First there was the smell. Thick and heavy, it invaded her senses and penetrated her airways and swept down her throat and festered like a feeding maggot in the pit of her stomach.
She opened her eyes and then there was the dark. A wall of black nothingness, final and without compromise. She felt her chest tighten as fear smothered her heart. She struggled to find air in the hot stench and retched from the taste of ammonia saturating her tongue. She convulsed and felt the friction of skin and rope, around her wrists and ankles.
Reality descended upon her, she was bound and blindfolded.
She tried to find her voice, but it was engulfed by the panic that seized her mind and spirit. She squirmed like an animal trapped in the jaws of a predator. She became aware of the harsh springs protruding through a thin layer of mattress, into the bare skin of her back.
Her thoughts gushed forward from the depths, crashing through the frenzied fear of her psyche. They emanated a high pitched, sonic squeal that drowned out external sound, leaving her incapacitated as she grasped at air and kicked aimlessly from her knotted hands and feet.
Water had built up beneath the damp material that covered her eyes and she realised she was crying. Each passing moment was accompanied with a fresh wave of the oppressive odour that conjured images of a rotting corpse decomposing close by.
She concentrated on her breathing, attempting to slow her heart rate and gather her thoughts. She sucked in deep disgusting breaths, each inhale triggering her gag reflex and sending her stomach into a state of flux.
Another desperate sob and strained struggle against the ropes ripping at her skin. Stop, she thought, just stop. She lay still for the first time. Her chest released some tension as her heart began to steady and her thoughts began to slow.
Your eyes don’t work, your nose don’t work, she thought. You’re tied to a bed, you can’t use your hands or feet...
Instinctively, all focus was directed to her ears. She did nothing, but listen… There was silence, interrupted only by the drumming of her heart. She tried again, to manage her heart rate. To hold down long inhales of the rotten meat smell and absorb what oxygen was to be found in the grotesque stink. The drumming receded into a low thud. She lay there and listened, to what she thought was the creaking of wood.
She waited. The sound came again. The low drawn out creaking of timber that reminded her of when her father would take her fishing for bluegills in the Summer, when she was just a girl. He would take her out on the bayou in his old swamp rat and they would fish for hours, listening to the sound of the swamp and barely say a word until one of them had got a bite. The canoe was so busted and rotten that it would creak and moan as it drifted down the murky waters, breaking the quiet hum of the dragonflies and the rhythmic chirping of the crickets.
She focused her ears again and listened. She just about made out the faint singing of birds in the distance and finally, the light splash of water. The kind of sound the water makes when a catfish surfaces to snag a flea. She was on the bayou.
The wheels of her mind began to spin once again, as she wrestled with her most recent memories to figure out why she was here. Her mind was a haze of confusion. Hot tears streamed down her cheeks and pooled at the back of her neck. The sensation of death creeped deep into her consciousness. Her sobs rattled through her now in desperate agonising shrieks and the eery silence of the swamp was cracked open with her cries for help.
Adelaide Harris was bound and blindfolded.
Sheriff Colt Lawson sat watching the Thibodaux Police Station from the driver’s seat of his beat-up Plymouth Fury. His mouth felt dry and dusty from the morning’s hangover. The sun hung low in the cool autumn sky and the glare from the station’s windows made him uneasy, as if being watched from an unseen power.
He sighed and tossed a handful of aspirin in his mouth and chewed them down. He reached for his Sheriff’s hat, dusted it off and placed it at an angle on his balding head, just enough to shield his eyes. With another laborious sigh, he heaved his heavy frame from the vehicle and headed toward the station. His walk was surprisingly graceful for such a large man, and gave the impression that he was once an athlete.
Inside he greeted his staff with the tip of his hat. His two deputies barely acknowledged him and sat discussing the previous night’s football game, swinging back on their desk chairs like a couple of innocent high schoolers. He grunted to himself and made his way to his office toward the back of the small station. They ignored his passing, knowing full well to never bother him before his morning coffee.
He approached his office and watched his long-time secretary Marlene Poirier, follow his every step with her fiery eyes from behind her typewriter. Marlene had been the secretary of the former Sheriff of Thibodaux and stayed on at Lawson’s request. Her wisdom and kindness were a priceless commodity to him and her influence in the black community - especially her role in the Church - was half the reason Lawson became the elected protector of Thibodaux at a time of furious unrest and distrust across the racial divide of the deep south.
“Mornin’ Marlene,” the Sheriff drawled.
“Ya’ look like shit, Colt,” she said. She had bugged him for months about a new typewriter until finally he had used some of his own money along with the dwindling State budget, to purchase the new machine she now sat over. Each obnoxious ding! reminded him that the blasted machine cost about as much as his rusted Plymouth parked outside.
