Mike stood, leaning his body weight on the tree, waiting for the flat-bottomed boat to arrive with Frank and Ashley. They wanted to see the drop site for themselves, while the forensics teams arrived to for retrievals. So far, the cadets had already discovered three decaying bodies whose remains were already protruding, where high tides or storm water had washed away part of the “island”.
Two of the young men were carefully digging up a body wrapped in a carpet, which had bones and bedraggled carpet protruding from muddy edge of the island over to his left. They were struggling to first clear the marshy reeds and weeds, whose thick roots made digging more difficult. Once they got down below the roots, it got easier, especially as all the bodies found so far had been buried in shallow graves.
The muddy soil was soft and easy to dig, but the reeds and roots were messy and tough.
Mike looked with concern at the sign of two recent graves, slightly further inland on the island, which he guessed could not be more than six or eight months old. Their predator was out there, possibly hunting his next prey. Worse yet, he might already have her.
He forgot, for a moment, that he was retired and meant to hand this over to Frank and Ashley.
In the distance, he could hear the motor of the boats, and relaxed into the tree he was leaning on.
“Not my job,” he reminded himself.
What was he doing here? The moment the team landed, he should have hopped in the car with Jennifer and David and gone back to town!
But something was bugging him.
As the flat-bottomed boat pulled in, Frank jumped off, landing in shallow mud, which threatened to cover the top of his boots. He managed to pull himself onto firm ground before getting in too deep, and turned to offer Ashley a hand, pulling her firmly onto the island, rather than allowing her to land in the mud.
Mike looked at Ashley ruefully, realising she’d had no idea how to dress for this field assignment. “She’ll learn,” he thought to himself. But at least she was now wearing boots.
He conversed briefly with Frank, before excusing himself, and hopping on the boat to return to camp. The boat’s captain seemed familiar to him, and he eyed him quizzically as they quickly rode back.
“Do I know you?”, he asked above the sound of the motors.
The captain laughed, “Matt Peeples. I drove you around when you were looking for signs of this, after that girl walked out of the swamp in that torn fancy dress.”
As he pulled into the dodgy dock and landing next to the boat house, turning off the motor, Mike asked him, “You remember that ol’ guy, tellin’ those tall tales about a plantation owner family and generations of killings?”.
“Ya’ mean ol’ Keith Landry, o’er by Cable Bridge Road?”
“Yeah, that was the gentleman.”
“He’s still there. Not out on his boat so much, his leg’s not doin’ so good. Ya know, those jus’ crazy ass stories. Don’t you go worrin’ too much about what some ol’ man said. He pro’ly drinks too much and loves tellin’ his stories. Who knows what’s truth, legend or myth.”
Mike chuckled, as he hopped off and gingerly walked along the rotting boards, hoping they were strong enough to take his weight.
As he walked up the banks, he was relieved to see David’s Explorer parked under the trees, with David talking to a couple of deputies. He’d had enough for one day, and was ready for a ride back to town, leaving the feds to handle the investigation from here.
As he walked towards David and the deputies, he realised he was being intercepted by Special Agent-in-Charge Nelson Cole, from the FBI’s Gulfport satellite office. He groaned inwardly, having taken his early retirement principally upon the appointment of this sucktard.
Mustering a cordial greeting, he met SAC Cole, asking him how things were looking in the Gulfport office. How he hated small talk and office politics.
Nelson looked at him, and holding out a folder, offered, “A special consulting agreement sent down from Jackson, for you to sign.”
“Excuse me?” Mike replied. “I’m not sure I want the job. We called you as soon as we found any evidence that warranted you coming in. I’m still retired and going fishin’.”
“Cut the crap,” Nelson responded, angrily.
“You and I both know you have more experience than Frank, Ashley or any of these rooky cadets I’ve been sent as manpower. If this ever gets to a court, I need chain of evidence and a case a defence lawyer can’t crack.
You work whatever hours you want. You follow your crazy ass leads, babysit crazy-psychic chic, and run interference with the local police. I don’t care.
I just need to know that when this shit hits the fan, there’s a waterproof case that ain’t gonna’ sink in court.
You know what to do. I just need to know it’s being done.”
