Alain Bontemps (part 3)

Alain Bontemps Part 1    |   Alain Bontamps Part 2    (parts of this story)

Alain Bontemps    |    Alan’s Extra Room    |    The Rorschach Painting    |    Goodtime Voice-O-Matic    |    The Siege of Calais    |    I Owe My Life to Alan Goodtime    |    The Alton Arsenal    |    The Death of Alan Goodtime    (other stories in the arc)

 

The next morning, I slept through my alarm. I didn’t have anywhere to be until much later that night, but I hadn’t slept through an alarm since college. My dark mood from the previous day hadn’t lifted; if anything, it had darkened from a gloomy grey to a deep, inky blackness. I needed to get out of the Valley. I called in sick for my later shift and the remainder of the week.

I packed one change of clothes, some old jeans, a ripped-up t-shirt, and a large hoodie. I didn’t really know where I was going until I was on the road. Even then, it was just a rough direction. I drove north on the 5 until mid-afternoon with the goal of driving through San Francisco and staying in Yreka. As I came to the San Francisco/Sacramento split, though, something pulled me east. I raced across several lanes and took the right hand exit, now headed for Tahoe. Good thing I took the hoodie.

As I drove, I could feel pressure inside my brain begin to relieve itself, though the foul mood persisted. The pressure wasn’t painful, but it seemed to interfere with my ability to think clearly. I hadn’t noticed it before, but my thoughts had been foggy and sluggish for the last few days. Tahoe was, as always, full. It was one of the main reasons I tried to avoid the area as much as possible. That night, the mass of gawking tourists wearing Eddie Bauer jackets and driving in SUVs threatened to push me over the edge. I found my right hand groping at my left side after one particularly annoying driver cut me off for the second time. If I had my shoulder holster on, like I do when I’m working, it would have been in my hand before I knew what I was doing. I pulled off the highway and found a cheap motel then, forcing myself to sleep and try to cool down.

I pressed foam plugs deep into my ear canals and slipped the detective’s journal out of my bag while I tried to drift off to sleep.

March 2, 1973.

The first day I was on Audrey Maginot’s trail, I caught a solid lead. She and her daughter were driving north in a rusted, late-40s Chevrolet Model ER pickup. It was a bad vehicle to travel in if you wanted to avoid being noticed. I made the mistake of letting myself get optimistic. A few days later, I found the husk of a truck matching that description smoldering a hundred yards off Highway 1. Since then, I’ve been picking my way forward, studying maps and trying to predict where Audrey might run to. I called Joe this morning to see if he had turned up any leads. He hadn’t, but IA had returned a verdict on the shooting in Pointe Coupee. It was righteous. I was cleared. That didn’t make me feel any better about shooting a child, though. Didn’t take away the image of her brains hanging on the wall of Audrey’s house like pudding from a spoon. I told Joe to tell the Captain I needed more time to work through personal issues.

August 18, 1973.

After a handful of leads that didn’t pan out, I took a month to convince myself Audrey was gone. I found myself waking up each morning ready to drive, ready to hit truck stops and motels with the sketch of Audrey and her daughter I got from Joe. I tried everything to calm myself and pour a bowl of granola and read the newspaper. I tried to get my life back to normal. But every local murder I read about reminded me of Audrey, which reminded me of Penelope, Dob, that night, the shotgun, and the girl. A month wasn’t enough. I felt myself pulled in a thousand directions. Felt myself wanting to leave Louisiana and police work behind. I went back to work anyway.

From here, the journal started to look like its old self; full of case notes and thoughts, a living chronicle of the detective’s mind. There was, however, something missing. I thought back to when I first read through the diary, to the chuckles that involuntarily escaped me as I read. Detective Remy had stopped writing with his acerbic Southern wit that first drew me in. That was understandable. I couldn’t imagine shooting a child, justified or not. Hell, I couldn’t imagine shooting anyone. I carried a gun, but I had never drawn it. Physical force was almost always enough and, when it wasn’t, a flip of the blazer to reveal the butt of my pistol was. I thought back to my drive through Tahoe. I had never drawn my weapon, but I would have on the drive. What was going on with me?

