The Swamp Man

Steve Metcalf

 

What a pleasure to have let you in a world as cold as this.

What a heartbreak, what a sadness, what a tragedy in your kiss.

There’s a jewel in the crown. There’s a rose in the weeds.

I will not beg for what I want and I will ask for what I need.

“A Taste of Silver” Until the Ribbon Breaks

Chapter Four

WITH A NAME LIKE LITTLE YORK, he looked just about how I’d expected. We decided to meet at a coffee shop, not +COFFEE, but some random chain franchise monstrosity with overpriced, overcooked mud. Ten o’clock in the morning. Sunday. I sat at a small, circular table in the back corner sipping a black coffee when he walked in.

                Snap.

                The firecracker memory went off. His current appearance wasn’t done any justice by the profile snapshot on Riley’s murder wall. But the memories came back in a hurry. It took all of three seconds for my brain to categorize these various new scenes from the Riley Show – the stuff that had to do with Mr. York.

                Full name, Julius York. Nickname of “Little” since he was in the second grade. A small man, he received his fair share of bullying. Grew into a bright adult. Took three gap years between high school and college. Did some exploring. Worked some hard labor. Did some urban exploring. Has a YouTube channel where he broadcasts various finds. Currently a senior with a strange double major. Chemistry and Computer Science. Not so strange, maybe. Smart guy. All told, he was about the same age as me and Tracy.

                Working part time at +COFFEE. Thin, wiry frame punctuated by numerous tattoos that were now creeping up the right side of his neck. Some sort of Bengal Tiger or something. His ears, formerly gauged, had been surgically repaired, but only recently, as he still had scars on the newly-corrected lobes. For some reason, he was wearing red fingernail polish on his right hand and blue on his left.

                I shrugged.

                Little York.

                Through his urban explorer show, he’s the one who introduced me to the wreckage.

                “Hey, man,” York said, stepping sideways through the crowd and sat down across from me. He pulled a bottle of water out of his patch-covered messenger bag. Offered it to me and I shook my head. Something bothered me about the gesture, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

                “York,” I answered, taking a sip from my coffee. My second cup of the morning. “How’s it going?”

                “I’m okay,” he said, twisting off the lid of the water bottle and taking a big swig. He screwed the cap on, put the bottle on the table and leaned forward. “But, how are you? Are you okay?”

                I put the coffee down and squinted a little at my tablemate.

                “What are you getting at, man?”

                “Sorry, Vantch. Look, I know you’re not a friend of Jackson’s. I just wanted to pass something along to you. This guy Jared and I are both part time at Plus. We don’t cross paths a whole lot. But we did on Friday. He had mentioned that Jackson was looking to buy some,” York leaned forward and adopted a conspiratorial tone. “Rohypnol tablets. Roofies. When I heard you were heading out to the wreckage with him. I don’t know. I guess I thought he was up to no good. Something. I don’t know. He’s not a good dude, dude.”

                “Jared,” I said. “Right. I know him. I think. I vaguely remember a conversation.”

                It was like trying to build a jigsaw puzzle with no overall image. Trying to put sections together and hoping to glean the totality of the picture from the tiny pieces. I was still not getting any real memories of this Jackson character. York, to his credit looked worried and then relieved to see me.

                “Thanks, man,” I said, folding my hands on the tabletop. “I appreciate the concern. Everything’s fine. Made it to the wreckage. Made it back.”

                Little Julius York nodded. Took another sip of his water. It was a whole process, but I watched all the way through.

                “You get any good pictures?”

                I started to answer and realized I was a bad detective. In looking at the murder wall, I had neglected my own death. Something about the water was bothering me. And I hadn’t really dug through Riley’s phone. Honestly, I didn’t know if I had taken any pictures. Or not. They might be a key to why I had gone out there in the first place.

                Rather than give him the honest answer, which would have been troubling, I simply nodded and smiled. Took a sip from my own drink and rested it back down on the table.

                “Hey, thanks for coming to the ceremony for Tracy,” I said.

                Again, York nodded.

                “You got it. She was cool. It was a nice ceremony.”

                It was my turn to nod.

                “Yeah. Her parents are right now taking an off-the-grid road trip to scatter half her ashes over the Pacific. They took it hard. Understandable.”

