Heroes and Lovers
A Sam Jenkins Mysteries
by Wayne Zurl
For an exciting exclusive story, TV reporter Rachel Williamson helps Chief Sam Jenkins with a classic fraud investigation. But the case puts Rachel in jeopardy and her abduction by a mentally disturbed man, changes her life forever.
After several frustrating days, Jenkins uncovers a significant clue and leads a team deep into the Smoky Mountains to rescue his friend. But after Rachel is once again safe at home, they find that her problems are far from over.
The last thing I wanted to do just before Christmas was tangle with a creep like Elrod Swaggerty. Unfortunately, a police officer has 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 to me. I decided to intervene so I wouldn’t find an injured hillbilly in the lobby of my police station.
Years of experience 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. The man stopped talking, and the young woman, who had yet to speak, looked at me with anticipation. I tried to look like Grumpy, the seventh dwarf. I thought my act started well, but the suspense was killing me. I wondered what our visitors thought.
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 two 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. Bettye, on the other hand seemed tense, and the atmosphere in our reception area was decidedly uncomfortable. Unless I smoothed out our overwrought customer, I assumed asking Bettye to wear a Christmas elf’s costume would be out of the question.
“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 was 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 armchairs 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.”
“Might 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, 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.”