I read a story once about a reporter who literally had a nose for news—it grew all warm and tingly whenever a story was about to break. Mine doesn’t—which may be one reason I worked for the Tyler, Indiana, Tribune instead of The New York Times. It also explains why I was not at the far end of the county when the biggest thing to hit Tyler since the ’37 flood was taking place downtown.
What happened was that about the same time I was driving out to interview a prize-winning 4H calf and its young owner, the State Police was sending out a teletype to all local officers to be on the lookout for a man and woman reported to be headed upriver from Louisville in a small power boat. True to Tyler tradition of doing that little bit extra, Chief Roudebush and another of Tyler’s Finest commandeered a boat with a souped-up outboard and started cruising back and forth between Tyler and the Kentucky shore opposite. And as luck would have it, after about an hour or so they finally spotted something that matched the description the State Police had given out. Roudebush immediately jumped to his feet and, unmindful of the wild rocking, he bellowed, “Halt! You’re under arrest!”
Without a moment’s hesitation the other boat swung away and raced for the nearest shore—Tyler. Roudebush’s man gunned the outboard nearly throwing Roudebush into the water and raced after it.
I’ll say this. It was close. There was a mad scramble up the bank, and at the top Roudebush managed to catch the girl’s ankle. She swung around, kicking and scratching as she fell, and by the time Roudebush and the other officer had her under control, her companion had disappeared into a nearby cornfield.
What was later called The Great Manhunt, or more accurately, The Godawful Mess, had begun.
* * *
Not being on the spot to get the story firsthand wasn’t the unluckiest thing in my young life. But even so I probably wouldn’t have lost my job over it if it hadn’t been for Roy Elmo. Roy had come to Tyler about six months before to replace a Tribune photographer who had moved on to one of the Indianapolis dailies, which was what any one of us would have given our right arms for.
Anyway, I was just sitting down to start typing up my copy when E.J. came storming out of his office. E.J. is E. J. Howard—owner, publisher, and editor of the Tribune. He is a tall heavy-shouldered man with a voice like a bullhorn. Roy Elmo came in behind him and peered expectantly over his shoulder. Roy is my age or a little younger but already beginning to lose his hair.
“Where the hell have you been, Jackson?” E.J. said.
“Out in the county on that—”
“For four hours?” E.J. said. “Your sense of timing is perfect. There’s an escaped murderer—or worse—loose in town and you decide to spend the morning out in the country.”
“Just a minute—” I said.
“Don’t you have a radio in that clunk of yours?” E.J. went on. “All you had to do was turn it on. WTYL was running back-to-back bulletins.”
“Until I got them stopped,” Roy said smugly.
“That’s right,” E.J. said. “Roy at least was on the ball. He was able to convince the sheriff this murderer might have a portable radio and be getting too much information from the bulletins about where the search was concentrating. But by then the damage was already done. It’s less than three hours to press time. Half the town’s been deputized to help run this guy down. The other half’s dying to find out what’s going on and everything we know has already gone out over the radio.”
“I get the message,” I said. “I’ll see what I can dig up.”
“You do that,” E.J. said. “But just in case that’s not good enough I’m keeping Roy on the story too. Because as of today he’s a reporter as well as a photographer. And,” he added significantly, “unlike some people I know he just might keep on being a reporter after today.” He turned on his heel and stomped back to his office.
Roy continued to look at me. “You know, Jackson,” he said, “I wish you liked me more.”
“Is that a fact?” I said.
“Yes,” he said, nodding, “It is. After all, you and Betty were pretty close once and I know she’d feel better if there were no hard feelings between us.” Betty was Betty Lindsay, E. J.’s secretary and the nicest girl in six counties. And, as Roy said, we had been close once. But then he’d shown up and pretty soon there was nothing for me to do but crawl back into the woodwork and watch him take over.
“So,” he went on, “I was thinking maybe I should ask you to be part of the wedding. Not best man, of course, but maybe one of the ushers.”
If I’d stopped to think I’d have realized I was playing his game but I didn’t stop to think. I just jumped up off the chair and threw my best punch straight at his face.
