It is hotter than hell in New Orleans and newly promoted NOPD Commander Jack Francoise is battling horrific crime in the Vieux Carre in the August heat.
At Crescent City Medical Center's Psychiatric Pavilion, nursing staff are doling out Thorazine Slurpees and Geodone shots to the most criminally insane and viciously psychotic patients in the South.
Alexandra Destephano, a registered nurse and legal counsel for CCMC is concerned about inadequate staff and safety issues in the Pavilion and enlists former husband, dashing surgeon Robert Bonnet to assist her to battle Lester Whitset, the odd and often bizarre Pavilion administrator.
In the meantime, staff and patients are being brutally beaten and killed at Crescent City Medical Center and Alex must set aside her feelings about the chronic under staffing at the hospital and work with Jack, Robert and others to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Judith Lucci is a registered nurse and college professor from Virginia where she holds masters and doctoral degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia. She is the author of the Alex Destephano medical thriller series.
An Author's Republic audio production.
Release date: January 14, 2014
Publisher: Bluestone Valley Publishing
Print pages: 371
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"Holy Crap, Mary, Mother of God! What the hell is wrong with people? Are they crazy, stupid, or just nuts," hollered Jack Françoise to no one in particular, even though he was sure his rants could be heard through the bullpen of the 8th Police District. "Honest to God, two tourists with their throats torn out in the deepest, darkest part of the Quarter. What is wrong with these idiots? I don't even go in that part of the French Quarter. No one needs to go down there. No one in their right mind wants to go down there, not even NOPD's swat team in full combat gear. Holy Shit, can anybody be that stupid or that drunk?! I just don't get it."
Newly-minted New Orleans Police Commander, Jack Françoise, sat behind his massive, but deeply scarred, walnut desk at 334 Royal Street, glaring at two crime reports placed in his in-basket for review. A big, burly man who tended toward overweight, Jack looked distinguished in his commander uniform, and his polished medals matched the glint of silver in his hair. A man's man, Jack commanded the respect of almost everyone he met. He stared out of his tall office windows, already heating up in the August sun, but saw nothing. His attention returned to the crime sheets, and as he reached for his coffee cup, his administrative assistant and PR guy knocked at his doorframe.
"What's up, Jason? Did I wake everybody up yelling?"
Jason Aldridge grinned at his boss. "Well, maybe a few left over from the night beat, but they were due to go home anyway," Jason joked.
Jack shook his head. "Did you check out these murders in the Quarter last night? What the hell?”
“Yeah, pretty bad. Young people, too, from what I heard. Kind of similar to that woman they found in that abandoned warehouse near Canal over in the First District several years ago. By the way, the coroner’s office just called, and they want you over there ASAP. It's about this new case, the one they are investigating in the Quarter now."
"Yeah, I just bet it is," Jack muttered sarcastically. "Who's working the scene in the Quarter? Think I'll go over there on my way to see the M.E."
"I think Bridges caught the case, but he's probably gone now. Don't know who the head of the forensic team is. I can check for you.”
"Never mind, I don't care. If the M.E. calls back tell her I'm coming, but I’m stopping by the scene first."
"Will do, Capt'n! Whoops, Commander." Jason stumbled over his boss’s title and smiled apologetically.
"Just call me Jack. Skip the title. I don't act like a commander anyway. Didn't even want to be one. I was and am happy in the trenches and on the street. But, as you know," Jack said wryly, “I never planned to leave them."
Jason nodded. "Yeah, I know that. I'm sure you'll always be a beat cop, no matter the title. You've never left the streets before, and you're too damned old and stubborn to start at this late date," Jason acknowledged, waving his boss out of the office. His heart swelled with pride, watching the big guy leave the 8th district office.
Jason loved being Jack's right hand man, a job he had just formally assumed several months ago when Jack had risen in the ranks. Jason had more respect for Jack Françoise than he'd ever had for any one man. Françoise could come across as a total police asshole, but deep inside, he was kind and generous and a true advocate for the citizens, particularly the victims of murder and violent crimes in New Orleans. Jack was also tenacious, bull-headed, and hard to work with, but Jason was used to this as well. Sometimes, Jack's dark moods surfaced when he reached a dead end in the crimes he sought to solve. In Jason's mind, Jack was a hero and always would be even though Jack would never claim fame or recognition for the cases he solved.
