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Under the Pines

Home for the holidays shouldn’t include murder. But murder seems to follow Detective Eli Boone wherever he goes.

By D. A. RatliffPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 39 min read
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Image is free use—Image by Peggychourair on Pixabay.

Under the Pines

D. A. Ratliff

A Detective Elijah Boone Mystery

The tall, majestic Eastern white pine trees stood like sentinels, overlooking the backyard. My grandfather, Poppa, had planted a tree upon the births of his grandchildren—a tree for my cousins Matt and Ronnie, my sister Naomi, and me. How fitting that a dead body lay under the tree bearing my name.

My mother let her Golden Retriever Cleaver out for his morning constitutional, and he had returned with an item. It’s not unusual for him to retrieve something and come home with it. What he found, however, unnerved my mother. She yelled upstairs for me to come down now.

I had been asleep, arriving at two-thirty a.m. after driving thirteen hours from New Orleans. I could do it in eleven with stops, but I brought Hank Guidry, my partner, with me, and it was worse than having a six-year-old kid along. We drove because I was bringing new bikes for the kids' Christmas presents.

Startled awake, I stumbled downstairs, heard Hank’s door open behind me, and found my mom in the kitchen. She pointed to a bloody knit winter cap on a white garbage bag spread on the table.

“Cleaver brought that in just now.”

“That’s congealed blood and looks like brain matter.” I glanced at Hank. “Get some shoes and a jacket on. We need to look around.”

After I grabbed my dad’s jacket. I checked Cleaver. He had a bit of blood around his mouth. “Does he have a pattern when he goes out?”

“Yes, he likes to run to the far end of the yard and check out the fence line. He wasn’t gone long. He always brings his finds back as soon as he grabs them.”

Hank and I headed toward the fence, neither speaking. I figured he remembered the last time he was here as well as I did. The sheriff arrested me for murder, and Hank had come to clear me. Neither of us wanted to deal with that again.

That point became moot as we approached the four tall pines. At the base of the tree that held the brass plaque with my name and birthdate on it lay the body of a male, about fifty years old, with his head bashed in.

I heard a groan from Hank. “Eli, I’m not coming back here again. I can get dead bodies in New Orleans.”

“Better call the sheriff.”

As befits a small community, the deputies arrive with lights and sirens blazing. One of them, Nance Morgan, the brother-in-law of the man I supposedly killed last summer, took charge and ordered Hank and me to back off, as we were out of our jurisdiction. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out, but we quietly returned to the house.

Sheriff Jim Vickers arrived about twenty minutes later and knocked on the kitchen door. A forensic tech accompanied him.

“Detective Elijah Boone of the New Orleans police. Not you again.”

“Yep. Me, again, Sheriff.”

He pointed to the hat. “This the hat?”

I heard Hank’s intake of breath. The two men were wary of each other in the summer and unsure of the circumstances now. My mom sensed the tension and intervened.

“Sheriff Vickers, let me get you a cup of coffee. And yes, that’s the hat Cleaver brought from the yard.”

The tech took several photos of the hat, turning it over to photograph the other side, then carefully placed the knitted hat in one evidence bag, slipped the plastic garbage bag, now smeared with blood, into another, wrote the ID number and date on the bags, and sealed and initialed them.

Vickers took a sip of his coffee. “You boys see, we can do all that fancy forensics work here too.”

“Never a doubt, Sheriff. Do you know who the victim is?”

“You tell me. You ever seen him before?”

Ahh… the bait. The sheriff would love to pin this on me. “No sir, I have no idea who this man is. I’ll ask again, do you?”

“If I do, it’s no concern of yours—for the moment. Now, why are you here?”

“Sheriff, it’s the holidays. I came to spend it with my family.”

“And just happened to bring your partner along?”

Again, I heard an intake of breath from Hank and a quick response from my mother. “We invited Hank as his children will be away for the holidays, and I didn’t want him to be alone. He’s family to us.”

Vickers glared at me but changed the subject. “I need to know everyone’s movements since you arrived this morning. Morris leaves for work at six, doesn’t he?” Mom nodded. “I’ll stop by to chat with him on the way back to the station. Now, Jessie, you first.”

Twenty minutes later, Vickers left, and about an hour later, the coroner left with the body. We had instructions to avoid the cordoned-off crime scene until released. So, of course, when the last deputy left, Hank and I immediately headed to the pines.

“You get all the pictures we needed before they got here?”

“Yeah, got them—close-ups of the body, the hat, and the fence.”

“Good, let’s check the scene out, and then we’ll send everything to Cardi to get some info for us.”

We reached the pine trees, and I stood for a minute, letting the sweet, sharp fragrance from the pine needles envelop me. I watched these pines grow from when I was a young boy. Someone had invaded my family's personal space, and I needed to know who and why.

Hank wandered from tree to tree. “Your grandad planted all of these when each of you was born?”

“Yes. When we turned twelve, he held a ceremony to mount a brass plaque inscribed with our name and birthdate onto the tree. By then, the trees were big enough for the plaques.”

“Lots of traditions in your family, good ones.” He pulled a few pine needles from a branch and sniffed them. “Such a nice smell.” He then grinned. “I can tell that brain of yours is working overtime. What are you thinking?”

“I think that a dead body on my parents' property and lying underneath the tree with my name on it is not a coincidence.”

Hank sighed. “Here we go again.”

~~~

By lunchtime, we had an answer from Detective Cardia Fleming that we weren’t expecting. She called Hank, and he put her on speaker.

“Just what are you two involved in? With only facial recognition, no DNA, or fingerprints, we think this man is Edward LaPointe. He’s a two-bit hood out of Baton Rouge with ties to a big drug dealer in NOLA, Peron Martinez. What the Hades is he doing in a small town in South Carolina where you happen to be?”

Hank and I exchanged glances. “Cardi, I don’t know, but whatever brought him here got him killed and dumped in my parents' backyard. Send us everything you’ve got on LaPointe and Martinez.”

“Eli, I don’t have to remind you that you have no jurisdiction in SC, or do I?”

“You don’t, but I have to make certain this has nothing to do with my family. You know I don’t believe in coincidences.”

“Just be careful. Let me know if you need anything else.”

Hank ended the call, and we were about to discuss what to do next when the front door burst open, and my niece and nephew, Danny and Elisa, came flying in. I’m uncertain if they were happier seeing me or seeing “Uncle” Hank. Mimi gave me a big hug.

“Nice to have you home for the holidays, big brother. But wow, you made quite the entrance. Any idea why that man was there?”

“No, no idea yet. Someone might have come up through the woods and dumped the body over the fence.” I looked at Hank as I fabricated a story on the spot. His reaction was a slight wobble of his head.

“I don’t want the kids to know.”

“We need to keep them inside. There is still police tape around the area.”

“Oh no. You haven’t been home in a while. To honor us, the kids have put ribbons on the trees for the last three Christmases. We’re supposed to do that on the twenty-third.”

“Yikes. Okay, I’ll see if I can get the sheriff to take the tape down.”

“Better let Mom or Dad do that. I don’t think the sheriff likes you much.”

I laughed. “Good point. Neither do I.”

Mom came into the room. “Get your coats, boys. We are heading to the Christmas tree lot to get the tree. Grandpa and Dalton are meeting us there.”

LaPointe’s death would have to wait. Christmas trees come first.

~~~

Hank and I wrestled the big eight-foot tree into the house and set it up in the family room addition that had vaulted ceilings. Mimi took the kids home for a bit, but they would all be back for chili and tree trimming later. I promised the kids cookies from Mama Leone, who owned my favorite restaurant in New Orleans. She sent a massive box of Italian Christmas Cookies, a homemade Panettone, and an Italian Christmas Cream cake.

They wouldn’t be back until six, so I called my old friend and attorney, Ted Crawford, and asked him to meet us for coffee at a little shop near his office. He was there when we arrived.

“Why do I get the feeling you’re in trouble?”

“Nice to see you too, Ted. So, you know?”

“That a body ended up on the Boone property on the same day you arrived? Yea, everyone in town has heard.”

“I didn’t do it.”

Hank threw up his hands and grinned. “I swear, Ted, he didn’t do it.”

Ted laughed. “I know that, but I’ll bet the sheriff isn’t certain.”

“I don’t think he likes me.”

“Uh… no. Heard that after the Davis case, he got reamed out by the county prosecutor and the judge for being so quick to arrest you.”

“My heart bleeds for him.”

“What’s going on, Eli?”

“Not sure, Ted, but we need to know what you know about any drug dealers in town.”

“I do know that with all the increased shipping traffic from here to Charleston, Savannah, and Brunswick, rumors have been flying that illicit trafficking in drugs and stolen items is on the increase.”

“Let me tell you what we know, which is not much.” I proceeded to fill him in on the information that Cardi gave us about the dead man and his connection to drugs in New Orleans.

“You think there’s a connection?”

“Ted, we don’t know. But for a man with ties to NOLA to turn up dead in my parents’ yard, you tell me.”

Ted's eyes shifted from me to Hank and back. “There is one thing I can say. Things get exciting when you two show up. Just so happens that the annual Chamber of Commerce Christmas Breakfast is tomorrow morning. The D.A. Jace Bonner will be there. I’ll see what I can learn from him without arousing suspicion.”

We left in time to get home for the evening’s festivities. After dinner, Hank helped the kids sort out the holiday lights while Mom and Mimi cleared the dishes. My dad and brother-in-law Dalton approached me, and I knew they had questions. The problem was that I had few answers.

“Eli, what do you think happened? Why did someone use our land to dump a body?”

“Dad, maybe, but….”

Dalton grimaced. “But what?”

I told them what we knew. Dalton, who was the principal at the high school, frowned. “We’re seeing an increase in drugs coming into the school system. Alcohol is always a problem, but painkillers like Vicodin are increasingly becoming an issue. The police drug task force is trying, but they haven’t been able to discover the pipeline or who the supplier is. We lost a student a month ago to a drug overdose. She was sixteen.”

“Eli, you said this man is from Louisiana. Is he connected to any cases you have worked on?”

“Not that we’ve been able to find, Dad. Some of the homicides we have dealt with have certainly had drug connections, but since Hank and I began working in Special Crimes, we haven’t had any contact with the victim.”

My dad shook his head. “Eli, I don’t believe in coincidences, and I know you don’t either. So, you tell me if my family is in danger.”

I had to be honest. “I can’t answer that with high confidence, Dad. I don’t know.”

“Morris, boys.” I looked past my dad to see Mom staring at us. “We are about to start trimming the tree, and then we will have hot chocolate and Mama Leone’s cookies.”

I caught her look as I walked past her to help with the lights. She was worried. I was worried, too.

~~~

Ted called about ten-thirty the following morning, the twenty-first, asking if we would meet him at the coffee shop. He was sitting at a table in the corner, away from the counter. We ordered coffee and joined him.

He frowned and shook his head as we sat. “That bad, Ted?”

“Eli, our sleepy little, small town is not so innocent. I got an earful, but it's all off the record. I didn’t mention you, but I’m sure Bonner knows we’re friends.” He gulped coffee before he continued. “According to Bonner, a South American drug cartel has infiltrated the ports, especially at Brunswick, and is moving drugs through a pipeline that comes through here. They suspect freight drivers are involved, but the DEA hasn’t set up a sting yet. They are waiting to get a better idea of who the local is that’s involved.”

Hank frowned. “Any idea about the New Orleans connection? Eli and I don’t know this dead dude or anything about this cartel group.”

“Bonner said rumor has it that the South American group has aligned with a drug kingpin in Louisiana. Not sure if he’s out of New Orleans or Baton Rouge.”

“And the DEA and LEOs have no idea who’s running the show here?”

“None.” Ted glanced around the room. “Could be anyone.”

We left and stood on the sidewalk, saying goodbye, when someone called out my name. “Boone.” I looked over my shoulder to find Deputy Morgan, accompanied by two other officers, walking toward us.

“Sheriff wants to talk to you two.”

I decided not to go quietly. “We are busy with some family errands, Deputy Morgan. Tell the sheriff we will stop by later.”

Mogan took a step too close to me, but I held my temper. “Sheriff Vickers wants you at the station now. Are you going to make this fun... I mean, difficult for me?” His grin was a tad maniacal.

I smiled my most insincere smile. “Well, I sure wouldn’t want to keep Sheriff Vickers waiting. Lead the way.”

Morgan turned, and we followed with the two deputies behind us. I heard Ted on his phone telling his office he wouldn’t be in for a while, and he came along.

~~~

We waited in the lobby until Vickers arrived. He glared at Ted. “You here as their attorney?”

“Not yet, Sheriff.”

“Then stay out of my way.” He jerked his head toward a guy in a dress shirt and tie. “Detective Hargrave will be talking to you, Guidry.” He turned toward me. “Follow me.”

We sat in an interrogation room. Vickers bragged they had video and audio equipment just like the city cops. I’d had enough, and we hadn’t started.

“Good for you. Why did you want to chat.”

“The dead man in your yard was from Baton Rouge. Names Eddie LaPointe. What do you know about him?”

“I don’t know anything. Never heard of him.”

“He’s from Baton Rouge.”

“So? Baton Rouge is an hour and a half drive from New Orleans. They have their own cops.”

“I don’t believe you.” He lit into question after question. What did I know about the drug scene in New Orleans and Baton Rouge? Why did we come here? Why now? Why was that dead man in my parent’s yard? He kept up question after question, and I finally interrupted him.

“Sheriff, I have told you, don’t know the dead man, not involved in any cases where he is a suspect or witness. I just came to spend the holidays with my family. Now, can I go?”

Vickers glared at me. “Get out of here, but I’m not done with you.”

Hank and Ted were waiting for me, and we walked to Ted’s office, where we debriefed. We left there with Ted’s admonishment not to speak to the sheriff again without his presence. A dollar from each of us solidified the attorney-client privilege. Now, if we only knew what was going on.

~~~

Traditionally, children in the family made their Christmas pilgrimage to see Santa on December 22. We piled into Dad’s big SUV and headed downtown to the Santa Festival to meet my sister, cousins, and their families.

Main Street, now lined with antique stores, art galleries, and boutiques, sparkled with thousands of white lights and holiday decorations. The building that once housed my dad’s hardware store now held a florist and a doll shop—times certainly changed.

A wave of nostalgia washed over me, not for my childhood but for my son, Eric. The last time I saw him for the holidays was on this same street, watching the Christmas parade. I could feel his small six-year-old hand in mine, his eyes glued to the spectacle. Two months later, I suffered a gunshot wound during a domestic disturbance call. Divorce is never easy, but my wife, scared by the incident, filed for divorce, took my son, and left New Orleans. I never understood people who marry police officers, firefighters, or doctors knowing the hours we keep, and the dangers involved and then leave when they realize the actuality of what we do.

I tapped my mom on the shoulder and told her I was going to walk around a bit. I wandered down the street toward the diner, where there were no crowds. The diner was one of the few businesses remaining from my days growing up here. Ten feet before I reached the diner door, someone grabbed me from behind, and an arm clamped around my throat in a choke hold. I struggled to get free, but within seconds, I passed out.

Consciousness returned, and I lay face down in an alley behind the diner. I started to push myself up, but a hard kick to the ribs slammed me back to the asphalt. Someone knelt beside me, grabbed a handful of my hair, and raised my head.

“Mr. Fancy Detective, you need to keep your nose out of our business. If you want to keep your family safe, do the holiday thing and then get out of town. This is your only warning.”

Before I could respond, someone kicked me in the ribs again. Strong arms pulled me onto my feet and restrained me as a hard blow to my abdomen landed almost immediately. I kicked out as a fist connected the side of my face, and my head jerked back. The bastard landed blow after blow until I passed out.

I woke up with a flashlight in my eyes, and I lashed out, trying to get up. Hank’s voice stopped me. “Eli, it’s okay. Let the paramedic examine you.”

I pushed the paramedic away and grabbed Hank’s arm. “I didn’t see who did this, but they told me to stay out of their business.”

Hank chuckled. “Yeah. Well, that’s not going to happen. Now let the paramedic treat you.”

~~~

The last place I wanted to be was a bed in the Colleton Medical Center ER. The doctor wanted to take X-rays. I said no. My mom said yes, and she won. Fuming, I sat on the side of the bed, waiting for the doctor to release me, when Sheriff Vickers walked in.

“You sure do stir up trouble when you are in town, boy.”

Adrenaline surged through me as I fought the urge to deck him. “I am not a boy in any context you want to use that word. I am Detective Lieutenant Elijah Boone of the New Orleans Police Department, and you would do well to remember that.”

Vickers scoffed. “That ain’t getting you anywhere in my town. What did you do to provoke the men who got the better of you?”

“I gave my statement to the city police. You can read it.”

“You know what, I think you have some bad friends trying to move into my town, and I’m going to stop you. Don’t leave town until I tell you can go.”

He brushed past Hank, who was standing in the doorway. From the look on Hank’s face, I knew he wanted to deck the good sheriff, too.

~~~

Mom hovered over me at breakfast the next day like I was three years old. I was afraid for a moment that she would try to feed me. “Mom, I’m fine. No need to pamper me.”

“You have one fractured rib, several bruised ones, and you took some hard hits to the head. So, I am going to take care of you.”

Hank came into the kitchen, and Mom told him to sit down. He complied, and she set a plate of eggs, bacon, and grits before him. He smiled as she left the room to wrap more presents.

“I could get used to this.”

“Mom can bring you food in jail if Vickers gets his way. What did you find out from Cardi.”

“She met with Jenner from Vice and Mark Maron, an FBI drug task force agent. According to Maron, Peron Martinez is quickly building an empire in New Orleans, and they want him badly. He is known to seek other locations to set up hubs for distribution.”

“Let me guess—Walterboro is one of them.”

“Yep, Charleston, Brunswick, Savannah, and Walterboro.”

“Any surveillance on the action here?”

“They sent a team in a few weeks ago but haven’t set up surveillance yet. Maron said they first talked to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and had SLED’s drug division brief the local police. I’d say Martinez has someone leading the effort here.”

“Why kill LaPoint? Just because I was coming home?”

“Maybe so. We know Vickers took a whipping after rushing to arrest you, so maybe he decided to try and connect you to Martinez.”

“We need to find out.”

We headed to the pool hall in town. My old high school buddy owned the place, and they opened at ten in the morning. Mom asked us to return by noon when the kids were all coming for lunch and to tie the ribbons around the white pines.

Pete Carmack seemed happy to see me. He offered us beers on the house, but we settled for coffee. I got right to the point. “Pete, you know someone left a body in my parents' backyard a few days ago. We’ve found out the dead man might be associated with drugs coming into Walterboro. You get a lot of locals and transients through here. Have you heard anything?”

Pete chewed his bottom lip and glanced around the dark room. “Got a kid in high school. She knew the gal who died from an overdose a few weeks back. Thank goodness, my daughter is a good girl. She doesn’t hang with that crowd.”

He tapped the table, pensive, and I thought he was trying to decide what to do. The man who owns the pool hall usually has knowledge of both sides of life in a small town. Never pays to be on the wrong side. Pete stopped tapping.

“Eli, you didn’t hear this from me, but word on the street is that cops are involved.”

“Any idea who?

“I don’t know names, just that city and county cops might be on the take. A group of warehouse dudes come in here, and I heard them talking about contraband going through the shipping docks.” He shook his head. “Listen, I have to keep out of all of this. Not good for business, but I don’t want kids dying. I’ll keep my ears open.”

“Thanks, man.”

Hank and I walked out onto the street. My partner was not a man of many words. He always gets to the point. “We need to stop this, Eli. Kids are dying.”

I slapped him on the back. “That we do.”

We headed back to the house where the family had gathered. Mom served beef stew and cornbread muffins for lunch, and after the ribbon tying, the kids planned on baking cookies. Hank’s excitement about making cookies was a bit unnerving. We walked to the back of the yard to the majestic pine trees.

The kids tied large red plaid bows to the trunks of the four original trees and red and white striped ribbons to the smaller trees planted for each of them. They wanted to sing carols, and we all joined in. As we started to return to the house, the air exploded with the sound of gunfire. I was standing near the tree bearing my nameplate when a bullet struck it, sending pine bark scattering through the air. Hank and I spun simultaneously, withdrawing our guns from the holsters on our belts. We fired into the woods as I yelled for Dad to get everyone back to the house.

Hank jumped the fence with me struggling behind, and we ran down an incline toward Marler Road, an old logging road. Before we got there, we heard an engine roaring to life and tires spinning on a rough road.

“They got away.” Hank was out of breath.

“Yeah. Let’s get back.”

My heart pounded harder the closer I got to the yard, then nearly stopped when I saw Mom, Dad, and Dalton kneeling on the ground. I ran as hard as I could and jumped over the fence.

Racing to them, I stopped dead in my tracks, breathing heavily, my ribs burning in pain, but I was more concerned about what I saw. Cleaver lay on his side, his shoulder blood-soaked. Mom was crying, and Dad looked at me, tears in his eyes. “He must have sensed something. He jumped in front of Elisa, knocked her down, and got hit by a bullet.”

Hank knelt beside the dog, putting his hand on Cleaver’s chest. “He’s alive.” Parting the fur where the wound was, he looked at my mom and smiled. “It’s okay, Jessie, just a graze wound, not too deep. We need to get him to the vet.”

Dalton picked Cleaver up and turned toward my mom. “Jessie, go get some towels and meet me at the car. We’ll take him to Doc Morrison.” He looked at me. “Eli, protect this family.”

“I will.”

As the trio took Cleaver away, Hank yelled out an expletive. “We can’t go to the locals. That could have been them.”

“No, we can’t.” I pulled my phone from my jacket. “Time to call Ted. We need his help.”

~~~

Mimi, my cousins Matt and Ronnie, and their spouses had taken the kids home when Ted arrived an hour or so later. He walked into the house and said nothing until he plopped down on the den couch.

“What the hell, Eli?”

“I wish I knew. Want a drink?” I held up a bottle of bourbon.

“Yes, I’d love a drink. I called my contact at SLED, and he put me in touch with the lead investigator in the drug unit. Captain Marcus Franklin will be here in about an hour. I’ll tell you. He was glad we called them first. How’s the dog?”

“Mom called. Said he’s going to be fine. They should be home soon.”

“Good.”

I handed Ted a drink and sat across from him. “What do we do now?”

“We wait for SLED to tell us.”

While we waited, Hank called Cardi for any updates. She had none. Dalton dropped off Mom, Dad, and a groggy Cleaver and went home. Mom headed for the kitchen, and Dad put Cleaver in his bed under the breakfast nook window. She vowed to make cookies for the grandkids regardless, and Hank and Dad helped.

Four SLED officers arrived, and I called Hank to rejoin us. Captain Franklin immediately began to take our statements, starting with our arrival and finding the body. He was professional and thorough, and I admired him for that.

“Detective Boone, do you have any thoughts on who is involved?”

“I suspect you know more than I do. I have a local source who hears on the street that LEOs are involved and people on the transportation docks, but no names.”

“We hear that too, but no proof for any of them. Detective, do you have a theory as to why anyone would dump a body on this property and that it’s someone from your neck of the woods?”

I didn’t answer him immediately as I had no proof, only suspicions. Casting wrong suspicions never ended well. “Let me say that I have no good information, but I think that someone in this town heard I was coming home for the holidays and got scared. I assume you are aware of the incident last summer?” He nodded. “If I were to speculate, we,” I nodded toward Hank, “ticked off some folks within the Sheriff’s office. They may have wanted to get us out of the way if any of them are involved.”

“My thinking as well. You have not reported the shooting to the sheriff?”

Ted answered. “They did not on my advice. We told the younger family members that the shots were from hunters illegally on the property. Considering the circumstances, we thought it best to keep to that story until we spoke with you.”

Captain Franklin rose. “I think that’s how we will keep it for now. I am assigning unmarked cars to watch the house and the logging road. Keeping your family away from here now might be a good idea.”

“I’m sending my parents to my sister’s tonight. Hank and I are staying here.”

“Good. Contact me if you hear anything.”

~~~

It was nearing eight p.m. when Cardi called. “Might have a break. I got a call from the FBI, and they asked that since you are there, be on the lookout for Peron Martinez. DEA spotted him in Brunswick and reported that they believe he’s on the way to Walterboro to meet with contacts there.”

“Has the FBI contacted SLED here?”

“Not sure.”

“I’ll call our contact now and tell him. Keep me updated.”

“Stay in touch.”

“I will.”

I was about to call Franklin when Pete Carmack called. I could barely hear him over the din of noise in the pool hall. “Eli, Izzy, my bartender overheard one of the truck drivers say, “the big guy” was coming tonight, but first, they were taking care of those two nosy New Orleans cops.”

“Did she know the driver?”

“No, never been in before.”

“Thanks, Pete. I owe you one.”

As I dialed Franklin, I yelled at my partner. He came to the doorway. “Hank, tell Mom and Dad to pack a bag and get Cleaver ready. They need to go to Mimi’s right now.”

A SLED officer followed Mom and Dad to Mimi’s after he carried Cleaver to the car. Meanwhile, Hank and I checked that the windows and doors were locked. We had to be ready.

~~~

Two hours later, Hank and I sat in the den—Hank where he could see the front entry and me where I could see the backdoor—armed with our personal handguns and Dad’s two rifles. SLED officers were watching the house, the road, and the logging lane behind the house.

I hate stakeouts, and patience is not my strong suit. Hank can sit in a parked car for hours, but I get antsy, which perfectly describes my mood. SLED left us radios, and we sat in silence, waiting. We knew whoever attacked us would come again.

The radios cackled, and we both jumped.

“Unit 3: 10-06.” Standby, we waited.

“Unit 3: 10-10. Vehicle approaching. Turning onto the logging road. Three male occupants. Unit 6 deploy drone on my mark.”

“Unit 6. Unit 3: 10-4 Drone on standby for your mark.”

Hank and I rose, and I turned out the dim lamp. “They are coming from the woods.”

We exited the back door and hunkered down on the screened-in porch. I remained close to the light switch for the backyard flood lights. These guys would not be expecting the spotlights.

We listened to the buzz of the drone as the operator deployed it, carefully keeping it far enough away to muffle the sound but close enough for the infrared camera to detect the assailants’ heat signatures as the trio approached the back fence line.

“Unit 6: Perps climbing fence. Pulling drone.”

The tactical officers surrounding the yard maintained radio silence. Wearing night goggles, they could watch the progression of the men as they approached the house. I could hear Hank’s deep but steady breathing. Proof of why I always wanted him as my partner—stable and fearless, even if dead bodies make him squeamish. We waited in silence for the command to hit the lights.

The commander’s voice sounded. “Lights. Go.”

I threw the switch, and the backyard lit up, revealing three armed men about eighty feet from the porch. Several officers were converging on them when one decided to run. He tried to slip between two SWAT guys, but he ended up face down from the impact of a beanbag gun. One of the perps chose to fight. He raised his weapon, and we raised ours, but a SLED officer was quicker. It was a shot to the shoulder, and the guy was down as well.

The third perp went to his knees as ordered and forced onto his stomach, and his hands cuffed behind him. Paramedics arrived to treat the other two. Captain Franklin arrived, barking instructions to the officer guarding the handcuffed man. “Get him up and pull off that mask.”

The full-face mask came off, and Hank chuckled. “Well, I think ‘kiss my grits’ is appropriate, right? Meet Sheriff Detective Hargraves.” Hargraves glared at Hank and then spat at him.