Actually, it was my only punch. I hadn’t been in a fight since I was in junior high school—and I lost that one too. Roy sidestepped quickly, blocked my swing, and hit me twice, first in the stomach and then, as I doubled over, on the jaw. I said “Oof,” took two steps back I hadn’t planned on and sat down hard.
“That’s it, Jackson!” Howard roared from the doorway. “I saw the whole thing, and if there’s one thing I won’t have it’s brawling. You’re fired!”
Roy looked down at me sadly. “I guess I never told you,” he said, “but I was intramural champ at college.” He smiled quickly, then turned and went off after E.J. After another minute or so I managed to get enough wind back to pull myself up to my feet and leave.
Which meant that I had to pass Sally Kemperman at the receptionist’s desk. She gave me a slow shake of her head. “Quitting again, Jackson?” she said.
“Your hearing is better than that,” I said. “The word the man used was ‘fired.’”
“That’s not what I meant,” she said, “and you know it. You just lie down and let Roy Elmo walk all over you. I’m beginning to think you like it.”
“Unfortunately,” I said, “I wasn’t intramural champ. I wasn’t even in the running.”
“If you ask me,” Sally said, “neither was he. But that wasn’t what I meant either.” She looked at me curiously. “What are you going to do now? Go to Wiedemann’s Bar and get drunk?”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” I said, “but it’s an idea.”
“There’s a better one,” she said earnestly. “You could—no, forget it.”
“Nothing,” she said. She looked away. “I was just thinking,” she said over her shoulder, “that you’d really show them if you went out and scooped Roy. But there’s no way you could do that. You’d better just go on down to Wiedemann’s and have yourself a good cry.”
“What do you mean there’s no way?” I said. There was no real reason I should care one way or the other what she thought about me. She was small and dark and a pusher. Not my type at all. I liked them tall and willowy—like Betty. But I wasn’t going to let her write me off like that either. “The day will never dawn when I can’t scoop Roy Elmo twice before breakfast—or any other time either.”
“Sure,” she said. “You just don’t want to now, that’s all.”
“You better believe it,” I said. But even as I spoke I knew the words were a lie. I did want to scoop Roy Elmo, and, by God, I would too.
The police station was just under the hill on West Street, and usually you could count on at least a couple of officers hanging around. Today, however, it was empty except for Dan Roudebush, sitting alone and disconsolate in his office.
“Well,” he said as I came in, “whose door did you run into?”
I touched my jaw gingerly where it had begun to swell. “Roy Elmo’s,” I said.
“No kidding?” Roudebush said. His eyes lit up and he sat straighter in his chair. “And you’re here to press charges. Assault and battery. Or better still, if we can make it stick, aggravated assault. He could get six months—maybe even a year.”
“Unfortunately,” I said, “I swung first.”
Roudebush slumped back on his chair. “Too bad,” he said.
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. “I thought you and Roy were buddies.”
“We were,” Roudebush said. “But he was here this morning when the State teletype came in. He’s the one who persuaded me to try to catch the two of them when they passed by instead of just reporting back. He was going to take pictures when I brought them in.” He snorted. “Some pictures! I look like the biggest damn fool since God made Adam.”
“You did catch the girl,” I said.
“Sure,” Roudebush said bitterly, “but since it was outside the city limits the sheriff insisted she was his prisoner. Well, he can have her. He can have the whole damned case. I told the rest of the boys they could join the posse if they wanted to. I’m staying out of it.”
“In that case,” I said, “I guess my best bet is to drive over to the county building.”
“You can if you want,” Roudebush said, “but it won’t do you any good. Nobody’s there. Last I heard they’d set up some kind of headquarters at Freeman’s farm. They got the girl there too, but it’s supposed to be a big secret, so don’t tell anybody where you heard it. And, while you’re at it, when you write this up for the paper spell my name wrong. Maybe everybody’ll think it’s somebody else.”
The search was a little better organized now than when I had driven into town and I was stopped at three different points by special deputies who insisted on searching my car each time. As one of them explained, “We know you wouldn’t help him willingly, but maybe he forced you to lock him in the trunk.” The third time I opened the trunk without waiting to be asked.