I turned my attention back to the book, not at all ready for what was written on the next page.

March 1, 1975

I can’t sleep. Haven’t slept right since I shot that girl two years ago. I was never able to find out what her name was. No county birth records for Audrey Gautreau or Audrey Maginot. I wouldn’t be surprised if she did a home birth; the soul of Pointe Coupee is old. I feel like mine is, too. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep or the fact that I see flashes of blood in my memory when I don’t expect it, but I feel a thousand years old. The department psychologist said trauma like this fades with time, but I think mine is getting worse. I used to see the brains on the wall, the bloody body in the white virginal dress and that would be it. Now I see blood running and oozing, I hear sobbing, I feel myself dying on the floor in Dob’s place.

And now I’ve got the fucking dreams. They started about a week ago. First it was just a room. A swept cement floor, like maybe in a basement. I dreamed about it two or three nights in a row. Then I started seeing a green desk positively covered, overflowing, with pistachio shells. On the one clean corner of the desk sat a red terra cotta bowl filled with whole pistachios. Each night before I woke up, I could hear a voice talking behind me. It was so close, I could feel the displaced air play with the hair on my neck. “You’ll get it,” it says.

Last night was different. For one, it was much clearer than any previous dream. It was so clear, it couldn’t even have been on a movie screen. It felt like real life. The floor, the chair, and the shells were all there again, but this time a chair sat in front of the desk. It looked a lot like the chairs in the Baton Rouge Medical Examiner’s office. Where there should have been a seat, though, was an eye. It wasn’t a normal eye or anything, more like the God’s eyes I made in Sunday school as a kid. Concentric rings coming out from a central point. It seemed watery, though, just like a real eye. The voice spoke again and it seemed to fill the entire room. It was like the voice belonged to the eye and I was standing inside the head of some giant, all-powerful being.

I woke up somewhat confused. I was scared in my dream, but now I felt calm. What did it mean when it said I would get it? Was it talking about Audrey?

Was it God?

I slammed the book shut, a small rectangle of paper falling from the pages, and jumped away from it. The detective had just described my dream in ghastly detail. I left the room, locked the journal in, and walked. I tried to make sense of how Remy could have experienced my dream forty years earlier. I considered that I might have turned ahead and read that portion another night, exhaustion wiping the memory from my consciousness and leaving only a trace that I picked up on in sleep.

I had half convinced myself when I realized I had no idea what a God’s eye was. I drew on the images of my own dream to understand the term in context, but if I had presented with the idea outside the realm of my dream, I feel like a star-filled nebula would have been conjured in my imagination. I walked and pondered the situation for blocks, but there was no solution. I just had to accept it as fact. My dream wasn’t unique to me. Maybe it was the icy Tahoe air or the return of the tempestuous mood that had been pressed temporarily way by shock, but acceptance wasn’t as hard as it should have been. It didn’t challenge my worldview because I didn’t give a shit about my worldview. I walked into a run-down Waffle House and warmed up with burnt coffee.

The journal was still laying on the turned-back sheets of my bed when I returned, waiting like a patient lover. I picked it up, eagerly again, wishing for more clues about the shared dream. Before I settled in to read, I found the paper that had fluttered out earlier. It was a ten year-old receipt from an Amtrak station in Salt Lake City. The detective had purchased a corporate locker there. There was no key secreted away in the journal, nothing taped in like the CD had been, but the number under the “PIN” label might allow me to gain access to the locker. I had a plan for my second day off.

I found my place in the journal.

May 18, 1986

I can’t keep doing it. I can’t keep going to work everyday, walking into murder scenes, and pretend I don’t see the girl’s face on each and every corpse. I can’t keep talking to Joe, one of my very best friends and probably the best and brightest cop in Louisiana, and pretend his face doesn’t make my hands feel the kick of the shotgun blast that tore off her skull. I can’t.

