It wasn’t like I had killed anyone back in Montgomery. But, I was on the run, in a way. I reached down and picked up the cup of coffee I’d been nursing and took a sip then took a deep, cleansing breath. I’d told this story what seemed a million times. I wondered if Eli would believe me any more than the police back home.
“Well?” He sipped his coffee and sat back in the booth like he was getting comfortable with a good book welcoming a good story. He was just a little more smug than usual.
“You already know, don’t you?” I asked. I was being set up to tell my side of the story. Eli wouldn’t walk into any situation without having done his homework first. I couldn’t help but smirk at his smugness. I was busted long ago and never knew it. That was his SUV parked next to mine at the grocery store, I just didn’t see him.
“Why don’t you tell me your version,” he said just as our breakfast arrived. I suddenly found myself no longer hungry.
“You’re being the same little jerk you were when we were in school, you know that?” I asked him as I reached for the syrup for my French toast. It was difficult to look in those big blue eyes. If he already knew the story, he had to have read the police report. “Fine. All I did was take some pictures when I was taking a walk on my lunch break about a month ago.”
Nothing. We sat silently, munched on our breakfast, and sipped our coffee until Eli motioned for refills.
“That’s not all though, is it?” he asked.
“Not exactly. I take walks around downtown Montgomery during my lunch break sometimes, and sometimes I take my camera and iPod. It’s easy to get lost in the city for an hour. I had been working a lot of extra hours on different projects, and I was tired. I had my camera in my office from a press conference that morning, so I grabbed it and took off for a walk. I needed to decompress for a little while. I remember it was so hot and muggy. I could barely breathe when I walked outside the office. But, being outside right at that moment was better than being cooped up in my office for one more hour.
“I cut through the parking lot behind the State House and the Capital Building and made my way over to the train depot and down to the Amphitheatre down by the river where the river boat is docked. The city did a lot of restoration to that part of the downtown area, but there are still some great old-brick buildings that still have the original painted ads on the side. They’re old and faded, but they give the brick so much character, and on a beautiful blue sky day like that one, I couldn’t help but take some pictures.
“I was wandering around the old buildings and alleys snapping a few photos along the way when my camera froze. I was standing about three-quarters of the way down this alley between two abandoned buildings, and my stupid camera quit. I had a perfect shot of an antique lantern over an old faded red door at the end of the alley, and my camera froze. My Canon does that sometimes, so I walked back to the street where the light was better and took the battery out long enough so the camera would reset itself and put it back in. That’s when I heard two pops. Pop! Pop! Really fast like a car backfiring. I looked over toward the park overlooking the river where there were a couple of cars parked and some folks walking around. My camera reset, I walked back to the end of the alley, took the shot, and then made my way back to my office.
“Later that night I was looking through the shots I’d taken during the press conference and at lunch. I was especially looking for the shot from the alley of the antique lantern and faded door. I found two photos I didn’t know I had taken of the park at the river overlook. One looked a little fuzzy around the car window, which wasn’t surprising since I hadn’t focused it when I took it. Hell, I didn’t know I took either photo. So I opened it in Photoshop for a better look. It wasn’t fuzzy. It was smoky. It looked like there was a puff of smoke coming from the passenger window.” I stopped and finished my cup of coffee. I knew what Eli was going to say next. It was the same thing I had thought at the time, and the same thing the investigators said when I took the photos to them.
“Are you sure it wasn’t cigarette smoke?” Eli asked. “A hot day, you were out for a walk, it only stands to reason someone else was out enjoying lunch with a pack of smokes.”
As I figured.
“I thought that, too, until I saw the newspaper the next morning. Police were investigating the city’s 42nd homicide…a body was found below the lookout park late the night before with two .38 caliber holes in it. I wondered whether those were the two pops I had heard when I was in the alley. I don’t believe in coincidences, so I didn’t think too much about it.”
“So, what happened to make you run?”
“I started noticing things. Weird things. A couple of new guys showed up in my yoga classes at the Y, which isn’t unusual in itself, but they usually parked near me and would leave at the same time I did. They didn’t make any secret of following me to my neighborhood, either. I picked them up on the way to work a couple of mornings, then I got freaked out. I leave for work at the same time every morning, so I recognize just about all the vehicles heading into Montgomery that time of morning. They were easy to spot. They were parked up the street when I left for lunch, followed me around town, back to the Y and home. This went on for several days, but I was already spooked. So I took another look at those photos, but I asked for some help from a friend who’s an expert in digital restoration. He cleaned up some of the pixels around the vehicle in the photo with the puff of smoke coming out of the window. He took out the glare on the back window, and that’s when we saw the muzzle flash.
“I took the photo to the police detectives working on the homicide that was reported in the paper, and it was dismissed pretty quickly. That was until my expert friend had a car accident on the interstate and died on impact. I was run off the road that night, too, but I didn’t wrap my car around a light pole. I just landed in a ditch. I managed to get out of the car and into the woods before anyone came down the hill. I never saw their faces, but they searched my car. They were looking for the data card for my camera, I’m sure.”
“Where is it now?”
“Safe. Probably safer than I am.”
“Don’t be so sure,” he smiled. “You’re in a place where outsiders aren’t welcome, and news travels at the speed of light. Consider us your own personal security system. So, take a breath and finish your breakfast. We have a little work to do later.”