Tony Carlisleís job description was vague, and somehow the organization he worked for had skirted the issue of ethnic diversity. Tony had once told me his Great Grandfather had his name changed from Carlucci to Carlisle by some immigration officials when he had stepped off the boat at Ellis Island. When he told me this story, he had been thinking of changing it back, for business reasons.
We were drinking martinis at Clydeís Martini Lounge on Paterson Street in New Brunswick, watching the fish swimming in the huge tank behind the bar. Tony was dressed in his usual custom-made suit, which probably cost about what I had made in the last six months. He was twenty-four years old and he already had some gray sneaking into his dark hair. I liked to think this was because of stress and perhaps some guilt about the things he had to do to remain efficient for his job, but the more I got to know him the more I thought it was genetic.
"Look at this crap Reilly," Tony said, pointing his finger at an article in the Home News opened up on the bar in front of him. "Theyíre giving out 10,000 permits to hunt black bear in the middle of December because thereís too many bears in North Jersey. Can you imagine it; 10,000 white guys with guns hunting creatures that will be in the middle of hibernation? Itís going to be like a landlocked Battle of Jutland up there around Christmas time."
"You donít approve of recreational hunting?" I said.
"I love animals but I donít see anything wrong with hunting when itíd done right, with respect; but his is ridiculous. I donít even think there are 10,000 bears in NJ, and theyíre not really that dangerous." An ominous glint appeared in his eye, a look filled with amusement and contentment that meant only one thing: he was going to ask me to do a job for him.
"Do you ever watch the Discovery Channel Reilly?" Tony had a round about way of manipulating people in general, me in particular.
"Occasionally," I answered.
"What do you think is the most dangerous animal in Africa?" he asked.
"Probably the mosquito with all the illnesses they carry," I said.
Tony rolled his eyes. "I forgot Iím dealing with a college boy." Thereís nothing like being called a boy by someone twelve years younger than you who makes ten times your salary. "Let me re-phrase the question. Which mammal do you think is responsible for the most deaths in Africa?"
I was pretty sure I had the right answer: humans, but it looked like he was no longer in the mood for repartee. "I donít know, maybe lions, leopards, I hear those cape buffalo are vicious."
"Thatís what I would have said before I saw the show about animal attacks on TV last night. The answer is the hippo. Apparently theyíre shortsighted and highly territorial. The fucking things can run something like thirty miles an hour on land and the males have these huge canine teeth. Whoíd have thought?"
"I donít like that look in your eyeís Tony. I already told you, I canít do any more jobs for you or your associates. Iím a legitimate private investigator, doing legitimate jobs for legitimate people and legitimate corporations."
"We have legitimate people working for us all the time. Legitimate lawyers, legitimate accountants, legitimate union officers, legitimate teamsters, legitimate cement workers."
"You guys also send a lot of business to legitimate business guys: dentists, doctors, morticians."
"This job is not like that. Do you like animals Reilly?"
"Of course I like animals Tony, you met my cat."
"As you know, I inherited some things from Uncle Sal when he had his accident." Sal ĎThe Grazerí Grazioliís accident consisted of him running into five rounds from an unregistered .38, the first round having come from Tony. In his own defense Sal was planning on killing him, and it was just a matter of luck that Tony had got to him beforehand. Uncle Sal hadnít had time to change his will before his accident and Tony had inherited all kinds of interesting stuff.
"You told you me you got some race horses."
"I got a couple of different kinds of horses, and someone is messing with some of them on a property I inherited in Louisiana along with them."
"Weíre friends Tony, we can go to the track and place some bets, we can have a couple of drinks and complain about our love lives to each other, but Iím not doing any more jobs for you. I canít be labeled an associate of yours. It would be bad for my business."
"I understand your point of view." He twirled the cocktail sword that skewered three olives in his martini for a couple of seconds, but I could tell he hadnít given up.
"You know Reilly, I did that favor for you that one time," he said.
"I thought I paid that back," I said.
"How does this sound? I put you on a plane bound for New Orleans. You can stay there for a week, sipping on hurricanes and eating Cajun food on me. All I ask you to do is to talk to the guy managing my property, and consider looking into who is messing with my animals."
After seeing the canines on a hippo, even through the safety of a set of binoculars a half-mile away, I began to re-examine my preconceptions as to the distinction between a carnivore and a herbivore.