I can’t greet everyone with a smile and munch on a donut after I’ve stayed awake all night wondering if suicide is still a sin when you’re a murderer. I can’t wear long sleeves in the summer so my coworkers don’t see the scars on my wrists. The coward’s bracelets that always remind the living how weak they are. I can’t keep covering up my thefts of amphetamines from evidence lockup.

There are a lot of things I can’t do. Many more than I can. My life has been a waste. I look at Joe, his wife, and their beautiful daughter, Mary, and I know I did the right thing. I know it’s Audrey’s fault she brainwashed her own daughter into a berserking fury. None of that logic fills the part of me that withered and rotted when I shot that girl. But maybe finding Audrey will.

That is my sole, solemn purpose now.

December 5, 1992

I’m in Utah. It’s the closest I’ve come to finding her. I haven’t turned up a lead yet, but somehow I can feel the proximity. Almost smell the vapors.

July 31, 1994

I’m tired. Not my body, but my mind. My soul. I wake up and the effort to keep up the search is almost too much. I’ve been asking the eye and the voice in my dream to give me strength. I think it’s given up on me. The day I wake up and I can’t go on is my end.

November 15, 2004

I couldn’t keep up the hunt today. I’ve searched for 30 years and I never even found a name for that poor girl. She would have children of her own by now. I’m weak. I’m listening to my songs one last time, the only things that don’t make me want to leave this life. When the last track plays, I end the search for good. If I don’t see you there, Penelope, I’m sorry.

That was the last entry. The page was flecked with crimson finality. I sat in the dark, waiting for sleep and thinking about death. I drifted off in the early hours of the morning. I had the dream again, noticing that the desk in my dream was not completely covered with pistachio shells but, rather, the floor was sparsely littered with them. Also, the detective hadn’t mentioned the business card, the blindingly bright white card that always said “All In Good Time” and nothing more. The card was heavy, but not necessarily due to the thickness or density of the cardstock; it was heavy with purpose. When I picked it up, I felt like I was asked to do a favor for an old friend.

I listened to the detective’s CD on my drive to Salt Lake City. I ran it through twice before deciding to try out a local radio station. No matter what genre my dial fell on, it angered me. The lightness and transience of the songs irked me to the point that I pounded my steering wheel in frustration. I put the CD back in and let the melancholia wash away my anger. It was a bright, beautiful, cloudless day in Salt Lake. I wished for rain.

I found the corporate lockers at the back of the Amtrak station. They were stained with the grimy brown handprints of unwashed travelers, tagged by inconsiderate youth. Chewed gum was stashed behind locker handles like land mines. I was sure anything the detective had left in the locker was long gone; stolen by a worker or an industrious young thief. To my surprise, the PIN popped the lock a small, shoebox-sized alcove to my right. Inside was a single knife, the blade wrapped in a silk handkerchief. I grabbed it and left before anyone saw what I carried.

That night I sat on a filthy mattress cover in another dusty motel room, listening to the detective’s CD on repeat. I stared at the old, mother of pearl handle and the curved, rustic blade jutting out of it. It looked more like an artisan prison shank than an actual knife. I wondered why Remy carried this knife instead of the firearms he mentioned owning in the journal. Maybe he didn’t want to shoot any other innocents. Or, a thought rose to my mind with the beginning of Needle in the Hay by Elliot Smith, maybe this wasn’t an offensive tool at all; maybe this is what Remy used to inflict the cuts on his wrist. His coward’s bracelets.

I set the edge of the blade on my own flesh, studying the way my skin rose up around the edges of the steel, trying to fight against the cut. Remy killed himself because he failed to keep his promise. He died to try to reconnect with his dead love. I was halfway to the age at which my father died from a heart attack and I had never had a long term girlfriend. I worked as a glorified rent-a-cop, every night kicking myself for giving up on my dreams. Remy threw away a richness of life that I’d never had. I pressed the knife deeper. Blood welled up from the cut and ran down my forearm. What was I doing in Utah? What did I think I would find? Purpose? Meaning? If I was directionless and alone back home, I didn’t know why I thought driving out to a strange town would remedy that. I pressed harder, hissing air out between my teeth in an attempt to release myself from the pain.

