By: Wayne Brown
“Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has begun our descent for approach into New OrleansInternationalAirport. At this time please be sure you seat backs are to the forward position and tray tables are properly stowed. We asked that you discontinue use of all electronic equipment at this time. We will be landing shortly,” the voice of the head flight attendant boomed over the aircraft address system jarring Jeb Blanchard from his in-flight nap in seat 10A. With some regret about losing his napping status, he went about the familiar routine of preparing for the landing.
Exiting the baggage claim area, Jeb strolled the crosswalk to the covered parking garage that was erected in front of the terminal. He glanced about until he spotted the familiar sight of his cruiser backed into a parking place near the end of the parking level. He quickly walked in that direction. Reaching the car, he opened the trunk, tossed in his bag and then proceeded to open the secure trunk safe which contained his firearm. He quickly pulled the holstered weapon and belt from the safe and strapped it on. The holster was mounted to the left side in a cross-reach position so the gun was easily accessible with the right hand. The weapon was a nickel plated 44 caliber magnum revolver. Jeb preferred stopping power over the speed of an automatic. He took his time when he had to shoot and he hit what he was aiming at…normally the first time.
Jeb climbed behind the wheel of the converted Chevrolet Tahoe 4x4 SUV. This was a typical law enforcement cruiser in his neck of the woods. The decal on the door read “Sheriff - St. Mary’s Parish, Louisiana” and was complete with the official county decal and logo. St. Mary’s was one of the two parishes in which Morgan City, Louisiana was located. The city was split by the AtchafalayaRiver but the bulk of the population and commerce was on the St. Mary’s side. The adjoining parish across the river was known as St. Martin’s. Jeb had grown up in the Morgan City area. This was ultimately his home although he had been gone from it most of his adult life. The military service in Vietnam, marriage, a career with the Texas Department of Public Safety, and service as a Texas Ranger in those later years. He had retired from the Rangers and looked forward to an easy life living on a lake in east Texas. All of that had ended when his wife of 40 years was diagnosed with breast cancer and died within months of his retirement. That changed all his plans. He moved back to Morgan City and threw his hat in the ring for Sheriff in the elections two years back. He won the office his first time out and the rest was history. It was a busy job and it kept Jeb from dwelling on the loss of his wife.
The drive to Morgan City took about an hour from the New Orleans airport. Morgan City was sugar mill country. There was a lot of sugar cane grown in the areas along the river and that naturally gave way to processing operations to refine the cane into sugar for consumer use. It was big business in the area and most of those in St. Mary’s Parish with money had earned it through the sugar industry in one form or another. These were the folks that had help decide the elections. These were the folks who depended on Jeb Blanchard and his crop of deputies to keep their assets and themselves safe from harm. Jeb was determined to do just that he thought as he drove the cruiser toward home.
Jeb’s flight had arrived from Nashville, Tennessee. He had been there to attend the convention of The Southern Sheriff’s Association. The organization was made up of sheriffs from county and other local government units such as the parishes of Louisiana from across a ten state area of the southeast. It was mostly a fraternal organization and the convention was a rather relaxed affair although elements of the FBI had been there to put on a dog and pony show on their latest developments in the forensic evidence arena. The week long affair had given Jeb some time to chill out and recharge his batteries a bit. Now he was refreshed and ready to get back into cleaning up the parish so to speak.
The cruiser roared past a highway sign that read “Morgan City - 5 Miles”. The cruiser radio crackled to life as the dispatcher called, “Unit 10, are you in the area?” Jeb hit his push to talk button mounted on the steer wheel, “Roger that, five miles out at this time,” Jeb replied. “Are you inbound to the station, Sir” the voice of the dispatcher inquired. “That’s a 10-4, Base; ETA 10 minutes” Jeb responded.. “10-4 Sir, I will advise” came the reply. Jeb was quite familiar with the female voice on the line, Cindy Acuff. Still, he was a stickler for radio discipline and he did not tolerate casual conversation or unprofessional talk on the radio. It was one of Jeb’s peeves in the law enforcement business. His deputies had quickly picked up on it too.
Jeb made a left turn into the parking lot at the Parish Sheriff’s Office. He wondered who might be looking for him today. Apparently someone had questioned Cindy as to his whereabouts or she would not have contacted him. Whatever it was must be too private for the radio. Jeb unloaded from the cruiser and made his way into the building glad to get back to his official duties once again.
Jeb Blanchard cut a large figure standing 6 ft 3 inches with his boots off. He weighed in at 225 lbs. Just looking at him, one could easily be convinced that he was a pro-football quarterback. Jeb also kept himself in good shape working out regularly at the local gym. The way he looked at it, law enforcement was a serious game. You never knew who you would run into in this line of work. One had to be ready to handle the bad guys if they didn’t follow orders. Blanchard was not a man who came out in second place. He was a winner. That came through in his outward confidence and the way he carried his lean, muscular frame. Most folks cut him a wide berth and did not try to cross him too much.
