The Hopkins’ house looked like a sibling of the Conner home. The porch was bright white, but it didn’t extend to both ends of the front of the house as did the Conner’s. Shutters of similar style completed the familial resemblance. One difference: This sibling had the requisite picket fence. It was with a sense of déjà vu that Mamba crossed the Hopkins’ wide front porch.
He heard loud voices inside. I hope nothing’s wrong. He knocked on the door. The voices faded as the porch light went on. The wooden portal opened. A well-rounded black woman in her mid-fifties stood before him.
“Is Franklin Stallings here?”
“Why?” The question hit him like a bullet. The questioner was not the woman who’d answered the door. A second woman stepped out from behind the ample Mrs. Hopkins. She was harried-looking to the point of concern.
“Why?” She snapped again.
Mamba studied the second woman, thinking as he observed. You must be Lizabeth. The strain of the past few weeks has taken its toll on you.
“I’d like to talk to him,” Mamba answered. “Lizabeth, right?”
“Lizbeth,” she corrected reflexively. Pronounce my name as it’s spelled! Arraugh! Don’t lose focus, chemo-brain. “Talk about what?”
The ringing of the telephone interrupted Mamba’s response.
“Lizbeth, be a Dear and answer that will you?” Mrs. Hopkins asked.
“I should stay here, Mom, until—”
Another ring. Lizbeth frowned, glared at Mamba, but went to answer the phone.
“I have important information for Franklin Stallings,” Mamba told Mrs. Hopkins. “I work with him and need to talk to him about a couple things that have come up.”
“Why don’t you come in,” Mrs. Hopkins offered. She pushed open the storm door. “It gets so chilly around here after dark this time of year.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” He entered the house. “My name’s Phil Mamba.”
“I’m Doris Hopkins,” she said and offered her hand. “Franklin’s not here right now. We are expecting a call from him anytime—from the bus depot. His bus should be in soon.”
“Is that man still at the door?” Lizbeth Stallings asked as she entered the living room from the kitchen where the phone was located. The sight of Mamba standing in the small foyer area stopped her in her tracks.
“You shouldn’t let strange men into the house,” was her icy advice to her mother.
“Who was on the phone, dear?” Doris asked. Her daughter had lived in the big city too long. Tifton had no strangers, only friends yet to be made.
“Sears,” was the curt reply. Lizbeth recognized her mother’s hospitable stubbornness. She also remembered her manners and added, “It was one of those automated messages. Your catalog order is ready.”
“That’s nice. I thought it might be Frank,” Mrs. Hopkins said. She gestured toward the private investigator. “This is Mr. Mamba.” She ushered them both into the living room.
“I’m here to help, Mrs. Stallings.” His voice implored Lizbeth to listen. “That’s the truth. All I’m asking is a chance to explain.”
“Since we’re both guests in my parents’ house, I suppose I’m obliged to listen. But that’s all I promise you—to listen.” That’s more than you deserve since you work for the MPD.
“Fair enough. I’ve come to ask your husband a couple of questions.”
The bell on the telephone announced another incoming call. Lizbeth went back to the kitchen. Mamba took a couple of steps in the same direction, hoping he might learn something from the conversation. He watched her glance back at him as she picked up the handset.
There was the briefest of pauses while the caller answered.
“You’ve-got-to-leave-again. There’s-a-man-here-from-the-police-back-in—” “ Lizbeth shouted into the phone, her words running together in her haste to warn her husband.
Mamba dashed into the kitchen and grabbed the phone.
“Stallings! I need to talk—” He stopped. The phone was dead.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” he said. He didn’t look at Stallings’ wife as he hung up the phone. “If I could get answers to a couple of questions, I might be able to clear your husband from suspicion in the departmental information leaks.”
“You? You’re trying to clear Frank?” Lizbeth asked.
“Yes. And you’ve made it more difficult than it already was. I wouldn’t have thought that was possible until this moment.”
“I didn’t know,” she whispered before she collapsed into a chair by the kitchen table. Tears filled her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. Within seconds, huge sobs wracked her body.
“It’s . . . It’s been so, so terrible. Frank’s so un-un-happy. He t-t-thought they were going to arrest h-him. He is . . . W-we are both w-w-worried s-sick.”
“Running away wasn’t your best decision,” Mamba continued in a quiet voice. He offered the crying woman his handkerchief.
“Oh, my!” was all Doris Hopkins managed, stunned at the depth of her daughter’s distress.
“I’m o-okay, Mom.” When Doris frowned, Lizbeth continued. “R-really. This m-man is h-h-here to help F-F-Frank.”
“Well, thank heavens for that! From what you’ve both told us, it’s about time someone started being rational.”
