Maybe you have to brush with death before you can really reflect on life. On the people and times that really meant something to you - like childhood. Dreams of sailing on silver seas and wooden shoes. Visions of sugarplums, dancing. Silver seas, sugarplums…the visions, the nightmares of a child are perhaps the most frightening and horrifying of any human animal can conjure. Some people who were in Chicago during the first stifling hot weeks of July would say that was so... if they were still alive.
Carl sits on a bench, his usually more or less white suit an unwholesome splotchy brown. Filth covers his face and hands. He clicks on his tape recorder to resume a narrative that began days ago, on July 3rd at 10:45pm, with a young woman named Michelle Kelly...
Michelle Kelly is a young psychology graduate student and lab assistant, working with a sleeping patient. She is in a hurry to catch her plane and clumsily backs into some medical instrumentation. This disturbs the patient but the man does not awaken and Kelly leaves the lab. As she walks the darkened corridors of the building she hears a low growl. Changing her route she exits the building and crosses the parking lot. Outside she hears the growl again. She walks around the corner, down the street, and around another corner... into the arms of a... thing. The enormous monster is festooned with strands of wet plant material and drips foul water. It lifts its terrified victim and effortlessly crushes the life from her.
Carl is en route to a dentist appointment he dreads when his police radio sounds a request for an ambulance at the Chez Voltaire restaurant. Carl detours there and discovers that the fancy restaurant’s chef, Honoré Piaget, has been murdered. As Carl begins snapping photos, a police official removes samples of vegetable matter from the chef’s body. Carl continues through the scene and encounters Captain Siska, who is talking to the owner. The owner says that Piaget was always the last to leave the restaurant at night. Captain Siska tells Carl he believes someone seeking revenge murdered Piaget. Siska has a suspect and Carl may visit headquarters to learn more after the man is arraigned. Siska has little to say about the vegetable material beyond suggesting that they’re in a restaurant and it might be salad.
Carl is mystified by Siska’s very reasonable tone. This is the man reporters used to call “Mad Dog” Siska. But over a year of group therapy has calmed Captain Siska. It has saved his marriage and perhaps even helped him avert a heart attack.
At headquarters Carl learns the suspect is Ramon Clemente, former pastry chef of Chez Voltaire. He has not confessed, but he was drunk the previous evening and cannot remember where he was. And he has a good motive: three days ago, Piaget fired him. Clemente immediately tried to attack Piaget with a meat cleaver. After he was stopped witnesses overheard him say he would try again. Siska does not know how Clemente managed to crush Piaget’s chest. To Carl Piaget’s injuries looked as if the man had been “massaged by a bulldozer.”
Carl visits the police lab next. He tricks lab man Paco out of the room by telling him kids have let the air out of his tires. While Paco investigates Carl rifles the files and discovers the Latin name of the vegetation found on Piaget’s corpse. He also finds a cross-reference to the file on Michelle Kelly’s hit and run accident. With no easy way to find the common name of the plant and eighteen women named Michelle Kelly to investigate, Carl decides to write up the story of Piaget’s murder and leave the rest of the work for tomorrow.
That night Bobby Ray Solange, aspiring musician and currently a street performer, finishes his day by visiting the basement of the Samuel DeChamplain apartments to unwind with a joint. No sooner has he lit up than something tall and shaggy bursts through the door...
Carl works his way through nine Michelle Kellys before discovering the victim. Her landlady gives him the name of her employer. Carl visits her former boss Dr. Aaron Pollack. Pollack is a sleep researcher, and his current subject is a man who suffers from narcolepsy, a disorder whose sufferers are prone to fall asleep in the midst of any activity for reasons poorly understood. Carl’s theory is that Michelle was murdered but Pollack does not agree. As far as he knew Michelle had no enemies. She was just an eager and bright (if clumsy) graduate student. Given her clumsiness, Pollack thinks it’s perfectly reasonable for her to have blundered her way in front of a speeding vehicle. Her clumsiness has damaged equipment and spilled bedpans. Once, she almost awakened Pollack’s test subject, which would have ruined the study.
Carl’s next clue is the Latin name of the plant found on Chef Piaget’s body. For that answer he visits the Chicago Botanical Gardens and learns that the plant is Spanish moss, a species native to the bayous of Louisiana. The hot, wet conditions in which it thrives do not exist in or near Chicago. The botanical gardens host the only specimen in a thousand miles.
Carl spends the rest of the day in a fruitless search for some connection between Michelle Kelly and Honoré Piaget. That evening he finally collects another lead when an informant tells him of Bobby Ray Solange’s murder and where it occurred.
Forcing the door, Carl enters the dark basement of the Samuel DeChamplain apartments. He has scarcely glanced around when the building super confronts him. Misrepresenting himself as a health department inspector, Carl gathers the facts of Solange’s murder. The super tells him a hard mahogany door was smashed to splinters. He also shares his view that “a gang must have attacked this kid”. This gang then dragged in vegetables and threw dirty water all over the floor. All around the body were nickels and dimes and quarters.
Cash in that denomination and quantity suggests street musician, so Carl mingles with that crowd. Eventually he gives “Jean” the fiddler ten dollars. But Jean races away to record a demo cut before Carl can learn more than that Solange was from Louisiana. But a man nearby, for a little additional cash, tells Carl more. This man is Pepe LaRue – actually Morris Shapiro from the Bronx – and he, too, knew Solange. Shapiro came to Chicago to join the rackets, and when that didn’t work out would up in the street musician culture. Shapiro describes Solange as a nice guy who had an unpleasant roommate named Paul Langois. Langois had a nasty temper and Morris Shapiro thinks he murdered Solange. About then Carl pulls a step ahead of Morris and suddenly, Morris isn’t there any more. Only his beret and alms cup remain.
