Hit and Run
Release date: November 26, 2021
Publisher: Blair Howard Books
Print pages: 302
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Behind the book
Harry Starke the early years- from being a Police Officer to a Private Investigator.
Hit and Run
He paced nervously back and forth in the darkness, smoking a cigarette, the third in less than twenty minutes, waiting impatiently. He dropped the cigarette, ground it out under the sole of his boot, then reached into his pocket, took out the half-empty pack and lit another. Where the hell are they? he thought savagely as he looked at his watch. They should have been here ten minutes ago.
They’d had to delay twice, and both times he’d driven home in disgust. The attack had to be timed perfectly. Not a second could be lost. If so, they’d all end up in prison for the rest of their lives if, that is, the state of Florida decided to spare them the death penalty.
He’d heard one or two of his colleagues say it was easy to kill.
The man blew out a stream of smoke and shook his head.
No it isn’t. It’s damn difficult to kill. If you want to get away with it.
Although he was off the road, he had a good field of view and could easily spot any vehicles as they passed by on the four-lane road. Not exactly a highway, Parkside Boulevard stretched from St. Emilion eight miles to I-95. He checked his watch again. Damn it. Where are you?
The previous two times there had been cars on the road so the attempt had to be postponed. There could be no witnesses, and that would be almost a miracle in itself; the trick to success was the signal from his lookout. The county was not yet heavily populated, but it was growing. So it was a little more problematic finding a moment when there was zero traffic heading toward St. Emilion, but it was possible, just. And all he needed was a couple of minutes.
He opened the truck door and checked that the key was in the ignition. It was. He turned it. The engine started. He left it running. Every second counted.
Here they are! His heart jumped when he saw the first bicycle pass by on the hard shoulder. He was parked on a dirt road that intersected Parkside Boulevard, out of sight. He knew he couldn’t be seen even if one of the cyclists should turn and look his way.
He slipped into the driver’s seat. He saw the second bike speed past. A third followed immediately after. Gently, he pressed the gas pedal. The truck edged forward. Where’s the damn fourth bike? There should be one more. If there isn’t a fourth, I should have been told. This could mess…
He heaved a sigh of relief as the last bicycle rider came into view, moving slowly. The bike rolled by, its rider head-down working hard. He eased down on the gas pedal.
When he came to the highway he looked west. His lookout was there and flashed the blue light. Three quick flashes. It was the go signal.
He pressed the gas pedal to the floor and the truck roared out onto the asphalt. He straightened the vehicle, kept the pedal down, then wrenched the wheel to the right and slammed into the fourth bike and rider. The heavy bull guard on the front of the truck smashed into the rider sending him spinning into the air. The bicycle crumpled beneath the truck.
He kept his foot on the gas pedal and drove the truck into the other three bikes at more than sixty miles an hour, one after the other. Bodies cartwheeled high in the air, blood spattered the windshield, the hood of the truck and the highway. He glanced in his rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of the wreckage. It was no more than a fleeting glance, but it was enough to tell him no human could have survived.
His spotter was good. There were no cars on either side of the road. It had taken him less than a minute. He slowed, turned into a gap in the median, then sped across the highway onto a dirt road where he pulled off into the trees and waited.
Here he is!
His spotter’s car drove slowly past. He pulled out of the trees and followed the car to its destination. He was safe, and a great deal richer.
Back on Parkside Boulevard, three people lay dead and the fourth critically injured.
10am Monday, June 4, 2012
I was alone in my office, enjoying one of those quiet, contemplative, reflective moments that you tend to have when you’re getting close to a birthday with a zero in it. This, even though I don’t have many such moments—which is one reason I didn’t take philosophy in college—and I wasn’t anywhere near a birthday with a zero in it.
Contemplative, reflective moments are nice if you’re studying a ten-foot birdie putt that will win you the Masters Tournament or, in my case, ten bucks from my old man. But they are not a big part of what I do for a living.
