Authors: J.D. Barnett
Mom and Dad
he deputy stared at the bloody display of hate with hard eyes, but his voice cracked when he spoke.
“She was beautiful, wasn’t she?”
Sheriff John Seastrunk did not answer, though the woman the trotline-runner discovered nailed to the cypress tree had been beautiful. Before. Young, with a model’s sharp features, full lips and caramel skin and a thick mess of long black curls.
The tree had been beautiful, too, before, in its way. Spanish moss draped its branches and reflected like gray ghosts in the dark bayou water. But some savage beings, remnants of a past best forgotten, had thrown the woman and the tree together in a way that negated all beauty. Heavy iron spikes bore through skin and bone and into the trunk—Seastrunk hoped to God she hadn’t been alive when they had done this, but her ripped, blood-stained clothes and the lack of anything like a fatal bullet wound suggested otherwise. She looked like she had bled to death.
The killers had cut a swastika into the young woman’s flesh. The sheriff could not pull his eyes from the baneful emblem; it rent her abdomen like a strip mine scoured into sacred ground. The swastika, discordant in both time and place, unsettled him more than the Confederate battle flag that gagged her, more even than the words of hate that marred the tree, carved deep and gaping like raw exposed flesh unclean and ripe to fester.
The deputy asked, “Who did this, Sheriff?”
“We don’t know, Bobby.”
“Goddamn rednecks, that’s for sure,” the deputy said.
When Seastrunk turned, he saw tears in his deputy’s eyes. He thought he understood Bobby’s pain.
The kid’s maybe a half-generation past redneck himself.
“I need to sit down with the old coot who came up on this mess. You call town, get the coroner down here. And see those tread marks?” Seastrunk pointed to the impressions in the soft earth near the shore. “You think you can handle making a cast?”
The sheriff put a quick palm over the rangy young man’s shoulder, turned, and walked away.
The old fisherman sat inside his johnboat, pulled up on the shore, and stared off across the bayou toward some unknown point beyond the trees, away from the dead woman. He was gnomish, with craggy features and a spotted pate, his nails black with worm guts and mud, his hands gnarled and calloused. The look on his face was that of someone who had suffered a great loss. A boy of about ten, also morose, squatted outside the boat and poked the muck with a stick.
As Seastrunk approached them at the water’s edge, the verdant springtime smell of new growth grew strong, not quite masking last year’s rot and the faint, chemical odor underlying it all. He nodded to the boy. “Hidy.”
The child stood but did not speak, his blue eyes shimmered like an otherworldly metal. He glanced from the sheriff to the woman nailed up across the bit of shallow water. As rage clouded the child’s face, his eyes appeared to alight as if on fire. And the sheriff felt something, too, a silent, undulating force like the push and pull of the ocean. It seemed to emanate from the boy’s strange eyes, still fixed on the sad tree.
A cracking noise came from the ill-used cypress, and Seastrunk looked over in time to see one of the upper boughs swing down and mask the victim’s face with its Kelly-green fronds.
He almost asked,
Did you do that, son?
But when he looked back to the boy, he saw only a poor heart-broken child, no longer any strangeness in his eyes, only the glimmer of tears. The child squatted back down to resume his task of prodding the muddy ground.
Seastrunk took a heavy breath to straighten out his mind and then walked on a few steps, coming up even with the boat, his boots sinking into the red clay mud. He stopped alongside the old man and placed his hands on his hips. Seastrunk felt once again in charge. He did not yet look at the fisherman, but instead followed the man’s gaze out over the water. They came together like that, two septuagenarians watching the morning sun play through young leaves and dapple the bayou’s smooth surface.
The sheriff asked, “Are you Willie Kincaid?”
“Yessir.” The fisherman seemed on edge in the presence of a lawman.
Seastrunk noticed the bleach-bottle buoys bobbing between the cypresses. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about your trotline, fella. I used to string them myself as a kid. I’m not a game warden, and I sure as hell ain’t about to call one out here. I appreciate you reporting the body.” He nodded toward the gruesome array. “That’s all I care about.” He looked down at the man and held out his hand.
The man turned his head and shook but did not meet the sheriff’s eyes. Then he looked back toward the lake and stroked his chin. He smelled like cheap gin spilled in a bait shop. But he had sharp eyes and the sheriff did not doubt that he knew every inch of the lake and the byzantine system of bayous that fed into it. Seastrunk knew the type—a dying breed, living off the bounty of the bayou and not used to talking.
Seastrunk waited and said nothing. He could wait all day.
The fisherman said, “We rowed out past dawn. I seen the dead gal. I rowed back to Dunlap’s, and he called y’all. That’s all there is to it.”
The sheriff glanced at the ramshackle marina just visible through the trees a hundred yards down the shoreline. “You live close to here?”
“I got a place up the road to town. My daughter’s place. But I camp right over yonder on China Island most nights—when I don’t got the boy with me.”
Seastrunk looked across the hundred yards of open water to the island, an impenetrable swamp of cypress and tupelo, its shoreline choked with water hyacinth.
Lord knows who owns China Island.
Then he nodded toward the boy. “And who might this young fella be, Mr. Kincaid?”
“That’s my grandson—my gal Sally’s boy. Joey, introduce yourself to the sheriff.”