Searching for Morris, Carl walks through a gap in the wooden fence. Inside the yard it encloses he hears a low growling. Climbing some stairs, Carl hears the noise again. Turning, he snaps a couple of shots of something big and dark shambling across the yard.
After developing the pictures Carl finds Tony rehearsing a speech for the Press Club. Tony’s topic is the difference between an unfettered press and the irresponsibility of yellow journalism and ballyhoo. Tony asks Carl to listen and comment but Carl’s constant distractions derail that effort. Carl then tells Tony how the police very quietly released Clemente, their suspect in Piaget’s murder – quietly, because they haven’t got a suspect to replace him. But Carl does have a suspect – the... whatever... that he photographed in the yard. Sadly, the photograph is Carl’s usual poor quality. Carl believes it to be of Paul Langois, who he thinks murdered Morris Shapiro to shut him up. Tony isn’t interested. He wants to resume his speech. As he does Carl ducks out through the fire door.
Carl visits Siska with his theory but Siska is in a rage. Carl’s various antics have flushed a year and a half of therapy down the drain; the old “Mad Dog” is back. Siska tells Carl Morris Shapiro is one for the missing persons file but does reveal that the police have tracked Paul Langois. And Langois has an iron-clad alibi. It seems Langois has been asleep for over six weeks – he’s the man on whom Aaron Pollack is conducting sleep research!
Carl returns to Pollack’s lab and shines him on about a feature series on sleep research – but Pollack doesn’t buy it. The police have already been there so he knows all about Langois and the murders. He confirms that Langois has been asleep for more than six weeks, and that he has not been allowed to dream during that time. About then alarms go off; Pollack cannot explain what they mean, saying only that they “happen from time to time.” He summons a security guard to escort Carl out.
About this time, motorcycle Patrolman Warren Lundt is driving his beat on Dalstrom Avenue in the South Side when he sees something big and shaggy duck around a corner. Racing towards the corner, Lundt is surprised when the thing jumps in front of him; he wrecks his bike against it and is knocked to the ground. Lundt empties his service weapon into the monster. Each shot draws a roar but has no other evident effect.
As Carl reviews his recorded interview with Shapiro his attention is drawn to a particular comment about a bayou legend called peremalfait. To learn more Carl must find another Cajun, so he tracks down Jean the fiddler at a recording studio. Jean is cutting his demo and does not wish to be interrupted, but Carl figures Jean owes him for racing off with ten dollars after having provided little help. Exasperated, Jean tells Carl that peremalfait is the boogieman, a creature covered with rot and Spanish moss that has lived in the upper bayous since before the Cajuns came. Cajun mothers used the legend to keep their children in line by telling them if they didn’t behave, “peremalfait would get them,” and squeeze the life right out of them. Carl also learns that peremalfait may only be destroyed with a spear made from the wood of the bayou gum tree.
Patrolman Lundt’s death sends Mad Dog Siska back to the university sleep lab. Carl finds him there demanding that Pollack awaken Langois. Carl shares his theory that Langois is dreaming these people to death; that his unconscious mind has somehow brought the peremalfait to life. He backs up his claim by finding the spots on the EEG where those strange alarms occurred. Each spot coincides with a murder. Siska finally orders Pollack to awaken Langois. Pollack administers twice the usual dosage of methamphetamine but Langois remains asleep. When Carl suggests someone whittle a spear of bayou gum wood Langois has another of his strange “attacks.” Carl believes that the peremalfait actually heard him plotting its death and that this brought on the attack. Siska wonders if Langois is dying. Pollack says it’s too soon to say that – and almost at that moment Langois dies.
Carl returns to the office to find the janitor mopping up a leak. Tony and a few friends return from the Press Club, where Tony’s speech was a huge success. Tony invites Carl to celebrate with him but Carl returns to his desk and wipes off some water. He reaches into a desk drawer and lets out a terrific yell as he draws back a handful of Spanish moss! Drawn by the yell, Tony emerges from his office to ask what’s wrong. Carl realizes there’s no leak and that the mess means peremalfait has been in the office looking for him!!
Fearing for his life, Carl returns to the Botanical Gardens where he cuts a length of bayou gum from the exhibit there and fashions a crude spear from it. Then he goes to the only place in Chicago where a swamp monster could live – the sewers. Spear and flashlight in hand, Carl pries open a manhole cover and descends into the fetid water below. Then he begins his search. Very shortly, he hears a faint and distant growl. Above ground a city employee has spotted the open manhole cover and closes it, just about the time Carl discovers Morris Shapiro’s crushed body on a ledge. That discovery sends Carl back up the ladder just as a heavy machine drives to a stop precisely atop the manhole cover. Carl will have to find another exit!
Descending, Carl sees a trail of vegetation in the water now. It leads to a mass that rises from the water. He has found peremalfait... or it has found him! Carl breaks and the monster shambles after him, losing him when he ducks under the foul water. Carl ducks down a side passage and the monster shambles off. Carl half dives, half falls out of the side passage and the noise draws the monster. Carl finally finds his bag at the base of the ladder. Peremalfait draws closer. Carl manages to grab his crude spear. Near the end of the monster’s charge Carl brings his spear up and impales the horror, which groans briefly and then pitches backward into the water. Locating another ladder, Carl emerges from the sewers. In the drains below all evidence of the monster drifts away on the slow currents... Share this article with your friends