The first thing he does is make sure the phone is off. Not in sleep mode. Off. Completely. Notifications kill stealth. Without stealth, he’s just like everybody else. He doesn’t want to be mapped or located, leave a record of presence. The Find My Phone setting is ridiculous to him. He’d rather lose the phone.
He has never been caught.
His name is Cornelius, although one of Cornelius’ favorite sayings is never offer your real name ’cause it only gets in the way. He’s on the descending side of middle-aged. Time has been kind. Give him a shave, put him in a suit with a crisp open-collar shirt, and he’s a silver fox. Cornelius, however, prefers the low-key comfort of jeans and sweats.
It’s past midnight. Overcast. The spill of freeway lights flush the clouds dirty orange. No breeze. The air wants to stick. When it was liquid, some of the humidity was hot dog water.
It’s the back-end of the French Quarter near Marigny. Cornelius is wearing a black track suit and he’s on the roof of a three-story row house.
If the commercial and tourist trade now dictates the streets of the Quarter, the roofs are the last of old New Orleans. Generations of paint peeling from hand-milled woodwork, layers of shingles and tar, slipshod repairs, spits of glue and caulk, the roof line neither linear nor uniform from one building to the next, instead a jumble of interconnected peaks, slopes, and valleys.
And skylights. The skylight is the next best thing to a front door key. Old or new, it really doesn’t matter, although Cornelius favors the new ones. Wired with an alarm, too. Such a skylight is not a deterrent, it’s a tell. It says something valuable is inside.
Crouching to maintain a low center of gravity, Cornelius is keeping an eye out for access points while nimble-toeing from one roof to the next. His curiosity is piqued by an old stained-glass skylight. It’s unwashed and opaque from years of city exhaust but with patient eyes the shape and pattern of a fanned peacock appears.
He surveys the building. The front half facing the street holds a PR firm on the ground floor, and two stories of condos above it. The skylight belongs to the back half of the building – a three-story home. Ivy chokes the wrought iron railing on the upper floor veranda. The ground floor is a garage and an entrance opening to an alley. No light slips from any windows.
Cornelius clears a spot on the skylight and spies the inside. The room below is used for storage. Boxes stacked, and furniture draped. The wallpaper has lost luster. Cornelius observes for ten minutes, detects no sign of movement, then opens the skylight with a bent stretch of wire and shimmy bar. He drops silently into the room. The air inside is older. Cornelius maintains his landing like a gymnast ending a parallel bars routine.
He hop-skips to a wall, creeps to the closed door, presses an ear to it, and remains there until his ear begins to sweat. Nothing. He turns the door handle, with slow precision, safe-cracker like, and opens the door in an even slower manner to prevent creaking getting any louder than a sleepy murmur.
A hallway. And the top of a staircase. Some of the wallpaper is unglued and flopping over itself. Carpeting. Once plush and bright with pattern. Now, like everything, shadowed by dust. Cornelius resumes his slow steps towards an ajar door. A bathroom. Unused for some time, a rust stained sink and claw-foot bath tub collecting dead moths and cockroaches. The next room’s door is open. Another bedroom. Smaller, with a single bed. A guest room, no personal items. At the end of the hallway, a closed door. Cornelius again presses his ear against it and holds it there. Nothing. After opening the door in slow motion, he finds the master bedroom. Very ordered but dust given carte blanche. Chandelier and sconce lighting. Antique furniture. A four-post queen-sized bed. Undisturbed linen with sharp corners. There is a pocket watch, cuff-links, a tie pin, and a few hundred dollars on the dresser. Cornelius leaves them, for the time being.
Cornelius won’t steal just anything. It’s nothing to do with resale value or taste. Rather there’s a righteousness with his acquisitions. Providence is key. If a high-carat diamond ring, passed from generation to generation with tales of smitten love presents itself during a burglary, Cornelius won’t steal that ring no matter how big the sparkle. But if that same ring is inside a condo that belongs to an oil executive who purchased it from Sotheby’s as a present for his mistress – bingo, that ring is a long-gone daddy.
