It’s strange. In all the days since I’ve embraced the paranormal, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. As soon as I step out of our rental car, a strong frosty breeze overwhelms me. I don’t wrap up in my coat as my colleagues do, instead I embrace the cold air to come in and wrap around my chest. The wind appears in the form of bending trees. The branches rustle in a perpetual wave.
What I found unusual is the ceaseless rhythm of gospel humming. It’s the soulful blues of people making the best of their hardship, their toil. It’s serene, the complete opposite of graves and cemeteries that usually come replete with screams and demented pleas.
As the investigators advance into the crime scene, an unbearable sadness prevents me. I close my eyes with a clenched jaw. Horrible things have happened at this place, terrible atrocities passed off as a way of life. Justice turned its back and ignored an entire class of people. They say, unless you’re black you could never understand the pain and suffering of a slave. I wonder if that applies to me…with what I see…with what I hear…with what I feel…
My eyes open to a dull overcast of gray rolling clouds. Invisible gnats harass me like they have nothing better to do. It’s looks like I’m staring at a field of snow, but its cotton. The cotton crops span the length of six football fields before coming to a wall of hickory trees that make up the woods beyond. With winter approaching, the tree leaves have already darkened to the color of walnut brown, crinkling and holding on by a sliver.
We were in the rural township of Hephzibah, about a twenty-minute ride from Griffin’s precinct in downtown Augusta. Other than our rental, Dixon’s faded old pickup, and Det. Griffin’s sports car, there were two other squad cars parked along the narrow winding stretch of Old Waynesboro Road. A news crew had been on the scene since seven and I was told more were on the way.
The Waynesboro Plantation had been abandoned for over eighty years. Thousands of people passed it daily on their commute. No one gave it a second’s thought, like passing an old billboard with a peeled nondescript message. The antebellum history, the splendor of what it once was had faded along with the sands of time. Somehow the rows of crops managed to flourish on their own, that along with the souls who once tended to them.
It’s a good fifty paces from the road to the perimeter fence. The plantation is cordoned off by yellow police tape but that didn’t stop photographers from crossing over for a better angle. I approach and examine the fence’s condition. It’s not high. If I wanted to, I could easily step over. The reddish brown wood is old, porous, and rotten. I’m looking for blood, fabric, fresh splinters or cracks.
Nothing seems out of the ordinary, so I proceed on.
The cotton plants are a bit deceptive. From afar, the field seems congested as if I’d have a hard time combing through. But once I’m amongst the shrubbery, I notice they’re spaced further apart from each other. In fact, I see more patches of dirt than I do white cotton. The dark branches look brittle. I pull on a twig to see if I’m right. I am. The branches snap like crackers.
I find it odd that there’s no dirt path leading up to the large two-story house. From my position forty feet away, I can see light filtering through. It appears empty and hollow. Two healthy oak trees stand guard out front, partially obscuring it from the road. Another reason drivers might not notice is due to the greenish brown mold tainting the exterior. The faded paint is chipped. The wood is splintered and there isn’t even a door for its gaping front entrance. The windows are milky with random dark stains rising up from the corners like fumes. If the master’s house is that unsightly…I brace myself to see the slave quarters.
“You alright, Cloud?” Det. Griffin asks me.
All eyes are on me as I stand in the short and narrow doorframe of the slave quarters. There isn’t any gospel music in here. With a stern gaze, I tell him I’m alright. But I’m not all right. The place reeks with blood.
While the master’s house is large enough to entertain a guest list of about two hundred, the cramped slave quarters could barely fit ten. It’s a small shack with a triangular roof, no bigger than a baseball dugout. Three flat walls of ashy plywood partition the space into three rooms. Each wall has a large gaping hole big enough for someone to duck down and crawl through. Each room is large enough for three men to lay down side by side.
“What we gonna do?
“Masta will provide.”
“Momma, don’t leave us.”
“Listen to the white man! Listen to him!”
Desperate whispers all say the same thing over and over again. The floor is made up of sand, soft, cold, and grainy. I have to lower my head and bend slightly to avoid hitting the roof. There aren’t any light fixtures. No windows, only the two doorways positioned on the same side of the house, but at opposite ends. I’d have to struggle to read anything unless I put the pages directly in the path of the doorway.
