The Swamp Man
All your kin have all gone on to fields all bathed in sun.
And the only thing left in your possession is an empty bottle and a gun.
And the weekends come and go like tides, and they soak you to the neck.
And pretty soon the weekdays are all the same.
“Bringin’ Home the Rain” The Builders and the Butchers
IT WAS SOMETHING ABOUT THE EYES, I guess. With 15 completely different lives I suppose the first thing I looked at was my hands. Lines. Callouses. Dirt. Grime. Cuts and scars. But, later, it was the eyes. People might think that the old adage about the eyes being the window to the soul was a load of crap. Somehow, though, it’s true.
It wasn’t always the first thing I did, but it had somehow gotten away from me with Riley. The craziness of the Tracy murder wall seemed to throw everything out of whack. But I had finally taken the time to look.
It was Monday morning. I had slept fine the previous night. I felt like I finally had put all the clues together about the events of the last week. Tracy’s death. Riley’s death. My awakening at the wreckage. I was standing in the bathroom, towel around my waist. Fog decorating the corners of the mirror. I leaned forward and finally had a good look at Riley’s eyes. Green. Very pale. There were some bright yellow flecks. They were spaced unevenly. A pattern in its non-pattern-ness. Quite interesting.
I took a deep breath, smiled at my reflection, and finished getting ready.
THE WRECKAGE LOOKED DIFFERENT in the morning light. With fresh eyes. With a brain that wasn’t busy resetting itself after dying and coming back to life. With the time taken to actually look around. It truly was a sight.
I had reached the site an hour before the intended time. I drove the Bronco the mile-plus off the road and parked in a flat section near the plane. I spent the time walking around. It wasn’t much of a tourist attraction, so the government hadn’t bothered with any paved parking lots, souvenir shops or gaudy information booths. There was a small plaque near the front of the ruin. It was basically a mystery. Originally discovered in the late 1980s, officials had never been able to identify the aircraft. There were no flight plans. No passenger manifests. Nothing.
The plaque mentioned the type of aircraft, the year manufactured and that was about it. Everything beyond that was a mystery.
I continued walking. Gentle, sloping dunes. Scrub vegetation. Tiny, mitten-shaped cacti. I found the spot where I had awoken. It was then that I had another small firecracker moment. Not from that day, but from maybe a few weeks … or even months … past.
I was meeting Tracy for lunch. We didn’t work too far away from each other, but still didn’t make a habit out of it. We both wanted to ensure we remained individuals to strengthen the couple. A notion she brought into the relationship, and I didn’t disagree. I remember something about her being burned in college. A relationship that overwhelmed her individuality. She was bound and determined not to let that happen again. I was waiting to cross the street to get to her and she was waiting outside the building. We hadn’t made plans on where to eat, just that we’d meet at her lobby entrance.
A small group of men approached her. She had just noticed me and waved, smiling, across the intersection. I waved back. Could actually feel my arm move up in the dream and waggle back and forth. The man at the head of the three took notice of Tracy and gave her the elevator eyes. In other words, looked her up and down and back up again. Her face down to her legs and back up to her chest. He gently elbowed one of the other two men in the side and pointed to her. I could feel myself getting mad inside the memory. I suppose, guys can be a bit predictable. But, damn. So obvious. The three men walked past her and turned to enter the building. The man who had taken the time to drink her in gave her rear a lingering look until his friends pulled him into the building.
And they were gone.
I wasn’t sure at that time what I was watching. Who they were. Where they worked. But, now, I could build some context around the scenario.
Riley would find out later, but I only knew from his profile picture on the murder wall. He worked in the building with Tracy. Katy didn’t trust him. Said he had a reputation. He was something of a cad, they would have said in decades past.
Riley’s distrust for him began almost immediately.
Tracy continued expressing her innocence, reassuring Riley there was nothing to worry about. She had zero interest in Jackson. Even if she wasn’t in a relationship, the man simply creeped her out. He, she said, couldn’t be trusted.