On the second floor, Cornelius walks through the kitchen. Dead plants on a window sill. A fruit bowl that once held something. A loaf of bread turned to brick. A refrigerator that doesn’t look inviting, more like a disinterred coffin. The air is less dank, though. A draft infiltrates under a swing door. A soft light accompanies it. Cornelius hears a window air-conditioner unit switch on. A more pronounced draft shifts the door slightly open. He stares at the peeking light and maintains a staring contest for ten minutes. The light never blinks; no shadow breaks it.
Opening the door, there’s a dining table, old mahogany, ringed by high-backed chairs. Running along the length of a wall is a sideboard with a triumph of tarnished silverware. Stretching above it, an ornately framed but cloudy mirror reflecting light from the adjoining parlor.
In the parlor, a single bulb from a lampshade, and next to the lampshade, someone sits in a leather recliner, back turned, with only the top of a head visible. It appears a poorly fitted wig rests on the head.
Cornelius freezes, as if freezing renders him invisible.
The air-conditioning clicks off.
Cornelius listens for five minutes and only hears his breathing. He then breaks his freeze and casually walks into the parlor.
The person sitting beside the lampshade is dead. Dead for a long time. The dead is wearing a red smoking jacket over a waistcoat and an ascot. A book sits on the dead’s lap: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
It’s not a wig. Just a dead comb over on a dehydrated head. The corpse is mummified and well preserved, as if the skin went through a tannery. There is no smell of rot. Hanging onto the face are half-moon spectacles. Arms are balanced on each arm rest. The recliner’s is extended but the dead’s left foot has fallen to the floor, detached at the ankle where the tendon decayed and skin thinned too much.
Cornelius sits opposite in the matching recliner and takes a hard look. Died with mouth wide open. Cornelius has never been with a corpse outside a funeral home, but he doesn’t show any surprise. Surprise is losing cool and control.
Look at that mouth, thinks Cornelius. The dropped bottom jaw pulled by tightening skin, exaggerating an overbite. It reminds Cornelius that he, when sleeping, is a mouth breather. A snorer. Cornelius thinks about dying in his sleep, his mouth overhung, airway struggling. He mirrors the corpse’s profile to see how it feels.
Cornelius is single. His last affair was with a young lady twenty-five years his junior. An English Literature grad. She insisted he sleep with a mouth-piece designed to cut snoring. He did, and she still left him.
Cornelius has no children. No siblings. He has an aunt who drools in a Florida nursing home.
Cornelius’ closest friend is his fence, Maurice. Technically, Maurice is a fence of a fence. Although Maurice has fenced for Cornelius close to three decades, and they’ve shared a few late-night revelries and drinks, Cornelius has never met Maurice’s wife or sons, or stepped inside Maurice’s house.
In Cornelius’ hard look at the dead in the recliner, he reflects a likely future. His profession’s discretion and secrecy has come at a cost. He, too, could die like Smoking Jacket and no one would know. Cornelius thinks how weird it would be to be struck by a heart attack at this very instant. Two forgotten corpses.
“You look thirsty,” says Cornelius, and acknowledges the bar in the corner of the parlor. “I think we need to get ourselves a drink.”
The bar is also old mahogany, maybe the same tree as the dining table, with carvings of a wandering vine rolling around its front. Behind the bar, an impressive stock of liquor, heavy with cognac and single malt scotch. Cornelius picks a bottle and reads the label aloud. “Gleg-gorang-whda-nal. Wedy-nal. Gleg-gorhend-wed-nal. Gleg-gablah-blah-blah.” He turns to the corpse. “My, my, friend. I can’t pronounce it, but I bet this eighteen-year-old liquor has aged another fifty in this here bottle. Am I right?” Cornelius pulls drawer handles and finds a bar towel. He whips the dust off the bar, blows clean two brandy snifters, then pours generously.
He returns to the corpse. “Here, let’s get that gone,” and Cornelius removes the book from the dead lap and places it on the side table, the back-cover photo of Ayn Rand facing up. Cornelius places the corpse’s glass on top of it.