In any case, I finally broke free of town and was just beginning to pick up speed when a wildly waving figure stepped out from among the trees lining the road. For one awful moment I thought sure I was going to hit him, but then the brakes took hold and I skidded to a stop inches away from his outstretched hands.
“You damn fool!” I said as he trotted up to me, holding awkwardly onto the immense holster flopping at his side. “I could have killed you!”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said breathlessly. I recognized him now. His name was Herb Albany and in less exciting times he ran a hardware store at the corner of Main and West. “This is important. We caught the guy, and we need your car to carry him back to town.”
I almost knocked him over getting out of the car. “Where?”
Albany gestured dramatically toward the side of the road where five of his Main Street buddies prodded and poked their hunting shotguns at the most nervous looking individual I’d seen in a long time, and my sudden surge of hope died.
“You’ve got the wrong man, Herb,” I said, “That’s one of the FBI men from down in Louisville.”
Herb looked at me suspiciously. “You sure?”
I nodded. “I met him last year at a Law Day Dinner. He was one of the speakers.”
“Well, why didn’t he say so?” Herb glared at the FBI man, then swallowed his disappointment and waved to his friends. “Come on. We’re just wasting our time here.” And grumbling and muttering they all loped off back into the woods.
As soon as they were gone, the FBI man dropped back against a tree and let his breath out in a great whoosh. “They never told me it’d be like this,” he said. “Gangsters, bank robbers, hoodlums—they covered them all. But not a word about idiots with shotguns. God knows what would have happened if you hadn’t shown up.”
“Maybe next time,” I said, “you’ll know not to go wandering around loose in the woods.”
“I was just trying to get out to Freeman’s farm,” he said, “and this old geezer at a gas station told me about a shortcut.” He shook his head. “Damndest road I’ve ever seen. Halfway up I broke an axle—and he said he drove it every day.”
“He probably does,” I said. “What he forgot to tell you is that he uses a tractor—which is considerably higher off the ground that your average passenger car. But if you still want to get out to Freeman’s, I’ll take you.”
He paused and smiled wryly. “But no shortcuts, OK?”
I grinned back. “OK,” I said.
* * *
The agent’s name was Kincaid. They thought, he told me, the man everybody was chasing was a petty hoodlum named Soapy Halloran who had turned to robbing banks as a means of moving up in the world.
“You think?” I asked.
“Well,” Kincaid said apologetically, “nobody’s really seen him except your chief of police and he can’t make a positive ID. What we do know is that Soapy and an unidentified woman were holed up in a shack on the riverfront across from Louisville. We raided the place, but they were already gone and so was a boat the owner said should have been there. It’s a pretty fair assumption that’s how Soapy and the girl made their getaway. But there’s no guarantee that they’re the ones your chief flushed.”
“Couldn’t the owner identify the boat?”
Kincaid nodded. “Unfortunately,” he said, “nobody thought to secure it and the river carried it away. God knows where it is now. On the positive side, though, if it isn’t Soapy why did he run?”
“Good question,” I said and turned onto the dirt road leading back to Freeman’s farm.
* * *
Three police cars and a civilian sedan were parked in a rough semicircle in a meadow behind Freeman’s house. A coffee pot had been set up over a camp stove near the open end of the ring, and even before I parked I had no difficulty picking Roy Elmo out among the men clustered around it.
“Oh, no,” I said, “it couldn’t be.”
“What’s the matter?” Kincaid said.
“The story of my life,” I said and got out of the car.
After Kincaid had identified himself, he and the sheriff went over to where a small blonde girl in blue jeans and a man’s shirt sat on the ground under the half-watchful eye of a bored deputy. I stayed with the rest of the group, kneeling to help myself to the coffee. Roy looked at me suspiciously.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
“Just acting as chauffeur,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Keep it that way. This is my story and nobody’s going to horn in.”
“You know, Roy,” I said, sitting back on my heels with my cup, “if I were a betting man, I’d say you knew about this setup all along—probably from when you got the radio broadcasts stopped—and that you set that whole thing up in the office this morning just to keep from having to share it.”
