Claire and Nancy watched him grimace. Then he hung up and growled, “Patrol's got a body. Down near where you've been staying, Claire.”
Claire frowned at that news. She had been spending quite a few nights on a houseboat while Black was out of town, which happened to be something that Black didn't know and that she didn't want him to know. It was down on the bayou in Lafourche Parish where she'd lived for a while as a foster child with the LeFevres family. The LeFevres' house had been partially destroyed by Katrina years ago, but their houseboat had been taken inland and saved. Since Claire had moved to New Orleans and reconnected with some of the remaining LeFevres brothers, they'd offered her the use of the boat when she was down in the parish. She'd jumped at the chance. It was one of the few pleasant memories in her horrific childhood so she cherished the place.
Zee looked mightily perturbed. “We got big trouble. They found a dead girl down there, and they said the scene's real creepy. They want you out there, too, Nancy.”
“Okay, let's get going,” Claire said, feeling the familiar surge of excitement and realizing that this was what she'd been waiting for. Despite her recent injuries and the dangers she'd faced in the past, homicide investigations happened to be her passion. She was already pumped up and raring to go.
“Where exactly is it?” Nancy asked Zee, grabbing another pizza slice and closing the box.
Zee picked up the whole box to take with them, apparently not one to waste good food. He looked at Claire. “From the sound of it, Claire, it's right there on the property where you're stayin' sometimes. In the ruins of that house just up from your boat. You sleep out there last night?”
“Yeah. I didn't hear anything, and I sleep with the windows wide open. Nobody drove up to the house, or I definitely would've heard the car. You know how sound travels out there on the water.”
“You didn't see anything this morning when you left, either?”
Claire shook her head. “Nope, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. You sure it's not some other place? There are several dilapidated houses along that part of the bayou. Maybe it's one of them.”
“He said it's the old LeFevres place.” Zee unlocked his top drawer, pulled it open, and retrieved his Beretta from its black leather belt holster.
Claire never took off her weapons, not anymore, not after her last case. Even at night, she kept her weapons handy under her pillow. Being unarmed had not been healthy for her in the past. And that was the understatement of the year. Her trusty Glock nine-millimeter was snug in her shoulder holster, and the sweet little .38 snub nose that her best friend and ex-LAPD partner, Harve Lester, had once given her for Christmas, was strapped to her right ankle. She grabbed her lightweight black hoodie and looped the chain holding the silver Lafourche Parish Deputy Sheriff badge over her head.
“I guess I better call Sheriff Friedewald. He needs to know a homicide's gone down.”
Nancy said, “Let's take my Tahoe. I've got my equipment with me. Looks like I'm going to need it.”
Claire said, “If it's that bad, we need to hurry it up and get out there.”
So hurry it up they did. Minutes later, they were in Nancy's white Tahoe, headed out to the crime scene. Claire's blood was singing. A murder wasn't exactly what she'd expected on such a nice sun-spangled Sunday afternoon, but she was ready, her instincts telling her something wicked had come calling. And Claire always trusted her gut. Especially when it involved murder and mayhem and raving maniacs. More troubling, she was thinking that if the murder had occurred near her boat, and when she was probably there, was it somehow connected to her? Nope, Black was not going to be a happy camper when he heard about this case.
Ten minutes later they were barreling down a bayou road on their way to the LeFevres property, dust billowing up behind them like a tornado riding their tail. The LeFevreses had lived in a remote corner of the parish, on a bayou stream that most people never got to see, much less dwell on, but to Claire it was a quiet, beautiful sanctuary. Wooded and full of birds and wild animals, true, but she had felt safe there when she was a girl, after living in a host of foster homes where she hadn't felt safe at all.
When the LeFevres brothers offered her a chance to stay on their houseboat, she'd jumped at the opportunity but hadn't used it overnight until Black left for Europe. Fate had brought her back to the swamps again. Now death had returned there as well, probably following her around, which was usually the case.
“There's the turn, Nancy,” she said, pointing out a gravel road up ahead.
Nancy took a hard left into a rutted entrance that wound through a stand of two-hundred-year-old live oak trees, all draped funereally with the coarse and creepy, gray Spanish moss so prevalent in the bayous. Once the road opened up onto the grassy yard surrounding the old Caribbean-style house with its wide veranda and open breezeway, she saw the two white Lafourche Parish patrol cars sitting there. Beyond the driveway covered with white shells and down farther on the banks of the slow-flowing bayou, the houseboat sat silent and undisturbed. Other than the police cars, everything looked exactly the way it had that morning when Claire had left for Thibodaux.
They pulled up beside the other vehicles and then got out and walked across the front yard. The house was a big two-story structure, clapboard, once white but now peeling and gray. Some of the roof had collapsed, but most of the bottom floor was still intact. The giant river stone chimney was crumbling some now, but it had been a wonderful home once, full of laughter and love and happy children. Bobby and Kristen LeFevres had made it warm and safe for their own two children and the multitude of foster kids they'd taken in through the years.