And then, ejecting me from this episode of the Riley Show, the sound of an approaching car. Tires on gravel. The gentle whine of brakes. I heard a car door open and then close. I was on the other side of the crash, so I stepped around to the front, breathing deeply.
I was nervous, but confident. This type of confrontation could go anywhere.
As I crested the ruined nose of the wind-ravaged aircraft I first saw his car and then him.
“I WAS A LITTLE SHOCKED to get your text, man,” Boots said, standing by the hood of his car. He spoke loudly as I was still about 20 yards away. He wore a pair of blue jeans and a light gray t-shirt. The logo of some tennis shoe company splashed in yellow across his chest. “What’s this all about?”
For me, I was dressed even more casually. Cargo shorts. T-shirt and a Columbia windbreaker. Riley, for whatever reason, seemed to have a closet full of them. Oddly enough, I was wearing a pair of sneakers that matched the brand of Boots’s shirt. I had both hands in my pockets. I kept walking forward. I had the same backpack Riley wore Saturday morning slung over one shoulder. It was light. Only carrying a couple objects. Probably more of a histrionic accoutrement than anything else.
I closed the distance to about 10 yards and stopped. He came forward a few paces.
“I bet you were shocked to see me come through the door at Melters, Teddy,” I said. Not smiling. Not scowling. Just the facts. A question buried inside a statement.
To his credit, he didn’t really react. Just a twitch at the corner of his mouth. The eyes, however, moved rapidly, taking in their surroundings.
“I don’t really follow,” he said, grinning now. “We were supposed to meet there. Jones and I got there a little early, is all.”
I grinned a little at that, but it was calculated. I hid some sad irony in it. A smile that said Sure you did. Of course.
“You were smart about it, I suppose,” I said. “But you made two huge mistakes.”
I continued walking forward, hands in pockets. I shifted my left shoulder, gently hefting the backpack. Holding it in place. It hadn’t moved, of course. It was more of a nervous tic than anything.
“You did a nice job hiding behind Jackson,” I continued, now about five feet away from him. I stopped walking and cocked my head sideways. Like a puppy hearing an unfamiliar sound. “I wonder. Did you help Riley build that murder wall? Were you somehow pulling the strings? You must have been mad when the newspaper article mentioned you as the designated driver. DD. Teddy Hoffman. AKA, Boots.”
“What are you talking about, man?” Boots said, the same muscle twitch at the corner of his mouth. Again, he glanced around. Was he waiting for backup? Did he send someone out here early? Now that I think about it, he was a bit early. It was still only about 8:45.
I shrugged both shoulders.
“Maybe I’m crazy,” I said. “Talking out of my ass. I remember Tracy having other suitors in high school. Maybe a boyfriend or two in college. Maybe one who made a big play for her while he was on a gap year. I don’t know. Not all the memories have come back into focus, yet. But I’m getting there.” I paused for a moment, taking a deep, steadying breath. “You got pretty lucky, though, didn’t you? When I came to you with concerns about Jackson? But still, like I said, two mistakes. Well, three, really. The third one is the problem.”
He was quiet. He shrugged his shoulders also, just a big play, sort of a You’re being nuts, man gesture.
“I bet you did help him set up that big corkboard,” I said. “You knew you were in trouble, though, when Riley started asking different questions.”
“Like, where did Jackson get the Rohypnol? Sure, he was a sleaze, but he still had to get them from somewhere. It was you,” I said, grinning that sad grin again. “You gave them to him. But you were a designated driver that night for Tracy’s company. And the sleaze gave you a plan. You dosed Tracy. I bet you gave her a bottle of water in your car. Claimed it would help her sober up. It was your first mistake. A terrible one. But not your worst. She had accidentally taken a double-dose of her blood pressure meds that day. Plus a bunch of alcohol at the work party’s open bar. Then a dose of roofies. Literally stopped her heart. What is it? Unintentional murder? Manslaughter, I think.”
