Jackpot Blood: A Nick Herald Genealogical Mystery (5 page)

BOOK: Jackpot Blood: A Nick Herald Genealogical Mystery
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“Cut it out, you crazy redneck,” Mancel said to Travis, with the lilting Cajun cadences of southwest Louisiana. He was the smallest of the three men and clearly didn’t enjoy such tough manual labor; he took frequent breaks for sips of beer, much to Wooty’s annoyance. “That stuff ’s too valuable to be throwing around, yeah,” Mancel chided. “Wooty, how many more we got? Wooty?”

Wooty didn’t respond; he was listening and watching with his woods sense.

Mancel shrugged. With no enthusiasm and plenty of grunting, he resumed hefting the boxes Travis had stacked up in the meantime at the back of the van.

This chunk of Tchekalaya Forest had been Tadbull land for over a century and a half. Wooty knew these woods as intimately as he knew the female body. He knew all the pulses and scents that should be here on an early fall night, on a logging road in the middle of nowhere—and all the ones that shouldn’t. The night hunters were at work, and only the crickets and mosquitoes were too stupid to cower for their lives.

Wooty, standing stock-still in the pale moonlight, couldn’t shake off the feeling that something was out of place, dangerously out of place. His woodsman’s skills were something of a local legend, though
his new enterprises left no time for the old outdoor pursuits he once so enjoyed.

When he was younger, the Katogoula men at the mill and on the plantation used to kid him, saying that he must be part Indian, so adept was he in the ways of the woods. Eager, like most boys, to throw himself into make-believe, Wooty began to take the affectionate joking of the Indian men to heart. By the time he turned eight, he could hunt, fish, and trap as well as any Katogoula his own age—with the exception of Carl Shawe, and maybe Carl’s twin brother, Tommy.

He had always been certain exactly who his parents were, of course—thoroughly white and wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Wooten Tadbull III. Lately, he wished he could change that fact of parentage; his mother was dead, but the mere presence of Wooty’s father was beginning to drive him crazy. Wooty was determined never to be the ineffectual, unadventurous fool he thought his father to be. That vow was one of the reasons he was out here tonight risking a lifetime of incarceration, or death—which, now that he thought about the choice between the two, would be preferable.

Mancel noticed that Wooty’s normal high-strung skittishness had given way to alarm. “Travis, hold up a second, you hear,” Mancel said. He had to repeat the request a couple of times until big Travis, completely focused on his task again, cursed him liberally and asked him what the hell he wanted now.

The two men stopped unloading the van. The trailer behind Wooty’s Honda four-wheeler was three-quarters full.

“Wooty? What’s going on, man?” Mancel asked nervously. Following Wooty’s gaze, he looked into the black void of the forest. “You want us to shine the flashlights?”

“No,” Wooty snapped. “Just shut up a second!”

Wooty walked a few steps away along the raised road that felt so familiar under his feet from years of camping around here, of trekking
to and from Lake Katogoula with a day’s bag of fish or ducks, of parking here with the giggling girls of his adolescence. In the daylight he would have expected to see a built-up crude logging road of distinctive red dirt crawling through the thick longleaf pine woods.

Sight was of no use to him now, though. He had to decipher the forest’s warnings, as a blind man would sense something deadly in his path.

Early geese fleeing northern cold honked somewhere in the dark sky, the old leaders turning and rallying the flock’s broken V for the descent to Lake Katogoula, an important flyway stopover.

Wooty thought about patterns, the ancient imperative the geese obeyed. He felt stripped of volition, a mere animal machine without the advantage of a human brain. The invisible force using the forest for cover now controlled his actions, drawing him into conflict. Like the geese, he had only instinct as his imperfect armor.

Travis stooped out of the van. “There somebody out there, Wooty?” he asked. His silhouette in the night was larger than that of the other men, mostly chest and shoulders dwarfing a small cube of head. “I’ll take care of the bastard. Just point the way and I’ll block for you, like we did in the division game against the Dry Spit Braves, remember Wooty?” Travis now held something that gleamed dully in the glow filtering through the low, scudding clouds. His voice betrayed his fear.

Wooty knew that big Travis did rash, violent things when he was afraid—which was precisely how they’d won that epic football game nearly two decades before. “Epic,” that is, by the standards of this nook of rural central Louisiana, which Wooty considered to be a hopeless wasteland where feeble aspirations evaporated like sweat in August. That famous game between the high-school teams of Cutpine and Dry Spit . . . Travis had been terrified by their principal, who told the huge center that if the team didn’t bring home the division trophy he would be
expelled because of his miserable grade point average. Four members of the opposing team ended up in the hospital, mangled by Travis’s charge.

“This is more serious than any high-school game, big guy,” Wooty said, in a calm, low voice, as if to a spooked horse. “No need to do anything crazy. We’re operating in a new league, different rules. Probably just a coon out looking for dinner.”

More rustling from the darkness, this time on the other side of the road.

“I don’t think it’s no coon, Wooty. That’s human,” Travis insisted. “Must be two of ’em. They got us surrounded!”

“Oh, man, if we get caught with this stuff out here. Oh, man,” Mancel whimpered. “I ain’t goin’ to jail, Wooty, that’s all I got to say. I ain’t goin’ to Angola. I’m gonna go down to the marsh to my cousins that got the shrimp boats and hitch a ride to Mexico—”

“Shut up, Mancel!” Wooty growled.

But the jumpy little man couldn’t remain silent. “Maybe we better get the hell out of here. Like, now!”

“Come on, you bastards!” Travis blurted out.

