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Editor's Note:
After writing the last six years' worth of the Best of Knoxville in the exact same manner, this year we decided to do it a little differently. Or, rather, much differently—in fact, we turned the whole thing into a hard-boiled detective story. We're hoping this'll be more entertaining than the usual list of blurbs, while still cluing you in as to why these winners are deserving of their awards. (If you'd like to see the complete list of winners by category, click the "Full List" button below.) Also, our lawyers would like us to apologize beforehand to all those involved.

 

Special Online-Only Bonus!

When we asked John Mayer to illustrate our Best of Knoxville detective novel, he didn't just throw together some drawings. No, he wrote his own entire story starring Knoxville Confidential detective Solomon Panzer. So please join us now as we enter the alternate-universe version of The Lost Knoxville Caper.

 

The 7th Annual
The Lost Knoxville Caper

Chapter One

It was a dark and stormy morning. The rain beat down on the brim of my felt fedora like a two-year-old tugging on his daddy's pant leg. I shrugged deeper into my trenchcoat, set my square jaw, locked the door of my office/apartment, and marched out into the wet. A truck caromed through a puddle just as I was crossing the street to my favorite diner, looking for a hot cup of joe to start this bleak a.m. My gray pinstripe suit soaked up the dirty damp quicker than a NASCAR fan sucks down a PBR. Some days it just doesn't pay to step outside.

From here, I mused, as water dripped onto my wingtips, the afternoon can only be better. How wrong I was. I didn't know what dastardly deed was about to step into my life. And I didn't count on meeting her.

Old Dickey's Diner had been my morning nosh for umpteen decades now. I knew the building's metal walls, pitted counters, and wise-cracking waitresses better than my own mother. Old Dickey himself was as dependable as an Ex-Lax addict, and twice as fast with a coffee pot.

But something was amiss at Dickey's, mostly because it was gone. In its place, sprung up over-night like mushrooms after a spring rain, was a brand-spanking new super Dipsodoodlyoodle'sĒ, a casual dining restaurant that specialized in deep-fried cheese products. I stood outside and gaped at this apparition, water running down my back and soaking through my trenchcoat.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a chunk of the metal that had once wrapped Dickey's Diner's shell. On it, in black magic marker, was a rain-spattered, hand-lettered note: "Gone to Florida. Permanently. —D."

Dickey didn't know anyone in Florida and hated the place. "Too many tourists and old folks," he'd grumble, in a voice more graveled than a trailer park. "You'd only catch me there if I was dead."

Now I really needed that hot cup of joe.

Best Thrift/Secondhand Clothing: Goodwill

But first, I had to get into some dry clothes. Marlowe once told me that it's hard to sneak up on a case if you're squishing louder than a trout fisherman in hip-waders. Unfortunately, it had been my maid's day off for the last 10 years and I was in arrears on my laundry. But I knew where to find some cheap threads that could get me to some coffee in style. I swung up Broadway and saw the sign. Goodwill, it said, and I walked through the doors and into a bargain-hunter's Eden.

I plopped my wet feet along the orange rug, past racks of floral housecoats and bedroom suites, and turned right. Rows of rack stuffed more full than a Thanksgiving turkey. There was a wide selection of suits, jeans, and work shirts. Best of all, every last item was dry. I picked out a plaid cotton long-sleeved button down, broken-in Levi's, and some sneakers. If I was going to find Old Dickey, I might find myself in some tight and dirty spots where my trusty gray flannels would stick out like a prom dress in a strip club. Better to wear something rugged.

Best Garden Supply/Nursery: Mayo

"Where can a guy get a good cup of Colombian juice around here," I asked the doll cracking her gum as she rung up my new threads.

"Dunno," she snapped and took my cash. "Used to go to Dickey's but a construction crew came through last night. And one of the guys dropped this."

She handed me a matchbook with Mayo written in black ink on the inside flap. Two of the matches were gone.

How did one of this scruffy little city's oldest garden centers fit into this? Dickey never really had a need for lawn mowers or pretty flowers and he wasn't the kind of guy to purchase healthy tomato plants or porch swings. And thugs never go to Mayo's unless they need some cement. "Cement," I said out loud.

Dollface looked at me. "Yeah." She shrugged. "Can I get those back? My smoke break starts in five minutes."

"Sure thing," I said as I tossed them back to her and rolled up the cuffs on my new shirt. "Sure thing."

Best Seafood: Chesapeake's
Best Lunch Spot: Sunspot

I slogged up to Chesapeake's, hoping they'd be open this early in the morning and would have a pot of the black stuff on. While this is the city's best seafood place and their nautical theme and a bowl of Clam Chowder always cheers me up, it was too early for anyone to help me. I turned away from the blue awnings, gathered my wits, dashed across Henley street, and headed for the Strip. Lost in thought, I stumbled into Sunspot's sign board, which had been left out on the sidewalk overnight. Usually, this is my favorite place to take potential clients; they love the casual bistro atmosphere. The turkey sandwiches and steak specials keep carnivores happier than a reporter with a new fifth of gin, while there is still plenty on the menu for those who eschew eating the flesh of animals.

Best Rock Club: Moose's Music Hall

But there was nobody around this early in the morning and the specials on this sign had smeared in the rain—except for a red fingerprint down near the bottom, which could have been as easy to overlook as a wallflower at a high school dance. Huh, I thought, as I dipped the tip of my index finger into the blotch. It wasn't blood.

