Heroes & Lovers
Sam Jenkins might say, “Falling in love is like catching a cold. It’s infectious and involuntary. Just don’t sneeze on any innocent people.”
Getting kidnapped and becoming infatuated with a married policeman never made TV reporter Rachel Williamson’s list of things to do before Christmas. But helping her friend, Sam Jenkins with a fraud investigation would get her an exclusive story.
Sam’s investigation put Rachel in the wrong place at the wrong time and her abduction by a mentally disturbed fan, ruined several days of her life.
When Jenkins learns Rachel has gone missing, he cancels holiday leaves, mobilizes the personnel at Prospect PD, and enlists his friends from the FBI to help find her.
During the early stages of the investigation, Sam develops several promising leads, but as they begin to fizzle, his prime suspect drops off the planet and all the resources of the FBI aren’t helping.
After a lucky break and a little old-fashioned pressure on an informant produce an important clue, the chief leads his team deep into the Smoky Mountains to rescue his friend. But after Rachel is once again safe at home, he finds their problems are far from over.
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Len Alcock, Bobby John Crockett, and Stan Rose pulled their marked police cars curbside, blocking the driveways after Junior and I drove up to the office door. The two soda drinkers were about to run when Alcock and Crockett put the arm on them.
Stanley rousted the mechanic, a guy who looked like he ate pit bulls for breakfast, before he could hide in the supply room off the work area.
Junior followed me into the office. I walked up to a scarred and dented gray metal desk. An open bag of pork rinds lay on top, next to a two-liter bottle of Mello Yello. A half-eaten corn dog hid in a wrinkled wrapper.
“Hi there,” I said. “I‘ll bet you‘re Elrod Swaggerty, aren‘t you?”
He was a thin, shady-looking character with short hair and side-burns ending below his earlobes. His dark blue mechanic‘s outfit hadn‘t seen soap in a long time. Elrod eyed me for a few seconds and then shifted his look to Junior and back again to me. If he didn‘t assume I was a cop, he was more mentally bereft than I anticipated.
“That‘s me.” His voice cracked a little as he tried a nervous smile.
“The Elrod Swaggerty?” I started to enjoy myself.
“Uh-huh, whot‘s up?”
I held up a copy of the arrest warrant for him to see. “I know you were hoping Officer Huskey and I came from Publisher‘s Clearing House and we were about to give you a check for a million bucks, but I‘m sorry to disappoint you.”
I heard Junior try to stifle a laugh, which came out like a combination snicker and snort from a clogged sinus passage. I should have remembered to smack him when we finished, but didn‘t. Someone in the garage turned off the radio, stopping the Nashville sound.
“Elrod, my friend, you‘re under arrest,” I said.
“Whot fer? I didn‘t do nuthin‘.”
“You just committed a double negative in public. If you didn‘t do nothing, you must have done something. May I take that as an admission of guilt?”
“Huh? Do whot?” He was almost gasping.
“Elrod, son, you have the right to remain silent. I suggest you avail yourself of that right before I feel compelled to flatten your head with a brick.”
“Hey now, don‘t go gettin‘ mean an‘ hateful on me, I really didn‘t do nothin’.”
“Pal, you haven‘t seen hateful yet,” I said. “We‘re only having a spirited conversation here. If you see me call in a helicopter or break out a field phone with little alligator clips attached to wires, you may infer I‘m going to get nasty.”
I heard Junior giggling behind me. I should tranquilize him the next time we go on an arrest.
“Let‘s go, guy, on your feet. Time to put the cuffs on,” I said.
“Cuffs? Are you crazy? I said, I ain‘t done nothin‘.”
When he stood, I gave him a push and moved him up against the wall behind his desk. Just to the left, hung a two-foot-tall calendar showing a girl in a bikini, holding a gallon can of anti-freeze, stand-ing next to a shiny black Mustang with the hood raised.
“Assume position one, Elrod. Hands on the wall and walk your feet back some.”
Elrod seemed familiar with the steps to that dance. I took hold of his belt and backed him up even more, and then I used my right foot to spread his legs wider.