“Mr. M-Mamba and I need to t-talk, Mom. Please w-wait on the davenport. I promise to f-fill you in after Mr. Mamba and I f-finish.”
With an “I’m doing this but I sure don’t like it” look, Doris Hopkins did her daughter’s bidding. When she’d cleared the kitchen door, Mamba resumed his questioning.
“Why’d you leave town?”
“F-Frank heard about the raid on that drug dealer’s h-hotel suite,” Lizbeth explained. She blew her nose on Mamba’s handkerchief. A shocked look flashed over her face.
“Don’t worry about the handkerchief. Hope, that’s my wife, always packs extras for occasions like this.” He managed a smile.
What might have been a smile flickered over Lizbeth’s face. She took a deep breath and continued, “He figured that his brief appearance in the office the day of that last failed operation was sure to condemn him. Running would b-buy him some time.”
“He had to know the police would find him.”
“I suppose he did. But he was so d-desperate. He was out of options.” She grabbed Mamba’s arm. “F-Frank is innocent!”
“I like to think there are always options besides running from a problem.” When Lizbeth started to respond, he raised his hand in a stop motion. “I also think your husband’s innocent. I’d like a chance to help him prove it. Do you know where he is?”
“He was at the bus station when he called.”
“Yeah, your mother mentioned that. Unfortunately, was is the operative term now.”
“I know, and I’m sorry,” she said as her composure returned. “He could be any of a dozen places here in town now.”
Sounds like a game of hide-and-seek Mamba thought. At least it’s a pleasant evening for it.
“Make a list. I’ll check out as many as I can tonight.”
Five minutes later, he left, armed with the list and an unnecessary map to the bus station hand drawn by Doris Hopkins.
It took him only five more minutes to get to the bus station on Main Street. He asked the ticket agent if he had seen Stallings leave the station.
“Frank Stallings?” the man asked. “Is he back in town?”
“Yeah, and I’ve missed him again. I thought I could catch up with his bus. It’s just not my day.”
“You might try Dawson’s Diner,” the ticket agent suggested as he pointed across the street. “Lots of people go down there to wait for their ride home.”
“Thanks,” Mamba said. The diner wasn’t on his list, but it couldn’t hurt to check. He jaywalked to the small eating establishment.
“Good evening, sir,” was the greeting of the waitress as he entered the diner. It was easy to visualize high school students in “letter sweaters” and poodle skirts in a booth while the vintage jukebox blasted out early rock and roll tunes.
“Would you like a booth?” The question brought Mamba back to reality.
“No. No, thank you, um—” He did a visual scan and found her nametag. “Actually, Elyse, I’m looking for someone, not something to eat.”
“I know almost everybody in town. Who’re you looking for?” And, I sincerely hope it’s me you’re looking for.
“Franklin Stallings,” Mamba replied. “But he hasn’t lived in town for years.”
“Oh, I know Frank. We went to school together. Funny, isn’t it,” Elyse added wistfully, “He and I were voted Most Likely to Succeed. He made it pretty good. I’m still a waitress.” She paused. A look Mamba recognized as retrospection flickered across her features. “Did you know I’ve worked here since before I graduated?”
Mamba didn’t answer. He’d let the woman talk. He knew the type. She would give him an answer to his question in her own time.
Heavens to Betsy! I just told this good-looking stranger that I’m a failure. Time to regroup.
“But, you didn’t come here for a sob story. I’m pretty sure that I saw Frank hurry past here about ten minutes ago.”
“Could you tell me if any of these places are in that direction?” he asked as he handed her his list of potential hiding places. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m from out of town.”
“Oh, yeah.” She accepted the list with a smile and gave it a quick scan.
“Larry Penrose’s house is about two blocks south,” she offered as she instinctively pointed in the proper direction. “But he left town on business this morning right after he ate here. He won’t be back for two or three days. Why do you ask?”
“I need to talk to Frank. It’s important. Thanks for your help.” Mamba handed her a five-dollar bill.
“What’s this for?”
“Pretend I ordered coffee,” he said with a smile of his own as he turned on his heel to leave.
* * *
The Penrose house was noticeably newer than either the Conner’s or Hopkins’ home. The section of town in which it stood had made its appearance as part of the big push by the government for GI housing after WWII. Although this house had fewer years, it also had fewer of the features characteristic of construction artisans of past eras.
Only the echo of his knock answered Franklin Stallings as he stood on what most considered to be a mini-porch. Standing at this door took him back to high school.
