“As the graph shows, our fourth quarter earnings nearly tripled our expectations.” The man in the perfectly tailored suit and wire frame glasses paused for the applause to die. He grinned broadly and added, “Our Infofilm Panels are flying off the shelves, in ever size and model.” More thunderous applause. “Of course,” he said as he clicked to the next slide in his presentation, “with demand skyrocketing as it has, we need to increase production in order to keep pace.” He cleared his throat. “We need to double our import of raw material, as well as hire five hundred more factory employees in order to meet this surge in demand.” He clicked to another slide. “This is a list of all our factories worldwide where we can feasibly add more workers.”
“Is that Fergus Falls, Minnesota on the list?” The CEO spoke and everyone else went silent. “I spent summers there as a boy. Good town, good people. Let’s concentrate our hiring efforts on filling that factory to maximum capacity. It’s the least I can do for the town. Plus, we’ll always be able to say that Simpson & Grant Industries’ Infofilm Panel created five hundred U.S. jobs.”
Another roar of applause. Then the CFO spoke. “I hate to sound like a wet blanket, or, God-forbid, a Jew.” He chuckled at his own joke; some of the other men at the table joined him. “But seriously speaking, this hiring phase isn’t going to be cheap. Profits are up now, but American workers are expensive — with their salary and working condition demands and unions and insurance and pensions and so forth. We should contact our contractors in Taiwan, see if they can pick up the slack. With all due respect, Mr. Simpson, your idea will end up, in the long run, being much more costly than its worth.”
“You’re right to have concerns, Jeffrey,” said Mr. Simpson. “But, trust me, I have everything under control.”
When a phone rings, it must be answered, thought Rochelle wearily as he put his mobile phone to his ear. “Greetings and salutations. How can I be of service to you, Mr. Simpson, sir?”
The voice on the other end chuckled. “That’s what I like about you, Rochelle; you always cut straight to the point. Not like these jackals I’m surrounded by who insist on engaging in small talk.”
“Like how you’re doing now, sir?”
“Heh. You got me there. Look, are you near a fax machine?”
“Good. I’ll fax over a list of names and addresses I need you to visit. There’s — uh — thirty-seven names.”
“Will the appropriate court documents be included this time?” Rochelle twisted his pencil-thin mustache with his thumb and forefinger. He was suddenly agitated by a memory.
“Yes, yes, of course. There will not be a repeat of the Fort Lauderdale incident. I also deposited funds into your corporate account for you to purchase the necessary airfare with.”
“Excellent. Where are they going this time, sir?”
“Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Now, what’s your fax number?”
Rochelle parked his lime green hatchback in front of a small single-family house. He crosschecked the address on the door with the one on his list, verifying he was at the right place. He couldn’t afford any mistakes. The lawn was well manicured and it looked as if the house had recently received a fresh coat of eggshell-colored paint.
He pulled out his mobile phone and dialed the number on the sheet. A voice answered on the second ring. “Hello, I would like to speak with Mike Wallace,” Rochelle said in his most pleasant tone.
“That depends,” said the man on the other end. “What’s this about?”
Rochelle grunted. “Let’s cut the bullshit, lumberjack. Are you Mike Wallace or not?”
“Fuck you, asshole,” said the man. The call ended.
Rochelle sighed and put his phone back in his pants pocket. He shook his head. Things were not going well. His hand hovered around his jacket’s inside pocket. He shut his eyes and clinched his hand. Not now, Rochelle. Not now. He opened his eyes. He exhaled and composed himself.
Rochelle gathered the materials he needed, then stepped out the tiny car. He was tall — he stood just shy of six foot five — and was all bone, skin, and sinew. The leg-hugging patent leather pants and long neon orange overcoat he wore made him appear taller. He strolled up the driveway, briefly admired the parked blue SUV, then stepped onto the porch.
He knelt down in front of the door. He worked his mouth around in a circle, then put his lips close to the slit between the door and the porch. His jaws stretched. He sucked in the air inside the house. His mouth became a vacuum. He used his tongue to search out his prey.
Bingo! Rochelle found a human soul. He focused his energy and ripped it from its body, sending it hurling towards him. Rochelle captured the soul between his teeth. It didn’t have a taste — more like having his tongue stabbed by a lightening rod, and then having a bolt strike said rod — but Rochelle knew it was what he was looking for.
He stood up, took a mason jar from his coat’s pocket, unscrewed the top, then spat the soul into the jar. There was no visible change in the jar, but it did become heavier in Rochelle’s hand. He screw back on the top.
That’s when he heard a thud from inside the house. Hmm. Faster than I had anticipated. Rochelle went to the front window, looked around to make sure no prying eyes were watching, then shattered the glass with his elbow.
“Mike Wallace,” he called into the house from the hole in the window he just created. “Mike Wallace, it is time to go.”
