I grabbed a cup of Nickie’s coffee to go and walked out into the humidity – it hit me in the face like a brick. I was headed over to the girl’s apartment to see what I could find. I had a key that I wouldn’t normally use it without Liz being home, but I’m sure under the circumstances they would understand.
The girls shared an older Victorian home located just off Main Street in Humboldt, which I call ‘the apartment’. It had been in one of the girl’s family for a long time, and them using the house on occasion was a good excuse to keep it maintained.
Normal parking for ‘the apartment’ was behind the house in a small parking area. Access was from a short front driveway or an alley that went behind all the houses on that side of the block – there weren’t many. I drove up the alley and stopped the Ford before entering the well-used parking area behind the house. As I expected, there were no cars here, or in the driveway, or on the street in front of the house. This meant that none of the girls had yet returned to Humboldt, and were still working or staying at their Memphis apartment. However, there were fresh tire tracks in the gravel and dirt parking area. The rain had stopped sometime overnight, and these appeared to have been made during the rain or immediately after – not later. I didn’t believe Jan, Jane or Liz had been here in several days, so I assumed the tracks must belong to a maid or caretaker. But, just to be safe, I parked in the alley and didn’t disturb the tracks.
I used the short cobblestone path leading to the back porch and then up a few small steps, which took me to the main level of the house. I had not noticed any footprints in the muddy driveway, but did see small evidence of dried mud on the steps and on the porch when I stepped through the shaky screen door.
The backdoor is one of those oversized, heavy, wooden doors, with a large pane of glass in the upper half. I inserted my key in the lock and door slowly opened itself – it was not locked! The door had been partially closed but not secure, and the pressure of my inserting the key had caused the door to swing open – exposing the small hallway just off the modest kitchen area.
I stepped inside, and still did not seen any mud, but I got the impression that someone had been here – and recently – I’m not sure why. Entering slowly, I walked through the short hallway and into the kitchen area; that’s where I began to see the damage. Somebody, or several somebody’s, had made an absolute mess of the house. Tables were turned over, drawer contents dumped on the floor, cabinets and closets emptied and even several pieces of furniture broken.
Instinct told me to go back to my car and get my .38, which I did. Retracing my steps, I retreated to the Ford, got my revolver from the glove box and put it in the waistband of my pants. Whoever tore the place apart could still be inside, and I wanted to be prepared.
Moving back through the kitchen, to another small hall, and finally to the stairway, I found more of the same. Somebody had been looking for something and they had made a thorough search. I had a pretty good idea what they were looking for; I just didn’t know if they had found it
Taking the .38 from my waistband, I headed up the stairs to the bedrooms – there I found more of the same. Emptied closets, dumped drawers and open cabinets were one thing, but there seemed to be a significant amount of destruction to go along with the ransacking. That was odd. It appeared I was looking at damage that would have occurred during a fight – a big fight. Tables and chairs were broken and other furniture items had been tossed around as if they had been thrown during a struggle.
I went back downstairs to the living room, located an unbroken chair and sat down – I needed to think. Whatever happened here was violent, but I saw no blood or other evidence of anyone being injured. Except for the destruction and me, the house was empty – as far as I could determine.
It was pretty obvious that someone had been here looking for the money. But, since I haven’t talked to Liz, I have no idea if the money was in the house or not. However, that doesn’t explain the fight. Could there have been several intruders and they fought over the money? And why would there be intruders? Steve Carrollton had given me 48 hours to find the money and return it to him – my time wasn’t used up yet! Also, this just didn’t resemble something he or his thugs would do.
I was fairly confident that neither Jan, Jane nor Liz were involved in whatever happened in the house. This meant that they were still safe – for the time being. But, if this intruder has the money and doesn’t intend on returning it to Steve Carrollton, then all bets are off. Until that money is in the hands of the FBI, he and his men will stop at nothing to retrieve it. It seems that my problems are getting larger, not smaller!
