Sunday, November 29, 2015

Blood Cries Chapter 19

June 11, 1977
1:47 a.m.

The headlights of Sheriff Maddox’s patrol car shined down on broken, uneven pavement.  He drummed his fingers nervously on the steering wheel as he drove deeper into the woods.  As he approached a bend in the road, he knew he had arrived at his destination by the flashing blue lights reflecting against the trees.  He parked behind a state trooper's vehicle and then sat for a moment, watching.

Three sets of flood lights had been set up to allow his people to do their work in the darkness, and from his vantage point the lights flickered with the moving shadows of men and women going about their business. 

He left his keys in the ignition and his door hanging open as he moved toward the disabled vehicle at the center of the ongoing investigation.  He walked right through the police tape like it wasn’t there and carried it with him around his stomach like a slipping sash on a beauty pageant contestant.  His deputies scrounged to redraw the perimeter. 

“Hey, Sheriff,” Ford said, coming to meet to meet him.  He read the expression on his boss’s face.  “I know.  A damn tragedy is what it is.”

Maddox noticed the yellow tape, lifted it away from his body, and let it drop to the ground.  He skirted the back end of a 1974 Ford Torino, raking his hand across the tail light.  One of the illumination rigs—rows of lamp shells stacked on top of each other—had been set up about five feet away, and shined light down on the passenger side door of the Torino.

“Jesus Christ,” the sheriff muttered.

“I know, Sheriff.  I couldn’t believe it myself.  I mean, I could believe it—look at who we’re dealing with—but dang, I mean, are you kidding me?”

Maddox crouched beside the victim, adjusting his stance to prevent his shadow from obscuring any clues.  A pair of legs and a torso protruded from underneath the vehicle, posed like a mechanic checking the undercarriage.  The front passenger side tire had been removed and had fallen, or been thrown, into the grass a few feet away.  A jack lay on its side beside the dead girl. 

“Jesus Fucking Christ,” said the sheriff.

“Yep,” Ford said.  “I ain’t never seen anyone change a tire like that before.”

Judging by the victim’s clothes—white short pants, orange striped halter top, plain white tennis shoes and bobby socks—she couldn’t have been older than 15 or 16 years old.  Maddox couldn’t get a good look her face beneath the car, separated as it was from view by the rotor pinning her neck to the road.

Sheriff Maddox reached into his shirt pocket and removed a handkerchief.  Even in the middle of the night it was 85 degrees and muggy.  The mosquitos would feast on their damp skin.  Maddox dabbed his forehead with the handkerchief and then held it over his nose and mouth as he bent close to the body for a more thorough examination.  “The poor girl,” he said.

“If you ask me,” Ford began, “I don’t believe she was changing a tire.  You’d have to be pretty stupid to go up under a car like that, especially when you ain’t got no jack base.  I believe she was placed there.”

Maddox took a few deep breaths into his handkerchief and then looked up at his chief deputy.  “Of course she was placed here,” he said quietly.  “Clearly, the girl was murdered.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Ford said.  He smiled in his usual way.  “It’s a set-up, plain and simple.”

“Make sure no one comes up here,” Maddox said as he folded up his handkerchief and restored it to his breast pocket.  

He surveyed the perimeter, checking the placement of his staff.  Satisfied, he turned his attention to the flat tire lying in the grass by the side of the road.  He pulled a flashlight out of his utility belt and shined the light in a circle around the tread until he found the puncture wound.  “Probably a knife,” he said.

The radio squawked in a nearby cruiser.  “Hold that thought, Sheriff,” Ford said.  “I’m getting a transmission.”  He ducked into his car and pulled the hand set to his mouth.  A few seconds later he called out to the sheriff, who was shining his flashlight on the tracks in the dirt beside the road.

“That was Tommy.  He said he’s got the girl’s parents down the street.  They want to see the girl.”

“How in the hell are they here already?  I just got here, for Christ’s sake!”

