We stopped and got out of our cars. Water oak leaves scattered over the ground. A gentle breeze rustled the fennel, sending its pungent odor into the air. I remembered yanking up the fennel weed from days spent on my uncle’s farm. If the cows ate it, which they rarely did, their milk would taste sour. This day, sunny and mild with fall in the air, made me imagine stomping around the fields with a shotgun.
"We received a missing person’s report on two people who were headed up here last Friday night," Tom said as we huddled near the gate. “No one has seen them since. We also got a disturbance call in the vicinity of where they visited in town.”
Tom kicked some rocks. “One caller mentioned Cunningham and a lady traveling with him. She’s Wanda Ramirez. Then we heard from his company. He didn’t show up at his office on Monday, Tuesday, or today. He missed a big meeting with shareholders yesterday morning.”
“Anything on the disturbance?” I asked.
“We sent someone over there to check into it. They found nothing out of the ordinary. We confirmed it was at the home of Wanda’s mother, a Mrs. Gonzalez.”
Tom waved to a deputy, who ambled over. “Willis, this is Red Farlow, a private investigator. We’ve known each other for a few years.” Willis nodded and shook my hand.
“Tell us about the car,” the sheriff said.
"Hit’s a Mer-say-deez Benz.”
"Any signs of any other vehicle?”
"Nawsir. Nothing. We wus careful not to mess anything up. Just looked’s all. No sign of anybody. We did check out the car."
"ID in it?" I asked.
"Yessir. Car's registered to the Oceans South Life Assurance Company. We found an insurance card on the floorboard. Florida.” The deputy held up both documents.
"Who is he?" Tom asked.
Willis squinted as he stared at the card. "Name is Woodrow Cunningham of an Ortega Boulevard address down in Jacksonville," he said.
“Sure confirms the missing person’s name,” Tom said. He wrinkled his brow and looked at me. “Thoughts?”
"Yep. Two things. Old South, deep pockets, well-heeled,” I told them. “Ortega is a chunk of prime real estate, juts out along the St. Johns River, and upon which sits one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Duval County. No, the wealthiest."
“And the other?”
“Cunningham’s wife is my client.”
Tom nodded. “Quite a coincidence. I want to hear more about it. It appears this was the couple’s last stop. Given what we have or don’t have here, I’m calling in the state crime scene analysts. No telling what those guys can turn up.”
It's never too early to assume the worst.
“Do we know anything else about the Wanda woman yet?” I asked.
“Only that she and Cunningham stopped in Badenville to visit her mother,” Tom said. “I’ll talk with Mrs. Gonzalez when we leave here.”
We straddled barbed wire in a low-slung section of the fence and tramped toward the cabin pitched above the languid, black-water river, stained dark by tannins of vegetation. Along its banks, the sugar loaf knees of cypress trees rose up out of the water. An idyllic spot, if you loved pines, mossy oaks, solitude, and an occasional water moccasin basking on a stump. Lord, it was quiet out here. A quiet broken only by the gently moving stream, birds chirping, and fish jumping. In the distance, a mourning dove sang its song of lamentation.
The dark brown chink-log cabin looked rustic enough. Upon closer inspection, modern accouterments stood out. A roof-mounted satellite dish turned up to the southwestern sky, and a surveillance camera pointed in our direction. A deck had been added at some point and wrapped around the original structure. One section, with a hot tub, hammock, and rocking chairs, extended over the riverbank.
Cunningham owned an expensive collection of shotguns for his frequent hunting trips on the property. Had he kept them in this house? Probably not. He was an insurance executive after all.
The car grabbed my attention. A relatively new, big, executive model Mercedes-Benz S class 550. Its steel-gray exterior complemented dark-blue leather seats. There was no better ride for Cunningham than this German-made automobile, which conveyed luxury and smooth driving—the man’s castle on wheels.
I stopped short of going any closer to the structure so as not to disturb any possible evidence. There were footprints of more than one person in the sandy soil around the car and the cabin’s front porch.
At this point, calls to Tom and me indicated people close to Cunningham thought something amiss. One thing for sure, a man had disappeared, and possibly a woman, with no indication what happened to them or where their bodies might be.
I gazed over at the bank and watched the river winding downstream. Possibly a stretch, but a river search could be in order. I had to remind myself of my unofficial status. All this together posed a mystery. The kind you do not usually get in rural South Georgia.
Whatever happened to Cunningham on that fall evening differed little from the fate of a lot of people who disappear. Such events raise a lot of questions and concerns. Where did Cunningham go? How did he leave the place, assuming he arrived there as the car’s presence indicated? A planned vanishing act or murder? Did he flee the country after socking away millions of dollars in the Caymans? Or did an enemy orchestrate a plot to get him out of the way? Finally, was he alive or dead?
Soon enough, some of the answers unfolded, leaving ample room for even more speculation, and revealing more about Wanda, too.
Crime scenes take time to evaluate and analyze for evidence. As I’d done my share of waiting in my years as a law officer, there was no need for me to remain at the site. Before returning to Badenville, I spoke with Tom, and we agreed to meet at Mrs. Gonzalez’ home in an hour. He gave me her address.
It wouldn’t take long for word to get around Cunningham had disappeared. Some luck, Gloria’s call, and my good friend Tom Weltner allowed me to stumble onto this early. Of course, a missing person often hasn’t gone missing at all. His family or friends just don't know where he went. Considering it had been only five days, the sheriff and others assumed he might show up in the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours. He didn't.
Driving away, the cabin receded in my rearview mirror. Someone had left on the porch light.