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Betrayal in Blue

By C. R. Downing All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Mystery

Untitled chapter

Chapter 23

The sun had just begun its push to crest the mountaintops to the east of Manzanita. The sky was clear with a slight tint of red. It had the makings of a hot end-of-summer day. Enciso Martinez was unaware of any of the beauty or grandeur of the early morning. At least he wasn’t until the first ring of his telephone punched the sleep out of his body.

How do I answer this? flashed through his mind. Weeks of undercover work left him uncertain of his persona at any given day and time.

Another ring pushed sleep further from his mind.

Wait! I’m not Cue Ball anymore. No more undercover for this Mexican! He relaxed.

It took still another ring to coax him to yank the handset off the base of the phone that housed the offending ringer.

“Yeah,” he said in a voice that sounded like sandpaper burnishing his vocal cords. He rubbed his eyes and tried to focus on the digital readout of his clock radio. As the seconds passed, the numbers lost their feathery outline and could be seen with painful clarity. It was 5:07 a.m.

“This better be good,” he growled into the phone. “Do you know what time it is? Whoever you are.”

“Martinez, this is Phil Mamba. I know it’s early, but my flight leaves at seven forty-five, so I’ve got to get moving.”

“It’s not early; it’s demasiado temprano, too early. I’m not your travel agent or your chauffeur,” the Latino grumbled. “If telling me your travel arrangements is the only reason for this call, I can think of many, many ways to repay you.”

Crud! I’ve awakened the giant. Oh, well. Can’t stop now.

“I have a favor to ask before I leave.”

“What kind of favor?”

“Well, I’m hitting the road to try and find Stallings. The Department doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry, so I’m going to see what I can uncover.”

“So far, I hear no reason for you to wake me up or for me to help you. Stallings is the leak.” The voice was hard and even.

“I don’t think that’s the case,” Mamba paused. When Martinez didn’t respond, he added, “I need you to read to Flatly.”

“What?”

“I promised Flatly I would read to him as long as he was in the hospital. I can’t record while I’m out of town.”

Espérate! Wait!” Martinez interrupted. “That’s it?”

“Umm, yeah.”

“I’ll do the reading. Just hang up and let me sleep, amigo,” the Latino growled.

“Thanks. I owe you.” The line went dead as Mamba ended the call as requested.

Contrary to what he’d implied, the undercover man lay in his bed staring at the ceiling for quite a while. So Mamba is going to look for Stallings. I hope he’s successful. Stallings needs to be found. That should plug our leak.

However, his wish for Mamba’s success was not completely sincere. If Stallings was the leak, he had hoped to be the one that found him. He tossed and turned physically while his mind tossed and turned scenarios.

When he finally rolled out of bed that morning, he knew that there were two extraordinary things that he had to do. First was to stop by the hospital and see what literary masterpiece the ex-boxer had chosen for his next book on tape. The second was to buy a tape recorder.

* * *

Mamba’s flight from LAX to ORD, in FAA shorthand, was routine. They’d hit some turbulence over Iowa. The pilot used the rough air as the vehicle to deliver a joke about flat land and corn. But, he experienced nothing worthy of sustained periods of white knuckles on the armrest, which was always his goal when flying.

The landing in Chicago was smooth; the taxi time to the gate long; the wait to disembark longer; the line at the car rental booth longer still. By the time Mamba pulled out of the parking structure in his rental car, he was tired of traveling. He was glad he’d booked a hotel room close to the airport.

He woke up refreshed and ready to get going. After partaking of the complimentary continental breakfast provided by the hotel, he climbed behind the wheel and headed for Indiana at 9:17 a.m.

The wind off Lake Michigan was as bad as Mamba had heard it was. He eased the rental car into the traffic on Lake Shore Drive. For nearly twenty minutes, he was forced to make sporadic corrections in his steering to keep the vehicle in his lane. He wondered how long does it take the natives to get used to these gusting winds.

Without warning, a car on the lake side of his car swerved into his path. Maybe, he thought, the natives didn’t do any better in the wind than this west coast freeway jockey. He consulted the map that came with the car and gave a sheepish shrug of apology in return to another driver’s honking as he drifted into the wrong lane himself.

In the end, he found his way to the interstate without mishap, but he missed his Indiana exit. He looped off the freeway and backtracked almost five miles to Gilman where he turned east on US-24.

He reached his goal soon after crossing over into Indiana. The non-bustling city of Illiana was his first stop. This was where Franklin Stallings began his career in law enforcement as a member of the Illiana Police Department.

