Murder by the Bayou
A Jasper Cullum Mystery
The Louisiana Bayou.
The place itself is alive with the teeming entities that feed and live off of one another. It was the most horrid place for discovering a murder, but a most fortuitous occasion for meeting a man whom would quickly become my idol, as well as my best friend.
It was his first case, that I know of anyway, and what brought him of all people down here, I couldn't have known at first. He seemed just a rascally adult, clean shaven and handsome as a well upbringing can give. I was unsure of him at first, but his request of my help, even though we were completely unknown to one another, eased my suspicions somewhat.
"My name is Jasper Nolan Cullum," he introduced himself with a firm grip and a pleasant grin.
"My pleasure, Mister Cullum, I am Miles..."
"Patton, yes, I have already learned a great deal about you." Still smiling, but now I felt a little off balance.
"I'm afraid Mister Cullum, you may have me at a slight disadvantage."
"Nonsense. And please, just call me Jasper. It was only prudent as I have no knowledge of this area besides that which I've read in books, I needed someone with a fine detail of the area and it's people. You are a sociable officer in this community, and most of the people here hold you in high regards." He stood tall, holding a very strict, but well meaning, posture.
"I see you have already spoken with some of the townspeople then?"
"Only about twenty of the attendants at a local tavern down the street last night when I arrived. Your reputation is one of easy ongoing discussions. You have done much in a short amount of time. Travel, experience, these are things that are not without value, and now I, as well as the deceased seem in great need of them."
His offhanded praise knocks me back a little and I stutter for continued conversation. Who is this man, I ask myself. Oh sure I've learned his name, but aside from that I know nothing of him aside from his acceptance in agreeing to help with this investigation. Why was he acquiesced, I still am uncertain, but am assured by the chief that it is legit, and that I am to give him my full cooperation.
"Indeed, Mister Cullum, you have found out much about me in a short amount of time, but I fail to see the importance of studying me while there is a murder that needs solving?"
"Ah, a good question, but one with a very concise answer, one that I believe I've already given, but will gladly give again just to confirm my position. I don't know this area, and I needed someone in your position, with the greatest abilities, to help me ascertain the complete circumstances of the situation. I asked around the tavern, as I feel that most information that one wants to know can easily pour from the mouth of the enchanted. I quickly determined that you, Mister Patton, are the most capable member of your local law enforcement, even if medals and promotions are not overflowing your cup at the moment. I was heralded here by my Cambridge professor of whom you will know as the father of the deceased, and our appreciation of one another has pulled me here under his recommendation. It was his deep concern that the details of this incident are uncovered as quickly as possible and that the possible person responsible is brought to justice just as swiftly.
Let me first be clear by saying that I have the utmost respect for your department, and that I have no desire to disrupt your progression in this matter. I am merely here at the behest of a friend, one that completely respects my abilities in these types of matters. I am here simply as one is a guest and I don't expect any great treatment or respect of my opinion. I understand fully that the name of my friend carries with it great weight, especially here, and that simply by respect of him am I allowed such a jurisdictional fumbling. I am here to help in any way I can, that is if you'll allow me?"
I had worried when I had heard of this situation only yesterday that this person would only be getting in the way. Though I still have my concerns over this person before me, I must admit, he is well mannered, and I am growing a quick liking of his demeanor. My reluctance aside, I embrace his hand once more as this time I smile widely as I welcome him to the team.
I start by introducing him to the other members of the team of which he excitedly shakes each of their hands while remaining composed and rigid. He takes in the names quickly, and throws himself in the workings before each of them while using the names he had only just learned. He listens intently, not interrupting, but simply nodding in accordance with each small bit of information he was given. The officers talked slowly as if introducing a rookie to a gun for the first time. It took only ten minutes before this man stopped them and spoke of it.
"My apologies, but this is not so foreign to me that you should feel the need to slowly introduce me to it. Please go about your usual discussions and I will endeavor to keep up. Please, giving me long descriptions of the events will only impede the process you have already begun. As I have already told Detective Patton, I insist that I not get in the way. But, understand that I do appreciate your efforts."