I threw the knife at the wall and stood up. I couldn’t do it. I found a bottle of bourbon in my suitcase and fell asleep between long sips.

I awoke from the dream with the exultant high of insight. I knew what Remy’s God’s eye was. It looked familiar each night, but I couldn’t place it until that night. The memory of a family trip to Yellowstone National Park ran through my mind; the tree-tunnel, Old Faithful, Morning Glory Pond. The surreal image of the latter matched, almost exactly, the hole in the seat of the old chair in my dream. My limbs screamed at me for action. I needed to drive the short distance to Yellowstone immediately. I hastily packed up and jumped in my car.

I was speeding north on Highway 26 into Yellowstone, right inside the limits of Jackson, Wyoming, on my third round of Remy’s CD when I saw it. An old, metal desk sitting like a lone sentry at a turnoff for an unmarked road. I slammed on my breaks and pulled the wheel hard to the right, sending my car into a spin in the dirt on the shoulder. I took a moment to calm myself before continuing down the rutted road. I drove for at least two miles, able to hear nothing but the rumble of my tires on the dirt, the crunching of my shocks, and rocks – thrown up by my tires – pinging off the metal underside of my car.

I rounded a corner and spotted a double wide trailer home through sparse pine trees. A smaller tree had died and fallen onto the back corner of the house and – judging by the growth of some kind of invasive vine the hung from the tree and the entire quarter of the house in that area – it was some time ago. The formerly white exterior of the trailer looked like countless bonfires had blazed upwind from it, enveloping the trailer in a suffocating smoky embrace and leaving their trace. This had to be the place.

I exited my car, grabbing Remy’s knife from my passenger seat and wishing I had bargained with Tyler to take one of his personal firearms with me. I walked up to the front door, the wooden porch creaking and crunching beneath my feet. I pounded on the door, a slab of solid oak. The figure that answered my knock looked more like a feral creature than a woman, her long hair darkened with grease and strung with tangled nests. She stunk of old sweat and rotting food, her white dress stained with both. Her thin, bony hands and poorly-kept garb reminded me of zombies from the old Romero movies, the ones who emerged, half-decayed, from the ground in their burial gowns.

“What you be wantin’, sir?” she asked in a thick Southern accent as a much older woman glided up behind her in a wheel chair. The second woman could have been a clone of the first; or, rather, the first woman may have been a younger clone of the woman in the wheel chair. She stared at me, unspeaking, with hatred in her eyes. I wonder if she knew I had read the journal.

“I just had a couple questions for you both, ma’am,” I said, fighting to keep my voice even. Hiding the tremolo of fear that threatened to tinge my voice was easy enough to control by speaking quickly, but hiding my anger was a more difficult task. I stared back at the woman in the wheel chair, letting thoughts of the murders she orchestrated fill me with rage. The knife, tucked safely between my belt and my jeans and covered by my button-down shirt, felt like it heated up with my ire, emitting a warmth that felt both comfortable and infinitely insistent.

“What manner of questions?”

“I work for a private security company,” I said, trying to keep my lie as close to truth as possible. “A member of the Presidential Cabinet will be coming through Jackson in the next week and my firm has been hired by the Secret Service to investigate any locals who may be… fervent in their anti-government philosophies.” I smiled my best diplomatic, wide-mouthed, teeth-just-barely-showing grin at the woman in the door, “Can either of you ladies think of any neighbors who might fit that description?”

I ran my eyes over the frail woman in the doorway again, my disgust slowly melting into pity and my anger towards the older woman mounting even higher. This woman could have been pretty if she lived a normal life, could have had a job and a family and not been stuck in the one deplorable acre of wilderness in the area around Yellowstone if she hadn’t been kidnapped by Audrey Maginot. This life wasn’t a real life; it was just existence. Maybe her dead twin sister was better off. The knife flared at my back, almost burning my skin.