The name Sally Kincaid struck a far-off chord with the sheriff, but he pushed it away.
The child rose and stepped over in his black rubber boots. He held out a hand. “Joey Kincaid, sir.”
Those shimmering eyes again—they gave Seastrunk a chill as he shook the boy’s hand, a hand so soft and fair and thin he seemed of a different species than his grandfather. After the sheriff dropped that hand, the child walked away a piece. Seastrunk tilted back his Stetson and squatted beside the boat, bringing his long, fit torso even with Kincaid.
“Were you camping on that island last night?”
“Hear anything unusual?”
“Maybe a boat a couple of hours before dawn. No screams or nothing like that.”
“Okay. Big boat?”
“Outboard motor. Running slow.”
Seastrunk looked over at Kincaid sitting hunched on the aft seat of the little boat, still staring straight ahead. “What time you come into shore this morning?”
“Crack of dawn. But I didn’t come up this away.” He nodded across the water. “Went straight over to Sally’s for breakfast. Picked up Joey. Then we came back over here and found that gal.”
The sheriff remained on his haunches and nodded. Though it was not yet noon and only April, the air was warm and thick on the bayou. He mopped his brow and said, “Seen anybody or anything different around here lately?”
“Not right around here, Sheriff. But I have seen that girl before. When she was alive.”
“Where was that?”
“Over by the old refinery. Saw the guard let her in several times last week.”
“You know what she was doing over there?”
Kincaid scratched the top of his head and rubbed the back of his neck. The sheriff didn’t press the point. The shuttered Texronco refinery, just a little stinker of a thing, nothing like the behemoths down on the coast, sat on the bayou a few miles east, almost to the Louisiana border. The company had idled it twenty years ago, during the oil bust. Only a guard and a skeleton crew remained.
“You been hearing anybody sounding particularly agitated around here lately?”
“Sheriff, I talk to Dunlap at the marina when I need bait and see my daughter and Joey when I bring in the catch. Otherwise, I keep to my own business.”
“Alrighty. Anything else?”
Kincaid seemed to think hard for a minute; Seastrunk could not tell whether the man was trying to remember something or trying to decide if he should keep something quiet. A fish jumped from the glassy water. A blue heron flew overhead. And then a dragonfly the size of a sparrow buzzed low, inches from the sheriff’s face. It was of a metallic turquoise hue that shimmered not unlike the eyes of the boy, who stood to the side watching the scene in stony silence. Seastrunk lost his balance, his hand sinking down an inch. The rusty muck covered the edge of his starched khaki cuff as he caught himself to keep from falling back into the mud.
“Shit and goddamn!”
Kincaid glanced over and rubbed his chin. After Seastrunk had steadied himself, the fisherman said, “Been seeing a lot of them crazy bugs lately.”
The sheriff stood and wiped his hand on his handkerchief. “Well, time of year, I guess.” He had been hearing stories of strange insects and other creatures on this lake for decades. He did not think much about them.
Anything grows, and a lot of things overgrow, in this dang ol’ swamp.
He looked down at Kincaid. “You have no idea what the victim was up to at the refinery?”
“She was up to something, I reckon.” The fisherman rubbed his chin. “I’ve seen others around that ol’ place lately. Wearing space suit lookin’ get-ups.”
The sheriff sighed. The poor woman must have worked for Texronco, or somebody else with an interest in their dilapidated facility.
“Well, we’ll look into it, I guess. But I think we know why the bastards did this.”
Willie squeezed his eyes shut. His face became a network of creases. Looking tortured, he rubbed at his head and squirmed.
He opened his eyes wide and for the first time looked straight at Seastrunk. “They didn’t killer her ‘cause she’s colored. They killed her on account of the critters.”
eoff sat in his office (spare bedroom, really) staring at the defendant’s latest bogus motion, not reading it, no longer trying to focus. When the phone rang, he felt irritation at the interruption, then glumness as he picked up the handset.
Interruption from what?
“Geoff, I have terrible news.” Eileen Kim, calling from New Orleans.
“What now?” Her expert report was due to the court in two weeks, and Geoff hated the idea of asking for an extension. It would just give the defendant, Texronco, an excuse to ask the judge to postpone the trial, fitting their strategy to bleed him dry with delay after delay.
“Dalia’s been murdered.”
“Oh … Christ.”
“It happened near the site. A fisherman found her—she was—my God …” She broke into tears.
“Christ, Eileen, I—”
“She was fucking nailed to a tree, Geoff.” Her voice stumbled, but she kept on. “It was a hate crime. The hick sheriff up there—Seasump or something, he’s who called me—”
“Damn it, I can’t … that’s awful.”
“He said there were things written at the scene, on her
, that suggest it was a hate crime.” Eileen sounded like she was running out of breath.
He felt a familiar despair coming over him like a damp, sick cloud. He longed for a drink. When he spoke, he heard a cold and distant voice from far away. “Well. Um … what do we do?”
“You mean about the fucking
, Geoff? Your goddamn lawsuit?”
Geoff held his forehead and closed his eyes. “I mean generally.” Eileen’s short tone brought a moment of unwelcome clarity. He felt as he often did since Janie’s death, like he didn’t know how to feel anymore.
“Okay. I’m sorry. I just don’t know how long I can keep doing this.”