Mary Brunini McArdle
Would I have gone on the trip to Florida if I had foreseen everything that was to happen? I think about it sometimes, wondering. I think probably no, then definitely no, then I think about the two men I had come to know, and the one -- well, I guess that makes up for all the trauma and all the fear. Besides, it was the experience of a lifetime. One I wouldnít want to repeat, but one I wouldnít want to erase either.
"Lauren," Jim Peters said, over coffee in his office, "I want to make you an offer."
Jim was a Fisheries Biologist and a good friend. We were both divorced, in our early forties. I found him attractive -- I suspected the feeling was mutual.
"An offer? I thought your funds were cut."
"I got a grant. Interested in being my assistant?"
I put down my cup. "This is a surprise. Tell me about it."
"We would do a lot of traveling together, by automobile. To all the catfish farms. Itís a bit much for one person. I could really use you, Lauren. You know the language."
"Can I think about it, Jim? I like the job I have."
"More money than a vet tech makes, Lauren. And youíve been studying water chemistry on your own for a couple of years."
"Sounds interesting--watching over the baby fishies -- "
"Even the eggs, lamb."
Iíd miss the puppies and kittens, I mused, driving back to work. But I could sure use more money. The only drawback is Jim and I liking each other -- this could get personal, especially living in cars most of the day. Do I want that? A job with a personal involvement? Actually I guess it doesnít matter. Iím not concerned about getting another job later if things donít work out; Iíve got enough skills in several areas and vets are always needing good techs.
I gave notice the next day.
And was surprised how quickly and easily I adjusted. We drove in all kinds of weather unless it was really dangerous, and the breaks of fresh air at the farms was invigorating. Kind of like being a cow or horse veterinarian, only not as physical. My straight blonde hair was easy to keep in every kinds of weather and all I had to do was to change from scrubs to jeans.
The farmers were intelligent men -- you have to be to raise catfish. They could discuss water chemistry and fisheries biology along with the best, even though they did it with a drawl. Their wives always had a piece of pie or cake ready for us before we left. Jim and I grew even more comfortable with each other -- there was a promise of a deeper relationship, but neither of us wanted to hurry it.
We stood at the edge of a pond a few months later talking over the problems we had found. It was early April, with a cool wind and a bright blue sky.
"Lamb, would you be interested in a trip to Florida? I forgot to mention it yesterday."
"Why Florida?" I said, wondering what he was going to come up with now.
"Thereís a brilliant Biologist in Tallahassee whoís doing some interesting work with breeding a new strain of catfish -- less bony, fleshier, resistant to disease -- I havenít heard from him in more than twenty years, so you can imagine how surprised I was when he contacted me."
"What about cost?"
"I can get us a stipend -- Iíve already applied. He has a small cabin out in the county with three bedrooms, two down, one up."
"And we could get off work here?"
"For six weeks."
Alex Carter met us at the Tallahassee airport himself. He was tall, with dark hair and eyes on fire with smoky embers. I felt my bones melt. Never have I had such an instantaneous reaction to a man. I found it difficult to ride in the same car with him without giving myself away.
When I found out no one had occupied the cabin for fifteen years, I balked. "Oh, no," I said, envisioning all kinds of snakes and spiders. Even though I worked with animals I had no fondness for certain species in my bed.
"Itís okay," Alex said. "Iíve had the grounds maintained and rodent control all around the perimeter. Weíll check it out today and spent the night in a motel. If we need to, we can get a cleaning service tomorrow."
"If we need to?" I giggled. Could two men possibly imagine what would be in the cabinets and on the dishes? Not to mention--
"What about linens?" I asked.
The drive to the cabin took a pleasant two hours. No one was around when we pulled into the gravel driveway.
Alex took his keys out of the car; we mounted the steps to the wooden porch and he opened the front door. Inside, the cabin lay in silence and shadow, sheets covering the furniture.
When I saw what was on the floor I screamed.
It was a manís body, in a partially burned suit. His face was down, his legs bent. Later we were to learn his face was burned too; his head was not fully covered with hair but sported a few dark tufts scattered over inches of charred skin.
"My dear God!" Jim exclaimed.