While he waited for the town stoplight to change, Mamba couldn’t help but think of the mythical town of Mayberry. He sort of expected to see a sheriff and his inept deputy pull up in a patrol car any minute.

The light changed.

He drove half a block to a large brick building. The words City Hall were chiseled in the granite facade above the doorway. As he parked his car in front of City Hall it hit him. This area is a perfect square. I’m in an actual town square. He emerged from his vehicle with a new appreciation for American colloquialisms.

In spite of his general impression of Illiana, he knew he’d need a credible cover story to get a look at Stallings’ personnel file. Even a borderline incompetent personnel director would have had second thoughts about showing a stranger a police officer’s file unless the stranger sold him on his story. He finally decided to see how far the minimal clout his PI license had in Manzanita, California would take him in Illiana, Indiana.

“Hi, Hope. It’s Phil,” he said into the handset inside the one phone booth just outside Illiana’s City Hall.

“I figured as much since only you and I know this phone line exists. Is everything okay?”

“Can’t a guy call his wife without having a problem?”

The line was silent for a moment.

“Hope?”

“After thinking about your question, I suppose a man might call his wife in the daytime on his private line if there wasn’t a problem. Yet, for some reason, I suspect that’s not the case this time.”

“That hurts!”

“You’ll get over it. By the way, how was that?”

“I’m sorry, you lost me.”

Yes!

“I just wondered how close to one of your evasive answers my answer was.”

He could see the smile on her face. It sounds a lot like something I’d have said in similar circumstances.

“Phil?”

“After thinking about your question,” he began. But she couldn’t keep from laughing when she realized he’d repeated her opening line verbatim, including her vocal inflection.

“I give up,” she said through her giggles.

“Better players than you have surrendered to my verbal terpsichorean displays.”

“Now, you’re just gloating. What do you need me to do?”

Mamba laughed.

“If all goes well, I don’t need you to do anything,” he began. “But, if you get a call on this line in the next half-hour or so, please answer the phone with ‘Private Investigator’s Regulatory Bureau. This is Ms. Stapleton’.”

“Hold on. I’ll write that down. Do I want to know why I’m doing this?”

“Probably not. When asked about hiring currently active law enforcement personnel as assistant private investigators, please tell the caller that your agency requires that the private investigator doing the hiring file a written report on the officer’s personnel files as far back as he can track them.”

“Hold on. I’m trying to keep up. I had to use shorthand.”

“Do I need to repeat what I said?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Oh, good. I doubt if I could.”

“Is this illegal?”

“Well . . . not technically. I’m pretty sure it won’t land us in jail.”

“That’s nice to know,” Hope said without even the faintest hint of enthusiasm. “What kind of information do you need to file with my agency?”

“Huh?”

“You heard me. Ms. Stapleton is never going to take the word of a man who’d do something that’s on as thin ice, legally-speaking, as this is. What will you bring back as proof of completion of the requirement?”

“Nice save. I hadn’t even thought of that.” The PI thought quickly. “Can you type up a fake form?”

“Yesss. Why?”

“Well, since you had this brilliant idea, if you get called, I’ll say I left the form in my office and ask you to fax a copy to Illiana.”

“Illi-whatta?”

“Illiana. It’s the first town on the Indiana side of the Illinois-Indiana border.”

“I’ll need ten minutes to make a form that might fool someone.” I know how I can zing you again. “Why did you get computers for the office?”

“Wow. That’s random. Why do you ask?”

“Just answer, please.”

“Well, I know I’ve told you this before, but it’s to reduce paperwork in the office.”

“You do realize that all the paperwork you think you’re reducing is now stored in a stack of floppy disks, right?”

“Okaaay. Is there a point here?”

Well, that idea bombed, she admitted to herself.

“I guess not. Unless it’s this: without the computer, I wouldn’t be able to make a fake form that would fool anyone. Not in ten minutes, or even in an hour and ten minutes.”

“You’re welcome.”

“If you look into the phone handset, can you see my tongue sticking out at you right now?”

“No.”

“That’s a real shame. You deserve it.”

“If you say so, and thanks! I love you.”

“So that’s the real reason that you called?”

“Huh?”

“Wow! ‘Huh’ twice in one conversation. You’d better get some coffee before you go in. I’ll just assume you called to tell me you love me.” She hung up.

Mamba laughed again as he hung up the phone and decided that coffee wasn’t a bad idea. He visually surveyed the square and located a diner about a half a block east of City Hall. He headed in that direction.

After a cup of coffee and a donut, he retraced his steps to City Hall.