                “Yeah,” Little York said. “Understandable.”

                He drained his water and put the empty back in his bag.

                “Look, man, I got a shift. I gotta go,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay. This Jackson dude gives me the creeps. When I heard it, I dunno. It just seemed weird you heading out there with him and all.”

                I nodded my thanks.

                “I appreciate your concern, man. I really do.” I smiled and saluted him with my coffee cup. “Have a good shift.”

                York stood to leave and waved the peace sign at me. He turned to the door and I stopped him.

                “When did you say this transaction went down?”

                He turned and thought for a moment.

                “Ten days ago?” he said, thinking back. “Two weeks. Somewhere in there.”

                “Okay, thanks, man,” I thought for a moment. “Hey, one more thing. How did you know I was heading out to the plane?”

                York shrugged.

                “Uh,” he said, genuinely thinking. “Your boy Teddy mentioned it. Stopped in the morning of. Made a big show that you were taking Jackson and not him and Jones.” Then he waved. “Swing by and I’ll hook you up with a scone or something,” he grinned and left.

                I sat for a moment longer wondering what it was I had just learned. Exactly which jigsaw pieces I had fitted together this morning. I finished my coffee and stood up to leave.

* *

I HAD WORRIED AT FIRST that I would start losing track of the curse. Failing to remember the different lifetimes. Forgetting some sort of lesson I was supposed to be learning. Praying for the sweet release of death over and above any message. The worry didn’t last long. I never lost track of anything. Even as some lifetimes went the distance. Seventy or eighty years in a body that had never been mine. My brain was crisp. Sharp.

                I spent one entire lifetime depressed. Fifty years of not wanting to get out of bed. Fifty years of hiding from social interactions. That was the one right after London. It took a while to get over it. Eventually, I did. After the marathon of depression, I started making changes. Squirreling away physical assets. Gold. Cash. Coins. Making mental notes of shipwrecks. Wealthy civilizations that were wiped from the face of the Earth without leaving so much as a trace. Information came to me easily. And to keep my mind sharp, I started toying with thought experiments. Mary and the Black and White Room. The Impossible Barber. The Chinese Room. The Ship of Theseus.

                That was a favorite. Before the Swampman, of course. The Ship of Theseus and its simpler cousin, My Grandfather’s Axe, both delt with the dynamics of identity distribution. Replacement. As I mentioned earlier, of course I was drawn to these.

                My Grandfather’s Axe was pretty straightforward. You inherited an axe owned by your grandfather. A cherished item. Decades pass and the wood of the axe handle begins to deteriorate. Rots away. You take the axe handle to a master woodworker and have a new one made. Same type of wood. Same style. Same color. His final act is to attach the axe head to the new handle.

                The years continue to pass. Soon, the axe head itself begins failing. The metal is pitted with age. Chipped. Rusting away. The blade cracks and is unusable. The poll, the blunt end, begins splitting. You, again, take the axe to a master craftsman. A blacksmith who replicates the axe head exactly. Same metals. Same angles. Same edges. He replaces the head on the handle and gives it back to you.

                It is then that you hold the axe – a new handle and a new head – and realize that nothing about this axe, physically, remains from the one you inherited. Is it still your grandfather’s axe? Is the idea of the axe enough to maintain its identity? The memory of the axe? What is more important, the physical being or the soul?

                I thought science would come up with some answer. Or, at least, some sort of line of demarcation where the person is no longer the person.

                No such luck.

                Based on cell regeneration, the entirety of the body’s skin is shed and replaced every 27 days. The heart replaces itself at a cellular level every three years. Due to the regenerative properties of the body’s cells, some have tried to calculate that we’re walking around in a totally different body every seven years. The theory doesn’t exactly work, however, as some cells never regenerate. The ones you are born with are the ones that grow old and die with you. Neurons in the cerebral cortex are not replaced. When these cells are lost over time, the result is dementia and other memory challenges. Parts of the eye, also. While the cornea can regenerate in about 24 hours, cells of the lens do not regenerate. Ever.

                It’s a cute theory. Sounds nice. But it’s not wholly correct.

* *

IT’S TIME TO GET SERIOUS about solving this mess. It would put my mind at ease and let me move forward with my new life.