“Is the coffee fresh, Cindy?” Jeb asked as he strolled into the dispatch area. “Made it myself, Chief” Cindy replied, “About an hour ago”, she quickly added and smiled. Jeb poured black coffee into his favorite cup which was normally stationed on the shelf by the pot. He sipped at the coffee and glanced about the room. “How we doin’ today, Cindy?
“I think we have a problem of some kind out on the river south of the Lil’ Cajun Sugar Mill. A call came in just over an hour ago and I dispatched Deputy Sides. The caller said there was a body in the shallows of the river on the east bank. Sides said he would call as soon as he was on the scene and had something to report,” Cindy said.
Jeb wondered upon some idiot had decided to go swimming in the river again. Summer was the time of year when a few tourists showed up to learn about the sugar cane industry. Most seemed surprised to hear that gators lived in the AtchafaylaRiver…some didn’t live to find out. The county had one to two deaths a year attributable to such stupidity.
The radio crackled to life at that moment. “Dispatch, Unit 12,” came the voice on the line.
“Unit 12 go,” Cindy quickly replied keying the mike base switch.
“Is Unit 10 at HQ, Dispatch?” Deputy Side replied.
“Roger 12, One Zero just arrived HQ,” Cindy replied.
“Please ask One-Zero to call me on my mobile phone. I am on scene and have lots of details…too many for the radio, Dispatch,” Sides responded.
Sheriff Blanchard sipped his coffee then quickly glanced at Cindy giving a nod that he understood and would call Deputy Sides. “Roger, One-Two, One-Zero will call. Dispatch out” Cindy said holding the mike base with her left hand. “Roger, Unit 12 standing by,” replied Sides.
Jeb sipped more coffee and wandered what Sides had on the scene. Anytime the conversation moved off of the radio frequency, it was an indication that the details involved were too significant and specific to be heard on a public scanning device. Jeb was adamant that details of all investigations be closely guarded until the proper time for them to be exposed to the public. Jeb pulled his cell phone from its carrier and punched the speed dial for Deputy Tom Sides.
The mobile phone rang three times before a voice came on answering, “Deputy Sheriff Tom Sides”. “Tom, Jeb Blanchard here, what do you have for me? Jeb quickly spoke.
“Welcome back, Chief. I am out here on the river edge about five miles south of the Lil’ Cajun Sugar plant. We have two what appears to be homicides in the water. Both are female, partly clothed. Both of them have their wrists duct taped behind their back and both have their throats cut. There are other injures on the bodies but those may have come from gators nibbling a bit at them. The bodies are up in the reed break…very difficult to get to them. The CSI thinks they were probably killed elsewhere and dumped here. We are gathering information but so far have not moved anything. What do you want me to do from here on, Sheriff?” Sides asked.
“Hang in there and just hold on to what you have, Tom. I am going to head down to the pier and grab an airboat. I should be on scene within a half-hour. Call the Coroner‘s Office and get him moving up that way to pronounce death and call the morgue as well to arrange for a pickup of the bodies.” Jeb replied.
“Roger, chief, will do. We’ll hold what we got here and wait for you,” Sides replied. “See you in 30.”
Jeb hung up the line and sat staring at his coffee cup. This didn’t sound like an accidental tourist drowning. Homicide was not big in these parts. He had worked his share of it in his years with the Texas Rangers but he didn’t expect to see much of it here in the county sheriff beat of Louisiana. At any rate, it looked like he had not one but two. He slipped on his cap with the department logo embroidered in the front and headed out to the cruiser. “Cindy, I’ll be up river on scene with Sides. Call me on the airboat frequency if you need to talk with me. I will check in with you from up there.” Cindy nodded her understanding secretly wishing she were headed up river with the sheriff.
The airboat engine fired off at Jeb’s first touch of the ignition. There were five of these units in the sheriff’s fleet and they were absolutely essential when it came to patrolling the river and the activities taking place there. The drive to this crime scene would take well over an hour plus some walking time when the going got too rough for the vehicle. With the airboat, Jeb could be on-scene in less than half the time. Jeb eased the airboat out of its slip at a low idle. Once he was well away from the pier area, he closed the throttle and listen to the roar of the big propeller fan behind him as the airboat raised in the water then planed into a cruise position for speeding across the water.
The Lil Cajun Sugar Refinery was a moderately sized employer for the area. The plant primarily harvested sugar cane from the surrounding fields bordering the river banks and made the extract into granulated sugar. Most of the companies sales went to locations within Louisiana and five or six surrounding states. The sugar business was very competitive and Lil’ Cajun had struggled to survive over the years. Most of the locals counted on the mill staying in place and providing needed jobs in the area. Technically, Jeb thought, these homicides were on land owned by Lil’ Cajun though the reed breaks along the shores were considered right-of-way owned by the state. If the homicides occurred somewhere else then the perpetrator had dumped the bodies on Lil’ Cajun river banks in the hopes that gators would consume the evidence. They had not counted on the effectiveness of the reed break in fending the gators off the bait.