Fifteen seconds left in the state finals. I see Larry beat his defender and whip him a bounce pass. To my surprise, he pulls up and fires a five-foot jumper. Seems like it takes a full minute to drop through the net for the winning bucket. Wildly ecstatic fans carry the two of us off the court. I’ve still got the first place medal somewhere.
A dog barked. Stallings shook his head and forced himself to concentrate on the situation at hand. They had traced him to Tifton. He swore softly. I expected this, but not so soon.
Another dog barked—this one closer than the first.
Someone’s headed this way.
He stepped off the porch and started back down the front walk. He glanced in the direction of the bus station. A solitary figure moved out of the ring of light from the street lamp on the corner. He swore and ducked behind some shrubbery on his right.
I wonder who MPD sent? What if he’s FBI?
The figure kept coming toward him. He relaxed a little when it continued past the Penrose house. False alarm! His relaxation was short-lived. The figure, now clearly masculine, stopped. He held a piece of paper up so it caught what light it could from the streetlight. After checking the house number on the mailbox, he backtracked and started up the walk toward the Penrose house.
Stallings forced himself back into the shrubs. He gave silent thanks for Larry Penrose’s lax gardening habits. The thick growth helped shield him from the interloper.
He heard the man step up to the small wooden porch. He heard the knock on the door. He began to work his way through the shrubs, hoping they ran all the way around the side of the house.
Slowly, and as silently as he could, he pushed through bush after bush. He finally broke out of the hedge just past the front corner of the house. He froze after his first step and swore under his breath. Where the shrubbery ended, a gravel path began. The crunch of his shoes on the small stones sounded like thunder in the still night.
He broke into a run.
Ignoring all noises behind him, he sprinted down the driveway that ran beside the house. He knew that if he could reach the alley and the garages that lined both sides before ending at a stand of birch trees, he had a good chance of escape. When he was growing up, he had complained to his mother about how small the yards in the neighborhood were. He regretted his complaint. Now he would have preferred a much shorter distance to travel.
Without slowing, he made the turn into the alley. He increased his speed as his quarter-miler training from high school kicked in. Fifty yards away was a small stand of birch trees. You gotta be kidding! That was a forest when I was growing up. He was now uncertain if it would afford him adequate concealment.
“Hold it right there, Stallings!”
He stumbled but kept moving. The hammer of a revolver clicked into the firing position. He slid to a stop in the loose gravel of the alley. He’s got me! Stallings was breathing heavily as he turned toward the voice. The dimly lighted figure of a man with a gun faced him.
“Hands where I can see them, Sergeant,” Mamba directed.
What’s this! It’s that PI!
“Why did the department send you?” He demanded, confused and upset by the presence of the private investigator. He had expected the FBI or worse, not the PI friend of Lieutenant Mulligan. When an unpleasant realization formed in his mind, he spat out his conclusion, “I guess they figured they wouldn’t waste a good man on a squealer!”
“If it helps any, no one sent me. I’m here because I’m trying to prove you’re innocent.”
“Sure, ‘you’re on my side’,” Stallings said in a nasal, singsong voice, using air quotes around the last phrase. “And, you’re doing this out of the goodness of your heart.” More air quotes punctuated the final phrase.
Mamba stared hard at Stallings.
Cut me some slack! Maybe you’re not worth all this after all. I’m tired. I’m frustrated. I don’t need what you’re giving me.
His next words had a hard edge.
“Actually, I am here out of the goodness of my heart. I even paid for my own transportation. But, if that’s the attitude you’re giving me, maybe I’ll just turn you over to Internal Affairs. I’ve heard they’re bragging that they’ve got you for sure.”
The two men glared at one another through the near-darkness. Stallings blinked first.
“You really believe I’m innocent,” Stallings stated instead of asked.
“I have for a couple of weeks now,” Mamba said. Hoping Stallings had accepted his status as an ally, he holstered his revolver. “I have to admit that I was ready to string you up when the leak cost Flatly the use of his arm.”
“I heard about that. He’s the guy who helped us on the first buy, isn’t he?”
“Yeah. But, let’s talk about you. Why’d you run?”
“I had to run!” The gritting of Stallings’ teeth as he spoke sharpened his words. “You know they weren’t listening to me. The raid on Brewster’s that didn’t pan out was the last straw. I had come to work even though I called in sick. So, I drag myself in, and what do I find out? That now IAD thinks that I came in to get the information on the bust so I could immediately leak it.”
Mamba said nothing. He’d wait as long as it took for Stallings to finish.
“I’m a good cop. I paid my dues in podunk towns. I worked vice in St. Louis for three years. My arrest-to-conviction ratio was the best in the department there. Then I go out west, out to the real action.” He paused.
“So they say.” Uncertain of the reason for the question, Mamba agreed.
