It’s a lousy November day, the kind that makes spring feel like a sick joke with no punchline. On Market Square, passersby tumble past like dead leaves, faces blotchy from the cold. A stiff burst of laughter erupts from the Pub, startling a bum who’s slumped over on a nearby park bench. The bulls circle listlessly on their government-issue bicycles, collars turned up, patrolling for foul play.
Grubby brick buildings loom overhead, casting long shadows upon the square’s solitary rectangle of pale yellow grass. At the north end, twin TVA towers rise up into the ashtray-colored sky. At the south, Krutch Park’s trees look like skeletons, swaying back and forth in the icy wind. I reach into my overcoat pocket for a flask but come up with a fistful of lint. It’s been rough going since the kingpin took away my juice.
I’m about to head back to the office when something catches my eye. It’s 4 Market Square, the dingy redbrick structure on the east side of the square between the corner clothing store and the avant-garde pizza joint. It’s an old building under construction, and a sign says it’s for lease. The façade is shrouded in tar-black plywood, a few shredded band posters still clinging to its expanses. Clearly, the building is vacant.
So why are there blinds in the third-story window? And why are they moving?
That’s when I notice the door.
Devoid of a sign, it’s the kind of door you might walk past a thousand times without even realizing it’s there. Ducking into the doorway, I turn the knob and am surprised to find it’s unlocked. Inside, there’s a mailbox, a discarded air conditioning unit, and a flight of dusty stairs, painted blue and dimly lit. I follow them up, then follow another flight up, and another. Third floor.
To the right, there’s a gray door. To the left, there’s a sign: “Federal Government SECURED OFFICE. Absolutely no unauthorized entry!! ALL visitors must sign in at the front desk. Office roaming is PROHIBITED!”
I shudder. Exclamation marks and superfluous capitalization always give me the chills. Then, from somewhere deep within the office, a telephone rings, and there’s a clatter of footsteps. “Delta 21,” someone answers in a muffled voice. Must be Fed-speak for “hello.” Despite my curiosity, I opt not to eavesdrop. I may be packing enough potentially subversive information as it is.
Padding stealthily back down the stairs, my head swarms with questions. Why would the federal government have an office on Market Square? Why not in some anonymous industrial park in Cedar Bluff? Could it be….
Suddenly, I have a flashback of that infamous morning Sunday morning three months ago when, as a Market Square brunch crowd looked on aghast, federal agents raided a handful of businesses just a few buildings down from the one I’m fleeing as we speak. The IRS, DEA and FBI were all there, mingling with the bulls, pinching laptops and boxes and loading them into the meat wagon. It was curtains for the West empire, and we all knew it.
By the time I reach the exit door, my chest is pounding. I breathe a sigh of relief as I re-enter the cold, blustery outside world.
In the weeks to follow, memories of 4 Market Square stick to my brain like gum to the bottom of a shoe. I return often to collect evidence, but rummaging through the trash at the foot of the stairs rarely yields anything exciting: a few crumpled diet coke cans, a Subway sandwich wrapper, a handwritten note with directions to the office if you’re coming from Broadway. At some point, they post a flimsy cardboard sign on the door that reads, “Delta-21 Resources.” I wonder if they’re onto me.
Usually, I drag a couple of rookie newshawks along with me, just in case things go sour. They keep an eye out for cops and have a nose for sensory details.
“Check out this trash bin,” one of them says, raising a bushy eyebrow. “Some might say it smells like Home Depot, but it smells fishy to me.”
Another reads the label of a jar of air freshener. “ Natural Magic-brand vanilla scent odor absorbing gel—absorbs and eliminates household odors . Think about it. What are they trying to cover up?,” she asks, crinkling her nose.
Meanwhile, I conduct interviews with anyone who looks like they might have the 411. But when I ask them what they think goes up upstairs, they won’t squeal. “I’m pretty sure they work in statistics,” says the water-cooler deliveryman. The long-legged postman adds, “Well, I asked them one time, but couldn’t quite follow their explanation. They work for the government somehow. I don’t know, now that you mention it, I’m kind of curious.” Even Scott Schimmel, of the Market Square District Association, shrugs his shoulders when I press for details.
In the back alleyway, I meet a John who works in the building that backs up to 4 Market Square. He comes out here to smoke, he says, and he’s seen some strange goings-on: a mummified pigeon stuck to the building’s window pane, trees growing out of the brick, and a cigarette machine turned upside in the basement, buried in three-feet of sludge, which has since been pumped out. “Cigarette machine been down there since the ’30s,” he claims, taking a drag. “When they got it out, there was $700 worth of change still inside.”
I scribble notes, but my gut tells me the John’s story is a busted flush. If there’s a dirty ace in Delta 21’s hand, I’m going to need hard evidence to find it.
I head to the East Tennessee History Center to look up files on the building. Old Knoxville telephone directories reveal that the building presently sitting on 4 Market Square was built in 1915. It killed a few years as a dry-goods grocery before changing hands and becoming a shoe store, which it remained for a good chunk of the 20th century. In the early ’80s, the lower level became a deli, with the upper floors probably reserved for storage. In the mid ’90s, the third floor became home to CyberFlix, a few local video-game inventors, and in the late ’90s it was back in the deli business, housing Café Max. The last business that occupied the ground floor was Brazo, which, for the handful of months it lasted in 2002, was Knoxville’s first smoke-free café/bar. Nothing too shifty there.