“I might be able to name a few. Come on in, then,” she said, holding the door open wide.

The air in the trailer was so thick with stench I had trouble breathing. Chemical odors, rot, mold, and sewage mingled in my nose and tickled the back of my throat. I coughed involuntarily and, trying to cover up my revulsion, an idea sprouted in my mind. Right now I was outnumbered and surrounded. I clearly outweighed the women, but I didn’t want to hurt the younger woman when I finally let my anger lash out at the older. If I could draw the younger woman away, however, I stood a chance.

“I apologize,” I said, clearing my throat, “could I trouble you for some water?”

As the younger woman threaded her way through the thick mess covering the floor of the trailer, I locked eyes with the decrepit figure hunched in the wheel chair. Her lips curled back, skin so taught and thin it looked like cellophane crinkling, and revealed a row of black, twisted teeth. She pushed herself up to a standing position, remaining completely silent. I exhaled and drew the knife, slashing it across her throat in one quick motion. Her sunken eyes widened in surprise and she fell back into the chair, her momentum carrying the chair slowly backward until it bumped a stack of old books.

A loud shriek seemed to come out of the walls, the sound so intense it brought on a fit of vertigo. I turned to the direction of the kitchen in time to see the younger woman standing in the passage between the foyer and the kitchen, a broken glass at her feet. Her mouth was open in a scream, finger curled into claws. I could feel waves of emotion emanating from her like radiation; anger, sorrow, fear, futility. Evil. She rushed at me, hands up and prepared to gouge my eyes.

I thrust the knife forward as she drew near, plunging it deep into her chest. Instantly, the darkness that had been bearing down on me lifted, like spilled bile wiped away with a damp cloth. I inhaled, the air – though still rank – filling me with energy like it hadn’t in days. I drew up to my full height, not realizing that I had been hunched over. I was rewarded by several pops of relief from my spine. My knotted muscles relaxed.

The woman stepped back, freeing her sternum from the knife still in my grip with a wet slurp. “You was sent by that boogeyman, wasn’t you?”

I looked down at her writhing in pain, almost able to see her skull through her translucent pale skin. “Remy?”

“Ha!” she spat, “Remy ain’t nothin’ but trash. A weak sinner livin’ he days in Hell. I mean the Grey Man. Alain Bontemps. He tried to partner with Remy, but Remy too dumb. You’s smart. I couldn’t feel you a-comin’.”

I shook my head, waving away her mad rant with the bloody knife. “I’m not working for anyone. Your mother,” I gestured, letting drops of impossibly dark maroon blood fly across the room, “was a cancer. A psychotic force of sorrow. She murdered at least six innocents in retaliation of an accident.” I wanted to say more, to defend my actions, but I knew I needed to get out Jackson as quickly as I could. Probably out of Wyoming entirely. I walked back to my car, using Remy’s silk handkerchief to wipe down the knife.

On my back down the dirt road, I could barely notice the ruts and bumps for the overwhelming beauty of the pines. Where I felt a sense of claustrophobia and impending danger going in, I now marveled at the trails and washes that branched off the small road. I kept trying to push myself into solemnity over the murder I had just committed. What did it say about me that I felt no remorse, that I was in the best mood of the entire week? I didn’t think I was a callous shell of a human, but there didn’t seem to be another choice. Unbelievably, I was fine with it.

I drove through the night and into the next day; I had enough water with me and I didn’t feel the need for food or sleep. I finally took a break to fill up with gas at a truck stop near Ely, Nevada. I let my car take a break from the constant movement and enjoyed a shitty gas station sub sandwich and a Coke in a sticky, scraped-up laminated plywood booth. As terrible as the meal should have been, it was counterintuitively wonderful. As I ate, I pulled Remy’s knife from my belt and studied it with fresh eyes. The blade wasn’t stamped with a steel grade or manufacturer. The unsharpened portion of the blade that sank into the hilt was pitted with impurities that I had rarely seen on any knife. It looked homemade.

