The Trees Beyond the Grass (A Cole Mouzon Thriller) (17 page)

BOOK: The Trees Beyond the Grass (A Cole Mouzon Thriller)
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CHAPTER 48

FROM THE MEDICAL
report, Libby was cuffed to a cot in the corner of the square cabin and raped over and over again as the boys were tied in the corner, left to watch. The ragged lashes on her back, buttocks, and legs told of routine whippings by what was later identified as a horse crop.

The boys were branded at some point, like cattle. Libby would have to watch as they were burned, left to scream for her help.

On the night of their escape the captor had apparently left, supporting the police’s theory later that he lived somewhere nearby, coming to the cabin during either the night or day for his next session of torture. It was then that Libby slipped her left hand free from the cuffs, but not without removing most of the skin and leaving the hand dangling limp, broken. From the looks of the rope found in the cabin, she broke a coke bottle and slowly cut through the children’s ropes. From there she had apparently made it the half mile through the marsh, carrying the boys until she collapsed in a thicket of trees and palmettos surrounded by marsh…

It was unclear how long they had been hiding under the palmettos and sea wind-beaten pines of the hammock, but when found, Libby was dead, Cole and Mark holding her as though they were taking a peaceful family nap. Cole was unconscious from dehydration, but stable. Mark was weak, but alert and calling for help. They had been missing five days before being discovered by MeMe’s sons.

Cole’s mind ran crazy with the imagery of the report when he read it. It pieced together the horror of his childhood, over a month-long investigation that never resulted in an arrest. They had no leads. The fake officer had disappeared as quickly as he appeared. There was DNA, but it was a dead end, no match.

From what Agent Leas had told him during their meeting, the Charleston abduction was one of four that were too similar to be anything other than the act of one killer. The dates of the missing suggested Charleston was the first. The other abduction, in White Plains, Fort Worth, and Vegas, matched in every detail—a police stop, disappearance, and ultimate death. In each one, the children had been left to live, to bear the mark of their captor and endure the grief of the torture and death of their parents. Libby had escaped, only to die in the marsh…having sacrificed her life to save them. The other parents didn’t fare as well. Leas had shared their police reports, too. Burnings, bleedings, and strangulation were the intended deadly climaxes for Libby, based on the others’ ultimate moments.

He closed his eyes to try and black out the pain of what he had just learned. Whoever it was seemed to have decided the children were ready to be killed. He had no idea who was after him, but he knew he was next.

 

CHAPTER 49

THERE WERE TEARS,
lots of tears, at the Mouzon house. Cole had explained it all. He was unemotional and almost cold in his rendition. It wasn’t from anger or distrust. Rather, he was locked into that side of himself that handled everything matter-of-factly, with steely precision. He knew that this probably made his parents’ concern and pain worse, but he couldn’t help it. He tried to assure them that he wasn’t upset, that he just needed to understand and figure everything out as fast as possible before something happened to him, or worse, his family.

His mom couldn’t get much out. Randall was silent, very silent. Just years before, this would have been a warning for a drunken rage brewing. The quiet made Cole uncomfortable at the prospect. Like the silence of the eye of a hurricane, such quiet meant you better run and seek cover because hell had arrived on earth and all would be in its path. He had never blown up beyond yelling at his children or wife. But he still clearly recalled his father exploding on the poor guy who refused to move from in front of Cole and his siblings one Fourth of July on the old Pitt Street Bridge. Randall had made sure they got there early for the Charleston harbor fireworks. When a latecomer took up post directly between them and the show and refused to move when asked.
Pop
—the man was down with one punch, leaving his wife to pull Randall off of him. Ava’s only response was, “What will the neighbors think?”

“Well, I can tell you this, Rambo Momma isn’t going anywhere. I will take that man out if he messes with one of my babies again.” Cole had just instructed his parents to go down to Fort Myers and stay with Ava’s sister and Henry. They begrudgingly agreed, but Granny was being a harder sell.

“Dammit Mom, we are going and that will be the end of it.” Randall broke his silence. Granny mumbled under her voice some words probably best not heard.

Cole intervened to quiet both sides. “Leave me the keys and I’ll check in on the place. I’ve called work and told them there’s a family emergency. They didn’t ask any questions.”

