . . Ben’s wife, has been told?” Matt asked, in a rough and halting voice.  “She and the children are going to be devastated.”

    Logan’s lips thinned, acknowledging the truth of the statement.  “I don’t know.  That would be Grant’s responsibility.”  He glanced toward the contractor who seemed rooted to the spot where he stood, daring the wind to muss his hair, or cause him any discomfort.  Even the remaining police officers seemed intimidated by the man, each standing out of arms’ reach.  “I’ll make sure he’s not forgotten,” Logan Marsh cast a disturbed glance in the contractor’s direction.  “I’ll ask him when he’s finished speaking with the police.”

    Cameron frowned.  ‘Even you feel it, don’t you, Mister Marsh?  You may be Matt’s boss, but Grant Fletcher is yours.  If he tells you to jump, the only thing you can do is ask how high, or, considering the circumstances . . . off what.’

    Genuine concern colored Logan Marsh’s voice.  “Are you going to be okay?  Why don’t you take some time off?  I doubt anyone will be working on the building until the authorities are finished investigating.  That’ll give you some time to deal with your feelings, in private.  Do you need anything else?”

    “I just need to know that Ben’s wife has been told . . . gently I hope.” Matt flicked a glance toward the contractor.

    “Yes . . . well . . .”  Logan hesitated, seemingly unsure whether he should abandon his employee.  “I’ll see what I can do for her and the children.  Ben was a friend of mine, too.” 

    Logan glanced toward the darkening horizon where the pale light of the setting sun was giving way to leaden clouds and the promise of snow.  “We’d all best be leaving before it gets dark.”  He looked over his shoulder to where Grant Fletcher had just . . . dismissed . . . the remaining police officers, with a curt nod.

    ‘Last night, it wasn’t only dark,’ Cameron thought,‘ it was windy and raining.  What business did Ben have to be at the construction site, and, what is more important, why was he up here, on the eighth floor?  Something’s wrong with that picture.’

    When Logan continued to hesitate, Cameron spoke up.  “I’ll make sure Matt gets home.” 

    “Very good,” Logan responded, quickly accepting the offer.  The tall man nodded his thanks to Cameron, then squeezed Matt’s shoulder and made a hasty retreat.  He gathered up Grant Fletcher, who spared a moment to convey his version of condolences to Matt with a smile and casual wave, before both men stepped into the construction elevator and descended the side of the building.

    Matt spoke on an exhaled breath.  “Thank you.  I didn’t know how to get rid of him.  I guess I should be pleased Logan seems to have some feelings for Ben.   It doesn’t seem to me though, as if Mister Fletcher, Ben’s boss, has any.  If he’s the one who told Ben’s wife of her husband’s death, I’m sure he screwed it up, royally.”

    After another glance over his shoulder to where his boss and the contractor had disappeared, Matt turned back to Cameron and lowered his voice.  “I can’t help but think that whatever happened wasn’t an accident.”  He gestured to the tangle of tumbled concrete blocks, wood, and scaffolding.  “That sort of structure doesn’t just fall for no reason.”  He nudged at some of the debris with the toe of his shoe, speaking in a low voice.  “They’re blaming Ben’s death on last night’s high winds, but . . .” he shook his head.  “That theory just doesn’t feel right to me.  Ben’s death wasn’t an accident.  I’m sure of it.”

    Cameron glanced uneasily at the tangled wreck of building materials lying at his and Matt’s feet, trying to sort out the day’s images, while reminding himself that the cause of Mister Osborn’s death was not the story he was assigned to investigate.

    “Good bye old friend,” Matt murmured, as he and Cameron turned to leave.  “I’m so sorry it ended this way.  I’ll miss you.”

    He turned to Cameron as they headed toward the construction elevator.  “I . . . I hope it was fast for him.”

    There was nothing Cameron could say or do, other than walk at Matt’s side and wonder where to begin his job.


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