Crescent City Creeps #22

I'm the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised

“This is where I last had it,” said a nebbish, little man crinkling his hat in his hands.
“The bus station?” Delareux asked.
The man nodded.
“Who do you think stole it?”
“There was an old woman dressed like Queen Victoria. She gave me the evil eye.”
“And that’s when you think she took possession of your soul?”
The man nodded. Delareux took a drag from his cigarette and sighed out a thick, white cloud. He scanned the empty bus terminal, with disinterested eyes.
“Well, there’s not much I do about it at the moment,” Delareux said, slipping a flask out of his jacket lining pocket. He popped the lid and raised it to his lips. “I can ask around,” he took a swig. “Maybe somebody else saw this lady. I can put in some calls...I’ll let you know.”
“Please, detective. I’m going away on business in three days. I can't go away on business without my soul.”
“Businessman, huh? Maybe losing your soul will play to your advantage.”
“Please, detective this is serious.”
“It sure is. You’ll hear from me in a day or two.”
“Should you be investigating the premises?”
“You think she stuck it in a locker?”
“Maybe you could find fingerprints or something.”
“You said she stole it with her evil eye. They don’t leave prints as far as I know.”
“There must be something you can do.”
“Look, Mr. Crabtree, I have an important 12 o’clock appointment…”
“It’s 1:30.”
“You can see why I’d be in a hurry,” Delareux said as he walked away. “I’ll call you.”

As Delareux approached his office, he saw two toughs holding wooden bats standing outside his door. They saw him and began to walk toward him, tapping their bats in their palms.
“Look, boys,” Delareux said, “tell Arnie I’ll pay him on Friday. I got a big case I’ve almost cracked. Some wealthy dowager. Big payout.”
The thugs glanced at each other and back to Delareux.
“Who the hell is Arnie?”
“My bookie didn’t send you?”
“We’re here on behalf of Mr. Pulcinella. Time to pay your protection dues.”
“Can’t get blood from a stone, fellas,” Delareux turned out his pockets.
The thugs took their bats to the windows of Delareux’s office.
“First warning, little guy,” said one thug. “The next one won’t be so friendly.”
“That doesn’t help your cause much,” Delareux said, stamping out his cigarette. “I have to pay for new windows now. I won’t have much left for you.”
“First warning.”
The thugs wandered off to their next collection.

Corbin sat next to Shelby on at a piano as she plunked out a few tentative notes of the second movement of Mozart’s 20th concerto. Sylvia sat on the couch across from them, leaning forward in anticipation of each nervous phrase her daughter produced of her favorite piece. A grandfather clock, what’s workings were embedded into the trunk of an ancient fallen oak chimed out 9 o’clock, in near harmony and rhythm with Shelby’s tentative playing.
“Oh no,” Sylvia said, flopping back on the couch. “Bedtime, Shelby.”
Shelby rolled her eyes, “I’m still not used to this bedtime thing.”
“Rest is important for a growing girl.”
“He lets me stay up,” she pointed at Corbin.
“Those are lessons,” Corbin said, “that’s different. The darkness of night is necessary. When you’re staying with your mother you have a bedtime.”
Shelby smiled at Sylvia, “I know. I don’t really mind that much.”
“Then up you go, Mouse.”
Shelby hopped off the piano bench and sprung up the stairs. Sylvia walked over and took her place at the piano. Corbin put his arm around her and she rested her head on his shoulder.
“Are you staying here tonight?” she asked.
“Should I?”
“What’s one more? Make it a whole week.”
“You said that last night.”
She laughed and gave him a kiss.