Once inside the building, he encountered an atmosphere quite different than the quaint, stuck in the past impression he’d first formed. The chrome on the modern furniture that graced the lobby glistened. The receptionist looked up from her PBX board and smiled the first part of her greeting.

“Hello,” she called. “May I help you?”

“I was hoping to speak to someone in the police department.”

“Oh, my! Is it an emergency?”

“It’s a personnel matter.”

The young woman visibly relaxed and pulled a laminated map of the building from the top drawer of her desk. “We’re right here,” she said as she pointed to a red “X” in the lobby. “The police personnel office is upstairs and down this hall.” She traced the route with her finger. “Room 225. ‘Personnel’ is written on the door, too.”

“Thanks,” Mamba told her. “You’re most efficient.”

“Thank you, sir,” she replied. “I like working here. Good luck up at personnel. But, I don’t think they’re hiring right now.”

“I’m looking up a friend who worked here once.”

“Oh. Has he been gone long?”

“No, not too long.”

“I’m glad. Some of our older records are being converted to microfiche. You won’t be able to see those.”

“I hope his is still available. Thank you.” He started toward the door marked Stairs. The realization of a biological necessity turned him back to the receptionist. “I was wondering if you could direct me to a restroom. I drove here from Chicago.”

“Certainly.” The receptionist demonstrated her efficiency in giving directions, even without a map. Mamba thanked her and entered the men’s room. When he exited the restroom, he gave the receptionist a wave and made a beeline to the stairway.

“Good luck,” the woman called after him.

The civilian clerk in the personnel office was far more cautious than the receptionist had been.

“My name is Phil Mamba. I’m a private investigator from California. I’d like to see the personnel file of one of your former officers. His name is Franklin Stallings.”

“I’m afraid I cannot allow just anyone to see a personnel file.”

“This one’s not an active file. Officer Stallings hasn’t worked here in at least four years.”

“I’m sure that’s beside the point.”

“I understand. I need to see Stallings’ file because I’m hoping to hire him part time at my business, Mamba Investigations,” Mamba said. He pulled out his wallet, removed his license and gave it to the woman along with a business card.

The clerk scrutinized the identification but said nothing. She returned his license. He slid it back into his jacket pocket.

“I’d really appreciate this. The regulatory agency for private investigators is very clear on the process we have to use when vetting an associate. It’s because we’re licensed.”

To add substance to his ruse, he added, “I’ve got the regulatory agency’s number if you’d like to call and verify.”

“I believe I would,” she said.

“Okay. Let me get that number. Sorry, I don’t have it memorized. I don’t call it that often.” He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his notebook. Feigning to read what was allegedly written there, he gave the clerk his private office number.

She jotted down the digits as he read and then dialed the number. Mamba relaxed, Hope’s got this covered.

“Private Investigator’s Regulatory Bureau. This is Ms. Stapleton. How may I help you?” Hope started right on script.

“Good morning. I’m sorry to call you so early out there in California, but I’m calling from the Illiana Police Department. A—” The clerk picked up Mamba’s business card and read the information. “Philip R. Mamba from Mamba Investigations says he has to see the personnel file of one of our former officers before he can hire him. Is this standard procedure?”

“It is. But, before we go any further, I’ll need to verify that you have this . . . I’m sorry, what did you say the name was?”

“Mamba.” She spelled the name. “First name Philip.”

“Have you seen his private investigator’s license?”

“I have.”

“Please give me his license number.”

“They need your investigator’s license number,” the receptionist said to Phil after she’d covered the mouthpiece of the phone with one hand.

He raised his eyebrows in surprise. This isn’t in the plan. But, he handed his license back to the woman. She read the license number into the phone.

“One more thing,” Hope said. “We’ve been experiencing complaints about persons operating with forged private investigator’s licenses. I need you to check his driver’s license and compare his face to the photo. While you do that, I’ll check this investigator’s license number out.”

As requested, the receptionist checked Phil’s face against his driver’s license photo and read the license number to Ms. Stapleton. I’ll get you for this, Hope, he promised himself.

“I’m sorry about the photo,” he apologized.

“Actually, for the DMV, this is pretty good. No way you’re getting a look at mine!”

They both laughed.

“Ma’am.” Hope’s voice interrupted their levity.

“I’m here. It’s Philip R. Mamba all right.”

“And I verified his license number. When he’s finished with the file, please sign and date his VOI-297 form.”

“I need to sign and date a form for you when you’re finished.” The receptionist relayed the information.

“Arraugh! That’s on the desk in my office! See if there’s another way to do whatever that form does, will you please?”