Rounding a bend in the river, Jeb knew he was getting near the Lil Cajun area. Soon, he saw the familiar yellow crime scene tapes enveloping a reed break up ahead on the east side of the river. Deputy Sides airboat was tied off near by along the shoreline below the reed break. Jeb reduced the throttle to idle and coasted his airboat along side of Side’s unit and then proceeded to secure it to the other unit to hold it at the shore. Tom Sides was walking toward the landing area to greet Jeb.
“Afternoon, Chief…glad to see you back,” Tom said smiling and holding out his hand to shake that of Jeb Blanchard. Tom had been a friend of Jeb’s for years so the relationship on the job had always been comfortable and easy. Today was no different.
“Glad to be back, Tom, although I did not imagine coming home to two homicides. Maybe that’s what I get for leaving you guys alone and running off to Nashville,” Jeb laughed while shaking Tom’s hand. “Now, let’s take a look at what you’ve got here, Tom,” Jeb added. Tom nodded and led off motioning for Jeb to follow.
The movement into the reed break was difficult going but soon both Jeb and Tom were standing near the bodies of two women laying on their backs in the shallow water. The crime scene inspector looked up and nodded hello at Jeb and continue his work gathering sample and various pieces of potential evidence.
“Chief, these women are not from around these parts. They just don’t look like locals or anyone I have seen about town. Their clothes also look a bit high-end for this area. My guess is that they are from out of town,” Tom Sides explained.
“You mean they’re hookers, Tom? Jeb quickly replied
“No, no, no, Chief…it’s not that at all. I think these were women who were here on some kind of legitimate business. Whether that business had anything to do with this outcome, I don’t know but I am sure they are not hookers. I would say they are 30 to 35 year old professional…probably college types working for some big operation…that’s the cut of the clothes…at least the clothes they still have on them,” Tom responded pointing to the corpses still laying in the water.
“Okay, Tom…I get your drift. Look, as soon as Ed wraps up his evidence and photo gathering, let’s get these bodies loaded up and down to the morgue. We need to get some time of death info and other things to help us pinpoint this thing. I’ll call Cindy and have her dispatch Rick Collier up here to help out. I want you to expand your search area around the crime scene and see if there might be some identification for one or both of these women laying around. I suspect the killer or killers did not want to hang on to that stuff,” Jeb instructed. “Also, has anyone notified the folks at Lil’ Cajun that we have a crime-scene bordering their property? Jeb asked.
“I have not notified anyone, Chief” Tom replied. “Right now, very few people if any outside the sheriff’s department know about this,” Tom added.
“I’ll have Cindy contact them and explain the details, Tom. You take the lead on this investigation and grab every detail. We don’t get too many homicides and I certainly do not want to botch the ones we do get,” Jeb cautioned.
“I understand, Chief…you can count on me,” Tom Sides replied.
Jeb Blanchard untied his airboat and allowed it to drift out into the currents as he sat in the seat dialing his cell phone. Once he had Cindy on the line, he asked her to call the Lil’ Cajun plant and alert them to the crime scene. He cautioned Cindy not to give up too many details for the present. He also asked her to dispatch Deputy Rick Collier to assist Tom Sides with the investigation and wrap up of the crime scene. Once he completed the call, he returned his cell phone to its holster, fired up the airboat engine and sped off down the river back toward Morgan City.
With the airboat secure back at the launch, Jeb climbed aboard his SUV cruiser unit and headed back to the office. Some fresh coffee and some time to think would be the next priority on his agenda once he was back at the office. A part of him longed to be back in Nashville enjoying the time off but he quickly shook off that feeling and focused on the task at hand.
Jeb entered the front door of the Sheriff’s department and headed toward his office in the back. He stopped at the coffee pot and filled his cup with black coffee on the way. Arriving at his desk he sat down in the chair and leaned back taking that first sip of fresh coffee. He idly thumbed through notes left on his desk during his absence…nothing of importance caught his eye that took precedence over the current situation out on the river.
Cindy Acuff peeped around the half-closed office door and said, “I dispatched Deputy Collier to the scene with your instructions and I related the situation to the CEO’s administrative assistant at Lil’ Cajun. She told me they would call if there were any questions.”
“Thanks, Cindy. Call the morgue and tell them to let me know as soon as they have completed a prelim on those bodies. I need information to start working this case,” Jeb instructed Cindy.
“Will do, chief. Things sure are getting exciting around here today,” Cindy stated with a quick smile as she departed the doorway on her mission with the morgue.
The phone buzzed on Jeb’s desk indicating an intercom call. “Blanchard” Jeb stated picking up the line and placing the receiver to his ear.
Cindy Acuff’s voice replied, “Chief, I have the CEO for Lil’ Cajun on the line. He wants to talk with you about the situation on the river. Shall I put him through?
“Sure, Cindy…put ‘em through,” Jeb replied and waited for the connection.
