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D. A. Ratliff
A Detective Elijah Boone Mystery
Two days ago, I arrived in my hometown in South Carolina for a weeklong vacation with my family. Today, I—Elijah Boone, Detective Lieutenant with the New Orleans Police Department—sat in the Colleton County Jail, accused of murder.
I leaned against the cinder block wall of the cell and thought about how I got here.
I have always heard that you can’t go home again, but that isn’t true. You can go home again but know that the journey will be accompanied by constant muttering. I know because I had muttered to myself since I drove the rental car off the lot at the Charleston Airport. When did they build that? Boy, this place has changed. Is there a—insert any business name—in every town? These people can’t drive!
When the urban crawl of Charleston was in my rear-view mirror, I relaxed and began to enjoy the journey. The South Carolina Low Country was beautiful in October. The temperature remained in the seventies, and among the pines and palmettos lining the highway, the oaks and maples glimmered with gold and orange leaves. Even though I grew up here, I always viewed the land with fresh eyes every time I returned.
Several weeks ago, my mother had called asking why I had not RSVP’d to my cousin Veronica’s wedding. To be honest, I wasn’t sure my workload would allow it. Being a homicide detective in New Orleans was more than a full-time job. I had promised her I would try, but as the date got closer, I knew I had to come home, so I put in for leave and left the craziness of NOLA behind.
The drive to my parents’ home in Walterboro took about an hour. The only distraction I had was the box of Italian Wedding cookies and the Italian Cream cake retrieved from a suitcase and now sitting on the passenger seat, firmly secured by the seat belt. When I told Mama Leone why I was coming to Charleston, she insisted on sending food along. As spaghetti sauce could have proven messy, she sent cake and cookies.
Cookies. Mama Leone packed four dozen. I glanced at the box a few times before I decided no one would miss a couple. Four cookies later, I vowed not to eat another one. That didn’t last long.
I had mixed feelings about returning to my once sleepy hometown. Walterboro was now a bustling industrial community, barely over an hour from the ports at Charleston and Savannah, and a prime location for manufacturing companies. The last time I was here, six years ago, the town had blossomed. I imagined more so now.
But my thoughts ran toward the old days when life was simple, and the most I had to worry about was Mrs. Maxwell’s English tests in fifth grade. Good days. As I got closer to home, old landmarks began to pop up—Jellico Landing, where my father, Morris, Uncle Jasper, cousin Matthias, and Ted Crawford, my best friend, would take my dad’s bass boat to go fishing. A bit beyond Jellico Landing was the road south to Edisto Island. I loved the beach and the ocean. On some Sundays after church, my parents would load up the car with picnic food and beach towels and head for the state park on Edisto. If we were good, my parents would stop at the Pavilion for ice cream on the way home. My cousins—Matt and Ronnie and my sister Naomi, better known as Mimi—were with us on many of those trips. We were inseparable growing up, and I had to come home for Ronnie’s wedding.
My parents had moved from the modest three-bedroom track house where I grew up to my grandparents, Nana and Poppa’s stately house on Boone Lane. Be the first house on the road, and they named it after you. I called the house stately because it had a wraparound veranda and was two stories, the upstairs with slanted walls and a hidden attic area that we played in as children—a house custom made for exploring as a child. I turned into the drive and drove about a quarter of a mile through thick woods until the house appeared. I slowed down, trying to take it all in. I was home.
No sooner had I parked did I hear a screen door bang. Looking toward the house, I saw my mom, Jessie Lynn, and her new Golden Retriever puppy, Cleaver. I had to laugh. She always named our pets after families from fifties and sixties sitcoms. My dog growing up was Nelson. Cleaver jumped all over me, nearly knocking Mama Leone’s goodies from my hand, prompting my mother to yell at him.
“You stop that, boy. Get down.”
She ran to me and nearly did the same. “I swear, it has been too long, Elijah.” Her hug was one of those comforting kinds, and I had missed it.
“Come on in. Your dad will be home a little after six for dinner, but he has to go back to the store to close. Mimi, Dalton, and the kids should be here shortly, and Matt and Sheri Lee are coming and bringing Ronnie and Tomas.”
“Great, and what about Uncle Jasper?”
