Born on the Bayou
Toli stood in front of his office building, glancing at his watch like it was about to perform a trick. His secretary Jenny poked her head out the door, looking at him like he was a hurt puppy.
“Mister Palazzo,” she said, “The phone won’t stop ringing. You have a lot of angry customers.”
“And no employees to do anything about it,” Toli replied. “Where is everybody?”
“Just a bunch of bums, I guess.”
“One or two maybe. But we’re talking about Stan, Jimmy, Walt- those guys have been solid employees for years. Never show up late, never miss a day.”
“Have you talked to your detective friend?”
“Funny you should ask. He’s been getting a rash of missing persons cases lately.”
“What a coincidence, huh?”
“Yes. What are the odds?” He looked back at her with a wry smile.
“You better take some of these calls or we’ll be up a creek.”
Toli sighed and followed Jenny into the building. Jenny handed him the receiver of her desk phone.
“Who’s up first?” Toli asked.
“Mr. Abrams, the fishmonger.”
“He’s a monger, alright.” Toli put the receiver to his ear. “Mr. Abrams? Yes… Yes… I understand… Listen, I’m in a bit of a bind… Yes, I hear you, Mr. Abrams. Not a single one of my employees showed up for work today… Yes, okay. Maybe you can send one of your people down to pick it up?… You’re short handed as well? So you see my predicament?… Yes… Yes, Mr. Abrams, I understand you’re trying to run a business… Are you sure about that?… Okay… Thank you for your business.” Toli handed the receiver back to Jenny.
“What did he say?”
“He said he’s taking his business to Ehrlich Shipping. Because Gunnar Ehrlich knows how to keep his employees in line.”
“I’m going to lose my job, aren’t I?”
“You could always go work for Ehrlich.”
“You can say that again, but he’s also the only game in town right now.”
The phone rang and they gave each other an anxious stare. Jenny lifted the receiver and inched it toward her ear.
“Palazzo Imports and Exports,” she said, and promptly relaxed back into her chair. “Hi, Detective Delareux.”
Toli made impatient gestures for the phone.
“Yes, he’s right here.” She handed him the phone.
“Delareux… Yes I do, I’ll be right there.” Toli hung up the phone. “Jenny…take a paid day off. I have to visit the Detective. It may take awhile.”
When Toli arrived he found Delareux cross legged on the floor, in the middle of a circle etched from chalk and salt. He was chanting in what sounded like the mongrel hybrid of French, Spanish, and English.
“Should I ask what you’re doing?” Toli said.
“Taking a bath,” Delareux replied.
“Okay. Anyway, those measurements. You’re looking at about a mile radius centered on the swamp behind the Winthrop Estate.”
“A mile? I need new shoes,” Delareux stood and walked to the liquor cabinet, “I got another missing person case this morning.”
“Just one? My whole staff has disappeared, except for Jenny.”
“Just Jenny, huh?” he plunked down two shot glasses on his desk and looked out the window with a thousand yard stare.
“Just Jenny. Is that significant?”
“It’s just that all the missing person cases I’ve been offered have been for men disappearing. It’s their wives, sisters, mothers, daughters that come in asking me to find them. All your employees walk, except Jenny. Sylvia and Shelby live right on the edge of the weirdness and they seem fine. Still present and accounted for at least.”
“Then there’s the matter of Gunnar Ehrlich.”
“Who’s that? Sounds like a kraut.” Delareux poured out two shots of bourbon.
“He’s a kraut who runs a shipping business. And he’s doing quite well for himself.”
“Maybe your business rivals can wait.”
“If it was just a simple business rivalry I could handle it myself. It’s the fact that he doesn’t seem to be having problem with employees pulling a disappearing act. In fact his work force keeps growing. Not to mention that he’s able to undercut any competition by a country mile, like the guy has no overhead.”
“Maybe he’s poaching?” Delareux swigged his shot.
“That still doesn’t explain why these men aren’t returning home.”