I could tell immediately that he had not offended anyone, quite the opposite actually, he had instilled in them almost immediate respect by his request. The officers went about their duty as Jasper stood around them, as if one of them all along, listening intently, but never speaking. Later when the officers broke for lunch, he remained skimming over pages of documentation. It was a surprise, but not much of one, when he came to me an hour later asking to see the deceased.
The morgue always smells terrible, but it was a smell that did not seem to signify any remarks by him. He took it all in stride, and when I showed him the disfigured remains of a woman, he again did not react one bit. He in fact leaned in closer, studying the ripped flesh and innards. He spoke briefly with the doctor who had performed the initial inspection as well as the autopsy, and when he had finished, he came to me.
"Detective Patton, if I could please learn of your induction into these events I would be most grateful."
I directed him to my office desk where I had all the written documentation of the events filed in a nearby drawer. As I pulled them out, he stopped me.
"I'm sorry Detective Patton, I wanted to learn from you what you've determined."
I closed the folder and began my story:
"On the night of the eighteenth of June at nine hours and fifty-three minutes past mid-day, I received a call from one Teghan Johannsen a mother of three, and wife of one Riley Johannsen a High school teacher. She was very distraught over the discovery of the mangled remains, later determined to be one Miss Vanessa Hugo, estranged daughter of Professor Dorian Hugo.
Upon first inspection of the body it was easily seen that the body had been torn and chewed upon by the dwellers of a nearby river. Autopsy reports concluded sufficiently that the body had been taken at by at least two alligators, teeth patterns differing slightly in various locations, as well as an indeterminable number of local fishes. The body had been picked at, and if not for remaining teeth, we may not have been able to determine the identity of her at all.
Autopsy also determined she had only been dead about two days before she was found. What is odd about the discovery is that the body had not been chewed upon that much, in that most cases result in very little being left over, yet here was a body, still mostly left untouched, albeit very mangled. What we could determine from this is that her body had bloated by the water already by the time it had been picked at, therefore being less of an enticing meal to the beings in the river. This led to further looking into cause of death beyond the animals in the river.
Various surviving organs showed definite signs of bruising including an area at the base of her skull which showed a most significant fracture of the spinal chord which would most likely have been the cause of her initial demise. But as of yet, we have not determined at what has caused the trauma, though the patterns, though bloated, appear to have been attained by blunt force, likely by hand.
As far as where the body entered the stream, we are still unsure, though her house is nearly eight miles away from where she was discovered. Her house is also along the river, only about 17 meters from back door to river bank. Travel from her house to the discovered location along with the projected currents of the two day time span does not add up. She would have washed much further down the river in two days time, and with the descriptions by Miss Johannsen's children whom had been playing in the backyard earlier that day up until dinner at around 6:15pm that afternoon, it is known that the body only washed up in their backyard in the three and a half hours from dinner to the phone call we received that night.
It has been theorized that the body must have been snagged somewhere along the river bed for most of the two days that she had been missing. It's possible that the area at which her body had caught on to something was part that has gone missing as we've been unable to find points at which aren't explained." As I stopped to take a sip of water, he cleared his throat and asked one simple question.
"Where were her clothes?" He asked as he stared off to his right, his brow furrowed slightly.
"Clothes? We did not recover any. It is conceivable that she had lost them one way or another in those two days of floating around, and that possibly the clothes had been what had been snagged along the river bed."
"Interesting, indeed." He said before asking me to continue.
"Anyway, the last person to see Vanessa alive was a co-worker Rhonda Ganor whom the deceased had dined with before getting in her car to go home for the night. They had gone to Herb's Italian Restaurant, some five miles away from both her work and her home where they had a casual dinner, both of them single women enjoying their weekly get together. Miss Ganor has stated that Vanessa seemed a little 'spacey' at their dinner. When asked what was going on Vanessa did not discuss anything, but simply acted as if nothing was wrong. Miss Ganor has also said that she had known Vanessa for fifteen years, and knew when something was wrong.