"You told me you had some horses down here. The only thing I see is six flesh tanks wallowing around in the swamp," I said to Tony on the other end of the communication beam tethered to my cell phone.
"They are horses Reilly, the name hippopotamus means river horse in Swahili or some shit like that."
"What the hell are six hippos doing in New Iberia Louisiana?" I asked him.
"Besides checking out the local Zydeco scene, Iíd say theyíre spending most of their time eating me out of house and home."
"Are you going to tell me what this is all about?"
"The guy who owned the property was a nature freak. He borrowed some money from Uncle Sal, putting his property up for collateral. He didnít pay and I inherited this goddamned plantation way out of our territory. Who the fuck knew he had a herd of hippos? Who the fuck knew that southern Louisiana is a perfect habitat for them?"
"You said someone is fucking with them, what do you mean?"
"Someone has been letting them out of their enclosure. I figured it was some type of animal rights wacko. I didnít pay it any attention, until I saw that documentary and learned how dangerous those over grown pigs are. Can you imagine the liability if one of those things chomped up one of the locals?"
"So what youíre saying is that itís not related to yourÖother business ventures. All you want me to do is figure out who is letting your hippos out of their pens. Where does it go from there?"
"I know youíre a morale man, Reilly. And I know you have second thoughts about dealing with me and my associates, so how does this sound: why donít you coordinate with the locals, and when you find out who is doing this, just turn them over to Andy Taylor and weíll forget about the inconvenience that he has caused me."
"I just want to make this clear Tony; I find this guy and turn him over to the Sheriffís Department. He wonít be waking up next to any hippo heads; his body wonít be found in an industrial barrel on the bayou. There will be no mysterious disappearances or missing body parts."
"My only interest in this property is getting rid of it as soon as possible. Louisiana is not exactly our back yard."
"OK Tony. Under those circumstances Iíll take the case."
Judging by his accent, I had assumed that Gene Malone was from Brooklyn or North Jersey for the first couple of minutes after I had met him. Then he used a word I had never heard before. He was talking about how Tony had acquired the moss-covered plantation and he said, "The hippos were an unexpected lagniappe,"
"Whatís a lagniappe?" I asked him as I inhaled a good quantity of smoke from the Cuban Cigar he had provided.
"Oh a just a little something extra to make life a little more interesting," he said as he leaned back in the rocking chair situated on the porch, looking out over the bayou.
"How long have you been down here?" I asked.
"I was born in the Irish Channel district in the Big Easy, so basically my whole life."
"Howíd you wind up, how can I put thisÖ.connected to Tony and his Ďassociatesí?"
"Well, the Bilancia family runs most things down here in Orleans and Jefferson Parrish under sanction from the Chicago families, and Tonyís predecessor Sal Ďthe Grazerí went through the proper channels when he ran into some property so far from his home turf. Iíve done some work for the Bilanciaís down in New Orleans over the years. The Bilanciaís sent me down here to keep and eye on Tonyís people when theyíre here, and I take care of the property for Tony."
"It doesnít seem like that great a job," I said.
"Itís not. I donít want to go into the details, but I messed something up for one of the Bilanciaís. Iím serving some kind of penance out here in the middle of no-where."
"How many times have the hippoís gotten out?" I asked him.
"Four times this month. The first three times someone just opened up the enclosure and a couple of them wandered off for a little while then they returned. The last time someone had hooked up a truck or something and torn down a section of the fence. The hippos donít really wander too far, they know where there meal is coming from, and they come back pretty quickly," he said, placing the brandy snifter on the banister that surrounded the deck.
"You called the police?"
"Yeah," he chuckled. "Are you going to talk to them?"
"I think I should. Itís common courtesy to let the locals know when youíre doing private eye work in their town."
"When you go to the Sheriffís Office ask for Officer Chatlin," his chuckle was slowly evolving into a full laugh.
"Whatís so funny Malone?" I asked.
"Nothing, just remember that nepotism still goes a long way in the New South."
Officer Chatlin was eating the remains of a sub sandwich made with oysters and mayonnaise. I think they call them po boys down here. He had dark hair and a dark mustache and was probably under thirty.
