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Harbor City Blues

by Gary Clifton

Part 1 appears in this issue.


As opposed to TV, where somebody always answers the door, Cletus Lebleu hadn’t read the script, assuming he could read. He was, however, on his rear dock, head-down in the engine compartment of a battered thirty-footer with the name “Front End Loader” in faded paint across the stern. I think the title had sexual overtones, but my give-a-damn factor said let it lay.

“Whut the hell you want?” He banged his head on the engine cowling as he reared up to confront a stranger in clean clothes. He was beer-belly pudgy, nearly bald, smelled as bad as Agnes Spinelli, and displayed a tattoo, “Kiss my bass” on his right forearm. Agnes could have pinned him, three falls to a finish.

A lie was in order. “I’m David Kratzert, investigator for Dixon Mason Insurance Company. The home office recently had a major computer failure. I’m following up on some old business. One of the files that was damaged indicates your neighbor across the canal there charged that you and a man named Adam Spinelli had stolen some of his property. Our dumb clerks need more info to close that file.”

“How’d you like your ass kicked off this dock?”

“Well, Mr. Lebleu, unless there’s ten or twelve other fat little wimps below deck, I’d advise you to keep on trying to fix that piece of junk boat or come on down and get started.” I pulled up my sweat-soaked, loose fit shirt and showed him the butt of my S&W .38.

“Whoa, hey, hell.” He raised both hands, palms down, to shoulder level. He apparently had decided on a plan other than ass-kicking.

“Now fill me in on details of stolen crap off Bledsoe’s boat.”

“Mister, that was settled way back when. Cops decided it was a mistake and, if anything was stolen, it was that no-good Adam Spinelli, who had been layin’ Bledoes’s daughter at one time. Couldn’t prove it. Dropped it.”

Daughter Agnes aside, Spinelli was also doing Harvey Bledsoe’s wife and ol’ Harve dropped the theft case? I wondered if wifey had been included in the stolen property. My radar snapped on. No way Lebleu had not been part of the line to enjoy Irene’s favors.

“Where’s Spinelli now?”

“He dumped Bledsoe’s daughter and hung around the wharf and them old beer-joints downtown. I heard he managed to avoid Fed charges: smugglin’. Hung out at his mama’s up in Bossier for near a year till the heat blew over. Then come back and hung ’round Harbor City doin’ nothin’ but thievin’ and screwin’ Bledsoe’s wife. Agnes said he’d left town... run off with a stripper from Beaumont, but I ain’t got no idea if that really happened.”

“When did screwing Mama Irene and running off with the stripper take place?”

“Man, whut’s this gotta do with insurance?”

“I ask the questions, jackass.” I rather hoped to lure him into taking a swing so I could use “enhanced interrogation” techniques.

About half-mummified by liquor and fear, he stayed firmly on deck. “I ain’t seen nor heard nothing’ ’bout Spinelli since a week or so before Bledsoe’s wife ended up in the Sabine. That’d mean four, five months ago.”

I snapped my notebook shut. “LeBleu, I figure out you’re lyin’, it’s my foot in your ass while I walk clear around this wharf.”

“Mister, you’re an ill-tempered cuss. I ain’t had nothin’ to do with Spinelli leavin’ town and I dunno who killed Harvey Bledsoe’s wife.”

I felt his rattlesnake eyes burning my back as I walked away. Standing on his patio across the channel, Harvey Bledsoe was watching with binoculars. I wondered if the line of mopes to enjoy Irene Bledsoe’s favors had stretched down the street. Things wouldn’t go well for LeBleu if he got seriously crossways with a big, bad dude like Bledsoe. But that would be LeBleu’s problem.

* * *

I called Norm Taylor up in Logan County.

“Got my case solved yet, Dave?”

“Aw, just kicking in the sand. You had any John Does deposited in your territory in the past year?”

“They’re pretty common over here. Fishermen found a body down river on the Louisiana side not a week after Irene Bledsoe’s murder. Decomposed, young, white male, tattoo: “Mother” on his right forearm.”

“Too far gone to get prints?”

“Only managed a right thumb and forefinger from the locals across the Sabine. Too degraded for the databases to match. If I had a known sample, I could hand-compare the two, maybe get somethin’.”

“Cause of death?”

“Louisiana said blunt-force trauma to the head... pretty common around here.”

“Get any DNA?”

“Never had the body, Dave. They had it autopsied over in Baton Rouge. I talked to the sheriff on the phone. He said they’d submitted the dead guy’s DNA. No idea if they actually did. He didn’t sound like he could spell DNA, but he mailed me a copy of the prints. Like I said, right thumb and forefinger.”