“They told Tommy they’ve been out searching for the girl all night.  Apparently, they stopped by the station, and Sheila told them we had her here.”

“Do they know she’s dead?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  Tommy wants to know if he should let them come down the road.”

“Is it the Reverend?  Is he here?”

“I believe so.  What do you want me to do?” Ford asked.

“I told you I don’t want anyone up here!”

“That’s what I told Tommy.  He said they won’t take no for an answer.”

Maddox paced back and forth in the road.  “If that son of a bitch thinks he can contaminate his own crime scene, he’s got another thing coming.”

Ford held the hand set to his chest as he waited for a definitive answer.

Maddox stopped and put his hand on his hips.  He looked at the ground.  “She can come,” he said finally.  “He can stay in the car.  I don’t want him anywhere near this place.”

“You got it, Sheriff.  You want I should radio Tommy to bring her up?”

Maddox marched down the road.  “I’ll go get her myself.  You and Jimbo and Charlotte get the girl out from under the car.  Cover her up with something.  I don’t want her mama to see her like this.” 

“You got it, Sheriff.”

It was a perfect location to dump a body—a little-used access road connecting two highways and surrounded by forest.  Only one person lived in the area.  The killer likely would have killed the girl at another location and then brought her here, knowing the odds of anyone driving by were slim, and giving him time to arrange the scene.

Milton Hendricks, the one person who lived in the area, had discovered the body on his way home from a fishing trip around 11:45 p.m.  He immediately called the police, who notified the sheriff’s office and the state trooper’s office.   Maddox received the call around 12:10.  Stirred from his bed and half asleep, he barked the necessary orders into the phone. 

By now, the routine was familiar both to him and his crew.  Everyone knew what to do.  He told his wife to go back to sleep—she needed her rest—and then made himself a cup of coffee, showered and pressed his uniform.  He had taken his time, knowing he was in for a long night.  Now, as he came to the end of the road, he cursed himself for wasting so much time. 

He found Tommy sitting on the hood of his car cleaning his fingernails with a pocket knife.  Another vehicle was angled toward his, and Tommy appeared to be using the other car’s head lamps to aid him in his task.

Sheriff Maddox trotted into the cross beams.  Tommy hopped down from the hood of his patrol car and folded up his knife.  Maddox looked from his deputy to the darkened windshield of a black Crown Victoria.  He could just make out the face of the Reverend sitting in the driver’s seat.  The girl’s foster mother, Cassandra Baxter, sat beside him.

Maddox focused on the driver.  “She can come with me,” he said.  “You stay in the car.”

The Reverend leaned out of his window.  “That is my wife.  I should be with her.”

“This doesn’t concern you,” Maddox said.

Mrs. Baxter scrambled out of the passenger’s seat and hurried over to the sheriff.

 “There is no cause to treat me this way,” the Reverend said.  “If any harm has come to that girl, then I am a victim also.”

“If you’re a victim, then I’m the king of the ocean,” Maddox said.  He took Cassandra’s arm in his, patted her on the hand, and escorted her up the road.

The Reverend clenched the steering wheel.

Jim Easton’s van wheeled in behind the deputy’s car, blaring “Take the Money and Run” by the Steve Miller Band.  Jim jumped out of the van and jogged up to the deputy. 

“Hey, Tommy,” he said.  “Thanks for the tip.  Who is it this time?”

Tommy tilted his head in the direction of the Reverend.

“Holy shit,” Jim said.  “Is that who I think it is?”

“The one and only.”

Jim moved between Tommy and the man parked a few feet away.  He lowered his voice to a whisper.  “What the hell is he doing here?”

“Waiting for his wife to identify the body of her little girl.”

“Holy shit,” Jim said.  “He killed his own daughter?”

Tommy nodded.

“I wonder if he’d give me an interview.”

“Well, he did just kill his daughter.  He’d probably love to discuss that with a member of the press.”

