In the City
Toli and Shelby arrived at Sylvia’s property at about five minutes before two in the afternoon. The air was still and quiet. Neither the birds nor the bugs seemed to have much of anything to say. Toli examined the stakes Sylvia had driven into the ground denoting the perimeter of the strange activity. He pinched one of the many colorful scarves that were attached to the stakes as flags. He rubbed the silk between his finger. Shelby crept up behind him.
“I wonder if they smell like her,” she said.
Toli jumped, “Where does a child your age learn such things?”
“Living down by the docks.”
Toli frowned and shook his head. He resumed his crouch down and eyed up the stakes.
“What are you doing?” Shelby said, arms akimbo.
“Trying to determine where your parents and Mr. Delareux may have entered the swamp.”
“I’m pretty sure it was through there,” she pointed to a gap in the foliage.
“What makes you so sure?”
She handed him a small, round, pastel colored disk, the width and size of a quarter. Toli held it to is face, squinting. He sniffed it. He poked out his tongue and hazarded a taste. Shelby dropped her head and shoulders, puffing.
“It’s a Necco wafer,” she said.
Toli spit a clipping of grass from his mouth. “You could have told me that before I tasted it.”
“It all happened so fast.”
Shelby led him to the spot where she had discovered the soiled confection. She darted ahead into the swamp. Toli took a few probing steps in an effort to follow.
“Could you give me chance to catch up?” he called.
She was bounding and pouncing from tree roots to protruding rocks until she vanished into the wilderness. Toli sighed and flopped his arms. He climbed and stumbled through the soggy ground and muck. He battled in vain to keep his socks dry as he trudged after the absconded Shelby.
“Hey, Necktie,” her tiny voice called from the dense heart of Sylvia’s swamp, “Hurry up.”
“We can’t all be so young and nimble.”
“I found a bunch more wafers. I hung on to them in case you're feeling hungry.”
“At least we know we’re on the right track.”
Toli made it to where Shelby was reclining in a low hanging branch that swept down over a deep, still pool. Toli stopped and panted.
“The problem is,” Shelby said, “The trail ends here.”
“Well, maybe if we keep going straight?”
“I scouted ahead. There’s nothing out there.”
“How can you possibly see through all that foliage?”
“See for yourself.”
Toli stepped through the dense weave of vines and branches. Stretching out before him was a vast pool of water. It was still and empty. The surrounding greenery seemed as though it was actively avoiding the area. Toli pulled his head back in. Shelby nodded with a smirk.
“Did you go in there?”
They regarded each other in silence. Shelby leapt off her branch and looked up at Toli. She motioned toward the pool with her head. Toli looked back askance. She picked up a rock and tossed it at the pool. The air rippled and the rock vanished.
“What was that?” Toli gasped.
“My guess? It’s an illusion. My dad was telling me about illusion magick.”
“If my mom, Corbin and Delareux are in there? Me too.”
“Not only that, but what could be in there.”
“Only one way to find out.” Shelby crept through the bushes and dipped her foot into the pool. “It’s shallow.”
“Be careful, Shelby. I don’t image good intentions hide themselves behind illusions deep in a swamp.”
“You think? How about you be careful, Desk Jockey?”
“You’re cruising, young lady.”
“Just come on.”
Toli followed behind Shelby and they passed through the illusion.
Ed Danvers stomped through the lobby of the police station and headed into his office. He threw his hat at the coat rack and it hit the floor and skidded under the couch. He pulled off his coat and dropped it on the hook as he turned toward his desk. His coat draped to the floor.
“Detective Danvers?” an officer said from the doorway, wringing his hands.
“What now?” he growled.
“Officers Andersen and Council haven’t shown up for their shifts.”
“Last week we had a full department. By the end of this week we’ll have none at all. Have you heard from Detective Delareux?”
“Should I have?”
“No...no...this just seems like something he’d get mixed up in. Keep me posted.”
Danvers pulled a dog-eared business card from his pocket. He looked at the phone. Then back at the card. Then back to the phone. He picked up the receiver. Then he slammed it back down, tossing the card on his desk. He leaned back and puffed, turning in his chair. After a full revolution he snatched the card and the phone off the desk and dialed the number.
Sylvia, Corbin, and Delareux were led through the meandering streets of the vast shanty complex. The streets were a patch work of plywood and metal sheets, flat enough to be walked on but too irregular to be used as a wall or door. They were being led toward a central tower from which all the main roads in the city radiated, like spokes on a wheel. The tower stretched in wandering curves into the sky. The guards stopped them at the foot of the tower. From the second floor jutted a balcony which sloped to one side. It was supported by a stacked assortment of solid bulky debris. The cracks between them were stuffed with detritus and muck, fished from the swamp, like an improvised wattle and daub. The bottom of one pillar was being supported by a battered phone booth. From the malformed portal a small, middle aged man emerged. His bald head was wrapped in dirty grey curls. When the sunlight penetrated the dense canopy overhead, it caught his hair and flared in a nicotine yellow. His matted cassock looked to be stitched together from the hides of an indeterminate number of species. His eyebrows looked as though a child had pasted pulled cotton to his face to play Grandpa in the school production. They obscured his eyes as he glared down at the group, tapping his foot.
“How did you find this place?” he asked.
“Walked,” Delareux replied.
“We saw through your illusion quite easily,” Corbin said.