Bobby LeFevres had been an NOPD detective then and had found Claire, her face and arms bruised, hiding in a city park pavilion after she had wandered away from her abusive foster family. He had taken her home with him and fought for her to stay there, until Family Services had seen fit to move her to a new family up around Baton Rouge. But the LeFevres house held only good memories. Until now.
Inside the house, they found the first floor was still in pretty good shape, but the second floor, where Claire had slept in a bedroom with the LeFevreses' darling little daughter named Sophie, was in ruins, the roof caved in, the wood floor water damaged. They stopped outside the front door, put on protective booties and blue latex gloves, and then moved carefully through the living room and joined the officers at the dining room pocket doors. They stood there a few minutes and observed the crime scene. It was not a pretty sight. In fact, it was downright shocking.
The victim was a woman. She had on some kind of long white velvet robe. Her hands had been placed in her lap, but were completely hidden inside the robe's wide flowing sleeves. Her face had been painted to resemble a skeleton. White paint had been applied all over her facial skin except for the eye sockets, nose, and chin, which were painted black, but that wasn't the worst part. The killer had pierced a needle through her white lips and sewn her mouth shut with large black vertical stitches. White thread had been sewn in a large X on each of her eyes. The victim's hair was hidden under some kind of white silk turban with lots of charms and feathers sewn on it. Small bones had been thrust through slits cut into her earlobes. Dried blood had run down her neck and now looked black and crusty.
There was a multitude of candles surrounding her, all white and all covered with thick drippings, burned all the way down to the floor. Some of them, the ones encased in tall glass containers were decorated with pictures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. One was still burning. More religious pictures, small plastic icons as found in Catholic churches, feathers, and bones made a shrine that encircled the chair. Several human skulls were affixed with white candles. And the smell of death permeated the air, cloaking everybody and everything with the sickening odor of putrefying flesh. Bluebottle flies had found her and buzzed and landed and crawled all over the exposed face.
“Holy God,” Zee muttered softly, crossing himself and stepping back away from the victim. “That's a voodoo altar. See the cornmeal spread around down there on the floor. That design traced in it? That's called a Veve. They draw that stuff before the ceremony begins. Don't step in it. Don't touch it. Damn, I don't like this kinda shit.”
Claire pulled her gaze away from the altar and stared at Zee. “How do you know this stuff, Zee?”
“Hey, I was born out here, remember. And Mama Lulu is into voodoo. She can tell us what all this means. And it all means something bad, I guarantee it.”
“Who's Mama Lulu?”
“My grandmama. She lives up this very bayou a little ways, and she's got a voodoo shop over on Bourbon Street in the Quarter. This's serious stuff, Claire. Don't let anybody touch anything, or God knows what might happen.”
“Told you this was super creepy,” one of the officers said. Claire remembered that his name was Clarence Dionne. She didn't know him very well yet. He was young, slender, with big brown eyes and dark hair longer than the sheriff really liked his patrol officers to wear. He was from the parish, born and bred, and knew nearly everybody who lived in Lafourche. She did know that much about him, and that was probably going to come in handy in the investigation.
Yeah, it was super creepy, all right. More than creepy
bizarre and horrible
, Claire thought. She turned to Officer Dionne. “Do you recognize the victim?”
“Can't tell, ma'am. Not with her face painted up like some kinda zombie like that. She looks young, though. I might be able to identify her after Nancy gets her cleaned up.”
“You didn't touch anything, did you, Dionne?”
“No, ma'am. I know better'n that. Nobody touches voodoo altars 'cause they might get cursed.”
“Who found the body?”
“Don't know. Desk got in an anonymous call to check out this house for a possible homicide. Gave pretty good directions, too. Used a burn phone so there was no trace.”
“Are those the exact words the caller used? Told you to check for a possible homicide?”
“Yes, ma'am. That's what dispatch told me.”
“That sounds like somebody in law enforcement. Did they get the voice on tape?”
“Operators at 911's got it, if you wanna listen to it, but they said it was muffled and hard to understand.”
“Thank you, Officer. You observe anything suspicious at the scene when you first got out here?”
“No. No tire tracks except for one that led down to the boat. Looked like an SUV of some kind.”
“That's probably my Range Rover. We'll get casts made, though.”
“You got a Range Rover?” Dionne said. He gave an appreciative whistle, impressed, to be sure.
“It belongs to a friend of mine.” That would be Black, of course. He just loved big powerful toys, and he loved her to have them, too. And as an extra wow factor, he had fitted her fully equipped SUV with every tracking device known to man, as he had on her phone and computer and the St. Michael's medal she always wore around her neck. In the past, he'd had trouble finding her on occasions when she really needed finding so he no longer took any chances. So the bells and whistles on her vehicles and personal property suited her just fine. There were times when she definitely wanted him to locate her, and the faster, the better.