 

CHAPTER 50

“COLE, BABY, COME
help this old lady pack for this forced trip.” Granny gave a sly look at his father as Cole extended his elbow to her to assist her to her apartment. Walking outside with her on his arm, the memory of Jackie’s wedding and escorting his grandmother down the aisle flashed before his eyes. At the time he could think of no happier moment for his sister. But he knew now that image was a fraud, with Billy’s father having slept with one of caterers just moments before the vows. The drugs would be revealed to his sister for the first time that night, the same night she would be introduced to his open hand when she objected. His sister’s constant strength was put to the test over the next few years, but as always she came out the victor. He admired that ability in her, to survive.

Cole pushed off the thoughts of his sister to ply his Grandmother for information. “So, it said…the report said that MeMe’s boys found me?”

“Yeah baby, she deployed those boys like an army when she learned what happened. They walked more marsh and forest than all the police involved. They were on a mission. Man, that woman was good.” Granny chuckled to herself. “No one was going to mess with one of her boys.”

Still walking alongside his grandmother, Cole looked down at her. “How did they know where to look?”

Granny stopped to respond. “Hon, her people have been here as long as ours and probably worked most of it at one time or another. They just
knew
the best spots.”

They started walking again as Cole said, “I haven’t seen MeMe in forever. Is she even still alive?”

“Well, last I heard they were still on that property next to ours, off Rifle Range and Porchers Bluff.”

Cole sat down on the edge of his grandmother’s bed and looked off, outside the back window of the open room. He would need to visit MeMe and find out what she knew.

“Hand Granny that luggage over there in the closet.” Inside the small separated apartment his father had constructed on the property several years ago in anticipation of Granny’s need for closer care, Cole couldn’t help but think it looked a lot like her place in town. Same furniture, same decorations, same musky smell of dank, old places. It was just all in one square room with a small kitchen in one corner, a bed in another and a makeshift living room making up the rest.

 

THERE WERE ROOSTERS
everywhere, as though a traveling rooster salesman got rich unloading his entire stock on his grandmother. She had always been a collector, but in this small space they seemed to stand out more than he recalled. The entire reason he went to the University of South Carolina was because his first exposure to anything college-related was his grandmother’s black coffee mug with a chipped, gold-leaf gamecock embossed on one face. It took him several years just to figure out the image was that of a fighting cock and not some Japanese emblem.

Peering over the collection, he noticed what appeared to be a new addition. Bright red, with some white and black streaming feathers painted on the ceramic body, the bird looked fierce and intimidating at almost two feet high. The cockscomb alone added five inches.

“Looks like you got a new one, Granny.” She glanced over and back to Cole. “Yeah, QVC was having a sale one night and he’s a big one, and I thought ‘a house isn’t a home without a big ‘ol cock in it,’ so I ordered him. Who knew cocks came delivered with free shipping.”

Cole about choked on his laughter, attempting to shake off the imagery that had just flooded into his head. Granny was never one to hold back, something that scared the shit out of him in public or social settings. He could still recall her breaking into a safe sex lesson during a kids’ sleepover she hosted. His friends loved it. Their parents, on the other hand, couldn’t figure out what they were more pissed about—that she demonstrated the best way to apply condoms on a banana or that she handed out Playboy and Playgirl,
because Granny didn’t judge
, for illustrative purposes. Later she would confess she’d planned it all just for her own entertainment.
A clever old lady.

Leaned over head deep into her luggage trying to shove some type of nightgown in, Granny said, “Cole, can you promise this old lady something?”

Cole cocked his head like he had seen Dixie do every time she struggled to understand what he was saying. “Of course Granny, what you want?”

Dissatisfied with her packing, Granny walked over to Cole and sat beside him. As her hand smoothed out a wrinkle in the pink rose pattern of the duvet, she turned to him. “Baby, you know everything is going to be okay, right? I mean, we have had some crazy times in this life and you have more than any in this family. But we’re strong people, Cole Mouzon, and you are the toughest. When your momma Libby died, this family pulled together to protect and nurture you. You was in horrible shape. Don’t be mad at Ava or Randall for not telling you what happened. We all agreed that it was better you know how wonderful your momma was and not how horrible her death was.” Cole had only seen his Granny cry once and that was when Poppa died fifteen years ago. Otherwise, the woman was steel. In this moment, that steel was flimsy. Her eyes went moist as she continued. “Baby, I don’t know why…how you survived. But you did, and you will again. Just promise me that you will call me when you get whoever it is that did this to your momma.”