Jason smiled while considering the magical way Jack disappeared from press conferences and the media. He was sure Jack planned to keep it that way, even as a commander. He was as humble as he was caring and altruistic, and Jack flat out hated the press. Jason smiled to himself as he reflected on his years with Jack Françoise. An honorable man, Jason thought, closing the commander’s door quietly as he left the office.
Jack hated the blast of August heat that momentarily blinded him while exiting the 8th District office. He jumped into his vintage police-retrofitted silver Cadillac parked in a no parking zone on the side of the building and headed down toward the Canal crime scene on Burgundy. He parked, illegally of course, at the corner of Toulouse, knowing that all NOPD in the area knew his car and would never ticket him. He trudged down toward the scene, wiping the sweat off his brow with a white linen handkerchief.
Jack, as hardened as he was to street scenes, turned his head away from a man with a needle in his arm and a guy lighting up his crack pipe while sitting in a doorway. He was convinced that neither man had seen the inside of a house or had a meal or shower in days. He quickly glanced inside a vacant, burned-out building on Canal, noting several other vagrants boldly smoking crack, not caring who or what could see them. The bottom of the barrel, the dregs of humanity, hung out in this part of the Vieux Carre. The commander hurried his pace toward the crime scene. He could see the yellow tape several blocks away and thought what a bitch it would be to climb back up the hill in this August heat. He hailed the CSI team’s chief processing the scene.
"Yo, Vern, what's your ornery ass doing up so early in the morning?" Jack asked, slapping the forensic chief on the back. "I thought you were working nights!"
Detective Vernon Bridges stood up, turned, and faced Jack smiling broadly.
"Why, Commander, what in the world are you doing down here in this hell hole so early? With your big promotion and all, I never expected you'd leave your air-conditioned office on Royal Street," Vern joshed, pumping the commander’s hand.
Jack returned the grin, happy to see his old friend. "Vern, you know me better than that. I get the hell out of there every chance I get so I don't have to write reports and go to meetings. I hate all of those damned meetings." Jack shook his head and sighed. "These bureaucrats are crazy. They even meet to decide where to place the water fountains." Jack rolled his eyes, and Vern laughed heartily.
"Well, then, who writes the reports and goes to the meetings? Isn't that why you got the big pay raise?" Vern teased his old buddy.
"Jason goes. He likes meetings and, as my assistant, it’s his job to make me happy. So, he goes to the meetings and writes the reports, and that makes me happy. Besides, he's glad to get me out of there so he can do his own thing. So, what do we have here?" Françoise questioned, gesturing toward the crime scene.
Vern pointed to the two chalk-etched bodies on the ground and groaned. "The meat wagon took the bodies away an hour or so ago. Two kids, probably late teens or early twenties. Most likely tourists. They were pretty tatted up, lots of body piercings. Looked Goth, if you ask me, but then what the hell do I know? Black clothes, black hair, black nail polish, and lipstick on the female vic, lots of metal."
Françoise shook his head. "Geez, not again. The report said their throats were torn out, sort of like an animal had attacked them. Anything else?"
Vern searched out his digital camera and flipped to a couple of shots. "They also had their wrists slit."
"Not much blood around here," Jack said. “Has anyone hosed down the streets? Had city maintenance been through here before they were found?"
"No, I don't think so, although they often come through before dawn. We waved off one truck when we got here a little after five."
"Who called it in?" Jack asked.
"Anonymous. Someone dialed 911," Vern said, shrugging his shoulders.
"Figures, doesn't it? Probably the sick SOB that did it. I got a funny feeling that he’s sitting somewhere close, watching us work the scene. Been thinking that all morning," Vern ended, looking around the area at the rundown buildings and dark alleys.
"Could be. It's happened before. Any possibility they could have been killed somewhere else and dropped here? Any witnesses?"
"Shit, Françoise, you think we got a fairy godmother hanging out down here in no man's land? Nobody saw anything, nobody heard anything, and, the truth is, everybody we've seen is smoking a crack pipe, shooting up, or is drunk or drugged out of their mind."
"Yeah, got'cha. Figures. Get the troops to canvass the neighborhood. You may get lucky. Keep me posted. I am off to the coroner’s office. The M.E. sent for me to talk about these two vics.”
