"A must-read for fans of true crime as well as crime fiction." — Kirkus Reviews
"An exciting crime drama with well-developed characters...a perfect blend of suspense and realism to keep readers engaged." — Kirkus Reviews
It doesn't often snow in Many, Louisiana, and certainly not in early October. Yet everywhere the man looked, a fine white powder hung in the air, hovering over him and clinging to his curly red hair.
The bewildered expression on the man’s face left little doubt to even the casual observer that he was probably not playing with a full deck of cards, at least not at the moment.
It was a little past two on a Saturday afternoon and he had just stepped outside onto the sidewalk in front of Guidry’s Cajun Bar & Grill to catch a bit of fresh air and hopefully to clear his head. That’s when he felt goosebumps all over his body from a sudden gust of wind that rushed past him, accompanied by a high-pitched, ear-piercing squeal that was immediately followed by the most godawful crashing sound.
He gazed up at the sky in wonderment, his mouth wide open, much as a child would do on Christmas morning. He was not sure whether or not to believe his lying eyes. Dang, he thought to himself,it’s snowing.
He could not believe it. A light dusting of snow seemed to be blanketing San Antonio Avenue, as the locals refer to State Highway 6 as it passes through the town of Many, which in that neck of the woods is pronounced MAN-ee.
The past few hours were but a dim blur for him. He and some old high school buddies had been watching the LSU-Ole Miss football game on one of the sports bar’s dozen or so flatscreen televisions that seemed to be mounted on every square inch of available wall space.
The game had ended a couple of minutes earlier and he, along with everyone else in the raucous bar, was enthusiastically celebrating another Tiger victory. As was his custom, he had switched from beer to the hard stuff when the game clock went under a minute with a two-score LSU lead.
That was probably not a particularly good idea in hindsight.
Now on the street, he winced at the pungent odor in the air, which smelled like rotten eggs. To be honest, though, it might just as well have been from the foul vomit he had launched onto the sidewalk only moments earlier.
It was not until the last of the fine white cloud had eventually drifted down onto the sidewalk that he first noticed the splintered upper half of a weather-beaten wooden utility pole, which was now leaning against the wall of the bank building on the corner. That is also when he realized the cause of all the commotion.
A big eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer had crashed into a wooden utility pole, fracturing it in half and showering the air with the white powdery substance that he initially mistook for snow.
He wiped his face with his left hand and licked the tip of one of his fingers.
* * * * *
People were now streaming outside from half a dozen downtown bars and restaurants to see what the commotion was about, making the tiny sidewalk suddenly feel like Times Square at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Most of them had their cellphones out and were recording the scene for posterity.
By now, traffic along the busy street had backed up for several blocks, as irate drivers leaned on their horns, as if that would magically clear a path for them. Most were probably anxious to get wherever it was that they were headed in time for the kickoff of the two-thirty SEC game on CBS.
That’s what folks in this part of the country do on Saturdays…except, of course, during hunting season.
“Anybody check to see if the driver is okay?” a large woman in the crowd shouted out, prompting several men to scurry over toward the driver’s side of the big truck. One of them was a chubby guy named Virgil, who was wearing purple suspenders over a gold sweatshirt. Emblazoned across the front of the sweatshirt, in purple, were big block letters that read LSU.
Grabbing ahold of the frame of the truck’s side mirror, Virgil struggled mightily to pull himself up onto the vehicle’s step so he could peek inside the cab of the tractor.
“He seems to be alright,” Virgil shouted back to the crowd. “Looks like he’s making a phone call at the moment.”
Less than a minute later, the first of three police vehicles appeared on scene. The local cops quickly secured the accident scene, while a deputy from the Sabine Parish Sheriff’s Office—which was located only a couple of blocks away—went to work getting the traffic moving again.
A doctor, who had been among the crowd inside Guidry’s watching the game, climbed into the big rig from the passenger side. He had just begun giving the driver a cursory examination when a uniformed city police officer opened the driver’s door on the other side and peered inside.
“How’s he look, Doc?” the policeman asked.
“Oh, he’s fine, Tim,” said the doctor, who seemed to be about the same age as the police officer. “A little shook up but he doesn’t appear to have any injuries. You might want to run him by Sabine Medical Center and have them take a look at him, though, just to be sure.”
The policeman climbed down from the cab of the truck, leaving the door open behind him. He adjusted his utility belt and looked over at the crowd of onlookers. His partner appeared to be talking to a drunk with curly red hair, who was having a hard time simply remaining upright.
