Harbor City Blues
by Gary Clifton
My prospective client slumped on a plastic chair across from me. He was fat, fiftyish, needed a bath and looked dumber than dirt. His sour face suggested another case of “my ol’ lady’s screwing somebody else.” My hunches were usually pretty good.
“Met a cop in a bar the other night, Mr. Kratzert. He said you was a dammed good P.I.”
I leaned across the desk to shake his hand. “I’m a retired Houston cop, a detective in Homicide. Early retirement; gunshot wound. Whoever you met musta been somebody I owed money, mister, uh...?
“My name’s Harvey Bledsoe, Mr. Kratzert.” He gave me an up and down. “Don’t meet many guys bigger than me... And jeez, you got hair. Sorry you got yourself shot.”
I nodded and sat back down, hoping he didn’t intend to initiate a wrestling match on the carpet.
“I got a hell of a problem.” He sighed.
“Perhaps I can help.” This guy had called my cellular, which I always answered, “Kratzert and Associates,” as if I was somebody important. I didn’t have an office or another telephone. One of those “executive suites” on the Gulf Freeway where, for ten bucks, you can lease a small conference room for a half hour worked just slightly better than a far corner of McDonalds.
“My wife was murdered, and them local yokel cops ain’t done a damned thing about it.”
“Four months past.”
“Logan County, over north of Beaumont, on the Louisiana border.”
“I know where it is, Mr. Bledsoe.” I didn’t tell him that the head of those local yokel cops was Logan County Sheriff Norm Taylor, also a retired Houston cop and an old friend. “You live over there?”
“No, we... just me, I guess, since my wife got murdered. I live down in Harbor city. Got a cabin up there on the Texas side of the Sabine River.”
I jotted down his name and other vitals. “Your wife?”
“She had gone up to the cabin to do some cleaning. Me’n my daughter Agnes and her two kids were supposed to go up the next day. We got there, she wasn’t, but we found a puddle of blood on the back patio. We spotted her tangled in weeds at the river bank. Dumb local cops said she’d been hit in the head. In four months, they ain’t did crap.”
“I’ll certainly look into it. No promises. If the local cops have worked on the case for four months, miracles are not a guarantee.”
“Whaddaya charge, Kratzert?”
“Fifty an hour, but in a deal like this, I’ll cut you some slack on that if we come up empty.”
“I got money to pay. Irene had a life insurance policy.”
Yeah, I heard “life insurance” loud and clear, often a featured attraction when mama ends up past tense.
“Got any suspects, ideas? She have any enemies, maybe an old boyfriend?” That “boyfriend” touched a nerve, which usually meant she’d had one.
“Irene was a good woman!” he snapped.
“Five hundred up front, Mr. Bledsoe. Standard procedure.”
“I find out who murdered Irene, he’s a dead man,” he hissed. He dropped five Ben Franklins on the desk and stormed out. I figured it would be the only cash I saw in the matter but could not fathom, to save my left big toe, why, with his attitude, he came to me for help.
* * *
I googled the number and dialed the Logan County Sheriff’s Office. The secretary put me right through.
“Dave Kratzert, rich private eye. Do I need to drive down and bail ya’ out?” Taylor was a husky, redhead who wore what hair he had left in a closely cropped crewcut. Think pink cactus with red needles. “Hey, how’s your—?
“Walkin’ with no limp. Able to sleep without the pills. Might live, Norm.”
“Just had a visit from a Harvey Bledsoe. Says his wife was murdered, and you’re sittin’ on your ass playin’ pinochle.”
“Yeah, we’ve got bupkis on that case. No enemies, boyfriends we could ID, or motive for crap. We, uh, me and my only investigator, figure she musta been there alone, isolated cabin, and a sex crime went sideways. No sign of sexual assault, by the way. Maybe somethin’ scared him off.”
“Husband? He seemed goofy enough. Took mighty offense when I asked about boyfriends.”
“Passed the polygraph. His DNA was present in the cabin, but he owned the place. I think he’s just a jerk. If he hired you, he must be innocent. Dave, we found other DNA material under Irene Bledsoe’s fingernails. Weak trace, but that’s gotta be our killer. Got no hits, however.”