“Hello, Sheriff Blanchard, are you there? Wilford Faquier here,” stated the voice on the phone line.
“Yes, Mr. Faquier, Jeb Blanchard, how are you today?” Jeb quickly replied.
“I am just fine sheriff although I must say that I am quite concerned to find out that we have a crime scene on the boundaries of our sugar cane field properties. I was wondering if you could give me a few more details on the situation, Sheriff?” Faquier inquired.
“At this point I really cannot give out any details since we are in the early stages of the investigation. I can tell you that we are quite sure that it is a double homicide based on the evidence at hand. We will know more once the morgue has had it chance to perform autopsies on the deceased and attempts to make an identification. We are fairly sure the victims are not from this immediate area. I wish I could tell you more but really that is about all we have at this point. The crime scene should be wrapped up by nightfall so we will not interfere with your operations. I would request that you keep people out of the area to the extent that you can. We will mark the boundaries with yellow tape as we normally do,” Jeb responded.
“Certainly Sheriff…we will support your efforts any way that we can if it will help you to solve this crime. I hope the fact that such a grievous situation occurred on Lil Cajun lands that you will not look upon our operations with a jaded eye of suspicion. I feel quite confident in saying that I am certain that none of the Lil’ Cajun personnel would have had anything to do with the killing of two women. What a savage thing to do,” Faquier stated.
“Thank you, sir. I appreciate your cooperation and I hope that we can resolve the case as soon as possible. If we have anything of relevance, we will be in contact with you. Thanks again for your call,” Jeb replied and placed the phone back on the base.
Jeb leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee thinking back over the conversation with Faquier. The Faquier family had been in the area for hundreds of years. The sugar cane and refining business had been the basis of the family wealth for many generations now. Wilford Faquier was the latest of a long line of family matriarchs who kept the blood line alive and kept the business and family fortune in the black. He had know Wilford back in high school. Folks called him “Little Willie” back then as he was rather short and a bit geeky. At the same time, he was also an asshole with a large chip on his shoulder. Too many times, Little Willie got his ass kicked because he could not keep his smart mouth shut. But, family money has a way of curing all of those ills and eventually Little Willie grew up to be “Wilford Faquier”, CEO of Lil Cajun Industries. Regardless, Jeb stilled had a desire to kick his ass…it was only natural. Jeb chuckled to himself as he thought about the possibility.
Then a closing statement in the conversation really caused Jeb to stop in his tracks. Faquier had closed out saying that he did not think any of his people would be involved in the murder of two women. Jeb had never mentioned the gender of the victims...how would Faquier know, or was it just a lucky guess on his part. Regardless, Jeb made note of the conversation for later reference.
Jeb’s cell phone rang at that moment. “Hello, Sheriff Blanchard here,” Jeb stated holding the phone to his ear.
“Chief, Tom Sides, we are wrapping up out here on the river. I did find something of interest which I think you will want to see. Will you be there at the office for a while? Sides asked from the other end of the line.
“Sure Tom, come on by when you get into town. I’ll be here trying to catch up a bit on the paper,” Jeb replied then hung up the phone. The call had broken his thought process on his discussion with Faquier. Now he was wondering what it was that Sides had discovered.
Deputy, Tom Sides, sat across from Sheriff Jeb Blanchard as the sheriff carefully examine the contents held in each of the evidence bags lined up on the desktop. Some like the bags containing the women’s jewelry and personal items were passed by without much thought. Blanchard sat holding a large bag with a bone-handled knife in it. The knife was a familiar sight around these parts and was commonly referred to as a “cane knife”. The knives were used by workers in the cane fields to harvest the cane and then used also in the stripping process if to check quality of the sugar cane as it arrived in the mill.
“So where did you find this knife, Tom?” Jeb asked holding up the bag to the light and eyeing the knife blade.
“It was tossed out in the reed break not more than ten feet from where the bodies were laying in the water. I suspect the killer was convinced that no one would be entering that area and that the gators would clean everything up before any discovery was made,” Sides replied.
“I wouldn’t be too quick to decide that this is the murder weapon, Tom. After all, there is a sugar cane field adjacent to that bank on the river. Someone could have easily dropped this knife years ago and it washed out into the reeds when the river was elevated. At the same time, it could well be the murder weapon...we just need more information. Now, what about the identification that you mentioned?” Jeb said.
“It’s only a partial id, Chief. It looks like something chewed on it. I think it might be a driver’s license. You can see the bottom portion of the picture,” said Sides pointing to the badly batter id card in a plastic bag he held in his left hand. The name is obliterated but it looks like the address was somewhere in Virginia. This may be just like the knife…just a coincidence. I guess we’ll have to wait and see,” added Sides.
“That’s true, Tom…nothing works until we can tie it to the victims. Still, you did a fine job bringing this stuff in. It’s that kind of attention to detail that will make you sheriff some day,” said Jeb Blanchard with a smile toward Tom. “Now let’s just wait and see what the morgue comes up with out of their examinations,” added Jeb.
