“Oh for the love of…” Officer Vincent Esposito dropped his head on the steering wheel and then winced as 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 the youngest niece of the police chief. He barked “ten four” anyway and stomped on the gas. At least he could drive fast through this little podunk town 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 for 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 road brought him to the front yard of a small, frame house. A petite woman came running 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 short, her hands dropping her hips.
Vincent stepped out of the car and looked way down at the little woman. She had long dark hair in a braid that reached down her back and she was dressed comfortably in shorts and tank top like everyone else in the area. Vincent was uncomfortably aware that his uniform of navy dress shirt and slacks would be soaked with perspiration by the end of his shift.
The tiny woman wore sandals with thick wedge soles, but they didn’t add much to her height. Vincent nearly laughed at her angry expression. She was too small and too curvy to carry off a spitfire attitude, but her faced was 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, but 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 pint-sized woman, but he shook the feeling off. Sally, the dispatcher, might he 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!” A large man in jeans and baseball cap stepped out of the house and waved with enthusiasm.
Vincent, groaning, lowered his head just 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 Darnell,” she murmured.
Darnell came up, arms outstretched, and even knowing he meant no harm, Vincent was hard pressed not to reach for his gun. Darnell 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 Darnell was just drunk off his ass.
“Hey Vinny, have you met Merry? Vinny, this is Merry. Merry as in Merry Christmas. Get it?” And Darnell 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, aware that his direct approach was uncomfortably out of place on the Louisiana coast.
Merry sighed. “It’s not an emergency,” she started, but Darnell interrupted.
“Oh, you gotta see this, Vinny! It’s totally amazing. C’mon!” Darnell lumbered off towards the frame building.
Vincent reluctantly followed. In the gathering dusk, he couldn’t see much beyond the screen porch that covered the front of the building. Inside, however, he saw a couple of wooden picnic tables and assorted plastic chairs. Two men in grubby jackets and baseball caps sat at a bar across the back. They cheered and raised bottles towards 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, that’s all.” Merry dimpled at him from his side. He could have easily have tucked her under one arm. “And no, none of them are driving.”
“Dad!” Vincent’s heart jumped as his son started 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 his voice 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 a 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, he thought, I don’t want to scare my own son.
“Nico’s coming to church,” a fierce voice interjected. “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 polyester 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 chimed in. 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 the extent of the elderly ladies. “I’m sure he came as fast as he could. Dear, can’t you do anything about those dogs?”
Merry disappeared through a door at the back of the patio that presumably led into 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 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 eagerly to his father. “C’mon, Dad, you’ve 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 off 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 pulled half up into the yard.
The trees were actually the one part of the area he liked. The dense green overgrowth that lined either side of the road and shut out the view of the Gulf seemed mysterious and reminded him of childhood fantasies of enchanted forests. He could almost believe in dragons in those dark woods even though he was just beginning to recognize the gnarled cypresses underneath the Spanish moss.
Vincent flicked the flashlight past the boat, then tensed, startled, as a small hand grasped his forearm. Merry smiled up at him as she directed the flashlight back to the creek. “Do you see it? 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 itself, he thought he saw movement. Bringing the light slowly back, he peered intently into the darkness. “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 and started to apologize.
“Actually, alligators brummate 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 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 sarcastic thought off his face.
Vincent peered 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. The two foot strip of white might have been just a rough gash in the limb. But as he watched, the alligator turned its head and he saw it clearly for a second, the jagged edge of its spine a surreal outline in the evening gloom. Then his vision blurred and his mind rebelled.
““But it’s white! And up a tree!” he objected.
“They can climb.” The biology major told him. “Maybe that helped it survive. It’s gotta be at least a year old.”
Okay, Vincent thought. My son’s dating a smart, older woman. That wasn’t as reassuring a thought as he would have expected.
“Yeah!” Darnell 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. Gotta protect it from, you know, global warming and stuff.”
“And now you know why we called.” Merry raised both eyebrows at him, a pointed message in that glance.
Vincent felt an all too familiar weight press down on him. People never called the cops until they did something really stupid 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 chirrups of insects disturbing the quiet. Wait a minute. “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 wakes them.”
“Hush puppies? Get it? Hush puppies!” Darnell nearly fell over laughing and one of his buddies actually did have to sit down.
“Oh lord.” The soft undertone drew his attention 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 New Jersey. You probably don’t know how.” Darnell 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 Darnell and his buddies.
“Anyway,” Miz LaFontaine nodded to Vincent, “we already called the authorities. That’s what you’re here for. You wait here until Fish and Wildlife shows up.”
“Hold on,” 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 was pretty sure he’d been given the holiday 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 on the fallen tree trunk. Except that wasn’t any snipe he’d ever seen.
“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’s nice out when it 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!” Merry took off running.