“He mentioned his wife’s life insurance.”
“Forty grand. Borderline for motive.”
“What’s Bledsoe do?”
“Got a boat in Harbor City, a thirty- or forty-footer. Gives fishing tours and does some commercial fishing himself. Rumored to do a little smuggling. Got a grown daughter who still lives in Harbor City; name’s Agnes Spinelli.”
“Yeah, he said he had a daughter named Agnes. Sorry to butt into your investigation, Norm.”
“Hey, hell, if you can find somethin’, we still get credit and you get a payday. Feel free, dude. I’ll mail you the whole file. The M.E. down in Beaumont thought she took about ten to the head with a claw hammer.”
“You got the hammer?”
“Dragged twenty miles of Sabine River. No hammer, nor other possible murder weapon found.”
“Don’t expect any miracles,” I repeated.
I hung up, wondering why a guy who lived basically at sea level would want a cabin on a mosquito-infested swamp a hundred miles from home, next to nowhere across a weed- and alligator-infested river from a Wildlife Preserve. Snakes had more rights than taxpayers in that country.
* * *
I walked out into the humid, semi-liquid Houston late August morning swelter, cranked my Ford F150 pickup and pedaled the forty or so miles down I-45 — called the “Gulf Freeway” locally — to Harbor City. The area, as usual, reeked of rotten fish and seafront air, making breathing optional.
The usual “P.I.’s aren’t entitled to info” took a half hour before the Harbor City Chief of Police interceded. He was a tall, skinny guy named “Caples” and looked like a chicken. He ordered a clerk to run all files on Harvey Bledsoe, his deceased wife, Irene, and his daughter, Agnes. The results came to about ten pages, not surprising for a family involved with a boat on the Gulf Coast. I slipped them into my folder for reading later.
* * *
The daughter, Agnes, lived in a little, square, wood-frame house raised on cement blocks to escape the incessant mud. The shanty hadn’t seen paint since I was a rookie. She answered the door, juggling a squalling infant, a filter-tip and a tall-boy in only two hands.
A second crying kid, a year or so older, accompanied the symphony from a cardboard box on the living room floor. The little tyke, currently unable to escape from his cardboard prison, seemed a cinch from his surroundings to become, eventually, a semi-permanent inmate of Leavenworth, where busting out would be even trickier.
The living room smelled of marijuana, wet diapers, and plugged-up commode. At about 185, with black, stringy hair in desperate need of shampoo, she looked like she could duke it out with the bouncer at Willie’s Topless Bar out on Westheimer. She’d obviously ignored the “Thou shalt not outweigh the refrigerator” rule.
“I’m Dave Kratzert, private investigator. Your dad has asked me to look into your mom’s murder.”
She skewed her face and whined, “Dad hired a P.I.? Damn, mister, I thought that was all behind us.”
More attitude? Her comment was of out of kilter, and her whole countenance wrong. Normal behavior dictates when a loved one is murdered, all help — foreign and domestic — is welcome.
“Did your mother have friends who may have fallen out with her?”
“Maybe an old boyfriend?”
Again, she flashed the wrong body language. But my gut suspicion was on the mark. “Boyfriend? How did you know—?”
I tossed a hook into the mist. “Did you tell the Logan County Sheriff’s Office about her boyfriend?” She bit like a piranha.
“I didn’t tell that dumb sheriff that Mama was havin’ an affair. But Dad found out, and Mom had broke all that off weeks before she—”
“He found out? How’d he handle that?”
“Big three-day hassle, then they got back together, and that ended it.”
“What’s her boyfriend’s name?”
“Adam Spinelli, no-good scumbag.”
A rocket scientist like myself snapped instantly. “Spinelli? Any kin to your husband?”
“Adam was my old man, mister, but we wasn’t church-married or nothin’.”
“Lady, you’re sayin’ your man, Adam Spinelli, the father of your children, left you for your mother?” I pointed my chin in the general direction of the two dirty-diapered waifs wailing in concert. “And left you a couple of keepsakes?”
There was more to that answer than I absorbed at the time, but right then, “who” trumped “why” by a factor of ten. “Where” figured in there somewhere. “Where is Adam Spinelli, now?”