“I believe the words you’re lookin’ for is, ‘You look like shit, Sheriff’. Now, bring me a fresh cuppa Joe will ya ? And tell them two knuckleheads to get the fuck outta here and do some god damn police work,” he didn’t wait for a response, but he felt her grin as he passed through the dark wooded door frame and slammed the door behind him for effect.
He fell back into his desk chair and watched with childish delight as the hunched skeleton like frame of the old woman, shuffled over to the two young deputies and shooed them from the station like they were nothing but a couple of pesky racoons tossing around in the trash.
He let out a low chuckle and felt some of the morning blues lift from him.
“Crazy ol’ biddy,” he smiled.
Lawson looked around the old office and felt the weight of lost time hang in the smoke stained room. The eyes of those who had come and gone returned his stare from the frames in which they now hung. The faces of former Sheriff’s who had long since past into the next life. The almost unrecognisable face of the youthful Marlene, her tight African-American curls piled high above her radiant smile. Her eyes as fiery then as they were now. Full of life and warmth.
He found his eyes linger on another image, a younger man with an eager innocence in his blue eyes. A slim chiselled face with a strong chin and powerful shoulders. It was Colt Lawson a lifetime ago.
His eyes glanced over the image of his family, laughing and smiling, an image frozen in time at a moment of authenticity that one rarely finds in a photograph. That image was kept on his desk and served as his biggest reminder of who he once was, who he could have been and who he failed to be. A reminder of what he now was, a lonely drunk. A walking cliché of the aging, stoic cop that young boys cheered for in the matinee’s downtown. Only this was real life, a life wasted. He sighed and shut his eyes from the image. Lost time, he thought.
“Marlene, where’s that cuppa joe ?” he hollered in his low southern drawl.
“Keep ya damn pants on, I’m comin’!” she shuffled into the room holding a steaming cup. “It ain’t my fault you hit the bottle las’ night now is it ?”
“Don’t do that Marlene, ya’ know I hate when you end your sentences with a question,” he said reaching for the hot cup.
Marlene sat down in one of the two chairs facing his desk and watched him sip at his coffee. The Sheriff avoided her stone-like gaze. Her dark chestnut coloured eyes had sunk into her wrinkled face with age, but they remained sharp and alert. She used them now, scanning the Sheriff’s unshaven, disheveled appearance.
Since Tonya and the kids had left, he had gained what looked to be thirty pounds. His shoulders had begun to slouch with his added weight and sense of defeat. His drinking had gone from bad to worse and his police work had faltered and come to a stuttering standstill. As a result, crime had steadily risen in sharp parallel to Lawson’s steep decline.
She remembered him as a young and handsome deputy, smart and cunning, it wasn’t before long that he had gained the trust of the town, even the black folk – with Marlene’s backing – had put faith in Colt Lawson to usher in the much needed change for the small town buried in the deep South, stifled and crippled by it’s haunted past and ignorant present.
What faced her now was not the physical embodiment of change that she and many others believed and prayed for. No. What faced her now was a hollow shell not worth the time and sympathy of a woman her age, but she knew in her heart that Colt Lawson was a good man, an honest man and she was painfully aware that she was one of the last things he had left in this World.
The silence stretched on between them until finally, she spoke.
“Where’s that plug-in razor I got ya for Christmas las’ year?”
“I traded it in,” he replied as he lit a cigarette, still refusing to meet her glare.
“Traded it in? For what?” she demanded.
He met her gaze and cracked a small smile, “For that typewriter out yonder,” he joked. His smile quickly receded as his attempt to break the building tension was swallowed by the quiet fury radiating from the stone like figure across from him.
“How dare you, Lawson,” she whispered.
Rarely did she ever address him by his last name. The sun peeking through the blinds drifted behind some clouds and the lighting of the room suddenly matched its stifling atmosphere.
“Marlene, it was just a joke alright, jeez I still have the blasted razo…” she cut him off.
“This is not about some fuckin’ razor Colt!” she boomed. “This is about the people of this town, the people you promised and swore to protect,” her voice tremored with a righteous anger. The sun re-emerged from behind the clouds and reflected off the tears swelling into Marlene’s eyes and then he watched her fight them back, too proud and dignified to omit weakness after the hardship she endured her entire life. Born into poverty and battled her way as a black woman through the movements that enabled her to be in the position she now found herself. With a voice.
“Don’t you ‘Marlene’ me. I’ve watched you now for eighteen months float in n’outta here like a useless bum, either too drunk or too hungover or too fuckin’ dumb to fulfil your damn responsibilities, to help people. To help yourself!” he flinched as her words dug into him like daggers. He was ashamed. He found his eyes move to the picture on his desk and she continued.
