Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the police mystery, Heroes & Lovers, by Wayne Zurl. Enjoy!
The last thing I wanted to do just before Christmas was tangle with a creep like Elrod Swaggerty. Unfortunately, a policeman gets little choice of what or who gets dumped onto his lap. Our motto is, “To protect and serve.” Humbug.
At quarter-to-eleven on Monday morning, December 18th, I heard an angry voice in the reception area.
“Now looka here, missy. I wanna see the head man and I want him now. And y’all need ta lock up that no-account, thievin’ sum-bich! Ya hear me?”
Calling Sergeant Bettye Lambert missy sounded like a bad idea. I decided to intervene so I wouldn’t find an injured hillbilly in the lobby of my police station.
Years of experience has taught me the best thing to do in a situation like that would be walk in on the conversation and do nothing until the tide changed.
I stopped ten feet from Bettye’s desk. The complainant, a local specimen, who looked to be somewhere between forty-five and his mid-fifties, wasn’t alone. A woman around thirty stood in the shadow of the older man. She held a four- or five-year-old girl by the hand. None of the three looked like they bought their clothes in Parisian’s, but they seemed clean and healthy, and were probably in need of legal assistance.
I folded my arms across my chest and began my stoic Chief Pontiac impersonation, trying to look just this side of downright mean.
“Sir, we have every intention of takin’ your complaint and helpin’ you the best we can.” Bettye can usually sooth the nastiest characters with only a few words.
The man stood in front of her desk scowling, hands on hips. His salt-and-pepper hair looked like someone trimmed it with a hedge clipper.
I think Bettye sensed my presence. She turned and looked at me, but said nothing and let me do my thing. I thought my act started well. The man stopped talking and the young woman, who had yet to speak, stared at me with anticipation. I tried to look like Grumpy, the seventh dwarf. The suspense was killing me. I wondered what the others thought.
So, I decided to break the silence. “Good morning. I’m Chief Jenkins and I’d be happy to listen to your complaint—if we can do it like civilized gentlemen.” I nearly growled and he blinked first. “Sergeant, would you do the honors?”
Bettye gave a sigh. “Chief, this is Mr. Bunker and his daughter, Lorene. They’ve had a problem with a local auto repair shop. Mr. Bunker thinks it may be a criminal matter.”
Outside our doors, in the lobby of the Prospect municipal building, the colored lights on a tall Christmas tree twinkled in no particular order. The recessed ceiling lamps had been dimmed a little and the marble halls looked cozy.
“Okay, I’d like to hear about it.” I nodded at the two adults. “Mr. Bunker, Miss Lorene, I’ll try to help if I can. Let’s go into my office and sit down. But first, Lorene, will you introduce me to the young lady here?”
Lorene looked too thin. She wore tight jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. Her mousy brown hair hung straight and below her shoulders. She smiled, looked toward who I thought was her daughter, and spoke in a sing-song, Smoky Mountain accent. “This is Tonya. Tonya, say hello to the po-leece-man.”
Tonya lowered her eyes and remained quiet. I got down on one knee, tilted my head, tried to look friendly—something not always easy for me, and extended my hand.
She looked tiny with long dark hair surrounding a doll-like face. Her red dress, white socks, and Little Lulu shoes seemed like clothing from another age.
“Hello, Miss Tonya. My name is Sam. I think your momma and papaw might have a problem. Would you like me to fix it?”
Little Tonya invoked her right to remain silent. I shrugged and smiled, thinking big girls responded favorably to a smile, why not a little kid. She hugged her mother’s thigh, but finally said, “Yes, sir.”
“Okay, I can do that. But first we need to be friends. Can we shake hands?”
She maintained a death grip on her mom’s leg, but extended her right hand toward mine. I took the little paw between my thumb and forefinger and gave a gentle shake.
“Good. Now we’re buddies,” I said.
Tonya gave me ten percent of a full-size smile. A little progress seemed better than none.
Mr. Bunker and Lorene sat in the two arm chairs in front of my desk. I carried a side chair around front and placed it close to Lorene so Tonya could sit with her mom.
“Now, Mr. Bunker,” I said, “I know you’ve already told the sergeant your story, but can I hear it again?”
Bunker clicked his teeth several times before giving me a concise story. “Lorene had took her Taurus to Smoky Mountain Transmissions fer a check-up. The car’d been actin’ funny and I guessed the bands were a-slippin’. She dropped the car off on Monday, got it back on Wednesday afternoon.”
He paused to shake his head in apparent disgust.
“Had ta give seven-hunnert-fifty dollar. Man said he had ta re-build the transmission.” He stopped again and looked at me.
“Uh-huh,” I said. “I’m guessing there’s something else?”
“Yes, sir, there is. My son, Leroy, he looked at the car. Leroy had took him some classes on auto re-pair in hi-skoo. Leroy says ain’t nobody never even touched that transmission a’tall.”
“Does the car drive better now, Lorene?” I asked.
“Yes, sir, it does.”
Tonya looked at me with big brown eyes while she twisted strands of hair around her fingers. I winked. She smiled.
“Mr. Bunker, what’s your first name?” I asked.