The crime scene has already been processed with collected evidence bagged up and sent to the labs. I have the same dossier my colleagues received, notes and reports taken by investigators from yesterday.
Jessica’s crouching to examine a spot on the west wall. She’s holding up pictures taken by detectives. Leanne, Dixon, and Det. Griffin are in the other room but Jessica seems preoccupied on this particular spot. I approach and look over her shoulders.
She’s shaking her head, tight-lipped, and grieved. I don’t ask, but she holds up a photo of the place where KeNedra was shackled. The chains are no longer here but this is the spot she was kept.
Jessica says nothing, but moves closer to the wall and kneels in the dirt with no concern towards her clothing. I know what’s she’s doing and it makes me proud to see her so dedicated. She’s putting herself in KeNedra’s shoes to imagine what she saw when Tiquasia was being raped in the other room. Jessica turns and stares at the gaping hole in the bottom left hand corner of the wall. It’s only big enough to slide a duffel bag through.
“I want to see those chains,” Jessica says loud enough for me to hear.
She props up back to a crouch and continues with, “I’m starting to rethink my theory on why KeNedra committed suicide. The chains were rusted. They would’ve dug into her skin causing excruciating pain. Yet, she continued to struggle and even broke free. She’d go through all that just to kill herself later? Doesn’t make sense.”
“What other explanation is there?”
She stands up and pats off her pants. “I honestly don’t know, Cloud.”
Jessica…That didn’t sound like it was easy to admit it. She steps out to clear her head while I remain lowered, advancing toward that hole in the wall. I see shadows. I didn’t think it was anything pertinent at first. I assumed they belong to Leanne, Dixon, and Griffin.
But suddenly, the shadows start moving in a jarring, erratic fashion. I have no idea what’s going on but I drop to my knees as if I’m chasing a wedding ring that slipped through my fingers. I’m leaning closer to the hole, closer to the wall of combative shadows. I see hands, the dark outline of groping fingers. I thought it was the shadow of two figures, but upon closer inspection, I discern it’s just one. It moved so fast. Her head jerks. Her long hair whips to and fro with violent aggression.
I hook into the frame of the gaping hole in the wall and just as I stick my head in the neighboring room…a huge face with ghastly eyes and a sick twisted grimace comes at me in the form of gray ash.
“HELP ME! PLEASE!!!” she screams.
It startles the shit out me. I gasp, choking on my own saliva. Her face is racked with intense agony. She asked for help but I also heard, “It’s not fair!”
Then, the woman is yanked back into the hole with ungodly force. It’s as if a grizzly bear had taken hold of her, mauling her, tearing her apart. I saw with my own eyes as she was swung about like a ragdoll. The back of her head banged against the wall and she went dragging along the dirt floor.
Anger and urgency produced an explosive reaction by which I dove through the hole like an idiot and crawled as fast as I could. I end up getting stuck and I watch on as the girl’s limp body goes rolling into a dark corner at the other end of the house. And there, her apparition vanished into thin air.
“Oh my god! Cloud! What the hell are you doing? CLOUD!?”
It isn’t until Leanne screams my name that I snap out of it. Even Jessica came in to see the commotion. There, she catches sight of me chest down and halfway through the gaping hole. While Dixon and Griffin gawk with high brows, Jessica rushes over and helps me through. Damn…she’s strong.
“Freaking spaz, man,” Leanne chuckles.
“What were you doing?” Jessica asks with a concerned smile.
“Uh-um…The same thing you were. I, uh, I guess I got a bit carried away. Sorry about that, everyone,” I’m completely embarrassed.
“As I was saying…” Griffin says. “The techies collected what they could of fingerprints and latent scans. We also got cast molds of the shoe prints found in and around the hut. They messed up the original scene, but when I came in yesterday, I could still see the scraping grooves in the dirt here where Tiquasia’s heels were digging into the ground, no doubt trying to escape. We assume she was raped here. Seminal and vaginal fluids to support the theory.”