Cornelius sits in his recliner, rolls the whiskey around his glass, and pokes his nose into it. “Hot damn,” he says and takes a deeper inhale before pulling the glass away, his eyes stung red. Raising the whiskey to the lamp, he admires the hue. Cornelius announces, “Yes sir, this here is Scotland!” After savoring a small sip, then another longer one, he sinks deep into the recliner.
There is an inherent sadness of dying unnoticed. Cornelius ponders this. It usually means that the life was unnoticed, too. Alone. If a tree falls on a desert island. Dead before you’re dead. What kind of life is that? More isolation than life.
Cornelius searches the room for distraction from these glum thoughts. Bookshelves filled. Wood paneling. Oil paintings of antebellum romance. At the end of the room a pair of closed pocket doors. Cornelius stands, walks over, and slides the doors open.
A billiard table awaits. Switching on the overhead spotlights, the vibrancy of the felt verdants the room. He racks the balls, then goes back to the bar and refills with a different bottle of scotch. As he pours he sees the stereo. He dials the volume knob to zero before turning it on, then raises the volume slowly. It’s already tuned to a jazz station. “I like yours taste,” Cornelius says over his shoulder to the corpse. He dances back to the billiard table with the glass in one hand and bottle in the other.
“Straight pool, dollar a ball. Any objections?”
Cornelius sharpens the pool stick with chalk, lines up for the break, pulls the stick back and forth in rhythm to the music then drills the cue ball. A puff of blue follows the shot. A ball falls in a pocket.
“Before I continue,” says Cornelius as he decants more liquor into his glass, “a toast to yours hospitality. You got fine digs.” He raises his glass, tips his head, and sinks the scotch in one gulp.
Cornelius plays pool for an hour, sometimes pauses his game and dances with the cue if the radio strikes the right tune. He starts practicing trick shots, pushing spin on the cue ball to increase angles and reverse potential but the drink slowly turns his game sour. Cornelius retires to his recliner with bottle and glass.
“Man, that’s a gorgeous table.” He attempts to recharge his glass but discovers the bottle is empty. “Say, looks like you ain’t drinking,” and Cornelius takes the corpse’s glass sitting on Ayn Rand’s face, then nestles into the recliner, extending the leg rest.
Books line the shelves; shelves coil the room. Pottery and framed photos intermittently interrupt the book procession. The photo nearest to Cornelius shows a flaring peacock in front of someone sitting in a rickshaw, smiling at the camera. The color in the photo was made in the 1960s.
On the side of the bar, there’s a bull-whip hanging from a hook. A fez and a matador hat roost on a stand.
In the far corner, in a small alcove, is a shrine consisting of a crucifix, a statue of a five-headed elephant, spent incense, and an old, well-thumbed gris-gris.
“You know, and I bet you agree,” says Cornelius to the corpse, “the best way to die is in your own bed, with wife and children and grand childs standing around you, looking down with teary eyes but also, at the same time, smiling. Tears ’cause goodbye’s sad. Smiles ’cause they’re thankful and proud that you were in their life. That’s honor and respect and love. Imagine that as your last earthly feeling. The very last! That’s the best way to go. No doubt.”
The air-conditioning switches on. The radio announcer is talking about Miles Davis’ second great quintet.
“Not everyone dies like that,” acknowledges Cornelius. “Some die far worse. Sitting on the can. Or lying in a gutter. Gunshot to the gut. Thrown down a well. Buried alive. Like them folks in Pompeii. That’s a tough deal, man. That’s far from the ideal.
“But friend, look at you!” Cornelius waves his arms around the room, the remainder of whiskey flung from the snifter. “You died a good life. There’s satisfaction in that. Could be worse. Far worse.”
Cornelius folds his recliner and stands. He expresses solemn appreciation to the host and bows near a right-angle. While facing the floor, Cornelius rediscovers the corpse’s felled foot. He picks it up, attempts to re-perch it to the ankle but the foot finds no balance and falls. Cornelius tries again, this time engineering Atlas Shrugged and the empty scotch bottle as bookends, bracing the foot in between. It successfully stands. Satisfied that it will persist, Cornelius lets himself out.