Rochelle heard shuffling noises from inside the house. Then the door opened and there stood Mike Wallace. Mike was a big man who could probably snap Rochelle’s skinny behind in two like Macho Man Randy Savage did Slim Jims. Rochelle inspected the man’s face. It was ashen and Mike’s eyes were void, lifeless. Rochelle played with his mustache and hummed his approval.
Rochelle produced a vial from his coat’s inner pocket, popped out the dropper, and squeezed two drops onto Mike Wallace’s crusty lips. Mike’s body stiffened, as if stricken with rigor mortis.
Rochelle stopped behind Mike, leaned close and whispered into his ear in a monotone, authoritative voice. “Mike Wallace, you are now the property of Simpson Securities and Loans until you pay back your loan, to the company’s satisfaction, with your labor and sweat. You are to get into your car, drive to the airport, where a private plane is waiting for you. You will call this number once you reach the airport for further instructions.”
Rochelle placed an envelope in Mike’s hand; the zombified man clutched it.
“Good,” Rochelle said. “Now, when the plane lands, you will look for a Mr. Hill. He’ll be holding a sign with your name on it. Mr. Hill will drive you to a factory in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. There, you will await further instructions. Your flight departs in less than two hours. Better get a move on, Mr. Wallace.”
Rochelle leaned back as Mike groaned and ambled over to the blue SUV. Mike got into the car, started it, reversed out of the driveway, then drove in the direction of the airport.
Rochelle watched as the SUV vanished down the road. A satisfied smirk graced his face. Then his eyes caught a woman leaning against the passenger side of his hatchback. He waved at her. She didn’t wave back. She stared at him, her steel gray eyes marred with displeasure.
As Rochelle strolled towards his car, he reached into his coat’s inner pocket and withdrew a hand-rolled cigarette and a disposable lighter. He put the cigarette to his lips and lit it. He took a long drag. His exhale was a sigh filled with relief.
By then, he was at his car. He blew his smoke in the direction of the woman.
“I see you still smoke those filthy things,” she said as she batted the smoke away from her face. She spoke in a hoarse bayou accent, as if she had been smoking two packs a day for twenty years.
“Only after a successful recruitment,” Rochelle retorted. “I roll one in the morning before I leave. Gives me something to look forward to. Call it motivation.”
“Oh? I thought the fat check from Simpson S&L was enough motivation for the likes of you.”
Rochelle shrugged. He wouldn’t let her rile him up this time. “Eh. It’s more than what you make doing the same thing at TS Martin. Looks like you have lower standards than I, so drop the self-righteous act.”
She grinned. “I quit smoking and I quit TS Martin. I’m out of the slave trade. It’s — as my lawyer boyfriend says — unconstitutional.”
Rochelle’s throat made a noise similar to a grunt. “Mayhap your boyfriend needs to go back to law school. Slavery is perfectly within the bounds of the Constitution, as long as you have one of these.” He held out a court order signed by a judge.
“Fair enough. I see you’re working within the law this time. I heard about what happened in Fort Lauderdale.” She chuckled; a dry, mirthless cackle. “That’s besides the point. This entire operation is wrong. You’re using your knowledge of secret, arcane arts to turn people into zombie slaves just to temporarily slake the greed of corporate traffickers. Our ancestors would be ashamed of you. This whole outfit is morally bankrupt. I know it, and you know it too, bocor.”
“Please, don’t call me that. My name is Rochelle.”
“I know damn well what your name is.”
Rochelle dropped his cigarette butt to the ground, then crushed it with the toe of his shoe. “What do you want from me, Herepsha?”
She sighed, releasing most of the frustration that had boiled up inside her. “To talk some sense into you. Get you out of the trade before it eats your soul. You still got one of those, right?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know, don’t care. I’m not going to quit. Even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. Simpson has dozens, if not hundreds, of people like you and I working as contractors. That’s just one company. Who knows how many folks TS Martin, CowerBell, and all the others got on their books. Probably thousands, all accounted for. Look, what I’m saying is that the work will get done; might as well be done by me.”
Herepsha crossed her arms against her chest. “Yeah. Well, see, my boyfriend, he’s trying to change that. He’s bringing them corporate slavers to trial. He’ll take the case all the way up to the Supreme Court if he has to. Thing is — and this brings me to why I tracked you down — he needs testimony from ex-recruiters to strengthen his case. The more, the better.”
Rochelle twisted his mustache. “How many does he have already?”
“Three, not including myself: Popindale from Oakland, Lowland from Sioux Falls, and Cooper from Kansas City. They agreed to testify against the practice, and dish out the dirty details. You’ll make number five.”
