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Woman of the Bayou
By D. A. Ratliff
It was too quiet.
There was the occasional soft chirp from a swallow, and in the distance, he could hear the echo of a sapsucker pecking on a cypress tree for the sweet sap inside. Otherwise, the normal noises of the bayou during the morning were absent. It was as if they knew his destination.
He didn’t tell his peers where he was going. They would have laughed at him, but after every lead to the killer of several teens in New Orleans had gone stale, an urge to visit her had built until he could no longer contain it.
Piloting his grandfather’s old wooden fishing boat, he steered the trolling motor down the natural pathways through the bayou. The water was high due to heavy rains along the Mississippi River that spilled into the swamps and deltas of Louisiana. He was thankful. He hadn’t steered a boat through the thick roots lying just below the water’s surface in a long time. The last thing he wanted was to get stranded deep in the wilderness.
A splash of water nearby rattled his nerves. Looking quickly to his left, he caught a glimpse of a long dark object, an alligator, sliding under the surface of the water away from him. A blue heron standing on cypress roots nearby stared as he passed. He was convinced they knew he was on his way to see her and were being respectful.
Instinct took him along a familiar path. He had been fourteen when he last accompanied his grandmother to the small cabin deep in the bayou. Now, thirty years later, he still knew the way. That was how powerful she was.
The closer that he got to the cove where she lived, his apprehension rose. It was hot and sticky in the early morning, but his palms were not sweaty from the heat. As a child, he had been anxious in her presence. He still felt the same.
Twenty minutes later, the small boat brought him to an ancient cypress tree. The landmark he was hoping to find. The loa of Papa Loko, patron of healers, was carved into the trunk. The symbol he had seen many times. His grandmother had explained the loas were the spirit gods of voodoo. The watery path to his right would take him to her.
The cabin, sitting on slightly higher ground, was exactly as he remembered it. Unpainted wood siding now grayed and stained with age with a wide porch stretching across the front of the small dwelling brought him back to when he was fourteen. Perhaps the cabin was so old that passing years no longer took their toll.
He eased the boat toward the small dock where a canoe was tied up, cutting the motor off and drifting against the pilings. He secured a line to a cleat and stepped onto the dock. The wood creaked as he walked across it and, just as he started to step on the ground, a soft voice with a thick Cajun lilt called out to him.
“Elijah, it has been a long time.” She stepped from the shadows at the corner of the house.
Elijah Debois took a deep breath. She was older now. The soft café-au-lait skin was wizened, but she remained as beautiful as he thought when he was young.
“Madam Clarisse, you remember me?”
She smiled. “Of course, your grandmama was one of my closest friends. I mourn her loss to this day.”
“She spoke of you right before she died.”
Her smile lit up the bayou. “She did? What did she say, chere?”
He swallowed before replying. This was difficult for him. “She told me if I should find myself in need of help, I should come to you. That you would never fail me.”
“Then you best come in. We have some talking to do.”
The interior of the small cabin was spotless. Dark inside even in the daylight, the glow from a dozen white candles illuminated the room. He detected the slight scent of sandalwood and cornbread in the air. She motioned for him to sit. Before she joined him, she opened a cabinet and removed two candles, one yellow and one silver. She placed them on the altar to the right of the fireplace and struck a long match. Closing her eyes, she muttered a chant and then turned toward him.
“If I remember correctly, as a young boy, you loved my mango lemonade. I’ll get you a glass.”
He gazed at the two candles, their wicks burning with intensity. He knew the colors were significant, but he had no recollection why. He smiled. If one didn’t know that Madam Clarisse was considered a Voodoo priestess, one would think she was an eccentric woman living in the swamp. He scoffed. Maybe that was all she was, and he was foolish.
“Here you are.” She returned to the small parlor with a glass of light orange liquid and set it on the small table in front of him.
His mouth watered as he remembered the taste, and he gulped the drink down. Nirvana sliding down his throat. For a fleeting second, he wondered if she put something in the lemonade to make him feel so instantly relaxed.
As he set the glass down, she spoke. “While I am glad to see you, Elijah, I know that you are here for a reason. A case, it is troubling you, and you seek my help.”
“You — you know about the killer we are searching for? How?”
She laughed. “My chere, while I am clairvoyant, I am not out of touch with civilization.” She pointed to a radio sitting on a corner cupboard. “The kindly Ranger Thomason sees to it that I have supplies. He also brought me a satellite radio so that I may listen to the news. And there are a few who often come to see me to gossip.”
“I am glad to know you are being watched over.”
Clarisse sat back in the rocking chair across from him. “You are searching for a man who has been killing the young. Tell me about him.”
He drank a bit more lemonade and sat with elbows on his knees. “That’s just it, we know very little. He has killed seven teenagers so far. They have been between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, boys and girls. No connection to drugs, no connection to anything that we can discover. Kids from varying backgrounds, neighborhoods, social and economic levels. It makes no sense.”
“He leaves no clues?”
Elijah shook his head. “No, nothing. They die from a single knife wound to the chest. The only clue we have is the ME’s conjecture about the kind of knife used.”
“And that is?”
“A boning knife like used in butcher shops and kitchens. We’ve tried to run down that lead, but there are a lot of butchers and restaurants in New Orleans.”
“These children. They did not know each other?”
“No, no connection of any kind that we can find.”
She stood up. “I was about to have a bit of lunch when you arrived. How about some beans and cornbread?”