"Will do. See you, Jack. Hey, by the way, looks like the male may have been upside down on that wrought-iron fence at one point. See the blood on the concrete? Stay out of trouble and meetings," Vern joked as he turned back to the scene.
“Upside down, what the hell?” Jack muttered to himself as he began his hike back to his car. “Damn, it's hotter than the gates of hell already.”
When Jack reached his car, he was sweating like a pig. He opened the door of his silver Cadillac and sat down, relishing the plush seats. He turned the AC on full blast, aimed all the vents toward himself, and sat there for a good three minutes taking pleasure in the cold air. Finally, he headed the short distance to the M.E.’s office on Rampart, praying for a decent parking place. He spied one. Bingo! It looked promising as he viewed the street parking. And the parking spot was legal. The day was looking a bit brighter as he slid into the metered spot. Of course, he would never put money in the meter.
Jack squinted from the fluorescent lights as he entered the temporary administrative offices of New Orleans Forensic Center. He was overcome by the smell of disinfectant and bleach. He high-fived the guard at the desk, signed-in, and continued down the back hall to the stark white autopsy room and morgue.
The NOLA Coroner's Office had been under considerable strain lately due to bad publicity in the media. The Times Picayune had run a whole series of articles about screw-ups at the coroner’s office. The stories had focused on staff losing DNA evidence, filing incomplete reports, and misinterpreting autopsy findings that had never existed. Worst of all, the office had been accused of selling body parts. It was rumored the coroner had made thousands of dollars selling livers, corneas, and bone marrow. These accusations were providing a field day for defense lawyers. Jack clenched his jaw and gritted his teeth just thinking about it.
Damn the liberal press!
The coroner’s office employees, like most state offices in the many parts of the nation, were underpaid, understaffed, and under appreciated by most people who crossed their thresholds. The NOLA staff was demoralized, and the office had experienced lots of turnover when, in fact, it was also home to some really fantastic forensic pathologists, dentists, and physicians. They were probably some of the best in the country, although you can bet the Times Picayune hadn't reported that little detail. He cursed the newspapers again under his breath.
The autopsy room was busy. Three physicians were autopsying recent victims, but he didn't see his favorite medical examiner. Nor did he find his two stiffs from this morning — at least, he didn’t think he did, since the victims on the tables all looked pretty old.
"Yo, Fred," he hailed a morgue tech. "You seen Dr. Jeanfreau?"
"Yeah, she's in her office. Straight back, Commander." Fred gestured, giving the commander a big grin. Fred was a favorite of Jack Françoise because he always knew what was going on, never played dumb, and wasn't lazy, all traits which put Fred on his way to meeting most of Jack's criteria for earning praise.
"Thanks, man," Jack said, starting back down the hall, noticing the decrepit condition of the offices. Unlike the bright autopsy room, the temporary offices of the coroner were pretty shabby. Jack eyed the faded, dirty carpet as he wandered down the hall toward Maddy's office. He wondered when they were moving into their new building, although he hated the thought of them leaving his police district. It had been convenient having them so close. Now he'd probably have to hit I-10 to get there. What a pain. Traffic was always bad going out of New Orleans. As a matter of fact, traffic in New Orleans was always awful, and he didn't know all of the illegal parking spots in that part of town.
Maddy's door was partially open. Since she wasn't dictating, Jack decided to knock and interrupt her.
"Yo, Maddy, you rang?"
Dr. Madeline Jeanfreau, Assistant Medical Examiner, stood and walked around her desk to greet Jack. She was a tiny woman. Even with high heels, she was only a little over five feet tall. She hugged Jack and kissed him on the cheek. Jack returned the hug.
"What the hell, Commander? You get promoted, have a party, and don't even invite your favorite M.E.? How do you expect to keep getting special treatment from me or my office?" the diminutive Dr. Jeanfreau queried, as she smiled and shook her short, highlighted hair.
"That wasn't a party, it was just a bureaucratic BS hour. I didn't want to go, and you would have hated it. Think of who you would have had to hobnob with for an hour, all the while getting nothing but punch and cookies. It was grueling."
"Well, you owe me lunch then and it's going to cost you a bunch... and drinks as well," Maddy insisted, giving Jack a grin. “Soon! I want my lunch soon."