Griffin points to the exact spot where I saw Tiquasia’s head bang into the wall. “There was a thick smudge of blood on the wall here along with strands of hair. If you look closely you can see the impact of a crater. Deputies also found a blue milk crate containing water bottles and travel size toiletry items. There was blood on that as well so we had it taken to the lab.”
Griffin then points to the dark shadowy place at the far end of the wall. He says, “This is where we found her. Tiquasia. You can still see the dark coloration from where the dirt soaked up her blood and there was a lot of it, clumped up and coagulated. The photos are in your folder but I wouldn’t recommend checking them out so close to lunch.”
“Did the medical examiner give us a cause of death yet? After the meeting yesterday we were expecting a call. I haven’t heard anything. Have you?” Leanne asks, looking at me.
I shake my head no, still patting the dirt off of my suit.
“That’s on me,” Griffin says. “I got the call last night and thought it best to tell you in person. We thought Tiquasia was bludgeoned to death due to the disfigurement of her face. But the ME says a blow to the back of her head was what killed her. A skull fracture shut down her bodily functions. Also with KeNedra, the girl who committed suicide, the ME reported traces of chloroform in her system. It’s weird they didn’t find any in Tiquasia, though.”
“Nah, I wouldn’t think so,” Leanne says. “Chloroform doesn’t stay in the bloodstream long. And we already know KeNedra was abducted last Tuesday so now we know how.”
I squint my eyes. If Leanne is accurate then our killer is very bold. From KeNedra’s interrogation, she claimed the last thing she remembered before her abduction was walking the sidewalk in her neighborhood. If she was abducted there, then the killer must have crept up right behind her and held a chloroform soaked rag over her mouth in broad daylight. Anyone could’ve easily glanced out their window or stepped outside to catch him red-handed. Very bold. Or desperate.
“So here’s what I’m thinking,” Griffin says, clapping his hands.
“So, the killer had her here in the middle of the room. He has his way with her. Then, Tiquasia breaks free momentarily and tries to scurry through this hole in the wall. Our unsub then grabs her, swings her back into the room. Probably fed up and frustrated, he takes her head and smashes it against the wall with his bare hands. Tiquasia staggers onto the wooden crate, getting blood on it before passing out. And that’s when our unsub decides to make sure she was dead by beating her with one of the bricks taken from these haggard walls.”
Griffin heads outside. We follow. Dozens of spectators and two more news teams had arrived to see what we’re up to. Consequently, more officers had arrived to help maintain the perimeter.
Griffin continues his demonstration as he points over the cotton fields to the closest road, Old Waynesboro Road. “I’m thinking KeNedra ran through the fields and cut across heading southeast into the woods that way.”
“You don’t think she stayed on Old Waynesboro?” asks Agent Dixon. “Reckon that’d be better to see where road takes her?”
“Negative. The EMTs who found her, said she was limping along Peach Orchard. That’s two miles out.”
“You mean to tell me this girl ran two miles in the thick thorny woods in the middle of the night?” asks a doubtful Agent Dixon.
“Yes, sir.” Griffin confirms.
“Why in blooming hell would she do that?” Dixon rattles out.
“It’s actually pretty smart.” Leanne chimes in. “If you’re going to escape from a predator its better to choose the most difficult path over an easier one. They’re more likely to give up the chase if they have a tough time getting to you.”
Leanne’s logic is iffy. This is a homicide after all. Giving up on a chase of this magnitude could be the thing that keeps a man in or out of jail. Again, for KeNedra to put herself through such an ordeal contradicts the later suicide. I keep coming back to that. It’s like I want to solve that mystery more so than figuring out who abducted her in the first place.
“Let’s check out the house,” Jessica suggests.
We move on Jessica’s recommendation. It’s odd. I notice the gospel humming had even stopped outside. Was it because there were now too many people out here?
“Cloud, what your thoughts?” Griffin asks, walking by my side.
I take a moment before offering with, “Hmm, I like your assessment of what happened. Whoever did this must be really strong, like a bodybuilder, or construction worker. Someone used to moving heavy weights. It also pairs up nicely with the size thirteens photographed in the sand.”