"Every time I get called out to the plantation I bring my hunting rifle, but theyíre always back in their enclosure by the time I get there," he said as another glob of mayonnaise dripped onto his kaki shirt. Iíd estimate that half the sandwich had wound up on his uniform shirt at this point. He was sitting at the dispatcherís chair, working the equipment while the normal dispatcher was out doing something. A call came over the radio and he fumbled with it, getting a nice covering of mayonnaise on the stand, and cutting off the officer on the other line twice before he got it under control.
I walked out of the dispatcher office and stopped an older officer who had a white patch in his hair. "Iím a private investigator looking into the problems they have been having down at the plantation with the hippos. Does anyone else know anything about it besides Officer Chatlin?"
The cop looked me over with an expression that was less than the southern hospitality I would have expected coming from someone as distinguished looking as him. "Iím sorry sir, but Officer Chatlin is the only one working on that case."
"Do you think you could have someone else look into it?"
"This is a small Parish, but we have more than our fair share of trouble without looking into the problems of the type of people who own that plantation. Why donít you do yourself a favor and drive back to New Orleans and catch the first flight that will take you back to New Jersey?"
"You know all about the ownership of the plantation?" I asked.
"I know all about the types of men who are involved in whatís going on over there. I grew up with men like that, and I know what theyíre capable of and what their contribution to society is. Like I said before, this isnít your place."
"Itís not the hippoís place either and youíre stuck with them. Theyíre dangerous animals and I just think the Parish would be a safer place if you put a little more effort into apprehending the person who keeps letting them out."
"Donít you worry about the hippoís; Officer Chatlin might not be the next in line for any promotions around here, but he is an excellent marksman. I think we have the right man for the job on this case; itís just a matter of him getting down there a little quicker the next time they get out."
I had surveyed the enclosure from the highest point of a levee adjacent to it. The whole area was forested and filled with heavy vegetation and water. Malone had told me that the bayou produces almost enough for the hippos to eat. They just throw in a couple of bales of hay and some salt to supplement their diet. The enclosure was huge, probably close to five square miles, one side formed by the levee, the rest a half circle of heavy timber and barbed wire.
I picked out a secluded spot that was within reach of the road as the place I would go if I wanted to tear down a part of the enclosure in the middle of the night without being observed. I walked over to that spot and noticed that it was brand new. It must have been the place where the intruder had torn down the wall the first time. I didnít think the intruder would choose the same place twice.
I chose another place, this one probably only accessible by a four-wheel drive equipped vehicle. I thought this section, secluded but still observable from the top of the levee, would be the next logical place for late night fence pulling.
Malone had stood watch with me the first night of my stake out, but he hadnít shown up at our rendezvous time the second. I couldnít reach him on his cell phone, so I decided to stand guard alone.
I heard a vehicle pull up to the spot on the second night of my vigil. There were no headlights. I pointed my night vision binoculars down at the fence and saw a man exit a large ford pick up truck with a flashlight and begin to work with the industrial sized winch attached to the front bumper.
I eased down off the levee and snuck around the back of the truck. I had my Sig in one hand and a powerful spot light in the other. I made a mental note of the license plate, then stepped out from behind the truck, pointed the spot light at the intruder and said, "stop what your doing and put your hands on your head."
He just stood there, his hands still holding onto the winch cable wrapped around one of the main beams that formed the frame for the enclosure. I stepped up in front of the truck and said, louder "your trespassing on private property, stop what your doing and put your hands on your hear."
He lifted his hands up over his head I heard a mechanical whirring. I managed to turn to my side before the winch cable slammed into me. There must have been some tension on the winch as he was adjusting the cable and he let it go as I stepped in front of it. The force kicked the gun out of my hand and dropped me to the ground, knocking the wind out of me.
By the time I had regained my breath I was staring into a shotgun barrel shaking unsteadily before me, a flashlight blinding my eyes.
"You donít look Italian," a southern accented voice informed me.
"Iím Irish," I said.
"What are you, some type of security guard or something like that?"
"I guess you could say that. Would you mind pointing that gun someplace else," I said.
He pointed it at the ground several feet in front of my feet, but he kept the flashlight in my eyes. "Youíre not from around here are you?" he said.
"Why do you have against the hippoís?" I asked him.
"Nothing in particular. They never really bothered anyone when the property was owned by a good man."
