By Kathy Bryson
“Oh, for the love of…” Officer Vincent Esposito dropped his head on the steering wheel and then winced as the blunt pain permeated his skull. “It’s a joke,” he tried to explain again. “Alligators are dormant in winter.”
“You need to get over there right away before someone starts shooting,” the shrill squawk from the car radio insisted.
This is what comes from hiring relatives, Vincent thought. The sometimes dispatcher, sometimes office manager was youngest niece of the police chief. He snatched the handset up anyway, barked “ten four,” and stomped in satisfaction on the gas. At least he could drive fast through this little Podunk town even if he couldn’t actually leave it.
Leaving the car’s red-light whirling, he shut off the siren as he left the town limits, the piercing whistle feeble in the gathering dusk on the two-lane highway that ran along the coast. When the red light bounced off a beat-up metal arrow nailed to a tree trunk, Vincent flipped the siren back on and swerved sharply to make the turn-off. A short dirt drive brought him to the front yard of a small, frame house where a petite woman ran towards him, waving frantically.
“Stop that! Stop that! You’ll wake the puppies.” A chorus of barking yelps rang out from the house, and the woman stopped abruptly, her hands dropping her hips.
Vincent stepped out of the car and looked down at the little woman. She had long dark hair in a braid that reached down her back, and she was dressed like everyone else down here in shorts and tank top. Vincent was uncomfortably aware that his dark blue uniform would be soak with perspiration by the end of his shift.
The tiny woman also wore flip flops with wedge soles that didn’t add much to her height. Vincent nearly laughed at her angry expression. She was too tiny and too curvy to carry off a spitfire attitude, but her face puckered in a fierce frown, and the glare she directed at him could have struck sparks.
“Now you’ve done it,” she told him. “I’ll have to feed them again to get them to shut up.” Her voice wasn’t intimidating either, melodically feminine with an unmistakable drawl.
Vincent was crazily tempted for a moment to see just how big a reaction he could get from this tiny woman, but he shook the feeling off. Sally, the dispatcher, might he be annoying, but gun fire was a real threat. “Ma’am,” he began. “We’ve received multiple phone calls from this location regarding – “
“Hey, it’s Vinny! Hey Vinny!” An enthusiastic shout came from the house, and Vincent saw a large man in jeans and baseball cap stagger out of the house.
Vincent groaned and shook his head even as the tiny woman rolled her eyes. Their gazes met, and the woman laughed, her eyes crinkling in the corners. She had lovely, dark eyes when she wasn’t glaring at him. Vincent had to grin back. “I see you know Darnel,” she murmured.
Darnell came up, arms outstretched, and even knowing he meant no harm, Vincent was hard pressed not to reach for his gun. Darnel was a big man, a harmless good ole boy, but no one in Jersey ever hugged a cop. It was this crazy town, or maybe Darnel was just drunk off his ass.
“Hey Vinny, have you met Merry? Vinny, this is Merry. Merry as in Merry Christmas. Get it?” Darnel doubled over, slapping his thigh in inebriated hilarity.
Vincent gaped at the petite woman who just shook her head. “Don’t say it,” she almost pleaded. “Please don’t say it.”
“Ma’am, do you have an emergency or not?” Vincent regretted the harsh words as soon as he said them. Still new enough to get the crap shifts, he was aware that his direct approach was uncomfortably out of place on the Louisiana coast.
Merry sighed. “It’s not an emergency,” she started, but Darnel interrupted.
“Oh, you got to see this, Vinny! It’s totally amazing. C’mon!” And he lumbered off towards the frame building.
Vincent reluctantly followed. In the evening gloom, he couldn’t see much beyond the screened porch that covered the front of the building. Inside, however, he saw a couple of wooden picnic tables and some assorted plastic chairs. Two men in grubby jackets and baseball caps sat at a bar across the back. They cheered and raised bottles in salute toward him while, over the uproar, the frantic yelping continued.
Vincent could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand up and the panicked breath starting to heave in his chest. This heavy, damp air made it impossible to breathe deeply, even if he could get past the damn fish smell.
“It’s okay,” an unexpected voice comforted him. “Just some locals celebrating Christmas Eve.” Merry dimpled at him from his side. He could easily have tucked her under one arm. “And no, none of them are driving.”
“Dad!” Vincent’s heart plummeted as his son start forward out of the crowd.