“Actually, I think she’s a step daughter,” Jim said.  “You remember Clarence Woods?  He played football at Benjamin Russell, but then died a few years ago?  That’s his girl.”

“That makes sense,” Tommy said.  “The Reverend won’t have to worry about her daddy coming after him.”

“I’m gonna go see if he’ll talk to me.”

“It’s your funeral.”

*        *        *

They walked through the darkness, following the beam shining down from Maddox’s flashlight.  Cassandra clung to his arm like a life raft.  Every step she took was a stagger.  They walked in silence, Maddox wondering how to approach the delicate inevitable topic, and Cassandra staring into the woods with eyes as wide and round as a wounded animal’s.

“I’ve had that girl since she was three years old,” she said after a while.

“This isn’t going to be easy, Mrs. Baxter.”

“I took her in after her father died.  Her mother wasn’t fit to raise her.  Everyone knew that.  Even her mother knew that.”

“I have to warn you.  What you are about to see is a gruesome spectacle.  You’ll need to prepare yourself.”

“She’s grown up so much.  She acts like she’s ready to go out into the world.”

“Do you know anyone who would want to harm her?” Maddox asked.

“That girl acted like nothing in the world could harm her.  She could stand up to anyone.  I halfway believed it myself.”

“Did your husband want to harm her?”

Cassandra stopped and turned to him.  Maddox looked into her eyes.  Even from the dim afterglow of his flashlight he could see they were wet around the edges.  She opened her mouth to say something, then turned her head away and they resumed walking.  Her grip around his arm loosened.

“Why would Will want to hurt her?” she asked.  “She was his daughter too.”

“Ma’am, when was the last time you saw your daughter?”

“We drove out to my sister’s house this morning.  We spent the day there.  We came back around seven, but then Lucy said she wanted to go out again.  I said, ‘Forget it. It’s too late.’  I went to the den to watch television.  I heard the car start up.  When I went to look for her, she was gone.”

“And where was Reverend Baxter during all this?”

“Today?  I don’t know.  He said he had business.  I made a report.  I called the police.  Will came home while I was making a report to one of your officers.   Will drove me around afterwards looking for her.  We drove back out to my sister’s place, but Lucy wasn’t there.  We stopped by the police station on the way home.  They said you had her here.”

They rounded the bend to the crime scene.  Cassandra released the sheriff’s arm and went forward alone.

 “Mrs. Baxter,” Maddox called after her, but she wouldn’t turn around.  For some reason, he let her go on.  He watched her round the back end of the vehicle.  He could see her face move back and forth as her mind tried to process what she was seeing.  Then he saw her face contort in pain.  She dropped to the ground, and a low cry emanated from the spot where she fell. 

Chapter 20 posts a week from today.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Brief Analysis of Two Leading Republican Presidential Contenders

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, particularly the part of Thanksgiving where you end up in a political argument with your brother-in-law, I submit this brief liberal rant for your enjoyment.  Hopefully, I will have it all out of my system by the time my family arrives.  Republicans may wish to visit another website at this time. 

The situation in the Middle East continues to heat up.  The US is trying to battle terrorists in the midst of a cluster of competing regional and international powers all trying to serve their own interests, thus creating an extremely unstable situation, essentially a powder keg with the potential to start World War III. 

What are we going to do?  I know.  Let’s get the guy from The Apprentice.

He’ll know what to do.  I mean, the guy knows how to build a golf course.  He can erect casinos and gaudy rental property.  I’m sure he can also handle delicate international negotiations with allies and enemies alike.  He just can’t do it with Univision. Or Rosie O’Donnell.  Or pretty much anyone who isn’t one of his lackeys.

The conservative response to this is of course to shift the conversation to Obama.  “What about him?” They say.  “What made him qualified?  Being a community organizer?”  (Italics indicate dripping disdain.)