Blanchard walked Tom Sides out of his office and waved good bye to him. He then turned to Cindy and said, “Let’s check with the State Patrol and see if there has been any missing persons filed that might fit the description of two women. You might also check the FBI’s list of missing persons on the Internet. It is still early yet, so I am doubtful that anything will come up but we need to try everything at the present. Cindy nodded and started clicking keys on her computer terminal to check the files.
Jeb Blanchard looked up from his desk at the clock. It was 7PM. Everyone else had gone home but he had decided to stay late and get some of the paperwork off his desk. He was tired, most likely from the recent trip more so than the paperwork. Maybe it was time to head on home and pour a deep glass of brandy and maybe even smoke a cigar. Jeb avoided home a lot since the wife had died…no reason to be there. But he knew that sooner or later he had to go there. He shut down his computer and started out the door of his office. Just then, the phone rang at the dispatch desk and he heard the night dispatcher answer. “Yes sir, yes sir, I believe he is still here. Hold on a moment and I will see,” Jeb heard the dispatcher say into the phone. “Chief, you still here?” Ed Bailey, the night dispatcher asked as Jeb stepped out of his office. “I have Doc Thomas from the morgue on line 1 asking to speak to you.” Jeb nodded okay and turned back into his office to catch the call.
“What do you have for me, Eli?” Jeb asked as he picked up the phone.
“We have a match on the knife as the murder weapon, Jeb. The serrations in the blade match nicely with the cuts to the throat of both victims. There were also minute particles of dried blood on the base of the knife blade indicating that the victims were probably killed elsewhere and hauled to the area to dump. The blood had time to dry on the blade before the knife was thrown into the water. We’ll run a DNA check on those traces. We don’t have an identification yet that we can match up to. We are taking dental impressions and x-rays to check against the records. At the present all we can determine is that both victims were women,” Eli Thomas stated very matter-of-factly.
“Thanks Eli. At least we have the weapon and maybe we can reinforce that with a DNA check of the blood to double up the tie. Please process as rapidly as you can. I would like to stay on this trail while it is at least a bit warm,” said Jeb.
“We’ll be working through the night here, Jeb”. Maybe I’ll have more by morning. Thanks much,” replied Eli Thomas prior to hanging up the phone.
Jeb hung up his phone and immediately headed out of the office. He said good night to Ed Bailey and headed to the house. As he pulled into the parking area at his condo, he thought that this just might be a good night for a walk. Once he parked the vehicle, he decided to stroll down a couple of blocks and have a drink at Wendy’s Tavern, an old local haunt.
Jeb walked into Wendy’s and sized up the crowd. There were plenty of seats at the bar and a few folks shooting billiards in the back. Jeb grabbed one of the bar stools and sat down. He looked across the bar and spotted Becca Reed working as bartender. He gave her a big smile and she smiled back at him.
“What’ll it be, Sheriff?” Becca asked walking up to the bar to face Jeb. “You lookin’ for information, whiskey, or some of both?” She added.
“Just a deep glass of single-malt scotch, Becca,” Jeb replied with a smile. I’ve got some thinking to do and the single-malt always seems to help.
Becca set the glass on the bar and poured the Jameson’s neat at three-fingers deep. “Well, if you get tired of thinking and want to talk, you know where to find me, Chief,” Becca said.
“I sure do,” Jeb shot back with a quick wink of the eye. Becca was a woman that Jeb could easily like a lot but the timing was not right; not yet anyway. He dropped in every once in a while and he had heard around town that she was interested but he had left it at that. Jeb was still wrestling with the loss of his wife and needed a bit more time to heal.
Jeb ran a mental inventory of the events of the day. He shifted through his impression of the crime scene. There were no signs of a struggle and very little blood indicating the bodies had probably bled out at some other location. He ran back over the conversation which he had with Wilford Faquier and then did the same thing regarding his discussion with Doctor Eli Thomas from the morgue. As Jeb sipped on the single-malt, Eli Thomas’ parting words came back to him, “all we can ascertain at this time is that both victims are women.” There was something about that remark that caused Jeb to hang on it. What was it? Then it hit him. Faquier had remarked in his telephone conversation that he did not think any of his people would kill two women. Jeb had not thought too much about it at first and now it seemed odd that Faquier would have that information. He wondered if Cindy might have related it when she made the call to Lil Cajun earlier in the day.
Cindy Acuff picked up her cell phone on the third ring. The voice on the line was that of Jeb Blanchard. “Cindy, my apologies for calling you this late but this just cannot wait. Do you remember what you told the folks at Lil Cajun when you called this morning?” Jeb asked.
“Sure I do, Chief. I remember every word. It was a rather short conversation mostly just pointing out that there was a crime scene on the property,” Cindy replied.
“I see. Now, Cindy, do you remember whether or not that you mentioned that the victims were women? Think Cindy, this is very important,” Jeb urged.