“What the –” Vincent caught himself. He tried to tamp down the fierce demeanor that was second nature to any cop but barked anyway. “What are you doing here, Nico? I thought you were with your mom.”
The boy halted his forward rush. The face he turned toward his father was defiant and underneath that, nervous. “Um, she went to a party, so…” A slender, dark-skinned girl came up beside him and took his hand.
She was probably every teenage boy’s dream, but Vincent immediately had visions of every domestic dispute he’d ever had to break up that involved teenagers. He frowned so fiercely his son blinked and stepped back. Damn it though, he didn’t want to scare his own son.
“Nico’s coming to church,” a fierce voice declared. “Who are you coming here making trouble?”
Turning, Vincent found himself face-to-face with a frown that mirrored his own. An old woman in a formal skirt and matching suit jacket stared him down from underneath an elaborately flowered hat.
“Um, this is my dad, Miz LaFontaine.” Nico patted her arm reassuringly. “He’s the police. We called him, remember?”
“Well, it’s about time you showed up,” another garrulous voice interjected. A tiny, elderly woman in a floral print dress with an only slightly less floral hat peered up at him nearsightedly. “We’ve been calling and calling for an hour or more.”
“It hasn’t been that long, Shirley,” a third voice remonstrated. This woman wasn’t wearing a hat, but an oversized apron instead. Vincent glanced around the screened porch quickly, but that seemed to be extended of the hatted ladies. “I’m sure he came at fast as he could. Dear, can’t you do anything about those dogs?”
Merry disappeared through a door that led into a small kitchen and presumably the rest of the house. The yelping increased. One of the men at the bar howled while the others slapped the countertop and fell about.
“Wait, wait.” Vincent held up both hands and stepped back as much in for breathing room as to assess the situation. “Who called the police?” He shouted to be heard over the barking.
Three elderly hands shot up, and after a moment’s hesitation, the young woman still holding his son’s hand also raised her. Pulling her along with him, Nico stepped over to the far side of the porch and waved to his father. “C’mon, Dad, you have got to see this.”
Still fighting the urge to reach for his gun, Vincent pulled out his flashlight instead and followed his son out into the yard. The powerful light bounced feebly against the dense vegetation at the back of the tiny house but reflected back from the water of the creek that ran sluggishly at its base. It wasn’t a big creek, but it was deep enough to accommodate the flat-bottomed fishing boat that was half pulled up into the yard.
The trees were actually the one part of the area Vincent liked. The dense green overgrowth that lined either side of the road and shut out the view of the Gulf seemed mysterious and alluring, a childhood fantasy of enchanted forests come to life. He could almost believe in dragons in these dark woods even though he was just beginning to recognize the gnarled cypresses underneath the Spanish moss.
His ex-wife hated the cypress stands. She loved everything else about the place, including the yahoo who ran casino ships up and down the coast, but she was content to live off the coast in a sleek, pretentious yacht that was too small for both her son and her new boyfriend. Vincent grinned fiercely to himself. His son had the right reaction. Nico had thrown up all over it.
Vincent flicked the flashlight past the boat, then tensed, startled, as a small hand grasped his.
Merry smiled at him as she directed the flashlight back to the creek. “Do you see it?” she whispered. “There in the tree, the one that hangs over the creek?”
Vincent swung the light over the low-hanging branches nearest the water. On one limb that stuck out over the water, he thought he saw movement. Bringing the light slowly back, he peered into in the dark. “Is that an…?”
“Alligator! Yes!” Nico bounced delighted next to him. Vincent almost laughed, seeing the happy child he remembered in the gangly teenager, but he had a job to do.
“Son, that’s not an alligator. Alligators hibernate in winter.” Vincent stepped back but bumped into Merry. Even realizing he hadn’t touched anything interesting, he flushed.
“Actually, alligators bromate in winter. That is, their metabolic activity slows in reaction to a cold environment, but they don’t go into true hibernation. If it’s warm enough, they’ll even be active.” The young woman still holding his son’s hand shrugged but spoke with confidence.
“Listen to my baby,” Miz LaFontaine urged. “She’s in college.”
“Biology at Ole Miss,” Nico nodded at his father.