“Interesting blade,” a soft voice said over my shoulder. I jumped and hurriedly slide the knife under the wrapper of my sandwich. I looked up, expecting a uniformed officer to be standing over me with his gun drawn. Instead, a tall, thin man smiled down at me. His hair was graying, but his skin was smooth. He moved around my booth with grace, but had a slight hunch to his upper vertebrae. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was 28 or 68.

The man slid into my booth without asking if I minded, but something about his grin and the kindness of his face allayed all annoyance at his affront to social norms. I found myself smiling back. “Do you mind if I have a closer look?” he asked, gesturing to the hidden knife. I knew having a conversation about a murder weapon in a truck stop with a stranger was a bad idea, but I slid it across the table anyway, enjoying the sensation of the vibration on my fingertips.

“Ah,” the man said, “I know this knife.” He rotated the blade between the index fingers on each hand. “I sold it from my shop, oh…,” he stared off into nothing ness for a time, “thirty years ago.” He chuckled. “Imagine that.”

He set the knife back on the table between us and pointed a finger at the tip. “See that, there, how the looks granular where it hasn’t been sharpened into a point? The blade of this knife was broken from some other steel tool, not forged like this originally. Before I let the knife go from my shop, I was able to trace it back to Massachusetts roundabouts the early 17th century.” The man smiled and leaned back on his side of the booth. I continued eating, enamored with the history of the knife.

He rubbed the corner of his eye and continued. “I think – and I have no way to prove this, you see,” he winked at me, the meaning of which I didn’t quite understand, “that it belonged to Carwyn Cadfael, a Welsh priest involved in those nasty witch hunts. Another legend, this one is a bit more suspect, says that his ancestor, Idwal, constructed a dagger using a shard broken from Arthur’s Excalibur during a massive battle. He named the dagger Cadfael.”

The man in gray studied me for a second, then laughed at my rapt chewing. “It’s all legend, though! The knife is probably worth less than that sandwich you’re eating. By the way, you have some lettuce on your lip,” he said, pointing.

“Even so, I’m attached to it. I’ve kicked myself time and again for letting it go. Would you be willing to trade for it?”

It took me a few seconds to decide, but I eventually came to the conclusion that getting rid of the knife was the best course of action. I told him I would.

“Great!” he clapped his hands together in a slightly childish way. “Come out to my car. I’ve just picked up some new items for my shop. Feel free to take anything you find.”

The man led me to a beautiful white Mustang and smiled approvingly at the wolf whistle I directed at the car. In the trunk was a bafflingly eclectic collection of goods; briefcases, hacksaws, typewriters, a crushed cardboard box that looked completely empty, a plastic bin filled with lockets and other jewelry. Half of it didn’t look fit to be in a Goodwill, much less an antique shop owned by a man who drove such an exquisite car.

In the back, corners dog-earing from being scrunched against the cloth interior of the Mustang’s trunk was a stack of three composition books bound together with twine. I dragged them out and fanned the pages like a flip book. Each book seemed to be filled with prose. Maybe I had found the works of the unknown American author I had always been searching for. I shook the man’s hand and walked back to my car.

A few hours later, along a remote stretch of Nevada highway, I tossed the bloody handkerchief out of my window and smiled as I watched it flutter toward the ground. Remy’s CD had finally played out for me. I rummaged around in my glove box and found a Black Moth Super Rainbow album that I had forgotten about. As the relaxing pump of Dreamsicle Bomb flowed out of my speakers, I let my foot relax on the gas pedal a little, enjoyed the curves of the road, and wondered what I would find in the composition books when I got home.

 

Alain Bontemps Part 1    |   Alain Bontamps Part 2    (parts of this story)

Alain Bontemps    |    Alan’s Extra Room    |    The Rorschach Painting    |    Goodtime Voice-O-Matic    |    The Siege of Calais    |    I Owe My Life to Alan Goodtime    |    The Alton Arsenal    |    The Death of Alan Goodtime    (other stories in the arc)

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