“You did bring your cameras, right, Nancy?”
“Yeah, but I better call in the whole team and get them out here quick. This scene is going to be a nightmare to process. I don't like this voodoo stuff, either. It scares me, and I'm not afraid to say so. Zee, what does that design in the cornmeal mean?”
Zee shrugged, and nobody else volunteered the information, so Claire knelt in front of the victim while Nancy got out her camera equipment and started filming their every move. She stared at the etchings in the cornmeal, probably drawn with a finger or some kind of stick. Could've even been a knife.
“Okay, this looks like two snakes to me. Drawn upright in vertical positions with large loops at the end of the tails. Look here, at the top. They've got heads with fangs coming out. And this looks like stars, or asterisks, maybe, in between them. And what's that? A plus sign on the far right. See it? Or maybe it's a cross?”
Claire looked up at Zee, who still looked repulsed by the whole thing.
“So what's going on here, Zee?”
Zee shrugged again. “Don't ask me, but Mama Lulu's gonna know how to decipher all this ritual stuff. It probably represents a Loa. That's a voodoo deity. I don't really know much about voodoo shit, and I don't think I wanna know.”
“Well, I want to know.” Claire stood up. Great, now they had to deal with a
killer, for God's sake. What next? A zombie running out of the woods with a machete? She stared down at the body and realized that the poor woman in front of them might very well have been mutilated and murdered while Claire slept peacefully on the houseboat not even thirty yards downhill on the bayou's bank. Could that even be possible? How could he have gotten the victim into the house without Claire hearing anything? Had he come in through the woods surrounding the house? Claire definitely would have heard any vehicle or boat approaching anywhere near the property, and she was a light sleeper. Surely the crime had been committed when she wasn't there.
Zee was obviously thinking the same thing. “You've been stayin' down in that houseboat at night, right, Claire? You sure you didn't see nothin' or hear nothin'?”
“Like I said, nothing out of the ordinary. I've spent quite a few nights here, and there's no way I wouldn't have heard somebody wandering around up here. It's so quietânothing but crickets and frogs and an occasional boat.”
“He could've done her and set all this up during the day when you were working. When was the last time you came inside the house?” Nancy said, focusing her camera and snapping still shots.
“Black and I came out here once right after we moved to New Orleans. We came in the house then, but I haven't been inside again since I've been staying out here.”
“You can stay with me until he gets back, if you want,” Nancy offered. “What's your connection with these people, anyway?”
Claire really didn't want to get into that part of her personal past, but this time she was going to have to. “I lived here for a while when I was young. It still belongs to the same family. We visited them at the restaurant on their boat, the
, and they said I could use the houseboat anytime I wanted. So I took them up on it. As far as I know, nobody else ever comes out here.”
Nancy said, “Oh, I love the
. Especially the Cajun Grill up on the second deck.”
Not wanting to go any further into her connection with the LeFevres family, Claire changed the subject. “How long do you think she's been dead, Nancy?”
“I'd say several days, maybe less. It's hard to tell. I'll have to do the autopsy to get you anything definitive. There's no obvious cause of death. It could be strangulation. Or, she could have a fatal wound hidden under that creepy robe she's got on.”
“Zee, get more officers out here ASAP. I want this entire property grid searched, all the way out to the road.”
“You got it.” Zee quickly dialed up another detective and told him to bring out his team and a retrieval unit.
As soon as he hung up, Claire said, “Zee, I don't know anything about voodoo rituals, but this looks to me like some kind of sacrifice.”
“Could be. I've seen pictures kinda like this.”
Claire jumped on that. “You've seen altars like this? With dead bodies?”
“No, just the altars. No dead bodies.”
“Give us a little bit of background on voodoo so we'll know what we're dealing with.”
“Okay, but Mama Lulu can tell you more. It's kinda a mixture of African religions and Christianity. See the crucifix there? And the pictures of the Holy Mother? And those bottles probably have spells and potions in them. I doubt it's a real voodoo priest or priestess who did this. Might be somebody who wants us to think it is, though.”
“Because of the way the face is painted up. That's meant to create fear. Some voodoo priests paint themselves up to look like skeletons for their ceremonies. Some do it to look like zombies. That's a big part of voodoo, or it used to be. I dunno. Like I said, I'm no expert on this kinda stuff. I stay away from it.”
“So things like this aren't prevalent around here anymore?”
“Not dead bodies on altars. But people still practice voodoo, and they take it serious, too. It's a religion to them, and nothin' to joke about. There's a bunch of voodoo shops over in the French Quarter, too. Not too far from where you and Nick live. Haven't you been in any?”
“No, I haven't. Guess I'll check them out now, though.”
“Mama Lulu's the one we need to talk to,” Zee said again.
“And we will, but right now we need to figure out who this woman is.” She looked at Dionne again. “Has anybody called in a missing person?”
“Not since I came on this morning. If she's from out here on this bayou, we'll hear about it soon enough.”