Illustration by John Mayer
on this story
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 differentlyin 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.
Best Electronics Store: Best Buy
I woke up on linoleum. If you could call it "waking up." It felt more like dropping naked into a vat of thumbtacks and rolling around in it while the KSO played the entire Ring cycle backwards in an auditorium located somewhere between my eye sockets and my earlobes. God, I hate Wagner. When I got collected enough to realize the searing pain in my pupils was actually light, I looked around as much as the iron rod that had apparently replaced my neck would allow. I was on the floor of a storeroom approximately the size of the moon, except the moon's not stacked with giant brown boxes. They loomed up all around me, a cargo cult temple full of exotic brand names: Sony, Dell, Philips, Nintendo. Near my feet was a 40-foot stack of square cartons all emblazoned with the words "N'Sync." I fought back the urge to vomit. What did it all mean?
I couldn't help smiling. Grimly, of course. In that cynical way Lotte had loved. Ah, Lotte... We coulda been something if it wasn't for that whole black widow kick. Two dead husbands I can overlook. Four's a different story. Anyway, the smile was because I knew I was finally on the inside of this case. The grim part was because my odds of getting back out of it were looking longer than a County Commission meeting. The way I figured it, they were keeping me here in their holding pen while the big cheeses, whoever they were, decided what to do with me. And with my hands and feet tied with what felt like high-grade fiber optic wire, I wasn't going to have much say in it. Just then I heard the approach of feet and craned my neck to see what slug-happy thug they might be sending for me.
Best Female Vocalist: Jodie Manross
It wasn't a thug at all. It was a dame. Cute, in that demure librarian way. She was wearing slacks and a blue shirt, like a uniform in search of a bowling team. Above the pocket, it said "Best Buy."
"Can I help you find something, sir?" she asked sweetly, kneeling down to slice the bindings with a box-cutter.
"Wha?" I started to ask, but she put a hand over my mouth and started whispering. I love when dames whisper.
"Listen," she said. "I'm here to help. It's dangerous for both of us; if they catch us, we're gonna be stocking shelves in Katmandu for a long, long time. Get it?"
I nodded, at about the same time I recognized her. I'd seen her before in a bar downtown, when I was working the Bird's Eye case (and man did that one fly the coop). She was a singer, had this great big voice that filled the air like champagne bubbles in a New Yorker cocktail cartoon. What the heck was she doing here?
"You're not alone," she assured me, looking both ways before ushering me out into the harsh fluorescent light of the store's showroom. By the door, there were two burly guys in the same blue-and-white outfits, slumped against the wall like sacks of corporate potatoes. I looked at the singer dame and raised a jaunty eyebrow. She shrugged and said, "You can pick up a lot watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
"This is one of their command posts," she continued. "But this whole part of town is lousy with them. You need to get somewhere safe." She slipped me a business card as we made our way out past the aisles of hardware, software, audiotronics, home appliances, and rack after rack of video games and compact discs. At the door, another blue-shirt eyed us questioningly, but she smiled and got us past him. Out in the 75-square-acre parking lot, she said, "I've got a gig to get to, but the name on that card will help you out." I looked at it, and then looked back at her. She must have seen the puzzlement in my eyes.
"Hey," she said, "local artists have to stick together."
Best Local Artist: Jim Gray
Best Radio Talk Show: Hallerin Hill
Fortunately, the address was nearby. Unfortunately, it was on the other side of Cedar Bluff Road. I've done some dangerous things in my timelike that night I went beer for beer with the V-roysbut crossing Cedar Bluff on foot ranks near the top.
I sized up the gallery on Park West Boulevard. I'd heard of Jim Gray. His name popped up a lot on Hallerin Hill's morning show, which I tend to listen to because I had to use my clock radio to block a bullet one time and the dial got stuck on WNOX. Besides, Hal's smooth baritone in the morning is like a Swedish massage for your ears. Of course, the guy owes me 50 bucks, but who in town doesn't?
The door was locked, and I couldn't see anyone inside. I could see walls decorated with lush paintings of dogwood flowers, foggy mountain mornings, rhododendrons. This Gray guy had consumed more nature than a West Knox subdivision. It was pretty. But pretty doesn't cut it in this line of work. Another dead end. I needed a drink.
Best Liquor Store: McScrooge's
The clerk at the store was eager to help. She offered a guided tour of the single-malt Scotches, or maybe some advice on which Merlot would go with my tie. This McScrooge's place was huge. I would have loved to linger before the racks of liquid happiness, but I was in a hurry. I picked up a small flask of something cheap and tangy, tucked it into my overcoat, and headed back out.
Best Radio Station: Star 93.1
A rumbling in my gut reminded me I hadn't eaten in at least two hours. In this job, you learn to trust your gut. But I was without wheels and still disoriented. I'm always disoriented around Cedar Bluff, but this was worse than usual. I needed a ride. Just then, a big black van screeched to a stop right in front of me. I recoiled, expecting either goons or thugs, and maybe even henchmen. Instead, I heard a familiar voice.