At some point I was going to have to get Leroy involved, I knew that. However, I really wanted to be comfortable with the safety of the girls before getting the local police all excited. The Humboldt Police and the Gibson County Sheriff’s office were very good and efficient; but somehow this was shaping up to maybe be more than they were equipped to handle.
I had seen enough of the house. It was a mess, and there would be some very unhappy stewardesses when they saw it. But, I wondered if any of the neighbors had seen or heard anything? If there was a fight, as I suspected, then they might have heard the noise or saw somebody. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to ask, and I knew exactly where to start.
My second grade teacher, Mrs. Moore, lives on the corner just a few doors away. She had retired several years ago and spent her time working in her yard and watching over neighborhood activities. I had noticed her car parked in front of the house when I drove by earlier, so I was pretty sure she was home. She might not remember me, but it was worth giving it a try.
Mrs. Moore was pruning her roses when I walked into the yard.
“Carson Reno, are you behaving yourself,” she said without looking up.
“Mrs. Moore, I wasn’t sure you would remember me. How have you been?”
“Well Carson, I’ve been fine since I gave up trying to make kids like you into something worthwhile. As for remembering you, I’m not sure I could ever forget you! Maybe YOU don’t remember, but Carson Reno wasn’t exactly the model student teachers like to have in their classroom.”
“Mrs. Moore, I’m sure I wasn’t. Is it too late to apologize?” I don’t know why I said that.
“Nope, but it isn’t necessary. I understand you have bettered yourself since leaving my classroom, even got a college education. That’s good enough for me. Now, how are your parents?” This woman had not changed a bit since my second grade class.
“They are fine. In fact I’ll be seeing them this afternoon. Thanks for asking. Do you have a minute to talk with me?” I asked.
“Sure do. Let me get us some lemonade and we’ll sit in the swing. Go ahead and grab a seat, I’ll be right back,” she said as she removed her work gloves and stepped into the house. I sat down in the swing and suddenly remembered the humidity; the lemonade sounded good.
Mrs. Moore returned with two large glasses of ice cold lemonade and sat down in the swing. She tapped her glass against mine – as if giving a toast and said, “Now what do you want to talk about? Is it about one of those pretty young stewardesses that live in that house you’ve been visiting this morning?”
“Why, yes it is, you saw me?” I was surprised.
“Saw you? You’ve been sneaking around over there for the past several months. Coming in late at night and leaving early the next morning. You weren’t trying to hide were you? If so, you did a very poor job,” she laughed.
“Well, no. At least I don’t think I was,” I was stuttering. “I guess I didn’t realize anybody was watching. I really never thought about it.”
“Carson Reno, people tell me you are a Private Detective, and a good one. You should know, someone is always watching,” she nodded. “Now, what do you want to talk to me about?”
She had the best of me, as usual. “Have you seen anyone else going into or out of that house in the past couple of days?” I asked.
“Sure have – several folks. And most of them didn’t belong,” she said frankly.
“Really? Did you recognize any of them?”
“A couple,” she said nodding toward the house. “That boyfriend of the one named Jan has been there a couple of times. I think his name is Hanson Collier; he’s from Jackson, I believe.”
“Was Jan there when he visited?”
“I don’t think so. He didn’t stay long, but went into the house each time. I’m pretty sure no one was home.”
“Interesting,” I said to myself. “Who else did you recognize?”
“I know this sounds odd, and it is still odd to me. I thought about calling Sheriff Epsee, but I decided it was none of my business. Anyway, that mechanic fellow who works at the Truck Stop was over there, too. I’m not sure he went into the house, but I do know he hung around for a long time. I didn’t see him leave, so I can’t say for sure how long.”
“Very interesting,” I said to myself again. “Anybody else?”