My name’s Harry Starke and I’m a private investigator. It was June 4, 2012, and I was contemplating the last four years since I’d left the Chattanooga Police Department and gone into business for myself. You see, most of the work we do—I have a staff of twelve—involves people who are not exactly the cream of humanity. Which is a nice way of saying I deal mostly with slugs and sewer rats.
Over the years since I left the PD, I’ve brushed up against a great many such slugs and rats. Most of them didn’t show any outward sign of homicidal behavior, but there was an inexplicable air of violence about them. It was just a gut feeling I had—I tend to rely on those a lot—but I knew without a doubt that they might say hello one second and try to cut my throat the next.
The older and rather distinguished-looking gentleman who walked into my outer office that day, however, was not a slug or rat: just the opposite, in fact. A veritable saint among the sinners I usually deal with. Decency and humanity seemed to radiate from him like the last rays of the setting sun on the quiet waters of the Tennessee River. Should a latter-day Diogenes be looking for an honest man, he’d surely knock on this guy’s door.
It was just after ten o’clock that Monday morning when Jacque, my PA, knocked on my office door, opened it, stuck her head inside and said, “Harry, there’s a guy in my office asking to see you. He doesn’t have an appointment, but he’s insisting. He says he’s traveled a long way. He looks… I dunno… refined? What d’you want me to tell him?”
Other than contemplating the various levels of corruption among the dregs of the local humanity, I had little else to do so I told her to escort him in. And she did.
I stood up and stepped out from behind my desk to greet him.
“Mr. Starke, I’m Peter Sheffield,” he said, offering me his hand. “I hope you can help me.”
“If I can. Please, take a seat.”
“Before I sit down, Mr. Starke, I should tell you I’m here to talk about a thirty-five-year-old cold case. I need to ask if you handle such cases.”
“I do, but I have to tell you, Mr. Sheffield, it’s usually a long and involved process that doesn’t often produce a result. Why don’t you tell me about it, and we’ll see?”
He nodded, then said, “On Wednesday June the first, 1977, three people, including my mother and father, were killed in a hit-and-run accident, and I say accident reservedly because I’m certain they were murdered.”
Sheffield looked to be about fifty-five, which meant he was just twenty years old when his parents died.
“Yes, as I mentioned, I take cold cases. I can’t promise to solve them, though. And I can’t promise I’ll take yours until I know more about it, but please, sit down and let’s talk.”
He nodded, smiled as if relieved and sat down in front of my desk.
I returned to my seat behind my desk, took a fresh yellow legal pad from my desk drawer, grabbed a black marker pen, looked at him and said, “Let’s begin with the background, shall we?”
He nodded. “Mr. Starke, you’re my last chance to uncover the truth. The case has puzzled many investigators, and many people in my hometown of St. Emilion, for more than thirty years.”
“Excuse me. St. Emilion?”
“Yes. St. Emilion is a small town south of St. Augustine on Florida’s Palm Coast.”
“That’s a little out of my territory, Mr. Sheffield. You came all this way to see me? Why me?”
He smiled. “I met your father, August, some years ago and was very impressed by him. When I needed a detective, I remembered he spoke very highly of you.”
That was nice of my father. But to get Sheffield to travel through two states, he must have bragged on me… a lot. I hoped I could live up to it.
“I see,” I said. “Sorry to interrupt. Please continue.”
“Thirty-five years ago my father, Wade Sheffield, was the only honest man on the St. Emilion City Council. It was a corrupt county and he was outvoted on all major issues by a vote of four-to-one. I say corrupt, but the council’s shady dealings were usually legal but unethical and bad for the taxpayers. I can give you an example if you like.”
“Please,” I said and began to take notes.
“The city council, at that time, had a cozy fiscal relationship with the St. Emilion Community Bank. The city kept about six hundred thousand dollars in the bank for payroll and other expenses. But fiscal critics said the city only needed about two hundred thousand dollars for such expenses. With the six-hundred-thousand-dollar account, the bank got to use four hundred thousand dollars of the taxpayers’ money without interest. Those critics said the city should reduce the account to two hundred thousand dollars and put the other four hundred thousand out to bid at four or five percent. That would bring in a lot of money for the St. Emilion taxpayers.”