“Absolutely not, Chief. You always say that I should give out a minimum of detail. That would not be something that I would discuss at all. I told them there was a homicide on the property and that we were working on it. That’s it,” Cindy replied.
“Has anyone every told you that you are one great little detective, Cindy Acuff? Asked Jeb.
“What are you talking about, Chief? You hardly ever let me out of the office? Have you been drinking?” Cindy replied.
“Not much…look, I’ll explain tomorrow. You get some rest. I’ve got things to do,” Jeb responded and with that hung up the phone. Jeb had a hunch and if it was a wrong one, he could just about be ready to insult one of the richest men in the county. But, he was the Sheriff, elected by the people, and hunches were in his job description. With that, Jeb finished off the scotch and left a twenty on the bar for Becca. He was off again with a wave, a smile, and a wink back in Becca’s direction.
Jeb punched the buzzer button on the door of the county morgue building. Soon a technician came and let the sheriff into the facility. He pointed Jeb in the direction of Eli Thomas’ office. Jeb tapped lightly on the office door and then entered. Eli sat at his desk filling in paperwork from an autopsy.
“Jeb, you’re out kind of late aren’t you? Are you working double shifts nowadays? Eli quickly asked looking up with a smile from his paperwork. “If you are willing to work odd hours, we might be able to find a position here at the morgue for you,” He added with a chuckle.
“No Eli, this is not my line of work. I put them on the slab, you do the disassembly…got it? Jeb replied with a laugh. “No, I was headed home, then I got to thinking about some of the events of the day and now I am working on a hunch. I have an errand to run, I just wondered whether you might have anything else for me before I head out to do that little chore? Jeb added.
“Not much Jeb. I did find some skin fragments under the fingernails on one of the victim’s right hand. At some point she could have scratched someone and accumulated the skin under the nails, but that is just a guess,” replied Eli Thomas.
“What is your best guess on the time of death, Doc? Jeb queried
“Based on the food content in the system and a few other factors, I would place it around 10PM night before last give or take an hour,” responded Doc Thomas.
“So, if we located the killer, he or she just might have some scratches on the face or neck?” asked Jeb.
“Without a doubt, Jeb. Nobody heals that fast. The amount of skin we found under the nails would be consistent with a scratching action so I think there is little doubt that we could say that someone bears the marks,” replied Eli Thomas.
Jeb nodded his understanding and then took his leave thanking Eli for his help. It was time to play his hunch and the hour was getting late. Actually, it would play to his favor as even murderers need to rest at sometime. Jeb was hoping that was the case here.
Getting back into the cruiser, Jeb quickly punched the speed dial on his cell phone and called the dispatch office. He instructed Ed Bailey to call Tom Sides and Rick Collier. He gave Bailey all the details and told him where they should show up to back him up on the call. He then told Bailey that he would be taking the airboat up the river to eventually meet up with the deputies at the site. With Ed putting the plan into motion, Jeb headed for the pier to get the airboat. A trip up the river would save him a half an hour on getting to the destination. That would give him some time to look around before help arrived.
It was just after 11 PM when Jeb pulled the airboat into the main channel and headed northbound on the river. The surface of the water was like glass tonight with the calm winds leaving the surface totally undisturbed. The airboat planed out and glided smoothly up the channel. The moon reflected light off the surface of the water illuminating the surround banks of the wide river channel. Jeb thought about how great it would be to just be out for a ride on the river with no problems and no responsibilities. He made a mental note to look into getting an airboat if he ever decided to retire for good and just relax. For now, he would have to put those plans back in the file. Tonight he was on a mission…official Parish business, as they say downtown.
As Jeb rounded the curve in the river channel he spotted the pier for the Lil Cajun Sugar Refinery. Barges frequently came up the river to pick up loads of refined sugar for export to other countries. Tonight there appeared to be two barges along the dock but no activity. Once he was nearing one of the barges, Jeb turned off the ignition switch and let the airboat coast up to the back of the barge. He tied off the airboat to a cleat on the barge deck and headed across the barge to climb up the pier. Suddenly, it hit him that he really was not sure where he was headed or what he was looking for but this was the place to start it seemed.
Once he was up the pier, Jeb began to move about inside the warehouse area of the plant. There was no activity in this area either indicating the plant was not running a night shift at the present. That did not surprise Jeb in that he had heard talk around town of various employees being laid off from the refinery over the past months. The sugar business was a difficult one to say the least.
Jeb eventually found the area that he was searching for on this moonlit night. It was the receiving area of the plant where the raw sugar cane stalks came into the mill in bundles. Here was the point where quality control either accepted or rejected the bundle based on samplings which included both a visual evaluation of the pulp center and a taste test for sweetness. Once a given batch was accepted, all of the bundles would be run through the refinery and be turned into sugar.