“Hey, Tim, come on over here for a second,” his partner called out to him.
She was a rookie who had joined the force only a couple of months earlier and was waving her right hand to signal him. At the same time, she was using her left to keep the redheaded man from teetering over onto his face.
“Red here says that there was powdered cocaine floating in the air after he stepped out of Guidry’s a few seconds before he heard the sound of the crash,” she said. She was not sure whether to believe him or not. “He swears that’s what the powder all over him is.”
“That true, Red?” he asked before noticing that he was standing in Red’s vomit. The policeman grimaced as he took two steps back and began vigorously scraping the sole of his boots against the concrete sidewalk in hopes of wiping away the remnants of Red’s last three hours in Guidry’s.
“Yes sir,” he said, slurring his words as he stumbled slightly before catching his balance. “At first, I thought it was snowing when I came out of the bar.”
Tim looked at him skeptically, partly because of his story, partly because of his inebriated state.
“Here, man, have a taste if you don’t believe me,” said Red, licking his finger and using it to wipe some of the powder from his hair, which he proceeded to offer to the officer.
The cop slapped Red’s hand away in disgust, saying, “I’m not about to lick your stupid finger, Red. Besides, unlike you, I don’t even know what cocaine tastes like.”
He was considering what to do about Red and his eyewitness testimony when one of the sheriff’s deputies called over to him.
“Tim, you’re not going to believe what I just found,” said the deputy. “Shrink wrapped plastic bags packed with what are most likely drugs, hidden inside this here broken utility pole.”
Tim walked over to the corner of the street, where the wooden utility pole was splintered in half, about three feet above ground level. It had what appeared to be a two-foot-long secret compartment hollowed out where the break had occurred.
“The eighteen-wheeler must have hit a damn secret compartment door head on,” said the deputy, removing his hat and scratching his head.
Tim put his hand to his mouth in hopes of muffling his laughter.
“She-it,” was all the policeman could think of to say as he shook his head in amazement.
* * * * *
College Station, Texas
"I’m all out of milk,” said Pete Cortez, who was standing by the Keurig machine in the kitchen of the house where he was temporarily staying. “Is Sweet’N Low okay?”
It was Sunday morning and he and Teri Barnhart had decided to whip up some breakfast at home while catching the Sunday morning news shows. The two had attended the Texas A&M-Auburn football game at Kyle Field the night before, which the Aggies had won after holding off a furious last-minute comeback. They had not gotten home until well after one o’clock.
“Sweet’N Low is fine,” she said, concentrating on sprinkling cheese and mushrooms into the skillet for the omelet that she was making for them.
Pete was temporarily working out of the FBI’s Bryan office for the next month or so to help get them through an unexpected personnel crunch. The ASAC also thought it would be a nice quiet place for him to recover from a gunshot wound to the leg that he had received while on a recent scuba diving vacation to Cozumel a couple of weeks earlier.
He had been shot before, but never by a stray bullet fired by an irate pregnant tourist while he was standing in line for the restroom at a crowded restaurant.
What a year this had been.
He was staying in a small house in College Station owned by a friend who happened to be out of the country on business at the time. That situation worked out great for Pete, since it was also college football season, and the house was only about ten minutes away from the campus.
Half an hour on game days, though.
Barnhart was currently assigned to the Bryan Resident Agency. She and Cortez had worked together on several cases in the past, back when both were assigned to the Houston Field Office. They were both now in their thirties—she was three years younger—and had been dating off and on ever since her transfer to Bryan, an hour north of Houston.
At just a shade under six-feet tall—three inches shorter than Cortez—she still looked like the track star she had been in college twelve years earlier. He, on the other hand, had been an above average soccer player while growing up in Venezuela, where his father was an American petroleum engineer working for Petróeos de Venezuela, but he had never been good enough to earn a university scholarship.
What he did gain from his years of playing, though, was quickness and stamina, two traits he would call upon frequently during his years in the Army and the FBI. It had saved his life more times than he could count.
“I can’t believe you made me stand throughout the entire game,” she said, a sheepish grin on her face.
Tradition has it that the Twelfth Man, as all Aggies are called, stands throughout the entire game to demonstrate their willingness to enter the game at any time the team might need them. Barnhart, however, was a Longhorn, a proud graduate of the University of Texas, so simply getting her to attend a game at Kyle Field without the Longhorns playing represented a major concession on her part.