“Yes, it would,” I said. I’m not exactly a financial genius, but I can do basic math.
“But when my father suggested that, he was, as usual, voted down four-to-one. By an odd coincidence, the city manager and the city attorney were on the board of directors of the St. Emilion Community Bank.”
“Yes, one of those amazing, odd coincidences in life,” I said. “I’ve seen a few of those.”
“The publisher of the local paper, the St. Emilion Record, was also on the bank’s board of directors so my father didn’t get any newspaper support. Dean Stafford, now deceased, was part of the old guard, and he supported everything they wanted to do and fought my father bitterly. He even wrote a number of derogatory editorials about him.”
I nodded. “I’ve seen a few corrupt cops in my time, so it wouldn’t surprise me that there are corrupt publishers too.”
“Another troubling issue at that time,” he continued, “was a request by two developers to build two fifteen-story condominiums on the beach which, at that time, had no high-rises. The official vote would have come up after the November election, but the four city councilmen had already privately assured the developers that permission to build would be given. This was one of the times when the council did cross the line. I’m sure money changed hands, possibly quite a lot of money. Too many cities in Florida had been ruined by growth and condos, and many of us didn’t want to see that happen to St. Emilion.”
“However, in the November election there was a huge surprise. Two newcomers to the city challenged the incumbents and won. With my father already on the council, what was called the ‘New Wave’ in the city had a three-to-two majority on the council. The day after the election, the city manager, the city attorney, the city clerk and the finance director all resigned because they knew the new council would fire them.”
I nodded and kept writing. “But you haven’t told me about the crime yet.”
He nodded. “I needed to give you the background first. Each councilman is elected for two years and, as you can imagine, the old guard was desperate to regain control of the city. So now I’ll skip forward a few months. The condo project was withdrawn from consideration by the developers. They hoped they would have another chance in two years after the next election. My father had been elected mayor, but his term would be up and he’d be running for re-election.
“My father and my mother, Natalie, would go biking three, sometimes four times a week with Lee Ranger and his wife, Addi. Lee was one of the newly elected councilmen. He’d retired to St. Emilion after successful careers in banking and business. On the day that ended in murder, Lee Ranger fell sick with the flu. So, another friend, a lady named Janice Carver, asked if she could go along. The other three said fine.”
I studied Sheffield again. There are some people who can suck the oxygen out of a room. They walk in and are immediately flamboyant. There are other people who impress you more and more the longer you talk to them. They’re not flashy or loud. They’re comfortable in their own skin, not pretentious in any way. My potential new client was one of those.
“Part of their scheduled bike route was along a section of Parkside Boulevard, an eight-mile, four-lane road going east and west from the beach to I-95. While they were on Parkside Boulevard, a vehicle going at least sixty miles per hour ran into all four of the riders. My father and my mother were killed, as was Addi Ranger. Mrs. Carver was seriously injured, but she survived. Due to the politics of the town, there were rumors and conspiracy theories galore. But neither the vehicle or the hit and run driver were ever found. They traveled the same route every time they rode because, at the end of the ride, they would always stop by a friend’s home and say hello.”
“That made it easier for the killer. He knew the route.”
“Yes. Sadly, that’s true.”
“And no one saw anything?”
He shook his head. “If anyone did, they didn’t come forward.”
“The fourth person on the bike trip…” I looked at my notes. “Janice Carver. You say she survived. Did she tell the police anything?”
“No. It took three operations and almost a year to get her back on her feet again. One of those operations was on her brain. She doesn’t remember anything about that night.”
“That’s too bad,” I said. “Well, never mind. Please continue.”