Shelby set on her bed and took her boots off. She took her socks off and stuffed them into her boots and slid them under the bed. She flopped back on the bed and closed her eyes. A moment later she popped up.
“Pajamas,” she said to herself. “Something else I’ll never get used to.”
She walked over to her wardrobe to retrieve her pajamas. When she opened the doors a withered crone dressed in patrician black and white lace shrieked at her revealing a mouth full of black teeth. Behind her was a glowing red chasm. Thick tendrils of grey smoke wound around her. She extended a skeletal hand with sharp black nails and swiped at Shelby. Shelby pivoted and the old woman’s hand raked the air beside her. Shelby smacked the boney arm back into the wardrobe and slammed the doors shut. She could hear clawing against the inside of the doors. She strolled back down the stairs, finding Sylvia and Corbin occupied on the couch. She gave a tactful clearing of her throat. Sylvia sat up with a start and fixed her hair as if anyone could tell the difference.
“Shelby,” Sylvia stammered. “We were just…”
“Yeah, yeah, mommy-daddy hugs, blah blah blah,” Shelby said. “Could you guys come upstairs for a second?”
“Are you trying to stall for time?” Corbin asked.
“Just come upstairs.”
They followed Shelby up the steps to her room. She approached the wardrobe from the side and pulled the doors open. Inside where several sets of clothes hanging from pegs and hangers.
“Your clothes?” Sylvia asked.
Shelby looked in and the woman was nowhere to be seen. The hellish chasm was replaced with her clothing.
“A minute ago some grandma was standing in front of the gates of Hell and she tried to claw me,” Shelby said.
Sylvia and Corbin both raised an eyebrow smirking. Shelby looked back at the wardrobe. She saw several gouge marks on the door.
“See?” she said pointing at the gouges, “There.”
Sylvia and Corbin examined the gouges. Sylvia gave Shelby a cross look.
“Mom, if I wanted to get out of bedtime I wouldn’t destroy your furniture, I would just sneak out the window,” Shelby protested.
Sylvia nodded, satisfied with Shelby’s reasoning, “What did she look like?”
“Like she had been dead for a while. And was dressed like the old lady who used to make us cut our own switches at the orphanage.”
Sylvia and Corbin looked at one another.
“I’ll check the grounds,” Corbin said.
“I’ll do some cleansing and a few protection spells,” Sylvia added.

Toli stared out of the window of his office with a blank stare, watching the dock workers moving crates around the warehouse. His eyes were dark and ringed and it looked like he hadn’t tended to his hair or changed his clothes in days. His cheeks and chin were dark and stubbled. Piles of papers were crowding his desk along with several pencils covered in teeth marks and whittled down to nubs. At his elbow was an unconsumed mug of coffee. His secretary, Jenny walked in with another cup billowing with steam in the cold air.
“It’s so cold in here,” she said. “Why don’t you turn on your radiator?”
Toli turned his head to face her, which looked like it took a great deal of effort.
“You didn’t even drink the last cup I brought you,” she said putting the new cup down and taking the old one.
Toli followed her movements with a blank stare like he was working out a puzzle.
“What’s gotten into you Mr. Palazzo?” she asked, frowning. “You’ve been a like a ghost for a week.”
“A ghost?” he mumbled.
A commotion erupted from the warehouse floor, followed by a loud crack. Several of the workers converged on one spot. Toli just stared.
“You might want to take care of that,” Jenny said.
Toli sat dead-eyed. Jenny waved her hand in his face. He looked at her, with a curious glance.
“There’s trouble on the floor,” Jenny said. “You may want to find out what it’s about.”
Toli nodded and rose.
Out on the dock floor, several men were gathered around a crate that had cracked open. From the crack poured a pale yellow powder. Toli stood there, looking at it.
“What should we do, boss?” one of his employees asked.
“Just patch the crate, clean the mess and move on,” Toli mumbled and walked back to his office.
“This stuff looks pretty strange.”
“That’s why I just want you to get rid of it.”
Toli returned to his position behind his desk and sat, motionless. It was nightfall when Jenny returned to say goodnight and found him sitting in the dark.
“Do you want to turn on the light?” she asked.
“No. See you in the morning,” Toli replied without looking at her.
It was close to midnight when Toli lifted himself off his chair and wandered out onto the dock floor. He inspected the trash can where the strange powder was dumped earlier that day. The powder was mingled with splintered bits of wood and discarded apple cores. He stared into the can for what to him seemed like a few moments, but in reality was a half an hour. He started to reach into the can but hesitated. He began to walk away but stopped. He darted back to the can and retrieved a pinch of the yellow powder and examined it in the moonlight pouring through the windows. It was fine and smooth as he pressed it between his thumb and forefinger. He smelled it. He stuck out his tongue and gave it a careful stab. He grimaced and groaned as he dusted the powder back into the can. He returned to his office, slapped his hat on his head, pulled on his coat and left.