“Nobody I recognized, but I know their type. I see people just like them on TV all the time, and I love Perry Mason! Anyway, gangsters are what they looked like to me, dark suits and ties in the middle of the day – nobody but gangsters dress that way! Then there were also a couple of Hispanic men, they were dressed like they thought this was south Florida! And they came twice, all were up to no good, I suspect.”
“Really? Did they always go in the house?” This was getting better by the minute.
“Sure did – both yesterday and the day before. They didn’t stay long, but definitely went into the house. They even had most of the lights on!”
“Were these visits in the daylight or at night?” I asked.
“Both. That Truck Stop fellow was over there late yesterday afternoon. Those gangster fellows were over there yesterday during the day and then the night before.”
“And Jan’s boyfriend – was that day or night?” I asked.
“It was during the day, but he could have come at night and I might not have seen him.”
“Wow, Mrs. Moore. That has been one busy place for the last couple of days, right?”
“It always is Carson, and you should know, because you’re usually one of the participants,” she said with a chuckle.
“During all this coming and going did you hear any noises – loud noises at the house?” I asked.
“Carson, I don’t hear so well anymore, so I probably wouldn’t have heard anything. I see pretty good, but my hearing is not what it used to be. Too many noisy kids in my younger days,” she laughed. “What is this about? Why all the questions?” she asked.
“Nothing really, or I guess I mean I’m really not sure. I’m going to speak with Sheriff Epsee and have him take a look around the house. He’ll probably want to talk with you too,” I was being really evasive.
As we finished our lemonade, I steered the conversation in another direction. She had been more than helpful, and I didn’t want to alarm her – Sheriff Epsee would do that all by himself!
We talked for another half-hour about school, life and simple Humboldt gossip. I promised to stop by and see her again and I also promised to tell Mom and Dad that she said hi.
I needed to think and make some phone calls, and I also needed to see my parents. Mother got alarmed if she heard I was in town and had not paid a visit.
I went by Pulliam’s and picked up a pound of barbecue with all the trimmings.
Dad and I shared a sandwich and beer while Mother brought me up to date on all the gossip I didn’t need to know. What I did need to know was the location of that money – and only Liz could point me in the right direction. If she had the money and had left it at the apartment, then it was gone and that was not good. If it was still in her car, then all plans were still in place and I would turn the money over to the FBI and tell Steve Carrollton to go ‘pound sand’. If one of the other girls had the money, then maybe we would know when Jack got to see their luggage. But one thing was certain, if I couldn’t come up with the money, and Carrollton hadn’t already found it, then we would both still be looking for it. I was certain of that!
And who were all these people going in and out of ‘the apartment’? With perhaps the exception of Hanson Collier, they would have all been looking for the money. But who were they?
I needed to get a status on Jan and Jane from Jack Logan. So, I said an early good-bye to Mom and Dad, then headed to Chiefs to see if I had any messages.
It was still early afternoon, but Chiefs had already started to rock. This was Friday, payday for the workers, and the end of the farmer’s long week. They were all ready to celebrate.
I found a spot for the Ford in front of my cabin and noticed that Joe Richardson’s car was parked in front of the next cabin. The inside of Chiefs wasn’t havoc yet, but it seemed to be headed in that direction. Joe was already snuggled up at the bar and he waved me over.
“Gonna get crazy tonight,” I said as I waved at Nickie.
She got the message, and quickly delivered my usual Jack Daniel’s and Coke. It was a welcome sight.
“Any messages?” I asked her above the jukebox music.
“Carson Reno – why do you even bother to ask?” Nickie snapped. “You always have messages and I end up being responsible for their delivery. I think I am going to assign Mavis as your new Humboldt secretary. Then you can pester her for your messages!”
“Mavis!” Joe exclaimed.
“Now, Nickie, you wouldn’t do that to me – would you? You’re my favorite and we love you, you know that,” I said smiling. “Do I have any messages?”
“Yes, and you have just one,” Nickie finally answered. “It’s from Jack Logan and he said it was urgent. He just called a few minutes ago, so I’m sure you can catch him at the number he left.”
