The Swamp Man

Steve Metcalf

 

Pale and gray, I find my way by streetlamps down to Hell.

For I was damned the day I was born to a daddy in a cell.

To a daddy in a cell.

Dazed under the naked moon, I know the end will find me soon.

Babbling comes up my throat. A melody I never know.

“Midnight Wine” Shannon & the Clams

 

Chapter Five

637 YEARS.

                I thought about Isabel a lot during that time. About our time together. About the future that could have been. About what her goal for me actually was. I think, originally, she had hoped to give me some sort of cursed immortality. That I couldn’t die. That I would be forced to re-live my mistakes over and over. And over. And over.

                She was partially successful. While she was, by now, long dead, she had succeeded in giving me more than half a millennium to consider my mistakes and to improve as a person. The former, okay. The latter, I’m not so sure. I suppose I could have accidentally bettered myself, but that was never my goal. I spent one short lifetime as a psychopath. Lashing out both emotionally and physically at anyone and anything I came into contact with.

                A real bastard.

                Any good that I had done up until that time was completely wiped out by that gruesome negativity. Even now, I cannot fathom the number of lives I ruined during that stint. It was only a few years before I went up against someone bigger, stronger and meaner than I was. He beat me to death with an axe handle. Pleasant dreams. Then I woke up in London, but we don’t need to talk about London. Karma.

                I’ve spent a great deal of those 15 lifetimes exploring the transitions between them. You see, it’s not like some sort of reincarnation where you die and then you’re reborn in the body of an infant ready to take its first breath of unfiltered fresh air. No. Nothing that simple.

                And, by the way, what is it with people who believe in reincarnation? I mean, the theory is pleasant. It’s impossible for humans to fathom what it means to simply not exist. When you die, you die. You’re done. To counter this notion, many feel you are reborn. Reincarnation. As you age through infancy, memories of your past life slowly dissolve. Or, maybe, you ascribe to the religious path. You die and if you’re good enough, you go to Heaven. Or Paradise. Or Moksha. Or Nirvana. Or the Elysian Fields. Some decide that it’s more like the paranormal. Your essence, your soul, simply floats around the universe. You might be tied to a location and haunt it. You might simply explore the stars.

                But, anyway, reincarnation. People always assume they were somebody famous in a past life. I was an African Queen. I was a nobleman who went down on the Titanic. I was a scientist who was killed for my knowledge. Nope. You died in childbirth. You died of old age after a lifetime working in a zip-tie factory in Temecula. You were killed in a drunk-driving collision.

                Which brings me back to my point.

                When I die, my consciousness isn’t injected into some fetus waiting to be born. It’s been close a couple times, but no. That’s part of the witch’s curse, I suppose. Both a lesson in humility and a chance to literally walk in someone else’s shoes.

                When I die, I must inhabit someone else who has just died. Take over their life. Blend my memories with theirs. Create some sort of successful hybrid. Taking both their life lessons and mine to build something better.

                15 times.

                To what end, I’m not sure. Long ago, I decided that this would probably be a forever thing. That I was doomed to this type of immortality. So, I started having fun with it. That’s when I started socking away gold, silver, jewelry. Each lifetime had something of either petty larceny or frugal living – either way, I was squirreling away several fortunes in total. They were getting easier to access with international travel and the like. Several caches had been uncovered due to construction or paved over due to construction. I have toyed with some level of bank account or safe deposit box. But the logistics are hard to work out.

                In any event, when I die, I’m given a brief respite from the world. I had seen several different versions of what Jones and Boots were talking about – the near-death experiences. I was giving them an insight based on the things I had seen … not simply theories. You see, when I die, I sort of float there for a bit. I know it’s a limited time, but I could never ascertain just how long in minutes, hours or days. But I was given brief glimpses into the types of choices I had. This baby passed away from sudden infant death syndrome. This teenager was hit by a car. This middle-aged man had a heart attack. There were usually three or four deaths from which I could pick. People who had been obliterated by a train, well, no. Not going to happen.

                The witch’s blessing, I suppose, was that whatever person I chose would be healed of whatever killed them … as long as it wasn’t a parachuting mishap, for example. A heart attack? Sure. Some piece of the curse allowed the body to fix itself. Drain toxins. Correct imperfections. Most often, by the time I woke up in my new body, while the outward appearance hadn’t changed, my internals were close to those of an 18-year-old athlete.

                Like young Riley, here. I still looked like a young man hefting a few extra pounds after graduating college and living on his own for a time. I still sounded like Riley. I still walked like Riley. But my heart and liver and brain and hearing. They were all almost a decade younger. Newer. Pristine machines. Yet my mind was almost six and a half centuries older. Curse of the witch. Smile of the victor. Two sides of a weird equation.

                But anyway, back to Jonesey.

* *

“SO, you’re asking me as a friend or as a cop?” Jones said.