“That is if I acquiesce to your offer; which I won’t. The way I see it, as long as nobody gets hurt or dies, I’m not morally obligated to give a flying rat’s ass about some deadbeat who can’t pay his bills on time.” He held up the mason jar filled with Mike’s soul. “As long as I have this, Mr. Wallace will have his life back after he’s paid his debt. Oh, that reminds me; I should write his name on it before I forget.” Rochelle dug into his pocket, pulled out a marker and began to write on the white label strip on the jar.
Herepsha shook her head. Some of her light-brown hair covered her eyes; she brushed it from her face. “You’re an asshole,” she declared. “But a good asshole. I hope.” She retrieved a business card from her pocket. She handed it to Rochelle. “If you ever change your mind, here’s my cell number. Give me a call. We can talk about things over dinner.”
She began to walk away. She stopped, looked at Rochelle’s lime green hatchback, then at Rochelle himself. “Your vest matches your car.” She laughed. “I see your sense of style hasn’t changed since we were married.”
One side of Rochelle’s lips curled upward. “Yeah, you know me; I gotta coordinate.”
Herepsha shook here head, then crossed the street over to her car. She paused, then turned back to Rochelle. “Oh, one more thing I forgot to mention: the others and I, we’re spreading the word about bocor like you. It’s a grassroots campaign. Take care, Rochelle.” She got into her car.
Rochelle frowned and grunted. Without looking at it, Rochelle stuffed Herepsha’s card, along with his marker, into his pants pocket. He had half a mind to tear the card to shreds, but it was the only thing he had left to remind him of his ex-wife — other than the monthly alimony payments.
Rochelle got into his car and watched Herepsha drive away in a brown four-door sedan. She honked and waved as she passed him. Rochelle did his best to ignore her.
He sat there in his car for a very long moment.
Rochelle placed the jar containing Mike’s soul on the floor behind the driver’s seat. He reached into the glove compartment and pulled out his list of contacts. He took a red pen and put a line through Mike Wallace. He input into his detachable GPS the address belonging to the next person on his list.
“All right, Mr. Gary Barringer,” he said aloud, “time for you to pay your debt.”
After verifying the address and calling to make sure Gary was indeed in the house, Rochelle dropped down on the porch near the door. He worked his mouth and then pressed it against the door’s slit. He opened his mouth, tasted the air, and gasped.
Rochelle choked and spat as he returned to his feet. His eyebrows knotted. Something is blocking my abilities. How did he get such a powerful gris-gris?
Then he remembered what Herepsha had told him earlier. Her and her houngan cohorts were spreading the word about the recruiters. Maybe they were providing homeowners close to foreclosures with gris-gris to prevent people like Rochelle from turning folks into zombies.
Rochelle twisted his mustache and tapped his feet. I have a feeling this will not end well. Guess I’ll try it the old fashion way. He knocked on the door.
Eventually a short man — his skin a shade lighter than blacktop — opened the door. He wore a dingy wife beater that barely covered his beer belly and a pair of navy blue jogging shorts. To Rochelle, the man looked as if he had never jogged a day in his life. Rochelle also noticed a leather pouch, fastened onto a cord, resting on his chest.
Ah ha! That’s the gris-gris. He discretely sniffed the air. Smells like Herepsha’s handiwork.
“Whatever it is you’re selling, I don’t want it, don’t need it, and cain’t ‘ford it noway,” said Gary in a thick Alabaman accent.
These people always answer the door with open hostility. Rochelle flashed a professional smile. “Pleased to meet you too, sir. Are you, by chance, Mr. Gary Barringer?”
“Yeah.” Gary’s eyes became two narrow slits. “Who are you and what business do you have with me?”
“Mr. Barringer, my name is Rochelle. I represent Simpson Securities and Loans.” He fished into his pocket, then thrust forward a piece of paper. “This is for you.”
Gary accepted the paper and slid it in the crevice of one sweaty armpit. “Okay. Goodbye.” He started to close the door.
“W-wait, Mr. Barringer,” said Rochelle. His voice betrayed the urgency he desperately tried to conceal. He needed Gary to step out the door so he could snatch the protective charm from around his neck. If he knew Herepsha’s charms, and he knew them well, they became less potent when outdoors. He just needed Barringer to step out onto the porch — just two steps.
Gary re-opened the door a smidgen. “What is it?”
“Aren’t you going to read it?”
Mr. Barringer huffed. “I already know what it says. I ain’t pay my mortgage in three months, which is the unfortunate truth. I lost my job six months ago and haven’t been able to find work since. I already know the bank plans to foreclose on my house. I done sold most my furniture and possessions just to put grub in my belly, keep the heat on, and have gas in my car. Gotta have a car if you tryna find a job. It won’t take me long to pack everything up. I’ll be outta here by the end of the month.”
“I’m afraid you don’t have the luxury of time, Mr. Barringer.” A plan formed in Rochelle’s head. “If you read the missive, you’ll find that it says you must vacate the premises immediately.”