Mike scratched his goatee while looking at Nelson’s nervous face. “What’s really going on here?” he asked, locking eyes with Nelson.
“Just sign,” retorted Nelson, evading the question.
Mike continued looking at him without taking the folder or papers, crossing his arms as if to make a point, drawing himself up to his full height, using his body size to intimidate.
“I’ve got cancer,” whispered Nelson. “I go in for more tests tomorrow. And I don’t want to drop the ball on this case. I have decisions I’m going to need to make.”
Mike felt all the anger and past resentment between them dissolve.
Drawing a deep breath, he took the agreement, signed it, and returned it to Nelson.
“Alright, I got this. Let Frank and Ashley know I’m running point on this, and I need the best forensics specialist we have in the Gulf Coast here. Today, if possible!”
Nelson smiled grimly, “They’re flying in your ol’ buddy Bob from Atlanta as we speak.”
Mike chuckled, realising poor Nelson must be hating every moment of this. Frank, Mike and Bob working together again, just like the old days before Nelson got appointed.
Nelson grinned sheepishly, “I never thought I’d ever be happy to put the three of you back on a team together, but beggars can’t be choosers and you’re the best man for this case.”
“We’ll do the case proud, don’t worry about it, and by the time this case is finished, those rookies will ready for the street.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Nelson responded, with concern. “How many bodies so far?”
“Well, five from the basement, and three more already pulled up from the island. I’d guess some twelve or thirteen on the island, if we’re able to piece the remains together that the water and animals scattered. Bob’s gonna’ have his work cut out for him, trying to put those skeletons back together. And he’s going to need to send most of it to Atlanta or somewhere if we’re going to have any hope of identifying them.”
“Anyway, I’m going to head back into town with your best-friend Sheriff Johnson,” Mike chuckled as Nelson scowled towards the local sheriff and his deputies. “Then, I will find crazy psychic-lady Jennifer, who I am sure you will love when you meet her, and probably have dinner with her and Johnson, while we talk about what to do next.”
He chuckled some more, as he realised how much that irked Nelson.
“By the way,” he finished, “you owe Sheriff Johnson and I an apology for pulling us off this case back then.”
“That’ll be a cold day in hell,” Nelson responded, holding back a grin and doing his best to appear stern. “You just got lucky now, and you’re tryin’ to make me eat crow. I won’t apologise, because I know I was right then. That investigation was going nowhere.”
Mike continued to chuckle as he started to walk away. Turning, he requested, “Oh, before I forget, let Ashley and Frank know I’ll here at 8.00 a.m. sharp in the morning in case I don’t catch up with them later today.”
Mike nodded to David, and they both hopped into the Explorer to drive back into town.
“So, what now?”, David asked.
“Well,” Mike replied, “You remember ol’ man Landry, that boat man, that keep muttering ‘but she ain’t no black girl’ when Emily escaped and we were sweeping the swamps?”
“Yeah, I remember him. He was really shook up about that. Said it just wasn’t right that they would take a white girl.”
“We need to find out what he was really talkin’ about.
What’s the story behind that?
What family was he talking about that would take girls and dress them up like this and then kill them?
What black girls was he expectin’ to find, and why was he so horrified that there would be a blond girl taken?”
David sat in silence as they drove.
“That was what we were about to go find out before we shut down the investigation,” he finally said at length.
“Yeap,” Mike whispered. “Wonder what we’d have found out if we’d just stayed on the case a couple more days.”
The drove the rest of the way in silence.
As they pulled into the police station, David asked “So what are you doing to do now?”
“I’m just going to check on Jennifer, and then drive home, and probably have the last decent night’s sleep I’ll have in the next three months,” Mike grinned. “I’m going to enjoy not knowing what tomorrow holds, have a beer and an early night.”
“Tomorrow, let’s have breakfast at the diner, then we’ll have a debrief at the house with the team at 8.00 a.m. sharp, and from there, you and me should go and find ol’ man Landry, while the team continues at the house and island.”
He continued, “We’ll see how Jeniffer’s doing and whether she wants to come with us up to Landry’s, go out to the house and help Ashley, or just stay away from it all. I’m worried about how all of this is going to sit with her, and how she’ll sleep tonight after everything that happened today.”