“Yeah, that’s true.” Jessica agrees.
“I also don’t think we’re looking for multiple suspects. Just one guy. I can’t imagine a second just standing around and letting KeNedra run off in the woods. Also, I don’t think we’ll find any calling cards or trinkets left at the scene. Nothing stupid like that. No one’s trying to toy with us and I don’t think the killer is seeking notoriety or fame.”
“He says without inspecting any of the other crime scenes,” Leanne points out to mock me.
“What I believe we’re looking for is a single predator. Just one horrible human being who simply resorted to his baser instincts as an animal. That’s what the scene tells me,” I conclude.
I’m not sure if they agree or not, but if they don’t, they’re quiet about it.
The big house was even more eerie than the slave quarters. The doors were positioned in the middle of each room, as opposed to the corners. Thus, there was a lot of shade obscuring fine details, such as the fleur-de-lises etched into the green crown molding. Mold stuck to the floorboards and there’s extensive water damage in the ceilings. Everything has the same blotchy stain of green, as if somebody came in and scrubbed the place with grass. Other than that, the house is large, barren, and spacious.
There was a grand staircase in the foyer leading up to the 2nd floor. I had my reservations about going up, but I was compelled to follow Jessica. If my own lust didn’t make me out to feel like a stalker, the creaking wood beneath my shoes did. Leanne was too creeped out to come up, so she stayed close to Griffin. They’re watching us. I hear them chuckle as I flinch from an invisible spider web. I can’t help it. It got caught in my nose.
“They’re not gonna find anything up there. There’s nothing to suggest anyone’s been in the house for close to a century,” Leanne tells Griffin.
“Ah, let the kids have their fun.” Griffin suggests.
Leanne’s dull green eyes make it abundantly clear that she’s smitten. Griffin doesn’t exactly conceal his own infatuation as he smirks and takes her by the hand to lead her back outside.
I’m seeing more and more moving shadows on the 2nd floor. With defiance I glower at the dark shady areas, warning the ghosts to know that I’m not to be trifled with.
“Why does this place still exist?” Jessica says aloud.
I approach the window she’s standing next to and peer out. We’re in the master bedroom looking down at the slave quarters out back. The wind is still rustling the trees. And the sun, having reached its zenith, now cast a peach tint over the white cotton.
Jessica turns to me with those brown eyes that have always possessed an inexplicable power to diminish thought. We’re alone. I want to ask her what’s on her mind or something, but nothing comes out. She ends up groaning in agitation.
“You know. You’re still too quiet, Cloud. We got to fix that.” She quips.
She was raised with that saucy Latino attitude that now lay dormant under layers of professionalism. She flashed it for an instant and it reminds me of our days at UGA when she was the it-girl all the fellas wanted. Just as I open to retaliate, she turns ever so swiftly, whipping her long silky black hair and taking off in a hip shimmying strut. I can’t help but smirk. She’s too adorable for her own good.
When I get out to the front porch, that magical thing happens where the investigators huddle around me like I’m their quarterback.
“What do you think? You want to check out the other slave quarters? Two of them still need processing,” Griffin asks.
“About that,” I ask, “What made you decide to go check out the other plantations in the first place?”
Griffin shrugs his shoulders. “Just a hunch. After the last detective dropped the ball with the witness, I wanted to be thorough. From what I could tell in watching the video of the witness-“
“KeNedra! KeNedra Thompson. She has a name, detective.” Jessica asserts.
“Right. Right. When I watched KeNedra give her statement, I had a feeling this wasn’t the first time our unsub did this. I mean, the slave quarters? That’s pretty gutsy, right? So I brought a deputy to check another one out and sure enough, that’s where we found Denedra Harrell. Then, Samantha Fox on another plantation. Then, Ashley Hunt and Alisha Collier. All at different plantations. All in slave quarters. All underclassmen in high school.”
“And African-American,” Jessica points out.
“Right, and they’re all African-Americans. Also, they were all part of different majorette teams,” Griffin ends with caution.
“I think that’s where we need to focus. The majorette teams,” I recommend.