Oh great, Vincent thought, my son is dating an older woman and tried to keep the sarcasm off his face. He looked back at the thin sliver of white that lay along the tree limb. Unblinking and unmoving, it wouldn’t have stood out at all except for the darkness that surrounded it. Even so, until you peered closely, and your eyes adjusted, the two-foot strip of white might just be a rough gash in the limb except for the jagged edge of its spine. As he watched, the alligator turned its head, and he saw it clearly for a second, the surreal outline of a physical impossibility, before his vision blurred and his mind rebelled.
““But it’s white! And it’s up a tree!”
“They can climb.” The biology major told Vincent. “Maybe that helped it survive. It’s got to be at least a year old.”
Okay, Vincent thought. My son is dating a smart, older woman. That wasn’t as reassuring as he would have expected.
“Yeah!” Darnel grinned, irrepressibly happy. “We got us a swamp ghost!”
One of his buddies fell off his stool and staggered over. “Yeah, we need to catch it. Got to protect it from, you know, global warming and stuff.”
“And now you know why we called,” Merry added quietly.
Vincent felt an all too familiar weight pressing on his shoulders. People never called the cops until they did something really stupid that they couldn’t straighten out on their own. They never got called into simple situations. Though this was a new one for him and so far, no one appeared to be hurt.
He took a deep breath. The air cooled off as night fell, so you could actually get a lungful. The day had grown still, only the faint chirps of insects disturbing the quiet. “What happened to the dogs?”
“Oh, I fed them some hush puppies.” Merry told him. “They’ll settle back down to sleep if no one else distracts them.”
“Hush puppies? Get it? Hush puppies!” Darnel nearly fell over laughing, and one of his buddies actually did have to sit down.
The soft undertone drew Vincent’s attention back to Merry. She was amazingly unruffled for someone surrounded by chaos. In fact, she seemed to be the one sensible, or at least calm, person in this mad house. Vincent wondered what her story was. He’d have to ask around once this mess was cleaned up.
“Okay, no one should go after that alligator,” Vincent told the crowd firmly.
“Why not? Don’t you know how? You’re from Jersey. You probably don’t know how.” Darnel gestured to his buddies. “Don’t worry. We can take a boat out. We’ll bring it back for you.”
“No!” Vincent didn’t know how many voices rang out simultaneously, but he was relieved. At least he didn’t have to talk the whole crowd down, just Darnel and his buddies.
“Anyway,” Miz LaFontaine nodded to Vincent. “We already called the authorities. That’s what you’re here for. We can’t hang around, so you stay here until Fish and Wildlife shows up.”
“Wait a minute,” Vincent started to protest, but the assorted ladies and fisherman headed back to the house, leaving him standing in the growing dark with Merry.
She laughed softly at his expression. “It won’t be that long. I just need you to keep the peace until everyone leaves, and then Fish and Wildlife will come out immediately after the holiday.”
“You want me to spend Christmas Eve babysitting an alligator in a swamp.” Vincent’s voice was flat. He’d been pretty sure he’d been given the shift because he was the new guy, the outsider. Now he was pretty sure he was being set up for some sort of backwoods hazing. His gaze went back to the white line of the fallen tree trunk. Except that wasn’t any snipe he’d ever seen before.
“They’re a protected species.” The look Merry gave him was mischievous, even teasing. “Do your duty, officer. Protect him.” Then she relented a little. “It’s not forever, and it’ll be nice out when it all calms down. We get fireflies and everything.”
Vincent couldn’t see where electrically charged bugs were actually a benefit, but the little woman asking for his help appealed to more than his sense of duty. It was all those damn trees, making him think of knights in shining armor and damsels in distress.
“It’s a good thing Christmas didn’t fall on a weekend this year.” Vincent tucked the flashlight back into his belt and waved Merry in front of him with a little bow. She smiled, pleased, until the sound of barking broke out.
“Damn it!” And Merry took off running.
Vincent followed her into the porch and saw Darnel holding open the door that led to the back rooms. He held a puppy in one hand, and another was staggering out from behind the bar. Nico was handing a third to his girlfriend.
“No, we are not getting a puppy!” Vincent protested automatically and reddened as his son shot him a n exasperated look. “Sorry,” he murmured to the room in general.
“You can’t have these anyway.” Merry giggled. “These babies are special. When they grow up, they’re going to work for the DEA, aren’t you?” She took the puppy from Nico and held it up, cooing at it.
“Really? They’re drug detection dogs?” Vincent looked at the puppy sniffing at his feet with new respect. It fell over on its rump as it tried to navigate around him.