Bunker pulled his head back a few inches, looked at me for a long moment. “Alvin.”
“May I call you Alvin, sir?”
Bunker scowled again looking a little distrustful.
“Shore, I don’ care if ya do.”
“Okay, Alvin, let me tell you what I think. I think seven hundred and fifty dollars is a lot of money. Maybe that’s how much it costs to rebuild a transmission. I don’t know.”
Alvin’s scowl deepened the crevices between his eyebrows.
“If this repairman never worked on the car, like your son thinks, but only topped off the fluid and charged Lorene for an expensive job, that would be a crime.”
Alvin’s face brightened a little.
“If it’s okay with you and Lorene, I’d like our mechanic to take a look at the car. He knows a lot more about transmissions than I ever will. You have the car here now?”
“Yes, sir, we do,” he said.
“Okay. You parked out back?”
“Our garage is in back of the parking lot. Let’s get your car on a lift and have the mechanic take a look.”
We walked half way to the garage in silence before Alvin Bunker spoke. “They’s a bunch o’ Jenkinses here in Blount County, but you shore don’t sound like you’re from Tennessee.”
“I’m from New York.”
“Our church took us on a bus trip to New York City once,” Lorene said.
“Big place, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Lord have mercy, yes,” she said. “And Biz-zy!”
“You with the po-leece up there?” Alvin asked.
“For twenty years. I worked on Long Island, retired, and moved down here.”
“Lord have mercy. Y’all musta seen a lot.”
I stood under Lorene’s ’92 Ford looking up at about sixty square feet of dirty metal undercarriage.
“A repairman charged the girl seven-hundred-and-fifty dollars to rebuild this transmission,” I said. “You see any evidence that the car’s been worked on?”
Earl Biggins, the Prospect city mechanic, looked up at the car. He turned a bright drop-light this way and that. He turned around in a circle and tilted his head to the right and to the left. He hadn’t responded to my question.
I wanted to grab him by the neck, shake him, and say, “Yes or no, Earl?” But I waited. And then waited some more.
A Dodge dealer’s commercial ended and the country radio station began playing The Devil Came Down to Georgia.
“Sam,” Earl said, “this here car’s what, fourteen, fifteen year old?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“Looky here. You drop a tranny, they’s a lota handlin’.”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Ain’t no way you don’t git dirty. Ain’t no way you don’t mess up all the road dirt that’s done built up over the years. My opinion, Sam, ain’t no one never messed with this tranny. No sir. Leastwise not from down here.”
“Is there any other way to do a rebuild?”
Charlie Daniels was still singing as I next spoke.
“She says the car runs better now than before she took it in. What do you figure?” I asked.
“My guess is she was way low on fluid. Shoot, a woman probably don’t never check. Man takes a look, tops it off, sees it takes a sizeable lot and test drives it. Car feels okay—end of story. Cost ya what, ten, twelve dollar in transmission fluid—retail?”
“So we’ve got a scam?” I asked.
“That’s what I said, Sam.”
“I want to leave the car here and get someone to take photos of the undercarriage and transmission,” I said. “Then I’m going to see how many times we can catch this bugger cheating other customers. If you need to use the lift, take the car down. But I can have a county crime scene guy here in half an hour or so. Work for you?”
“Shore does, I ain’t goin’ nowheres.”
“Thanks, buddy. I’ll get back to you.”
I walked back into Earl’s office and gave Alvin and Lorene the bad news. She’d been screwed out of seven-hundred-and-fifty bucks.
“You gonna arrest that hairy-faced bastard, Chief?” Alvin asked.
“Not today, Alvin, but soon. Let’s walk back to the PD and I’ll tell you what I’d like to do. But I need to keep your car here for an hour or so and have a police photographer take pictures of the transmission. You probably don’t want to wait around, so can I get you a ride home after we’re finished speaking. If you need a ride back, I can do that, too.”
“I’d ‘preciate the ride home, but no, sir. I kin drive Lorene back here in m’ truck.”
I explained to Alvin and Lorene how I wanted to set up the owner of Smoky Mountain Transmissions with a few more opportunities of scamming customers out of their money.
Alvin wanted to take the more direct approach of arresting him immediately for cheating Lorene and then circumvent the sometimes inefficient legal system by dragging him behind a police car. While Alvin’s method of corporal punishment sounded innovative, he deferred to my expertise with the criminal justice system to handle the situation with a more liberal approach.
Bettye arranged to have a car take Alvin, Lorene, and little Tonya home and promised to call them as soon as the police photographer finished with the Ford.
Thirty minutes later, my favorite county crime scene guy, Jackie Shuman, knocked on the office door.
“Howdy, Chief, y’all got a job fer me?”
“Have I got a job for you? Yes, an easy one. You won’t even get dirty.”
We walked across the parking lot to where Lorene Bunker’s Taurus sat up high on the lift. Earl pointed to various spots on the transmission where accumulated dirt and gunk would be disturbed if actual work had been done.
Jackie and his trusty Nikon snapped away at the lack of anything to see. I felt like Sherlock Holmes explaining the curious case of the dog barking in the night. The curious thing being the dog didn’t bark at all.