“I don’t think so, Cloud.” Leanne opines. “I think we should check out the other slave quarters. It’s like Mark said. It’s pretty gutsy. Sounds like some kind of hate crime, and if that’s true, we need to jump out in front of it.”
I nod to indicate I understand where she’s coming from. Then all eyes pan to Jessica.
“I have to agree with my partner.” she says.
“Alright, perfect. You guys go check out the slave quarters and I’ll go talk to the majorettes.”
“Um! NO!” Leanne objects. “We’re gonna need your help, Cloud! You’re supposed to back us up. We run point! Remember?”
“Come on, Cloud. We might be able to pick up something fresh. CSI hasn’t even touched the Jordan Valley Plantation. The coroner picked up the body but that’s it. Let’s get in it. Let’s get our hands dirty!” Griffin beckons with a chummy smile.
I nod, “I hear you. And far be it for me to get in the way of good police work and all those convenient hunches that come along with it. So you guys take the cars and I’ll ride with a deputy to question the majorettes. Okay? Time is of the essence, right? Two teams are better than one.”
I had to start walking, maintaining an agreeable smile of course. Leanne isn’t the type to back down in an argument in which she thinks she’s right.
“I know what you’re doing!” Leanne shouts. “You always do this! And Chomsky has the nerve to say you have better decorum than me!”
“You’re a dork!” She shouts.
I’m smirking ‘cause I know the reporters caught that sound bite. Griffin and Jessica don’t seem too upset with me going my own way. If anything they probably suspect it’s the one thing that hasn’t changed about me in five years.
I look over my shoulder to see Griffin leaping over the fence to catch up.
“Agent Dixon’s gonna ride with the ladies. I’ll accompany with you so you can ride with me.”
“All right. Sound’s good.”
We get into Griffin’s black Ichigo Splinter and I can tell he’s proud of the sports car. The engine growls with a touch of the gas. With a grin, he encourages me to check out the touchscreen dashboard, as if we don’t have these in Atlanta. I smirk and pretend that I’m impressed and at last, we accelerate down Old Waynesboro Road.
“So let me ask you. What’s the deal with Leanne?” He begins.
“Oh. She’s a hoot.”
Griffin nods, grinning, deep in thought.
“So what’s your son’s name?” I ask with a cheerful smile. It’s subtle. I don’t want to come off too self-righteous, but hopefully he understands why I’m suddenly bringing him up.
“His name is Winston. He’s four-years-old. Sammy and Winston are great. You gottta meet them before you head back.”
“Yeah, I look forward to that.”
“So tell me. What happened back there? With you rolling around in the dirt? Did you get spooked or something? Is that why you don’t want to check out the other plantations? I noticed you were reluctant to step on the fields, man. Doesn’t sound like the ace detective I’ve been hearing so much about. Not scared are you?”
Damn…this dude’s driving worse than Leanne. He’s tailgating cars so bad I can see the other guy’s eye color through their rear view mirror. And when he switches lanes it’s so sudden that my shoulder jerks left or right. I came close to head-butting the window twice. And that’s with me clinging to the handrail.
“It’s not like that,” I explain. “The thing is, we don’t know if our suspect’s black or white, his occupation, his residency, his upbringing, nothing. I want to believe the killer knew Tiquasia personally, but if it’s the same killer who murdered the rest of the girls, then its probably someone connected to the world of majorettes.”
“Why didn’t you just say that back there? Explain your theory so we’re all on the same page?”
“Leanne is all statistics and facts. She believes in physical hard evidence and gives little credence to human nature that can’t be backed by some study. For instance, it was your hunch that led to the discovery of the other bodies, right?”
Griffin nods with pride. “Trust the hunch, Cloud. It’s called SWAG, a scientific wild ass guess. In our line of work you’d be surprised how many cases teeter on evidence and clues discovered by simply following your gut. I know the movies downplay it as some magical duex ex machina, but our instincts are far more important than that crap they teach you at the academy. It’s what gives us the edge of the bad guys. Ha! The hunch, baby! You gotta go with it.”
The hunch, he says. The fact that he changed gears and decided to come with me to see the majorettes has me asking questions. Right now my hunch is telling me there’s an ulterior motive.