"Well as far as I can tell they havenít bothered anyone since the new owner took over."
"You donít know whatís going on out there, do you son?"
"Iíve got a pretty good idea. You keep letting the hippoís out and thereís a mentally challenged Sherrifís deputy who wants to use them for target practice. Do you realize how dangerous those hippoís are?"
"Not nearly as dangerous as the people who own them," the man said.
"Youíve got a point there. At least the people who own them donít usually kill innocent people without a reason."
"They donít huh," I heard a muted sadness in his voice.
"Why donít you put the gun down and we can talk this over. You donít seem like the criminal type."
"How are you involved in this?" the man said.
I told him everything from my meeting with Tony Carlisle in New Jersey to this point in time.
"I believe you son. My names La Cheau, and Iíve got a deal to make with you."
I stood up and brushed some of the vegetation off my jeans and said, "Iím listening."
"I promise I wonít tear that fence down this week, and Iíll give you your gun back if you take a little walk down the levee with me."
"Whatís down the levee?"
"Just something I want to show you," he turned around without even waiting for my answer and began climbing onto the top of the levee.
I had nothing better to do so I climbed up after him.
"Look down there, through the trees, that light, un feau follet. " La Cheau said.
There was a faint light emanating from a point in the swamp. I pulled my night vision binoculars and pointed them in the direction he indicated. It wasnít the most expensive pair so it was a little hard to make anything out, but there seemed to be some type of structure with some kind of activity among the deep foliage of the enclosure.
"What do you think is going on down there?" I asked him.
"Something bad. Why donít you follow me back to my truck? Iíd like to buy you a cup of coffee and talk some things over with you." He turned around and walked back in the direction we had come from without pausing to see if I was following him.
La Cheau was probably just over sixty. He was dressed in a worn pair of jeans and a flannel shirt and he looked as strong and as gnarled as the mangrove trees that grew out on the bayou. We were drinking strong coffee on the porch of a cafť. He had ordered for us in French.
"What are you doing working for those kinds of men?" La Cheau asked me.
"I owed the guy who owns the plantation now. He did me a huge favor once and it seems Iíve been paying him back ever sense."
"Youíre a young man, and you seem like a good man. Youíre standing on des chenieres son, youíve got to make your decision."
"Whatís des chenieres?" I asked
"Itís the strip of land on the beach where oak treeís can be found; the dividing line between the world of forest and the world of the water. I have a nephew, probably ten years younger than you. He was standing on the dividing line like you are today. He didnít make his choice so someone made it for him. Heís going to be spending a few years in prison for a crime that he didnít actually do but that he was guilty of anyway."
"Iím not working for them that way. Iím just here to find out who is letting the hippoís out for their weekly stroll."
"Thatís the way it always starts working for them. You do a little something, then they ask for more and more until itís too late. You said youíre looking for the guy whose messing with the hippos, well you found me son. What are you going to do next?"
"Youíve peaked my curiosity old man. Iím going to find out whatís going on out there."
"Youíve got to get past them hippos first. Iíve been trying to do it for months, but they never all seem to leave at once. One of them almost gored me with one of those twenty inch canines last week."
"Why are you so curious about whatís going on in there?"
He looked into his coffee. "I raised my nephew alone. I tried my hardest, but like I told you he chose the wrong way. He got mixed up with the Bilancia family and he did a lot of harm to innocent people, selling drugs, busting people up. I had another nephew on the other side of the family. He was just seventeen years old when he overdosed on some drugs that came from those people. Thereís a lot of bad things going on around here, tearing families up; and itís all got something to do with what theyíre hiding behind those hippoís. The Sheriffs Department thinks itís a big joke, they send that un paillasse Chatlin out here; all he wants to do is put one of them hippos heads on his mantle."
"I donít think itís a joke. Whoeverís making that swamp light is getting around the hippos somehow. Iím going to find out how."
The New Iberia historical society had extensive records on most of the ancient plantations and other historic buildings that enrich this history laden area of Louisiana. My first stop was the hall of records, but several hours digging through deeds and official maps didnít turn up anything I could use. The clerk had suggested the historical society.
The middle-aged woman who ran the society was informative and helpful. Her knowledge of the area was enormous. She produced a book about plantation life, yellowed with age and full of anecdotes about the precautions some plantation owners took when they thought the Union Army was poised to over-run Southern Louisiana during the Civil war.