Delareux swirled the bourbon in his mouth and gulped it. He grabbed the second shot and did the same. “One problem at a time. I’m going to Sylvia’s to see what I can find in that swamp. You see if you can dig up anything on Ehrlich.”
“Tell her I said ‘hi,’ would you?” Toli gave Delareux a sheepish grin.
Delareux shook his head and took another shot.
Shelby scaled the wall of Mrs. Deacon’s School for Orphaned Children and perched at the top, scanning the playground for familiar faces. She came to the school every couple days to catch up with her old friends, though lately the list seemed to be dwindling. Two girls crept under the wall beneath Shelby, looking up and giggling. One of the girls wound up and launched an inflatable red ball at Shelby’s head. Shelby pulled a shiv from her belt and stabbed the ball, popping it.
“Aw, rats, Shelb,” the girl said. “That was our last ball.”
“I’ll get you a new one,” Shelby said, hopping down from the wall.
“Oh yeah, you’re a rich kid now,” the other girl said.
“I’m not rich. The guy who adopted me is.”
“Hey, where’s George? Or Ralphie? Or Brian?”
“They snuck out a few nights ago and just never came back.”
“Mrs. Deacon called everywhere. The hospital, the police. Nobody seen them.”
“Has seen,” Shelby said.
“Oh, listen to the Queen. ‘Has seen,’ very cosmopolitan, Shelby,” the first girl said.
“Can it, Marie.”
“So sorry, Your Majesty,” the second girl said.
“C’mon, Kate, I’m still Shelby.”
“Just teasin,” Kate said.
“Mike and Joe are missing too, and they didn’t even sneak out,” Marie said. “Went to bed one night and they wasn’t there in the morning.”
Shelby bit her lip in an effort not to correct Marie’s grammar. Corbin’s constant hounding of her elocution was rubbing off on her.
“The only older boy left is Bertram,” Kate said, “And he ain’t doing so good.”
“He’s real sick. Mrs. Deacon don’t know what’s wrong with him and since Dr. Andronikov left town, we ain’t got the money to take him to no doctors.”
“Yeah, Andronikov,” Shelby rubbed her head and forced a pained smile. “I’m sure he could have helped. You said only older boys? What did you mean?”
“All the boys over 12 is missing or sick.”
Shelby frowned and her eyes drifted a thousand miles away.
“Bum deal too. Georgie said he was gonna sneak me into the pictures this weekend,” Marie said.
“You’re better off,” Shelby said.
“No way, I was finally gonna make it.”
“Remember how Mabel got sent away because she had a bun in the oven?”
“Yeah? What of it?”
“Georgie,” Shelby said and hopped back up on the brick wall.
“Where ya goin, Shelby? We was gonna play four square!” Kate said.
“I have to talk to a friend of mine,” she said. She leapt into an overhanging tree and disappeared.
Toli sat on the phone waiting for the receptionist of Ehrlich Shipping to return to the call. He fiddled with his cufflinks, making them flash under the overhead light. Jenny would pop her head in every couple of minutes to inform him that another angry customer was screaming on the other end of the line. Over the course of the twenty minutes on hold, he perfected his hand gesture for, ‘I’ll call them back later.’ After he had filled an entire page of legal paper with a pen ink grid pattern, the receptionist returned to the line.
“I’m sorry, sir, but Mr. Ehrlich has gone to lunch.”
“When do you anticipate his return?” Toli asked.
“In about an hour.”
Toli glanced at his watch, “I’ll call back around two, then.”
“Thank you.” The line went dead.
Jenny poked her head in. “Mr. Palazzo?”
“Later, I’ll call them back later.”
“Okay, but…” her eyes popped as she looked out the window over Toli’s shoulder. Her surprise turned to indignant anger, “Hit the road, you little urchin.”
Toli looked behind him and saw Shelby framed in the window, giving a coy grin and a wave.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Jenny said, picking up a broom, “That little waif just won’t take no for an answer.”
“No, Jenny,” Toli said, lifting the sash. “It’s okay.”
Shelby hopped into Toli’s office and smiled at Jenny. “Sorry for the hard time, ma’am.”