The answer: well, yes.  That probably was helpful, as was being a Harvard law professor, and a state and US senator.  All of that stuff probably did prepare him to be president a little better than say being a slum lord or a reality TV star, even one with a great catch phrase. 

And yet, for some reason, many people still believe that someone achieving success in one area somehow translates to having qualifications in another.  Take Ben Carson (please!)  Now there was a skilled neuro surgeon.  The guy separated conjoined twins!  Therefore, he must know how to work with Congress to push through his policy agenda.  Sure, you have to ignore all the things he says that would otherwise undermine that assumption.  The point is the guy was extremely good at that one job.

It reminds me of the last time I went to the circus.  I was blown away by the talent I saw there.  I said to myself, “Wow, look at that guy fly through the air!  I’ve never seen a person do such amazing acrobatics.  I think I’ll make him my banker.”

The point is this: the two guys I mentioned before are a couple of bozos.  You can’t elect a bozo president and then hope he surrounds himself with competent people to help him lead.  That isn’t the bozo way.  Besides, we tried that before not too long ago.  It didn’t work out too well.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Blood Cries Chapter 18


Calvin Whitehead stepped into the witness box and raised his right hand.  The bailiff swore him in.  Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the slick lawyer ooze toward him from the defendant’s table.

Melvin smiled cordially.  “Would you please state your name and occupation?”

“My name is Calvin Whitehead,” he answered in a voice louder than he had intended.  “I’m the chief toxicologist for the state of Alabama.”

“And would you state your credentials, please?”

“Well, I’ve been the state’s toxicologist for twelve years.  Before that I was an assistant for five.”

“And what education and training did you receive prior to that?”

“Well, most of my training occurred on the job.  Before that I studied zoology in college.”

“Zoology?” Melvin asked.  “Like zoos and stuff?” His nose wrinkled like he could smell the monkey cage from where he was standing in open court.

“That’s right,” Calvin said.  “I studied animals.”

“Okay, Mr. Whitehead.  Let’s get down to the point.  Last year, you performed an autopsy on Taylor Smith, is that correct?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“And what did he die of?”

“Excuse me?”

“What did you determine was Mr. Smith’s cause of death?”

The toxicologist looked at the DA for help, but Henry Russell was busy rifling through papers spread out over the prosecutor’s table.

Transcript of Interview with Melvin Little conducted by Louella Harper 3/27/1980

Melvin: (laughing) That’s what was so funny about that case.  I remember asking the state’s witness, the toxicologist, “What did the guy die of?” 

He said, “Well, I’m not sure.” (More laughter) 

I said, “What do you mean you’re not sure? You have the report don’t you?  You have all the resources of the state of Alabama at your disposal.  You even have a new lab up there in Auburn with all that fancy new equipment.  And you mean to tell me you can’t tell me what killed this man?”

He said, “No, I can’t.”

I looked at the judge and the judge looked at me and the judge said to him, “Cal, you’ve been determining cause of death for fifteen years.  Just tell us what killed this poor man.”

He said, “Judge, all I can tell you…” He reached into his pocket.  “I can tell you what the black folks are saying.”

I moved to strike that.  The judge granted my motion.

The judge said, “Just tell us—as an officer of the court—what he died of?”

The toxicologist said, “Judge, I don’t know.”  He pulled out a vial of black powder.  “But I found this at the scene.  It was in the car sprinkled all around the body.  We’ve studied this at the lab.  The FBI has analyzed it.  We don’t know what it is or if it had anything to do with Mr. Smith’s death.  It’s just the strangest thing...”

*        *        *

Louella went to the sheriff’s office and found Sheriff Ford standing at the coffee machine gabbing with a secretary.  When Louella interrupted, he greeted her with a smile full of big, square teeth.  Louella politely refused a cup of coffee.

“Do you remember the powder found at the scene around Taylor Smith’s body?”  Louella asked.

“Powder?  You mean like cocaine?” 