                I don’t know why, but I was wandering around the apartment talking on my cell phone. Maybe it was a Riley habit. I can’t remember ever doing that before. I suppose I can’t say with any real certainty, but it seemed like I usually took phone conversations while seated peacefully. In this instance, I had made the call from in front of the murder wall. Walked through the kitchen, dining room, living room, back to the murder wall.

                I had gone through my theory with Jones. The heart medicine plus alcohol plus roofies.

                “As a cop, I suppose,” I said. “I think I’m just more frustrated than anything else. Mad if this strange set of circumstances led to her death.”

                There was silence on the other end of the line. Jones was off duty today. Our small town only had three detectives on the force, and they rotated. While Jones had been on-call for serious crimes last weekend, this weekend he was off.

                “Is there anything we can do?”

                More silence.

                “There wasn’t an autopsy, man,” Jones finally said. “And, generally, criminal investigations start with, you know, a crime. I can start poking around. But it would be strictly off the books unless something came to light. Kind of a shot in the dark.”

                I nodded. Prosecutorial investigations don’t really start out of the blue. There has to be some sort of crime scene. Some sort of evidence. Some sort of allegations of wrongdoing. The anguished cries of a grieving boyfriend don’t really amount to much in the eyes of the criminal justice system.

                I could hear some click-clacking from his keyboard. Jones was looking something up. In response, I sat down at the small writing desk in the office-bedroom.

                “I suppose we could pull a tox report from cremated remains,” he said. “It’s rare and far from conclusive. But it might point us in the right direction. Something toward an ADE. That’s adverse drug event for you commoners.” He laughed.

                “Douche. Yes. I know.” It was sort of an automatic Riley response, and it elicited a nervous laugh from Jones. Two friends, but the tension was high. This wasn’t exactly a social call.

                “Where are the, uh, remains?”

                “Currently being dumped into San Francisco Bay,” I said, frowning.

                Jones sighed.

                “Well, that certainly makes it more challenging,” he said. “You said her parents are offline?”

                I nodded to the phone.

                The laptop had gone to sleep, and the screensaver was some sort of slideshow. It was running through various photos. Vacations. Family events. Rooms. Before and after Halloween costumes. Several pictures of Tracy through high school. Dances. Football games. Once again, I could feel Riley’s sadness deep down below the surface. Once again, it struck me just how weird this damn curse was.

                “Yeah,” I finally replied. I jiggled the mouse on the desktop to erase the slideshow to get back to the web browser I had left open. “I think they’re using an old-school Garmin for navigation. Phones in the glove box for nothing but the direst emergency. They wanted silence and clarity to say goodbye.”

                “Uh huh,” Jones said. “I totally get that.”

                He was silent, matching my own silence.

                “Are you doing okay, man?”

                He must have picked up on something in my voice. Thickening of the vocal cords, maybe. Or maybe he was just taking this silent moment to question the true nature of the call.

                “Yeah,” I said. “I suppose. Just still coming to terms with everything. Grasping at straws, possibly. I never trusted this Jackson guy. And if he had any little thing to do with her death. I’ll tear him apart.”

                “Hey, whoa, whoa,” Jones said. “You’ll do no such thing. Dramatic language or not, you’re going to let me handle this. I’ll see if I can get ahold of the parents. Somehow. They were planning on dumping all the ashes in the Bay?”

                “Far as I know.”

                “Okay,” he said. “I’ll see if I can get to them. I need you to stay cool, though. I know you, dude. You’re a calm guy, but you can let yourself get all worked up. Remember that party when Destiny came out?”

                No. I had no idea what he was talking about. Some glitch in the Riley Show. But I grunted in the affirmative. In context, it was clear that I was supposed to remember. And, apparently, I had boiled over during some video game party.

                “Yeah,” he said. “Exactly. Let me track some of this stuff down. I’m in the office tomorrow. Meet for lunch?”

                Again, I nodded to the phone like an idiot.

                “Yeah,” I replied. “Meet you at the precinct.”

                We hung up and I stood up. Patted my pockets for keys and wallet and walked out of the apartment. Suddenly, I needed some fresh air. Suddenly, the atmosphere of my little apartment felt heavy. Soupy. It was tough to breathe. The Riley Murder Mystery was coming to a head. Maybe. There was still something nagging at me in the back of my head. Something Jonesey had said, maybe? Not sure.

                But I needed to get outside. Like, right now-ish.

* *

WHILE RILEY DIDN’T LIVE DOWNTOWN, he was only about a mile away from any sort of shopping district. I decided to just get out of the apartment complex and start walking. It was a nice afternoon. Cool breeze. I wanted to wander a bit and clear my head. Even though I, me, had no personal connection to Tracy, the entire situation was making me ill. This was a young girl. That she might have died simply because some low-life was looking to take advantage of her after an office party – I was filled with rage. Seething. My fight-or-flight response was in full tilt and it was making my entire body feel heated.

                The walk was doing wonders, however.

                Maybe it was the wind. Or the cars rushing by on the street. Or the friendly, smiling faces sharing the sidewalk with me. I decided this was a pleasant town. And then I realized I didn’t really know what Riley’s job was.

