A Can of Worms
A Sam Jenkins Mystery
by Wayne Zurl
Against his better judgment, Police Chief Sam Jenkins hires Dallas Finchum, nephew of local corrupt politicians.
Now, Finchum is accused of a rape that occurred when he attended college three years earlier.
The young man claims his innocence, but while investigating, Jenkins uncovers corruption in the local sheriff’s department, evidence that detectives mishandled the investigation and the loss of the entire case file. Sam meets one of the most distasteful characters of his career, a PI named Telford Bone, who claims to represent young Finchum. Trouble is, no one knows who hired the man.
False accusations, scandal and extortion threaten to ruin Jenkins’ reputation and marriage unless he drops the investigation.
I wore my navy blue suit with a pale yellow shirt, striped tie, black wing tips and a pair of black wool socks. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.
My apologies to Mr. Chandler for the obvious paraphrase. But since I’ve already committed what some might call blasphemy, I’ll continue to hover slightly above plagiarism and refer back to Philip Marlowe’s first thought from a page of hardboiled fiction and embellish my own story.
It was about one o’clock in the afternoon, mid-June, with the sun not shining and a look of hard, wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.
Only my foothills were those of the Great Smokies, not Marlowe’s Hollywood Hills.
I wasn’t a private detective. I was a police chief, and I only owned a new suit because my wife insisted I needed something more up-to-date than my closet full of thirty-year-old Harris Tweed sport jackets.
The similarity I shared with Philip Marlowe or Doghouse Reilly, the name Marlowe used when he introduced himself to Carmen Sternwood in that famous opening scene, was that I too intended to call on four-million-dollars.
In 1939 when Raymond Chandler published The Big Sleep, four-million bucks could set the world on its ear. Today, that’s only a little more than Warren Buffet’s lunch money. But power isn’t measured in cash alone. The man I planned to visit looked extremely well off. He was, by no means, the wealthiest man in Blount County, but he ranked among the most powerful.
Retired Judge Minas Tipton lived in a sixty-year-old brick home in a beautiful section of Maryville, Tennessee. Two days earlier, he invited me to have lunch with him.
Generally, when the judge and I got together, it happened because one or more of the local politicians were upset with my official shenanigans. That day was no different. I knew exactly what the topic would be.
I used the big brass doorknocker to announce my presence. In sixty seconds, the judge’s housekeeper, Loretta, opened the door.
“Good mornin’, sir.” She spoke with a soft East Tennessee accent and gave me a friendly smile. “Come on in an’ I’ll git the judge for ya.”
I stepped into the living room, a place Loretta called the parlor. The furnishings were all early Federal period antiques, class all the way. If I didn’t know who I had an appointment with, I might have thought I’d be visiting Rhett Butler.
Loretta stepped into the hall and looked into a private office across from the parlor. “Judge, Chief Jenkins is here.”
I heard him stand and send a swivel chair sliding away from his desk. A moment later, I saw him.
He greeted me with a big and genuine smile. “Sam, good mornin’. It’s good ta see ya again. Very good indeed.”
I shook hands with the dapper old man. He was pushing ninety, but could have passed for fifteen years younger.
“Good to see you, Judge. Here, I brought you something I think you’ll like.” I handed him a bottle of white wine.
I’d been on a Viognier kick ever since a friend who knew his liquor suggested it. I thought my twenty-dollar bottle of Napa Valley wine was just the cat’s ass, and since the judge was never at a loss for a supply of tasty hooch to go with lunch, I knew he’d appreciate the gesture.
“Damn it, Sam, ya didn’t have to do that, but I’m glad ya did. I’ve had this before and just love it. Love it indeed. Now why don’t we sit down, and I’ll have Loretta fix us a couple o’ drinks.”
We sat in his elegant living room. Loretta brought us drinks, his bourbon, mine scotch.
The judge held up his glass and toasted me. “Well, here’s to ya, Sam—all the best.”
“Cheers,” I said.
We both took a sip.
“I saw that scotch yer drinkin’ and was just taken with the label,” the old man said. “I thought of ya and bought a bottle. How do ya like it?”
I swished the scotch over two ice cubes in a short glass. Loretta remembered how I liked my whisky. I took another quick sip.
“Excellent,” I said. “Famous Grouse is a great blended whisky. I like it as much as that moonshine the Chivas brothers have been peddling for centuries.”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha. You’ve got a way with words, Sam. Ya surely do.”
The judge always provided his own laugh track during a conversation. When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure if he was putting me on or it was genuine. I’m still not certain, but it’s his way, and it’s always there.
“You made a good choice, Judge. Thanks for thinking of me.”
“My pleasure, Sam. My pleasure indeed.”
The old cutthroat smiled and sipped his bourbon. That day it came from Buffalo Trace.
“Sam, I’ve been told you’re kickin’ up some dust in the barnyard again. I don’t suppose ya give a hoot, but you’ve ruffled some important feathers.”
Since childhood, I’ve worked on perfecting a look that silently said, “Gee whiz, I’m really not that bad, am I? Don’t you think I’m just so damn cute?” I tried it on the judge before answering.
“I’m sure you remember I have these silly ideas about doing the right thing,” I said.
The judge closed his eyes and nodded. He knew what he’d be up against.
“I know the boy we’re going to talk about is personable, and he’s a serious, hardworking, conscientious individual.” I shrugged and took a pull on my scotch. “At first I didn’t want to hire him because he’d been thrust upon me by a group of political hacks who didn’t care if I had good personnel in my police department or just a bunch of well-hung ya-hoos who needed jobs. You know that.”
Tipton opened his eyes, continued nodding and listened as I spoke.
“But I ended up liking him. I was even prepared to tell people I’d been wrong. But all that aside, now I have the reputation of my department to consider, and he owes someone a serious debt.”