Merry nodded. “Oh yeah, their mother’s absolute gold when it comes to finding drugs.”
Vincent eyed her with growing curiosity. Any detective would be intrigued by a woman who raised DEA dogs in a backwoods bayou, he told himself.
“Hey, they’re like that song,” Darnel sang out. “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me” – his friends joined in the chorus – “Five golden puppieees!
“Who let them out?” Merry called over the refrain.
“Who let the dogs out?” The fishing trio bellowed, and Vincent had to bite back a laugh.
“Sorry dear.” The lady with the oversized apron backed out of the open door, holding a stainless-steel dish in both hands. “We just have to get the casseroles and we’ll be off.”
“Yes, thank you hon, for use of your ovens.” The tiny, floral woman bustled by. “Now we left you a plate. Such a shame you’re not going to be able to come.” She peered up at Vincent. “Are you coming to church tonight, young man?”
Vincent frowned. The question seemed a bit personal. “I’m on duty this evening, ma’am,” he pointed out and didn’t try to temper his tone.
She leaned in and squinted at him. “You’re not one of those pissed cops, are you? The ones with mental problems?”
“He is not!” Nico protested while the other women exclaimed “Shirley!” in varying tones of indignity and amusement.
“It’s P-T-S-D, Miz Mack, not pissed.” Merry was one of the amused. “And he’s just surprised. A white alligator after all.”
“Well, I don’t see what y’all are so worked up over. It happens. There was that young man who had trouble after Katrina. Pastor worked with him.” Miz Mack reached up and patted Vincent’s arm. “He’ll work with you too if you like.”
They never covered this stuff in the academy, Vincent thought. His mother, however, would have killed him if he reacted any other way, so Vincent politely untangle himself and said, “Thank you, Miz Mack, I’ll keep that in mind, but for tonight, I’m just working.”
“I was just curious,” the elderly woman confided in him, all trusting innocence. “You’re not from around here. Why’d you come to the bayou anyway?” Now she was openly curious, a little, old lady who’d long since stopped making excuses or even trying for polite behavior.
I should have seen that question coming, Vincent thought ruefully. “I’m here to look after my son,” he said shortly and turned his back. Grabbing Nico by the arm, he tried to ask discretely, “Why didn’t you tell me about your mom?”
“I called your office,” Nico protested. “They just decided to go to Gulfport for the boat parade and I didn’t want to go.”
No, he wouldn’t, thought Vincent, remembering how Nico had christened his mother’s yacht, and didn’t say anything more.
“Five puking puppies,” Darnel sang and took the puppy from Nico. “Everyone gets sick out on the Gulf. Them’s some rough waters.” He nodded in sympathy.
“That won’t work for the song,” Nico objected. “No one wants to hear about puking.”
The impromptu glee club begin arguing over what the other days of Christmas were. “Nobody ever remembers anything but the rings,” Darnel said wisely.
“Seems a shame you can’t come to church.” Miz LaFontaine came out of the kitchen with another stainless-steel dish. The fish smell that hovered in the background coalesced around her, redolent of onions and cheese, and Vincent felt his stomach rumble. “Nico said you liked fish.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Nico handed another puppy to Merry. “They’re having seven fishes. Bebe invited me.” He beamed at his young friend who giggled back at him.
“Son, don’t call a girl baby, not in front of her mother.” Vincent tried to speak softly. He didn’t want to correct his son in public, but Vincent didn’t want Nico embarrassing himself. Seeing Nico heading off on what was essentially a date made him want to protect his son.
“Dad, her name is Bebe, spelled with two e’s.” The look Nico gave his father was tolerant, but superior as heheld open the porch door for the two ladies with their platter of fish.
The smell of the fish tugged at Vincent’s memory. His mother had faithfully prepared seven fish dishes every Christmas Eve. He hadn’t had them when he was married and certainly not since he got divorced. He hadn’t realized he’d missed them.
“I didn’t know you were Catholic,” he said to Miz LaFontaine. He sounded wistful even to himself.
“Seven fishes swimming.” Darnel passed, a puppy in each hand. Merry trundled after him to reclaim the dogs. Vincent had to step back out of the way. She could really move for such a tiny woman on those stacked sandals, and he wondered how tall she was when she took her shoes off.
“No, we’re ecumenical.” Miz Lafontaine was matter-of fact, nothing sentimental about her. “We always have a fish fry anyway, so seven different kinds weren’t no big stretch.”