Suddenly, Jeb saw movement and realized that security must be patrolling the plant while the shifts were down. Even though he was in law enforcement, now was not the time to be explaining his presence here at the mill. Jeb quickly stepped into an open doorway which was the entry for a stairwell leading down into a lower basement area of the plant. This was apparently the way one got into the “guts” of this process to work on the machinery below and take care of servicing. At the base of the stairs was a door to the right of the hallway which was closed and locked. Jeb put a shoulder into it but it did not give. He reached around on the back of his belt and pulled a utility knife.
In the handle was an assortment of handy devices which always seem to have a good use. Jeb took a couple of the thin blades and inserted them into the lock. Within minutes, he had defeated the lock and had the door open. As he stepped inside, his foot slipped in a substance covering the floor. Jeb quickly lost his balance and rolled across the floor. Coming to rest against a bench on the other side of the room. He felt around on his belt for a small flashlight and turned it on to illuminate the room. He could not believe his eyes. The floor was covered in blood. Suffice to say that Jeb was also pretty well covered in it himself. It was everywhere…nothing like he had ever seen. This didn’t add up…not in a sugar mill anyway. But, it did play to his hunch. Now he knew that he was on to something.
Jeb now quickly needed to secure this site. To do that he had to get back to the airboat and get on the radio. There was too much potential evidence here to just walk away and hope that it would be here when he returned with a warrant. He picked himself up off the floor and started toward the door to head back to the airboat. Just as he reached the door, a hand pushed him back across the slippery bloody floor and again he landed against the bench.
“Well, well, what do we have here? Is it the local sheriff nosing around in the sugar business at such a late hour? That don’t seem right now does it, Sheriff? Said Wilford Faquier as he stepped through the doorway shining a flashlight and holding a pistol aimed Jeb Blanchard who was now totally covered in blood. “You know my boy, Rayford, here don’t ya Sheriff? He’s my heir to the Faquier estate,” Little Willie said pointing to the dark figure behind him.
“Yeah, I know him, Willie…just like I know you. Don’t you think it is a little strange to have a floor covered in blood in a sugar mill, Willie?” Blanchard asked fanning his hand about the room. “This is not a slaughterhouse, or is it?” He added. “How do you account for all this blood?” Jeb inquired.
“Well Sheriff, I don’t see as that is any of your business at the present. Rayford and I had a little trouble with the family business. Outsiders came in nosing around. Things got out of hand…you know how that goes Sheriff?” Wilford said.
“You mean like two women who match the descriptions of the ones that we found in the reed break yesterday? Jeb asked. “Would that be the kind of trouble you are referring to, Willie?” The Sheriff added.
Suddenly Rayford charged forward into the light and yelled, “You shut the hell up, lawman or we’ll put a stop to that mouth of yours!” The light from Willie’s flashlight cast a glow across Rayford’s face which allowed Jeb to see the three long gashes which ran parallel down his right cheek. Jeb knew he was in a spot and the numbers were starting to add up rapidly.
“Look Willie, there’s got to be a good explanation for what is going on here,” Jeb insisted. “You run a legitimate sugar business and have for years. You’re not in the killing business are you?” Jeb added.
“Not intentionally, Sheriff. You might say that things just happen. You see, a year or so back the sugar business turned really rotten. We were losing big money every day. We had to find a way to survive. I started by cutting out shifts and reducing my labor costs but it was not enough. Then, in desperation, I came across some fellas who could supply me with some first-class blow, some cocaine like the rich folks like…as pure and white as the new fallen snow. All they needed was a legitimate method to move it into the country. I had that here with my sugar mill."
"So, we continued to make sugar and then we also started bagging cocaine with a small shift of trusted individuals willing to work at night. Certain shipments would go out by barge from here and arrive in Houston as imports. The paperwork had been processed through South America but the sugar and the smack had come from just around the corner. Everyone on the docks in Houston just thought it was import sugar in 50lb bags from South America. All that was working real fine and we were back in the money in no time. In fact the money was so good, when things got better, I saw no reason to stop. Then they showed up…the women. They were auditors from the Securities & Exchange Commission. It seems that in my greed I had overlooked the fact that sales cannot go up when production goes down by one-third. They had come in unannounced to audit our books and find the explanation for our new found wealth and sugar production. That’s when the trouble began.” Willie related.
“Shut up, Pa! You don’t need to be tellin’ this Sheriff bastard anything about our business. You could get us in big trouble,” Rayford warned.
“Now you hush yourself up, Ray and quit back talking me. I know what I am doing. Since when do you think the good Sheriff is going to leave our presence alive? We can tell him everything and it will be safe because he will soon be alligator bait down in the bayou…probably just before sunrise, I’d guess. Now you hush up and let me and the Sheriff have our conversation,” Willie scolded.