“No,” Louella said.  “I mean like some kind of voodoo powder.  Did you ever find anything in the car or on the victim’s person?”

“Voodoo powder?”  Ford laughed and looked around for someone with whom to share a humorous comment.  The secretary had left the breakroom and no one else was there, so he turned back to Louella.  “No ma’am, I never found any powder, but I heard rumors and such.”

Interview Transcript 3/27/80

Melvin: I asked some of my black friends about it.  I said, “What do you think killed Taylor?”

They all said, “Oh, it was voodoo.  Voodoo powder killed him.”

“Well, where’d he get it?”

They said, “He got it down in New Orleans.”

Louella: (While taking notes) Would you mind telling me the names of the people you asked.

Melvin: Why do you need that?

Louella: I just need to verify the information.

Melvin: Why?  Don’t you trust me?

Louella: Of course, I do Melvin.  It’s nothing personal.  I’m writing a journalistic account though, and facts have to be verified.

Melvin: Oh, well, you know, let’s see.  That was several years ago.  I believe… I believe I talked to my old buddy Hector Caldwell about it.  If I’m not mistaken.  It’s been several years as I said.  Hector works as an automobile mechanic here in town.

Louella: Thank you.  Please continue.  Mr. Caldwell told you the powder came from New Orleans.

Melvin: Yeah, I’m pretty sure Hector was one of the people I talked to about that.  Anyway, the toxicologist had testified late on a Friday afternoon.  The judge said we could pick it up on Monday.  Since I had the weekend off anyway, I decided to make a trip to New Orleans to investigate.  

*        *        *

Louella found Hector Caldwell at a downtown body shop underneath a wood-paneled station wagon.  He rolled out from under the car on a mechanics dolly and sat up, and started blinking at the woman standing above him holding a notepad.  He wore a blue jumpsuit smeared with axle grease and held a large wrench in his hand.  The whole place smelled of grease and motor oil. 

“Are you friends with Melvin Little?” Louella asked.

Hector winced at the mention of Melvin’s name.  He looked over both shoulders as he climbed to his feet and then moved in close to Louella. 

“I know Melvin,” he said in a quiet voice.  “He represented me once a long time ago.  I’m not the same person I was back then.”

“I’m not interested in your felonious past,” Louella said. She fished a pencil from behind her ear and started writing.  “Did you know Taylor Smith?”

“Yeah, I knew Taylor.  Why are you asking me about him?  You think I had something to do with his death?”

“No one suspects you of any involvement, Mr. Caldwell.  I’m attempting to verify someone else’s story.”

Hector sighed.  “Yeah, I knew Taylor a little bit.  He was a year behind me in school.”

“How do you think he died?”

Hector blinked and stared at Louella like she was crazy.  “What do you mean?  Reverend Baxter killed him.”

“Mm hm,” Louella nodded.  “And how do you think he did it?”

“I don’t know.  I heard he got drugged and then suffocated with a pillow.”

“What about voodoo?”

“What about it?” Hector asked.

“Do you suspect voodoo was used in the murder.”

“I wouldn’t know about that.  I mean, I heard rumors.”

“Thank you for your time, Mr. Caldwell.”

Interview Transcript 3/27/80

Melvin: I went down to the French Quarter and I paid a visit to the Voodoo Shop. There was a lady dressed in African garb standing at the counter.  I showed her the vial of powder.

I said, “Do you sell this stuff?”

Louella: How’d you come to have the powder?  Wasn’t that evidence?

Melvin: Oh, I told the judge the defense needed to have the stuff analyzed independently.

Louella: I didn’t think they would just hand evidence over to the defense lawyer to take home with him.

Melvin: Well, you see the powder was never formerly entered into evidence.

Louella: I see.

Melvin: Anyway, I showed the stuff to the woman at the Voodoo Shop.  I said, “Do you sell this stuff?”

She said, “Oh yeah, that’s voodoo powder.  It’s made in Africa.”