“I‘m going to search you now,” I said. “Is there anything in your pockets or on your person that is a weapon or might cut me, stick me, or in any other way piss me off?”
“Do whot?” he croaked again.
“Now listen carefully, Mr. Swaggerty, these are not multiple choice questions, just a simple true or false. Do you have a weapon or something sharp on your body?”
“I got me a folder on my belt—that‘s it, it ain‘t concealed.”
I removed a cheap knock-off of a Buck lock-back knife from a beaten-up leather pouch on his belt and handed it to Junior. I finished patting him down, put cuffs on him, double locked them, and brought him back to the position of attention.
“Whot am I charged with? I got a right ta know!” he crooned.
“Larceny by inveiglement—four times and scheme to defraud.”
Obviously, vocabulary hadn‘t been one of Elrod‘s favorite subjects.
When Junior and I walked our prisoner out to the car, I saw John Leckmanski filming the festivities from a discrete distance, far off Elrod‘s property.
I looked toward the garage area and thought Stan and the boys also hit the jackpot. Elrod‘s three minions were in cuffs, too. Stan found the mechanic with a shirt pocket filled by a baggie brimming over with the evil weed. The guy drinking Dr. Pepper was wanted on a Blount County Traffic warrant for failure to pay fines, and the lad with the Mountain Dew was named on a bench warrant from the Rockford Justice Court for failure to appear. The two cops would transport the prisoners. Stan Rose would stay to secure the scene and inventory any cash found in the office. The time involved in messing with Elrod‘s mind and processing his arrest would take us well beyond the 3:30 deadline for arraign-ments. Swaggerty would spend the night as a guest of Prospect PD and be transported to the county justice center in the morning. I timed the arrest that way for two reasons. I thought of Elrod as a first-class scumbag who needed to remember you don‘t screw around in Prospect. And second: I wanted to give my favorite TV newsgirl time to catch him tomorrow after he made bail and see if she could get an interview during the morning light.
When Rachel and I spoke, I suggested she attend the arraignment. She and John could watch the judge set bail, but because the county deputies and court officers may be less enamored with good-looking female reporters than I am, they wouldn‘t let her get close to the defendant. I thought they should wait in the Justice Center parking lot until Elrod‘s release and follow him back to Prospect, when he‘d undoubtedly go to his shop and check on the status of the working capital he left behind. There he‘d find a copy of the search war-rant with an inventory of the confiscated or secured property.
I‘ve lived to regret that suggestion ever since.
An officer is murdered on the air base near Prospect, Tennessee. A sergeant is found standing over the body holding a bloody wrench, but OSI Agent Roxanne Wallace thinks the evidence against the defendant is too sketchy.
She enlists help from Prospect Police Chief Sam Jenkins and this odd couple jump through hoops to learn whether Master Sergeant Michael Fitzgerald really killed his captain.
Base workers are reluctant to cooperate with the special agent and her civilian police colleague, but while obtaining evidence to convict the killer, they uncover a criminal enterprise costing the Air National Guard a fortune.
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“Change your mind and want a second cup of coffee?” I asked.
“No, you have a visitor.”
“To whom will I be speaking?” She laughed at my attempt at grammatical correctness. “Special Agent Wallace from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.”
“What’s so special about him?”
“Darlin’, I’m gonna let y’all see fer yer own se’f.” Bettye’s delightful Smoky Mountain accent took on a decidedly more country sound.
“What does it say on my door?”
She chuckled. “Chief.”
“And I believe the name plate on your desk says sergeant. Is it proper for you to speak to your fearless leader like that in front of a total stranger?”
“And you have a pleasant day, too, sir.” She hung up.
I took a sip of black coffee and moments later looked up at a gorgeous African-American woman wearing a tan suit with a skirt all of three inches above her knees. She held a khaki raincoat draped over her left arm and a five-hundred-dollar leather bag hung from her right shoulder. My visitor stepped up to the edge of my desk and extended a hand.