“Maybe consider following up on that, Norm. The Medical examiner at Baton Rouge has kept some DNA. Harbor City took a sample off Spinelli when he tried to duke it out with some of their cops. I’ll betcha two beers and a corny dog the John Doe will either be Spinelli or rule him out.”

Norm and I didn’t need to discuss what we both knew. On a John Doe, they’d lopped off the cadaver’s fingers with bolt cutters and had them floating in a jar of formaldehyde in the Baton Rouge crime lab. A DNA sample as well as better fingerprints would be no problem.

“Dave, around here, if nobody is lookin’ for a guy we fished out of the Sabine, it don’t get much attention. Man, a body a month comes floatin’ down. No hit, nobody lookin’ for uncle dumbass who went fishin’, no sweat. Prolly some deadbeat gambler from up at Shreveport or Bossier. The volume of unclaimed carcasses is so plentiful that I’m not interested in any not on my side of the river.”

“Norm, I bettin’ y’all should arrange a comparison. If it’s Spinelli, then all you gotta do is figure out how he got in the Sabine.”

Okay, okay, Dave, why are you so hot to trot on Spinelli?”

“Norm, I might have the whole skinny on this deal. I’m gonna fax you a set of Spinelli’s prints from the Harbor City P.D. They’re copies of copies, but I recall you were pretty handy with prints.”

“Quit talking, Kratzert, and start sending.”

I found a stationery store and dispatched the copy of prints from Adam Spinelli’s arrest for fighting with the Texas City Police. In ten minutes, my cellular delivered news.

“It’s him. My copies up here are piss-poor, but I can show the Spinelli prints you sent me are from the John Doe they pulled outta the Sabine. That’s damned good work, Dave. How’d you figure it out?”

I didn’t tell him Spinelli had also been getting it on with Irene Bledsoe. “Fat guy didn’t hold his mouth right when he lied to me. You gotta get on the DNA thing pronto. The prints on your floater match but the DNA don’t; we still aren’t home free.”

“On it, Dave. Sent a deputy toward Baton Rouge half-hour ago, code three. It’s about three hours one way. I’ll drive down tomorrow and get the Harbor City and Louisiana samples off to the DPS in Austin.”

“Norm, you might oughta have the DPS lab compare the sample Louisiana dug from Irene’s fingernails with a mope named Cletus LeBleu.”

“How’s he fit in? Thought you was homin’ in on Adam Spinelli.”

“Lebleu is a local Harbor City toad who sorta scratches the edges of this deal. Comparing his DNA might just be good housekeeping. Prints now show the guy pulled outta the river is Adam Spinelli. I kinda like Spinelli for Irene Bledsoe’s murder, but looking at Lebleu can’t do any harm.”

“Dave, you supposin’ Spinelli brained himself with a hammer or maybe drowned while tryin’ to swim to Louisiana?”

I chuckled. “I’m gonna go back and lean on Agnes. Stay by the phone.”

* * *

Both kids were screaming at volume and the house still smelled to beat hell. I figured that by the time they got old enough to go to prison, they’d both be deaf-mutes. Agnes greeted me with an expression of having just swallowed a lizard.

“Okay, Agnes, time to try a little truth. Let’s see... Your Mama Irene got sick and tired of paying your rent on this rat-hole just after she got sick and tired of Adam Spinelli. He didn’t dump Irene, she dumped him. She was forcing you to move up to Logan County.

“Adam Spinelli, a jerkoff, hadn’t left town with any stripper. He’d only grown tired of the stink in this place, slept somewhere down on the wharf and hosed your mama on the side. He came by here enough nights to whip out those two infants. That pretty close?”

“No, no. I’d never hurt Mama. And the baby is—”

“Who said anything about hurting Mama? But since you suggest it, I figure you and Spinelli decided Mama Irene needed killing, probably for indiscriminate sexual proclivities.”

“Pro... whut?”

“Maybe you thought you’d get some of the life insurance? I believe you were just pissed at being evicted from this outhouse you call home. If your father was involved, he’s now a contender for the world’s dumbest ass. Don’t believe he was.”

“No,” she pled.

“No what?”

“Daddy will kill us when he finds out whut we did.”

“We?” Helping a hump like Spinelli murder her mother, Irene, was one story. However, this plump princess of welfare could kill a lot of time but lacked the ability to do the same for Adam Spinelli. Something was missing. I tore back into her.

“Spinelli was to follow Irene up to the Sabine cabin and bash in her head. You pushed your way along on the trip. Spinelli did your mother. You were a witness and probably helped hold her down while he administered claw-hammer skull dissection.