“He took a load to Savannah this afternoon, but he thinks he’ll be back.”
“How’s he doing? I’ve talked to him a few times, and he says he’s okay.”
“Hard to believe it’s been six years since Louise died. He seems better this year. Even bringing a date to the wedding.”
We climbed the steps to the front porch, and the first thing I noticed was the old swing. It had a new coat of paint and new hardware, but it was the same one I’d sat on with my Poppa and listened to fishing tales and with Nana, helping her break green beans for dinner.
Mom noticed and smiled at me. “That swing holds a lot of memories for all of us. Come, let’s go inside.”
Dinner was Spaghetti Bolognaise. Not my momma’s spaghetti I remembered from childhood, but a plate of spaghetti like Mama Leone would make. As I dug into the rich, spicy dish, I commented on Mom’s past Italian cooking.
“Mom, this is not the spaghetti I remember growing up.”
Her cheeks turned pink. “Well, I’ve come a long way. And after visiting you a few years ago in New Orleans and eating at that restaurant you love, I learned to cook Italian.”
I chuckled at her ‘eye-talian’ pronunciation, but the food was delicious. “You learned well.”
“You can thank Martha Stewart. That’s her recipe.”
After we devoured the Italian Cream cake, Dad and I sat outside on the swing for a few minutes before he had to go back to work.
“How’s business, Dad?”
“Not bad. Big chain boys haven’t knocked us out yet. Not like the good old days when we had the hardware store downtown before the box stores came here but working for a chain hardware company is good. Managing the store isn’t the same as having one of your own, but it will do.”
It was nearing midnight when the others left, and I hit the sack as soon as I could.
I woke up to a seven-month-old dog licking my face. I’ve had worse ways to wake up. After breakfast, I took Mom on some errands, and while she was getting her hair done, I walked around downtown. Instead of the family businesses I remembered, antique shops lined both sides. At least Walterboro had survived, and the antique business was booming.
We had lunch at the local diner, and on the way home, Mom brought up the subject I knew she would at some point. My son.
“Have you heard from Eric recently?”
“No, not since the letter in June.”
“You should see him.”
“He doesn’t want to see me, and Lisa would never allow it.”
“She is a fool. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I was a cop, I got shot at, and she couldn’t deal with it. I don’t blame her.”
“Well, you sure haven’t got a new girlfriend.”
“No time, Mom.”
She gave me a harumph. “Make time. Maybe when you go to the game tonight, you will find the perfect woman?”
In hindsight, I wish I had found a woman and not the trouble I did.
My high school’s football game was against a high school from North Charleston. My sister, her husband, kids, and our cousins and their families decided last night at dinner that we would live our old high school days over for at least one night.
It was Friday night in the south, which meant football. The stands were packed, and my high school led by ten points at the half. Matt, Dalton, and I headed to the concession stand to get snacks. We hadn’t been in line long before I heard my name called.
“Who the hell do you think you are coming back here, boy.”
I knew the voice without looking around. Jackson Davis. Bully when I was in school and still a bully now.
I looked over my shoulder. “Visiting family, Davis.”
He walked up to me, leaning in my face. “I thought I told you never to show your face here again.”
Dalton and Matt moved closer, but I waved them off. “Free country, Davis. Now go.”
“You and Charlie thought you were better than me. Charlie tried me on a while back, and I put him in the hospital. You ain’t got a chance, city boy.”
He grabbed my arm. I grabbed his other arm with my free hand and twisted it behind him while hooking my foot behind his leg, dropping him to his knees. “Now go watch the game and leave us alone.”
It was after the game that he tried again. I was walking to get the car when he jumped me from behind. His buddies held onto me as Davis punched me in the stomach. I wasn’t going down without a fight. He stood in front of me, legs spread, so I kicked him in the balls as hard as possible. He stopped, looked at me with glassy eyes, grabbed his crotch, and collapsed. His friends, stunned, let go of me. One foolishly tried to slug me, but I threw a right cross, and he went down. The other dude ran.
I told Matt and Dalton what happened but asked them to keep it quiet. I went home and went to bed. The following day, Matt called at nine a.m. to say that Davis had been found dead. At ten a.m., the sheriff arrested me.
“Didn’t I keep you out of trouble when we were kids?”