Probably, I reasoned, it was the ink they stamped hands with over at Moose's Music Hall. Perhaps someone had gotten over-zealous when separating those who could drink from those who couldn't. I'd seen a show or two at Moose's and, once, my niece forced me to watch their dance party when it aired on Fox 43. While it wasn't my kind of party, I did enjoy all of those young people writhing to a rhythmic beat.

But that wasn't the case at hand. It never was.

Best Gourmet/Grocery Store: Fresh Market
Best Gift Shop: Green Earth Emporium

I walked up Kingston Pike to the Fresh Market and Green Earth Emporium. While I had frequented Green Earth on another case—The Case of the Identical Range Rovers, which ended, thanks to my help, happily—I didn't need any of their soaps, incense, Zen garden products, or Beanie Babies. My first ex-wife had a soft spot for their natural clothes and a new dress always got me out of the doghouse. But we had some problems that flax couldn't solve and we'd had to call it quits. The smell of patchouli still reminds me of her.

But other odors invaded my consciousness when I turned the corner from the Green Earth. Heavenly aromas drifted in the damp air and into my caffeine-free nostrils. Fresh Market always had the best coffee beans, produce, and meats as well as a wide selection of dry goods and bulk soybeans. The odor of fine joe hit me in the face like a wet, wonderful towel. I schlepped through the door and prostrated myself in front of the counter. "Give me whatever is hot," I growled.

"Nothing hot right now, sir," the counter guy said, straightening his dark green vest and looking at me with alarm. "I just put on a fresh pot. It'll just be a couple of minutes."

"I can't wait," I cried, gathering him up by the lapels. "I need a cup of joe now!"

Best Sandwiches/New Business/Bakery: Panera Bread
Best Ice Cream/Smoothie Shop: Marble Slab Creamery

When I came to, I was lying at the threshold of Panera Bread, with a note pinned to my trenchcoat. "Dear Sir," it read. "We don't mishandle the clerks. We had to forcefully remove you from the store. I am sorry. Please shop with us again!"

I crumpled it and tossed it in the trash bin outside of Marble Slab Creamery, the best place to get ice cream in town. Here, they would mix all sorts of yummy bits like cookies or candy or fruit into whatever kind of premium ice cream your heart desired. For all of my gruff ways, the Marble Slab always brought a smile to my face. It was, in fact, over a bowl of vanilla with strawberries where I met my second ex-wife—but that is another story.

I stepped through the doors of Panera with a grim look and pounding headache. "Gimme a cup of joe," I pleaded. "And a one of those blueberry muffins."

"Right away," the counter girl said with a grin, plunking both in front of me.

Best Actor: David Keith
Best Actress: Jayne Morgan/Amy Hubbard (tie)

I took my first sip, snatched the paper, and sat at a high table. The headline screamed out at me: DAVID KEITH CHOOSES BETWEEN JAYNE MORGAN AND AMY HUBBARD TO STAR! The story went on. I gleaned that Keith, a well-known officer, gentleman, and actor in these parts, was directing a movie and was dithering over which local actress should be his leading lady. I had my own opinions, of course, having seen both Hubbard and Morgan on-stage. Deciding between the two would be more difficult than stopping a four-lane bridge from being built on the UT Campus.

Best Local Theatre Group: Actors Co-op
Best Antiques Store: Jackson Avenue Antiques
Best Local Dance Company: Circle Modern Dance
Best Gourmet Restaurant: Mango
Best Health Food Store: Nature's Pantry

I'd seen the raven-haired Hubbard most recently in an Actors Co-op production in Jackson Avenue Antiques (what an amazing collection of old stuff!). Their company had grown artistically in the last year or so, sponsoring a new play festival and everything. But Circle Modern Dance had grown as well, with dynamite shows that appealed to me, even though I hated most dance more than a Volunteer hates a Gator. On our first date, I took the second ex-wife to one of their performances. Afterward, we ate wonderful fusion food at Mango; sitting in this intimate restaurant made for a perfect chance to talk. Then we wandered up to Nature's Pantry to look at holistic foods and herbal remedies. It was an odd first date, but one that I will never forget, especially since I solved a case ("The Case of the Missing Suitcase Full of TVA Money") while standing in front of the display of Amy's Frozen Enchilada Dinners.

Best Art Gallery: Bennett Galleries
Best Coffee House: Java (Homberg)

I looked down and noticed that someone had scribbled on my napkin while I was lost in my reverie. "Go to Bennett Galleries," it ordered and appeared to be written in the same hand as the word on the matchbook. On the way to the gallery, I stopped by Java Homberg for a to-go cup of cappuccino. There's just something about this coffeehouse's atmosphere, especially on rainy mornings, that warmed me. Always drink java near railroad tracks, Marlowe told me. Perhaps that was why I often stopped here when I was out in Bearden; well, that and the cheesecake.

But it was too early for a slice so I trudged through the rain into the Bennett Galleries portico. It was dark inside the store, where I had often looked at fine furniture and perused bright, open, and airy aisles of fine art, some of which I itched to purchase when the sleuthing business finally paid off. Fat chance, I muttered under my breath as I tried the door. It swung open under my hand. And then I saw her.

Forward

 

April 27, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 17
© 2000 Metro Pulse