"Johnny? Is that you?" It was Kim. Of Kim and Tim. In the morning. On Star 93.1. Years ago, we all hosted a live bluegrass-and-auction show on WUOT. When that got axed for a syndicated polka program out of Pittsburgh, we went our separate ways. I hadn't seen either of them in months, since they helped me out with a favor for my 10-year-old niece (an autographed Britney Spears press-on nail goes a long way toward mending family fences). They were headed to a live broadcast at someplace that had food. I hopped in back. On the way, Kim and Tim sang a medley of boy-band hits. I drank.
Best Wings: Hooters
The broadcast turned out to be at Hooters, a joint I know well. I, uh, hold a lot of meetings there. Glad to be back on familiar turf, I thanked Tim and Kim and settled into my favorite back-corner booth. Rita the waitress was there in seconds, her broad smile hovering above two round, ample, jutting...baskets of wings. With a mug of cold, pale American beer. My usual.
"Thanks, doll," I said, trying to wink slyly and gnaw a wing at the same time. I poked myself in the eye.
"Any time, Johnny." She pinched my cheek and sashayed away. I tucked into the crispy, spicy, fried-just-right poultry platters, and, squinting a little, turned idly to watch the big-screen TV.
Best TV News, Best TV Anchor, Best TV Weather:
WBIR/Bill Williams/Jennifer Broome
Best Hair Salon: Salon Visage
What I saw stopped me in mid-chew. It was time for the 6 o'clock news, which of course meant the set was tuned to WBIR Channel 10. I've heard rumors there are other news broadcasts in town, and one time an eccentric Fountain City millionaire even hired me to try to track them down, but if they're out there, they're well hidden. "Straight from the Heart," my yin-yang; more like straight into their bank account. Anyway, the anchor was Bill Williams, ol' Bill, a good guy. I wouldn't dig up any dirt on him if I could, and I probably couldn't anyway (though it's rumored that he once had his hair done at that chi-chi beauty parlor of the famous, Salon Visage). He reminds of my favorite uncle, except without the rap sheet. Too bad he's stepping down this year. That Ted Hall kid's got a long way to go before anyone calls him "avuncular."
Bill was doing one of those anchor chit-chats with the weather gal, Jennifer Broome. I like her, too, except I'm always afraid she's about to burst into a cheer: "Here comes the rain, here comes the snow, here comes the sun, go team go!" She was doing a live satellite stand-up out front of some store at the mall. She was wearing the same red blouse I gave my sister last Christmas, minus the Conway Twitty decal. But that wasn't what caught my eye.
Hanging around in the crowd behind her was an old guy waving a sign. I just made out the first three words, "Stop the 12..." when three big bruisers stormed through, grabbed him, and headed off down past Profitt's. Jennifer didn't notice, but over her shoulder I could tell the old guy was throwing some punches, trying to get free. I knew the look of those punches. I'd seen them coming in my direction a time or two. It was Dickey.
Best Men's Dress Clothing: Men's Wearhouse
"'Nother round, sugar?" It was Rita.
"No, doll, I can't," I said, throwing a couple greenbacks on the table. "I've gotta get to the mall."
"Looking like that?" she asked. She had a point. Between the burn marks, the scrapes, the soup stains, and the growing splotches of hot sauce, I was about as stylish as Thompson-Boling Arena. So I borrowed the keys to Rita's VW Rabbit and resolved to stop off somewhere en route. What I found was something called Men's Wearhouse. Another chain store. After a few seconds of nostalgia for old Mrs. McGillicuddy, who lived on the corner and sewed everything I wore until I was 23, I took the plunge. I came back out 20 minutes later looking sharp and feeling good. And carrying a couple of extra outfits. Hey, they were on sale. Never let a case get in the way of a good buy, I say.
Best Movie Theater: Regal Cinema Art at Downtown West
Traffic on Kingston Pike was moving about as fast as the justice center project, so I doubled back to get to the mall, cutting down Downtown West Boulevard. I've never understood the name. It's more like Parking Lot Way. Turning left, I scanned the movie theater marquee of the Regal Cinema Art. I hadn't heard of a thing, and at least one of them was in French. They didn't even have that new movie with the Baldwin guy in it. No, the other Baldwin guy. Anyway, I figured it must be some kinda fancy-pants theater, not really my cup of tea. Considering that my cup of tea usually has Jim Beam in it. But I'd keep it in mind for next time I needed to impress some UT philosophy student. (Like Simone...ah, Simone...)
Best Kids' Fun Place: Regal Funscape
I circled around the mall and parked in back. I was just in time to see the same three bruisers hustling out a rear door toward an azure minivan. They had someone with them wearing a black bag over his head. Dickey. I parked illegally in the fire lane and sprinted toward them. One of the goons saw me and yelled, "Back inside!"
They scuttled backwards like overmuscled crabs in Armani knock-off shells, and tried to pull the door shut on me. I caught it just before it closed and bounded in after them, up some mesh metal stairs and out into...total mayhem, AKA Funscape.