"Jesus, nobodyís been in here that I know of," Alex said. "Weíd better call the sheriff."
He arrived within the hour, and the cabin we were to inhabit became a crime scene.
"One of you the owner?" a gruff-voiced deputy asked.
"I am, sir. But Iíve been out of the country. I havenít used this place in years," Alex replied.
"The grounds look well kept."
"Yes, I have a crew. I suppose youíll want to talk to them. I can make you a list of their names and numbers."
"The back door is cracked; itís been broken into," one of the deputies called out.
"That might explain how this -- this body got in here," Jim commented.
So far I hadnít been able to say a word.
I recovered enough to sputter, "Well, what are we going to do now?"
"Weíll keep our motel rooms as long as necessary. One of the local high schools has arranged for us to use their lab at night anyway, so we can start work."
"Keep in touch," one of the officers said. "Weíre going to want to talk to you again."
Alex told him where we were staying and we were allowed to go.
"No work tonight," Alex said as we drove off. "Drinks and dinner and bed. Cleaning service as soon as the sheriff gives permission."
We agreed to spend the day doing whatever, and meet at the high school at half past six.
Jim took in a movie, I went shopping, and I donít know what Alex did. But somehow Alex and I arrived back at the motel around two.
"They havenít identified the body yet," he said. "Theyíve sent off DNA. How about some coffee in my room?"
We never got around to the coffee. We werenít in his room ten minutes before I was in his arms, and I never wanted it to end.
"Oh, my God! he gasped as we reached the pinnacle together. "This is how I always wanted to die. Like this, in ecstasy. Oh, my God!"
We spent the afternoon in his bed, showered, and met Jim at the car at six.
A week passed in like manner, until the cabin was released to us and thoroughly cleaned.
I took the little upstairs bedroom; late at night when Jim was asleep, Alex would come up to me.
"I think Iíve loved you all my life, Lauren Jennings," he whispered, as we lay entwined, sweaty and blissful. "I just hadnít found you yet."
We would talk until dawn. I donít know how we were able to work, but we spent the evenings in the lab, then had a late dinner. Did Jim know something was going on between Alex and me? Probably. Jim wasnít unobservant and he wasnít stupid. But he was much too well-mannered to question me. After all, there was no formal commitment between us besides a job.
"Do you believe in the occasional -- uh--unusual occurrence?" Alex asked one morning as we watched the sunrise.
"Like what? Or you going to tell me youíre a medium on the side?" I laughed.
"No, just like to read stuff. Like time twists, philosophies on the nature of time. Like maybe a person could project himself into another time."
"Sure, Alex. I think youíre really Sir Galahad."
Then the sheriff paid a visit, informing us that so far they were having a hard time identifying the body. It didnít match any records.
The next morning Jim and I sat at the little table by the back window drinking coffee while Alex shaved. "Did you hear that last thing the cops said yesterday, Lauren?"
"Wasnít paying much attention. Alex was talking to me."
"They found records of an Alex Carter dying in a car accident fifteen years ago, under suspicious circumstances. Strange coincidence, donít you think?"
"Well, sure. Only this body wasnít decomposed. And Alex Carter is a pretty common name. Have they done any DNA on this older accident?"
"I donít know."
"We know one thing, Jim. Our Alex Carter is alive and well." Very much alive, I thought. And very well. And I pictured his hard lean body and those dark, smoky eyes.
"Iím a bit concerned we wonít be able to leave the area until this whole thing is cleared up, Lauren."
"Why, Jim? Weíre outsiders. We knew nothing about that property until the day we found the body."
"But I knew Alex."
"You donít think he had anything to do with this, do you?"
"No, but how well do I really know him? Not seeing him for so many years -- who knows what he may have been doing? Our acquaintance was on a professional level, not a personal one. And it *is* his cabin."
"I imagine the police would be more interested in that cleaning crew. Alex has a passport -- they know he was overseas." My tone was curt. Not in a million years would I believe Alex had anything to do with a crime.