“Sure.” Her next words were into the phone. “Mr. Mamba left that form in his office.”

“Figures. You cannot believe how unreliable some of these PI’s are,” Hope said in a voice reeking with disgust. “I’ll fax you the VOI-297. We need you to verify that the information he collects is authentic.”

The receptionist shot a disapproving glance in Mamba’s direction, diverted her gaze when he made brief eye contact, and said, “Will do. And thank you.”

“No. I need to thank you. You can’t believe what some of these Sherlock Holmes wannabees do to try and circumvent the regulations. I could tell you stories.”

“I’ll bet you can,” the receptionist said through her laughter. “Here’s my fax number.” She recited the necessary ten digits.

“Thank you,” Hope said.

“It’s been nice talking with you. Goodbye.”

She handed his driver’s license and investigator’s license back to him. Then, without a word of explanation, she left the room. Minutes passed. He began to worry.

“I’ve got the personnel file you need here,” the clerk said when she returned. As she handed him the paper sleeve containing the microfiche, she added, “The records being converted from their paper format are from the pre-1970 era, so I didn’t have any trouble locating Franklin Stallings’ file for you.”

“Thank you.”

“And, here’s the form I’ll need to sign when you’re finished.”

The receptionist handed Mamba the phony form Hope had constructed. God bless you, Hope, was his immediate reaction to the page he held in his hand. It looked for all the world like a piece of genuine bureaucratic paperwork.

“The microfiche machine is over there.” She pointed across the room to a small desk.

“Thanks.”

Mamba went over and sat down at the lone public reading machine. He placed the plastic rectangle into the holder and slid the holder away from him. The top glass cover closed into position. After a couple of minutes refreshing himself on the idiosyncrasies of the microfiche reader, he began his examination.

Everything in the file was routine. Stallings’ hiring was done on the basis of his scores on the examinations he had taken at the State Police Academy. The records of his hiring interviews were complete and positive.

He had been commended twice and received a citation for heroism in the rescue of a busload of school children when their bus had failed to negotiate a curve and had ended up in a farmer’s pond. Stallings had used the farmer’s tractor to pull the bus to safety.

He dutifully noted Stallings’ history in the appropriate spaces on Hope’s bogus VOI-297.

The only non-positive comment in the file was a notation of a complaint filed by a citizen after the bus accident. There it is. He was accused of leaking the woman’s testimony to the media, just like in the original Mulligan showed me. There was no record of what discipline, if any, Stallings received as a result of the complaint. He chose to omit any reference to that event in the form.

The only information Mamba could use in his search was the letter of resignation Stallings had filed. It directed him to the city of Lincolnvale, Illinois. And, it provided two references to check out. The first reference listed on the application was the man that Mamba already knew to be dead. He copied the second address into his notebook.

“Find what you were looking for?” the receptionist asked as he stopped at her desk on the way out.

“Just about,” was the ambiguous response. “Here’s the microfiche you let me view and the form you need to sign.”

She took the form and checked to see that he had filled in all the essential information.

“You forgot the microfiche number and the street address for this building.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know the address. I just missed the space for the number.”

She gave a short grunt and filled in the missing information on the form. After checking it one last time, she signed and dated it in the indicated locations.

“Would you like an envelope for this?” she asked.

“That would be appreciated.”

She tri-folded the form and slid it into an envelope with the Illiana Police Department’s return address printed on it.

“Here you go.” She handed him the envelope.

“Thank you. You’ve been most helpful,” Mamba responded. He turned and walked toward the stairwell.

“Have a nice day,” she called.

Mamba grimaced as yellow smiling circles invaded his thoughts. He hated that phrase. He gave a head nod and a wave of acknowledgement only because those were the polite things to do.

Mamba waved to the receptionist in the lobby and started to push open the heavy glass door when he glanced at his watch. He reversed his direction.

“Excuse me,” he said to the receptionist.

“Yes, sir,” she answered turning back to him from her typewriter.

“I’m heading over to Lincolnvale. I was wondering if you could help me with two things.”

“I will surely try, sir.”

“First, what’s the best highway to take to get to Lincolnvale?”

“Well, that depends. Are you in a hurry?”

“No. Not especially.”

“Okay. I’d take . . .” The woman proceeded to draw a map with arrows, approximate miles between landmarks, and notes on places he might find interesting. Five minutes later, she finished with, “I used to live over by Lincolnvale.”

“Wow. I don’t see how I could get lost, even if I wanted to.”