Vincent followed her into the porch and saw Darnell holding open the door that led to the back rooms. He held a puppy in one hand and another staggered 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 look. “Sorry, reflex,” 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 Drug Enforcement Agency, aren’t you sweetie?” She took the puppy from Nico and held it up, cooing to 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.
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.” Darnell 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 had to get the casseroles. We’ll be off now.”
“Yes, thank you, hon, for use of your ovens.” Shirley bustled by. “Now we left you a plate. Such a shame you’re not gonna be able to come.” She peered sharply at Vincent. “Are you coming to church tonight, young man?”
Vincent frowned. That was too personal a question. “I’m on duty this evening, ma’am.” He didn’t try to temper the repressive tone.
Shirley peered more closely 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 why y’all are so worked up. 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, not even in advanced training. His mother, however, would have killed him if he reacted any other way, so he politely thanked Miz Mack.
“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.
He should have seen that question coming, Vincent realized. “I’m here to look after my son.” Grabbing Nico by the arm, he tried to ask discretely, “Why aren’t you with your mom?”
“I called your office,” Nico protested. “They decided to go to Gulfport for the boat parade and I didn’t want to go.”
“Everyone gets sick out on the Gulf. Them’s rough waters.” Darnell nodded in sympathy, then handed the puppy to Nico and sang, “Five puking puppieees!”
Vincent grinned fiercely to himself. 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 on the sleek, pretentious yacht that was too small for both her son and her new boyfriend. His son’d had the right reaction when he threw up all over it.
“That won’t work for the song,” Nico objected. “No one wants to hear about puking.”
The impromptu glee club begin arguing over the remaining days of Christmas. “Nobody ever remembers anything but the rings,” Darnell 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 back ground coalesced around her, redolent of onions and cheese, and Vincent felt his stomach rumble. “Nico said you liked fish.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Nico handed off his 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.” Seeing Nico heading off on what was essentially a date, Vincent couldn’t help trying to protect him.
“Dad,” Nico gave his father an exasperated look, “her name is Bebe, spelled with two e’s.” He held open the porch door for the two ladies with their platters of fish.
The smell of the fish tugged at Vincent’s memory. His mother had faithfully prepared the seven fish every Christmas Eve. He hadn’t had them when he was married and certainly not since he divorced. He hadn’t realize 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.” Darnell passed, a puppy in each hand. Merry hurried 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 such high heels, and he wondered how tall she was when she took her shoes off.
“We’re ecumenical. We always have a fish fry anyway, so seven different kinds weren’t no big stretch.”
Vincent grinned at Miz Lafontaine. Hers was an attitude he could work with. “Thank you for inviting my son.”
Darnell started singing “four church ladies” and Vincent realized it was past time to clear the scene. “Three good buddies,” Darnell and 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. He had a job to do. “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 gotta take these drunks home now or we’ll be late for the supper.”
Darnell didn’t notice her disapproval. Draping an arm over both Nico and Bebe, he bellowed, “Two turtle doves!” and 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!”
Bebe flushed a dark red. “Jeeze Grandma,” she protested and she sounded as young as Vincent had originally thought her.
“Don’t you blaspheme, young lady,” Miz LaFontaine barked. “You get in that car now, both of you.”
Nico blushed. Vincent supposed he didn’t have to worry too much if his son was dating a church lady, but he was taking all the backup he could get. And if Nico found this old lady too direct, well he should be glad he wasn’t living in Jersey with Nonna Esposito anymore. In fact, Vincent though he might invite her down as well.
“Now, I left you a plate.” 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 as she nodded at Vincent. “You and Merry eat up. Fish won’t keep forever, you know.”
Nico turned back at the door. He pointed two fingers at his eyes, then jabbed them in Vincent’s direction. A look of wicked glee danced across his face as he mouthed ‘two turtle doves’ and ducked out the front chuckling.
Vincent stood, pen in hand, mouth open, as the three ladies in hats drove off. He turned slowly back to the empty porch to where Merry leaned against the bar, mouth twisted as she tried not to laugh.
“And why exactly did you call me?” he asked, sarcasm dripping from his words.
“Oh, I didn’t,” Merry grinned at him. “Nico said he had to let you know where he was, then Darnell mentioned that he knew you, and the whole thing sort of snowballed from there.”
She begin lifting plates covered in tin foil up onto the bar. There looked to be enough to feed a small army, 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 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 defend this tiny woman, which was obviously ridiculous. She’d just run off a half-dozen guardians. Still, alligators were a protected species and this one could attract trouble.
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.
“How about some coffee?” Merry asked. “Then I could help with your report. I know everyone’s address.”
In his head, Vincent could hear Darnell singing, “on the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, an alligator in a cypress swamp,” and he shook his head to clear it. Makes as much sense as a swamp ghost, he thought and smiled at Merry. “I’d love some, thanks.”