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PHIL HARDWICK’S THE ALIBI, a serial novel: Chapter 7: Off to Ocean Springs

Alibi-graphic_rgb» Jack Boulder, Mississippi’s premier private investigator, seeks to recover the special Brett Favre MVP exhibit that has been stolen from the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame & Museum.

Tuesday, March 3

After interviewing Madison County Supervisor Ruth Ann Tucker, the suspect with an alibi, Jack Boulder called Laura Webster at her Jackson law office to get an update on phone calls to the 800-number being used to gather information from the public. Laura’s law firm was serving as the contact point for all calls in response to the reward offer that had grown to $10,000. Laura was meeting with a client and unavailable, according to her assistant. Boulder said he would call back later. He checked his wristwatch. It was not yet 10:00 a.m. He figured he could drive to Ocean Springs, interview Tucker’s alibi witnesses and maybe be back in Jackson by dark.

By noon Boulder had driven to Hattiesburg. U.S. Highway 49 had taken him past fruit stands, old men selling vegetables from the back of pickup trucks, old women fortune tellers and a recently erected cross that touched the Florence sky. He pulled into the Hardy Street parking lot of the Purple Parrot Cafe and adjoining Crescent City Grill. The former was more upscale, a perfect place for a date or an important business meeting. The latter was more pub. Both had some of the best food in south Mississippi. He chose the Grill, was ushered to booth and ordered an oyster po-boy and fries. Just as his order arrived his cell phone vibrated. It was Laura.

“And now for the mid-day report,” she said. “We’ve had 56 calls so far today. Add that to the 81 that we received yesterday, for a total of 137. Of those, 72 wanted more information, 23 claimed to knowwhere the trophy exhibit was located, but wanted part of the reward money in advance before they would tell us where it was located, 18 apparently dialed the wrong number, 20 were outright prank calls, one wanted to know if he could have University of Southern Mississippi football season tickets in the Touchdown Club section instead of the reward money and three calls seemed to have some possible legitimacy. Of these three, one said that she worked at a convenience store near the Sports Hall of Fame and Museum and that a car driven by a nervous woman passenger stopped there at midnight. We sent that one to the Jackson Police Department contact. Another caller said that one of her co-workers is bragging that he knows who took the trophies. The call was from a number an alarm company in Brandon. The caller identified herself only as Barbara. What do you want us to do with that one?”

“Send me the information by email,” Boulder replied. “I’ll get it checked out.” A lead for MBI Agent Sheila Burgess.

“And of course you already have the other lead regarding the girl whose boyfriend picked up a package.”

“Correct,” Boulder said. “That one certainly looks good.”

“Where are you now?” she asked.

“Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg,” he said. “I’m about ready to put up a reward poster at the front door for the MVP trophies exhibit. Maybe that would elicit some information about its whereabouts.”

“What are you having for lunch?” she asked.

“Oyster po-boy,” he said. “Fried, of course.” He wished Laura was here with him having a cold draft beer and a plate of raw oysters. She would be the one having them raw. She was the raw oyster eater. He can’t stand the things. If they are so good, why do they have to be loaded up with sauce and eaten with a cracker?

“And from there, you’re off to Ocean Springs?”

“Yep,” he said. “Talk to you tomorrow or sooner.”
He placed the phone on the table and bit into the po-boy. At that moment a man about his age sat down across from him in the booth. He was a big guy. Over 250 pounds. Puffy checks, pale skin and little red blood vessels around his nose. He wore a dark sweater vest under a corduroy coat. A mug of draft beer was in his right hand. On his chubby face was a wide grin.

“Excuse me, but I heard you mention Brett’s Most Valuable Player trophies?” He said it like he was Brett Favre’s uncle. But then everybody in south Mississippi just called their NFL hero quarterback by his first name. Boulder looked to his left and then to his right in an effort to let the man know that it wasn’t nice to eavesdrop.

“Is that the exhibit that was stolen from the museum up in Jackson?”

“Could be,” Boulder mumbled, his mouth full of food.

“Probably a Mississippi State fan,” he said. “USM and State fans will do anything to get under each other’s skin. You wouldn’t believe some of the things they’ve done to each other over the years. But they’re not as bad as State and Ole Miss fans. Some of them really hate each other.” He took a chug of his beer. “Did you know that State and Southern are playing each other this year right here in Hattiesburg?

“Hmm,” Boulder muttered.

“So what’s your interest in the trophies? You trying to collect the reward money?”

“Just an interested citizen,” Boulder said.

“Got any good leads yet?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you said you were going to put up a reward poster to get some information about the trophies,” he said.