The blank look on the receptionist’s face was all Mamba needed to know she did not appreciate his dry wit. He cleared his throat.

“Hmmm. The second need I have is the name of a good place to eat lunch. Can you help me one more time? It’s later than I thought.”

At that request, the receptionist lit up. She described four local cafes and provided detailed directions to each.

Mamba thanked the woman and left the building. He considered calling Hope as he passed the phone booth. Toward the end of her conversation with the fictitious Stapleton, he’d seen the clerk’s face lock into a less than approving look. She’d looked in his direction and quickly looked away. He was curious as to why.

I can provide enough eyewitness testimony to convict Hope of padding her role as Ms. Stapleton. What should her sentence be?

In the end, he decided that getting even with his Hope would wait until he got home. That would give him time to think of an appropriate retaliatory action.

* * *

In the short time Erin Reilly had been dating Enciso Martinez, much to the delight of Erin’s fellow nurses, they had learned quite a bit about one another.

She did not like leftovers. That was the takeaway when he tried to serve cold pizza from their first date for lunch. Of course, it might have been as much that the leftovers were from a week earlier rather than the fact that they were leftovers that brought about the rejection. Whatever the reason, Martinez decided to play it safe and avoid leftovers when with her. Enciso liked Mexican food. Any Mexican food, as long as there was a lot of it, and it was served with salsa hot enough to blister his tongue.

She liked movies. He liked sports. She liked sitcoms. He liked sitcoms, too.

At this moment, the couple, which is what they had become, was engrossed in an activity dropped into their lives by Phil Mamba.

“ . . .passion igniting a flame that threatened to consume them both.” Martinez finished reading aloud the chapter in the book Flatly had selected. He snorted before pushing the PAUSE button on his new tape recorder. After taking a deep breath, he asked his companion, “Can you believe this? How can they publish this garbage?”

“People usually buy whatever’s advertised,” Erin answered as she punched the OFF button on the recorder. That overrode his pause button push. In her mind, this recording session was over. “I see these things at checkout stands in every store.”

“I guess so,” Martinez grudgingly admitted. “I still don’t want to believe that people think this is literature. Would your parents have allowed you to read this?” He shook the book. “I know mine would have pulled me to confession every day for a year if they’d seen me near a book like this.”

“I’m not sure that most of the kids I went to school with know what literature is,” she said. “As far as my parents, I suspect we’ll find a lot of similarities between yours and mine.” Oh, oh. I hope that he doesn’t take that as a suggestion that we meet each other’s parents.

¡Ay! Did she just suggest we meet each other’s parents?

As though they’d worked for weeks on the choreography, the couple looked at one another and hastily diverted their gazes. After a beat, she continued her response to his comment about parental approval and the nature of Flatly’s literary preferences.

“You’ve got to remember that, to a lot of people, a book is only something they use to look up the television listings or prop up a piece of furniture.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“What now?” Erin asked.

“I deliver the tape to the hospital tomorrow.”

Oh, good.

Martinez talked through his checklist.

“I give the recording to Flatly. Sorry, I keep forgetting that you know him as Mr. Wiggins, and he listens to the tape while I read the next book he’s chosen.”

“I’ve wanted to ask something for a while.”

“Okay. I guess.” Uncomfortable with where the conversation might be headed, he shifted his position in his chair. “What is it?”

“What’s Mr. Wiggins to you?”

Martinez’s body relaxed. Her question was not the one he’d been worried about.

“A guy I got to know on a case—a nice guy. A guy who wanted to help. A guy that didn’t deserve to be hurt.” Each phrase increased in intensity. His relaxed state evaporated. The veins on his neck were distended by the time he finished.

“I’m sorry, Enciso. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“It’s not you, Erin. It’s the combination of a lot of different things.”

He’s emotionally wrung out. I don’t think it’s just Mr. Wiggins.

“What was her name?”

“Mary—” He stopped and stared at the nurse. When she didn’t flinch, he asked, “How’d you know about what happened to Mary?”

“I didn’t.”

He looked skeptical.

“Honest. I don’t know anything about any Mary you were, or weren’t involved with. You looked like you might have lost someone recently. And, since Mr. Wiggins is still alive, I put two and two together.”

“She was never my someone.”

He related as much as he could of the saga of Mary Carstairs and Flatly Broke. Because he had to filter out any mention of his undercover work, it took about half an hour to complete the story. When the big man was finished, his shoulders slumped. His eyes were glazed with a thin film of tears.

Erin moved to him and put her arms around his neck.

He looked at her anxious and inviting face. With deliberate gentleness, he lifted her hands and removed them from his shoulders.