Roy smiled maliciously. “Sometimes, Jackson,” he said, “you do show sparks of intelligence. Too bad it’s always after it’s too late to do any good.”
I didn’t respond because by now Kincaid and the sheriff had concluded their interview with the girl and had come back to rejoin the group around the coffee pot. The sheriff was shaking his head. “That’s the way it’s been ever since we caught her,” he said. “She won’t open her mouth for anything.”
“Of course she won’t,” Roy said, pushing himself to his feet. “I wouldn’t either if everybody I saw spent the first five minutes reading me my rights under the Constitution. What you need is somebody who isn’t bound by the rules to go over and talk to her. Like me.”
“What would you do, Roy?” I said. “Beat it out of her?”
“No,” he said scornfully. “I’m no psychologist but I learned a long time ago that if you want to catch flies you don’t use vinegar. I’m willing to bet that girl’s scared half out of her mind and a little unofficial honey might be all she needs to break her down. It’s worth a try, isn’t it?”
The sheriff looked at Kincaid, who shrugged. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt,” Kincaid said.
“There’s only one thing,” Roy said. “I want an exclusive on anything I get. That means no releases to WTYL until after the paper hits the street. And—” he glanced sidelong at me “—it also means holding Jackson here the same time.”
The sheriff rubbed one hammy hand across his jaw and looked at me dubiously.
“Roy,” I said, “if you get any information from that girl that you can use in the paper I’ll gladly stay here until hell freezes over.”
Roy grinned. “I guess that settles it then,” he said and bent to pour a fresh cup of coffee.
“On the other hand,” I said, rising, “you don’t mind if I come along, do you, just to make sure you aren’t pulling some kind of a fast one. And,” I added, ”if you don’t get anything, then I get a crack—same terms and deal.”
Roy hesitated, then grinned. “Let’s make it really fair,” he said. He held out his filled cup. “You go first.”
That gave me an uneasy feeling I’d been suckered into playing his game again, but I took the cup and went over to where the girl was sitting. Roy followed but stopped back by the guard where he could be within earshot.
I squatted down on my heels beside the girl and offered her the cup. Maybe it was just the too-large shirt but she looked very young and vulnerable. “Go ahead,” I said. “You need it more than I do.”
She continued to look at me for another long moment, then took the cup but held it without drinking. “You’re not a cop, are you?” she said at last.
“No,” I said, “I’m a reporter.”
“Then maybe you can help me,” she said. “There’s no point talking to them.” She gestured with her free hand to indicate the line of police cars. The hand was well formed and delicately made but slightly grubby from the long day in the field, and innocent of both jewelry and polish. “They got their minds made up Bobby Joe is a thief and that’s a lie.”
“Bobby Joe Smith,” she said. “And he never stole anything in his life, unless it was me. And he did that legal even though my daddy doesn’t think so. We were married just yesterday in Jeffersonville—by a real minister too. You can’t get any more legal than that, can you, Mister?”
“Not if you’re of age,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “That’s the problem. I’m not. My daddy didn’t want us to do it, but we figured once it was done and all, he’d just have to accept it. What he did, though, was get real mad and threaten to have it annulled. That’s why we took that boat and that’s why Bobby Joe ran when that policeman tried to stop us. He thought my daddy had put the law on us and he knew it would be worse on him than me. Otherwise, he never would have left me.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” I said. I looked down at the dirt between her feet. “What’s your daddy’s name?”
She shook her head vehemently. “No,” she said. “I don’t want you bringing him here. I’m Susan Smith now and that’s what I’m going to stay.”
“Even though it means Bobby Joe might have to go to jail?”
“They have to catch him first,” she said.
“That’s right,” I said. I asked her a couple of more questions—the church where she’d been married, things like that, but she was done talking. Finally I rose and turned to go back toward the others. Roy was nowhere in sight.
The sheriff looked at me, embarrassed.
“Where did he go?” I said although I already knew the answer.
“Over to the house,” the sheriff said. He shrugged his big shoulders, more embarrassed than ever. “I’m sorry, Jackson, but there really wasn’t anything we could do about it. The agreement was between the two of you and if he didn’t want to keep it we couldn’t hold him against his will.”