                “I bet I have work tomorrow,” I muttered under my breath. “I’ll probably call in sick.”

* *

I HAD MADE IT to the first small shopping area along this street. It was an anchor drugstore with five or six little shops running in a line away from it. Looked like a barber. Sandwich place. Nail salon. Comic book store. The place on the opposite end of the big drugstore was a karate school. There was a class of youngsters in there. Maybe six pre-teens all in white gis. Flailing about in less-than-perfect unison. I could hear their chants through the single-pane glass at the front of the building. As I turned to leave, something caught my eye.

                While the class had continued chanting and completing their kick-punch-turn rotation, the instructor had stopped mid-instruction. He was looking at me, mouth open, head cocked a bit sideways.

                It was Jackson.

                I saw him. He saw me. I smiled and turned to walk away, a plan forming in my mind. An outline, at least. A way I could start bringing this thing to a conclusion.

* *

A QUICK STOP to the drugstore and I jogged back home.

* *

BACK INSIDE I peeled off my shirt. Even though it was a cool afternoon, I was sweating. Excitement. Anxiety. Activity. I thought I had figured out a way through this – to the resolution of what had happened. How I might get some measure of justice for Tracy. A certain amount of puzzle pieces had snapped into place during the walk. Like tumblers in a lock.

                I opened the fridge to grab a cold drink. Soda. Water. Beer. Gatorade. Whatever. I grabbed a cold can of cola and noticed a bottle of water. It was a different label than the one in my bag from yesterday.

                “What?”

                I took the can of soda and the bottle of water, hip-checked the door closed, and walked into the living room. The unopened water was still sitting on the coffee table. The brand was one I had never heard of. Irish River. With a line drawing of said river. Trees. Rocks. The one from my refrigerator was a no-name brand. No drawing. Soft blue lettering. Pure Stream, it said. Must be a store brand or something. Like Costco’s version of some popular bottled water or something.

                Then I thought for a moment. Stood up and walked to the kitchen trash. The empty bottle was in there. I hadn’t bothered to empty the trash since waking up in young Riley’s world. There it was. Same brand. Irish River.

                I didn’t know why, but I opened the bottle and was hit with a smell. A non-water smell. There was about a quarter inch of water sloshing around the bottom of the plastic. I closed the container back up again and walked it back to the living room. Lined them up on the coffee table. Full. Open. Full. Can of soda. I sat down and looked at them all and furrowed my brow.

                If I was loading up a backpack to spend the day in the desert, I would have pulled resources from my own pantry, right? Why wouldn’t I have Pure Stream with me? Maybe I bought it along the way. Hit a gas station to grab some snacks and whatnot. The wreckage was a couple hours out of town. The tank was nearly full on the return trip, so Riley must have stopped to fill up. Perhaps he, I, had grabbed some snacks at the same time. Maybe that was the plan all along.

                Once again, I looked at the empty bottle.

                I stood, with the bottle still in hand. Soda forgotten. Shirt forgotten. Shower forgotten.

                I stood for a moment in front of the murder wall and took Riley’s cell phone out of my front left pants pocket. Hit a number.

                “This is Jones,” came the now-familiar voice from the other end of the line.

                “I’ve got another question for you.”

* *

“I THINK YOU’RE GRASPING AT STRAWS, man,” Jones said. “Maybe you should take a few days off. It’s Beth, right? Your boss? She’s cool. Likely she’ll let you take some sort of bereavement or something.” There was silence on the other end of the line. It was like Jones was doing some math. Trying to calculate if he’d gone over the line. “Those could have been the last two of that particular brand of water and you took them to finish off that case. Or, like you said, maybe you stopped and bought a couple drinks and some snacks on the way. I get the sense you might be adding things into an equation that simply doesn’t exist.”

                I was trapped. He was partially right. The key ingredient here was that Riley had died. That’s the missing factor in the so-called equation. Solve for X. X being the murder of a young man in the New Mexico desert. Put two and two together – the only reason I could take over Riley’s body was that he had died. Died of a heart attack? Okay. A brain aneurism? Possibly. Was he killed? I don’t know. I knew that I went out there – or at least had planned on going out there – with Jackson. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember why I was heading out there with Jackson. I truly had no evidence that he was actually there with me. When I came to, I was alone. Me and the cactus and the shattered remains of a long-dead airplane.

                I couldn’t tell Jones the entire truth. Because the entire truth would have to start with the witch. More than 600 years ago. Not your typical murder mystery. Laugh of the devil.

                “Wait a minute,” Jones said. “What did you say that water bottle smelled like?”

                After a few more minutes of discussion, we hung up. I went to take a shower. Clean and fresh, I put the two Irish River bottles back on the coffee table. The soda and Pure Stream back in the fridge. I started making myself some dinner and sent texts to two different numbers. Both with the same message.

                Tomorrow.

                9 am.

Wreckage.