“My wife offered for her to come and stay at our place,” David responded. “But she turned it down and said she’d rather stay at Oak Crest Inn. She moved out of the motel over to the Inn earlier today. I think she wanted to be alone with her thoughts and was quite happy that the Inn was almost fully vacant.”
“Alright, I’ll go check on her and then head home,” Mike replied as he walked out the door.
The old Chevy rumbled into action, and David watched pensively, remembering vaguely the stories that ol’ man Landry had told them. “They’re just crazy stories,” David reminded himself, made up from too much time on his own by the swamp and too much moonshine.
And yet, here they were, following up on those crazy stories, that were turning out to be true.
He turned back to Carol, who was handling the front desk at the police station.
“Anything new?” he asked.
“Nothing remotely interesting like your day,” she retorted. “Deputy Jackson attended the court hearing for the Aubry domestic dispute, and Priscilla took care of a break-in over on Bells Ferry Road. Pretty quiet day, if it weren’t for your excitement.”
“Alright then,” David responded, “I’ll head out in the cruiser and just do a round. If you need anything, I’ll be on the radio. And let Lisa know I’ll be home for dinner early tonight.”
Mike drove up to the Oak Crest Mansion Inn, where Jennifer had moved to earlier in the day. The motel had not been to her liking, and while the Inn was a bed and breakfast, it was much quieter and the rooms were full of antique furnishings.
She met Mike in the foyer, still looking a little pasty from the events of earlier in the day.
“Have you managed to eat anything and hold it down,” Mike asked, with concern.
Jennifer laughed, “Yeah, apparently my queasy stomach like pizza and cajun chicken wings. But if that’s what it can keep down, that’s what I’m eating.”
“What?” Jennifer joked.
“I’m vegan,” Mike responded.
“You? Vegan?” Jennifer responded. “I would never have guessed.”
“It’s alright,” Mike joked. “Beer’s vegan. A guy’s gotta have some bad habits.”
“So, what are we doing now?” Jennifer asked, referring back to the house and the case.
“I’ve been asked to step back in as lead on the case, just as a consultant,” Mike responded. “I imagine that officially Frank will be the Agent-in-Charge as he already is, and I will simply coordinate with him, Ashley on the profiling, forensics and the local police departments.”
“Tomorrow, David and I are going to chase up an old lead that we never followed, when the case was closed, and you can come with us, or stay and help Ashley and Frank at the house, or simply wait here … or…” he trailed off.
“What do you want to do, now that you know you’ve not been imagining all of this?”
Jennifer shuddered. “I really don’t know. It’s been all I could think about all afternoon!”
“I mean, I think if I go back to the house, I could probably help with more leads, but I’m scared of touching anything in that house and finding out more gory details! Today was all I could handle.”
“I’m scared of going to sleep tonight if I’m honest with myself.”
“I just have no idea where this is going or where it’s going to end, and I don’t know if I want to know any more.”
Mike sat in silence with her, and then suggested “Why don’t we see how you get through this night. Maybe now the nightmares will stop and life can return to normal.”
Jennifer looked stunned. “I never thought that might be an option,” she stammered. “Wow. Go back to life and work. I don’t even know what I would do, this has been terrorising me for so long.”
“A good night’s sleep would be divine.”
“Well, let’s hope that this is the beginning of a new era for you,” Mike ventured. “Perhaps you’ll be able to rest, because you sure as hell look like you could use it.”
Jennifer started laughing with tears running down her face. “I’ve been such an awful mess, haven’t I?”
“At least you know how to dress it up,” Mike retorted, as they both relaxed into the possibility that the nightmare might end.
Jennifer sighed again.
“Okay, I will try to get a good night’s sleep, knowing that I’m not crazy and I don’t need to check myself into the nearest insane asylum. And I’ll see you and David in the morning.”
They organised to meet for breakfast at seven at the diner, and then decide from there what, if anything, she would do the next day, and Jennifer for once went to look at her bed with joy rather than anxiety.
She sat down in the armchair in the corner of her room with the sketch pad, and mindlessly began sketching again, allowing her hand to move across the paper, doing it’s own thing, lost in thought.
“Maybe, just maybe, this isn’t such a curse,” she hoped.