I’ve never seen Chief Marcus Boone so shook up. He gives me a withered look from behind his desk, wipes sweat from his brow and says, “This is bad. Real bad.”
It’s barely six a.m., December nineteenth and we are in the university police station, me sitting in one of the cushioned chairs in front of the chief’s desk, the chief in his captain’s chair behind the desk. Marcus’s eyes are red-rimmed and he looks … old, his dark blue uniform shirt seems two sizes too big as he yanks his collar, ala Rodney Dangerfield. He’s small to begin with, topping off at five-five, while I stand six-two. At forty-four, I’m ten years younger.
I wait, as good cops do, for him to continue. Complainants, as well as chiefs of police, restart conversations automatically. After popping a second stick of nicotine gum into his mouth, he says, “They stole our Christmas tree last night.”
“What Christmas tree?”
The chief’s eyes bulge as if I’d just blasphemed.
“The big tree. The one in the middle of Frenchmen’s Circle. Between Evangeline Oaks.”
OK, a little background information is due at this point. My name is Hunter Bourget, born and raised in New Orleans, a product of St. Anthony of Padua Grammar School and Archangel High School, graduate of Loyola University with a degree in Criminology and a graduate of the New Orleans Police Academy, retired from NOPD after twenty-two years, the last nine as a homicide detective. I’ve been working here at Cajun State University in Abbeville, Louisiana, for three months. Although I’ve a French last name, I’m not Cajun. My grandfather came from France after World War I.
When Marcus, who’d been my lieutenant at NOPD, brought me out for an interview back in August, he’d declared, “Man-o-man. You gotta come here. This is the perfect retirement job.” So one month after retiring from NOPD, getting the hell out of the big city, I took the new position as a police investigator with the university police, got my state commission, gold Louisiana badge, a new desk and a campus map. They’d showed me Evangeline Oaks, my first day on the job. I remember huge, moss-draped live oaks I still not sure where they are on campus. That’s why I have a map.
“Any leads?” I ask.
Marcus shakes his head. “We didn’t even know it was stolen until five a.m., when one of the science professors monitoring an experiment in the lab building noticed. We got broken ornaments all over the ground, half a string of lights, drag marks across the circle. Damn tree was twenty feet tall. They musta had a truck.” He waved his arms. “Big ole truck just parks by the circle and they load up the tree and roll off campus and none of our patrol officers see a damn thing.”
When I was NOPD, my first training officer taught me, no matter what you do on the midnight shift, before you knock off—you ride your beat to see if anything’s amiss. Better for the police to ‘just miss’ something than a civilian to call in and say, ‘remember the statue of Joan of Arc in the middle of Decatur Street, the one that’s been there for about a hundred years? Well it was there last night, and it’s gone now.’
A tap at the door turns me around as one of our sergeants, the big one, the one they call Shrek because he looks like … well, Shrek, steps in. I glance at his name tag as he enters. Russian name—Komarovsky. I remember now. Been meaning to ask if he’s related to the guy in Dr. Zhivago, the guy played by Rod Steiger.
Komarovsky gives me a meek look—not easy when you look like a comic version of The Incredible Hulk. He plants himself, back against the wall and tells the chief, “Got the trip sheets for you. We patrolled Frenchmen’s Circle at twelve-thirty, two a.m., three-twenty, four-fifteen and five o’clock.”
“Five? He didn’t see the tree was missing but the damn professor noticed. Who drove by at five?”
“He blind, or what?”
Komarovsky shrugs and looks at me. “I’m snake bit, you know.”
“Everything goes wrong when it’s my shift.”
“You weren’t bitten by a snake,” the chief growls. “You were born under the sign of the vulture.”
Vulture? I heard of Pisces, you know, the fish and if I can recall what the name of the crab is, I’ll die a happy man.
“You got anything more for me?” the chief asks Komarovsky.
That's a nifty plot starter. I enjoy humor in a mystery story, and I enjoyed this. It's a little heavy handed on the sardonic humor, I think, but it reads well, and I liked the ending.