Author's note: Now rated PG because things are heating up!
I turned off the flashlight and shifted the baseball bat to my stronger hand. I wished I had brought something a little more persuasive, like a handgun, or a shotgun, or a flamethrower. With Alton, there was no way to bring too little, although too late was a frequent occurrence. Hindsight is always perfect. There was no way I would have considered Alton to be in my backyard, and for the moment, he did not seem to be threatening. At least not yet.
So I kept my eyes fastened firmly to the general vicinity of his hands, and retorted as best I could. “She only did what she had to do. You would have done the same." I watched him shrug, and, since I was still alive, kept talking. "And that was a long time ago, Alton. Things have changed. Elizabeth and I are retired now.”
Alton nodded. “She's young for retirement. But there's always the chance of getting called back, I suppose. It was a different world, and we were all different people. I can't hold the attempt on my life against you, because in your place, I know would have done the same. Of course, I would not have failed, although I confess, it makes things a bit more complicated. I think, for instance, Elizabeth and I may still be married. Legally.”
Since there didn't seem to be much else to do, I sat down on a nearby lawn chair. “Actually, no; the marriage was annulled. We made sure of that.” I leaned back and wondered what he wanted, and wished he would get to the point.
“Yes, I guess you would. But like I said, it was different world.” He stood and stretched. My dog, man's best friend, regarded him with more affection than she had ever shown me. That's Alton's gift. He nuzzled her face and leaned in, letting her lick his face. “You have a lovely animal here.” Alton then nodded his head toward my house, and I couldn't help noticing he didn't bother to wipe the dog slobber from his chin. “Now, are you going to invite me, Jack? Or do you have to be up early and work in a supermarket or something?”
“Hospital. No. But I'm not sure about you're coming in, though; Elizabeth is...”
“Oh, it's okay with her. I talked to her two days ago. She's up to speed.”
If a pink dwarf on a blue pony had ridden by, seized my forgotten baseball bat, and hit me across the head with it, I could not have been more surprised. How could Alton have appeared back in our lives, and Elizabeth fail to mention it?
There was nothing else to say, and no reason to refuse, so I led him through the expanse of the back yard into the house. Every step of the way, I half-expected a bullet in the back of the head. Or the thin blade of knife sneaking between my ribs and tickling my heart. But no. Nothing. We walked across the back yard, Alton following me without a single attempt to kill me. Maybe he had changed, after all.
He sat down at the kitchen table and I started a pot of coffee, like a couple old college friends reunited after years of separation. Four o'clock in the morning used to be a time when I was still wide awake and functioning, but five years of retirement and working a normal job had softened me a bit.
“So where have you been, Alton?”
The coffee finished brewing, and I poured him a cup. Hot and black, the way he always drank it. I poured myself a cup, and checked myself before retrieving the peppermint mocha creamer from the refrigeration. Hot and black.
Alton turned the ceramic cup in his hands without answering me. Like always, his face was difficult, if not impossible, for me to read. Was he creating a lie, or only thinking of where to start? Even in the old days, there were many times that I thought he was a half step ahead of me. His sudden return after more than six years puzzled me. Even if he survived the staged accident, which he obviously had, he had picked his own time to come back. He had chosen the time, that much was clear; and if he had chosen this moment, in my back yard, there was a reason. Alton always had a reason.
“I've been a lot of places, Jack. If life were a salad, I guess you could say that I've been a croûton. A lot of things have made me happy, and I've spent some bad days, too. Some even worse that that night on the mountain, with you and my wife.”
“Well, listen, Alton...”
“Jack, stop trying to apologize. Like I said, it was a different world. We each did what we had to do, and I'm past it. So don't mention it.”
I hesitated. Another sign of softness, but there it was. Still, if Alton was looking for revenge, he had known where we lived for at least two days. Plenty of time for him to arrange his own accident, involving myself, or Elizabeth, or both of us. “Fair enough. But why are you here, and now, Alton? What's going on?”
Alton sipped his coffee and placed the cup quietly down in front of him. He motioned to the chair beside him. “Always to the point, Jack. That's what I always liked about you. I'm here because I need your help. If I didn't need you, I wouldn't have been here. Now, I know you and Elizabeth have no children. But is there anyone who would miss you, if you took off right now, today, this very moment?”
“Kids? No, no, we don't. But we're pretty well settled in here, Alton. I don't think I really want to just leave everything, no matter what. I'm glad you understand and are willing to let bygones by bygones, but I don't want to work like that again. Neither does Elizabeth.”
“Jack, Jack. You and the secretive Elizabeth need to talk more. I know I should have.” He sipped his coffee. “This is a very fine brew, Jack.”
I gulped my coffee and nearly burned my tongue. "What are you saying, Alton?"
“Jack, Elizabeth has been back with the Org for over two years.”
“Two years? Two years. No, for once, you're wrong, Alton. She's worked at Wee Wanda's Day Care longer than that.”
“Wee Wanda's is a front, Jack. You really do need to get your head in the game. No one retires. No one. You leave the game only one way."
Alton sipped his coffee. His hands were large, smooth and steady as he carefully placed the cup back on the counter. I knew from experience that his hands were strong enough to break the cup, and I knew he was not a liar. Not unless he needed to, and I could see no reason he would be lying. On some level, I guess I had already known that. You can't stop playing the game, not once you start. There was only one way, and it involved a pine box.
“Okay.” I rubbed my eyes. I was fully awake, but still having trouble processing. It was like opening a closet door and finding the Land of Oz on the other side. My wife was working for the Org again, and had been for two years. The man I thought we had killed five years ago was sitting in my kitchen, drinking coffee. My wife was his widow, or had been, until now; and she had talked with him two days before without mentioning it to me.
The old neural pathways were covered with cobwebs, but they were well-worn and they were still there. If she'd seen him, and not said anything to me, it was because it had something to do with her real job, back in the Org. Now Alton wanted help. He had gone to her first, and she had declined. Now he expected me to say yes.
“What kind of help do you need?”