Standing throughout was probably an indication that she believed they might actually have a future together. As her mother never ceased reminding her, she wasn’t getting any younger.
The news story on the kitchen television caught his attention. He reached for the remote control and rewound the show back to the beginning of the story, which was about a vehicle accident in Many, Louisiana. The report contained a ten-second cellphone video of what appeared to be falling snow, but which turned out to be powdered cocaine with an estimated street value of just under a million dollars.
The report concluded by saying that state and local officials were investigating how several kilos of cocaine had found its way inside a utility pole in rural Louisiana.
“Only in Louisiana,” said Cortez, shaking his head as he laughed softly in disbelief.
“Well, I hope the investigation doesn’t somehow migrate over into Texas,” she said as she split the omelet in two and slid the pieces onto their plates. “Did you see the goofy look on that redheaded guy’s face? He looked like he was three sheets to the wind.”
“Fortunately for me, I’m working out of the Bryan office for the next month or two because this is exactly the type of case that George Peterson would saddle me with,” he said. “Especially now, after the ASAC was kind enough to send me up here to Bryan during the college football season to help them out.”
Peterson was his boss, the Supervisory Special Agent for the Transnational Organized Crime Squad at the Houston Field Office. The ASAC, or Assistant Special Agent in Charge, to whom he referred was Peterson’s boss.
“I take it you and Peterson aren’t getting along any better these days?” she said, sitting down at the small dining room table.
“Nope, unfortunately, no change,” he said, using his hand to cover his mouth, which was full of omelet. “You know, one thing I miss from my time in the Army is that if you couldn’t get along with someone, all you had to do was wait a few months, and one or both of you was going to be transferred anyway.”
“Civilian life doesn’t work that way, Pete,” she said, taking a sip of her coffee. “The best way to avoid working for jerks like Peterson is to get promoted over them. Lord knows, with all the high-profile cases you’ve worked on, you shouldn’t have any trouble at all moving up the ladder.”
“Yeah, but what I enjoy is the police work, not the management stuff,” he said. “If I wanted to be a manager, I’d get a job at Starbucks.”
“I was referring to leadership, not management,” she said, exasperated by his dogged refusal to think of the FBI as a long-term career and not simply as his current job, even after having spent more than a decade in the Bureau. “At any rate, if you don’t figure out a way to fix this relationship, that man is going to bury you alive.”
* * * * *
“Honey, are you just about ready to go?” Ralph LeBlanc called out to his wife, Jessica. “The church service starts at ten, sharp.”
He said it in an upbeat, nonchalant tone, having learned early on in his nearly thirty-year marriage that pestering her about the time would never end well for him. Besides, he realized there were undoubtedly more than a few quirks of his own that he disliked constantly being reminded of. It was an unspoken agreement between the two of them, a truce of sorts.
It was called love.
“I’ll be ready in just a second, Ralph,” she said as she walked out of their bedroom suite on the ground floor of their rustic, seven thousand square foot ranch house ten miles outside of Madisonville, a rural town midway between Houston and Dallas on I-45. “Let me just grab my purse. Why don’t you go outside and warm up the car?”
“Jess, we live in East Texas,” he said, laughing softly as he waited for her at the front door, holding it open. “It’s almost eighty degrees outside already.”
As she walked out the front door, she nudged him gently in the gut with her elbow.
“Stop all the yapping and let’s hit the road,” she said, teasing him. “You know that Pastor Todd always starts the service at ten o’clock sharp and it’ll take us twenty minutes to get there.”
Ralph LeBlanc, along with his sister Randi, was the owner of East Texas Pier & Piling, a family-owned business founded in 1946 by his grandfather, Homer LeBlanc, upon his return to Texas from wartime service in the Pacific Theater with the 124th Cavalry Regiment, a Texas National Guard unit that fought its way—dismounted—through the jungles of Burma to open the road into China.
Ralph had worked at the family mill since his early teenage years, holding just about every job in the plant. During his college years, he worked most weekends and summers at ETP&P, eventually emerging at the senior management level by the time he finished school and went to work there fulltime.
Twenty years ago, his father turned over ownership of the company to him and his sister, with Ralph responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the mill. Her job was to diversify their traditional revenue streams.
“Don’t forget we’re going to visit Rusty and his new girlfriend at his new downtown loft apartment before we take them out for lunch,” she said.