Alex had picked up a newspaper the day before. There was a short article about our stumbling upon the body, minus our names, on page two: "Police are puzzled by the discovery of a body in a cabin approximately two hours out from Tallahassee, in Franklin County. ĎThe house where the body was found hadnít been lived in for at least fifteen years,í police said, Ďbut the back entrance showed signs of a break-in.í To date the body, that of a male in his mid-forties, has not been positively identified and the cause of death has not been disclosed."
Alex came out of the bath mopping his face as the phone rang. Jim answered it.
He listened intently, interjecting an "uh, huh" every now and then. Alex turned to me and asked me if I needed anything from town. "Iím going to pick up some nets and lures," he said. "I thought we could go to the lake this afternoon and collect specimens. Do you want to ride into town with me, Lauren?"
"Donít think so -- I need to wash my hair and get dressed." I motioned down to the terry-cloth robe and shower shoes I was wearing.
Alex had on shorts and a white T-shirt. I noticed how vividly those smoldering eyes and black hair contrasted with the stark white. He waved his keys and let himself out the front door.
Jim put down the phone and frowned. "Where did Alex go?"
"To get some nets and stuff. So we could go collecting later."
"Lauren, that was the Tallahassee police. The body we discovered here had been embalmed."
"The body had been embalmed and kept in some sort of cold storage, then dumped here. The corpse was more than fifteen years old, though well-preserved. It matched the DNA of the same Alex Carter that died in that car accident I told you about. He was a Biologist with a Ph.D. who had been working overseas doing research on Egyptian snails. He ran into some bad people connected with a smuggling ring. The police think theyíre who killed him."
"But -- Jim --"
"Lauren, Alexís passport was expired. They could find no courthouse records of his owning this property -- it was foreclosed by the bank a year ago. And maintained by the bank pending its sale."
"Then who have we been working with, Jim? A look-alike? An imposter?" And who have I been sleeping with? I thought. Thatís even more important.
"An imposter, I guess. Although to what purpose I couldnít say."
Alex drove his car off supposedly to buy fishing supplies, but he didnít come back. We sat there in that cabin waiting for hours before we called the sheriff.
They found his car abandoned several miles away and gave us a ride to the same motel we had stayed in before. As far as I know Alex was never seen again.
"Itís hard to imagine what sort of scam he was trying to pull," Jim said on the way to the airport. "I canít figure it out, unless he wanted to pass himself off as a Fisheries Biologist to get some kind of references from us."
I didnít respond, but I knew Jim was way off base. We had been working with Alex Carter fifteen years after he died. Thatís why heís gone now. Because heís dead. And after he died he got what he had always wanted -- an indescribable ecstasy with the woman he loved. I remembered the strange conversation about people being able to project themselves into another time. Alex hadnít been talking casually about science fiction literature or time twist theories. He had been talking about himself.
Jim never asked me about Alex after that. Before we landed at our home airport he took my hand. "Lauren, I think we should get married. I love you. I realize it isnít reciprocal now, but maybe you could give it a chance? Weíve always been on the verge of -- of something. And we have so much in common. We could have a grand life together. We could make it work, lamb."
So we got married three weeks later. I liked Jim immensely, I trusted him. I knew my affair with Alex had been a torrid, insubstantial thing, like an impulse to dive off a cliff, or to take a bath in a tub of chocolate. Things like that are too intense to last.
But at times I find my mind wandering, usually late at night when Jim is fast asleep. Who were you really, Alex Carter? The man I knew intimately so briefly or a hardened criminal? And what did you do to meet such a bad end? An end I wouldnít wish on anybody.
Then I shrug my thoughts away and concentrate on the fine man I married and the prospects of a marvelous future with him. A future without eerie time twists where dead men can walk into my life and try to share it.
The only question is -- who is the father of the child I am carrying?
© 2006 by Mary Brunini McArdle
Bio: Mary Brunini McArdle has published in small journals and won prizes in fiction, poetry, essays, and short plays. During the past year, she has published online in such journals as BEWILDERING STORIES, COMBAT MAGAZINE, MYTHOLOG, THE TRUTH MAGAZINE, SACRED TWILIGHT, GATE WAY, and most recently, Aphelion (Miranda Solves the Case, August/September, 2006).
E-mail: Mary Brunini McArdle
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