According to Miss Ganor, neither she nor the deceased had been involved with anyone for a number of years. As Miss Ganor is accounted for only fifteen minutes after her departure from the restaurant by her five year old son's nanny, she is not currently a suspect. Oddly enough, Vanessa's time of death has been determined as nearly the same time as her discovery two days later."
"So it has been determined that the time of death was at 9:53 on the night of June 16th?"
"That is correct. Bruising of the spinal chord shows that it was received at about that time."
"Indeed it is curious. Neighbors of Miss Hugo have stated that she did in fact return home at about nearly seven o'clock that night. Her car had a failing belt on it and made a terrible noise that was hard not to hear according to the statements taken. One reported that it was just before reruns of Cheers that he heard the noise. After that no one has any information of anyone else showing up or leaving.
When we investigated her house, nothing out of order was found. She kept a neat house. Friends of hers said she was a very warm and friendly person, though they noted that none of them knew anything about her family. Her car is still sitting in the garage, and the front door to the house was locked. The rear slider though, was unlocked, but closed when we entered. Her keys were in the kitchen along with her purse. Her bed was made, and everything in the house seemed as if it was ready for visitors, of which we've been told by her friends, her house always looked that way, and she was sort of a neat freak.
And that, Mister Cullum, is I think all that we currently know. Blunt trauma received at the base of the skull as well as other physical abuse have lead us to believe someone is responsible, but there is no evidence pointing to who."
"Indeed you seem to have covered the surface Detective Patton. But as there are still questions in the air over this tragic end, there must be something below that still offers its answers. I would like to study the house myself, can that be arranged?"
"Certainly, sir. If you'd like to take a break, grab some lunch, I can arrange a ride by the time you get back."
"No, I think I'd not like to stop while the information is still current in my head. If you'd give me directions, I'd very much like to walk. I still need to understand the layout of this area better anyway, and there is no better way than to walk it."
"But Mister Cullum..."
"Jasper, it must be nearly a hundred degrees or more out there, you might like a ride by the time you've traveled only a mile or so."
"I'm not such a city boy that I can't walk a few miles without falling. I'll be fine Detective Patton, so long as I know where I'm going."
"So be it, but I would be remiss if I wasn't to join you on this outing."
"Excellent, I knew you were a wise choice Detective Patton."
"Please Jasper, you can just call me Miles."
"Ah then, Miles, let us not waste time here while answers are already two days ahead of us."
I had not walked this sort of distance for some time, and though I was quickly fatiguing, Jasper was still spry and moving at a very decisive pace. He continued to smile the whole time. He asked much of my own life, though he seemed to already know a lot of it. Where I had been, things I had done. Perhaps, I wondered, was I too vocal those many nights among patrons at the tavern? But he seemed keenly interested in it, even the parts he already knew. Though he seemed in awe of my having been to so many places, he never seemed as if he had done so little himself. But I would not find out more about him until much later.
We walked the distance that Miss Hugo had traveled that night. From her work to the restaurant where we stopped and asked the server if he remembered anything in particular of which he didn't, and then we walked to her house. We entered to the house looking nearly as spotless as when we had first entered it, albeit slightly more torn up under our investigations. He looked over the downstairs with interested eyes, keeping his hands behind him at all times. Nothing appearing to grab his interest he moved on upstairs to her bedroom.
The bed had been unmade, black lights having probed the sheets for stains and whatnot. But he seemed uninterested in it to, instead heading for the nightstand, where donning a latex glove he opened the top drawer. He pulled from it a bible, flipped through the pages quickly, and put it on the nightstand. A pair of reading glasses which he threw on top of the bible, and then fumbled his hand around the empty drawer. Satisfied, he put the contents back in, and then closed the drawer neatly.