Pulcinella took an oversized bite of the roasted leg of an indeterminate animal. He wiped his greasy mouth on the sleeve of his dingy long johns. Over his eyes, he wore a black half mask, with a frowning expression and a fat, bent nose. Strings of the meat hung from the nose. He chewed, open-mouthed and glared at a thug standing in front of his table. He stuck his thumb in his mouth and sucked the grease off with a loud slurp. His fat tongue lapped at his lips,  gathering the strands that clung to his stubble. His breathing was heavy, accompanied by a sloppy filigree of low gurgling.
“Are you keeping mama comfortable?” he grunted through a mouthful of meat.
“Yes, sir,” the man replied.
“Bene,” he tore off another bite, “get her anything she asks for.”
“Yes, sir.”
“You see what happens to those who don’t.”
The man looked at his feet, “Yes, sir.”
“I need you to pick something up. From the warehouse owned by that suit who works with the witch and that hedge wizard detective. Be very careful. We need every ounce of it. Or else,” he waved the leg of meat, “you know.”
“Yes, sir.”
“You hear me?”
“Ora vettene.”
The man hurried from the restaurant. Another took his place, standing at the front of the table. This one was short, bald and swimming in an oversized white coat. He had a stethoscope dangling from his stick-thin neck.
“Mr. Pulcinella, sir,” he said, breathless. “Your mother, she’s…”
Pulcinella shoved himself from the table, “She’s what?”
“Come see.”
The doctor led Pulcinella to a small, spartan room with a tiny bed in the middle. On the bed laid an elderly woman in a hospital gown, under a blanket that looked heavy enough to crush her. She was panting in rapid breaths like a scared rabbit and her eyes were rolled back in her head as her chest heaved up and down. Her back arched off the bed and she drove her jagged nails into the mattress as she clamped down on it with white-knuckled fists.
“She’s been like this all evening,” the doctor said. “I can’t figure out what’s wrong. She isn’t responding to sedatives and she…”
“She’s fine,” Pulcinella said. “She’s working.”
“This strain she’s under can’t be good for her frail system.”
“You just work on preparing the medication, like I told you.”
“About that. This unorthodox treatment you’re insisting on. The ingredients are very difficult to find and very expensive.”
“Nothing is too expensive for my mama.”
“You’re running out of money.”
Pulcinella rubbed his neck and face twisted into a scowl. He stormed from the room and bull rushed through the doors of the kitchen, slamming them against the metal counters, shaking the pots and pans hanging from hooks above them. Several large, rough men were playing cards around a folding table as the kitchen staff went about their jobs around them.
“What are you idiots doing?” he bellowed.
“Playing cards,” one of the men said and chuckled.
Pulcinella grabbed him by his stringy, greased back hair and slammed his head through the table collapsing it to the floor. Cards, poker chips, and cigars bounced and landed around him as he laid face down on the kitchen floor. The other men sprung from their seats and backed up. Pulcinella put his heel to the back of the man’s neck and drove his foot down. His neck sounded like celery snapping.
“Raise the protection fees,” Pulcinella said, his voice low and gravely. “Turn out every pocket, rattle every ankle, shake down kids for their lunch money. Don’t come back without bags full till they burst. The one who returns with the least will wind up like this stronzo.”
Two members of the kitchen staff lifted the dead man off the floor and dragged him into a walk-in freezer. Pulcinella’s men stood, with their mouths agape.
“Get outta here,” Pulcinella screamed.