Lapland – shit, I was still only in Lapland.
In the cold air of that morning it could have been anywhere, but something at the back of my mind told me exactly where I was. The smell was unmistakeable, a smell I’d lived with for most of my life. Looking around from my prone state I could tell it was another cheap, temporary room – my apartment just wasn’t this tidy. The wipe clean wall coverings and fresh bed linen put it a step above the places I usually stayed, but that wasn’t saying much. I tried to sit up, but my body wasn’t having any of it.
The walls of my head felt as if they were pounded by a hundred angry reindeer hooves all clambering for attention, too much eggnog the night before. I couldn’t complain, part of the territory with my job, but those hooves were just taking me back.
Five years out of job and I could still hear them most nights, calling me back. I’d quit after the incident with the Easter Bunny; he’d made a deal with the DE for immunity in exchange for ratting out some elves who were looking to shake down the union, and that just left a bitter taste in the mouth. The air in Nevada had been to dry for me anyway, but that still didn’t explain how I was in Lapland.
The phone rang besides the bed and I reached out to grab it just to stop that God-awful noise.
“Rudy? How’d you find me?”
“That doesn’t matter, you need to come back Boss, we’ve got a case and I think you need to cover it.”
“Not interested, I quit remember?”
“But it’s for her.”
I put down the phone and settled back into my eggnog-fuelled headache; Lapland – shit, I was still only in Lapland.
The boys were good enough to organise a welcoming committee when I got to the airport but it still felt wrong to be considering going back. Rudy’ knew this of course which is why he’d dangled the carrot of her in front of me, he knew I wouldn’t be able to resist – how could I? Still, climbing into the back of that sleigh felt wrong and I knew I wouldn’t like what they’d done with the office. I didn’t like to play passenger either, but Rudy’s man wouldn’t let me ride up front – I was a civilian now, no longer part of the force and that made things different.
The sleigh had seen better days, probably had been taken out of the mothballs just to try to put me at ease for the ride back. It wasn’t part of what was now called the “Distribution Network Service” since they’d out-sourced that part of the job to some South American river-god, and we all knew what that meant – poor service and long waits. Things would have changed alright.
“How long will it take?” I asked.
The driver didn’t answer – did he know who I was? Probably, but the suits up top would have told him to keep his mouth shut. It didn’t matter anyway, I could see the twinkling lights of The Tangiers and The Mirage in the distance, five years out of the driving seat and I’d forgotten how fast this thing was, I was getting old, too old for this kind of job.
Rudy’s office was at the back of the shop floor and you could tell that by the piles of paperwork he was now in charge of this operation. The years had been kind to Rudy, but the carrots and brandy hadn’t. Five years and a couple of quarts later that red nose of his was there for a different reason now.
“I quit, remember? I’m just Nick now.”
“Sure thing Boss.”
The way he kept emphasising the B in boss showed that he still hadn’t forgiven me for walking out like that.
“So what’s this all about, you mentioned that she was involved in whatever this is?”
Those two words cut through me like a knife, that slow drawl that she’d obviously practised for years just to have the right effect on men like me. I noticed the smell of her cigarette on the air and that perfume she’d worn in…
“Rudolf, be a dear and fetch me another drink please?”
She held out her hand and jiggled her glass so that ice clicked against the sides in a way that made you turn around and look at her. There, silhouetted against the light from the factory floor she took my breath away like she had before. She must have come here straight from work as she was still wearing that little white number she wore on the job. Rudy’ took the glass of her and turned.
“I’ll leave you two to talk” he said, closing the door behind him as he left. It was just me and her now, me and the one woman who’d ever broke my heart – the Tooth Fairy.
She drew heavily on her cigarette for effect has the door shut, before stubbing it out in the ashtray on the table in front; as she produced another long, slender roll from her enamelled case, I remembered the reasons I used to smoke.
“It’s not me Nick” she sighed, “it’s my husband.”
“Not bringing home enough Novocaine for you.”
“Don’t be like that Nick, it doesn’t suit you.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just you know?”
“I think he’s having an affair.”
“Really, I don’t buy that – what makes you think that’s the case?”
“A wife knows.”
“Mine certainly did, especially when you showed up on my doorstep.”
“That was a long time ago; besides, she wasn’t woman enough for you.”
“She sure took a bite out of the pay cheques though.”
“You could have gone back to her.”
“Not after you.”
She stood and walked forward, letting me see those clear blue eyes that had held me spell bound so long ago, hitting me like a fist to the gut. I felt like kissing her there and then, but Rudy’ returned breaking the spell – I sat back down.
“So, he’s having an affair – any idea who with?”
“I have more than that; I know who it’s with.”
She reached into her purse and pulled out a small, black and white photograph of a woman I didn’t need to see to know who it was – I could smell it across the room.
“Madame Absinthe?” I asked.
I slumped back into my chair letting the full weight of what this meant wash over me.
“So what do you want? Proof that he’s cheating on you so you can take him to the cleaners?”
“No, I want him back – he is the man I love after all.”
Fate has a way of dealing out irony; here was the woman who wrecked my marriage asking me to save hers.
“She’ll be dancing tonight at La Salle Verte, he’ll be there – and then you can decide what you want to do.”
She stood up so I followed her to the door. She made sure she gave me one more flash of those baby blues before leaving, just for effect.
“Promise me you’ll at least go to see her?”
The door closed and Rudy’ spoke.
“So Boss, you taking the job?”
“What do you think…”