“Hey, man,” Boots said, holding his hands up, palms out. “This is crazy.”
“But, there was a problem. Riley didn’t believe it was just a heart attack like the official report said. He started digging. Talked to Katy. Found out about Jackson wanting to make a play for Tracy. Talked to Little York. Found out more about Jackson. Maybe York had a theory about the date-rape drug. Maybe that came later. So, you stepped in to help your buddy build some sort of amateur investigation. That way, you could steer him away from the truth.”
Boots had put his arms back down to his sides. The muscles in his face were slumped, but his shoulders were tense. Ready for some sort of action.
“But something went wrong, didn’t it? Something that shifted the blame. So you had to take care of him yourself. What was it? Riley chased the Rohypnol too hard, right? Found out the truth. That you were the supplier. You were the DD. You had the crush on Tracy. He had changed his hypothesis and you found out about it. That’s why the calls and texts. The warnings from York went unanswered. You lured him out here. And then spread the rumors about Riley coming out here with Jackson. Went on and on about how you’ve never been to The Wreckage. Made a big show of it at the restaurant.”
Boots now had his hands on his hips.
“Dude, you’re crazy. I don’t know where any of this is coming from.”
“Still have that rodent problem out at the farmhouse?” I asked.
His eyes narrowed for a moment and then went wide.
“That was your second mistake. You left the water bottle here,” I said as I reached back into the backpack and pulled an empty bottle of Irish River out. I held it in my left hand. “Phosphine. It’s a gas that is formed when rat poison mixes with water or stomach acid. It’s what kills. Problem is, it leaves a weird smell. Something like fishy garlic. Or garlic-y fish.” I wobbled the bottle back and forth, sloshing the remaining water hard enough that it actually made a noise.
Boots sprang into action, he jumped forward and snatched the bottle out of my hand, and then jumped back. It was a quick move, but I was ready for it. I sidestepped a knee that was intended for my groin and let him step away. He quickly opened the bottle and waved out the remaining water, kicking the dirt around and then dropped the bottle to let it air out. Seemingly, to remove any traces of rat poison from the container. This action completed, Boots stood with his feet spread wide – a tad wider than shoulder width. He pulled a gun from the waistband at the small of his back. He pointed it at me. I stood still. Right hand still in my pocket. Left hand, that had held the water bottle, hung limply at my side.
“Yes, you son of a bitch,” Boots said. “You kept digging. I don’t know why. You hated Jackson. He was a douchebag. It took two seconds to pin the rape drug on him. I felt terrible about Tracy. Loved her. But I wasn’t going to jail over it. A dumbass mistake.”
“But not your last,” I said and flicked my eyes over his right shoulder. A quick movement, but one just visible enough, just hidden enough, to give him pause. A moment of confusion and I leapt forward.
I had spent several lifetimes in various military service units. Professional training as well as alley-fights. Boots was bigger than me, but he stood no chance.
I jumped forward and spun 180 degrees trapping his outstretched gun arm in my right armpit. In one continuous motion, I continued the spin, disarming him with the circular movement, elbowing him in the throat with my left arm and them punching him square in the face as my right fist continued back through the additional 180 degrees. The force was a product of momentum and anger. He had staggered from the elbow to the throat, and he dropped instantly from the broken nose. It was as if his knees had suddenly lost a battle against gravity. He fell to the ground emitting a sound much like BOOF.
Even before his body had completed its bounce against the front bumper of his car, I had reached down and scooped up the pistol, knelt down and held it at the ready in my left hand.
“You’ve got nothing,” he said. “I just dumped your poison water out. I got rid of all the rat poison at my house. Why didn’t you die, you bastard? I put enough in that water to kill five men.”