“I smelled your cornbread the second I got here. Made me hungry.”
“Good, then I’ll get a plate.”
They sat at the small table in the tiny kitchen. Elijah was ravenous, again not sure if he was truly hungry or if she had given him something to allow him to relax and enjoy the food. He stabbed a chunk of andouille sausage and stuck it in his mouth. Still chewing, he asked her a question.
“Young man, I know your mama, and your grandmama taught you better manners. Don’t speak with your mouth full.”
Sheepishly, he complied and swallowed the bite. “Sorry, just anxious.”
“Better. Now, what did you want to ask me.”
“I came here hoping that you could help me.” He stood up, stepping to the small kitchen window. The bayou looked so serene, but he knew within the moss-covered trees, and amid the cypress stumps, life was teeming. The perceived solitude was overwhelming knowing that fact. He turned toward her.
“Grammy always told me that you had a gift. That you knew things the rest of us didn’t know. I can’t tell another parent that their child is dead. I need to stop this, and I have nothing. I need your help.”
“Sit. Finish your meal, and I will answer your questions.”
He helped her clean up and then with fresh lemonade, they returned to the parlor. She motioned him to sit and then put her finger to her lips. He remembered she did that when he was quite young to keep him quiet. He nodded, he understood.
Madam Clarisse stood at the altar. She wore a simple purple cotton skirt and white peasant blouse, he thought they were called. A sash woven of red and gold encircled her waist, a brightly patterned headwrap encased her head. For the first time since he arrived, he felt the full presence of Madam Clarisse.
Raising her hands, she spoke quietly in Creole. When she finished, she drew a symbol in chalk on a piece of slate, then recited another chant. When done, she turned to him. “I have something for you.”
She sat in her chair. “The person you seek is in pain from a great loss. You might be surprised that I believe the killer is a woman.”
“A woman? Wow… That’s unusual. We never rule it out, but it is rare for a woman to be a serial killer.”
“I do not think she is a serial killer the way you define it, but killing to make a whole. I am not certain what that means, but I feel that.”
“It will change how we look at this case.”
“There is more, chere. The knife is from a kitchen. I see a large room with a lot of stainless steel and many people.”
“No, much bigger, a hotel or commercial — a commercial kitchen.”
“We will check that out. Anything else?”
“She is broken, her heart shattered. She wears it on her wrist.”
“Wears what on her wrist?”
“A broken heart.”
He collapsed against the couch back. “We’ve been looking in the wrong places.”
She shook her head. “You had nothing to go on. Chere, I cannot be certain I am correct, but I feel this.”
He stood. “I need to go. I need to get back to the squad room. We have to start over.” He turned toward the door, then looked at her. “I have a question. I remember the white candles are for purity and peace. You always burn them as my grandmother did, but the yellow and silver candles, what are they for?”
“You remember well. The yellow represents the brain. It is used to focus, to help with visualization. The silver candle helps with accessing the astral realm and increases clairvoyance. All to supplement my thoughts.”
He hugged her. “Thank you. I will be back when we catch this killer.” As he reached the door, she stopped him.
“Here.” She pressed a carved silver charm into his palm. “Take this. It is a good-fortune talisman and the charm of Loa Brigitte, the grandmother of loas. She uses her influence to encourage the other loas to watch over you. It will keep you safe.”
As he pushed the boat from the dock, she waved to him from the porch.
Three days later, a SWAT team waited outside of Pride Foods, an industrial kitchen that produced bulk packaged food sold by food service companies. Clarisse’s comment about trying to make a whole started him thinking that the killer was seeking revenge for something larger than a single death. Elijah searched for an event where several people died at once.
While reviewing police files, he came across an accident report of a bus crash that occurred two months before. A bus carrying twelve high school students returning from a debate with a rival high school was run off the road by a drunk driver killing all of the students and both drivers. Looking into it further, he discovered one Marsha Theos was the mother of two teens killed in the crash. She worked as a shift supervisor at Pride Foods. After interviewing neighbors who talked of how the widowed Theos was despondent after her children’s deaths, he was convinced she was the killer.
Hoping that a SWAT raid wouldn’t be necessary, Elijah convinced his captain to allow him to go in with only one SWAT team member. As they entered the work area, he gazed around the room until he saw the woman who matched the DMV photo he had in his pocket. He walked toward her. His breath caught when he saw a small broken heart tattooed on Theos’s right wrist.
She turned, and from the look on her face, he knew she realized it was over. She glanced about the room toward her coworkers who had fallen silent.
“You know why I’m here.”
“I killed them.”
“Why?” He had to know.
“My babies were dead. I prayed to God to bring them back, but he didn’t. I thought if I gave him others to keep, he would give me back my kids. I couldn’t take any of their friends, so I went searching for kids I didn’t know. I just wanted my children back. They are all I had.”
Her eyes darted to a large-blade knife on the counter beside her. She lunged for it, but the SWAT officer was quicker and subdued her.
Elijah stepped closer to her. “I am arresting you for murder.” He proceeded to recite her rights as the officer slipped handcuffs on her.
“I know my rights, but it doesn’t matter. I killed them. God should have given my children back to me.”
“It doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry.”
“I had to try.”
As the officer led Theos out of the building, Elijah reached into his pocket. The cool metal talisman had brought good fortune.
He would be visiting the bayou again soon.
Please visit D. A. Ratliff on her blog: https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com