The sky was leaden, the rain falling in sheets and I was in a foul mood. The joker I was tailing, one Clifford Thompson, thought he'd lost me in that last department store. Guess again, Sparky. Things had been slow lately, so I was picking up some extra cash as a Process Server for the city courts. I had no idea what ol' Cliff had done and didn't much care. He sure didn't want to be served though and it was beginning to annoy me.
It was noontime and the sidewalks were jammed. Cliff was trying to work his way through the crowd holding an umbrella and it was slowing him down considerably. I had the hood up on my slicker and was closing in on him when he caught a break in the crowd and started running.
By the time I got clear he had a good start on me, but he was out of shape and I wasn't. He legged it across an intersection against traffic, almost got nailed by a cab, cleared the far curb and leaned against a lamp post trying to catch his breath. I waited until the light changed and ran after him. He took off, looked back to see if I was gaining on him and ran full tilt into a mailbox.
I strolled up and saw he was okay, just stunned. I shoved the summons in his suit pocket and left him lying there in a puddle. Then I went in search of a cup of coffee to get the damp out of my bones.
Michelle's the name, Michelle Hammer. I'm a P.I. Most of my work's routine; cheating spouses, deadbeats, petty thieves, that sort of thing. Every once in a while, though, I get involved in something bigger, lots bigger.
I don't let just any grease monkey work on my Z, which is why I was in Chuck's Garage getting Maggie's oil changed and her tires rotated. I knew him from the department's motor pool when I was on the force and when I heard he'd retired and opened up his own shop, I was one of his first customers. It was his idea to drop a Chevy short block V-8 in Maggie with a 6 speed tranny and dual exhausts. It's gotten me out of a few tight spots from time to time.
I was reading a car magazine in the office when Chuck came in, said "She's ready to roll, Puss" and then "You got a minute?" "Sure, what's up?" "You know the dirt track outside of town?" "Yeah, I've seen it." "Well, I own it and I run the place." "I didn't know that. Good for you." "It's not good lately. We've had two wrecks in the last three weeks; both drivers were killed; now the county and some local citizens wanna shut us down. Dammit Puss, I've had that track for thirteen years, damn few serious accidents and never a fatality, now the roof's falling in." "Bummer, sounds like a string of bad luck." "Bad luck my ass. I think someone's set out to shut us down and killed two drivers in the process. I sure could use your help." He always did right by me and Maggie so I said I'd be there on the weekend and check things out.
Chuck's office was behind the pits. Qualifying runs were beginning and mechanics were making their final checks as the drivers climbed into their seats, buckling their safety harnesses and revving their motors. I suddenly realized why everyone was wearing ear protectors.
I made for the office door and once inside, the noise ceased. Chuck was arguing with a man in a checkered shirt, bib overalls and clodhopper shoes. I leaned against the door and waited.
"And I'm tellin' you, Carlson, this dagnabbed noisy race track of you'rn is makin' my hens stop layin' and my cows have stopped givin' milk." "Listen Bailey, we've been over this before. You knew damn well this track was here when you bought that farm. Now that you're down the road you start bitching about the noise. I was here first." "Thet's a prime piece of land and I intend to farm it. I paid good money for it to Sutter's widder; she wuz lettin' the place go to blazes. It's prime land I tell ye'." "Look, I was here first and that's that. Complain all you want, it won't do any good. Now, get out of here, I've got races to run." "We'll just see about this, dagnabbit." Bailey turned and headed for the door. I moved aside as he about yanked the knob loose, then went stomping off muttering. He had a long face, what hair he had was brown and stringy, his mouth was set in a thin line and he looked like he'd been weaned on a lemon.
He reminded me of that farmer in the painting, you know, the one holding a pitchfork with his wife beside him, a humorless old bastard if there ever was one.
"Nice neighbors you have, Chuck," I said with a grin.
"Christ, Puss, he's a regular pain in the ass. He bought the Sutter farm about six months ago and he's been in here at least ten times complaining about the noise. Hell, he's over a mile away and we only run on weekends. What's his problem?" "Just likes to complain, I guess." "Enough about him, lemme show you around," he tossed me what looked like a set of oversized earmuffs, "You'll need these." The cars were leaving the pits and rolling onto the track, blatting their motors as they got into position. The drivers were mostly young guys, all watching the starter with the green flag. When they took off, the vibrations made my teeth rattle.
We watched for a few minutes as they barreled around the track, jockeying for position, drifting through the corners, and tossing clods of dirt everywhere. Those boys knew how to drive alright. One almost lost it on a curve when the rear end broke loose, but he goosed it and gained control again. How the heck could people who drove like that have two fatal accidents in a short space of time?
"Are the wrecked cars still here?" "Yeah, they're in a shed behind the pits. The sheriff and his boys checked em' out and didn't find anything." "I'd like to have a look." Walking back through the pits, the crews gave me some smiles, winks, a whistle or two and some "Hey Baby's". I was dressed as usual, jeans, t-shirt, boots, no makeup and my hair pulled back in a ponytail, but they must have liked what they saw. I tried to be cool and still found myself strutting a little. A girl likes to get noticed especially when she's not trying.
Chuck opened the shed doors and I was looking at two mangled hunks of metal that had once been Stock Modified racers. One had gone off a curve, through the fence and rolled repeatedly; the other had lost it on the straightaway, cut some donuts and crashed into a tow truck parked in the infield.
He gave me a flashlight and I started poking around. The damage to both cars was extensive, but I figured I might find a clue somewhere.
I was checking the second car out when something caught the sleeve of my t-shirt. It was a broken tie rod that had been cut halfway through. It might have held together for a while, but snapped when it was stressed. No tie rod, no steering, no control. Bang, you're dead.
Chuck was talking to someone outside, so I checked the other car out. Damn. The tie rod on it had been sawed halfway through too. These weren't accidents, they were murders.
I showed him what I'd found and he ran back to the office to call the law.
The sheriff and his deputies had come and gone. They'd padlocked the shed, declared it a crime scene and strung yellow tape around. I stayed out of the way and acted like another track employee. Now it was a murder investigation and I should have butted out, but I promised Chuck I'd help him and that's what I was gonna do.
The sheriff knew he didn't have any experience in this sort of investigation so he was calling the state crime lab for help. I figured Chuck and I'd cook up an idea to flush the murderer out and save the sheriff some trouble.
I met him at the garage on Monday and we brainstormed over coffee and Danish. The sheriff had agreed to keep the news low profile, but it was known all over the track that something was up. A shed strung with crime scene tape will do that.