At first I thought I'd stumbled into yet another midget convention, and I winced involuntarily at the memory of the last one. But they weren't midgets, they were kids, running around pell-mell at groin level, playing video games, yelling, and basically totally oblivious to anything going on more than three feet off the ground. Across the crowded lobby, I could see the henchgoons plowing through into a darkened room. I followed, upending two ice cream cones and suffering at least three knee bites on the way. Charging into the alcove, I was suddenly pelted from all sides by a barrage of missiles. Sure, they were foam rubber, but even foam rubber can knock a man close to senseless if he doesn't have much sense to begin with.
Taking advantage of my momentary incapacitation, my three buddies in black took their prisoner and hightailed it. I followed, down the escalator past a weird cityscape that vaguely resembled Knoxville, if Knoxville was a backdrop in a junior high-school play...
Best Casual/Hip Clothing Store: The Gap
...through the Gap, where a salesman kept trying to put vests on all of us...
Best Women's Dress Clothing: Bebe
...through Bebe, where I saw at least one of the thugs look twice at a snappy slacks 'n' vest ensemble with matching shoes...
Best Bookstore: Border's
...back out into the parking lot, into our cars and across the street where we got back out and started running again, into Border's bookstore, through the magazines, fiction, and poetry sections, a brief fistfight in videos, and then chasing again through the coffee shop, the music department, and back out past the bargain books (one of the thugs grabbing Martha Stewart's Guide to Gourds on the way)...
Best Shoe Store: Off Broadway Shoe Warehouse
...across the parking lot to Off Broadway Shoe Warehouse, which had an amazing selection of designer shoes at discount prices. How can they afford to do that? Volume! I had my eye on a nice monk-strap before running back out the door...
Best Pet Store: Petsmart
...and once again across the parking lot to Petsmart, through the fish and bird sections, past the gourmet dogfood, and up to the Adopt-A-Pet center where two of the bruisers knocked over the kitten cages, sending small cats running everywhere and tripping me up. They charged back out into the parking lot, fired up their minivan, and took off. I sat there surrounded by mewling furballs, shaking my head. I had lost them. Nothing to do but pick up some diet cat chow (the vet's worried about my tabby Chandler), and call it a night.
Best Asian Food: Stir Fry Café
I was hungry again after all that running. I knew nothing would restore my spirits (and other things) like a dish of Pad Prik King. And I knew where to get some nearby. Grabbing a table ("For oneor two," I told the hostess with a knowing grin), I settled into the Stir Fry Café and wondered why more places around here couldn't be like this: adventurous, unique, tasteful yet hipkind of like me, you know? While munching an eggroll and planning my next move, I heard an unmistakable voice.
Best Local Writer: Jack Neely
I turned. "Jack! What are you doing here?" It was my old drinking buddy Jack Neely. We'd quaffed many a pint down on Gay Street. But I'd never seen him west of Bearden before. Had the whole world gone insane?
"Oh, I come here a lot," he said. I looked at him.
"No you don't," I said. "You don't like this part of town. It's got no character, no sense of place, no history. You said so yourself."
"Oh, not at all," he said, easing into a seat across from me. "It's really fascinating. Did you know that this is the same strip plaza where Jesse James shot Robert Johnson?"
"What?" I said. I could smell something burning.
"And have I told you about the time Jean-Paul Sartre played badminton with Gertrude Stein at Gettysvue?" I didn't like the maniacal look in his eyes. "Or when Martin Luther King and his wife Billie Jean King led a protest to integrate the West Town parking lot, arking lot, arking lot, ark..." There was smoke coming from behind his ears.
"Jack?" I said. "Jack!?!" It was no good. He'd keeled over right in the middle of my Prik King.
"Well well well, Mr. Knox." It was a different voice. I looked up. The face was vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it. Someone I'd seen in the business pages of the paper, maybe, while I was trying to find the horoscopeonly now he was wearing a turban and one of those little vests, like from Aladdin. It was really rather menacing, in a '60s spy movie kind of way. "We send out our little friend on a test run, and look who he finds," he said in an evil voice.
The guy wasn't any bigger than me, but all six of his friends were. I sat tight. "Your 'little friend'?" I asked.
He nodded. "Yes. You see, this isn't Jack Neely." He reached his fingers up Jack's neck and I heard a "click." "It's the Neelybot 2000. The final piece of our plan. Still some kinks to work out, obviously, but once it's ready, Knoxville will be ours. He will be our chief propagandist, extolling the virtues of our glorious way of life."
"Okay," I said, "since this is the part where you tell me all your plans, does that mean I have to get hit on the head again?"
He smiled the way a snake would smile at its prey, if snakes had perfect teeth and worked for the Chamber of Commerce. "No need for violence, Mr. Knox. Not yet. All men have a price."
So that was their game. They'd try to bribe me...or do to me what they did to Dickey. I had no choice but to play along if I wanted to stay conscious long enough to get out of this. The eight of us sauntered out to the parking lot, two of the hired muscleheads carrying the Neelybot, which was muttering something about "...sidewalks are not really part of East Tennessee culture..." I knew where we were headed: back to the store with the big blue price tag. My whole afternoon, and all I'd gotten was a whirlwind tour of nowherea royal pain in the asphalt.
April 27, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 17
© 2000 Metro Pulse