Cole wrapped his long arms around his grandmother and whispered in her ear, “You know I will.”

 

CHAPTER 51

COLE HAD WAITED
around until after lunch to see his folks off to Ft. Meyers. His stomach ached from one too many ripe tomato sandwiches and a slice of hummingbird cake. He hoped that would last him the rest of the day, because he didn’t have time to waste. Moments later he hopped into the Focus and drove over to the old homestead where MeMe had lived. He hoped she was alive and still where he last visited her.

MeMe Jenkins had been Cole’s nanny from birth until he was twelve, though the term ‘nanny’ conveyed a drastically different meaning than would be implied. When he was first born his mother fell sick for several months. MeMe’s family property bordered theirs, so Libby hired MeMe to care for Cole when she was working. Cole’s existence had been modest; after her death and Randall was injured, the family moved to the property and its triple-wide off Porchers Bluff. MeMe stayed on, taking care of all the Mouzon children. He could still feel her large, engulfing hugs whenever he thought of her.

He drove to the property off dead-man’s curve on Rifle Range Road. A historically treacherous bend in the road that converted Rifle Range into Porchers Bluff Road, it was a hot spot for deaths in the 60s from drag racing. When he and his family lived on the end of Porchers Bluff, numerous accidents occurred from the unwitting, risk-taking, or just drunk drivers attempting to ride the almost ninety-degree curve. But the greatest casualty ever seen was a mammoth boar that festered along the side of the curb for weeks until ultimately claimed by nature. The local paper celebrated the death of the curve in 2006, announcing it had ‘a date with the executioner.’ In its place was constructed one of the many round-about intersections that now dotted the lowcountry landscape like dizzying chickenpox, causing confusion to the locals used to driving in straight lines.

A few miles off the curve, Cole approached the property. Other than one new structure and a few extra cars, the place appeared just as he recalled. Cole parked directly outside the newest building as a small child and a man crossed his path with skeptical eyes.

He had been here many times. His childhood days routinely consisted of waking to MeMe cooking shrimp’n grits or cornbread. While he ate, she cleaned the house and laundry. By noon, she was done and they would walk along Porchers Bluff to MeMe’s property. The large white sand circular driveway with several once-white wood buildings following the exterior of the arched drive remained unchanged. These buildings were similar to the housing in the recent movie
The Help
, but were certainly less well-maintained, with green moss and pine straw coating the roofs and ground around the structures. The white had long succumbed to grey from dirt and the sap of the overhanging loblolly pines and live oaks, their branches weighed down by Spanish moss. Peering across the property, he could see where he’d played with MeMe’s grandchildren around the makeshift homes.

“Can I help you?” A tall, slender man with mocha skin approached to determine if Cole posed any threat. It wasn’t an issue of race; it was an issue of belonging. And a white man in the backwoods of Mount Pleasant on a black family’s property spoke loudly of not belonging. Cole began to speak cautiously, “I’m here to see Mardean Franklin… MeMe.”

The man asked, “Is she expecting you?” His eyes narrowed.

“No Sir. I’m Cole Mouzon; she took care of me as a child, and I was in town and thought I would…”

“Cole? Cole Mouzon? Wow, man, you have grown. I mean, I expected you would have, but damn. It’s been forever. It’s me, Jeffery. We use to play around this yard when you were little; we were tight as brothers back then.”

Cole’s mind raced, settling on one image in particular. “Oh, man. Jeffery, how are you doing? You’re looking pretty good yourself. Was that your kid that I just saw walking past?”

Jeffery threw his right arm back in the direction of where the girl had gone. “Yeah, that’s my baby girl, Abby. She’s my world. So, what brings you out here? Oh, Grandma, damn man. Let me get her.” As he walked toward one of the larger buildings Jeffery turned back, “Cole Mouzon, who would have thought.” A minute or two passed as Cole stood next to his rental before Jeffery leaned out the front door and waved him in. “Come on, she’s up.”

BOOK: The Trees Beyond the Grass (A Cole Mouzon Thriller)
9.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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