And before Wooty could stop him—about as likely an undertaking, he realized, as stopping a charging bear barehanded—Travis had bounded off into the darkness, brandishing his revolver.

Wooty jumped into the open rear of the van. “Come on, Mancel!” Wooty shouted. “We have to get this done! Forget about him for now. He can take care of himself.”

The two of them worked like madmen, Mancel grunting and complaining, Wooty feeling even his honed muscles starting to tire.

Travis’s angry roar echoed through the trees, silencing the myriad crickets. Then there was nothing.

Wooty and Mancel stumbled through the woods, tripping over downed pines, fending off thorned tentacles that latched onto their skin and clothing. They collided with scaly trunks or matted walls of vegetation before their dancing flashlight beams could warn them. Mancel had a tougher time of it than Wooty and had fallen behind.

Wooty stopped abruptly. Mancel, panting heavily, still a few yards back, staggered up beside his friend.

“Jesus!” Mancel cried with the little strength he had left.

Wooty said nothing. Sweat streaming down his face, he walked up to the edge of the pit that yawned before him. His chest continued furiously to pump air, though his expression showed that his winded condition did not affect his thinking.

Travis lay at the bottom of a pit trap, a deadfall. Roughly six feet square, six feet deep. Not a very skillfully made one, either. Travis would have seen it by daylight.

“Watch it, Mancel,” Wooty said. “May be other pits around.”

But Mancel had retreated to a tree trunk behind Wooty, which held him up while he vomited repeatedly.

Wooty assumed poor Travis must have been running when he fell in; hit the far side of the pit and his head was pushed down into his chest until his stubby neck snapped. His sloping wrestler’s shoulders were now hunched over his upside-down face. It was a horrifically unnatural posture, a bizarre, sickening sight. His fixed, surprised eyes told Wooty he was undoubtedly dead, and his mouth was open in the act of uttering that final roar of defeat as he fell. Sharpened broomsticks protruded from his back.

The trap was designed not for game, but for human beings. A booby trap. Wooty directed his light ahead and saw, as he expected, what was being guarded: a good-size plot of healthy marijuana plants. Fairly common out here in the woods, where the remoteness of the location made
even spotting by helicopter nearly impossible. Free-lancers probably, growing the stuff for themselves or for their local turfs, thus bypassing the big operators, like the Tijuana cartel which had recruited Wooty— but the locals were just as ruthless, as Travis had fatally learned.

Wooty was certain that someone had known of this trap and had led Travis right into it. Someone who wasn’t here because of them, not here to stop or bust them, but someone who didn’t want to be seen, who did not want a confrontation.

Was it that crazy son-of-a-bitch Carl Shawe, Tommy’s twin brother? He had rare talent in the old ways of the woods, that was for sure. And he was a well-known poacher, especially fond of breaking game laws at night. But Wooty couldn’t think of Carl as the murdering type—and this was murder, wasn’t it? Besides, Carl would surely have made a better deadfall, as a matter of pride, considering it was an ancient Katogoula hunting method.

No, the cultivated patch and the trap didn’t belong to Carl. An alcoholic loser, his brain rotted by booze, sure, but he wasn’t a dope farmer or particularly fond of grass, as Wooty recalled from their adolescent years.

Who had led Travis on a race to his death? If not Carl, who had it been out here in the woods, watching them? Watching them still.

Anger got the better of rational analysis.

“Hey!” The word fled into the darkness. “Hey, you asshole! What did you have to let him get killed for?”

Wooty didn’t expect an answer.

With great difficulty they lugged Travis’s body back to the road and the vehicles. Neither man had spared breath to speak much in the woods. They placed the body gently on the ground.

“How much this mother weigh?” Mancel complained, bent forward, his hands on his knees.

“Let’s put him on the boxes, in the trailer,” Wooty said, after an interval of rest. He grappled with Travis’s limp arms and torso, while Mancel awkwardly wrestled the massive rubbery legs. Blood dribbled on the cardboard.

“Make me think of a dead alligator, yeah,” said Mancel. “The big fool. Calling me dumb, too! How you like that?”

Wooty secured the body with black rubber tie cords. “I’ll put him where he’ll never be found: over in the Katogoula burial mounds. They don’t let anybody dig around there anymore.”

“But what about his folks? Ain’t they gonna look for him?”

“They’ll be glad he’s gone,” Wooty said. “When he went to Alaska, they threw a goddamn party, remember? I had to bail him out after that pool-hall fight last year; nobody else would. Look, it was an accident. Some independent pothead dug that pit. Travis’s luck ran out. There wasn’t anybody out there tonight. Just my imagination, that’s all. We’re not at fault, we’re not busted, so we got to make the best of it. That’s what he’d want us to do.”

“You right, you right. Like always. And you know what? Since there only two of us now, that mean we split up his share, yeah?”

“Let’s don’t worry about that right now, Mancel. I’ve got a lot of work to do, and the only thing you should be concerned about is getting the hell out of here and not running off the road or getting a ticket. I’ll let you know what happens in a few days. Don’t speed, and remember to keep your lights off until you hit pavement. Oh, and Mancel.”

“Yeah, Wooty?”

“These guys we’re dealing with aren’t Boy Scouts. Keep your goddamn mouth shut for a change, will you, buddy? We’ll both live a lot longer.”

Mancel had lately taken to showing off his newfound wealth at bars. For the first time in his life, he had more women than he knew what to do with vying for his attention and his wallet. He was in heaven, in spite of the hazards of his new line of work.

“Yeah, okay, Wooty.” The little Cajun looked down sadly at Travis. “Say a prayer over him for me.”

BOOK: Jackpot Blood: A Nick Herald Genealogical Mystery
9.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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