“Once upon a time-”
“Jesus Alibi, are you really going to start off like that?”
“Shut up, Alton,” I said, annoyed by his sudden presence in my mind. As always happened when he decided to show up uninvited, it took a few seconds for his consciousness and my consciousness to mesh together comfortably enough so I could speak again, “I’ll start it how I want.”
“I think it’s a bit on the nose.”
I huffed, trying to sound more detached than I actually felt. His comment hurt, so I tried to brush it off with a toss of my head and a superior tone. “No one cares what you think.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“Can I please figure out what I’m going to say without you making snide comments the entire time?”
“Fine smart-ass, how would you start?”
“Get me a drink while I think,” he said.
My hand went to the bottle of Cognac on the kitchen counter and poured a generous measure into a waiting glass.
“I hate this shit,” I said, putting the tumbler to my lips.
The dry, moldering smell of oak, grapes, and bitter oranges hit my nose and made me cringe. I like alcohol as much as the next person, but this was just too much. My tastes went to whisky, the older the better. Alton, however, thought himself a connoisseur.
I glared at the shining liquid in the cracked glass. It was old, and anyone, lover of alcohol or not, would have paid good money to take the bottle off my hands. I tipped my head back and sucked it down in one swallow. Alton’s taste buds, aligned next to mine by ways that no scientist, biologist, paranormal investigator, or Giorgio Tsoukalos would ever be able to adequately explain, opened wide and rejoiced.
I winced at the after taste, waiting for my great-great-grandfather to speak up.
“Okay, try this,” he said after I put the tumbler down.
I waited. He hesitated for a brief moment before saying, “It wasn’t a dark and stormy night…”
“I’m not going to put that into the report.”
“Well, it wasn’t a dark and stormy night,” he pouted.
“It also wasn’t once upon a time, at least that‑”
The X-Files theme song played in the background. I glanced at the coffee table beyond a cut out window in my kitchen. My iPad sat open, Netflix streaming in front of an empty couch. A brief smile touched my lips and vanished again. I ran a hand through my hair and sighed. My house, apartment, whatever you wanted to call it, was an absolute mess. I had managed to bleach the white back into the parts of the walls where the brick didn’t show through stucco, and Pine Soled the wood floors to a reluctant shine – and the neglect smell was gone – but despite that or maybe because of it, every ding, nick, scratch, and gouge appeared before my eyes. Every nick, ding, scratch, and gouge, excluding the ones made by someone who was not me wielding a large hammer and working under a limited time window. Those I had to patch up by way of a helpful Home Depot employee and a lot of YouTube videos. They looked like shit, but I wasn’t cold at night. There was a different smell coming from the half bathroom, however. An unpleasant, almost permanent smell, like something had curled up and died ten years ago and the walls had simply sucked it up as a matter of course. I had gotten rid of the first smell, which put every gym in every part of the world to shame, but, like an onion, the ten year death smell had been underneath the gym layer, just waiting for someone to pull back and expose it.
It seemed as though I had been cleaning since I took up residence in Paiege, Utah, three months ago.
The thing I was currently discussing with Alton was a case, my very first case. At the time it seemed like the worst thing that could possibly have happened, happened. Thinking back, it had been a relief from the one woman HAZMAT squad I had become. I was only repeating the case to myself because it popped into my mind and I had nothing else to do but clean and listen to X-Files for the millionth time.
I was also trying to keep myself awake.
“Fine,” Alton sulked.
Three years ago, the night in question, was a lovely, and relatively bright evening. Most nights are bright in New Orleans, even the stormy ones with thunder coming in off the Ponchartrain and lightning blistering the sky…
“Because this report can’t start at the actual case, can it?” Alton sneered, rolling my eyes.
“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?”
“That doesn’t mean I’m going to listen. I’m older than you.”
“You’re also dead. So shut up.”
That suffocating July night I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been, saw something I shouldn’t have seen.
Circumstance, necessity, Fate, Alton, all of those things conspired thus that I was in the very wrong place at an extremely inconvenient time.
Crouched behind a mausoleum in Lafayette cemetery with a light rain pattering down on my head and shoulders, I saw my boss and girlfriend, Gladys Quintet, first toy with, and then murder, someone very important to the state of Louisiana. A single gunshot in the night, in a cemetery where every wine-o, drug addict, shady voodoo hongoun, homeless crazy, and teenager slept when Metairie was too full, went completely unnoticed. Gun still smoking, I watched Gladys stand off to one side and calmly light up a cigarette as two of her goons dropped the dead man into a freshly dug grave.
The logic was sound. Rather, it was sound for New Orleans. There were millions of bodies in Lafayette and Metairie combined. If the police had an idea that the dead man was in one of the graves, it would take them months and a strongly worded press conference to obtain the necessary permission to exhume every single grave. By then Gladys would have paid too many men off and come up with a passable excuse as to why she couldn’t have possibly killed the man and then buried him in a cemetery of all places. It was the last place anyone wanted to look. Better that he would be at the bottom of the Ponchartrain than the cemetery.
That night was where everything really began for me. I could be prosaic and say that’s where everything turned around, that night was when I got my life back on the straight and narrow-where I went down the path that all heroes took.
But Captain America I was not.
I was scared, crying, and coming up with every excuse in the lovesick book to convince myself there was no way Gladys could have done what I saw her do.
Alton took advantage of the situation and made a run for the nearest police station. In a falsetto voice, he told the cops everything and promised to show them where the important man was buried. In exchange for guaranteed testimony, he wanted protection from the Underground Queen and her swift retribution.
I hadn’t wanted any part of it. As desperately in love with Gladys as I was, I hadn’t wanted to believe anything Alton said or what I had seen over the years I spent with the woman. I hadn’t wanted to believe what she had put me through, either. I was in total denial, and happy to stay that way.
In the end, I had no other option. Alton wasn’t giving me one and, if I backed out of the deal with the state, they would get their woman anyway, and I would be tried and convicted right along with her. So, it took two paranoid filled years of work, but Gladys Quintet and her Underground were thrown into silver handcuffs and tucked behind bars. And I got my freedom.
In Paiege, Utah.
“Well done by the way,” Alton said, tracing the lines my thoughts made as a second glass of alcohol trickled down my throat. “Your testimony,” he clarified.
I raised an eyebrow. “Are you being sarcastic?”
“No. I mean it. You did well.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so I kept quiet.
Getting a compliment from Alton was like that scene in Jurassic Park when the kid sees the brontosaurus and tries to pet it. Sure, the thing is cute and gentle, with gigantic cow eyes and a dopey look on its face, but it also has a cold.
I shifted my gaze from cognac to window. Outside, lightning flashed, momentarily highlighting the Wasatch Front. The slightly charged scent of ozone drifted in through the open window.
I took a third drink.
“Are you going to stand there all night?”
“I’m thinking. Shut up.”