I quickly made my way to the outside payphone and called Jack. As Nickie had assumed, he was still in his office.
Both Jan Guthrie and Jane Dudley were also in his office. Larry Parker’s deputies had brought them over from the Memphis airport, and I’m sure they were terrified. Jack briefed them both about the situation and shared as much information as he thought appropriate. We needed them to be alarmed and concerned, but not out of control.
I told him about the destruction at their apartment and suggested that he not share that with them – just yet. Jack and I talked for a minute and we decided it best to get them out of Memphis as quickly as possible. Our decision was for Jan and Jane to come to Jackson and secure a room at the Holiday Inn. They could then travel to Humboldt tomorrow, after we talked. I would meet with them this evening and we could discuss the situation in greater detail.
Jack put me on hold and discussed our plan with Jan and Jane. He quickly came back on the phone and said they agreed and would be leaving his office and driving straight to Jackson.
Jack also told me he was traveling to Humboldt this evening, and would be meeting Judy Strong. His plans were to stay at the Jackson Holiday Inn – but I knew better! Before hanging up, I asked him to call me when he arrived, and suggested that perhaps we could all get together at the Country Club for dinner. Jack thought that was a good idea.
I went back into Chiefs wondering what to do. But, until I found the money, all ideas and plans were useless. I would just have to wait and see where to take this next.
I didn’t know it then, but others were already making plans for me!
Everyone had over a two-hour trip before getting to Jackson, so I settled back in the bar for some afternoon relaxation. Flo had already spotted Joe, and she was trying to get him to dance when I slid back on my barstool.
Sipping my drink, I watched Mavis as she was waiting on a table in the corner of the dining area. Being unable to look down, she was forced to turn sideways and talk over her shoulder to her customers. And, of course, unknowing customers were as shocked as I had been during my first encounter with Mavis. It was humorous watching their reactions, especially the women!
“How does she keep from tipping over?” Joe grinned. “And are they real?”
“Well, if they aren’t,” I answered, “I don’t want to imagine what else they could be! And besides, they have names.”
“What has names, her tits?” Joe frowned.
“Yes, one is ‘Luscious’ and the other is ‘Bodacious’,” I answered frankly. “And don’t ask me which one is which!”
“How do you know? Wait…don’t answer that. I’m not sure I want to know,” Joe laughed.
“Flo told me, I guess you and her can discuss it later,” I smiled.
“Well, what’s up with the cigarette? It just hangs there, in her lips, but it isn’t lit.” Joe was shaking his head.
“I’m honestly not sure. I don’t think Nickie will let her smoke while she’s working, but I haven’t gotten up the nerve to ask yet!”
Joe and I sipped our drinks and watched in silence as Mavis waddled around the restaurant and bar. It was an interesting sight, and I was enjoying the relaxation. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
Over the constant loud music coming from the jukebox, I heard someone calling my name.
Flo was standing next to the jukebox with the payphone receiver in her outstretched arm. She was yelling, “Mr. Carson, Mr. Carson – you have a call.”
There was no point in my trying to hear anything on that phone, so I yelled back at Flo, “Take a number and I’ll call them back.” I hated to do that, but the call could be important and I needed to hear what was said.
Flo brought me the number and, as I expected, it was important. It was Liz calling from Mary Ellen’s house. I quickly called her back from the outside payphone, grabbed Joe off his barstool and pointed the Ford toward the Mary Ellen Maxwell residence on Warmath Circle. I was in a hurry.
Elizabeth Teague is best described as a ‘tall, cool drink of water.” Regardless of the situation, it is always refreshing to be in her company. However, this might turn out to be an exception.
She and Mary Ellen were both dressed in jeans and light sweaters and having an early cocktail on the pool patio. They were the best of friends, but quite opposite in both looks and personality. Liz was tall, which she usually emphasized with heels, and Mary Ellen was much shorter and almost never wore heels. Both were strikingly attractive, and had all their parts and pieces in great shape and in all the right places – if you know what I mean.
