Bullets Off-Broadway

May 6, 2013

Bullets Off-Broadway coverProspect, Tennessee City Councilman Danny Swope had two bad habits. He drank too much and he beat his wife.

Throw in an overbearing personality and Police Chief Sam Jenkins isn’t surprised when Danny is found shot to death with an 1873 single action revolver.

Jenkins’ investigation takes him into the world of cowboy action shooters. Two colorful characters who call themselves Clint Southwood and Dakota Lil offer clues that lead Sam to the killer and his own deadly fast draw contest.

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Read An Excerpt

She had a black and blue mouse under her left eye and the beginnings of a cauliflower ear—not things you expect to see on a fifty-year-old woman with plenty of money.

She sat on the exam table, a doctor to her left and a nurse on her right. Sergeant Stan Rose stood next to me, ten feet from that small corner of the emergency room.

“I doubt you have a concussion,” the doctor said, “but it would be best if you stayed the night.”

The patient shook her head gingerly.

“Okay, but you should see your family doctor tomorrow.”

The woman said nothing. The doctor understood.

“Or if you have problems, come back and see us,” he offered. “Sign the papers for Teresa and you’re free to go.” He smiled and walked away.

The nurse began her explanation as if it had been recorded. I thought of the dolls my sister had years ago—pull the ring on their neck and listen to a recorded message. Maybe graduates had rings installed as they left nursing school.

Ella Mae Swope slowly slid off the exam table, grimaced at a stabbing pain in her side, and took a moment to steady herself. She turned around and signed three hospital forms while resting the clipboard on the table’s surface. The nurse swept the privacy curtain back against the wall. Ella Mae started her walk to the lobby.

“Ella, we need to talk,” I said.

“I’m really not in the mood, Chief.”

“I won’t keep you long, and I have to insist.”

She nodded.

I looked at my watch—quarter-to-midnight. I looked at Stanley. “Go ahead and close up shop. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He nodded and left.

“The waiting room is crowded,” I said, “Let’s walk down the hall to the coffee shop.”

Mrs. Swope followed me, declined my offer to buy her coffee, and chose a table away from the half-dozen other patrons scattered around the room.

I assumed Ella had once been an attractive woman. Actually, she still was, until you saw the pain and hopelessness behind her outward appearance. Too many years of getting tuned up, and the stress of living with a violent man had hardened a once pretty face. The extra few pounds she wore probably came from no longer caring or from a few too many alcoholic calories each day. Her medium-length brown hair needed a combing as we sat at a small, round table in the hospital coffee shop.

“Are you going to sign the assault complaint this time?” I asked.

“What’s the use? Nothing will happen to him, nothing will change. You won’t do a damn thing yourself.”

“Ella, I could jump up and down on this table telling you that’s not true, and you wouldn’t believe me. I’ll just say this once, I will do something, but you have to sign the complaint and follow through by going to court.”

“What’s the use?”

“What’s the sense of being used as a punching bag every time Danny has a bad day?”

“He’s not a bad guy. It’s only when he has trouble at the yard or when he’s been drinking.”

“How many times has he smacked the crap out of you? How many black eyes, bruised ribs, or other physical damage do you have to suffer before it sinks in that getting beaten is not part of a good marriage?”

“I know you’re right, it’s just . . .”

“Stop.” I held up a hand to squelch her rationalization. “Your excuses may work on you, but not on me. Bottom line, Ella, come into the PD tomorrow and we’ll do the paperwork, or not—your choice.”

“All right, I’ll sign. But are you really going to lock up a member of the city council?”

“I haven’t had to before, but sure, why not? Danny needs some quality time with a good shrink. If a court order is the only way to get him there, so be it.”

“You’re a city employee, Sam; they’ll make your life miserable.”

“I’m the cop; it’s my job to make people miserable. Politicians are pussycats. Besides, that’s my problem

“Now for tonight,’ I said, “where can I take you, mother, daughter, or sister’s?”

“My sister’s, please.”

* * *

The chief assistant district attorney told me I was nuts. I often annoy her. Moira Menzies lectured me on the trouble I might encounter in prosecuting a local politician for domestic violence. An accurate assessment, of course, only I didn’t much care.

Later that morning I picked up my assault warrant at the Blount County Justice Center. I received a few more bits of similar advice from the judge, designed to make my professional life easier, but ever since I was a kid I had this thing about seeing justice done. It’s just what cowboys do.

Ella Mae’s husband, Danny, owned Swope Lumber and Supply in Prospect, Tennessee, a pretty little town in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

In no way a self-made man, Danny inherited the business from his father, who in turn inherited it from his father, who founded the business in 1930-something.

For the several years I’ve known Danny Swope, I recognized him as a spoiled fifty-three-year-old child who drove a big Cadillac Escalade and constantly spoke of his hunting adventures. Danny had never bothered me personally, but I still didn’t like his act.

“You believe that whoaman, Sam?” Danny asked. “You believe I hit her? I thought you knew your job. I’m disappointed in you, Sam. She had too much ta drink and tripped on the cellar stairs, is all.”

Danny thought his clever ploy of making me doubt myself would work.

“I know the difference between bruises from a fall and the marks of a good beating, Dan, and I don’t much give a rat’s ass what your opinion of me is.”

“You callin’ me a liar?

I guess he wanted to play chicken.

“If you persist in telling me you haven’t beaten your wife, then you’re a lying sack of shit. Clear enough?”

“Well, I’ll tell you this, Mister Sam, Po-leece Chief, Jenkins, you ain’t lockin’ me up, nosir.”

“Danny, keep your mouth shut and listen carefully. I came in here as a courtesy to you in deference to your position in the community. I could have sent two cops and had them drag your ass out in cuffs. But no, I told you to get with your lawyer and come into my office this afternoon or tomorrow morning and surrender yourself. I’ll make you that offer once more, but if you piss me off again, I’ll cuff you myself and arrest you right now—in front of all your employees. Understand?” I stood up and glared at him.

He came around from behind his desk. I didn’t like how fast he moved and I poised to hit him. But he stopped, about three feet from me, and he began to percolate.

Danny was not a tall man, only about five-foot-seven or eight, but he was built like a fire-plug. He had broad shoulders and thick arms. His wide, ruddy face had turned even redder with anger.

“Careful, Danny, looks like your blood pressure is on the rise.”

“Careful yerse’f, Jenkins. Last time I looked I’s one o’ your bosses. Push me an’ I’ll make life miserable fer ya.”

I laughed, not because I found what he said humorous, but because I thought it would anger him more. If he had a stroke right there in his office, my troubles might have been over.

“I’m my own boss, Danny, but I might admit to working in the best interest of the people.”

He snorted and put his hands defiantly on his hips.

“Last time I looked. I’m the cop and I can take away your freedom. You own a lumber yard. The best you can do is sell me a two-by-four. Don’t act tough with me.”

I think that one got to him. He stood there seething, his jaw muscles working overtime.

“Alright, y’all will hear from my lawyer.”

“Thank you, sir. Nice doing business with you.”

That was how my Monday ended.

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