“No,” I said, “I guess you couldn’t.”
* * *
Roy was in the house a long time, and when he came out he was grinning from ear to ear. I rose to meet him as he came up to the rest of us.
“Sorry about that, Jackson,” he said. “But nothing was said about not using the phone.”
“You got the story in then?” I said.
“Dictated it straight to the linotype man.” He glanced down at his watch. “First runs ought to be coming out any minute.”
“Too bad,” I said.
“Maybe for you. Not for me.” He paused and cocked his head to look at me quizzically. “Unless, of course,” he said, “you were thinking of going another round.” He made boxing motions with his hands.
“No,” I said. “But I was going to suggest that it would have been smarter if you’d checked first with that new bride to see if she could explain why she isn’t wearing a wedding band.”
Roy looked at me for another long moment, then turned toward the sheriff, who nodded soberly. “That’s right, Roy,” he said. “Not a sign of a ring anywhere on her.”
Roy hesitated another fraction of a second, then turned again, this time to race back to the house.
* * *
It was a little after five when I got back to the Tribune Building. E.J. was alone in his office. “You fink,” he said as I came in.
“Checked out the girl’s story, did you?” I said.
E.J. nodded. “As best we could,” he said. “No record of any marriage license issued to a Bobby Joe or Susan anything in Floyd County in the last three months. None of the ministers listed in the phone book remembers performing a ceremony yesterday either.”
“Too bad you didn’t do that first,” I said. “Which reminds me, where’s your star reporter?”
“Gone,” E.J. said. “Fired or quit—we had a big argument over which. Not that it’s going to make any difference. Those papers sold out as soon as they hit the street—with a lead story as phony as a three-dollar bill.” He looked up at me mournfully and for a moment I almost felt sorry for him. “You know what’s going to happen the next time I show up for a Lions Club luncheon?”
“Every silver lining has its cloud,” I said. “On the other hand, just how big depends on you. After Roy left, the sheriff and I had a long talk—and afterwards he got a copy of the paper, showed it to the girl as proof we’d bought her story, and told her she could go. She took off like a comet on the four o’clock bus to Cincinnati. What she doesn’t know is that two FBI men are riding right behind her, with two more ready to take up the trail when she gets off, figuring that sooner or later she’ll lead them straight back to Halloran.”
E.J. looked at me warily. “So?”
“So,” I said, “all you have to do is say you put the story out at their request and you’re home free.”
“Except,” E.J. said, “the sheriff belongs to the Lions too and he knows I didn’t.”
“Sure,” I said, “but once I explained that the paper would really regret not being able to support him for reelection again, he decided he wouldn’t have any problem backing you up. So will the FBI.” I smiled. “The agent in charge owes me a small favor, which means the only problem is the question of my future employment.”
“What’s the problem?” E.J. said. “You never left the payroll.”
“Actually,” I said, “what I had in mind was for you to call some of your friends in Indianapolis with a recommendation.”
E.J. looked at me thoughtfully. “You know,” he said, “not too long ago I would have said you wouldn’t last a minute in the city. Now I’m not so sure. I’ll make the calls.”
“Fair enough,” I said. That settled, I left, just in time to catch Sally Kemperman scuttling away from the door.
“You were listening,” I said.
“I was not,” she said. “I was looking for my scarf.” She looked around, realized she had left it on the front counter, and hastily snatched it up.
“Well, anyway,” I said, “I’m glad you’re here.”
Sally looked away. “Roy Elmo’s leaving,” she said, twirling her scarf around her neck.
“I know,” I said. “E.J. told me.”
“I mean leaving town,” Sally said. “Betty Lindsay’s going with him. Although,” she added after a moment, “she may change her mind when she hears you’re going to Indianapolis. Betty always was an opportunist.”
“Unlike you,” I said.
Sally grinned and tucked her hand under my arm. “I thought you’d never notice,” she said.
A funny thing happened then. My nose grew all warm and tingly. “You know,” I said, “this may not turn out to be such a bad day after all.”