Back at the office, I Google “Delta-21 Resources.” A slick website pops up, but the company’s purpose, as articulated in corporate fast-talk, seems kind of vague. It delivers services—involving “information technology,” “data management,” and “specialized engineering support”—to various companies and organizes, including, as I suspected, several three-letter government branches.
But one major chunk of information is still MIA: Who owns the building? I make short work of digging up the property’s deed at the City County Building. Three owners’ names are listed: Rodman Townsend, Jr., who used to own a chunk of Gay Street’s 400 block; David Dewhirst, a prominent downtown developer; and Don Bosch, a local attorney. A local attorney who happens to represent Scott West.
I don’t know Townsend, but I’m pretty familiar with the other two. Dewhirst’s a straight-shooter, and for a lawyer, you could do a lot worse than Bosch: He’s fair, he keeps his nose clean, and he doesn’t like to be told whose side he’s on. But conspiracy theorists would have a heyday with this one.
Check it: Bosch, Dewhirst and Townsend indirectly lease 4 Market Square to the Feds, by way of a federally contracted agency.
Using information obtained by the Wests’ stakeout headquarters, the Feds knock off the Wests’ businesses.
Scott West hires Bosch to be his lawyer; meanwhile, Dewhirst closes in on Bosch’s soon-to-be-auctioned properties, hungry for a piece of the Market Square pie. Maybe they split the dividends; maybe Bosch is content with his lawyer dough. Townsend gets a cut for his role as the red herring.
I call Bosch up and tell him it’s time to show his cards. His sincerity, though, catches me off guard. He says Delta 21 may be a little secretive, but they’re good tenants, and he knows for a fact that they’re not spying on the Wests.
But deep down, I know that I won’t believe it until I see it with my own two eyes. It’s time to scare the players out of their holes.
The plan I’ve concocted is, by Nancy Drew standards, ingenious. Round about lunch hour, I’ll start making my rounds, gathering my disguise. I’ll borrow a pizza box from the Tomato Head, and an apron from Oodles, and attempt to “deliver a pizza” to 4 Market Square. Between the initial confusion and my confession that I “must have the wrong address,” I’ll scope the place out, quiz the staff on its inner workings, and determine once and for all whether anything devious is in the works. It’ll be, as they say, duck soup.
But I’m sweating as I take one last look at the “Absolutely no unauthorized entry!!” sign outside the door, knowing full-well that the Feds have broken knees for lesser offenses than trespassing. Turning the doorknob, I draw a deep breath.
The office reveals itself to me slowly as the door swings open. Cubicles. Computers. A waiting area. The tell-tale blinds. Not just one, but two refrigerators. Weird. Guess that’s where they keep the dead bodies.
The secretary stands up behind her desk and looks at me sternly. “Can I help you?”
I snap back to attention. “Did somebody here order a pizza?” I ask, the tone of my voice surprisingly confident. All silk so far. The secretary yells back in the direction of the cubicles. “Did anyone here order a pizza?”
“Yeah,” a female voice finally responds, plaintively. “Hold on, I’ll be there in a minute.”
The screws in my stomach tighten. What? Somebody actually ordered a pizza? No way. This would never happen to Nancy Drew.
“So, uh, what do you guys do up here?” I stutter in the direction of the secretary, trying to stick with the plan.
“We’re a federal contracting place,” she replies curtly. “We do federal contracts.”
“Oh,” I mumble dumbly, noticing that I’m holding the pizza box with two fingers, and that it’s pointing toward the ground. “Like what kind of contracts?”
“We have three or four,” she says, clearly growing impatient. “One of them has to do with food stamps. You know what food stamps are, don’t you?”
A blonde woman walks up to front of the office from the row of cubicles. “I just want to look at it,” she says, gesturing toward the empty pizza box. “Iris!,” she yells back toward the cubicles. “Come get your pizza or I’m going to get it for you!”
The dame looks at me expectantly, at which point I begin to panic, wondering if I’m the one who’s being set up. Iris? Nobody’s really named Iris, right? I’ve never known any Irises, at least. Clearly it’s an alias. Iris, or whatever her real name is, is probably just around the corner, waiting to cut me down as soon as this other dame calls my bluff. The office is closing in on me. It’s getting hard to breath. I resist the urge to drop the pizza box and scram.
“Iris!” the dame shouts.
My breathing quickens, and an expression of sheer horror washes over my face. “Oh, my God, I’m so sorry,” I stammer apologetically, backing away toward the door. “I… forgot your marinara sauce. Be right back.”
With that, I bolt out the door and down the stairs, vowing never to darken the doorway of 4 Market Square again.
My heart is still pounding like a New Jersey racehorse when I get back to the office. I pull the door closed behind me and slump down at my desk, reach into its bottom left-hand drawer. Empty. Like I said, things been rough since the boss man cracked down on our booze.
My fingers find their way to the dusty typewriter and linger there for a moment. Where do I begin? Oh, yeah. “It was a lousy November day….”