“I figure you’re either with the museum or the insurance company.” The smile was still there. He took another swig from his mug of beer. Boulder just stared at him as if he had spoken in some foreign language not understood. The man raised his left hand, and said, “Hey man, I was just trying to be be friendly.” He slid out of the booth and stood up. “Sorry to have bothered you.”

Boulder watched him walk to the other side of the place. He disappeared behind the wall between the restaurant and the bar. Boulder surveyed the restaurant as inconspicuously as possible. Was that meeting a coincidence or not? He reasoned that because he had said something while talking to Laura that it had to be just a chance encounter with someone who kept up with the news. He finished his meal, got back on the road and made it Ocean Springs by mid-afternoon.

Ruth Ann Tucker’s client – her alibi – managed a 24-unit condominium complex near the small craft harbor. His name was Roger Martin. He had developed the property four years ago. With a view to Deer Island to the south and the harbor and beachfront to the northwest the development has sold out quickly. Boulder had a plan on how he would approach Martin. He would say that he too was a real estate developer and had a similar property near the Ross Barnett Reservoir in Madison County. He wanted to hire an accountant whom he could trust and that Tucker had mentioned him as a satisfied client. Boulder’s plan did not get put into action. Martin was the first to speak.

“Ruth Ann called and told me to expect you,” Martin said. He led Boulder to a small office just off the reception room. “Have a seat and tell me how I can help. I understand you are looking for a stolen exhibit. She said you worked for the insurance company.”

“That’s correct,” Boulder said. “I understand you were also interviewed by the state police.”

“They called me this weekend,” he said. “Asked me when was the last time I saw Ruth Ann. Told them that she was here Friday afternoon, but I wasn’t sure about Saturday because I was out in my boat. They sounded like they already had their minds made up about her being – how do they say it now – a person of interest.”

“How did you come to hire her as your accountant?” Boulder asked.

“One of my buddies retired from the military and went to work for the IRS in Atlanta. He had worked with her there and was impressed. That was three years ago. I’m retired Air Force. I am very pleased with her. She doesn’t keep the books, just comes down twice a year and does a review audit. Makes sure I’m doing everything right and keeps me up to date on the latest tax laws. I can call her anytime I want to. I can’t believe she would do anything wrong. You know, the government, especially the IRS, checks out people very thoroughly before hiring them. I think she’s been framed.”

“Do you know what she did at the IRS?”

“She was a criminal investigator of some sort,” Martin said. “One of the best they had.”

“Know why anyone would want to frame her?” Boulder asked.

“Are you kidding? She put away a lot of bad guys. Collected a lot in back taxes too.”

They talked for fifteen more minutes about the Gulf Coast, gambling, retirement in Ocean Springs and the military. Boulder thanked him and departed.

There was one more person to interview, the friend whose name Tucker had given him. He went to his car and called the number. Karen Baker answered on the first ring. As Boulder began his introduction, she interrupted.

“Ruthie told me you would be calling,” she said. “Meet me at the Phoenicia Restaurant on Government Street in twenty minutes. I’ve got something to show you.”

Soon they were sitting across from each other at a white-clothed table by the window. She was attractive late-forties and athletic looking. Her hair was cut short and sun bleached. Judging from the warm-up suit she wore, he guessed she had just come from a workout. “Are you in town for long?” she asked.

“Driving back to Jackson as soon as we finish here,” he said.

“Do you work out every day, Mr. Boulder?” she asked. She sounded like she was interviewing him for a job.

“I try to jog a few miles a few times a week,” he said.

“Ruthie works out every day. This past Friday morning she was at my fitness center at six o’clock. Worked out for half an hour. She went to work after that and then came to my house and spent the night. We had dinner right here Saturday evening.” She reached in a pocket and produced a piece of paper. “Here’s the receipt.” She laid it in front of Boulder. He studied it. “Any questions?”

“Dinner for two,” he replied. “But not with who.”

She motioned for the server to come to the table. “Antonio, tell this man who I was with Saturday night.”

“That lady friend of yours from Jackson,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said. “And bring this gentleman a cup of your Lebanese coffee to go. He has a long drive ahead of him.”

The interview was over, the coffee arrived and Boulder made his way to his car. His cell phone rang. Another call from Laura.

“Call me when you get back to Jackson,” she said. “Things are developing. We may have another suspect and a much bigger problem than we expected.”

“Details?” he asked.

“Not on the phone,” she said. “Watch your rear view mirror. And get ready to drive to West Point.”

About Phil Hardwick

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