I said, “What’s in it?”

She said it included parts of sixteen different animals: zebra hooves, elephant tusks… crocodile shit. They crushed it all up into a powder and blessed it with some mumbo jumbo at a special ceremony.  She told me it was powerful stuff.  Black magic.

I said, “Did you ever sell this powder to a preacher from Alabama?”

She goes, “Oh yeah.  Do you mean Reverend Baxter?  He used to come in here all the time.  How’s he doing?”

*        *        *

Louella met the District Attorney at a diner called the City CafĂ©.   It was in walking distance of the courthouse and Louella judged from the appearance of the clientele that it was popular with lawyers and government employees.

Henry Russell was a bulldog of a man, bald on top and powerfully built.  He wore a rumpled navy blue suit and hunched over his tray as if his food might try and escape if he didn’t create a pen with his forearms. 

Of the food, he said.  “It’s not good, but at least you get a lot of it.”  He added, “If you can eat a second plate, they’ll give it to you for free.” 

“How delightful,” Louella said before ordering a grilled chicken salad.  She made small talk until the food case, and then she got down to business.  “Do you remember the Taylor Smith case?” she asked.

“Dismissed for lack of evidence,” Russell said while shoveling a forkful of turnip greens into his mouth.  He wiped his face with a large paper napkin and then let it fall to the table.  He scowled as he scanned the tray of condiments in the center of the table.  “Hey,” he barked to no one in particular.  “Need some pepper sauce over here!”

“I was told that the toxicologist found voodoo powder around Mr. Smith’s body, and that it was an issue at trial.”

“Smells like a load of crap to me,” Russell said. 

A female server whisked in a clear bottle filled with yellow-colored peppers and vinegar.  The prosecutor took it without offering thanks or comment and proceeded to douse his plate.  His turnips, fried okra, and country fried steak all received a heavy soaking.  He left his mash potatoes alone; they were already swimming in gravy.

“Excuse me?”

“All that voodoo stuff,” the prosecutor said.  “It’s all a load of crap.”

“Are you saying Baxter wasn’t a voodoo man?”

“I’m pretty sure he was Baptist.” A glob of congealed gravy hung at the corner of his mouth. 

“What about all the rumors?”

“What about ‘em?”  He looked at his rapidly disappearing food.  “I think I might go for the second plate today.”

“Why would someone start rumors about voodoo if he wasn’t involved?”

“Why do any rumors start?” The DA answered between bites.  “They make for a juicier story.”

Louella puffed out her lips and frowned.  She had yet to take a bite of salad.

“Who told you it came up at trial?”  The DA asked as a speck of food flew out of his mouth and hit the back of a nearby patron.

Louella noticed the speck on the back of the woman’s beige pantsuit, but let it pass without comment.  “Hm?” she said dreamily.

“Who told you voodoo came up during the Taylor Smith trial?”

“Oh,” Louella said.  “An unreliable source apparently.”  She balled up her napkin and tossed it into her salad bowl.

Interview Transcript 3/27/80 

Melvin: Monday morning I was back in court. 

Louella: Did you tell the judge what you’d learned in New Orleans?

Melvin: Naw.  I let them stew in their own juices.  It’s not my job to give evidence against my own client.  I’d never get another one.  I might even get disbarred.

Louella: So what happened?

Melvin: The judge said to the DA, “Mr. Russell, let’s proceed with the case,” and Mr. Russell said, “Judge, we can’t do it.  We can’t figure out what killed him.”

You have to have proof of death.  You have to prove the guy died of something.  So, they were stuck, and I got the case dismissed.

I remember the insurance company didn’t want to pay that one.  They never did.  But I started taking depositions, and the insurance lawyer said, “Just stop.  Please stop.”

I said, “What if I don’t wanna stop?”

He said, “If you stop now, will give you fifty cents on the dollar.”

So that’s what we did.  It came out to around $150,000.

Go to Chapter 19