After what seemed like hours following the realtor's van, the sign finally came toward us:
A second, smaller sign announced that we were now entering the Merlin Renaissance Zone: 'Tax free industrial re-development." The faded signs and the rusted-out industrial park didn't look much like the Great Lakes or the great times we'd been promised on Michigan's welcoming billboards.
"Hey Ricky, ain't renaissance where jerks dress up in armor and chase broads or dragons or somethin'? I think I seen it once on the tube."
"Damsels Joey, damsels; and the guys in armor were called knights. Watch the van--she's turning left."
We were on a business trip, Joey and me. Joey was the boss of the company, and he'd decided he needed a new storage facility someplace quiet. The place sure looked quiet enough. The economic boom times on Michigan's U.P. died about the same time as the Edsel; it was all bust now.
The van drove through some broken chain-link gates and pulled over; we stopped behind it. The realtor stepped out with an armload of papers and we all met at the front of Joey's Caddy.
"Now, Mr. Alexis," she began.
"Call me Joey, Toots--we're gonna do business, huh?" Joey never stood for much formality. Ever since he'd acquired enough money to buy and sell everyone around him, all he cared about was whether people could deliver the goods. For a second, the realtor's expression dipped from dubious to outright distaste, then she pasted on her best commission-making smile.
"Mr. Alexis," she repeated, "you indicated that you needed a small office building and some vacant land." She looked down at her papers, then back up at Joey. "My secretary's note says: '10 acres of swamp is OK!' Were you serious?" She looked sideways like maybe she thought I would jump in, but I just shrugged and nodded over at Joey.
"Yeah, that's right honey. Just call me eccentric--ain't I eccentric, Counselor?" Joey flipped a wink at me: he'd seen the realtor's look. Lots of people who meet Joey for the first time hear his Bronx, look at his Argyles, and write him off. But people who underestimated Joey didn't stay long...anywhere. The realtor looked at me like a frog jumped down her blouse.
"Oh, I'm sorry! Are you an attorney?"
I smiled, because out of the corner of my eye I could see Joey wearing his shit-eating grin. He'd called me 'Counselor' ever since we'd both attended PS 49. My reading habits and his crib notes got both of us to graduation...barely.
"From time to time I advise Mr. Alexis, yes." I saw Joey roll his eyes. "The company would prefer a location that's, how shall I say--unattractive--to adjoining business development?" She didn't like that.
"May I ask exactly what sort of business you had in mind? This is a commercial re-development zone, and most regulations are relaxed, but that doesn't necessarily apply to environmental standards. You'll be required to file a full disclosure and draft an impact statement if..." Joey cut her off.
"Ah, forget about it--nothin' goin' in here is gonna hurt the trees or the ducks. Matter of fact, everything we put in here won't even make any noise. So show us the property, huh?" Joey was zipping up his jacket, and the set of his shoulders told me he was impatient to get this over with.
The realtor looked at me again. She didn't have a clue how hard she was pushing her luck...
"Well as an attorney, you can certainly appreciate that we have to adhere to a code of ethics?" Dubious was back, and written all over her face in capital letters.
"Believe me, everything we process is completely," I dug for the right word "...inert. Yeah, totally inert." Joey was busting a gut, but she relaxed and smiled. Dumb as a rock.
"Well that's good, then--we have an understanding. If you'll come along, I have two parcels that may meet your requirements."
"Enrich! Enrich my ass!" Joey was laughing so hard he almost went off the road. "Jesus, Ricky, don't ever do that to me again! What a dumbass that broad was! I'll bet this is the only commission she makes this year--and it was frigging swamp, for chrissake!"
He was certainly right there. The cinder block office we'd been shown had room for two desks, a telephone, a one-stall john, a rusted-out woodstove and not much else. It stood windowless on the only dry hummock in the area, blindly presiding over 13 acres of muskeg, bog, and forest. The whole place stank of rot, and the mosquitoes and black flies hummed like the lousy violinist at Concini's Bronx restaurant. It was perfect.
Two months later, Joey came back out to see his new facility. I'd done only enough to keep suspicions down. Dumbass or not, the realtor would be expecting to see some changes by the proud new owners if she paraded any more clients through the area.