“Ma’am?” Jenny looked aghast. “I’m only 19.”
“That’s ma’am territory.”
Jenny frowned, turned on her heel and stormed from the office.
“Well, Miss Herveux,” Toli said, “You’ve managed to insult my only remaining employee.”
“About that,” she said, “So your only remaining employee is a dame?”
“That’s curious because I just visited Mrs. Deacon’s school and it turns out all the older boys have gone missing. The only one left is on death’s doorstep.”
“That is curious.”
“I went to Delareux’s office but he wasn’t there.”
“He and your parents are investigating your mother’s withering plant problem.”
“I’ll see if I catch up with them. They’ll be interested in this.”
“Wait, I’ll go with you.”
“Because you’re sweet on my mom?”
“No…no…because Detective Delareux would want to know about this.”
“I can relay the information. No need for you go all the way out to my mom’s house. Unless, you know…”
“Watch your tongue, young lady.”
Shelby stuck out her tongue and crossed her eyes, “I can’t.”
“Fresh. Let me get my coat.”
“Before I forget, Danvers wants you to fill out a missing persons report for each of your missing employees.”
“Danvers can wait. Let’s go.”
“Sure, let’s go watch you get all dreamy eyed at my mom.”
As Sylvia, Corbin, and Delareux trudged their way through the swamp, they noticed the greenery becoming less and less green. The withering seemed to intensify as they approached the center of Toli’s map, but ahead of them all they could see was more dying swamp.
“If Palazzo’s calculations are correct,” Corbin said, “This should be the epicenter.”
“There’s nothing here,” Sylvia said, “Just more quiet swamp.”
“C’mon, Papa,” Delareux said, gripping the sigil that hung from his neck, “Don’t make me feel like I wasted all that rum.”
“Are you getting anything, Sylvia?” Corbin asked, squinting into the swamp.
“Nothing. I might as well be on the surface of the moon it’s so cold and quiet.”
“I don’t see anything out here that can tell us anything more,” Delareux turned to go,
“Other than the rot gets worse the closer we get to the center.”
“Maybe something is buried out here?” Sylvia said.
“Unless you can grow us a back hoe, I don’t think there’s much we can do right now.”
“I can’t do anything with all this lifelessness.”
“I’ll let Palazzo know we need to cop some excavation equipment.”
As they turned to go, something caught Corbin’s eye.
“Wait,” he said, grabbing onto Sylvia’s sleeve, pointing into the swamp, “Look.”
“What? I don’t see it,” Sylvia said.
“There’s a shimmer. Like a heat haze. You don’t see it?”
Sylvia and Delareux looked at each other and shook their heads.
“There’s an illusion spell at work here,” Corbin said.
“Are you sure?” Delareux asked.
“Positive. Illusion spells are my forte.”
Delareux held his sigil in front of his face and reprimanded it, “This is supposed to be your thing, Papa. What gives?”
“Here, allow me,” Corbin said and produced a dagger from a concealed pocket on his pant leg. He waved it in the air mumbling in ancient Hebrew.
The air in front of them began to ripple and wave. Corbin lunged forward with the dagger and sliced through the air in front of him. The swamp looked as though it was painted on a curtain that had been torn revealing the real scene behind it. A sprawling shanty town, nestled in the bayou, emerged from the tear. Several man in denim overalls were nailing sundry bric-a-brac to the walls. The shanty town was a series of shacks built on top of one another, stretching out in all directions and reaching toward the sky. Towers of shacks poked through the canopy above and rope bridges connected the upper floors. Wooden planks were layered on the ground like makeshift thoroughfares. The man in denim appeared to be expanding the rickety city.
“Well, would you look at that,” Sylvia gasped as she watched denim clad man crawling all over the structures, nailing and sawing.
“We may need backup on this one,” Delareux said.
“Agreed,” Corbin said and felt a prodding on his back.
Several of the denim clad men had gathered behind them and poked them with sharp pieces of metal debris, hammered into weapons.
“Oh dear,” Sylvia said, raising her hands. Delareux and Corbin followed suit and the men led them toward the town.