“I won’t go into all the details, not now, but I do have some documents you can read. Long story short, the newcomers did manage to hang on to a majority on the council. The reforms were not stopped. The two fifteen-story condos were not built. The new council hired an excellent and exceptional honest city manager. He, with the support of the new council, totally changed the city of St. Emilion. They turned it into an honest city. The tough zoning laws they passed made it a very pleasant city in which to reside.
“My father and his supporters didn’t just help one man or one group. They changed a town, Mr. Starke. St. Emilion is better today, in every way, than it would have been if the ‘Old Guard’ had stayed in power. I think the town owes it to posterity, and my father, to find out who killed three very good and wonderful people.
“Twelve years after the murders, I myself ran for city council. I won and was elected mayor. I held my father’s post for four years, a position I was very proud of. I don’t say this with pride, Mr. Starke, but I have achieved just about everything I ever wanted to in life, with one exception. Solving that horrible crime.”
I capped the black marker and put it down on the yellow pad, leaned back in my chair and nodded.
“I have to admit I’m intrigued, but I can’t promise to solve it for you. Thirty-five years… That’s tough. Witnesses die, memories fade, evidence is lost and… I don’t know.” I looked him in the eye. He didn’t flinch. I continued, “I don’t come cheap, Mr. Sheffield—”
“I understand, Mr. Starke,” he said, interrupting me. “But you’re my last hope. If you can’t find the killer, then no one can. Before I die, I would like to know who killed my father, my mother, and Addi Ranger all those years ago. It was the most cold-blooded crime I’ve ever heard of… I want to make it clear this is not a hunt for revenge. I’m a born-again Christian, and a deacon at the Our Savior Evangelical Church in St. Emilion.”
I should have guessed that, I thought, without sarcasm or disdain. I’m a secular man, but I have respect for sincere Christians. I’ve known several who were and are admirable people. Many years ago I read some of G.K. Chesterton, the brilliant Christian thinker. I also liked his Father Brown mystery stories. They are classics in the field. Father Brown, in addition to being a very good priest, was also a good detective.
I leaned back in my chair and stared at him.
“Really?” I asked.
“Really! I don’t want vengeance, Mr. Starke. I just want to know who killed my parents.”
We are different, Mr. Sheffield, I thought. If someone killed my parents, I’d hunt him down if the search took me around the world, then I’d put a bullet in his brain, spit on his grave, and have a party at the local tavern.
I continued to stare at him for a moment, thinking. Then I made up my mind and said, “Bearing in mind that I’m not a miracle worker, and that the chances of my solving it after all these years are… well, slim to none, I’m willing to take the case. I’ll give it two weeks, and I’ll do my best, but make no promises. Is that acceptable?”
“It is, and thank you, Mr. Starke.”
“Call me Harry. I’ll have Jacque draw up the contract and conditions. She’ll want you to sign them and provide her with a retainer.”
He smiled. “Perfect. And I have some documents you should read, basically about the political situation in St. Emilion at the time of the murders, along with names, addresses and that kind of thing. They’re in my car. I’ll get them for you and you can read them at your leisure.”
“Yes, thank you. I’m going to need all the help I can get. By the way, is there a good hotel in St. Emilion?”
“The Driftwood. It’s one of our few two-story hotels. It’s right on the beach. Excellent place. Fine rooms and an exceptionally good restaurant. I can put in a word for you, if you like, make sure you get a nice room… Mr. Starke, when my father died I took over his construction company. We built houses for new residents and were there when Florida went through its population boom. We were very successful. I retired a couple of years ago and sold the business. That being so, money is not a consideration. I’m sure you understand.”
“So, if you don’t mind, I’ll fetch the documents from my car and then retire to my hotel. It’s been a long day.”
“If you don’t mind, Peter. I have a friend I’d like you to meet. How about I meet you for dinner this evening? My treat.”
“That would be nice. I’ll look forward to it.”
“I’ll set something up and give you a call. Where are you staying?”
“The Marriott, and thank you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll fetch those documents.”
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