“Thank you for inviting my son,” Vincent told Miz Lafontaine in all sincerity and reached out to take the covered dish. It was past time to clear the scene.
“I got it, I got it,” said Darnel and started singing “four church ladies…”
“Three good buddies,” his friends caterwauled.
“Darnell, you get in the car cause we’re taking you home.” Miz LaFontaine pursed her lips.
“Wait.” Vincent scrambled for his notebook, mentally cursing. He’d let the whole incident get away from him. “I need names and addresses from everyone here.”
Shirley puffed past him with a large grocery bag wrapped in both arms. “Get them from Merry. We need to get moving. Fish don’t keep, and we got to take these drunks home first.”
Darnel didn’t notice her disapproval. Draping an arm over both Nico and Babe, he bellowed, “Two turtle doves!”
Vincent winced, both in sympathy for his son and at the implication.
“Don’t you worry,” Miz LaFontaine told him briskly as she maneuvered around him with more grocery bags. “My baby’s not having babies, not till she graduates!”
Babe flushed a dark red. “Jeeze Grandma,” she protested, and she sounded as young as Vincent had originally taken her for.
“Don’t you blaspheme, young lady,” Miz LaFontaine barked. “You get in that car now, both of you.
Vincent supposed he didn’t have to worry too much if his son was dating a church lady, but in this case, he was taking all the backup he could get. And if Nico found the old lady too direct, well he should be glad he wasn’t living in Jersey with Nona Esposito anymore. In fact, he should really invite Nona Esposito down for a visit.
“Now, I left you a plate as well.” The lady in the oversized apron came up to him. She pulled off her apron, folded it neatly, and left in on a table. Then she smoothed out her dress and put on a feathered hat. The feathers bobbed at Vincent. “You just sit back and wait for Fish and Wildlife.”
Nico turned back at the door and pointed two fingers at his eyes, then turned them around and jabbed them in Vincent’s direction. A look of wicked glee suffused his features as he mouthed ‘two turtle doves,’ then he ducked out the front giggling.
Vincent stood, pen in hand, mouth hanging open as the three ladies in hats finished dispersing the crowd into their respective cars and left. He turned slowly in the empty porch to see Merry leaning against the bar, mouth twisted as she tried not to laugh.
“And why exactly did you call me?” he asked.
“Oh, I didn’t,” Merry grinned at him. “Nico said he had to let you know where he was, then Darnel mentioned that he knew you, and the whole thing sort of snowballed from there.”
She went back around behind the bar and began lifting plates covered in tin foil onto the tabletop. There looked to be enough to feed a small party, not just two people. One puppy reached up towards the smell of food wafting down, pawing at the bar, while his buddy yawned and fell asleep in a heap at its foot.
“Are you hungry?” Merry asked. She looked at him almost pleadingly. “I’m hoping you’ll stay in case anyone decides to go alligator-hunting.”
“You don’t have to ask that.” Vincent was embarrassed. He felt an overwhelming urge to protect this tiny woman, which was obviously ridiculous. She’d just run off a half-dozen protectors.
“How about some coffee?” Merry added. “Then I could help you with your report. I know everyone’s address.”
Vincent nodded. There was no point in being rude, and it was Christmas. The least he could do was keep the woman company. Beside alligators were a protected species, and this one could attract trouble.
Merry dimpled up at him before turning for the coffee pot.
Moving so he could see outside, Vincent peered out at the fallen cypress log. He really needed binoculars or maybe a night vision scope. The thing could be long gone by now. Then a flash of white caught his eye, and he saw the alligator twitch, its head coming up to snap at the insects gathering in the evening gloom. And for a moment, he heard Darnell’s in his head singing “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, an alligator in a cypress swamp.”
Bio – Kathy Bryson is an award-winning author of tongue-in-cheek fantasy. Her most recent work explores the oddities in medical science through the adventures of a voodoo-cursed medical student – illustrated and available in both ebook and audio!
Giovanni Goes To Med School – https://books2read.com/u/bPJZNr
Giovanni Meets A Coven – https://books2read.com/u/4AwJRN
Giovanni Joins The Werewolves – https://books2read.com/u/b5Mxq1
Giovanni Dines With Vampires – https://books2read.com/u/m0kRjY
Giovanni Haunts The Hospital – coming in 2019!
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