He next ventured into the bathroom where again he seemed to find nothing of interest save for a simple dress that hung next to her towel rack. He eyed it for a minute or so before turning to me and asking if Miss Ganor could tell us what it was that Miss Hugo had been wearing the night of their dinner. Having no idea myself, I used my cell phone to call her and ask, to which we discovered that the dress hanging neatly in the bathroom was indeed the dress she had worn to dinner. Jasper smiled widely at this but if he thought anything of it he kept it to himself.
He next found his way out on the balcony connected to her bedroom. It was small, but it overlooked the backyard where there were some larger trees whose roots one had dropped into the passing river. Not far from the tree was a small dock, usually used for owner's boats and such, though Miss Hugo had none in her possession. He eyed it curiously and then moved back into the house where he gave the bedroom one final look before again going downstairs.
The house was hot, arid. Jasper walked over to the comfort controls along the living room wall where he fiddled with it until it kicked on. He made his way over to a floor vent where he hung his head over it while the air blew through his hair slightly. He kept his eyes closed but his face seemed to still have that curious look over it. He smelled the air coming out, and then got up to shut off the controls.
"It isn't working. Probably one of the belts are broken, smells like it hasn't been turned on for some time now, the burnt rubber didn't flow immediately out. I wonder, has she called a repair man recently? Don't mind that just yet, we'll continue to look around and find out later."
He then walked out the back sliding door that had been opened when we first studied the house. He looked around the patio and then continued on through the short green grass, looking as if it had been mowed fairly recently. Soon he found himself before the small dock stretching out to the flowing river. It was made of wood and had seen many years. It was in need of repair of which he noted as he lay on the ground eyeing the surface of it with one eye closed. Some of the planks of wood were coming away from the original structure, but again, if he thought anything further from it, he said nothing.
He walked halfway out on the dock and then peered over the sides of it as well as underneath it. Nothing seemed to grab his interests again so he got back to his feet and began to walk back towards the house, stopping only once as a board wobbled underneath him as he stepped on it.
"Well, I think I may have seen all there is to see for now. Let us head back towards the station, but I think we may need to make a few calls when we return."
"Such as?" I asked questioningly.
"Well, for starters, of course I'd like to know if she'd made any calls for fixing the air conditioner. Next I'd like to call for someone to come out and open up the cesspool."
"What reason would you possibly want to get in there for?" I ask.
"Well, I can't really be certain, but I am left to believe there might just be some necessary information floating at the top."
"If you need to know what she ate at the Italian restaurant, I'm sure we can just ask Miss Ganor or possibly check her receipt."
"No, I have no use of that. Also I might like to use another black light, but this time in her bathroom I think. Oh, and perhaps the kitchen to."
"Well, all right, but I can't say I fully understand why."
"I'd much like to tell you, but as I'm still not fully certain that we'll find anything, I'd prefer to keep my thoughts to myself for the time being."
"Well, it doesn't all seem too ridiculous, so I see no reason to disregard such a request. Well, let's get going back to the station now, it's still quite a walk."
"If you don't mind, I think it might be wiser to call for a ride, I think we might want to conserve our energies for the long night I think we might end up having."
We arrive back at the station nearly half an hour later. We make a few calls and schedule the proper people to come out to open up the ground for the cesspool. It takes a formal request to the chief to enable us to get them to come out today, rather, tonight for an immediate job. Another few calls and we finally wind up with the repair company that had come out the day after she had died only to find an empty house, so they left. The call was made three days prior to which the associate that had taken the call recalled that there was mention of someone else having tried to fix it and that a professional was now needed.
That night we returned to the house where the working crew had just begun to dig its way to the unit. Jasper stood on the dock, rocking back and forth on the wobbling piece of wood as he waited while staring up towards the sky, silently thinking it seemed. When the crew called us over, Jasper waited another minute or so on the dock and then made his way over where he donned a mask, and peered inside the unit with a flashlight, quickly coming back out with his gloved hand gripping what looked to be a used condom.
He shoved it into a bag and sealed it, handing it to one of the other officers asking that they might want to make the necessary tests on it to find who may have used it other than Miss Hugo. I found myself most confused at how he had come to this conclusion, but I kept it to myself and simply clapped him on the back for his discovery feeling that we had finally found the lead to the killer.
Jasper next made his way to her garbage that had luckily not been taken out for the garbage men that would have come the morning after her death. He rifled through it, his mask absent, and still he seemed unbothered by the smells within. Soon he arose with a few condom wrappers, which seemed to further justify his initial thoughts.
"These are fairly recent then," he stated as he headed back upstairs towards the bedroom which I felt inclined to follow most quickly at his heels.
He opened the nightstand drawer again and emptied the contents as he had before, but this time after fumbling around the empty drawer, he pulled out a box of condoms, half of them gone.
"Where on Earth did that come from?" I ask dumbfounded.
"Well, I had thought someone of her proper upbringing and obvious need for proper appearance may still hide secrets of one's slightly less than proper self. When I felt around before I took no notice of the rails above, which I have only now just thought of. It was just a thought, one I'm glad has paid off, for now I feel as if we're going to get to the end of this very quickly. But for now we must wait for the test results, for that is the biggest clue we have at this moment, though I still have conflicting thoughts on certain things."
"The test may not be done for some time you know, perhaps its time to turn in for the night, today has been a long day I think."
"Indeed, I do apologize, I tend to try to get everything done as quickly as possible, and often times I find myself missing sleep more and more. You are right, we should turn in for tonight, and let those with their tasks complete them without my obtrusive eyes purveying them."
The test reveals one Doctor Jack Ellif, whom we take in for questioning upon the light of evidence. He is a cold man, callous in demeanor, and I for one am immediately convinced that he is in fact Miss Hugo's murderer. But my new colleague does not share my impetuous accusation.
"Do you admit to having an affair with Vanessa Hugo though you are supposedly happily married to another?"
"Now why would I admit such a thing Detective?" He asks smiling coolly and talking slowly.
"We have your DNA at her residence. We know that you were in a sexual relationship with her."
"Then I guess I was. I know I cannot argue DNA. Besides, my marriage is failing anyways, so why not admit it. Yes, detective, I had a very steamy affair with Miss Hugo. She was a fireball, funny to, never wanted to do it in the same place more than once, and never on her neat and pretty bed. Bathroom, Kitchen, oh yes, we'd done it almost everywhere in that house."
"So you casually admit to the affair, can you do the same for being her murderer? It would make this whole process much easier on us all after all."
"Mind your manners Detective, I would not admit such a thing even if I had in fact done so. That's a prison sentence and I much like my life out here."
"But you did beat her, did you not? I don't have the evidence right at this moment but a simple connection between the bruising on her can easily be matched to your fists I'm sure."
"Yes...I did 'beat' her, as you might say. But it wasn't just something simple like that, she liked it you see."
"Are you expecting me to believe she wanted you to hit her Mister Ellif?"
"Stranger things have been proposed have they not? It got her off Detective, she wanted it, and boy did she ever like it."
"All that aside, I don't think she liked you taking a blunt object to the base of her skull. I don't think that even the most troubled person gets off on their own death."
"But I never did such a thing Detective. She was a most delicious fuck, why would I ever want to kill her?"
"But you did kill her! Maybe you meant to, or maybe you didn't, but she is dead, and she was thrown into the river behind her house, and I think that you were the one that threw her in there. Weren't you?!"
I'm in his face hitting the table, I hate his smug smile, and he never even flinches at my bouts of anger. Everything in me is screaming to get this guy to confess, but I can tell from the calm exterior he is kicking off that it's not going to come any time soon, and it won't be easy.
"Detective, I did no such thing, I can assure you."
"Ahem," Jasper clears his throat reminding me he was here. "Detective Patton, if I might borrow a car for a half hour or so, I have something I'd like to determine."
"Fine Jasper, do whatever you want." I'm angry, but not at him, and luckily he knows it.
He leaves and I continue on with the Doctor.
I ask him the last question I really have regarding where he was the night of her murder. He tells me with his wife to which I have someone check his alibi, and to my great upset it proves true. I leave him in waiting until Jasper finally returns with a solemn look on his face.
"He didn't do it Detective Patton." He says as seriously as he can, that smile I had become used to unapparent at the moment.
"But he had to, that son of a bitch confessed to beating her, and it just makes sense!"
"She had been pregnant about a year ago."
"What? What the hell does that matter?"
"I can't say for certain, but I can theorize it was the Doctor's offspring. I can also say for certain that he knew about it, as there's no documentation of having any operations to deal with it."
"No documentation, so you mean he..."
"Yes, I'm sure he did the operation to get rid of their child. I saw the report on her autopsy and it did show that she had indeed had an abortion procedure in the past year. Medical records show no operation, but I'm sure if you ask the good Doctor he'll probably confess."
"That's hardly a prison sentence, I'm trying to get him on murder here."
"There was no murder Detective."
"How do you figure?"
"It was something I had thought about, but let other facts cloud my judgment. The condom pointed in a direction that matched your beliefs, and ones that I tried not to confuse with my suspicions. Let me start with what I know to be true. The dress that Vanessa was wearing that night had been removed neatly and hung up in her bathroom. The air conditioner had been broken for a number of days, and from what I've established of the weather on those days, it was most hot, and I'm sure all the more in her house. The back door was open as I'm sure it was allowing some air flow into the house."
"But why weren't any windows open or anything?"
"The blinds and curtains were all drawn to. She was naked detective, wandering around her house trying to stay cool, and out of the peering eyes of neighbors. I can't really be sure of what happened next, but I can say that I am ninety percent certain that, at almost 9:53 that night, she made her way down to the docks where on a loose board, you might remember the one I showed an interest in, there's a sharp nail that juts out, likely pierced her foot, and in that moment she fell where the back of her neck met with one of the roots from that nearby tree breaking her neck before she fell into the water. As you've already theorized, she must have gotten stuck on something on the river bed for some time before breaking loose and washing up on shore two days later exactly. The time simply an odd coincidence."
I am stopped from every thought that wants to escape my mouth. I had been sure of a murder. Sure that it was this man that was waiting in a room not so far away. In my own desperation to find a killer, I overlooked that there may not have been one at all. How foolish a mistake I've made.
"There is one other piece of evidence that I have uncovered, but one I think I must deal with all my own."
"Please," I say, "what is it? I have already made such a large mistake, what's one more?"
"I'm afraid this isn't one you can blame yourself for. In studying Miss Hugo's medical history I learned she had been seeing a psychiatrist for which reasons I can only say fall back on childhood abuse...sexual abuse. I have known her father for years now, and I have looked up to him and idolized him the same. I do not look forward to returning with this knowledge, and the inevitable consequence it has wrought.
Anyway, my dear Detective Patton, I am going to head back tonight, for I can't sleep with such knowledge in my mind anyway. It was a pleasure to meet you, and I must say that even though you had an alternate view on the outcome of this case, that I too held it firmly in my mind for the significant duration of it, and that only a little luck and a fixated mind helped me to find the truth. I ask that you not hold it against yourself that you did not determine this sooner."
He smiles as he reaches out to shake my hand one last time, and in a split second I realize I am not quite the detective I thought I was, or that I want to be. And in that split second I ask to join him. His smile broadens, and I can feel mine across my face as well. I leave with him that night, leaving my life that I have known, and a town of people that know me too well. As we board a train North, I ask why he would choose such a slow method of travel to which he responds:
"There's no need to rush when we already have the answers."
I fall asleep as the train chugs along a winding dark path in the night, my new friend slowly writing in a small journal, seemingly the only thing other than a small suitcase full of clothes he's brought with him.