There is a serial killer at work in Baton Rouge, and so, as I drive into the city on this rainy, mid-August afternoon to visit family, I move from simply alert to hyper-alert. In addition to the three murdered women, there have been four attempted abductions in the past two weeks; the last woman fought off her attacker with a machete. Yesterday, a line of women, waiting to purchase pepper spray, snaked out the door of a police supply store. The store sold out by noon.
For once, I am not in the minority. Alert is a natural state for me, and the quick transition to hyper-alert is easy. I worked as a police officer in this city in the 1980s. I know, intimately, what one human being can do to another. And I’ve seen crime-scene pictures of the serial killer’s first victim, examined the evidence, learned details withheld from the press.
I stop at City Newstand to pick up a newspaper. A nice-looking man—bald, early 30s, dark shirt—in a green Chevy Blazer is backing out of the space across from mine. His car stops, and I feel his gaze as I retrieve my wallet, open the car door. Our eyes meet, and he smiles. I keep my face blank and walk briskly into the store. Creep, I think. And then I’m ashamed. I’ve worked hard, since I left police work, to cultivate tolerance and gentleness, to not live suspicious 24-7.
I grab my newspaper and glance at magazines in the rack beside me. When I look up, the bald man is in the store. He smiles again. My throat constricts. Don’t be a silly, panicked female, I chide. It’s just a coincidence. He leaves as I pay for my newspaper and hovers outside, head down as though he’s reading, but his eyes are on me.
And I know—deep-in-my-gut knowing, old-habit knowing— that this isn’t coincidence. This man is stalking me. That’s when the minuscule tremble in my knee kicks in, the tremble I haven’t felt since I wore a uniform. If I were still a cop, this wouldn’t make my knee tremble. But I am simply a civilian. A female civilian.
I track right, pretend to study a magazine. Five minutes later, when an older gentleman leaves the store, I am right on his heels, walking tough to my car. The bald man paces me step by step to his own car four spaces down.
My hands tremble; my mouth is dry. And I hate, with every screaming fiber of my being, that I gave up all guns two years ago.
I wait for the bald man to leave first. He drives to the far exit, turns right. I expel a deep breath, turn left at the nearest exit and stop at the traffic light. When I look in my rearview mirror, he is behind me. Fear flutters, frantic against the walls of my body.
I reach for a pen and piece of paper, jot down a detailed description of him and his car, curse Louisiana for not requiring front-bumper license plates.
He follows me through five intersections. Resolve tightens in my gut. Okay, buddy, I think, you’ve picked the wrong woman. I will stop at a convenience store and call my friend Ike, a homicide detective. I’ll get the whole damn department out here.
We approach the interstate, and he suddenly veers up the entrance ramp.
And he is gone.
For the next two days, I’m well beyond hyper-alert. I hate being this way and cut my visit short. Tension dissipates as Baton Rouge disappears in my rearview mirror. I turn on the radio, roll down the window, smile.
Thirty minutes later I am crossing the Atchafalaya Swamp, headed toward my home in Texas. When the Whiskey Bay exit sign appears, every particle in my body constricts. This is where the third victim was found, naked, with her throat cut.
And that’s when I finally get, really get, what I have always known. Alertness, tolerance, compassion, suspicion: none of it matters. I am vulnerable simply because I’m alive.