I opened my eyes. Ted Crawford stood outside the bars, hair a bit grayer and a few pounds heavier, but the same bright blue eyes and toothy grin.
“What are you doing here? Not that I’m not happy to see you.”
“Remember, I’m a lawyer. Granted, I practice civil law mostly, but I do pro-bono criminal cases for the county. Your dad called me, and here I am.”
“I can pay you.”
“Did I ask for money?”
I shut up. Ted continued. “Because it’s a murder charge, I can’t get you out until a bail hearing. That’s not happening until Monday. The judge doesn’t take kindly to murder. He’d leave his own mother in here if he thought she’d killed someone. But I got the sheriff to agree to leave you in this holding cell, and you can have food from outside.”
“I didn’t do it.”
Ted laughed. “I know, you idiot. But I remember the bad blood between you and Davis back in high school and….”
“That was high school. We’re adults now.”
“You’re an adult now. Davis never rose above his high school mentality. Now, a deputy retrieved your gun from your suitcase. Your dad said it was still in the case and looked untouched. They sent it to the state boys, the South Carolina Law Division, for a ballistic test. SLED won’t look at your gun until Monday either.”
“Was he shot?”
“Yes, and beaten severely. Now, I’m going to talk to the D. A. and see what nonsense they have linking you to Davis’s murder. I’ll be back and bring you some coloring books.”
“Funny, man. Listen, I need you to call my boss in NOLA. He needs to know what’s going on here.”
“Give me his number, and I’ll take care of that.”
“Thanks, and don’t let my mom come here.”
“I know your mom. Nothing will keep her from coming.”
Ted was right. Mom and Dad arrived with lunch and cookies. Mom’s eyes were red-rimmed, but she didn’t cry in front of me. Matt and Mimi brought dinner and left books, magazines, and a coloring book and crayons—from Mimi’s kids, not Ted.
Sunday, I had just finished Mom’s dinner and settled into a whodunit, Matt’s idea of a joke, when the outer cell door clanked. I looked up to see a familiar face—my partner, Hank Guidry.
He walked up to the bars, grabbed them, and stuck his head between them. “Now, this is a sight. Everyone said they’d pay me a lot of money for a photo, but I declined.”
“Good to see you, but what are you doing here?”
“Captain got your lawyer’s call, sent for me, and suggested I was in dire need of a vacation. Told me South Carolina was nice this time of year. I flew in this afternoon. Here to help get you out of this mess.”
“You talk to Ted yet?”
“Just a while ago. Sheriff’s having a tough time putting you anywhere near the scene where Davis died. Ted thinks the judge will release you tomorrow for lack of evidence, but he also thinks they will keep at it until they find a way to pin it on you. One of the deputies is married to Davis’s sister, so they are out for revenge.”
“Great.” I sank onto the cot.
Hank leaned against the bars. “The two goons with Davis said you beat the heck out of him in the parking lot and threatened to finish him off.”
“Nope, he was beating on me, I only kicked him in the nuts, and he dropped to the ground. Slugged one of the other guys who took a swing at me. That was all.”
“Your cousin and brother-in-law confirmed that is what you told them. The captain called someone in SLED and is trying to get your weapon checked out faster.”
“Not doing you any good here, so I’m going to meet up with Ted and see what he wants me to do.”
“Okay.” Hank turned to leave. I stopped him. “Hey, buddy, thanks.” He grinned and left.
By ten o’clock on Monday morning, I was a free man. Ted dropped me off at home, and I took a hot shower, ate breakfast, then called Hank.
“Where are you?”
“At a pool hall where Davis hung out. Trying to get an idea who wanted him dead. No one knows me here, so Ted thought I might get somewhere. Just sit tight. We got this.”
I hung up. I was discouraged, but I was in good hands, and I knew it. I hadn’t slept well for the last two nights, so I told Mom I was taking a nap. Four hours later, I woke with a start. A thought was just on the edges of my memory, something I had missed.
Mom was puttering around in the kitchen, so I grabbed a cup of coffee, and Cleaver and I sat on the front porch. I rocked back and forth in the swing, trying to clear my mind. Something Davis said was important, and I wanted to bang my head against the porch post. I couldn’t remember.