I found the entrance to the tunnel a couple of hundred feet from the back entrance of the house. It wasnít particularly well hidden or hard to open, just an old shack that I had thought was a decaying storage shed. The tunnel was damp, the walls dripping with moisture and smelling of the earth.
The other end of the tunnel opened up to a large shed filled with fresh packing material and laboratory supplies. I rummaged around for a few minutes, and then I opened up the front door. There was a small electrified fence running around the perimeter of the house, no doubt to keep the hippos out.
"Tony, what the hell are your doing running a meth lab out in the bayou?"
"Running a what?" Tony sounded surprised on his end of the cell call.
"I thought you guys were more into the distributing end of things, rather than the manufacturing end."
"A meth lab huh. Thatís just great. Where exactly is this meth lab Reilly?"
"Itís on an island in the middle of the hippo enclosure, but you already know that, donít you? I found out who is letting your hippos out but Iím not turning him in. You lied to me Tony. You said this had nothing to do with your other businesses. Iím off the case, and Iím not giving the guy up."
"Youíll get your check in the mail Reilly. As far as Iím concerned you did your job. Why donít you head back to New Orleans, take another day or two and have yourself a good time, on me."
"Itís not going to work Tony. Iím not giving the guy up. Iím not one of your henchman."
"Suit yourself Reilly, but be careful down there. I was watching the Discovery Channel last night, and there was a show on about the hurricanes that plague that part of the country. They say the best way to survive a hurricane is to move out before it hits."
The smell of smoke woke me out of a sound sleep. I opened up the ancient shutters and looked out at an ominous glow that lit up the swamp in a way that reminded me of the ambient lights from jukeboxes and fluorescent beer signs lighting up a dark bar. I could hear the hippos bellowing in the bayou, so far from their homeland, and terrified of a fire.
I saw a pair of headlights coming up the road and suddenly it hit me. Tony hadnít lied to me about this not being part of his business. I ran down the hall and shook Malone awake. "Youíve got about ten seconds to get some clothes on."
He rubbed his eyes groggily. "What the hell are you talking about Reilly?"
I rummaged around in his closet and threw some work boots I had found there at his head. I opened up the shutter to his room and pointed towards the swamp, towards the burning meth lab.
"You fucked up big time partner, Tony found out what youíre up to down here." I pointed out the headlights halfway up the road. "My guess is he called the Bilanciaís and told them that you were trying to cut out the middle men in this Parish."
"Holy shit," he said as he rapidly threw his clothes on. "Thereís only one way in here Reilly. Iíll never make it to the car in time." We were running down the hallway towards the back entrance of the plantation.
"Our only hope is the enclosure, I donít think theyíll go back there after they torched it down. Those guys arenít after me specifically but I donít see them as the kind to leave any witnesses around," I threw the back door opened and ran towards the light in the bayou.
"Hold on Reilly, thereís a tunnelÖ" Malone began.
"I know Malone but one end of it is on fire if you hadnít noticed."
"We canít go into the enclosure, those hippos are the most dangerous animals in Louisiana," Malone said as he struggled to keep up with me.
"The most dangerous animal in Louisiana is sipping a martini at a bar in New Jersey right now, waiting for a phone call." I helped him over the top and we splashed down into the enclosure, half running and half swimming towards the fire.
Malone and I stayed by the fire all night, expecting every sound to be followed up by the charge of an angry, near sighted hippo. But we didnít see any of them that night. The hippos are less active during the day and we didnít see any as we made our way towards the levee. I didnít want to take a chance of the Bilanciaís leaving any men behind to see if Malone would return to the plantation, so we made our way to the border between the shore line and the forest and walked several miles up to the cafť where La Cheau had taken me to coffee three nights ago. All the while I thought about all that La Cheau had told me about his family, and about the choices his nephew had made and where those decisions had led him, and I thought about what I was going to tell Tony Carlisle when I talked to him again.
I live in the
wonderfully corrupt state of New Jersey where I work as a telephone
technician and write crime stories. I have written numerous short stories
and am currently trying to sell my first completed novel while writing its
sequel. You can check out the first two chapters of my second novel,
Carlisle's Marker, at Alan Guthrie's Noir Originals web site: