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Assassination at Bayou Sauvage
By D.J. (Don) Donaldson
Astor + Blue EditionsCopyright © 2017 D.J. Donalson; House of Stratus
All rights reserved.
Uncle Joe Broussard's eyes suddenly bulged like a sideshow display. Then they exploded, plastering his glasses with pieces of iris, lens fibers, and vitreous jelly. An instant later, the side of his head erupted, throwing shattered bone, blood, and brain matter into the air in a sickening display. Opposite Joe, across the cypress picnic table where they both sat, Joe's nephew, Andy Broussard, now heard the sound of a single gunshot coming from the swamp to his right. Broussard glanced that way and saw a boat with what appeared to be a single figure in it about 200 yards across the water.
At practically the same instant he saw the boat, Broussard rolled his ample bulk off the seat of the picnic table so that he hit the ground with a thump. On hands and knees he scrambled around behind the stacked cypress logs that supported the table's top and seats. Hands cupped to his mouth he yelled to the throng of his relatives scattered around the picnic area. "Everybody down. Get on the ground and lay as flat as possible." He repeated his instructions, knowing that he hadn't provided a perfect answer to the threat, but didn't want everyone running around and giving the shooter any more clear targets.
Believing that Uncle Joe was almost certainly dead, Broussard crawled over to where Joe's body was hanging backward off the split cypress log on which he'd been sitting. He dragged Joe from the seat, pulled him behind the stacked log table support, and checked for a pulse. There was none.
Broussard pulled out his phone and punched in 911. "This is Dr. Broussard, medical examiner for Orleans Parish. A man has been shot at the new picnic area near the ranger station at the Bayou Sauvage wildlife refuge. The victim I mentioned is dead, but others are at risk."
When Joe was shot, two rangers had been eating their lunch at a picnic table in front of the bungalow that held their local office. Unsure of where the shot had come from they too had hit the ground.
"Where is he?" one of them yelled to Broussard.
"Out on the water," Broussard yelled back, pointing into the swamp. "I've got a man down over here with no pulse. Already called 911."
The shooter's boat was located just off a spit of land full of scrubby woods. Its position meant there was no sight line to the ranger's boat dock on the right of two large cypress trees. Still unsure of the killer's exact location, the rangers rose into a crouching run and headed for the dock. When they reached their boat, one of them jumped in, grabbed a pair of binoculars, and dashed to the cypress nearest the picnic grounds. From behind the tree, he put the lenses to his eyes and swept the swamp until he located the shooter, now clearly visible from this vantage point.
The ranger rushed back to his partner and spoke briefly to him while pointing in the shooter's direction. They piled into their boat and a few seconds later, were roaring toward the source of all the trouble.
The two rangers were either among the bravest men Broussard had ever seen or were not very smart, because they headed directly for the killer, making no attempt to pursue an erratic course that would make them elusive targets.
Broussard wanted desperately to see what was about to happen. Remembering that Renee Lancomb, Uncle Joe's granddaughter, had left her bird-watching binoculars on the picnic table when she'd gone off to play horseshoes, Broussard raised his right hand and groped around the tabletop for them. A moment later, he had them in his possession.
Now what? If the shooter was a marksman using a scope, which seemed like a certainty, and if he was waiting for anyone on the ground to show themselves, the old pathologist's curiosity might do for him what it did to the proverbial cat. But there had been only the one shot, and the shooter's attention must certainly now be centered on the danger posed by the rapidly advancing rangers.
"What's goin' on?" a male voice said from behind Broussard. "Oh shit," the man said as he spotted Uncle Joe.
Looking back at the guy, Broussard saw that it was Joe's bodyguard, with a 9mm automatic in one hand. "Shooter out in the swamp, get down."
The guy hit the dirt and crawled over to check his employer's body.
The bodyguard's arrival had provided the killer with another clear target. The fact he hadn't been shot, reinforced Broussard's belief that it was safe to use the binoculars. Leaning around the picnic table's protective wall of logs, Broussard brought the glasses up, located the shooter, and twirled the focus knob.
As the scene sharpened, Broussard saw why the rangers seemed so unconcerned about the danger they were in. The shooter, dressed in cammies and a cammie cap and wearing sun glasses, was standing in his boat with both hands behind his head in an apparent gesture of surrender. But if Broussard had been in the ranger's boat, he would have warned them not to relax, because the killer's hands weren't visible.
And sure enough, when the rangers were about seventy yards away, the shooter drew his right hand out in the open. In it was a handgun. With no hesitation, he pointed the muzzle at his own head and pulled the trigger. He then fell sideways out of the boat and into the water.CHAPTER 2
Kit Franklyn worked for Broussard as a death investigator, specializing in the psychology of suicidal personalities. Occasionally she helped the NOPD Homicide division with their difficult cases by constructing a personality profile of the killer they were after. Since she'd met Broussard, she'd been nearly killed more times than she could count. Now she always carried a Ladysmith .38 strapped to her right calf, hidden by the pants she would have worn even if she didn't need the gun. Looking at her, no one would know any of this. All they would see is a woman so attractive that other women usually viewed her as unfair competition and men would often walk into things while watching her pass by.
But there was one woman who looked upon Kit with genuine affection. As Kit walked through the doors of Grandma O's restaurant, Grandma Oustellette herself came rushing over to welcome her.
"Hello chil'," Grandma O said, hugging Kit against her considerable chest. Grandma O was dressed as always in a black crushed taffeta dress that made her look even larger than she was. Accustomed to being greeted this way, Kit took a quick deep breath so she could survive the hug without being suffocated.
When Grandma O released her, the old Cajun stepped back and said, "Dere's somethin' different about you today ..."
Kit made an elaborate gesture of adjusting a lock of her auburn hair with her left hand.
It was not wasted motion.
"Oh my sakes ..." Grandma O said, her eyes locking on Kit's ring finger. "He finally did it."
"Last night," Kit said, holding her hand out so Grandma O could see the engagement ring, Kit's boyfriend, alligator farmer, Teddy LaBiche, had given her.
"Wait," Grandma O said, before turning and powering toward the cash register on the bar, her taffeta dress rustling like birch trees in the wind. She opened the cash register, took out something, and headed back to Kit, where she pulled Kit's ring finger up to her face with one hand and popped a jeweler's loop in her right eye with the other.
Tilting Kit's hand so it was optimally illuminated by the lights overhead, Grandma O studied the ring, all the while mumbling to herself: "Center stone old-mine cut with VS2 clarity, caret and a half in size, bezel-mounted, dome-shaped gallery pave-set with other old-mine stones, nice milligrain setting ..." She lowered Kit's hand and removed the jeweler's loop from her eye. "Dat's a fine ring ... antique by da look of it."
"It belonged to Teddy's grandmother."
"Dat makes it even better – to be a family heirloom." (She pronounced it hairloom.) "Don't he usually drive in from Bayou Coteau on Saturdays in time for lunch?"
"Something came up. A motorboat tore out a piece of the fence around his breeding stock. He'll be here later."
Ignoring Grandma O's look that obviously conveyed her belief that Teddy should not be putting gators ahead of obligations to his fiancée, Kit said, "How do you know so much about diamonds and ring settings?"
"My third husband, Amadee, ran a pawn shop. I used to help out some in dere and I jus' picked it up."
"Seems like a waste to not be using that kind of knowledge anymore."
"Well ..." Grandma O lowered her voice and looked around to see if anyone else could hear. "Once in a while when someone I been knowin' a long time has a run a bad luck an' needs a loan, I'll see dey get it, but Amadee taught me to never jus' give somebody money. 'Always get collateral,' he said. So I do ... usually rings. I'm not runnin' a loan business mind you ... jus' helping friends out from time to time. So when's da weddin' gonna be?"
"We haven't decided yet."
Grandma O's eyes clouded over. "You got him dis far. You gotta haul him in da rest of da way – like a big speckled trout – dey don' want to get in da boat either."
Kit nodded. "Good advice."
Giving out with a loud cackle that made a few of the other patrons in the place flinch in surprise, Grandma O turned and motioned Kit to follow. "C'mon back."
The old Cajun led Kit to the big round table that was permanently reserved for Broussard, but which Kit was also allowed to use.
"What's for lunch?" Grandma O asked as Kit took a seat that faced out onto the rest of the tables.
"A debris po'boy, a house salad, and iced tea."
"You got it ... or you will in a few minutes."
As Grandma O rustled off to the kitchen, Kit's phone rang. She fished it out of her handbag and glanced at the identity of the caller: Phil Gatlin, Broussard's best friend and oldest detective in Homicide. What on earth could he want? She wasn't working on anything with him.
"This is Kit."
"We got a situation," Gatlin said. "I don't want to talk about it over the phone, but it's something Andy thought you should be in on."
"Okay, how do you want to proceed?"
"Where are you?"
"Grandma O's. I just ordered lunch."
"I got a few things to do first. How about I come by and pick you up in thirty."
"See you then."CHAPTER 3
To the brilliant sound of Mozart's Violin Concerto #4 issuing from the autopsy room's sound system, Broussard circled the steel table holding the now naked body of the Bayou Sauvage shooter, a lean, moderately muscled male Caucasian between 30 and 40 years old lying face up, his arms aligned along his torso. The old pathologist checked the form on the clipboard in his hand.
"You noted the degree of rigor in his limbs as a three when you prepared him," Broussard said to his assistant, Guy Minoux.
Guy nodded. "Right."
"Did you have to break it, to get him undressed?" He asked the question because once broken, when rigor resumes, it isn't as extensive in the disturbed muscles as in those left alone.
"No, I was careful not to, and the position of his arms made it pretty easy to avoid."
Broussard trusted Guy completely, so that ordinarily, the old pathologist wouldn't have checked the degree of rigor for himself. But it had only been three hours since the gunman had killed himself, and for much of that time the body had been submerged in water that was surely cooler than the ambient spring air. Though the degree of rigor was not a reliable time-of-death indicator, a rating of three seemed high for the circumstances. He explained this to Guy, who nodded and said, "Would you mind checkin' it too. I don't want anybody lookin' at me and rollin' their eyes if this becomes a problem later."