“Fine, Tonya and the girls are gone an’ God knows it’s been hell for ya Colt,” her tone softened and took on a maternal quality.
“But that does not mean you get to just lay down and give up. You’re better than that and so is the people of this here town,” she rose and watched his head hung low in shame like a bold child caught in some act of mischief. Tiny droplets appeared on the desk beneath his face. “I’ll make you a fresh cup,” she said.
He sat there a moment as Marlene exited his office. He re-lit his cigarette. Wounded and humiliated at his failures to live up to the responsibilities bestowed upon him as a father, a husband and the elected protector of the people of his town.
The humiliation grew deeper at his compulsive yearning for a drink that emerged deep within him and would claw away at him, until that compulsion was satisfied. A type of self-loathing humiliation that only other addicts truly understood. He reached for the flask hidden away in his desk drawer as the craving overwhelmed him. He unscrewed the cap and rose the flask high until the crying out of his name, stopped him in his tracks and snapped him out of his chair in that graceful movement that contradicted his bloated appearance.
A distraught woman staggered through the station sobbing and screeching his name, nude and bleeding, she collapsed in his arms and lost consciousness as Lawson yelled for Marlene to call his deputies and meet him at the hospital.
Two weeks had passed since Alabama Sinclair had crashed into the life of Sheriff Colt Lawson that day in the station and it had been three days since young Alabama had succumbed to her wounds and passed away.
For days Alabama had come in and out of consciousness, screaming in terror at the scarred memories that haunted her in and out of her sleep. On the days she seemed able, Lawson had asked her questions that might help him catch the son of a bitch that had ultimately killed her.
He kept the questions basic at first, aware of her trauma he asked her to speak at her own time of what she remembered. It wasn’t much at first. She had been given injections, that the doctor later reported to be small doses of heroin.
Drugged and dumbed down, her memories were blurred and choppy. The doctors complained that it wasn’t right to be asking her to relive such experiences while she fought for her life. But Alabama, god rest her, was determined to bring the man to justice.
She told the Sheriff snippets over the days she could speak with a clear mind. She recalled being blindfolded and hearing sounds of the bayou at night. She spoke of the smell of decay and the noise of her killer moving on hollow creaking wood. A cabin perhaps. It was enough to work with.
Alabama had been missing for over a month when she arrived in the station that day. The Sheriff had been lazy in his search for her, determining that Alabama like so many Southern girls in the 70’s had taken off to California to be a movie star. Despite her mother’s appeals that she would never just take off without saying goodbye or leaving so much as a letter. Lawson had heard this and thought of how his own family had up and left him without either one of those things and remembered a horrible drunken thought that passed through him at the time, ‘that people were cruel, that way’.
He shuddered at the thought now, as he floored his Plymouth Fury out past the Route 80 byway, into Bayou Country. He had failed Alabama Sinclair, the same way he had been failing those close to him for years.
On the last day they spoke, before Alabama passed into a coma, she had told Lawson how she was never raped or sexually assaulted. Only cut at random intervals, the wounds treated by the killer, only to be reopened again after several days of healing. Why would he reopen the wounds ? he wondered.
He fed her and rarely spoke. When he did, he spoke of justice. He spoke of how he hoped when he released her that justice would finally be done. She never understood and just pleaded constantly that he spare her.
Finally, as Alabama grew tired that day in the hospital, she gave Lawson the final piece of information that shook his very soul. Her captor had called her Adelaide.
(15 years earlier)
Adelaide Harris listened to the sounds of the Bayou and cried herself into exhaustion as she lay nude and bound on the filthy mattress in the abandoned cabin.
For hours it seemed that she would be left there to die, scared and alone. Until she heard the laughter of drunken men and the sounds of hard boots on the cabin floor.
“Adelaide, this is the Police can you hear us ?”
“I’m here,” she cried, “Please I’m here!”
The door had burst open and the gleeful almost mocking laughter of the men entering the room had made her insides freeze over. Her blindfold was finally removed, and the three drunken faces that looked down at her were indeed the familiar faces of her towns police force. She wept and gasped for help that was drowned out by the drunken laughter of the men. They spat racial slurs and like the beasts they were, discussed the order of which they would go. They returned her to the dark.
Bound and blindfolded. They were the last people to ever see Adelaide Harris alive again.
Sheriff Colt Lawson entered the old cabin of where Adelaide Harris had been raped and murdered by the members of the police all them years ago and where Alabama Sinclair too had met her faith. He entered the cabin and held his gun aloft and flinched away from the smell that seemed to linger on the damp wood.
When he entered the room where the two girls had met their fate. He found the hanging body of a man, known as Jessie Parker. Remembered in the town as the boyfriend of young Adelaide Harris. On his torso there was a single piece of paper taped to his sweater.
It read, ‘What is Justice?’