Gary scratched his chest. “Mister — Rochelle, was it? — are you a cop?”
Rochelle shook his head.
“Then you can’t force me to leave my goddamn house. Come back with a sheriff’s deputy and a proper eviction notice and maybe I’ll consider leaving a little sooner. Until then, you’re trespassing on my property and I have the right to put a shotgun shell through your gullet. You understand?”
“All right. For the final time, goodbye.” Gary slammed the door before Rochelle could stop him.
Rochelle stomped over to his car and got inside. He pulled out his mobile phone and dialed.
“How are things coming along, Rochelle?” said Mr. Simpson.
“Not so good, sir. I’m at the Barringer place. Guy’s one tough walnut. Said he ain’t leaving unless I come back with a deputy.”
Mr. Simpson made a noise of displeasure. “You know that cannot happen. The police absolutely must not get involved. I cannot stress that enough. Our operation must remain as invisible as possible. Especially after the incident in Fort Lauderdale. The authorities will be looking for you; which is precisely why I had you relocate to Alabama.”
Rochelle swallowed. “I know, sir. I thank you for your graciousness and mercy.”
Mr. Simpson’s tone hardened. “Look, I don’t know how you do what you do, but do it. I don’t care what measures you have to take. You can burn the damn house down for all I care; it’s a worthless piece of dilapidated shit anyway. Presently, Mr. Barringer’s labor is more valuable than the house. Do not fail me in this, Rochelle. Are we clear on what I need of you?”
“Good. I expect to hear you have cracked the nut soon.” Mr. Simpson ended the call.
Rochelle slouched in his seat and sighed. He started playing with his mustache as he thought of ways to get Mr. Barringer out of his house. After a few moments, an idea sparked to life.
Rochelle revved up his car and drove to the nearest liquor store.
The clock on the car console read just past six pm when Rochelle returned to the Barringer house. The sky was already dark. The only aspect of winter Rochelle liked was how quickly the sun sank into the sky. It made his job easier. He hated the cold, though. Luckily this winter had been mild so far.
Rochelle exited his car and walked up the lawn towards Gary’s house. He stepped in something squishy. He lifted his foot to inspect his shoe; he caught a whiff of dog shit. Rochelle put his foot down and cursed.
He dug into his pocket and dragged out a cigarette and his lighter. He balanced the cigarette in his lips and took three steps forward. He paused, then stared up at the house. He noticed illumination from a TV screen filtering through one of the second floor windows.
Rochelle lit his cigarette. Then he used his lighter to light the tip of a rag; the remainder of the rag was stuffed into a bottle. Rochelle brought his arm back, then hurled the flaming bottle into the window adjacent to the one with the television lights. The bottle shattered through glass, made impact with something inside the room, and burst into scorching reds and oranges.
Rochelle stood there, smoking his cigarette and wearing a blank expression, as flames consumed the second floor. He figured any moment Gary Barringer would come rushing through the front door, at which point Rochelle would rip the gris-gris pouch from his neck, hurl it to the four winds, then suck out Gary’s soul. Then Rochelle would calmly give Gary his instructions and go about his business.
But events did not play out as Rochelle had desired.
Instead of exiting through the front door, Gary flung himself from out the TV room. The crash of breaking glass startled Rochelle. His wide eyes followed Gary’s trajectory until the rotund man collided, face first, with the driveway.
Rochelle jogged towards him.
Gary Barringer wasn’t a pretty sight to behold. His body was either bent in places that didn’t bend or in unintended directions. The glow from the flickering flames cast shadows on the body, giving the illusion that Gary was attempting to make snow angels in the asphalt.
Rochelle went down on one knee. He placed two fingers on Gary’s neck. He couldn’t feel a pulse. A broken, dead body was useless as a zombie.
Rochelle snatched the gris-gris bag from around Gary’s neck. He stared at it in his hands as if it was a skull. He dropped it on Gary’s belly as he stood. He tapped ash from his cigarette onto Gary’s kinky hair, then turned and walked back to his car.
Rochelle drove for thirty minutes before stopping at a roadside diner. He had a vague memory of the drive there. His mind was preoccupied with what had transpired with Barringer.
He parked in the half empty parking lot, then turned off his hatchback’s motor. He stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out Herepsha’s card. He chuckled when he read the job title under her name. Genuine, Authentic Mambo. He pulled out his mobile and dialed the number on the card.
She answered on the first ring. “Herepsha, genuine, authentic mambo, speaking. Potions, charms, and fortunes are my specialty. How can I be of service?”
“Herepsha, it’s me.”
“Oh, hey, Rochelle. I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon. What’s up?”
Rochelle fiddled with his mustache. “Ah, not much. I’m just in front of this diner off the interstate. Have you had dinner yet? I’m ready to talk.”
This short story appears in Popular Television.