It looks like Riley had already done most of the heavy lifting. I was just trying to figure out what he already knew. It was bizarre that the Shade Fog as I liked to call it was still around as thickly as it was. I was starting to cut through it – the Riley Show metaphor was still holding up. But there were so many holes. As I sat on a park bench, I had another firecracker.

Snap.

                Katy from Tracy’s work. I started putting together some memories of her. Nothing special. Nothing deep. But she was at the ceremony and made it a point to come up to me after. Nothing flirtatious. Just crying and consolation. Plus, she was right there on the murder wall. Katy’ll keep me out of trouble. Clearly, Katy and Tracy were friends.

                I remembered she had an apartment in town and took a chance that she’d be available for a chat. Riley had her name stored in his phone as KATY – TRACY’S WORK which meant that they had communicated at least a little.

Now we’re sitting at some lunch spot. Italian place. Sidewalk café.

                Small talk is tough when you don’t remember your half of a relationship. What is off-limits? What has already been discussed? Is Katy afraid of clowns? So, I probably shouldn’t bring up my adventures at the circus last month. I chose to center only on neutral topics. The weather. Local sports teams. The food itself.

               “Thank you for meeting with me, Katy, I really appreciate it,” I said as I could feel the meal winding up. We were both running out of food and running out of conversation. It was fine. Anticipated awkwardness. Expected, even. She was friendly with my dead girlfriend. Not me.

                “Thank you for calling,” she said, smiling. She wiped the corners of her mouth with the fabric napkin and placed it atop her nearly-empty plate. “I was wondering how you were holding up.”

                I nodded and smiled. I had lost enough loved ones over the centuries to falsely mimic the look of pain. I could draw on real pain. And, oddly enough, there was still a little residual pain in the Riley-brain. It was something I could never get a handle on. The fact that something remained of the deceased person. Actually, it’s not all that uncommon. There was always something. Voice inflection. Mannerisms. Emotions. Feelings. Certain things always came bubbling to the surface. On more than one occasion, I’ve noticed myself making faces, smiling, hefting an eyebrow that seemed to come from the other.

Point was, I dropped an “I’m sad” smile from Riley’s repertoire. Something to put Katy at ease. It seemed to work.

                “I have to admit I had something of an ulterior motive,” I said, also putting my napkin on the plate. “I had a question about Jackson.”

Katy nodded, maybe a bit wary, but she didn’t storm away.

                “Little York told me he had heard that Jackson was in the market for some roofies. I know he worked with you guys. The information just struck me wrong. The timing of it. Did you know anything about it? Hear anything around the office?”

                 Katy would have made a terrible poker player. The emotions flashed all across her face. They pinged in some sort of order. There was anger in there. Confusion. Frustration. Horror. A whole bunch of stuff in sequence. Perhaps she didn’t feel it was necessary to hide anything from me. Riley. Maybe I wasn’t giving her enough credit.

Finally, she spoke.

                “We, uh, we talked about this,” she said. “I have no proof of it, but I worried that Jackson was going to try to use them on Tracy. Take advantage of her after the office party. You confronted him. Or, at least you were planning to out at the Wreckage.”

                Crack.

                I must have had a look of shock on my face because it confused Katy. I was absorbing this new info and dealing with the burst of memories. An episode of the Riley Show. Starring Katy Something.

It was after the ceremony. Friday. Katy had sought me out.

                “I don’t want you to freak out,” she had said, touching my right bicep with her left hand. “There’s some weird rumor going around that Jackson was after Tracy. That he was gonna lay the mack on her. Come to find out they used to call him The Shark at his old job. Had a history of stuff like that. Never left any kind of evidence. Preyed on the weak.”

                She got quiet for a moment. Even in the memory, I could feel my heartbeat pounding. Fists clenching. The blood rushing to my face. The blush spreading down my neck to my chest. The anger boiling over. The heat of the tears on my cheeks. Katy put her hands on my chest to stabilize me.

               “You need to not lose it, Riley,” she said, looking up at my face. Sincere. Her face, blurry through my tears, but it was lined with concern. “You should call your friend. The cop.”

I remember nodding.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll call him. Thank you for letting me know.”

Back to the present, I nodded at Katy.