“Adam pulled outta here, stayed down on them docks with a buncha toad buddies and whores... Until he got crossways with the Feds. Hid out at his ol’ nasty mama’s up in Bossier City for damn near a year.”
“Crossways with the Feds? For what?”
“Smugglin’ dope in from the Gulf. Coastguard caught him and two of his halfwit buddies right smack in the middle of Galveston Bay in a twelve-foot outboard. Someway, he jumped into the Gulf and didn’t drown or end up in Federal prison. Musta had a life preserver, and some fisherman picked him up. Anyways, he got to his mother’s place. When he come back he dumped me and took up with my poor mama.”
“What does Spinelli do?’
“Good question, dude. Haven’t seen him since he took up with that stripper from Beaumont a month or so ago,” She managed a drag on the filter-tip and a pull on the tall-boy while not dropping the screaming baby. You never have a camera when you need one.
“You got no idea where he is now?”
“Adam Spinelli was a lowlife rat who stole whatever he could and kicked my ass twice a day. Daddy shoulda kilt him.”
“Any idea where he mighta gone to... with this stripper?”
“Damn, man, if I knew where, then he wouldn’t jest be run off. He’d be like shacked up with some hog someplace, like maybe that stripper. Man she did have some jugs. I ain’t got no idea where he is, dude, God!”
“His two buddies the Coastguard busted, they around?”
“Naw, both are in the Federal joint up at Texarkana.”
I scribbled in my notebook.
“Adam left me high and dry. But he was never worth a nickel anyway. That’s why my mother was cleaning up the cabin. I was gonna lose this place and needed to move up there.”
“You’re still here.”
“Found out more ways the county and the government pays good money to take care of poor, abandoned mothers like me. I get by with the food stamps and all.” She looked like she’d eaten all of her free grub, plus those of the next two families behind her in the chow line.
She picked up the older crying kid from the floor and tossed it onto a ragged-out sofa next to the screaming infant. She waddled into a small kitchen and returned with a bottle to gag each one. The silence, as they say, was deafening.
* * *
I semi-swam the F150 back through the stinking humidity to the police station. By now, I was kissing cousins with the records clerk, a cute blonde with a hind end I graded at about a seven. I made sure she didn’t see me making the appraisal.
Adam Spinelli, aside from a single citation for fighting a Harbor City police officer, had no further local record. The file showed he’d been fingerprinted, and a DNA sample taken, but the cutie-pie clerk said lamely that the city couldn’t afford to send DNA samples to the databases on a minor crime. His mug photo showed a skinny-faced punk with a pencil mustache, a pitiful goatee, and the general countenance of a rabid weasel.
While I was waiting on the clerk to make machine copies, I glanced through the earlier package she’d given me. Harvey Bledsoe, my surly client, had filed a complaint, charging that Adam Spinelli and Cletus Lebleu, 42, also of Harbor City, had stolen a large quantity of equipment from Bledsoe’s boat three months before Irene Bledsoe’s murder.
When I asked the clerk for records of Cletus Lebleu, she smiled.
“You know this Lebleu, miss?”
“Everyone knows him. He docks a boat in the wharf behind his house and smuggles anything from dope to five-legged monkeys.”
Files and a wall map showed Lebleu lived on one of those narrow channels where people may live sixty feet from their neighbor behind them but might have to drive a mile to go visit — or swim the thirty feet. The upshot was that boat owners, with access to the Coast, could park boats behind the house, just like suburban commuters up in the city did with cars. Here in Harbor City, they could park cars in front, but around back they’d need to be buoyant.
The perky clerk pointed out on the wall map, Lebleu lived just behind the house of my client, Harvey Bledsoe and his now dead wife, Irene, who had apparently been sleeping with Bledsoe’s daughter’s former live-in, Adam Spinelli. The situation, compared to other dysfunctional-family train wrecks I’d seen along the Gulf Coast, wasn’t complicated at all.
Lebleu’s RAP sheet showed entries for theft, assault, burglary, and attempted murder. He’d done three years in the Texas joint for assaulting a neighbor with a fishing gaff and paroled out a year before Irene Bledsoes’s murder. I obtained mug photos of Lebleu and Adam Spinelli and started exploring boat canals.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Gary Clifton