Franklin ordered his men to take Hargraves away.

~~~

SLED set up command headquarters at the Yemassee Police Department, about twenty miles from Walterboro. Franklin had Hank and me wait in an interrogation room with coffee and doughnuts. Hank chuckled as he grabbed one. “The legacy lives on.”

Franklin entered with a sheaf of papers. “I just got off the phone with my superintendent, and he with yours. SLED has granted you and Detective Guidry temporary active status with this investigation. I want you present as we conduct interviews. I have a detective at the hospital in Charleston interviewing the third man, who we have identified as Ricky Landrum from Beaufort. He works for Turner Transport. Let’s get started.”

Hargrave lawyered up before he got the seat warm, so Franklin brought in the next guy—a young deputy with the sheriff’s office, Johnny Lee Romer. He shuffled in, head down, and sat where told.

Franklin went through the formalities and then asked Romer one question. “Tell me why, Deputy.”

Romer raised his head. “Sheriff ordered me.”

Hank and I exchanged glances as Franklin continued. “Sheriff Vickers ordered you to attack Detective Boone and his family.”

“Yeah, he said, Detective Boone worked for the drug cartel, and he needed to be stopped.”

“Sheriff Vickers said he needed to be stopped?”

“Yeah, but he used the word neutralized, but I don’t think he meant to kill him, just arrest him.”

“Who was the civilian with you and Detective Hargraves?”

“A guy from a transport company who could identify Boone. Said he’d seen him with the drug dealers.”

“Deputy Romer, are you working with the drug cartel?”

“No.” His eyes widened, and he shook his head. “No, I was under orders to bring Boone in.”

Franklin rose, and we stepped out into the hallway. “Crazy as it seems, I think that young man is telling the truth. Vickers might be trying for a cover story.”

Hank frowned. “But they have no proof Eli’s involved.”

“They know I’m from New Orleans, why they killed LaPointe and dropped him on my family’s property. To make a connection. Tenuous but enough to make people wonder.”

The interview room door opened. “Captain, he has something he wants to tell you.”

We entered, and Romer started talking immediately. “Captain, some of us on the force, well, we think the chief is involved with the drug cartel. Deputy Morgan’s been trying to get the goods on him. He wanted me to keep him informed of what they are doing.”

Morgan’s name shocked me. “Deputy Morgan thinks Chief Vickers is involved?”

Romer nodded. “He overheard the chief talking to someone about meeting a man from New Orleans. Morgan thought it was Boone.”

“Did Morgan tell you anything else?”

“He told us that he thinks Detective Hargraves is involved with Vickers. That they are providing safe passage for the drug smugglers.”

“Deputy Romer, we are not formally charging you until we determine what’s happening here. However, we will detain you for now.”

We started to leave, but Romer stopped us. “Morgan is following the chief. He learned Vickers was meeting with some man from New Orleans tonight.”

“Do you know where?”

Romer nodded. “Turner Transport.”

~~~

At one in the morning, Franklin’s assembled task force formed a perimeter around Turner Transport, located on a cul-de-sac in the back section of the industrial park. A SLED tactical team hid along a tree line just off the property. The tactical commander, who had eyes on the front and rear of the vast warehouse and dock, reported several targets surrounding the building—Deputy Morgan and his team. One by one, SLED officers pulled the locals away from the building.

Hank and I were mic’d up but ordered to stand down from involvement in the operation. Franklin muttered something about not wanting to lose cops from outside his command. I wasn’t too excited about him losing me either, but I wanted this over.

We remained with Captain Franklin in the command truck parked out of sight of Turner Transport, silent as we waited for Martinez. Officer Romer, who was cooperating, radioed Vickers, telling him Hargraves had ordered him to report that Hank and I had been neutralized, and the detective was busy cleaning up the scene. The sheriff seemed to buy that.

It was two am when a black Mercedes G-Class approached the warehouse. Hank whistled lowly. “That’s about a quarter of a million bucks worth of car. Gotta be our man.”

Four men exited the car, three with rifles visible. The fourth man was no doubt Peron Martinez. As they walked to the warehouse door, another car pulled up, and Sheriff Vickers and another officer we recognized joined them. The plan was to allow them to enter the building. SLED had portable listening devices in place to hear the conversation inside.

Through our earbuds, though faint, we could hear them greet each other, and Martinez asked someone for an update. When the person explaining the operation finished, Franklin gave the tactical commander the order to go. In five minutes, it was over, as gunfire and the sound of flashbangs faded. Franklin motioned us to follow him, and we rounded the corner to find Turner Transport bathed in spotlights from a hovering helicopter and SLED tactical guarding a line of handcuffed men. There appeared to be two perps and one officer being attended to by paramedics.

Martinez was stoic, his expression blank, his eyes focused forward. He was someone else’s worry. My attention was on the good sheriff. As I approached him, Morgan got to him first.

“You crooked son of a bitch.” He was about to slug Vickers when a linebacker-sized SLED officer intervened. Livid, Morgan jerked his arm away and then spotted me. His reaction surprised me.

“Boone. Sorry, I suspected the sheriff was behind the body at your parents’ place, but I had to play along. I knew he was crooked. Hard enough being a cop without scum like this looking out for himself. I got wind he was coming here after I overheard Hargraves and him talking.”

“I understand, Deputy.”

“And about my brother-in-law, he was no good, but my wife loved her brother. Sometimes…. “