“See, that’s what I’m interested in. Go on.”
“And then your zombies marched us here.”
“How did you see through my illusion?”
“Illusions are easy.”
“Who are you people?”
“I’m...Le Bec, perhaps you’ve heard of me?”
“I’m new here. I haven’t had a chance to immerse myself in the local color.”
“This the Witch Winthrop.”
“Sylvia. Mage,” Sylvia said, waving.
The old man shook his head.
“What did you say your name was?” Delareux asked.
“Gunnar Ehrlich...hey, I didn’t say what-” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “It’s going to like that, is it?”
The phone booth that propped up Ehrlich’s balcony began to ring. Delareux walked over to it and answered.
“This is Delareux,” he said. “Uh-huh. In the swamp behind Sylvia’s house.”
“Who’s he talking to?” Ehrlich grimaced. “That’s not even hooked up to anything.”
“I left a trail of Necco wafers. You can’t miss it. See you soon.”
Delareux hung up and took his place back in Ehrlich’s line up.
“Who were you talking to?” Ehrlich asked.
“Some guy wanted to sell me encyclopedias.”
“Is he nuts?” Ehrlich asked Sylvia and Corbin.
Sylvia shrugged and Corbin waggled his hand.
“Nobody else heard it ring?” Delareux asked.
“I heard it,” Ehrlich snapped.
“Isn’t that weirder than who I might have been talking to?”
“What’s wrong with him?” Ehrlich pled to Sylvia and Corbin.
“I think the detective has a valid point,” Sylvia said.
“Are they both nuts?” Ehrlich asked Corbin.
“Honestly, the ringing was first thing I was going to ask about too,” Corbin replied.
“Come to think of it,” Ehrlich said, rubbing his head, “I don’t care how the damned phone was ringing. I want to know how you found my city.”
“City?” Sylvia said.
“Yes, a city.”
“It’s more like a shanty town.”
“Look how big it is.”
“It goes by population.”
“How did you find it?” Ehrlich stamped his feet.
“Trigonometry,” Corbin said.
Delareux howled and slapped his hands over his ears, “Cut out your tongue, demon.”
“I’m not a demon I’m a necromancer,” Ehrlich said.
“I was talking to him,” Delareux pointed at Corbin.
“What did I say?”
“You know what you said.
“Trigonometry?” Sylvia asked.
Delareux dropped to his knees wailing, “Beset by demons on all sides.”
Ehrlich whipped off his glasses and wiped his hand down his face. A bell rang twice and the long resonant tail hung in the air. He winced and glanced at his fob watch. “I wasted my whole lunch hour,” he said as his bottom lip quivered. “Kill them.”
A shot rang out and pinged off the car fender that passed for balcony railing.
“Now who is this Arschloch?" Ehrlich groaned as Toli unloaded another shot into the zombie holding the post of a street sign like a spear against Sylvia’s back.
The slug passed through the rotting husk and plunked off a corrugated panel. The zombie looked at his entry wound. He looked around to his other zombies for some urgent guidance. The other zombies looked away, feigning nonchalance.
“Gunnar Ehrlich, stop poaching my employees,” Toli yelled from behind his cover.
“And how did you get here?” Ehrlich asked him.
Ehrlich took a deep breath, “This was very easy up until today. Kill him too.”
Ehrlich found himself blinded and felt a distinct thumping upon his head. Shelby sat on his shoulders with her arm wrapped around his head. In her other hand she held a dagger to his neck.
“If I kill the head vampire all the other vampires go back to normal,” Shelby said.
“I’m not a vampire,” Ehrlich said, “I’m a necromancer.”
“That sounds pretty vampire-y.”
“If you kill me, my children will stop at nothing to avenge me.”
“Children? Of the Night?”
“No. Their zombies.”
“Zombie and vampires are NOT the same thing.”
“Sure they are. Undead. Feed on the living. If you get hurt by one you turn into it.”
“They’re not the same.”
“You got them vampires taken care of, Palazzo. I’ve had it with this conversation.”
“Zombies,” Ehrlich flung Shelby off his shoulders and down to the ground below.
She landed on her hands and sprung to her feet, calling back to Ehrlich, “Same thing.”
The reunited gang batted away the confused zombie guards and took off down the undulating streets of garbage. The guards looked at each other askance. The other zombies carried on with their work uninterrupted.
“What are you doing?” Ehrlich yelled to a zombie hammering away below him.
“I’m putting this fence up like you told me, boss,” he replied.
“Stop building the fence and catch them.”
“But the fence isn’t done yet.”
“I don’t care. Get them, all of you get them!”
The zombies looked at each other and shrugged. They turned toward the direction the gang had fled and shambled off.
“Faster. Run,” Ehrlich shouted.
“This is as fast as we can go. Rigor mortis and all.”
“I need a better class of undead,” he mumbled to himself, then shouted, “I wish you were vampires, you useless piles of maggots.”
The zombies hung their heads and continued to shamble after the gang.
“Nevermind,” Ehrlich said. “They’re long gone. Go back to whatever it was you were doing.”
“I wish he’d make up his mind,” one zombie whispered to another.
“Who said that? Hmm? I’m watching you lot.”
The zombies grumbled and returned to their labors.
Danvers trudged through the swamp, water grumbling with every step.
“What the hell is he talking about, Necco wafers? There’s no goddam Necco wafers out here.”