“Now those women had us by the short hairs, Sheriff. They had caught us off guard and by surprise. We would not let them leave the premise nor would we let them look at the books. For a while there, they were hostages of sort. Now while I was trying to figure out what to do with them in a way that would not connect the dots to us, my boy, Rayford here, decides to get a bit frisky with one of them. I can understand that myself, Sheriff cause they was both lookers. Anyway, Ray comes down here and starts foolin’ with one of them and the next thing you know she has scratched about half of the side his face off. Well, I mean to tell ya, the boy lost it and before he was through, he had slashed both of their throats with a cane knife. There was nothing left but to dispose of the bodies and move on. I didn’t count on that reed break shielding the bodies like it mush have. The gators couldn’t get at ‘em and you found them. Once I heard that, I knew the jig was up and it was just a matter of time before you would come around. I guessed right too, because here you are."
"Now, Sheriff Blanchard, I have the difficult tasks of advising you that this is your last official act as Sheriff of this parish. By early tomorrow morning, you’ll long since have been breakfast for the gators and folks will think you just ran off. Hell, they might even think you had something to do with killing those women,” Willie laughed then wiped a bit of spit from his upper lip. “Rayford, you get that cane knife now and let’s get this Sheriff bled out so we can take him to the river,” Willie added nodding toward Rayford. With that, Rayford stepped through the door and headed off to get a knife.
Blanchard had to think fast. Help would not get here soon enough to save him. What to do. The blood…the floor was covered in blood. “Here, help me up, Willie so I can stand. If I am going to die, I want to die standing up with my boots on,” Jeb said extending his arm. Without thinking Willie reached out for the arm and Jeb grabbed on giving him a hard yank forward which took him off his balance and caused Willie to smack face down on the bloody floor. The pistol and the flashlight went flying in opposing directions as Willie was caught totally off guard and winded when he hit the floor. Jeb quickly snapped a set of handcuffs on Willie crossing his arms behind his back so that he could not get up off the floor. “Rayford! Rayford! Willie suddenly screamed out. Jeb muffled Willie’s mouth with his hand and then stuff a handkerchief from his pocket down his throat. Willie rolled about in the blood helpless to do anything.
Jeb quickly grabbed the flashlight and turned it off. He slipped the leather loop off of the hammer of the .44 caliber and pulled it from the holster. Jeb then stepped into the hallway. He could hear footsteps coming down the long corridor. Jeb kept the light off and waited. He wanted to capture Rayford alive if at all possible. As the steps came closer, Jeb stepped to the center of the hall and turned on the flashlight holding the pistol in a ready firing position. “Hold it right there, Ray. The jig is up. I have Willie handcuffed in the room back there. Now you come on in with me and let’s see if we can get to the bottom of all of this. Just turn around and lay face down on the floor.
Jeb could barely make out Rayford’s outline in the darkness of the hall illuminated only by the flashlight. Rayford must have realized that edge and quickly raised the cane knife and threw it at Jeb. The knife whirled through the air and slammed into Jeb’s left shoulder. He got one shot off with the .44 but it went high into the ceiling. Rayford turned and ran down the hall in the darkness looking for a way out of the building.
The bone-handled cane knife had buried up to the hilt of the blade into Jeb’s shoulder. There was no pulling it out. His left arm was starting to numb and he could feel the blood trickling off his fingertips. Jeb put the pistol back in the holster and moved the flashlight to his right hand and started down the hall. He saw light down at the far end of the hall and moved toward it slowly. Once he reached the end of the hall, he kicked the door open and looked into an empty room with a light on in it. Across from the door was a staircase leading upward…likely back to ground level. Jeb moved slowly up the staircase on the assumption that Rayford probably did not have a gun and was on the run.
Coming to the top of the landing, Jeb opened the door to the outside in time to see Rayford running across the yard. “Halt, don’t move or I’ll shoot,” Jeb heard someone shout. It was the last words that he heard before he passed out and fell to the ground.
When Jeb Blanchard came to in his hospital bed, he glanced over at his left shoulder and saw the bandages neatly applied. Standing at the foot of his bed was Cindy Acuff, Tom Sides, and Rick Collier. “Hey Chief, good to see you back with the living,” Tom Sides chimed in. Everyone else nodded their agreement.
“What happened…did we get the bad guys?” Jeb asked staring at the three faces at the foot of the bed.
“Yes we did, Chief…at least Rick and I did. You were passed out…remember?” Tom Sides said winking and laughing.
“Yeah, turns out ol’ Rayford was too much of a lard-ass to run very fast. We nailed his butt right after you collapsed.” Rick added. “It’s a good thing you set us up for backup although you sure didn’t share much of what was going on. You left Tom and me guessing.
“Sorry guys,” I was playing a hunch based on a phone conversation I had yesterday. “It was just a hunch but you fellas remember, never play a hunch without backup…never,” Jeb advised.
“Telephone conversation…are you kidding me, Chief? I am there all the time on the phone and I never had a conversation that got me into anything like what you guys were doing last night,” Cindy announced.
“Well, there ya go, Cindy…it just goes to show you that you need to get out more, girl!” Jeb quickly replied with a laugh which was quickly joined in by the three deputies at the foot of the bed.
© Copyright WBrown2011. All Rights Reserved.