I thought my look would be as effective on Minas Tipton as it always had been on my mother, she being as tough as any criminal court judge with thirty years experience. I figured he might roll over and let me off the hook. I thought wrong.
“Sam, I sympathize with ya. I truly do. I didn’t want ta touch this with a ten-foot pole, but a good friend asked me ta speak with ya. Why do ya suppose they’d ask me, Sam?”
I shook my head and shrugged again. “Because you and I have gotten to be good buddies?” I hoped that didn’t sound overly sarcastic.
He sat forward and nodded. “Exactly, Sam. They know damn well ya don’t respond to threats, especially when ya hold more ammunition than they do.”
I dipped my head an inch and waited.
“I want ya ta understand, Sam, I’m not takin’ their side here—not takin’ their side at all. Why don’t ya tell me the whole story—what’s happened so far. You know I’ll believe ya. You’re an honest man. And Lord knows, believin’ some of those politicos I hang with is a fool’s errand.”
I settled back in the overstuffed chair, took a sip of Famous Grouse and considered the old judge. He had aged well. He stood about five-nine and still kept himself in the middleweight division. I’ve never seen him without a jacket and some sort of tie. Today he wore a light blue blazer, white shirt and yellow and navy bow tie. I took another sip of whisky and began my saga.
“So far everything leads me to believe the kid is guilty of forcible rape.”
Tipton’s eyes widened at my blunt statement.
“The girl’s mother sounded outraged when she learned I hired Dallas Finchum as a policeman. At first, the victim didn’t want to get involved. But after a little gentle persuasion, the girl told a credible and compelling story. This seems to be a date rape gone terribly wrong. The victim’s ex-roommate corroborates her story.”
Other than raising his white eyebrows the first time I used the word rape, the judge sat patiently.
“The way I’m looking at it now,” I said, “aside from Dallas losing his job at Prospect PD, there are a few people in a shitload of trouble for covering up the crime. That goes from the sheriff’s polygraph examiner here in Blount County to the people at the Hamilton County DA’s office for misplacing the case file. It’s a long story, Judge. How about I freshen up your bourbon and add some more Grouse to my glass?”
“A fine idea, Sam. A fine idea, indeed. Now believe me, son, I’m inclined ta side with ya on this. The reputation of your police department is very important. If this boy, nice young man or not, is guilty of such a crime, he must answer for it in some way.”
I felt a little trickle of relief when I heard the judge say that. I wanted to believe he meant it when I handed him the refill.
“You may know,” I said, “that when I received approval to hire an additional officer, I planned on advertising the position, doing some objective screening of candidates and after that choosing the best person for the job.”
He nodded, sipped his bourbon and waited. The judge was one of the best listeners I knew.
“I ended up having the mayor tell me that with approval of the newly created position, Dallas Finchum had been earmarked as the person to fill it. As you can imagine, I was not a happy police chief.”
He used his right hand to smooth down a perfectly groomed head of white hair. Then he looked over the rim of his glass, lowered his eyes a little and focused on me. “Ha, ha, ha, ha. I expect not,” he said. “No, sir, I surely expect not. That maneuver got ya New York temper up in the air, didn’t it?”
I smiled, nodded and continued to tell him the whole story. Some of what I’m sure he already knew, but restating facts never bothered me, and he seemed content to hear me out.
* * * *
At his pre-employment interview, I had all intentions of meeting Dallas Finchum and disliking him. His uncle, Albert “Buck” Webbster, was the former Prospect police chief—my predecessor. Some people still don’t know the true story of Buck Webbster and thought he just retired to Florida. Anyone who watched the news one day in early 2006 may have seen the story of a police official caught by agents of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation selling confiscated handguns in the parking lot of a Knoxville gun show. But Buck, who had political connections up the wazoo, was allowed to retire, avoid jail time and lie about the end of his career to anyone who’d listen.
Enter Sam Jenkins, ex-detective lieutenant from a great metropolitan police department—one on Long Island, to be precise—who had been lolling away his retirement in the sleepy little community of Walland, Tennessee.
A couple of years after Webbster’s exit from Prospect PD, I was the guy about to be handed a ration of grief from the local politicians for calling PO Dallas Finchum onto the carpet about his past conduct, and if I had my way, giving him the sack.
As I told Minas Tipton, when I met Dallas I liked him. I liked him a lot. The kid looked like the perfect police applicant—well groomed, in good shape, intelligent and respectful, almost to a fault. Dallas said all the right stuff.
Being the softhearted schlep that I occasionally am, I decided to forget my preconceptions and overlook the possibility that Dallas might have the same dishonest streak present in his Uncle Buck. I’d even overlook my injured self-esteem and swallow an employee I didn’t personally choose. That last one would be a big concession on my part.
So, in February of 2007, I hired young Finchum. Mayor Ronnie Shields swore him in. The mayor’s secretary, Trudy Connor, notarized his signature on the oath of office, and I handed him one of our large oval silver and gold badges.
For the months that he worked as a rookie cop, before a police academy class had been scheduled to kick off, I assigned him to work alongside the best cops Prospect had to offer.
Sergeant Bettye Lambert showed him our police station and taught him the daily duties of a desk officer. Sergeant Stan Rose, my night patrol supervisor, started his education toward being a street cop. I kept my eye on him and was pleasantly surprised.
Patrolmen like Bobby John Crockett, Junior Huskey, Will Sparks and others each gave him a week of their time and experience. Even old Vernon Hobbs, Prospect’s ‘blue knight’, allowed him to ride along and learn by example. Everyone said the kid did just fine.
Then I received a phone call destined to turn Dallas’s world upside down and, to a large extent, mine, too.