“Yes,” I said. “You’re right. I guess I just wanted to make sure I was remembering it correctly. Let me pick up the check.”

* *

I WALKED DIRECTLY INTO THE SECOND BEDROOM and sat down at the small writing desk. There was a laptop resting in the center on a small charging station. I fired it up and looked to my right at the murder wall. At the printed profile picture of the late Tracy Macy. Riley’s investigation was both unraveling and recreating itself at the same time. Growing and dissolving. It was hard to keep everything straight. At least Riley had known all the players going in. I continued to play catch-up in an investigation that had already concluded.

                With a soft ping sound, the laptop announced that it was ready for action. No password.

                Smile of the victor.

                I’m sure if there had been a password, I could have tracked it down in my memory. Even better would have been a facial recognition security feature. Riley’s face, of course, was now my face.

                 With the laptop open, I sat and stared at the screen. The wallpaper image was me and Tracy. Standing shoulder to shoulder, smiling, some water behind us. We were on a beach. The memory crashed over me like a wave. I couldn’t stop it and just had to let the memory roll past. It was a date. Something cheesy like a three-month anniversary. Something new parents do with their children. Their babies. Celebrating every week.

                We took a short trip directly south. Small hotel room that we overpaid for. Right on the beach. It was wonderful. I could smell the salt in the air. I could hear the wind. I could feel the sun on my face. I shook myself out of the memory, finally, and stared back at the screen. I had to take a moment and wipe the tears out of my eyes. Leaning back, I looked at the notes I had made on the murder wall. Gazed over all the pictures and screen captures.

Something caught my eye.

                “Heart pills,” I said to myself. There was a reason that had jumped out to Riley. A reason he had put it on the murder wall. The short text conversation. I glossed over it a bit early on, like, maybe he was feeling some level of regret. Now it sounded more like a clue.

“What were you onto, Riley?” I asked.

                I leaned back in the task chair, feeling it groaning against my body weight. I took a quiet moment, just listening to my breathing and the soft thump of my heartbeat. I was running through Riley’s mental files, everything he knew about the medications Tracy had been taking.

                Heart medication. It was uncommon for someone so young to deal with hypertension, but not impossible. Got it. The name of the medication. Riley had, I had, picked it up from the pharmacy a couple times. Benefits of small-town life, I suppose. I leaned back forward in the task chair and started typing on the laptop keyboard. The danger of taking two doses. The danger of overdosing. Common side effects. I made notes on the small cards on the edge of the desk.

                “It slowed your heartbeat,” I said to the room. “You had taken your dose in the morning and then took another one at lunch. You probably felt a little lightheaded.”

                Gazing at the photo on the murder wall. The string line that connected Tracy to the bar to Jackson. I had originally thought it was just the connection between co-workers and the after-work party. But Katy wasn’t linked. Neither was Joan. Both co-workers.

I leaned forward again and started searching for some more side effects of the medication.

Taking meds with alcohol. Taking double dose of meds with alcohol.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up.

                That was it. I rubbed my eyes with the palms of both hands at the same time. Right on right, left on left. Leaned forward again and typed.

Double dose of medication. Plus alcohol. Plus Rohypnol. Roofies. The date rape drug.

Snap.

                I had made the same searches only a couple days ago and the memory was wide open. Yes. That combination could slow the pulse down to dangerous, lethal levels. Bradycardia. She had died of a heart attack, but only technically. The cardiac arrest was brought on artificially. Unintentionally, but artificially.

               “Son of a bitch,” I said to the room. “I’m sorry, baby.” I looked at the photo posted in the center of the murder wall. Shook my head. Grabbed my cell phone. Something bothered me. A memory buried in there. Riley had already done this. What was I missing?

I texted York.

Remind me. Who sold Jackson the roofies?

                It was a few minutes before he responded. I was a bit shocked, but pieces of the puzzle were starting to come together. I just wasn’t sure of the final picture.

               Maybe some clarity would come. Then, something from my conversation with Katy came back to light. I have a friend who’s a cop. A brief moment of scrolling through Riley’s mental rolodex.

              “Damn,” I said again. Jones. Jones is a cop. Recently promoted to detective after five stellar years on the force. How about that?

I scrolled through the phone to find his number and pushed the little green CALL icon.

 

**