Money and society had been generous to both, and neither missed a social opportunity to strengthen their standings. Following her husband’s death, Mary Ellen had taken the reigns of Maxwell Trucking and never looked back. She and the owner of Wayne Knitting, Gerald Wayne, had been seeing a lot of each other and everyone believed that relationship was good for both of them.
Liz’s work as a stewardess fit her personality perfectly. She never met a stranger and was never at a loss for words – we got along together very well.
I’m not sure how they did it, but both were still carrying a great tan. It wasn’t really ‘tanning’ season, but it was the kind of tan you can almost smell when you get close enough!
Liz greeted me at the door with a familiar hug and a very wet and warm kiss. “Carson, you have been leaving messages for me everywhere. Did you miss me that much?” she said laughing.
“Yes, you know I have. Have you enjoyed your mini vacation?” I was making small talk.
“We had a wonderful time! Touring beautiful old homes, dining in historic restaurants; you should have been with us,” she was excited.
“Liz, you know I would love to have been with you, but I had to work.” I wouldn’t have been caught dead doing that!
“Carson,” Mary Ellen said, “What brings you to Humboldt? You don’t typically just drop by for social visits.”
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Please fix Joe and me one of those cocktails and I’ll tell you the story.”
Mary Ellen was only gone a minute and returned with a couple of drinks for Joe and me. I’m not sure what was in the glasses; but it was clear, contained a lot of ice and had a mint smell and taste. Very refreshing.
We shared our cocktails and I shared the story – start to finish, leaving nothing out. When I finished they both sat speechless staring at me.
“Liz,” I finally asked. “Where is that travel bag you took to Puerto Rico?”
“I left it in my bedroom at ‘the apartment’,” she said shakily.
“That’s what I was afraid of,” I sighed. “And you never opened it?” I asked.
“No, why should I? It contained work clothes and items we would have worn in San Juan – not something I would have needed in Natchez, Mississippi!”
“What should we do?” Mary Ann asked.
“Right now, nothing. And in particular,” I said to Liz, “you’re not to go back to that apartment. Understand?”
“Why?” Liz objected. “I live there!”
“Just don’t, not today. For now I want both of you to link up with Jack, Jan and Jane; they’re probably already in Jackson at the Holiday Inn. Then, I want all of us to meet for dinner at the Country Club – tonight at 7 sounds about right. Please ask Jack and Judy to join us, I know Jack wants to brief everyone on his discussions with the FBI. I’ll meet everyone there later; I’ve got a few more things to check in to.”
I grabbed Joe by the arm and left the girls in shock and disbelief, as we got in the Ford and headed back to town. It was time to brief Sheriff Leroy Epsee and get him involved.
Unfortunately, Leroy was already involved, as I was about to find out.
Joe and I discussed the situation on our drive back into town, and how we should break the news of a break in and the destruction at the apartment to the girls. Neither of us had any good ideas nor little did we know that the situation was only going to get worse!
Joe asked me to drive by the apartment, so he would know where it was located, if that became necessary. I thought that was a good plan.
Swinging west down Main Street, I saw all the cars and confusion before I reached the Elementary School. Two of Leroy’s cruisers were parked in front of ‘the apartment’ and a Humboldt Police car blocking the 17th Avenue entrance. This was not what I wanted to see.
“Joe,” I said, “this doesn’t look good. Leroy’s going to be pissed that I didn’t call him, and he probably won’t understand the reason I didn’t.”
“Let’s just forget it and head to Chiefs,” Joe suggested.
“No, I need to find out what this is all about – good or bad!” I sighed.
I parked the Ford on Main Street in front of Mrs. Moore’s house, and Joe and I looked toward the apartment. Deputy Scotty Perry was standing on the front porch.