After a dozen photos, we returned to my office.
On the way, Jackie said, “Kinda weird, ain’t it? You wantin’ shots of somethin’ that ain’t there.”
“Welcome to the world of schemes to defraud. I should be calling on you for more before-and-after shots on other vehicles. That work for you?”
“It does. You do git inta some strange stuff, don’t ya?”
“I try to make life interesting.”
“This the kinda thing you did when you was a cop up in New York?”
“All the time.”
We walked a few more yards.
“Well,” he said, sounding like he wanted to make friendly conversation, “we got us another Smoky Mountain Christmas coming up.”
“We do. And don’t eat too much. Don’t want your snazzy uniform getting tight.”
“Don’t I know it? Ever since Thanksgivin’, I’ve been eatin’ like a hawg. Tween cookies from my momma and mamaw, and the dinners my wife’s been makin’, I’m gonna weigh a ton by New Years.”
“Wait till you get older. Sometimes I just have to think food to gain weight.”
He smiled and shook his head. “Well, I’ll be back, but if’n y’all don’t need me, I’ll hit the road an’ see if my real boss wants me. See ya, Sam.”
“Take it easy, kid, and thanks.”
“Bettye, my love,” I said, “how about using your gorgeous fingers on that magic computer and find me a name for the owner of Smoky Mountain Transmissions?”
She looked at me over the tops of narrow reading glasses. Her hazel eyes caught the overhead light and sparkled.
“Sure. I’m trying to woo you into doing a couple of favors so I don’t have to use the computer myself. Pretty suave, huh?”
“Suave? Is that what you call it?”
“Well, what it actually is shouldn’t be said in polite society. When you know who the owner is, run him through this and that and see what else we know about him?”
“I will. Now take yourself back into your own office while I work on this. And Sam, the word you were lookin’ for is bullshit, pardon my French.”
“If I had any feelings, they’d be hurt.”
“Darlin’, it takes more than that to hurt your feelin’s.”
“Why do I always get tied up with smart women?”
She wiggled her fingers to shoo me away.
While Bettye looked for a pedigree on our dishonest mechanic, I needed a plan to catch him in a sting. Nothing earth-shaking or terribly innovative, just recruit a couple of people who he wouldn’t recognize as local cops—people who owned cars not in need of serious transmission repair. I’d get Earl to dummy up a problem, and see if our con man charged for major repairs he never performed.
I pondered over who to charm into being my first operative. I needed someone who looked like they weren’t very savvy about cars. I made a quick phone call.
“Hello,” she answered.
“Hi, sweetie. How’d you like to do me a favor and be part of an exciting police operation?”
“Sammy, I’ve lived with you for almost forty years—I’ve done lots of exciting things.”
“See how lucky you are? I’m going to let you in on the ground floor of the greatest operation ever seen at Prospect PD. Something they can make a TV movie about. I’m thinking about writing the screenplay myself. When a studio buys the idea, I’ll ask Cheryl Ladd to play you. Or would you rather use Lynda Carter? You in or what?”
“Perhaps, love, you should tell me what you want me to do. And am I going to get paid for this?”
“How can you put a price on a genuine po-leece adventure?” I explained the plan to my wife. “Easy, huh?”
“I could be like Charlie’s fourth angel.”
“You’re my only angel, baby. You have anything planned tomorrow morning?”
“I’m all yours, dahling.”
“Good. Plan on being here at 9:30. We’ll have sex in the evidence closet like two real detectives and then you can hit the road.”
“What? You don’t want to hit the road?”
“I’ll see you tonight.” She sighed.
“See ya later, alligator.”
“God, some of the things you say make you sound so old.” She hung up on me.
A minute later, Bettye walked in and sat down. She no longer knocked, but just took liberties. I needed to tighten up the women in my life.
“The owner of the transmission shop is Elrod Swaggerty,” she said.
“Could I make that up? Elrod has not led the life of a good citizen. He’s got three arrests for auto theft, two for possession of stolen property, two possessions of marijuana, and one possession of a weapon.”
“And a partridge in a pear tree,” I added. “How many convictions?”
“Nine arrests, five convictions, and another arrest in North Carolina for reckless driving, but there’s no disposition listed for that.”
“Good work. We’ve got a skell in beautiful downtown Prospect. Some day they’ll write a book about you and me—the dashing police chief and his beautiful blonde sidekick.”
“Oh stop it! Does your wife know you say things like that?”
“She knows I’m hopelessly in love with you, but since you’re already married, I behave myself.”
She shook her head and stood up.
“Kate has the patience of a saint.”
“I’ll check the Police Chief’s Manual, but that sounded almost insubordinate.”
“I’ve learned one thing in the last six months, Sam Jenkins.”
“You are impossible.”
“Thanks, reputation is everything.”
“What do you plan on doing’ with Elrod?” she asked.
“Catch him in a sting.”
“Pretty sophisticated for li’l ol’ Prospect.”
“Should be a piece of cake.”
“Why is it when you say, ‘Piece o’ cake,’ like that, I think about loadin’ up the