“Sometimes we do what we gotta do. We’re good.”

~~~

It was mid-morning before we got back to the house. Mom and Dad were busy with last-minute prep for the holiday. Cleaver was limping but happy as usual. Mom fed us, and then Hank and I slept until four p.m.

I took the hottest shower possible, then called Cardi to bring her up to speed before I went downstairs. Dad and Hank were returning from the fish market, where they got shrimp for our traditional Christmas Eve Shrimp and Grits dinner.

Dad and I were discussing when the kids would arrive on Christmas morning so we could get the bikes from the shed when Ted stopped by carrying a basket of wine and cheese. We took coffee to the den and caught him up about the previous night.

“The town is buzzing, either shocked or saying I told you he was corrupt. You two might have redeemed yourselves.”

I shook my head. “I think it's best if Deputy Morgan gets the glory. He is here and needs loyalty from these people.”

Ted nodded. “Yeah, that’s how we should play it.”

“What about the Romer kid?” Hank had a soft spot for the predicament the young deputy was in.

“Ran into Judge Henry at the diner during lunch. He said he’d heard that Morgan vouched for the kid. He said he had sent him undercover, but neither knew that these people would make an attempt on your lives. Morgan ordered him to appear loyal to Hargraves to discover what he was up to.” He stood. “I need to pick up Helena. We are going to our daughter’s home in Aiken for Christmas. I’ll be back on the twenty-sixth. Check-in before you leave.”

Ted left with a large tin of cookies and cupcakes. By seven, the family arrived for dinner, and everyone opened one small gift from Mom and Dad. I thought Hank would cry when he realized he had a gift, too. I'm not sure what I’ll do with him on Christmas morning when he finds out they got him a new fishing rod, and I got him a new tackle box.

~~~

Christmas Day was as much fun as I have had in a few years. I couldn’t bike or play basketball with the kids as my ribs were still painful, but Uncle Hank joined in. And he did get a bit misty-eyed when he saw his new fishing gear.

My best present was a total surprise, a call from my son, Eric. Shaken, I walked outside as I answered.

“Dad, just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Eric. Good to hear from you.”

“Yeah, well, only got a minute, but just hope you had a good day.”

“I have. In Walterboro with your grandparents.”

“Tell them hi for me.”

“I will. They’d love to see you, and so would I.”

“Yeah, well, maybe. Gotta go.”

“Call anytime, Eric.”

“Yeah, Dad, you too. Bye.”

Mom was waiting for me when I went back into the house. “Eric?” I nodded. She hugged me, both of us unable to talk. Finally, she pulled away.

“Come on, time for supper before we send these kids home.”

~~~

The next day, Franklin called and asked us to come to the Sheriff’s Office for statements. He, Deputy Morgan, an FBI agent, and D.A. Bonner were there. We gave our statements, and then Franklin gave us an update.

“We transported Peron Martinez and his associates to the Charleston County Detention Center, as there is greater security there. Vickers, Hargraves, three other officers, the owner of Tucker Transport, and some of his employees are in cells here. Agents from the task force in New Orleans will join Agent Roth here. Big fish here, gentlemen. Well done.”

“Captain, do you have an idea of who killed LaPointe and dumped him in my parents’ yard?”

“According to the former sheriff, Hargraves and one of the deputies did that. They wanted to put suspicion on you. They were worried you were coming to town to investigate them.”

“The irony is I knew nothing about this until the body showed up.”

“Vickers is singing like a little birdie. He claims Hargraves threatened his family if he didn’t go along, but this morning, when the bank opened, we got a warrant and discovered a safety deposit box with over one hundred thousand dollars in cash. I find his story a bit hard to believe.”

Bonner nodded. “We can build a good case locally against Vickers and the others. Acting Sheriff Morgan uncovered a lot of evidence as he investigated him. We owe you thanks for helping with this investigation. The death of anyone is tragic, but without you making the connection of LaPointe to the drug investigation, this might not have had the outcome we needed.”

As Hank and I left, Morgan stopped me. “Boone, I appreciate your assistance.”

“You’re welcome.”

The slightest smile crossed his face. “Just remember, this is my town.”

Hank scoffed. “Great town, but you can keep it.”

~~~

We left Walterboro the following morning, heading home. Mom packed us food, including several pieces of fried chicken. The way Hank was eyeing the bag holding the chicken, I knew it wouldn’t last until the Georgia line. Life was back to normal.

...

_________________________________________

Detective Elijah Boone is a veteran member of the New Orleans Police Department. Intelligent, resourceful, and honest, he has a distinct lack of compassion for criminals and a love of Italian food. Each mystery in the Detective Elijah Boone Mystery Series mentions Mama Leone’s Restaurant, scene of the first tale in the series. _________________________________________

The following Detective Boone stories are available on Vocal Media:

"The Neighborhood"

"Tied With Twine"

"Home Again"

"The Dowager's Pearls"

"The Influencer"

"Under the Pines"

If you enjoyed this Detective Boone story, I hope you will check out the others. Thank you!

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About the Creator

D. A. Ratliff

A Southerner with saltwater in her veins, Deborah lives in the Florida sun and writes murder mysteries. She is published in several anthologies and her first novel, Crescent City Lies, is scheduled for release in 2024.

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock2 months ago

    Absolutely outstanding, Deborah! You immerse us so completely in the environment, action & story line--one would swear you were an officer at each level of law enforcement represented here yourself. You even answered the question I had from early on: why would they dump the body there when you gotta know it's just going to get them involved? Because they're local yokels who are nervous worried that they're already suspicious & not actually coming for Christmas. Fantastic job from beginning to end.

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