"Whaddahell is this 'Merlin Plant' stuff?" Joey wasn't impressed with the neatly lettered sign. "All of my stuff says 'Alexis Enterprises'--you movin' in on me Ricky?" He gave me the fisheye.
"Ah Joey, c'mon! My name isn't even Merlin; that's just what they call this zone. I didn't think you'd want the company name this far from the coast. And besides, Merlin used to make things disappear, too." He snickered and clapped me on the shoulder.
"Ricky, Ricky, Ricky...still the bookworm, huh? I shoulda' known you'd deliver a class operation. Merlin Plant: well we're gonna plant alright! Are we ready to go?"
"Ready to meet the competition anytime you say, Joey."
"The only competition is gonna be stiff... Hey! Get it, Ricky? Stiff competition?" He started guffawing.
"I get it Joey," and I started laughing too. After all, Joey is the boss...
It didn't take long for the 'stiff competition' to get to know Merlin Plant firsthand. Joey had big ambitions and an old-fashioned approach to problem-solving: eliminate the problem. Joey's corporate dead-files arrived in 55-gallon drums, plastic bags, barrels, and once--just to thumb his nose at the world--a $12,000 rosewood coffin with solid gold inlaid trim! I'd had to call him on that one.
"Goddammit Joey, knock that bullshit off! Do you have any idea what a pain in the ass it is to make an airtight wooden sonofabitch like that stay sunk in the mud?"
"Hey Ricky, forget about it! I had to promise the widow a class funeral before she'd set him up. She thinks the guy is buried in Roselawn, for chrissake! Tell you what though, your envelope will be a little sweeter this week, huh?"
"OK Joey, I'll handle it; keep 'em coming." A 'little sweeter' meant at least 10 grand. It was tough to stay pissed at Joey.
Things went pretty well. The Merlin Plant added significantly to the population of Camelot Mine, but the new residents didn't burden the taxpayers with extra demands or even complain about the potholes. Joey was happy with the operation, and my envelopes kept getting fatter. I even had time to take up fly-fishing.
Back in the city, the Heat knew Joey was moving up because of all the Missing Persons reports, but they kept coming up empty in the evidence department. The company connection to Merlin Plant was buried deeper than its clientele, and if you haven't got a body you haven't got a crime. Is this a great country, or what?
So with all that going for it, this story should have a happy ending, right? Hell, if it had a happy ending I probably wouldn't be writing it, and me and Joey would still be pals. But Bobby DeLuca screwed it all up ...
Bobby fronted an Eastside tattoo parlor and turned a pretty good trade. Sometimes he even did tattoos-- specialized in dragons and weird stuff. At any rate, he pushed quality merchandise and even had a couple of stringers working for him: a real going concern. Problem was though, it wasn't Joey's going concern, and that made Joey itchy. Whenever Joey got itchy, somebody got scratched, and so, one night Joey wrote Bobby a ticket to Merlin Plant. The company acquired a tattoo business, and from what I heard, the staff had no problem working with the new management, and everybody was happy ... except maybe Bobby.
I met Bobby when the guys dropped him off at the Plant--literally. His plastic bag split open when he hit the ground, and a bare arm slid out.
"Hey Ricky, look--he's wavin' to ya!" I'd told Joey a hundred times he needed to get guys on the payroll with at least two digit IQ's, but he'd just laughed at me.
"Look shitheads, knock off the crap, bring a light over here and help me get this asshole stuffed back in!"
When they brought the light, I could see that Bobby must have been a pretty good tattoo artist. His arm was decorated with a snake-dragon creature that wrapped around the forearm, continued around his upper arm, and ended at the shoulder with wings and a really vicious fanged head. The whole thing was shaded with red, blue, and green inks. He must have been a contortionist to do the work, but however he got it done, it was pure class. When we plowed him into the muskeg, I kept thinking it was a shame the artwork had to go too, but what the hell--R.I.P. Bobby Deluca!
"Ricky, calm down for chrissake! What the hell do you mean somebody dug up the swamp?"
The last thing I'd ever wanted to do was make that phone call to Joey. You didn't give problems to Joey, you took them away ... at least you did if you wanted to keep seeing sunshine.