Dad didn’t have to work late, and he was home for dinner. We were looking at his new fishing rod when Mimi, Dalton, and the kids arrived. Mimi had tried to have kids for years, and Danny and Elisa, six and eight, were a blessing. Before dinner, Dalton and I played football with the kids.
At dinner, Danny was excited and told Mimi. “Mom. Dad and Uncle Eli played ball with me just like Mr. Chuck at school.”
Mimi explained that Mr. Chuck was the assistant principal who played ball with the students at recess. But the name Chuck triggered something… something Davis said. Charles—he had beaten up a man named Charles and put him in the hospital. I excused myself and called Ted, telling him what I remembered.
“Any idea who this guy was, Eli?”
“There was a Charles Parker, who was a year behind us. I think they got into a couple of fights back then. I don’t remember much about him.”
“I remember him, still getting into trouble. I’ll call Hank and tell him to ask around about Parker. Meanwhile, I’ll do a bit of digging on my own. You stay put.”
“Eli, stay put.”
I returned to the dinner table, frustrated. I needed to do something.
Tuesday morning, Hank stopped by. Mom got him coffee and a couple of cookies and left us to talk.
“Find out anything?” I admit I was nervous. He gave me that look, head dropped slightly, eyes looking upward. He did know something.
“About one a.m., I was at a bar on the county line. A guy at the pool hall said he saw Charlie Parker there three days ago. So last night, I went, bought a few rounds, and finally got a guy to talk to me about Charlie. He was pretty drunk, but I think telling me the truth. Charlie was in the bar Friday night when one of the guys with Davis at the game came in.”
Hank shook his head. “No. Someone asked this guy about Davis, and he told them Davis got kicked in the nuts and was home, hurting pretty bad. Charlie asked who busted him, and the guy told him what happened during and after the game. Charlie left shortly after.”
“Think he headed for Davis’s place?”
“That’s what we are trying to find out. Ted’s talking to the sheriff right now. Hope he believes us, Eli.”
The sheriff believed Ted. Hank, wearing a camera and listening device courtesy of SLED, sat in the bar while deputies waited hidden outside. Charlie didn’t show on Tuesday night, but he did on Wednesday around nine p.m. By ten p.m., Hank had managed to buy Charlie a few beers and steered the conversation to Davis.
“Man, just got into town when that dude got murdered. Tough town.”
“That dude? Jackass was a pain in my butt since high school.”
“What he’d do?”
“Bastard thought he was the toughest guy in school, but I was.”
“Heard some cop visiting from New Orleans killed Davis.”
Charlie guffawed. “That goody-two-shoes? How he became a cop is beyond me. Bastard thought I was dirt, but Davis was worse.”
“You don’t think the cop killed that dude?”
“Him? Nah—he didn’t do it.”
“Do you know who did?”
Charlie slugged back his beer and turned a cold gaze toward Hank. “I sure do, but I ain’t telling.”
Hank pushed him. “You kill him?”
Charlie jumped off the stool and pulled Hank from his. “So, what if I did. I can kill you too.”
As Charlie hit Hank in the head with a right fist, deputies burst into the bar and arrested Charlie.
Hank spent Wednesday giving a statement to the authorities, and Charlie’s arraignment for Jackson Davis’s murder took place that afternoon. In the evening, Hank came for dinner. As we sat down, Hank told us the latest.
“Charlie Parker confessed. When he heard that Davis was at home hurting from being kicked, he decided to kill him. Beat the heck out of him and shot him, then called the sheriff’s office to pin the blame on you. Thought he could take you both out. Davis’s buddies went along with his story, afraid Charlie would kill them.”
My dad shook his head. “A bad lot, both of those boys.”
Hank frowned. “Eli and I have seen worse, but this was bad enough.”
“That we have. By the way, I called the captain this morning to tell him.”
“I talked to him just a bit ago. He said I might as well stay here and keep you out of trouble. Flying back with you on Sunday.”
Mom put a plate of Fettuccini Alfredo in front of him. “Good, you’re coming to the wedding.”
After one bite, Hank beamed. “Who needs Mama Leone’s when we’ve got Mama Jessie.”
Watching my mom blush made me glad I had come home again.
Please visit Deborah on her blog: https://daratliffauthor.wordpress.com