"Anytime, Maddy. You're the busy one. You know I just sit around and eat chocolate éclairs all day,” Jack commented sarcastically. "What's up? Jason said you wanted to see me."
"Yeah, about those two dead kids that came in a couple of hours ago. Have you got any ID or information on them?"
"No, nothing yet. I just talked to Bridges, the detective who caught the case. We're still looking for witnesses. There was no ID found with the bodies. The detective said they looked Goth and were tatted up. Not much blood at the scene, though probably enough for DNA. Why?"
Maddy shook her head and said, "It's pretty strange. We haven't finished the autopsies yet, but we started collecting body fluids when they first came in, before we put them in the chiller."
"Yeah, so? That's pretty normal, right?"
"Yes, it is," Maddy replied, looking straight at Jack. "Problem is, they didn't have any."
"Didn't have any what? Maddy, I am not getting this. What are you telling me? The stiffs didn't have any fluids?"
"That's right, Jack. They didn't have any blood. It's likely the C.O.D. will be death by exsanguination." Maddy stared at Jack.
Jack's shoulders slumped and stared back at his friend. He felt the fear crawling out of his pores. Maybe not fear, just uncertainty perhaps? What The Fuck! Not again! Please, not again, he thought to himself. Their eyes locked, each reading the meaning on the other’s face.
Maddy finally broke the silence. "Yeah, Jack. Here we go again. Just like 2009, 1984, and 1933.”
Jack was suddenly overcome with fatigue. He shook his head. The day really wasn't getting better after all. "Well, keep me in the loop. Hopefully, these are the only two. We'll know more when we ID them." His voice sounded worn and tired.
"If you ever do ID them," Maddy replied. "Remember, we never had an ID for the case in 2009. I'll handle the autopsies personally. There could be another cause of death, but it’s unlikely with the two of them and the fact that they were young and healthy."
"Yeah, I know," Jack replied, while checking a text message that had just come in. "I've got to go. I just got a 911 from CCMC. I hope there’s nothing major gone wrong over there." He groaned, hugged Maddy, and left her office. But he knew better. He knew something bad had happened. Whenever he got called to Crescent City Medical Center, it was always something bad.
"Oh, Jack," Maddy called after him, "the vics had a receipt on them for $116. From Howl.”
Jack turned around, looked at her, and shook his head. "Great, this day just keeps getting better," he said sarcastically.
It was a little after midnight and Angie Richelieu was just finishing her nursing shift report when the red light went on in the corner of the nursing station at Crescent City Psychiatric Pavilion, signaling an All Staff Alert. "Damn!" she muttered under her breath. Flashing red meant all hell had broken out somewhere on the unit. Sadly, she knew what that meant for her and picking her daughter up on time. Her shift had ended at 11, but paperwork had taken her an hour after that. Now who knew when she would get out of there?
Cursing under her breath, she unlocked a small metal cabinet and took out a syringe filled with Vitamin G. She laughed a bit as she thought about the Vitamin G — a nickname for Geodon. A powerful anti-psychotic agent, it could settle down a horse almost immediately. G for goodnight! She placed the syringe in the pocket of her blue uniform top and cautiously opened the security door that led onto the Psych unit. Never knew who was hanging around, just waiting to get into the office.
The coast was clear, and Angie saw everybody heading toward the east corridor. She heard an angry "Get the hell off of me! I'm a policeman!" coming from that hallway. Big Jim! she thought to herself.
She was surprised and not surprised at the same time. James McMurdie, the former NOPD cop, had been a model patient up until now, so she was surprised that he was involved. She was not surprised because she had almost seen something coming earlier in the evening.
It had been a great shift on the unit until that new administrator, Lester What's-his-name, had shown up. He wasn't even a real employee. Don Montgomery, the CEO, had contracted with him to run the Psych Pavilion. Lester was weird, just as weird as some of the patients. The patients had been quiet until he came onto the unit. Once the patients saw him, a sort of agitation had set in like a wolf walking into a field of tasty sheep.
Plus, he was creepy. Angie shook off a chill when she thought about the way he'd looked at her. He was gross and struck her as a real letch. He'd stayed most of the evening on the unit. He was working in his office between the general psych and the prison units when he wasn't on the units talking with the patients. She remembered the other nurses saying how inappropriate it was that he talked so much with the patients. He’d spent a lot of time talking with Jim in the day room. A lot of time.