“I’m not there two stinking years, and I’m accused of being a stoolie. Not only that, but somebody upstairs has been harassing me for well over a month.” His voice, which had increased in volume with each sentence, went silent, as though switched off. Stallings’ shoulders slumped. He looked defeated.
“Why would your personnel records have been altered?” Mamba asked without preamble.
“They haven’t been altered, at least not that I know of. Why? Who says they have?”
“That’s what IAD came up with in their investigation.”
“What was altered?”
“Two paragraphs of recommendation from your Lieutenant in St. Louis are in a different type style than the rest of the letter. It looks like someone tried to match and didn’t quite make it.”
“That’s it? This witch hunt is based on typewriters?”
“I know it sounds sketchy at first. But after you think about it, such a difference throws a shadow of doubt on the authenticity of the whole file. Which font is the real one?”
For a long moment, Stallings stood, lost in thought.
“Yeah, maybe you’re right,” he conceded. “But, it still sounds like a witch hunt to me. Why else would an anonymous someone in administration keep threatening me?”
“That’s twice you’ve mentioned pressure you gotten from a superior. I didn’t know about that,” Mamba admitted. That information helped explain some of Stallings’ actions. “Do you any idea why the report has paragraphs by different typewriters in the same document?”
“No. But, knowing Lieutenant Kraft, there could be many reasons. I can’t say that I felt too bad about leaving St. Louis. The man was not completely connected with reality.”
“One prong out of the socket?” Mamba asked.
“You could say that,” Stallings smiled a wan smile. “What’s next?”
“Where’d you go that you had to take a bus to get back here?” Mamba ignored Stallings’ question.
“You’ll think it’s stupid.”
“More stupid than a typewriter causing all this?”
“Point taken. I was at a mass interview for a multinational private police force. I was desperate and hoped to get placed overseas.”
“Let’s proceed like that won’t be necessary. Out of curiosity, how’d you do in the interview?”
“Killed it.” This time, Stallings’ smile was relaxed. “I might be offered a position by the end of the month.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. What if we head back to your in-laws and work up a plan?”
“I’d like that. Lizbeth must be beside herself.”
“She looks haggard.”
The Sergeant stared into space for a moment or two before he asked a question.
“You remember my delay in arriving at Brewster’s house on the night of the first raid?”
“I do. That’s what caused everybody to figure you for the leak.”
“Right. Well, I was late because of Lizbeth. I couldn’t tell anybody before, it would have looked like I was covering up, but you might as well know.”
Mamba offered no response. It looked to him like Stallings needed more time to decide how much to confide.
During Stallings’ silence, Mamba came to a realization. It takes time for him to organize his thoughts. I should have noticed that before now! Thinking back, some of what appeared to be suspicious behavior or trying to think his way out of an answer was nothing more than his normal routine.
He was ready to let Stallings in on his flash of insight when the AWOL officer took a deep breath and plunged into his explanation.
“Lizbeth has ovarian cancer. She’s been undergoing treatment because she wants to have a baby some day. We’re postponing surgery as long as possible. If we get a miracle, forever. The day of the raid on Brewster’s house was one of her days for chemotherapy. I called to check up on her. She was feeling lousy. So, I called the hospital to find out the results of the latest biopsy, hoping good news there would help her through the chemo. It took longer than I expected.”
“Tell me about it.”
“What about the biopsy results?” Mamba asked out of equal amounts of interest and politeness.
“Kind of no news. Nothing’s changed since she started the treatments.”
“Isn’t no change better than getting worse when it comes to cancer?”
“I think so. The only words Lizbeth wants to hear, though, are ‘cancer-free’.”
Mamba did a mental calculation. If my math is right . . .
“Hasn’t she missed a treatment? Most people I’ve heard about that were on chemotherapy went about once a week.”
“She goes every other week, but, she’s missed one treatment. That’s worrying her. And me. Oh, there’s also the fact that she’s losing her hair. She’s a beautiful woman when she’s well.”
“I’ll bet she is.”
“You young people just go on home now,” the voice of an elderly female admonished from the other side of the gravel path. “You’ve had plenty of time to have your fun in my alley. Now git on home before I call the police.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Franklin called back. “We didn’t mean to upset you, Mrs. Simpson.”
“Just git on home, now,” she called back.
“Good night, ma’am.” He looked at Mamba, shrugged and said, “She hasn’t changed in—” He stopped and replayed his life in Tipton in his mind. “She hasn’t changed in over twenty-five years.”
“I think we all crave stability.”
“Believe me, crave doesn’t come close.”
They started walking back toward the bus station and Mamba’s rental car.