“Oh,” I said smiling. “You thought that was the water bottle with the poison in it? Remember how you marked the dosed bottle? The little blue dot? No. That was the clean water. The instrument of my death is still locked away safely. Why did Riley have two water bottles? Why did you give him one clean and one contaminated?” I was quiet for a moment. So was Boots. “It’s no matter. What’s done is done.”
I reached back into my pocket with the right hand and pulled out a small device. It was the digital recorder I had purchased at the drugstore. Amplified microphone. I overpaid, but it was okay. I let Boots see it, clicked it off, and put it back in my pocket. It was comical, the progression of visible emotions that ran across the man’s face. He was confused, sorrowful, angry and defeated all very nearly at the same time. He realized that the digital voice recorder represented.
“You son of a bitch,” he said, under his breath.
“Yes,” I said. “I am. And you don’t even know the half of it. Now, Jones is here, too,” I said, outstretching the gun just a bit. “Not as a friend. As law enforcement. He’ll take your actions today and what you’ve said and start building a case against you. But right now, you’re going to shut up and listen to me.”
I could tell that Boots was preparing some sort of tough-guy response. Eventually, though, he thought better of it. His eyes flicked to the gun, and then to my eyes. He must have seen something in them. And then he got a taste of his own blood streaming down from his broken nose. It must have been sobering.
“I need you to listen to me and understand something,” I said, holding the gun rock-steady, enjoying the weight of it. Felt like ages since I had held one and I always liked it. I was good at it.
“Dosing Tracy was your first mistake but not dumbest thing you’ve ever done in your life. The dumbest thing you ever did was to go after Riley. You see, poisoning him opened a portal to Hell. And I’m the demon that crawled up out of it.”
“What are you talking about, man?” Boots said, his voice slightly blurred because the broken nose and the rapidly congesting sinuses. “You’re Riley. Why are you talking like that?”
He wasn’t fully grasping what I was saying. And how could he? While reincarnation was a generally known concept, the witch’s curse that I had dealt with for nearly two dozen generations was something of a conundrum.
I shook my head.
“I don’t owe you any sort of explanation, and I’ve only got a couple minutes,” I said, leaning in a bit closer. Boots tried to scoot backward, willing himself, somehow, to creep away from the gun – and my crazy eyes – through the hood of his car. “I’ve lived for more than 600 years. Going from lifetime to lifetime. I’ve learned spectacular ways to inflict pain. Now. I don’t know how many years you’re going to get for the crimes you’ve committed but, rest assured, I have taken these crimes personally. I’ll let you struggle through the consequences of this country’s legal system. But if you ever get out, I’ll be waiting for you. And you will pay the price that I have determined. And I can almost guarantee that it will be more violent than anything you will face for what you did to Tracy. And what you did to Riley. You opened this door. Now you gotta deal with what came through.”
At that point I stood and stepped back from Boots. I had heard the footsteps coming from behind me.
The second text that I had sent last night was to Detective Jones. I drove him out here this morning and he hid over another rise. He wanted to confront Boots himself after we discussed the water bottle. The poison. The name of the Rohypnol supplier – York was more than happy to link Jackson to Teddy “Boots” Hoffman. We just needed some sort of confession to get the entire official investigation running.
He came up huffing and puffing a little and I could hear the sirens coming in the distance. So much had relied on my ability to get a couple crucial bits of information in a short time. I handed Jones the gun – he took it with two fingers at the base of the grip. I think he was trying to salvage any fingerprints. I smiled. The chance to get fingerprints off a weapon’s grip are slim to none. His ballistics guys will know to look at the magazine. The bullets. Internal bits.
I took the voice recorder out of my pocket and handed it to him. He held up the small blue and silver device and nodded.
“Stand up,” he said, looking at Boots on the ground. “Hands behind your back.”
The first squad car arrived, and I turned to walk back to my Bronco, now resting in the shadow of the wreckage. I grinned to myself, and it quickly turned into a smile. The smile of the victor.