“Then some way, Lebleu showed up. Probably as some part of the screwball plan. Irene’s brains were splattered on the cabin floor, then the two of you decided Spinelli had to go. Not sure why, but it sounds like an acceptable loss. Mama Irene and Spinelli both went in the Sabine.

“Then you returned to Harbor City, played dumb, which wasn’t too difficult, and returned to the murder scene with Daddy Harvey Bledsoe to find evidence of murder. You murdered your own mother, for God’s sake.”

Not surprisingly, she blabbed when she should have dummied up. “No!’ she screamed. “It was Lebleu. He kilt Mama. Adam Spinelli didn’t have the guts when crunch time come. After Lebleu killed Mama, he turned on Adam and busted his head with that hammer. One less witness, he said. He made me help drag both of ’em into them river weeds.”

Suddenly I woke up. Spinelli had been hiding in his mama’s root cellar up in Bossier City when that infant was planted. And Lebleu had been released from Texas prison while Spinelli was away.

“That would be because that kid there is not Adam’s. I was wrong. That’s Lebleu’s little product. Damnation: Spinelli and Mama Irene, both. That’s the three-needle cocktail for you in Texas, kiddo.”

She dissolved in tears.

“They might give you the chance to testify against Lebleu. Keep yourself off death row.”

“God, I love him! I’ll die and go to hell before I testify against him.” The joint was full of screwups who’d gambled on the veracity of a statement like that. Especially after she’d just fingered him in a double homicide.

“Well, Agnes, talking’ to me is as good as courtroom testimony. I can repeat your confession before the court. Lebleu’s a tub of guts like yourself. You deserve each other. That bloody residue under your mom’s fingernails? If it isn’t Spinelli or Lebleu, you’re next in line.”

She slumped on the filthy sofa, clutching the non-stop squalling infant. The older one had grown silent, probably of exhaustion. “My God. Oh my God, yes, it was mine. Mama scratched my arm when we...”

“What did you do with the murder weapon, Irene, a hammer, I believe?”

“It’s... it’s in Cletus LeBleu’s tool box. He washed it and all. Said it was worth fifteen dollars.”

“Adam have a tattoo, “Mother,” on his forearm?”

“Yes,” she sobbed.

I phoned the Harbor City police, who responded in numbers. They’d handle Agnes. I called Norm Taylor and warned him the DNA sample from Irene’s fingernails were going to match Agnes, not Adam Spinelli or Cletus LeBleu.

* * *

When Harvey Bledsoe had visited me earlier in Houston, he was driving a rusty old Chevrolet pickup. As I negotiated the maze of channels toward LeBleu’s, I thought, for a brief instant, that I saw Bledsoe’s ride disappear out the far end

The Front-End Loader engine cowling was up, but Lebleu wasn’t on board. Between houses, I could see his pickup parked out front. Surely the rotund little rascal was too lazy to walk somewhere. The clawhammer was lying in full view atop a tool box. I stepped up on the deck and using a McDonald’s napkin as insulation, stuffed it in my waist.

After banging on the house door for several minutes, I sauntered back to the Front-End Loader. Lebleu grinned up at me from the two-foot space between the seawall and the port side of the ragged-out old boat. But Lebleu had gotten the point and missed the joke. Humor had long already floated downstream, as had whomever had murdered him with the hunting knife protruding from his neck. My vote was for Bledsoe.

I got out my own binoculars and swept the area. No Bledsoe truck, no Bledsoe, no lights showing in his kitchen across the channel. If my angry client was smart enough to find the airport, he’d probably already boarded a plane for Mexico, which was outside my territory. The Feds could worry about running the old man down if and when I decided to tell them. Bledsoe had knifed Lebleu as sure as fish rot in the sun, and with good reason. Lebleu was way overdue for killing. Seeing his body trapped against the boat generated a feeling sort of like flushing the toilet.

I called Norm and told him I had the murder weapon, one murderess in jail, one more killer’s corpse in a boat channel, and that he should proceed to Harbor City immediately. I rationalized giving Bledsoe a head start before I spilled what I knew would be in the best interest of society. The Feds would get around to me in a month or so, if they ever got that far. I tore up the five or six notebook sheets I’d accumulated and watched them scatter behind my pickup in the Gulf breeze.

Soon as I could notify the Harbor City cops that Lebleu was taking his last swim, I’d tackle the rush hour back up the Gulf Freeway. A cold beer or four and better scenery beckoned like an oasis in the Sahara from Willie’s Topless Bar. And I had five hundred bucks to cover the tab.

Copyright © 2019 by Gary Clifton

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