Chica bonita, there is almost nothing I would rather do than anything you want. And I do mean anything.”

“But,” she added for him straightening her body in a subtle move away from him. “There is a but, right?”

“Yes. There is.”

It’s another woman.

“Well?”

“You may not believe this, but I really, really like you,” he mumbled while avoiding all eye contact. He was unsure of how, or if, he should say what he was thinking.

“Is this where I hear another but?”

He shook his head.

I’m tired of playing cat and mouse! flashed through her thoughts.

“I like you, too. So far, I’ve not heard any but.”

“I don’t know quite how to say this.”

“Give it a shot!” she snapped as she shot to her feet. “I’d like to know what’s wrong with me. Or what’s so right with whatever other woman you’re thinking about! She stared at him, hands on hips, eyes ablaze.

“There is nothing wrong with you, Erin. And there is no other woman.” His voice was calm, an achievement that surprised him. He pursed his lips before he managed to dredge up the courage to look at her face to face.

“In fact, there is so much right about you that I will not do anything that would make me feel as though I violated you.”

The quiet dignity of his words and delivery rocked Erin. Without thinking, she responded.

“But I want you. That should mean something.” She took a step towards him and reiterated, “I want you.”

“Maybe that’s part of it,” he admitted while gently placing one huge hand against her leg to stop her forward progress.

She stuck out her lip in a genuine, full-blown pout. Oh, my God. I’m acting so immaturely. But, I don’t know what to do—besides run from this room crying, but I’m not going to do that. At least, not yet.

“That’s not all, though.” He stood, dwarfing her petite frame. He held her gently by the shoulders and added in a hoarse whisper, “I think I am in love with you.”

Her expression did not hide her surprise.

“Then what is the problem?” Erin asked with a tremble in her voice.

“I can’t do—” He stammered. “I couldn’t—”

Wow! She fought back tears.

“Enciso Martinez, you’re a prude,” she accused in a soft voice.

“No, I’m—” he started to protest. His shoulders drooped as he let his hands slide off her shoulders. A wry grin turned the corner of his mouth.

Sí. Yo soy una mojigata. I am a prude,” he decided aloud. “But, I’m not sorry that I am.” He inhaled deeply and exhaled. “You can leave if you want to.”

Leave? Enciso, you are so clueless.

“I’ve never been rejected so beautifully before,” she said as quickly as she could, hoping the words would precede the warm crimson tint she felt migrating up her neck and face and the tears she knew would trickle down her cheeks.

Arraugh! This is hard. No wonder he looks miserable.

“And, I’ve never tried to encourage a man so blatantly before. I’ve always had to fight men off.”

“I can believe that, hermosa.” Then he asked, “How successful have you been?”

He immediately regretted his decision.

Oh, thank you for ending the angst with that wonderfully inappropriate question. Before he could think of an apology, she answered.

“Not that it’s any of your business, but I am undefeated.” Swagger supplanted softness in her voice.

At least she didn’t walk out. Now, if I manage to not stick my other foot in my mouth.

“I’d like to keep it that way,” he said.

She tried to look appreciative but knew she ended up looking confused instead.

“I meant that I think we might have the opportunity together. Later. If you still want to.”

How can I phrase this without sounding like a loose woman or a crazy one?

“I wasn’t kidding around when I said and did what I said and did before,” she said. “And I haven’t changed my mind, amigo. If you want to wait, and will let me hang around, I will wait for you.”

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Again?”

“Remember that I said I thought I was in love with you?”

She nodded.

“Well, I’ve changed my mind.”

Now, I really blew it! Before she could interject a comment, he finished his thought.

“From I think I love you to just I love you, chica bonita,” he said, engulfing her in his tattooed arms.

* * *

After a longer drive than he’d anticipated, thanks to country roads and other two-lane highways, Mamba pulled into the only motel in Lincolnvale, Illinois. It was like returning to his childhood. Back in the day, when his father, a career Army Sergeant, received new orders, the family packed up the station wagon and drove to the next duty station.

The change of duty stations always required crossing several state lines. He was used to traveling pre-interstate highway, but he’d never been the driver. He now had a much greater understanding of the patience of his parents. He was worn out, and he didn’t have three children in the back seat.

Part of the adventure of the family’s relocation trip was spending nights in motels. He couldn’t remember any chain they’d stayed in, except Travelodge. Far and away more popular were establishments with a name like the Teepee Inn with its collection of wigwams instead of rooms. Another memorable motel was the Cozy Cottage Motel where each room was its own cabin.