"Joey, I swear to Christ! There's a crater back in the woods and barrels and crap are scattered everywhere. Even that sonofabitch rosewood coffin surfaced again! It's like an explosion hit back there!" There'd been a long silence while Joey processed it.
"You think it's the Feds, Ricky?"
"Nah Joey, it doesn't look like anything's missing, just stirred up. It's going to take me a week to submerge all that junk again."
"Gonna cut into your fishing time, Counselor?" His voice had gone just a little bit quiet. When that happened, it was time to sweat.
"C'mon Joey, you know better than that! I ..." He'd cut me off hard.
"Ricky you don't know jack shit! But what I know is that if any of those bodies surface at a coroner's office, you're gonna be layin' alongside them. Now get that mess cleaned up!" His voice had gone back to normal. "We clear, Counselor?"
"Yeah Joey, sure! You can ..." but I was talking to a dial tone.
It took a lot more than a week, and it was like trying to hold a bathtub full of ping-pong balls underwater. The harder I worked, the more the damn barrels and bags kept coming to the surface. I finally ran the son-of-a-whore coffin over with a D-6 Cat, and I swear to God when I shoved the pieces under, there was no body! I started checking, and for every barrel or bag that had an occupant, there were two or three that were empty! What really got to me though, was the big hole where Bobby DeLuca had been: there was nothing left but bog water! Whatever happened had taken him along.
I started locking and bracing the office door at night. From the inside ...
"You miserable son of a bitch! I know what you did, you bastard! When I get clear, it's you and me--IT'S PERSONAL, RICKY!"
You don't get that kind of call from Joey but once in your life, and I hadn't even known what the hell he was talking about!
"Joey, what the ..."
"You're gonna tell me you don't know anything about Bobby DeLuca? Tommy Brandt? Shorty? What about all the rest of them? You lying piece of shit!"
"Joey! Jesus! Listen ..." but he'd kept on shouting.
"I saw them Ricky! All of them! I know they're waiting for me. You were supposed to put them under, but you kept them alive, you treacherous bastard! You gonna move on me, Ricky? You think you're gonna write ME a ticket to the Plant? ME? Well, asshole, I DON'T THINK ..."
There was a god-awful noise, and the last thing I ever heard from Joey was his scream.
I followed the story in the Times for the next couple of weeks. The Feds were buying champagne by the case. DNA from the scene of the building collapse read like the Top 20 Most Wanted, and the list got longer every day. After awhile I didn't need to read the paper anymore because I knew whose bodies those lab results were going to turn up ...
The last article that caught my attention was the one where they brought in some herpa ... herpe ...crap! They brought in a snake expert to analyze some of the tissue samples they'd taken from Joey's office. I got a really bad feeling about that ...
Today when I went to the SpeedyKing for a six-pack, I got stuck in line waiting to check out. The whole population of Camelot Mine--at least the living population--had turned out for the latest editions of the checkstand newspapers. So I started reading, and stuck right there between a 600 pound woman and Satan on the Moon was a tabloid special: a fuzzy, grainy, doctored photo of a flying dragon crashing into a building. The caption read: "VENGEANCE FROM THE PAST?" The building in that picture looked awfully damned familiar!
So right then and there I decided that I didn't need to go back to Merlin Plant. That was a pretty rough bunch that got shoved under back there, and I figure there may be a few vengeful tattoos and bodies still waiting in that bog--maybe some gorillas and vampires and other strange shit--who knows? But with Joey gone, I have a pretty good idea of who's next on the list. I'm sure glad most of them went after the boss, though ...
Camelot Mine is a long way in the rearview mirror tonight, but before I took off I went to the dinky town library and looked up 'renaissance'. I guess we should have paid a little more attention--it was right there on the page, all along: "...to be born anew; rebirth, revival..."
Joey's probably busting a gut.
"Welcome to Camelot Mine, Michigan
Home to the richest copper mine on the Upper Peninsula"
x x x
Stories where evil meets worse evil always interest me. I loved the movie "The Keep," for instance, but I was disappointed when the hero stopped the demon from killing Nazis. No such problems with this tale. The narrator has more problems than just being out of a job, methinks. How about you? -GM