“Hi, I’m Roxanne Wallace, resident OSI agent at McGhee-Tyson.” I stood and shook her hand.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Wallace. I’m Sam Jenkins.”
“I know.” Her smile lit up the room. “Call me Roxy.”
I nodded. “Please sit down.”
She did and so did I, after watching her skirt slide up another two inches. Nothing gets past a trained investigator.
“What can I do for you, Roxy?”
She tilted her head and fluttered a pair of the longest eyelashes I’d seen in years. Her almost full lips parted in a perfect smile.
“I want to ask a favor.”
Then she turned up the smile another 500 watts.
“I thought you might.”
“Word is you’re the best homicide investigator in this part of the world.”
I flashed my own dazzling but modest smile. “That’s a statement of fact. You spoke about a favor.”
“Yes it is, and so I did.”
She tilted her head again. This one could give Halle Berry a run for her money in a beauty pageant for girls over thirty.
“Have you heard about the captain who was murdered on the air base?”
“Sure. Beaten to death with a foot-long crescent wrench.”
Flutter, flutter. “I need your assistance.”
“I have no jurisdiction on your air base.”
“I know. I just thought I might enlist your help. You know, from one professional to another, you having so much experience and being so good at your job. That’s all.”
She smiled again, blinked a few times, and waited. I needed to get to the bottom line.
“Roxy, you are a beautiful woman and I love flattery as much as the next guy, but why are you asking me to help with an investigation on the air base when you must have a chain of command that can provide all the assistance you could possibly use?”
Her smile faded a little, but the eyelashes remained in motion. She tapped the long acrylic nails of her right hand on a lovely knee. The candy apple red paint job on her nails looked like something you’d see on a restored, chopped and channeled ’49 Mercury coupe.
“I really need some help,” she said. “I’ve been with OSI for ten years and never handled a murder before. My boss wants results and I hate to admit I’ve got nothing and don’t know where to look next. I just don’t want to look inept.”
“I thought the security police arrested someone at the scene.”
“They did, but he isn’t confessing, they don’t have much of a case on him, and I can’t find any evidence that definitively links him to the murder. Nothing fits.”
“Who processed the crime scene?”
“Are you a technician?”
“I learned in criminal investigation school. We often do our own work.”
“On a homicide?”
“Where’s your regular forensics team?” I asked.
“Seymour Johnson Air Base.”
“That’s in South Carolina.”
“Yes, and I’ve got another problem.”
“I don’t think the defendant killed him.”
“Why do you think I can find your killer?”
She crossed her left leg over the right and resurrected the smile. “Because you’re Sam Jenkins.”
I flipped my hands in the air. “I give up,” I said. “If I wasn’t an old married man, I’d say I’m in love. But I have a job here. How long do you think this’ll take before you call in your big guns?”
“Why don’t you come to McGhee-Tyson and look at the crime scene. I’m sure you’ll know after you look things over.”
“May I hear your version of the incident first?”
“Of course you can.”
I’ve spent a lifetime getting bamboozled by good-looking women, but this one was a crackerjack—a real pro at interpersonal manipulation.
“The SPs responded to an anonymous call about a dead body in a maintenance hangar,” she said. “They found Captain Norwood Brower dead and a crew chief present. The guy is Master Sergeant Michael Fitzgerald. But I don’t buy him as the killer.”
“Why did the SPs lock him up?”
“He was standing over the body.”
“Holding a bloody wrench.”
“Any info on the phone call?”
“Think that’s odd?”
“A little. It was early morning. There are usually some people out and about. Perhaps someone just didn’t want to get more involved.”
“Not great, but sounds possible. I’m not sure I can do more than you.”
“But you’ll help me?” She sounded like a little girl who lost her puppy.
“All I have to do is point you in the right direction for a good arrest and conviction?”
She did the head tilt thing again. “Uh-huh.”
“And if I work this magic for you, you’ll owe me a favor?”
The eyes went into motion. “You bet.” And she flashed a set of priceless pearly whites.
“Your car or mine?” I said.