He shook his head. The trip here had been a true adventure in Americana. The receptionist in Illiana’s City Hall had made sure that he experienced dozens of decaying barns. He’d passed through towns with only one street, State Route 136. SR136 ran from one end of town to the other, usually with a stop sign or light. He’d missed several points of interest he never could spot.

Even though his trip down memory lane was over, he sat in his car for a moment surveying the establishment. This motel was in the Cozy Cottage genre. The pale green walls of the cabins were in need of paint. Only two other cars graced the gravel lot, even though it was after 9 p.m.

Might as well make the most of it. He got out, pulled his suitcase from the trunk, and checked into cabin number 3. He had to kill two spiders and two roaches before he climbed into bed.

In spite of the surroundings, he awoke refreshed in the morning. Fatigue had overcome the discomfort of the lumpy mattress. He shaved, showered, and repacked his suitcase. He asked the owner to recommend a good restaurant and was directed to a small cafe three-quarters of a mile away.

Breakfast was Midwestern in scope and size. Once he’d seen the portions on plates delivered to other patrons, he ordered the special. While he waited for his food, he bought a copy of one of the Chicago papers. He had an hour to kill before city offices were likely to open, so he read as he ate his bacon, eggs, pancakes, and sausage. As time passed, he found himself enjoying the massive plate of breakfast items he’d received and the ambiance of the experience.

The Chicago paper turned out to be a day old and a quick read. He had almost thirty minutes left in the hour when he left the cafe. A police car was parked across the street.

He walked over.

“Good morning, Officer. I wonder if you could help me?”

“That’s our motto, sir.” The cop had the freshly scrubbed look of a rookie.

“I was wondering if you keep departmental records at the station?”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything that could concern you, sir.” The rookie’s voice assumed the tone a twenty-year veteran would use with the answer.

“My name is Philip Mamba.” He produced his investigator’s license. “I’m working a case.”

“You’ll have to speak to the Captain, sir,” the officer responded without looking at the proffered identification.

Mamba’s hopes wilted. It was obvious that the idea of helping a private detective did not sit well with the young man. Even though he was a new hire, he’d heard too many stories from force veterans to be comfortable around any PI.

“He should be at the station by now,” were the policeman’s last words before starting the patrol car’s engine.

“Thank you, Officer,” Mamba said as he backed away from the idling vehicle.

On the good news side of the ledger, it wasn’t hard to find the police station. The building was one of the newer ones along the easternmost end of the main street. Mamba gave an appreciative nod when he pulled into the parking lot. The location provided easy access to downtown and what appeared to be the developing end of Lincolnvale, even further east.

He had to wait for ten minutes after asking what appeared to be a civilian female receptionist to see the officer in charge.

“Mr. Mamba. Captain Darling will see you now.”

He stood.

The receptionist smiled and pointed to a short hallway.

He smiled back and entered the corridor. Darling’s office was the only door on the left side of the hallway. Mamba knocked.

“Come in.”

He opened the door and went in. After a reserved introduction, he decided frankness was the best way to broach the subject of his visit. By the time he got to Stallings’ part in the scenario, the Captain Darling’s reserve had been replaced by a feeling of camaraderie. It was cop to ex-cop.

“Stallings worked for me for two years,” Darling recounted. “Distinguished himself enough to be promoted to detective. Worked some cases with the state police. Had a hand in a big bust down in Decatur. It was our loss when he joined the St. Louis PD.”

The civilian receptionist interrupted the monolog when she delivered Stallings’ personnel folder.

“You’re welcome to look through this,” Darling offered. “Of course I can’t let you take it with you or make copies, but you’re welcome to make all the notes you want.”

Mamba accepted the invitation and was escorted to an empty room. Looks like an interrogation room he decided. He thanked the receptionist and took his time reading and taking notes. His review confirmed Darling’s recollections of Stallings’ stint with the Lincolnvale Police Department. There were no local references listed.

Mamba had two choices. He could follow Stallings’ career move to St. Louis. Or, he could go in the other direction—to Stallings’ hometown in Ohio and talk to people who really knew the man.

Because the reference from the personnel file in Illiana was from Stallings’ hometown, he decided on the second option.

Mamba returned Stallings’ file to the Captain, thanked him, went back to his car, and located Tifton, in the southwest quadrant of Ohio on his map. He circled his destination in pen, filled the gas tank, and used the restroom. After purchasing a can of pop as they called canned sodas in Illinois, he headed for the Buckeye state.