Angie hurried past the shuffling patients, and when she turned the corner and looked down the corridor, she saw a sight that was both tragic and comical. Jason, the lone security guard, whose best asset was his enormous weight, was lying on top of Jim in the hallway. Ben, the orderly, had control of Jim's right arm and Amy, a petite Asian-American patient care assistant, was trying to control his left arm. Amy was wrapped around the arm like a python while he threw her up and down as if she were weightless and he tireless. Amy grunted each time Jim slammed her onto the dirty green tile floor.
Ben looked up as Angie ran down the hallway. "Hurry up! He's beating the hell out of Amy!"
Angie looked to Jim's left arm where Amy was clinging like a tired squirrel to a tree trunk and saw that Jim's sleeve had ripped at the shoulder, exposing his taut deltoid muscle. Without hesitating, she sat down on top of Amy. Mercifully, their combined weight kept the flailing left arm pinned to the floor as Angie plunged the needle into the deltoid muscle and pushed the Vitamin G into Jim's body. She withdrew the needle and waited.
As she sat perched on Amy and the softening arm, Angie thought about what a joke the Psychiatric Pavilion was. The "Pavilion" was really an old three-story storage warehouse that CCMC had hastily renovated into three psychiatric units about eight years ago when psychiatric and substance abuse services had actually been moneymakers for the hospital. Now they weren't and the building had been sadly neglected. It was beginning to have the look of a "blighted" building that Angie remembered from her community health class at LSU where she had recently received her Bachelor's degree in nursing. Fat lot of good that did me, she mused.
But Angie knew in her heart that her degree did matter. She chose to work at the Pavilion where the salary was at least fifty percent more than the medical units because the patients were so sick, scary, and dangerous. The Pavilion was actually three nursing units. Pavilion I was now the prison unit and housed some of the most dangerous, criminally insane inmates from the Deep South. Pavilion II was now general psychiatry where chronically psychotic patients were committed by temporary detaining orders. They were kept there “until they promised not to try to kill themselves or others again.” Angie thought it was criminal that these sick patients were generally discharged in two days. Jim was one of the exceptions. Pavilion III was the substance abuse unit where patients were detoxed and “cured” in three days, and then discharged. The absolute worst was the CCMC Pavilion management. Don Montgomery, the CEO of CCMC, had contracted with the state hospital over in Mandeville to take their forensic psychiatric patients several years ago when a public outrage from the good citizens of Mandeville had succeeded and the hospital closed. Even though CCMC received a premium for housing and caring for the forensic patients, none of the money went back into the safety and security of staff and patients at CCMC. Angie shuddered and felt a chill when she thought about the patients she'd worked with over the past year. Some of them had nearly frightened her to death. She had thought Jim was one of the safe ones —until now.
While plunging the needle into Jim's shoulder, she had made the mistake of looking into his eyes. The eyes were there, but Jim wasn't. It was as if he were somewhere else. He hadn't recognized her. Recognition was the basis of human interaction and is what separated friend from foe. Those empty eyes terrified her.
"What set him off tonight?" Angie asked Ben as she came back to the present. "He was one of the good ones — I thought."
"Louis and Jim were playing Battleship in the day room. Louis won and Jim said he was cheating. It was so strange. Normally Jim didn't care if he won or lost. Not this time. Next thing, Jim said Louis was sleeping with his wife. Crazy! Louis hasn't had a hard-on in ten years. Next thing, Jim lunged at Louis and missed, and Louis ran into the hallway yelling. Jim followed with murder in his eyes. Louis ducked under Jason's arm and Jim ran smack into that arm. Knocked him down and Jason got on top of him. I came out of the day room and jumped on Jim's arm."
"Thanks, Louis. Many thanks to you, Jason. And Amy — what you did was above the call of duty. I think you're going to be pretty sore. If you need to call off for your next shift, I'll vouch for you," Angie said as she looked at the poor battered Asian-American woman.
"Thank you, Miss Angie," replied Amy in broken English.
"Okay, let's get a stretcher and get Jim into the seclusion room. I've got to go back to the office and write up the report for this incident." Angie got up and hurried back to the office, carrying the capped syringe with her to deposit in the Sharps Container.
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