Rusty was their only son, who had returned to Madisonville four years earlier after finishing graduate school in Chicago. He now worked for his father at the mill, representing the fourth generation of LeBlancs to do so.
“I can’t wait to see what they did with the place,” said Ralph, adjusting the volume on the radio, which was playing I’m Coming Home, an old Robert Earl Keen song. “Lord knows, he spent enough money renovating it.”
The apartment renovation was further confirmation that Rusty had finally decided to set down roots back in Madisonville.
“I saw a funny story on the news this morning while I was getting ready,” said his wife as she adjusted the car’s air conditioning vents. “Some big truck slammed into a utility pole over in Louisiana and sent cocaine flying into the air. The cellphone video they showed made it look like a snowstorm in the Swiss Alps.”
“Only in Louisiana,” he said, shaking his head as he laughed softly.
They drove past the humongous Buc-ee’s convenience store and gas station on the left before crossing the highway bridge over I-45, on the outskirts of the town of Madisonville. There were more than a hundred gas pumps at the Buc-ee’s and each of them always seemed to be in use.
Normally, he liked to put all thought of business out of his mind on Sundays, which he reserved for God and family. Unfortunately, he could not help but wonder if that utility pole had come from his Madisonville mill.
* * * * *
Boz Tormohlen walked barefooted out onto the spacious deck that overlooked Lake Livingston, an hour north of Houston.
It was a glorious fall morning without a cloud in the sky. A slight breeze coming across the glistening lake caused him to shiver slightly, despite the temperature already knocking on the door of eighty degrees.
He and his wife, Randi, had decided to spend the weekend at their spectacular lake house an hour’s drive southeast of their home in Madisonville. He wasn’t much of a church-going guy, preferring to spend his time sitting around and reading while taking in the scenic beauty of the Piney Woods of East Texas.
Randi was the more physically active of the two. She would rather take the boat out on the lake, maybe fish a little, waterski with the kids…that sort of thing.
His wife was country to the bone, while he had never been much of the active outdoorsy type, despite having grown up in Waseca, Minnesota, a small town about an hour south of the Twin Cities. His reason was simple. He hated the cold, which is what drove him to move down south to Texas in the first place. Fortunately for him, his job as a college professor did not require him to spend much time outdoors.
“Hey, Randi, where are the kids?” he called down to her from the deck.
She was on their private boat dock about fifty feet down the slope from the house, sitting in a canvas director’s chair that faced out onto the tranquil lake, a fishing pole in her hands. She turned around and looked up at him, squinting from the glare of the morning sun.
“They’re out on the lake waterskiing,” she called back to him. “It’s about time you finally got out of bed. I thought you were going to sleep all day.”
“Too much alcohol last night,” he said, loud enough for the neighbors to hear, but for the fact that the neighbors had decided to remain in Houston that weekend rather than coming up to the lake.
“I’ll be up in a minute,” she called out to him. “I told Sean to be back with the boat by ten-thirty. He’s got Kevin and Samantha with him.”
She and Boz had two boys in high school—Sean, 16, and Kevin, 14— and a twelve-year old daughter, Samantha, who was still in middle school.
“I’ll put on a pot of coffee for us,” he said, accustomed to projecting his voice. He was a tenured professor at a private university in Madisonville.
He was sitting out on the deck, his feet propped up against the railing, when Randi walked out of the house through the French doors five minutes later, a fresh cup of coffee in each hand.
“Did you happen to see that crazy story about the truck accident over in Louisiana?” she asked, handing him one of the cups before sitting down beside him in one of the heavy wrought-iron deck chairs. “I watched a video of it on my Facebook feed while I was down on the boat dock.”
“No, I didn’t. What about it?”
“Apparently, an eighteen-wheeler slammed into a wooden utility pole and cracked it in half,” she said, holding her coffee mug gingerly with both hands as she took a sip.
He noticed she had a concerned look on her face.
“Why the long face, Randi?” he asked, not sure why she would worry about something as inconsequential as this. “Worst case, if it’s one of yours, you’ll just have to replace it.”
She looked him square in the eye. She did not appear to be worried so much as mad.
“Because when the pole broke apart, several kilos of white powdered cocaine burst out into the air,” she said accusingly.
* * * * *
A seemingly innocent traffic accident one Saturday afternoon leads to the unraveling of a major drug smuggling and money laundering enterprise based out of rural East Texas that extends into Asia, the Caribbean and Central America.
"A must-read for fans of true crime as well as crime fiction." — Kirkus Reviews