He arrived in Tifton in that interval between late afternoon and early evening. He decided to check out the reference before he checked into a motel. If nothing came of the contact, he could still make St. Louis the next day.

The town had a total of fifteen cross streets off Main. It took him ten minutes to find the address he’d copied from Stallings file.

He pulled his rental car up to the curb before a small Victorian home. The white porch wood matched what looked to be the functional shutters on the house. The paint was faded, but not chipped or flaking. The lawn was trimmed; the flowerbeds weed-free. I could come to be friends with the people who live in this house.

Mamba dropped the old-school doorknocker onto the back plate attached to the door. Lewis Conner answered. He greeted Mamba cordially. Cordiality transformed into a potential relationship when he learned that purpose of the visit was Franklin Stallings.

“Come on in, Mr. Mamba,” Conner invited. “I’ll see if Louise can’t set another place for supper.”

“Oh, I couldn’t. I mean, you weren’t expecting me. I feel like an intruder.”

“Nonsense.” Lewis brushed Mamba’s protestations aside with two syllables. “The day Louise can’t feed one more with the supper she’s made up for just the two of us is the day after they bury her. It won’t be a problem.”

Louise Conner did her husband proud. By the time she brought in dessert, Mamba was so full he felt like he had eaten Thanksgiving dinner. He was about to decline whatever she was serving for dessert when he caught a whiff of apples and cinnamon.

“That’s not apple pie, is it?”

“Why, yes it is,” Louise smiled, then her face took on a serious look as she asked, “You do like apple don’t you? It’s still warm. I’ve got some leftover peach if you’d rather. But it’s from yesterday.”

“No.” Two kinds of homemade pie! The idea flashed through his brain before he realized his verbal answer was incomplete. “I mean apple is great.”

“Sounds like you’re not sure about the apple? If you’d rather have peach, I can bring that out.”

“Give the boy a slice of each, Lou,” Lewis Conner directed. “Then he can make up his own mind on which he wants for seconds.”

“Brilliant, as usual, dear.” Louise proceeded to serve the fresh apple pie to her husband. Before Mamba could stop her, she disappeared into the kitchen with his plate to add a slice of the promised peach pie.

Mamba had to agree to take a piece of apple pie away with him before Louise would allow the two men to retire to the living room while she cleaned up after supper. Once seated on the sofa, he began to probe the relationship between his host and Franklin Stallings.

“Well, I was Frank’s teacher over at Tifton High. He was a fine student. Won some awards in math as I recall. Fine young man,” Lewis responded to the opening question. “

“Did he have a lot of friends?”

“Just about everybody liked Frank. He was Captain of the basketball team. Ran track, too. Fine athlete.”

“This may sound strange,” the PI was about to take the plunge into the seamy side, if there was one. He anticipated everything to be ‘fine,’ but he was unsure of where this line of questioning would end. “Would you say that Franklin was, well, honest.”

Lewis Conner studied Mamba a long minute before he answered. “Seems to me you should be talking to Frank.”

“I’d like to talk to him. But, I don’t know where he is.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Conner boomed. “I thought this was some hush-hush case he was involved in. He’s staying over at Lizbeth’s folks. His parents are dead you know.”

“No, I didn’t know. And, I’m sorry, but who’s Elizabeth?”

“Just Lizbeth,” the teacher corrected. “That’s his wife. You did know he was married?” Conner was beginning to sound suspicious.

“I did, but I’ve never met his wife. We only know one another through the police department. Can you give me the address? I’ll go over and talk to Sta— Frank right now.”

“The Hopkins live over on Calhoun. That’s three streets west. Corner house at Calhoun and Second.”

“Thanks,” Mamba said. “I’ll not trouble you anymore.”

“It’s been no trouble to us, young man. I hope it’s not going to be for Frank, either.”

“I don’t think it will be,” Mamba said as he cautiously lifted the foil-wrapped paper plate that held his apple pie.

“Give my best to Louise, and thank her for dinner,” Mamba said as he left.

“Where’s he going?” Louise asked as she entered the room after finishing KP. “He didn’t forget his pie, did he?”

“No, Lou. He snatched it up like a hungry bird on a worm. Seemed in a big hurry to talk to Frank Stallings. Maybe I’d better call the Hopkins house and let them know that this Mamba fellow’s on his way over.”

He looked up the number and dialed. The line was busy. Louise called to him to take out the garbage. He decided to try to get the Hopkins after the chore. Once outside, he discovered that one of the neighborhood raccoons had attacked a trashcan. By the time he had re-deposited the trash that covered a sizeable area along the side of the house, he’d forgotten about making the call.

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