"That part about somebody givin' you a frog eye ... hope you didn't mean me," Broussard said.
Guy swished his hand at Broussard in a gesture of dismissal. "Nahh, we been through too much of this stuff together for me to think that."
"I'm sure you're right about this, but ... just to be safe ..." Broussard headed for the cadaver's right arm. When he was in the proper position, he gently tested the limb's resistance to flexion of the elbow. He tried to raise the arm at the shoulder, then tested the right leg. Nodding, he said, "I agree ... level three."
He shifted his attention to the head, where he carefully tried to move it from side to side before pulling down on the lower jaw. In keeping with the established principle that rigor begins in the short muscles of the jaw and neck before the long extremity muscles, Broussard judged rigor in the former to be a level four. So there was agreement between these different areas.
Broussard moved to the other side of the head, reached up, and adjusted the light over the table. He then bent down and studied the self-inflicted gunshot wound on the cadaver's temple. What he saw was unexpected. The blast of gasses from the gun had split the man's skin in a star shape and there was no soot around the wound. Of course, immersion in the swamp would likely have washed any gunshot residue from the skin, but that star shape ...
From the rolling stainless cart nearby he picked up an instant camera and took a shot of the wound. When the latent picture whirred from the camera, he put the camera back on the cart and laid the slowly developing picture beside it.
With a scalpel, Broussard made four incisions that formed a cross in the soft tissue of the scalp, carrying the cuts all the way down to the bone. "Guy, get me four hemostats and come over to the head of the table would you please."
Using a pair of forceps and his scalpel, Broussard began to carefully dissect one quadrant of the soft tissue off the shooter's skull. When Minoux appeared with the hemostats, Broussard lifted the quadrant he'd freed and said, "Use one of those hemostats to hold this tissue back from the wound."
Guy got hold of the pointed end of the quadrant with a hemostat and gently pulled the flap toward him until he felt it begin to resist. Then he let the hemostat dangle so its weight would keep the flap open. In a few more minutes, all four flaps were reflected off the skull. Broussard then blotted away the obscuring blood with a paper towel and issued a satisfied grunt. The soot that had been missing from the skin around the wound was now clearly apparent in a dense deposit on the bone bordering the round hole in the skull, where the swamp water couldn't have reached it. It was all textbook ... Except ...
Broussard closed his eyes, his mind turning inward where it was dark and easier to think. Had he been at his desk and not wearing soiled rubber gloves, he would have helped the process along by stroking the bristly hairs on the end of his nose. Unable to do that, it took him a second or two longer to arrive at the question he now asked Minoux.
"Guy, how would you judge the fit of this guy's clothes?"
Confusion at the purpose of the question evident in his furrowed brow, Guy said, "Everything was a little big for him."
Giving a grunt that sounded to Minoux like Broussard had expected him to say something like that, the old pathologist, picked up the camera and took a shot of the soot-marked bone.
While that picture was developing, Broussard again picked up his scalpel, made a deep cut behind the cadaver's left ear, then carried the incision across the top of the head to the same place behind the other ear. As Broussard freed the front half of the scalp from the underlying bone, he couldn't imagine that he would find anything inside the skull that was as interesting as what he'd already seen, but who knows? In any event, since there was no exit wound on the opposite side of the head from the entrance wound, he was sure he would at least find the bullet in there. And most likely, considering its limited penetrating power, it would probably be a .22 caliber round.
He draped the front half of the scalp over the cadaver's forehead and eyes.
Working precisely, with all the dexterity of a pianist Mozart would have envied, Broussard freed the back half of the scalp from the skull and let it dangle so it partially covered the edge of the wooden block supporting the head. He then picked up the electric motor-driven Stryker saw, flicked it on, and plunged its oscillating blade into the skull just above the right ear. With smoke and wet bone meal accompanying movement of the saw blade Broussard made an equatorial cut all around the skull, being careful to keep the blade from penetrating the underlying brain.
It was now time to remove the bony cap he'd freed from the rest of the skull. It came loose with a bit of effort and a sucking sound that always reminded him of walking through swamp muck in rubber boots when he was a kid in Bayou Coteau. Looking at the brain inside, with its lacework of blood vessels covering the rolling hills of white matter, he thought of the old phrase, "He learned it by heart." A mistaken notion by the ancient Greeks that memory and intelligence were centered in the heart. And yet the phrase persists. He shook his head at how much of the past continues into the present. He'd been trying not to think about Uncle Joe, who was being worked on next door by Charlie Franks, the assistant medical examiner. But how could he put aside the sight he'd seen mere hours ago of Joe's brain being blown into a frothy mist? What part of Joe's past had led to his death this morning?
Excerpted from Assassination at Bayou Sauvage by D.J. (Don) Donaldson. Copyright © 2017 D.J. Donalson; House of Stratus. Excerpted by permission of Astor + Blue Editions.
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